# 11: Animals High and Low

17 July 2015

            Why is it that when you have set your alarm for 4:30 you wake up at 1:00, 2:15, and 3:07? Waking up means fishing for my glasses, squinting at the alarm clock across the room on the window sill, waiting for my brain to clear enough so that the numbers stop dancing. Then I groan quietly, take off my glasses, sink back down on the pillow and find that my cleared brain has decided that it would rather make lists than slip back into sleep mode. At 4:15 I figure what the hell, slink into the bathroom for the ablution routine, dress, turn on the coffee pot, pour some cereal into a bowl, fish for the milk in the fridge, slice up a banana, sip and chew through twenty minutes of east coast streamed NPR, gather up my birding equipment and a couple of extra layers of warm things, and go out to meet Bill in front of Tom’s house.


            The three of us are support staff for a group of researchers who are going way up the mountain to El Llano Inglés and El Terrero to do science stuff. We’re at 1600 meters here in Santa Cruz, and the Terrero is at close to 3000, meaning just under a mile gain in altitude. Roberto Sosa hopes to locate the territories where the brown-throated wren calls at dawn. Science currently calls the brown-throat a subspecies of the house wren, but Roberto believes it is a separate species, and hopes to devote the next few years or so to studying it in depth. Fernando González wants to record the mountaintop morning chorus. And Alberto Lobato, an undergraduate in Jalapa, wants to check out the territory for a potential MA project. None of the three is familiar with this mountain, but the cabildo of the Comisariato de Bienes Comunes, which administers the reserve as a research resource, has given them permission to go up. Bill knows the road well. It is important to take two cars and a couple of extra people because since it has been raining during the last week, the road (aka the only dirt track in these parts that climbs into the mountains) is likely to be muddy and slippery. Heavy rain sometimes washes out sections, or drops trees across the road. Bill has put some heavy rope and a shovel into his trunk, the idea being that if one car slips into trouble, the other, plus the beef, can pull it out.


            We meet the scientists at La Mesita, the gateway to the reserve, and even though the sky is still pitch black Cesme, the new resident watchman has been notified by the cabildo and is there with his clipboard to record our names and time of entry before lowering the chain across the road. The serpentine road climbing up through the thorn forest and into the scrub oaks is fairly dry, but once we reach the pines the effects of the rain are noticeable.

Bill’s Toyota is the lead car; the Ford wagon with the scientists trails us by fifty meters or so. Our brights pick out each hairpin turn, and Bill, his jaw set and both hands glued to the steering wheel, maintains just enough momentum to get us through the mud without slipping into a potentially awkward slalom. Sometimes the precipitous drop on our right is as little as 20 vertical meters. As we round one turn, a speckled brown Mexican whip-poor-will (a kind of nightjar) rises from the road and flaps laconically off into the pines. Higher up the road is drier, and it only takes us 45 minutes to reach the Llano Inglés, a flattish place between two of the rounded summits. The scientists u

nload. Fernando sets up his sound equipment, and the remaining five of us head further up the car track to listen for brown-throated house wrens. The bird is territorial by nature, and sings daily at dawn to reassert its claim to a hundred-meter or so circle of real estate. We hear three of them, and Roberto marks the GPS coordinates of each. Later he will try to capture them in a mist net, band them, weigh, measure, and photograph them, and begin to follow their movements and behaviors.


            While Roberto listens for wrens, the rest of us stroll slowly up the road, listening for calls, peering through our binoculars, and marveling at the magical aura of this forest at first light. Towering pine trees, their branches cluttered with clinging epiphytes, their trunks hung with bromeliads, many of them thrusting out red blooms to attract insects, which in turn attract

flycatchers and hummingbirds. Among the pines, an occasional a cinnamon-skinned madroño tree catches the horizontal morning sun. The forest floor is thick with ferns, some so small it would take a hundred of them to cover a dinner plate, others large enough to hide a motorcycle; some are feathery, some round-lobed, some spikey.

Now that the rains have begun, there are wildflowers everywhere, yellow carpets of what look like but probably are not black-eyed Susans, blue-purple copses of probably not lupines, tiny red daubs of probably not Indian paintbrushes, and blue spots of probably not bluebells. Here and there thistles, fiercer

than any I recall from el Norte, warn off all but the most intrepid tiny insects. The ground is spongy; the trees drip; in the soft breeze the light dances through the intense green. There should be gnomes in these woods, or elves.


