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March 14, 2005 [LINK]

Even more vacation pix!

There are two more pages full of thumbnail links to photos from our recent trip to Central America: Costa Rica scenic photos (Part II) (15 photos) and Nicaragua scenic photos (10 photos). These two batches consist of traditional print photographs that I scanned; they are higher quality and therefore reproduced at a larger size than the previous photos from this trip, which were taken with our Canon video camera. The only photographic chore left for me to do from this trip is to transfer the video clips to my iMac, which should yield freeze frame images for ten or so more birds. Later I will probably and add descriptive captions to many of the individual photograph pages. Outside, there is a fresh carpet of snow on the ground...

March 14, 2005 [LINK]

Militias disarm in Haiti

Several hundred Haitian militiamen -- mostly ex-soldiers who had served under the old military regime -- handed in their weapons yesterday, in a belated gesture of respect for government authority. A little over one year ago the elected government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide was overthrown, and the U.S. government took no contrary actions, conveying the impression of tacit approval. Since then Haiti has been policed, just barely, by foreign peacekeeping troops under U.N. auspices. Elections are supposed to be held next October or November.

Haiti shows there are exceptions to the notion that democracy leads to peace and prosperity, the optimistic belief upon which President Bush's foreign policy in the Mideast rests. Haiti never embraced liberal democracy (meaning pluralistic and tolerant) with which we are familiar, however. It was "democratic" in the limited sense of Russia under Putin or Peru under Fujimori. Heavy pressure and pleading for more liberalization by the Clinton administration, which restored Aristide to power in 1994, simply did not bear fruit. To ensure that Iraq does not follow in Haiti's footsteps, we must derive the proper lessons from the failed U.S. policy in Haiti. To wit, resist the urge to push the U.S. model of government, and instead make aid flows contingent on tolerance of nonviolent dissent. The demagogue Aristide remains in exile, meanwhile, hoping for a return to power some day, and probably seeking revenge.

Andrew Clem Archives

March 9, 2005 [LINK]

Costa Rica scenic photos

UPDATE: I've just posted a batch of thirty nine (39!) scenic photos from Costa Rica. For the first time, I have used specialized software (Graphic Converter by Lemke Software, GmbH, to be precise) to create thumbnail images that are links to full-size photo versions. That way, you can get a good overview of our trip without having to wait an eternity for all the photos to load, and you can pick and choose the ones you want to see better.

March 9, 2005 [LINK]

Bolivia in turmoil again

After several weeks of escalating protests, President Carlos Mesa submitted his resignation on Monday, but this turned out to be a ploy aimed at rebuilding political support. In an emergency session last night (Tuesday), the Bolivian Congress unanimously rejected the offer. Mesa had set conditions for staying in office, specifically that his political opponents support the restoration of order in the streets of the capital city. Most political parties realized that if they don't support Mesa, democratic authority would wither and the country would teeter on the brink of anarchy.

To understand these events and what possible grievances might be motivating the protesters, it is important to put Bolivia in the context of the continent-wide upsurge of indigenous political activism that began in the 1990s and is still gathering momentum. President Mesa assumed power in October 2003 after his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, resigned after a similar wave of violent protests. On that occasion, the protesters were complaining about the proposed exports of natural gas via a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean. That would have been a very lucrative enterprise for Bolivia, but many radicals and indigenous rights advocates are so deeply suspicious of private enterprise and foreigners that the potential benefits meant nothing to them. The main complaint this time is lack of water service in the slum service of El Alto, near the La Paz airport. As in Peru elsewhere in Latin America, water utilities have been privatized in recent years in order to improve efficiency, but the French company running the water works in La Paz has not satisfied the many poor customers.

There is no question that much of the impetus behind the protests of the last two years comes from Evo Morales, leader of the "Movement Toward Socialism" party that represents coca growers. Growing coca for domestic use and pharmaceutical purposes is perfectly legal in Bolivia, so the demands for abolishing restrictions on coca cultivation amount to a blatant bid to legalize large-scale commercial coca sales to narcotics traffickers. If Bolivia went down that path, American interests would be seriously affected, and the Bush administration would have little choice but to enact stiff punitive sanctions. In the face of greed backed by violence (though cloaked in the garb of social justice), the Bolivian government really has no room to negotiate with the coca lobby.

Miguel Centellas (via Randy Paul) points out that Bolivia's armed forces have taken a strong stand in defense of democracy and constitutional authority. Such a transformation from their old habit of constant interference in civilian politics, via coups and subtle intimidation, is one of the few positive trends in Latin America recently.

