This is a positive post on butterflies in a small nature reserve in Costa Rica, but you’re going to have some heavy sledding before you get to the good bits.
We are living in the Sixth Extinction, a period when life on earth becomes increasingly at risk due to inexorably burgeoning human population and the resulting impact on land, oceans, and atmosphere. Vegetation and animals are vanishing. Our anthropogenic emissions (the combination of worldwide deforestation and fossil fuel combustion) are impressive, in a bad way. In only 200 years the concentration of carbon dioxide in our air has risen by 40%. Another potent greenhouse gas, methane, has more than doubled.
Paul Crutzen, the Dutch chemist who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds (probably saving the planet), pointed out in 2002 that due to these inputs the global climate is likely to “depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come.” Crutzen also coined the term “Anthropocene”, and there is a movement among scientists to change the geological epoch in which we find ourselves from Holocene to Anthropocene, reflecting “the new man age.”
We read with sadness about disappearing species*, and see in our own lifetimes that nature isn’t as richly textured as it once was. What do you remember from childhood that was frequently seen? Thousands of fireflies dancing around enchanted children on a summer evening? Frogs and turtles swimming freely in green shaded ponds? Butterflies and moths on the wing from summer to fall? Wild flowers in a shadowy glade or sunlit meadow, engraved in your memory? Some of us lucky enough to grow up in the country loved the wildness and treasure such memories. Our hearts filled with joy at the glimpse of other creatures sharing our environment, understanding perhaps instinctively that we are all bound together in nature. Many recognize this connection as sacred; others don’t recognize this evolutionary bond at all.
Butterflies are among those myriads of creatures whose populations have been devastated by habitat loss and industrial farming. Monarchs, celebrated for their astonishing migrations, have declined precipitously in number from 682 million in 1997 to 150 million in 2016. In Great Britain “nearly three-quarters of the fifty-eight remaining species have declined and disappeared over much of the country.”** Flowering plants and other insects have declined with them. In a global study in 2012 the Zoological Society of London reported that butterflies, bumblebees and beetles are more endangered than lions and tigers.
If you’ve made it this far, here’s your reward for sticking to it through the grim recounting. Happily, in Finca Cántaros, a small nature reserve restored to forest from pasture 23 years ago in San Vito, Coto Brus, Costa Rica, I can paint a positive picture of increasing butterfly diversity. Deforestation for cattle and agriculture has removed most local woodland habitat, but there are wooded patches around the countryside, and our 17-acre (7-ha) reserve is less than two kilometers from a 740-acre forest and botanical garden at the Las Cruces Biological Station. Neighbors of Las Cruces have also kept their forests protected, adding to the natural areas in which floral and faunal diversity persists. Though our reserve has pasture on two sides, we may benefit from this proximity. A major international park begins just 25 km away, and that likely has positive effects on butterfly life as well.
In April 1995, 22 years ago, Stanford researchers Drs. Gretchen C. Daily and Paul R. Ehrlich, and their good friend George L. Burness, using netting and rotting-fruit traps, compiled a preliminary list of the butterflies of Finca Cántaros when the property was mostly pasture but recently planted with two thousand tree saplings. About two acres of secondary forest was already spread around our one-hectare pond. All trapped butterflies were released alive where captured after identification. The number of families included were Papilionidae, Pieridae, and Nymphalidae, since the Lycaenidae were not covered in volume I of Devries’ classic Butterflies of Costa Rica. Thirty-eight species were identified.
I have been documenting butterflies observed here with photographs for the past six years. In the past few months I have been going systematically through my photos and identifying species with help from four superb butterfly reference guide books, the website of the Butterflies of America, and importantly, when I really get stymied, from an old friend, Isidro Chacon, who is Costa Rica’s foremost expert. A recently published book on 88 Southern Zone species called Pura Mariposa, by Liz Allen, is very helpful. Still with a few dozen photos left to identify, my list has climbed to 72 documented species, almost double what my friends identified in 1995.
My camera goes with me on walks every day and I continue to photograph previously unseen species. I am hopeful that this list will continue to grow as our forest areas and gardens mature and become enriched with new butterfly vegetation, which has become a high priority for me.
