“When you do something, you do something else.” This is something one of my mom’s art teachers said to her when she was studying art in Rotterdam, and she uses it to describe the art-making process. For me it also works to say: when you learn something, you learn something else.
I came to Costa Rica thinking I would learn more about birds, which is the focus of my internship while I am at Finca Luna Nueva. And indeed, I have learned a lot about birds, but I have also learned something else. In my experience, school and university value rational thinking, and my competence in this regard has served me well in the sense that I perform well academically. However, it has also meant that I constructed an identity based on my analytical thinking skills, and used this mode of thinking for many aspects of my life.
Being in Costa Rica, and in Finca Luna Nueva I have started to open my eyes to the possibilities of experiencing the world using my heart, and letting go of the control that my brain wishes to assert. Certainly there is a place for rational thinking, but I am starting to get a glimpse of something else, something different, a sense of the connectedness of all things. I have studied ecology and done a great deal of ecological research, so I ‘know’ about the interconnectedness of nature, and I ‘know’ what an ecosystem is. But understanding the principle of pollination or herbivory does not enable a deep appreciation of these wonders. I know that diversity is the key to resilience, because if there are many organisms around either alive or capable of springing to life, a change in conditions will not mean the end of life, but rather a change in the composition of life. For example, if a tree falls, a light gap opens up in the forest, and a process of growth begins on the ground. There needs to be an abundance of seeds on the forest floor in order for this succession to happen; some species of seeds are dispersed by the wind, and some species by birds, bats, and other mammals. There are so many conditional events in nature that it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but somehow time continues and an ecosystem continues to function. The desire to live is strong; in fact, it is one of the oldest urges, and any organism that does not have this urge would quickly disappear from the earth. Every plant, every fungus, every bacteria, every archaea, every bird, every sloth is trying their best to live and reproduce, and that creates the momentum that carries an ecosystem forward. It is a beautiful thing to witness, especially in the forests of a place like Finca Luna Nueva where the biodiversity is very high. In these forests the dance has been going on for a long time, uninterrupted by ice and glaciers, which is part of the reason why there are so many life forms here compared to further north.
My project while I am here is to create more bird habitat on the property. There are a lot of birds here, not just in numbers but also in number of species. Personally, I have seen 106 species so far in the month that I have been here, and Juan Diego Vargas and Mirna Salas, two Costa Rican biologists who have been coming to Finca Luna Nueva since 2007 have seen or heard 256 species. Sometimes they are in pairs, sometimes alone, in family groups, or most interestingly to me, in mixed flocks. There are some very beautiful birds. Keel-billed Toucans, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Purple-crowned Fairy, Gartered Trogon, and Rufous Motmot have been some of the highlights for me. It is also cool to see birds that I have seen in the summer in Canada; migrants such as Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Wood Thrush, and Swainson’s Thrush.
When you learn something you learn something else. I used to see plants and trees as the green background upon which interesting birds can be found. Being here is opening my eyes to appreciating plants in their own right; Ismael and Steven know a lot about the growth habits, evolutionary history, gastronomic and medicinal uses of plants. Also a week ago Willow Zuchowski and Bill Haber visited Finca Luna Nueva. Willow is a botanist from Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and author of Tropical Plants of Costa Rica, and Bill is an excellent entomologist and botanist. They offered some very interesting insights about the plants on the property.
At Finca Luna Nueva, about a ten minute walk up the Farm Trail, there is a bird bar, a place where many species of birds congregate to sip nectar. Especially in the morning it is possible to see dozens of beautiful birds: Green Honeycreepers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Passerini´s Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, White-necked Jacobin, and Summer Tanager to name a few. For the first few weeks I left it at that, impressed by the bounty of birds but not giving too much thought to the plant. I was vaguely aware of pinkish fruits on stalks. Given that my project is to create more bird habitat on the property, it seemed like a good idea to propagate this plant to plant more of them on the property. Without needing much encouragement Ismael was strapping on his harness and climbing high into a tree to make cuttings of the plant. It turns out that the ‘bird bar plant’ is a vine in the Marcgravaceae family. Fortuitously, Willow and Bill were around while this experiment was going on, and they were able to offer some wonderful insights about the plant. It turns out that what I thought were berries are actually nectaries. The nectaries are modified leaves or stems that evolved into a cup shape, and at the a sweet liquid is secreted from the bottom of the cup. The flowering stalks have a collection nectaries at the tips, and along the stalk are tiny flowers. Ismael identified it as Sarcopera sessiliflora, and it is unknown exactly how its pollination works. One idea is that the flowers are pollinated by the birds feet as they walk along the flower stalk to access the nectarines, another idea is that as the birds twist their heads to sip from the necaries, pollen dusts their cheeks, and they then spead it to other flowers. Once pollinated the flowers mature into green fruits. More close observation will be needed to understand how the seeds are dispersed. We made cuttings of the plant, and put them in pots with moist soil. Ten days later and two of the eleven cuttings are showing definite signs of life! Now we can think of where on the property we can plant this vine in the rainy season.