March 9, 2005 [LINK]

Free trade falters in Guatemala

Protesters succeeded in forcing a delay in the scheduled vote by the Guatemalan Congress on whether to ratify the CAFTA free-trade agreement between Central America and the United States that was signed last spring. Conservative President Oscar Berger rejects the proposal to put the ratification question to a nationwide referendum. Army troops have been mobilized in case the protesters return to lay siege to the Congress again. There have also been protests against CAFTA in Honduras, and I observed many signs of opposition to it when I was in Costa Rica and Nicaragua recently.

March 9, 2005 [LINK]

Inauguration in Uruguay

Tabare Vazquez, a member of a leftist party that has never before held power, was sworn in as the country's new president on Tuesday. One of his first officials acts was signing a food-for-oil agreement with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Nevertheless, he is expected to shun radicalism and follow the example of Brazil's "Lula" da Silva, a pragmatic leftist who has had some success during his first two years in office.

March 9, 2005 [LINK]

Prison riot

In the Dominican Republic, 120 inmates died in a prison riot that sparked a fire that got out of control. As with similar recent incidents in Central America, turf wars between rival gangs were the cause. In most Latin American prisons, police don't try to control what goes on inside the prison walls, so gangs often fill the role of guards, obviously preferential. Overcrowding is a big part of the problem.

Spring cleaning

I've begun another overhaul of the Latin America pages on this site. Background material formerly included on the main Latin America page has been moved to the Latin America culture or Latin America war pages.

Andrew Clem Archives

March 7, 2005 [LINK]

Costa Rica (& Nicaragua) bird list

Blue-gray tanager Whew! After many hours of squinting at photographs, I've managed to compile a preliminary list of the birds I saw in Costa Rica (and Nicaragua). There are a few uncertain cases (marked with "?") among the 117 species, and this list will be revised based on scrutiny of video images, input from experts, etc. Plus signs (+) denote the most abundant birds, though in some cases they are not found in all habitats. Asterisks (*) denote new life birds for me, of which I've counted 63 so far. "(ph)" denotes that I have photographs and/or video images; "(ph!!)" denotes the very best photos. The Blue-gray tanager pictured here may not be as colorful as some others, but it has a subtle beauty and was the one bird I saw almost every place I/we went in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and is therefore the most "representative" of all. (NOTE: Some photos have not yet been posted.) I plan to add one or more photo gallery pages with captions explaining the location and circumstances, but in the mean time you can see those photos individually by clicking HERE.

  1. Great-tailed grackle (ph) +
  2. Rufous-collared sparrow (ph) +
  3. White-winged dove
  4. Rock pigeons +
  5. Black vulture +
  6. Turkey vulture
  7. House sparrow
  8. House wren +
  9. Blue-gray tanager (ph!!) +
  10. Summer tanager (ph)
  11. Baltimore oriole (ph)
  12. Great kiskadee (ph!!)
  13. Tropical kingbird * (ph) +
  14. Clay-colored robin (ph) +
  15. Red-crowned ant-tanager *
  16. Rufous-tailed hummingbird * +
  17. Yellow warbler (ph)
  18. Ovenbird
  19. Hoffman's woodpecker * (ph)
  20. Cattle egret +
  21. Fiery-throated hummingbird *
  22. Sooty-capped bush-tanager *
  23. Sooty-faced finch *
  24. Black-cowled oriole * (ph)
  25. Scarlet-thighed dacnis * (ph)
  26. Gray-breasted wood wren * (ph)
  27. Green-breasted mango *
  28. Blue & white swallow
  29. Rose-breasted grosbeak (ph)
  30. Silver-throated tanager * (ph!!)
  31. Violet sabrewing * (ph!!)
  32. Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird * (ph!)
  33. Purple-throated mountain gem * (ph)
  34. Coppery-headed emerald hummingbird * (ph!)
  35. Tennessee warbler (ph)
  36. Roadside hawk * (?)
  37. Ruddy ground-dove * (ph!!)
  38. ? dove
  39. Scarlet-rumped tanager * (ph)
  40. Bananaquit (ph!!)
  41. Spotted sandpiper (ph)
  42. Magnificent frigatebird * (ph)
  43. Bank swallow
  44. Mangrove swallow *
  45. Brown pelican
  46. ? gull
  47. ? tern
  48. Red-crowned woodpecker *
  49. Belted kingfisher
  50. Amazon kingfisher * (ph)
  51. American pygmy kingfisher *
  52. Chestnut-backed antbird *
  53. Turquoise cotinga *
  54. Riverside wren *
  55. Chestnut-mandibled toucan * (ph!!)
  56. Streaked flycatcher ? * (ph)
  57. Philadelphia vireo *
  58. Palm tanager * (ph)
  59. Black-crowned tityra *
  60. Black-striped sparrow * (ph)
  61. Thick-billed seed finch *
  62. Crested caracara (ph)
  63. Bare-throated tiger-heron * (ph)
  64. White ibis (ph)
  65. Common black hawk * (ph)
  66. Green heron
  67. Great curassow * (ph)
  68. Scarlet macaw * (ph)
  69. Golden-naped woodpecker *
  70. Red-legged honeycreeper * (ph!!)
  71. Great blue heron (ph)
  72. Black-collared hawk (ph)
  73. (small, bluish, with green crown, yellow belly --- ???)
  74. ? parrot
  75. King vulture *
  76. Blue-black grassquit
  77. Yellow-bellied siskin *
  78. Groove-billed ani *
  79. Smooth-billed ani * (?)
  80. Great antshrike * (ph)
  81. Prevost's ground-sparrow *
  82. Blue-crowned motmot *
  83. Silvery-throated jay *
  84. Thicket tinamou *
  85. White-throated magpie-jay * (ph)
  86. Pacific screech owl * (ph!!)
  87. ? hawk * (ph)
  88. Inca dove (ph)
  89. Rufous-capped warbler (ph)
  90. Banded wren * (ph)
  91. Squirrel cuckoo * (ph)
  92. Yellow-throated vireo
  93. White-lored gnatcatcher * (ph)
  94. Olive sparrow * (ph)
  95. Striped-headed sparrow *
  96. Great crested flycatcher (ph)
  97. parrot * (ph)
  98. Elegant trogon * (ph)
  99. Scissor-tailed flycatcher
  100. Orchard oriole
  101. Broad-billed hummingbird (ph)
  102. ? swifts
  103. Great egret
  104. Olivaceous (neotropical) cormorant
  105. Purple gallinule
  106. Limpkin *
  107. Northern jacana * (ph)
  108. Montezuma oropendula (ph)
  109. Orange-chinned parakeet *
  110. Snowy egret
  111. Little blue heron
  112. Osprey
  113. Crimson-fronted parakeet *
  114. Nicaraguan grackle
  115. Social flycatcher ?
  116. Eastern meadowlark
  117. Indigo bunting