There is a lesson here. Every individual with even a small plot of land can contribute to biological richness. The rewards for attracting birds, butterflies, and other pollinators to one’s forest or backyard garden are immense. Not only can rich soil be created with vegetative waste, but conditions for greater diversity of life can be created through native plantings. Butterflies will be one result; spiritual resources, wonder and joy will be others. I can guarantee these outcomes, if you are human.
As a famous evolutionary geneticist once said: “Creation is not an act, but a process; it did not happen five or six thousand years ago but is going on before our eyes. Man is not compelled to be a mere spectator; he may become an assistant, a collaborator, a partner in the process of creation.”***
* Speaking of disappearing species, our closest relatives, the primates, are also in deep trouble.
** The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, by Michael McCarthy. New York Review Books, 2016.
The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.
Pura Mariposa – 88 Butterflies of Southern Costa Rica by Liz Allen, edited by Jo Davidson and Alison Olivieri, 2015.
Butterflies and Moths of Costa Rica by Isidro Chacon and José Montero. Editorial INBio, 2007.
The Butterflies of Costa Rica and Their Natural History, Volume I by Philip J. DeVries. Princeton University Press, 1987.
The Butterflies of Costa Rica and Their Natural History, Volume II by Philip J. DeVries. Princeton University Press, 1997.
A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Mexico and Central America by Jeffrey Glassberg. Sunstreak Books, Inc., 2007. A new Swift Guide edition will be published late 2017.
As reality takes strange turns of late and the news of it becomes at times unbearable, I like to take breaks to walk alone in the woods, my favorite kind of meditation and coping mechanism, focusing my senses on wildness. When the weather is foul, as it has been frequently of late, I rest occasionally from absurd headlines by reviewing digital photographs of beautiful landscapes captured while traveling. This brings a smile to my face and a glow to my psyche. I heal from the troubling developments for a while, as the images from felicitous trips bring back the heightened awareness I experienced when taking the picture. (I give thanks to my trusty Fujifilm Finepix S1 for reproducing precious moments.)
So in hopes you might feel refreshed by the vistas as well, I’m sharing with you today some landscapes from the island state of Tasmania, 240 km (150 mi) southeast of the Commonwealth of Australia. My husband and I were invited by gracious and very compatible friends to travel with them for the month of April of 2016 to both Borneo and Australia. We didn’t need to be pushed very hard to accept their immensely kind invitation! The time together turned out to be thrilling on most days, educational every day, and beyond stimulating to people who enjoy each other’s individuality while valuing exposure to a wide diversity of cultures, plants and animals.
Tasmania is known for its rugged and vast protected wilderness. At 26,410 sq. miles in area, Tasmania is about the size of the state of West Virginia and a bit bigger than Costa Rica (19,730 sq. miles), where we reside. More than six million acres (2.5 million ha) are under protected status in Tasmania; it is one of the last true wilderness regions on Earth. Because it is an island distant from the mainland, there is a great deal of endemism–unique flora and fauna.
Led by Tonia Cochran, our superbly knowledgeable naturalist guide from Bruny Island in “Tassie”, we two couples covered as much of the countryside as we could in seven days, always enjoying birds, but also going out of our way to learn about plants and to see endemic animals. I will devote another post to them soon.
May these pictures, most with clear, clean water—ever present in and around Tasmania—be a portal of peace for you, too. And may we all strive to protect the last wild places on earth.
I was walking in our forest on a hillside trail in mid-November and suddenly heard the characteristic drumming, just two loud knocks in rapid succession, of the impressive (14½” or 37 cm) Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). This is not a common sound, but coincidentally just two weeks earlier I had heard the same distinctive drumming in lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. An excellent video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology demonstrates how these woodpeckers communicate, and how, with simple science, two students managed to “converse” with Pale-billed Woodpeckers in Costa Rica.