            From the Llano Inglés we drive a kilometer on a rutted track to El Terrero, a clearing where a small hut can shelter researchers in nasty weather. We hoped to drive a kilometer further to some cabins but a fallen tree has blocked the road, so we walk and gawk and talk and reap the harvest of flowers and ferns and birds, including a black thrush and a cordillera flycatcher. Above us flocks of grey-barred wrens chatter in the treetops. Their Spanish name is matraca, which is a kind of noise-maker using a ratchet and a striker. Equally noisy are the Steller’s jays, and among them is a smaller blue and white ... dwarf jay! This is a really rare bird, and Bill is the only one of us who has ever actually seen one previously! Alberto, the undergraduate, dances for joy; he had a bet with an ornithologist friend who is now in the States as to which would be the first to see the chara enana. Even Tom, who is not afflicted with birdism, is impressed. And while we are high-fiving all around we see a second one! In the understory ruddy-capped nightingale thrushes and collared-brush-finches flash their colors. Bright scarlet red warblers with saucy white cheeks pose obligingly on the lower branches of the pines. In a tiny meadow a cinnamon-bellied flower-piercer flits from blossom to blossom, competing with the humming-birds, both blue-throated and white-eared. For me and for young Alberto it is a memorable day: seven species that we have never seen before anywhere and can add to our respective life lists. (If you are interested, you can find pictures of all these flitters on the internet – I’m afraid they were moving too fast, or were too far away, or the light was too poor for me to record them adequately.)


            About 1:30, exhausted from all the hiking at altitude, we leave Fernando and Alberto behind to record and explore, and Bill drives the rest of us head down the mountain.



Back in Santa Cruz, Linda and Lauro are working out where to site the latest wheelbarrow-ful of plants that Linda has brought back from the San Lorenzo nursery. Yesterday we chose a tree for the west wall, between the ruins of el tanque and the carport. It’s a pata de vaca, a “cow foot” tree, that allegedly will fill out to offer shade and once a year brighten the west wall with flowers. With pick and shovel and a long bladed iron bar Lauro has excavated a hole nearly a meter deep into the hard packed dirt along the west fence. He had to work though the compacted upper layer (which is where we first piled sand and gravel for the Casa’s concrete foundation), a layer of rocky subsoil, and then a layer of calcium-rich breccia. When the tree comes from the nursery, Lauro will half fill the hole with a mixture of humus and compost, and then plant the tree on top of that. It was supposed to come last night, but .... who knows? Maybe it will come later this afternoon. It is nearly 3:00, so Lauro breaks and goes home for lunch. Linda and I eat our sandwiches on the porch and I wonder if the hole is wide enough for the root ball. So after lunch I walk out to take a look at it. 


            We must have the dumbest lizards in Mesoamérica, because at the bottom of the hole, trying desperately to get out, is a spotted lizard, maybe 35 cm long. He dashes madly around the bottom of the hole and periodically flings himself against the side. But since he can only jump to about halfway up, he falls back down and resumes his dash and fling. No, wait . . .  There are two lizards in the hole, the second one slightly smaller than the first. No, there are three! The third one has just come out of the shadow. Perhaps motivated by the dasher-flinger, the other two decide to join him in the frenzy. The large and middle-size lizards circle clockwise, the smallest one counterclockwise, which means that they collide against each other twice per circuit as they scramble to find the perfect launch site. Now they are detouring a tiny bit to avoid the toad that is clinging motionless to the bottom of the hole’s wall just inside the shadow—which is why I didn’t see him at first.


Lauro returns from lunch. The two of us try to figure out how it happened. One lizard falling into a hole, ... OK. Maybe he was pursuing a tasty beetle or something and just didn’t see this garbage-can size chasm yawning in front of him. But two lizards? And three, maybe one of them bringing a toad friend along for company? That stretches the imagination.

            So, how to get them out? We find a board, put it into the hole so that it forms a ramp, and then step back out of sight so that we won’t spook the poor dumb things. Three minutes. Five. Eight. Nothing climbs up the ramp. We take another look. The toad hasn’t moved but the lizards are still circling, slowly, now swerving and ducking to get under the ramp, and still hurling themselves against the wall, though now they only make it a quarter of the way up. Three dumb lizards, falling in a hole; not a brain among ‘em, bless my soul.


            Lauro asks me if I have any tweezers, any long grippers to pick the lizards up with.

            Happens that I do, and I run inside to get the kitchen tongs. Lauro stretches out on his stomach, reaches down into the hole, and gently picks out one, two, three lizards, and lastly a still-immobile toad, placing each one on the ground next to the hole.

            I have to say one thing in their favor: as three of them scamper and one hops off, none of them is dumb enough to fall back in.


David (and Linda)