I used "A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica" by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch as a reference, and it was invaluable. If I had stayed in Costa Rica for one more week I could have heard Prof. Stiles give a lecture on hummingbirds and ecology at the University of Costa Rica. While at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where we saw most of the hummingbirds, I had the pleasure to chat with Dr. Aaron Sekarak, the resident biologist and avian expert. I invite comments or challenges to my species identifications: please contact

Andrew Clem Archives

March 5, 2005 [LINK]

Bird photo bonanza

Costa Rica birds montage I have literally dozens of fair-to-very-good photos from our trip to Costa Rica, and this montage is merely a preview. They are, clockwise from the upper left: Great kiskadee, Blue-gray tanager, Silver-throated tanager, Red-footed honeycreeper, Scarlet-rumped tanager, Scarlet macaw, Pacific screech owl, and in the right center, an Coppery-headed emerald hummingbird. More details on where I saw these birds and all the others are yet to come... I wanted to include the Elegant trogon in this montage, since it was one of my big photographic "prizes," but it is hard to distinguish the bird from the background foliage unless the photo is at a larger scale. All the above photos are still images from our Canon digital video camera. After I finish with editing those I will move on to capturing freeze frames from the many video clips I took. For faster-moving birds such as hummingbirds, it is almost hopeless to get good still images, so taking video is the only way to go.

With four or more inches of snow on the ground right now, our backyard bird feeder has been attracting a large number of juncos, goldfinches, sparrows, cardinals, etc. That makes it prime hunting territory for hungry raptors, and indeed a Sharp-shinned hawk collided (feet first) with the window in Princess and George's room while I was standing there about an hour ago. I think his prey got away this time, but Princess and George panic flew all around in a panic and are still nervous.

Andrew Clem Archives

March 5, 2005 [LINK]

Don't Cry For Me, Costa Rica

Costa Rica montage I finally made it back home to Staunton last night, taking the AMTRAK train from Manassas. There wasn't as much snow on the ground when I arrived as I had feared, but today it has been snowing since dawn. It is hard to imagine a starker contrast to Costa Rica. I should have stayed for another week... This photo montage shows some of the very distinct places Jacqueline and I visited. Clockwise, from the top left: La Paz Waterfalls, in the cloud forest east of Poas Volcano; downtown San Jose, from the Jade Museum atop the INS (National Insurance Institute) Building; a falen tree flower in Santa Rosa National Park; and the beach at Playa de Cacao, near the town of Golfito.

