Saturday, January 30, 2010

Act like you've been here before...

Nine years ago, almost immediately after arrival at a biological field station in northeastern Costa Rica, I noticed a small and colorful frog hopping across the path before me. My mouth dropped as I realized the black frog lined with neon green was a poison-dart frog (specifically Dendrobates auratus). Growing up in the temperate United States, poison dart frogs could almost be considered mythical creatures, a representative of deep dark jungles unreachable and far away, beautiful but potentially deadly animals. I had read about them in books and seen them on nature programs and suddenly here was one a foot away from me.

Excitedly, I began taking pictures and motioning to my companions to share my find. A passing instructor was verbally assaulted by me as I vigorously told her of our extreme good fortune in finding such an exotic animal.

“Neat.” She said, as she smiled politely.

She had, of course, seen thousands of these frogs, and of over the course of the next two weeks, I would too. But I didn’t know that at the time and had no frame of reference for what was rare or common in the region. Looking back, I was afterward probably a little embarrassed at my exhilaration at seeing what eventually proved to an abundant creature. I swore that if I were ever to return, I would act as if I’d been here before.

Fast forward nine years. The night we arrived at Palo Verde National Park, I spent some time exploring the edge of a nearby marsh. As the light from my flashlight careened around the landscape, a dull red circle reflected back at me. Freezing mid-stride, I realized I had caught the eyeshine of an American crocodile, Crocodylus actus, in the nearby water. This species is an interesting study in how animals may behave differently in varying regions. The same species occurs in southern Florida, and is generally considered a shy and docile creature. In Central America however, it’s known as a potential man-eater and is accordingly afforded substantial respect. I wasn’t too worried though, because large crocodiles prefer deeper waters, and the shallow marsh was populated primarily by juveniles, less than four feet in length. It was still exciting to know there were crocodiles nearby and within sight, as they were one of the species I wanted most to see, and have eluded me in previous attempts.

The next morning, my first at Palo Verde, I was awake early and back in the marsh photographing wetland birds including wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and black-bellied whistling ducks, among many other species.

After about twenty minutes my eye caught a familiar form less than twenty feet from where I was standing. A juvenile crocodile was basking motionless on some nearby mud and it had escaped my attention the entire time. To catch a glimpse of a crocodile was exciting enough, but for one to present itself for photographs was an incredible opportunity indeed.

Excitedly, I began filling the memory card of my camera with shots of the crocodile from various yet probably indistinguishable angles. When I accidentally got too close, the alarmed reptile retreated to the water and I took the chance to peruse my new pictures before breakfast, silently approving my own work. Arriving later at the dining hall, I eagerly showed them to all the students I passed. Several course instructors, when I eventually made my way to their table, were also subject to an impromptu showing of my new and expansive gallery of crocodile photographs.

“Neat.” They said, as they smiled politely.

This is part two of my travels through Costa Rica.


ramblingwoods said...

David...good luck.. my daughter defended a year ago and got a real job now..LOL... It is tough work to getHoH-a territorial dispute between two bullfrogs. a Ph.D... interesting post and glad that I see more mundane wildlife here in NY...

Amber Coakley said...

I wouldn't care if I saw something common or mundane to the locals, but new to me! I would react just like you - very excited! I'm betting that your gleeful reactions gave your companions a renewed sense of respect for animals they may have come to overlook.