Living in a cloud forest is rather surreal and enchanting. It is called a cloud forest because clouds literally roll through the area. In the middle of the afternoon, the sun suddenly disappears from view in this montane oak forest and you are engulfed in a thick mist that is a passing cloud. This high elevation area tends to be rather quiet, although birds can be heard in the distance. What made a striking contrast to the wet forest that we came from was not only the cooler climate, but the lack of insects droning constantly. This area was devoid of crickets calling and cicadas drumming incessantly, making the place peaceful and a bit eerie. Thankfully the mosquitoes were also lacking.
To add to the perceived enchantedness of the site, there was a white horse that would appear around camp, contentedly grazing and just being gorgeous. Soon after arriving in Cuerici, I decided to take greater advantage of my surroundings by waking up early and going on walks in the woods. This (not surprisingly) proved to be a very calming activity and often produced resplendent animal sightings! On one such occasion, I awoke at 5:30am, pulled on my boots, arranged my wool hat-and-baseball cap combo, and sleepily headed out the front door of the cabin. As I stepped onto the porch, I was greeted by the sight of the white horse, peacefully grazing just in front of me, surrounded by mist and the pale blue light of early morning. Not to mention the backdrop of stunning mountains and verdant slopes. I half expected a group of sparrows to fly down and adorn me with a flower crown.
At each of the field sites we go to, we are required to spend at least half an hour in the field, observing. Obviously upon hearing of this I was ecstatic at the prospect of sitting by myself in the jungle. One afternoon, after a somewhat depressing lecture about how to sustain a forest reserve, I was feeling rather glum. To improve my spirits, I decided to go do my field observations. I pulled on my raingear and departed the camp, heading for the 3km trail that looped up and over a nearby mountain. As I rounded a corner, I was greeted by the white horse again, grazing along the side of the path. I skirted around him and continued walking, but to my surprise the horse began to follow me! He would stop to pull up some grass along the way, and would then trot to catch up to me, walking alongside me on the dirt road. At one point I stopped to pet him and feed him some tasty dandelions. Eventually I reached the end of the dirt road where there was a barbed wire fence and the start of the mountain path, and had to say goodbye to the horse. Any unexpected encounter with a large charismatic animal always brightens my day.
I hiked up the trail to a nice ridge overlooking some large, mossy oaks. And when I say large, I mean massive trees, hundreds of years old – this forest is certainly something to marvel at. I picked out a nice place that had a view of the valley and sat down to begin watching and listening to the forest. I was also making a sketch of the area, focusing on one oak in particular on the horizon. I noted that a cloud was coming in, reducing visibility drastically, such that I could no longer see the oak I was sketching. As I looked up, I noticed a large shape swooping quietly into a nearby tree – a quetzal had decided to land 10 meters from me! It was hard to make out in the clouds, but I could just see the outline of its body and long tail feathers. I turned away to grab my camera and when I came back up it had gone. It was amazing how silently it flew into and out of my sight. And then it rained for the first time since we had been there.
The montane oak forest is a pretty spectacular place, with each moss-covered tree seeming to have a presence – I could almost feel the trees taking deep breaths and slowly exhaling. When walking through the forest, my eye was immediately drawn to the huge base of a tree, spanning more than two meters in diameter. Slowly, I started to follow the trunk up, craning my neck more and more until I eventually found the crown some 30 meters in the air. At that point, my tree climbing instincts kicked in: I began looking for solid branches that could hold my weight and were exposed enough to shoot a line into. There were some pretty promising candidates, and it wasn’t until 20 minutes later that I actually spotted some p-cord tied around a sapling! The small tree that this thin piece of cord was wrapped around stood next to a very large, very old oak. The p-cord ran up into the oak, out of sight, and probably over a nice large branch. I was very excited at the idea that tree climbing was already established in this forest, at least for arboreal studies. Perhaps I’ll come back to this area on my own someday and play around…
On another morning, the group packed into the OTS van and drove to an ecosystem known as parámo, a habitat in the exposed high elevation areas where all the plants are dwarfed. This ecosystem has daily freeze/thaw cycles, meaning that anything containing water gets quite the beating (i.e., all the vegetation). Therefore the plants have evolved special adaptations to this, including fur on their leaves. Not many animals live in the environment full time; they migrate into the area to feed occasionally, such as coyotes and hummingbirds. It was a pretty neat area – we stood on the continental divide and were able to see the Pacific; supposedly on a clear day, you’d also be able to see the Atlantic on the other side. It makes me realize how small the country really is and how important its watersheds are.
Speaking of watersheds, the Cuerici reserve is owned by a local campesino named Don Carlos, who runs a trout farm on a small part of the land. It is cool to see hundreds of trout at every stage of their life – and they taste pretty good too! The farm is chemical-free = good for the environment & for me. The water from the trout ponds drains into a natural stream, which runs downhill and powers a hydroelectric turbine that provides electricity to the reserve. All in all the place is pretty sustainable - the biggest resource expense is firewood to keep the cabin warm at night.
We learned that there was a small shack at the top of the mountain trail, near a nice overlook. Some of the people in the group decided to hike up one night and sleep in the shack, in order to see the stars and the sunrise the following morning. I unfortunately had to decline the offer since I did not have a sleeping bag (and the temperature dropped into the 40s at night). But I really wanted to see the sunrise, so me and another girl woke up at 4:30am to hike up in time to catch the view from the top of the mountain...it was well worth the trouble, and we reached the peak just as the others were awaking in the shack. The views were spectacular, and we headed down for breakfast around 6:30am, lucky to be greeted by tasty pancakes!
For our final day in Cuerici, I went on one final early morning walk, this time with two guys looking to do some birding. As we ascended the mountain, the man in front stopped suddenly, and excitedly whispered under his breath, “Quetzal.” I peered over his shoulder to find a male resplendent quetzal sitting in a tree some yards away. It was beautiful: an emerald green body with a bright red breast, and tail feathers that were as long as the bird’s torso that blew calmly in the wind. I looked away for a second, and when I returned my gaze to the area, the bird had disappeared, swiftly and silently.