Overall, I would have to say that this was one of my best foreign trips ever, in terms of the scenery, wildlife, and the hospitality of the local people. I wish Jacqueline had had enough time to stay with me for the entire trip, but she might not have appreciated the rugged terrain and risky territory that I visited in Guanacaste (NW) and Nicaragua. From a tourist standpoint, the only way in which Costa Rica falls short compared to most other Latin American countries I've visited is the absence of significant archeological ruins. This reflects the fact that the Indians who lived here before Columbus were not as advanced as the Incas or the Mayas.

From an economic standpoint, Costa Rica's prospects are good as far as I can tell, but there are a few serious problems, some of which I've mentioned previously. The comparison I made on February 23 with Venezuela's precarious social order is apt, I think, but there is one big difference: Costa Rica has not had any armed forces since 1948, and is therefore free from the threat of a military coup. Among the "Tico" political leaders, I am unaware of any populist firebrands similar to Hugo Chavez. Thus, the country seems to be a safe haven for private investors. The fact that so many Americans have invested money here, and even moved here for their retirement, means that Costa Rica has a big vested interest in maintaining the favorable status quo. It would take a large-scale economic catastrophe (an earthquake, perhaps?) to cause a big enough shift in political currents for radical left-wing politicians to gain control.

One of the best things about traveling abroad is meeting interesting people and sharing experiences and opinions. I met a Swedish woman who voiced the mainstream European antipathy toward U.S. "militarism" and "arrogance." I politely explained the rationale behind U.S. policy in Iraq, but she really did not seem interested. Unfortunately (?), the United States is under-represented among the tourists who visit Costa Rica; the same applies to Latin America in general. I put that question mark there because there are just enough stereotypical "ugly American" boobs in Costa Rica to warrant some anti-(North) American sentiment. (NOTE: The word gringo usually applies to just about any person of European descent.) I also saw a few rude people from Europe and Canada, however, so bad behavior is by no means exclusive to the U.S.

I could go on and on about how much I'll miss Costa Rica, but that will become evident in all the text and photos I post about our trip over the next few days. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the wonderful people I met down there, above all, Karla Arias, the proprietor of Kap's Place, where Jacqueline and I stayed while we were in San Jose. It is a very nice, well-decorated, friendly, comfortable, and well-run establishment that I think is destined for Bigger Things in the future. One thing's for sure: I'll be back!

Andrew Clem Archives

March 1, 2005 [LINK]

Rounding third & Heading for home!

Today is my last day in Costa Rica, and I have deeply mixed feelings about leaving this wonderful place, and not just because of the bad weather back home. Last night I took a first look at the video and photos I took at Santa Rosa National Park, and was very pleased overall. Stay tuned!

Evolution & the Left *

* In order to keep the content of this blog in the proper respective categories, the portion of the blog entry that was originally posted here has been moved to: Archives/2005/03/01po.html. I have left the following paragraph (which is duplicated, to maintain continuity) here, however.

UPDATE: I had to cut the previous post [see above-referenced entry] short, because I'm sharing this computer with other guests at Kap's Place. Also, I was determined to visit the University of Costa Rica this afternoon, and I did. I was graciously received by the director of the Political Science Department, Dr. Jose Miguel Rodriguez, inquiring about the free trade issue in Costa Rica. Then I took a pleasant stroll around the beautiful campus, which is filled with lush groves of bamboo, palm, and pine trees, great bird habitat. (It's also filled with anti-free trade posters and grafitti.) Gary Stiles, the lead author of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, which I've been scouring every day since I arrived here, teaches at UCR and is going to give a seminar here one week from tomorrow: "How to Arm a Hummingbird? Ecology, Adaptations, and Philogenia." (That's my English translation of it.) Too bad I'll be gone by then.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 28, 2005 [LINK]

Back in Costa Rica

Today I took a l-o-n-g bus ride from Granada, Nicaragua back to San Jose, Costa Rica. It was air conditioned, but that barely offset the stiflingly hot temperatures outside. Can you say "grungy"? Once again I had to endure all the hassles with passports at the border, which reminds me once again how irrational it is to maintain sovereignty for such small countries. These countries should follow Europe's example and Integrate Central America now!

Returning to Kap's Place, the ultra-friendly informal "hotel" where we have been staying, was an enormous relief. Clean, potable water with hot showers: ah-h-h! Back home in Virginia, meanwhile, there is a foot of snow on the ground in some places, and I just learned from Jacqueline that it is still falling.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 27, 2005 [LINK]

Birds in Nicaragua *

This morning I took a boat ride along the shores of Lake Nicaragua to see the wildlife that abounds on "Las Isletas." It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I saw the Montezuma oropendulas that I was told were present. They are a large bird with yellow tails that built huge basket nests, much like the orioles with which they are related. I had seen oropendulas in Mexico in 1985, but I'm not certain about the exact species, so this may or may not have been a life bird. I also saw many other birds along the shore, including two life birds, Northern jacanas, colorful birds that dance on lily pads, and a Limpkin, sort of a cross between a heron and an ibis.