While most birds communicate with specialized songs or the distinctive calls of their species, woodpeckers use not only their voices, but also proclaim their territory or call to their mates by producing rhythmic instrumental sounds, using their head as a hammer. Their chisel-hard bill against hard dry wood such as the remains of a hollow trunk or the broken end of a branch can supplement the woodpecker’s vocal cords and serve as a telegraph instrument. Alexander Skutch, one of the world’s best-known ornithologists and who worked most of his life observing birds in San Isidro, just a few hours away from San Vito, called woodpeckers the original drummers, “who sent their stirring rolls resounding through the air long before man invented drums and drumsticks.”
The Pale-billed Woodpecker has a call, which I have yet to hear, that’s been described as a bleating sound. It has been compared to the call of the highly hunted, probably extinct, Ivory-billed Woodpecker of the southeastern United States. The ill-fated Ivory-billed—an even larger bird, 20” or 51 cm long—was part of the same genus as the Pale-billed—Campephilus.
With remarkably acute hearing, woodpeckers waste little energy just randomly tapping and searching for their insect prey. Moving silently through the woods, they can hear the sounds of insects and their larvae moving under bark or in rotting wood. As seen in the photo above of the well-excavated tree top (and in the video link), Pale-billed Woodpeckers hack off splinters or chips that may be several inches long as they work to open holes in insect-infested trunks. Their thin, flexible and long white tongues are adapted to reach deeply into larvae burrows or ant tunnels. Their wood excavation skills are also used to create their year-round residences.
Woodpeckers almost always nest in monogamous pairs. Dr. Skutch observed a female Pale-billed Woodpecker incubating eggs for 4.5 hours on one day, while the male sat for 19.5 hours, including night duty. Jennifer Ackerman, the science writer and author, most recently, of The Genius of Birds, lauded male woodpeckers as superior bird dads. She confirmed what Dr. Skutch observed–that woodpecker pairs relieve one another during the day, but the male alone incubates at night.
In Dr. Skutch’s renowned book, Life of the Woodpecker, I learned that woodpeckers belong to the order Piciformes, of which toucans are also a part. In the Southern Zone of Costa Rica, one of the most flashy and aggressive birds we have is the Fiery-billed Aracari, a toucan that moves around in roving bands of up to 10 birds. Dr. Skutch once observed the price a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers paid after their industrious efforts to build a custom residence had just concluded. Although Pale-billed Woodpeckers are large birds with powerful beaks, the pair calmly gave up their new dwelling to Aracari usurpers. Up to five Aracaris can sleep together in a completed woodpecker hole (Stiles and Skutch, p. 249).
On another occasion, Dr. Skutch observed a small arboreal animal called the Kinkajou crawl out of a cavity that he thought was still serving a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers. Life is hard out there in the forest!
Dr. Skutch wrote in the preface to his book: “For half a century, few birds have fascinated me so much as the woodpeckers. [In Life of the Woodpecker] I try to convey to the reader the interest and charm that makes some of us lifelong friends of these unique birds.” Indeed, the book is pure pleasure to read.
Dr. Skutch died in 2004, just eight days shy of his 100th birthday. He wrote 25 books on ornithology and philosophy, and over 200 scientific articles on birds. His gentle conclusion after 70 years as a botanist, naturalist and ornithologist was that there is no real evidence of a God watching over us, but rather that the “universe operates itself.” He thought our job is to “preserve, understand and enjoy” nature, never needlessly harming anything. Dr. Skutch represents for me a role model I do my best to emulate. Over a long and industrious lifetime, protecting a beautiful tropical nature preserve, he was faithful to his gifts of caring for birds and sharing what he learned from his observations.
Pale-billed Woodpeckers range from N Mexico to W Panama. In Spanish the bird is known as the Carpintero Picoplata, Dos Golpes, or Carpintero Chircano.
Life of the Woodpecker, by Alexander F. Skutch, Paintings by Dana Gardner, Ibis Publishing Company, Santa Monica, CA, 1985.
Birds of Costa Rica, by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, Illustrated by Dana Gardner, Comstock Publishing Associates, A Division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1989, pp. 249 and 258.
Interview with Alexander F. Skutch on NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1899701
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