* This blog entry was originally posted along with other material at Archives/2005/02/27la.html while I was in Nicaragua, but has been retroactively renamed and placed in the Wild Birds category, where it belongs.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 27, 2005 [LINK]

Hot, hot, hot *

* In order to keep the content of this blog in the proper respective categories, the portion of the blog entry concerning birds that was originally posted here has been moved to: Archives/2005/02/27wb.html.

The temperatures here must be in the mid 90s at least, and it is hard to stay comfortable. Fortunately, there is a pool in the hotel where I'm staying in Granada, The Oasis. So I just checked the weather back in Virginia and learned they are forecasting five to ten inches of snow tonight! Maybe I should stay here...

Sandinista strife

Just after I left Managua yesterday there was a violent confrontation in the streets, as a dissident faction of the Sandinista party (FSLN) was forcibly prevented from entering a party meeting at which key resolutions were adopted. Former president and guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega prevailed in the showdown with a former mayor of Managua, a guy named Herty [Lewites]. (!) The Sandinistas won in municipal elections last year, and Ortega may just get elected for the first time since he was defeated in an upset by Violeta Chamorro in 1990. Of course, the U.S. government is not happy about political trends here. More on that later...

February 26, 2005 [LINK]

Baseball in Nicaragua

My first tourist destination in Managua was the Estadio Nacional Dennis Martinez, named for the retired pitcher who won more major league games (245) than any other pitcher from Latin America. He played for the Montreal Expos (Nationals fans, take note!), the Baltimore Orioles, the L.A. Dodgers, and other clubs. I had to use a lot of persuasion to get inside to see the field, but they would not let me take any pictures because of all the trash that had been left there by a big crowd at an evangelical revival on the previous night. So I had to make mental notes of the field dimensions, numbers of rows, etc., etc. from which I will eventually derive a diagram for that "green cathedral" -- which actually was used for religious purposes! It was 330 feet to the corners and 400 feet to center field (or so they told me; I saw no such sign). Oddly, the shape was oval, with a huge arc behind the diamond rather like the Polo Grounds, though with 12 or so extra rows squeezed in behind the dugouts. In the large empty space beyond the outfield fence you can see wooden corrals, which are used when they hold bullfights here. Now there's a unique multiple-use stadium!

Nicaragua's deep poverty makes it very hard to run a professional ball club on a profitable basis, so baseball has had a rather precarious status there is recent years. For the 2004-2005 winter season, there have been four teams in the Nicaraguan League: Managua (the "Boers"!), Leon, Chinandega, and Masaya. Somehow Granada failed to qualify for a franchise. The sports pages here are full of news about Vincente Padilla, who pitches for the Phillies. The stadium in Masaya is named for Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash while en route to Nicaragua, planning to help with the recovery efforts after the 1972 earthquake.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 26, 2005 [LINK]

From Guanacaste to Nicaragua

Once again, I'm at a loss for words to describe all I've done in the last couple days. On Thursday I took a bus from San Jose to the provincial (or cantonal, actually) capital of Liberia, in the dry ranchlands of Guanacaste. On the way we passed several volcanoes, including Arenal, perhaps the most famous in Costa Rica. It is one of the best birding locations, but because it is hard to get to (bad roads) and has similar cloud forest habitat to the Poas volcano / La Paz waterfalls we saw last week, I decided to pass it by this time.

Upon arriving in Liberia (I'm not sure if it was named after the country) I noticed that a major local festival was underway. I had the good fortune to witness an outburst of local culture, with music and dance. Also, there were very loud fireworks, launched from in front of the Catholic Church, built in the 1970s in a modern style. Anoather stroke of good fortune was meeting three local guys, Andres (!), Ralph, and (??? -- The name will come to me soon, I`m sure.) We chatted about sports, trade policy, politics, and anti-American sentiment around the world. Thankfully, nearly all "Ticos" are friendly to us gringos.

* In order to keep the content of this blog in the proper respective categories, the portion of the blog entry concerning birds that was originally posted here has been moved to: Archives/2005/02/26wb.html.

In the afternoon, I crossed the border into Nicaragua on foot, and was immediately accosted by hordes of children, money changers, and vendors. The first sign of a country in desparate economic condition, probably reflecting the failures of the Marxist Sandinista regime. Indeed, this is the first former communist country I've ever been to. (I'll comment more on that later.) After a long delay due to customs, I got on a bus at about 2:30 and soon saw the immense Lake Nicaragua with the awesome twin-volcano island. We arrived in Managua at about 5:30 and I was delighted to see a flock of at least a dozen Scissor-tailed (or perhaps Fork-tailed) flycatchers swirling around in the dusk. I then checked into a budget "hotel" that made me regret saving a few bucks. After sightseeing in the bleak, dusty capital city of Managua (largely ruined by a terrible earthquake in 1972), I took a colectivo mini-bus to the city of Granada, which has lots of beautiful colonial archtecture and is much more tourist friendly. That is where I am at the moment.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 26, 2005 [LINK]

Santa Rosa National Park *

Yesterday (Friday), I took a taxi to Santa Rosa National Park, about 15 miles NW of Liberia. My calculation that I would be more likely to see more bird species in a different habitat than we had previously seen proved 100% correct. I was lucky to meet an American biology student who was recording bird calls for a research project, and she gave me tips on where to look for birds. Among the highlights were White-throated magpie jays (big and loud), a Pacific screech owl, several Squirrel cuckoos, several Rufous-capped warblers, , and near the very end of my trek, two green and red Elegant trogons. AND MANY MORE -- Almost [15] new life birds in a single day! I thought my video camera ran out when I came across the trogons, but fortunately there was enough juice left over to get some pretty good shots. It was extremely hot, and my feet were even more sore by mid-day, with some vicious bug bites (DEET didn't work), but it was well worth it. If you're a bird fanatic, that is.

* This blog entry was originally posted along with other material at Archives/2005/02/26la.html while I was in Costa Rica, but has been retroactively renamed and placed in the Wild Birds category, where it belongs.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 23, 2005 [LINK]

In Venezuela's footsteps?

Jacqueline has returned to the states, sad to leave this marvelous little country but eager to see Princess and George back home. Yesterday we "shopped till we dropped" in downtown San Jose. My feet are still quite sore from all the beach hiking at Corcovado, so my mobility is below par. Otherwise, we're both in pretty good shape. It is wonderful to be able to travel in a Latin American country without constantly worrying about nasty bacteria in the tap water.

This morning I saw three more life birds, in the athletic park only two blocks from our hotel (Kap's Place): A pair of Prevost's ground sparrows, several Silvery-throated jays, and two Blue-crowned motmots! They are one of the truly dazzling tropical birds, with very long fluttering tails, and sharp green, blue, and black colors. Just awesome. I should mention that there is a lot of garbage strewn about just outside the park, which itself is decently maintained. Sadly, many "Ticos" (as Costa Ricans call themselves) lack much of a sense of personal responsibility to the community. Perhaps because of the generous welfare system here, many local folks apparently disdain manual labor, and many farm jobs and other unskilled jobs are done by Nicaraguans. Quite an ironic imitation of the United States!

It has taken a while to get a feel for the political currents in this country, and I still don't know enough to comment very intelligently on it. I am getting the sense that there is a sort of deadlock preventing further opening of the economy to the outside world. Almost every product in the stores is made right here in Costa Rica, which must be terribly inefficient for such a small market. Proposals to reduce such protection generally fail because industrial workers are quick to march in protest. Pride in the country's strong democratic tradition makes politicians loathe to do anything contrary to popular sentiment, even minority sentiment. Like the U.S. in the 1970s, Costa Rica's economic policy is stuck in the mud, and no one knows what to do about it. I have a vague but disquieting hunch that this country is so used to a high standard of living based on its agricultural exports and (more recently) tourist dollars that it is in for a rude shock not unlike what Venezuela faced in the 1990s. Next year's elections should be interesting...

Fortunately, the only indication of anti-Americanism I've seen so far is a billboard sponsored by labor unions denouncing the war in Iraq. Despite the strong American presence here, with many thousand U.S. citizens living in retirement or just hanging out, diplomatic ties between Washington and San Jose are apparently rather distant. There are many more tourists from Canada, Europe, and Japan than from the U.S., another illustration of the paradox that Americans are so ill-informed about their "back yard" neighbors.

Tomorrow I plan to leave San Jose again, heading northwest into the canton of Guanacaste, which has dry terrain along the coast, and possibly into Nicaragua. NOTE: After I return to the states I plan to split some of these travel blog posts into their respective topical sections. It's just too much of a hassle for me to manage the site the way I'm used to doing away from my own computer, so only the main blog page will include the updated entries until early March.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 21, 2005 [LINK]

Corcovado National Park *

What a trip! Words can barely begin to describe what we saw and heard at Corcovado National Park yesterday. First, I should warn would-be tourists to do their geographical homework to be able to weigh all the conflicting advice you're likely to get if you ever travel to this part of the world. Unless you've got a good sense of the lay of the land, you'll be at the mercy of hucksters and weirdos. We hopped on a Jeep-style minivan just before dawn on Sunday, and endured over two hours of bumpy, treacherous, rutted roads, fording several streams and rivers along the way. Thankfully, the driver indulged my requests to stop to take pictures of several of the amazing birds we saw on the road, including a Crested caracara, a Fasciated tiger-heron(?), a Great currasow, a Common black hawk, a White ibis, and a Green heron, among others.

When we reached the terminal point, the village of Carate, we began a 2+ mile hike along the beach to the park entry station. It was quite a struggle in the hot sun, but we were rewarded with great views of our main "target species" before we even entered the park itself: a screeching flock of Scarlet macaws landed in a palm tree nearby, and I got some decent pictures and video clips. They rarely descend below treetop level, so my photos were only so-so, but the brilliant red, green, yellow, and blue colors were quite evident. We paid $8 each at the entry station and learned that our intended destination -- a place called "Sirena" -- could not be reached within one day if we wanted to return the same day. So, we hiked about half that far, 2.5 miles.

Our first big thrill inside the park itself was seeing a group of Spider monkeys, including an infant clinging to its mother, and a toddler learning to climb along branches and vines. This time we got great video shots, since they were only 30-40 yards away. We also saw an anteater (I think) in a tree, a snake in a bush, and a huge spider. No jaguars or other feline predators, however. (A guy I met who is a fellow graduate of Virginia told me that while at Sirena he saw a puma (cougar, mountain lion) attack, kill, and devour a monkey.) Anyway, we didn't see as many birds as I anticipated, but there were some fine ones, nonetheless, most notably a pair of male Red-legged honeycreepers engaged in some sort of territorial display ritual, dancing and chirping around each other. (Non-violent conflict resolution!?) They were a gorgeous deep blue color. There were also Chestnut-backed antbirds, Riverside wrens, and others not yet identified. My feet paid a heavy price for that long beach trek (wearing only sandals), but the blisters were not as severe as I feared.

* The heading above was added retroactively, for the sake of clarity.

February 21, 2005 [LINK]

Do you know The Way to San Jose?

This morning, Monday, the 21st*, we left Puerto Jimenez on a bus shortly after 5:00. Dawn broke within an hour, and we soon saw quite a variety of birds in the farm fields. Even from a distance it was easy to identify a King vulture (white with black wings) perched on top of a dead cow. I also saw Groove-billed anis, some Yellow-bellied siskins, and a few others. Later I caught a brief glimpse of a medium-sized black and white bird perched on a wire, luckily while I was taking a video clip of the countryside. Replaying that clip helped me to confirm that it was a Great antshrike. (Why do so many tropical bird names include "ant"? I don't know.) That was just as we begin climbing from the hot, sunny valley where coffee, sugarcane, and pineapples are grown, into the cool cloud-forest mountains. After a few more hours we descended into the Central Valley, passing the city of Cartago, and finally arriving in San Jose around 3:00. Whew!

* NOTE: I realized that my last posting had the wrong date, which gives you a good idea how far out of touch with reality I am. Hence the corrected date, in [brackets]. While I'm out of the country (for the rest of the month) I can be reached at: ontheroad(AT) -- replacing "(AT)" with "@" of course.

Andrew Clem Archives

February [19], 2005 [LINK]

Welcome to the Jungle!

I've seen and experienced so much over the past two days that I don't know if I can relate our travel adventures in a coherent fashion. But I'll try. After learning from the weather forecasts that the Caribbean coast was expected to remain rainy for the next couple days (as it has been for at least the last two months), we opted for the Pacific coast, taking a seven-hour bus ride from San Jose to the town of Golfito, not far from Panama. Along the way we crossed some very high mountains, most of which were shrouded by thick clouds. Occasionally the sun would peek through and we would get a fanastic view of distant peaks and clouds far below us. We arrived in Golfito at 10:00 PM and took a "taxi-boat" to the village of Playa Cacao, and got settled into our thatched hut cabin. "Cabinas Playa Cacao" is a splendid, beautiful place to relax and enjoy nature, and Doña Isabel is a wonderful hostess.

The next day (Thursday, I think) I got up at the crack of dawn and saw Ruddy ground doves, Scarlet-rumped tanagers, hummers, various flycatchers, among others. In the afternoon we bought supplies in town (via the taxi-boat) and basically relaxed, since it was too hot to do much else. Late in the afternoon we walked up a hill and saw a Striped-crown sparrow, an olive-colored forager that was so big that it looked like a towhee to me. I also saw a Thick-billed seedeater, plus others. Then it started to rain so we had to hurry back.

This morning we took a hike along a stream into a genuine tropical rain forest. It was VERY dark in the dawn's early light, adding mystery to the ominous surroundings. Would we see jaguars or peccaries? Fortunately not, but we DID see two species that were at the top of our "target" list: White-faced monkeys (four or so) and Chestnut-mandibled toucans (two). We could hardly believe our eyes, but since I had the presence of mind to turn on my video camera, there is no doubt. I got great images of those, plus many other birds.

I wish we could have stayed another day or two in Playa Cacao, but I learned that our only hope of getting into Corcovado National Park was to spend two nights in Puerto Jimenez, across the Golfo Dulce on the Osa Peninsula. So we hopped on a ferry boat, and we are now ensconced in a decent hotel in this dusty fishing village / tourist mecca. I've learned that getting around in Costa Rica is a lot harder than you might think, given the country's relative prosperity. It's a jungle out there!

Andrew Clem Archives

February 16, 2005 [LINK]

"Backyard" bird watching

As everyone knows (or should know), Central America is the "backyard" of the good ol' U.S.A. So, when you go bird watching down here, you are in effect doing "backyard" bird watching. smile Today Jacqueline and I splurged on a "package tour," something I have rarely if ever done before. The prime birding and nature hot spots in Costa Rica are in very remote places, so I figured it would be better to start off with a guide. I almost regretted my decision after our first stop, the Poas volcano, about 25 miles NW of San Jose. It is one of a chain of volcanoes anchoring a mountain range that stretches across the middle of the country, from northwest to southeast. The higher elevations are a "cloud forest," which means that it is almost always raining or drizzling or misting. I was prepared with a proper jacket and umbrella, but the clouds and precipitation reduced visibility so much that we couldn't see anything inside the crater, which is supposed to be the second biggest one in the world. Fortunately, I saw a number of good birds, including some Sooty-capped bush tanagers, a Sooty-faced finch, a Black-cowled oriole, a Scarlet-thighed dacnis, among others. All those birds made it a worthwhile stop after all.

The we went to La Paz Waterfall, located on the eastern slope of Poas volcano. It includes an enclosed butterfly sanctuary, where we saw hundreds of chrysalises and/or cocoons. We actually saw an exotic butterfly emerge and take flight for the very first time in its life! But for me the biggest thrill was the hummingbird center, where dozens of feeders attracted a constant stream of so many different species of hummingbirds that there was no way I could hope to identify most of them. Actually, though, there was a way: our Canon DV camera! I tried my best to get as many of those tiny speedsters on tape as I could, and after further review, I would say I can probably identify at least six or seven species, maybe more. By far the best was the large Violet saber-wing. A German couple was blocking my camera angle for crucial minutes, and I almost despaired of one of the greatest bird photo-ops ever. At last, they moved, and I got some great shots. But wait, there's more! While at La Paz we also saw several Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Silver-throated tanagers (not well named, as you will soon see from the photos I took), Tennessee warblers, and others not yet identified. Finally, we walked along a precarious set of steel grate walkways to see the La Paz Waterfalls, which are awesome. The cloud forest foliage was just too thick to get good views of the many birds I heard and glimpsed.

Our final stop of the day was the Doka Estate coffee plantation, in the foothills between Poas volcano and San Jose. Just before we arrived there I spotted some kind of a hawk along the road. It was a pleasant and informative tour of the farm, the coffee bean sorting equipment, and the roasting mill. It is a modern monoculture plantation, however, which means that it is not good habitat for songbirds. Also, shade-grown coffee is better quality than coffee from trees grown in open fields, and I bought a bag of organic shade-grown coffee. Finally our tour bus brought us back to Kap's Place in San Jose. Another busy, exhausting, extremely rewarding day!

Tomorrow we may take a bus/boat trip to the Caribbean coast, or perhaps head south to the Pacific beaches. Maybe we can squeeze both in!

Andrew Clem Archives

February 15, 2005 [LINK]

Arrival in Costa Rica

Jacqueline and I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica yesterday afternoon, and a pre-arranged taxi soon brought us to Kap's Place, a friendly, colorful, and very comfortable sort of bed and breakfast near downtown. There are several wooded parks and a river within a few blocks of here, and we soon saw Summer tanagers, Baltimore orioles, Great kiskadees, Tropical flycatchers, White-winged doves, Rufous-collared sparrows, Great-tailed grackles, and a Red-crowned ant-tanager! Today we spent most of our time walking around downtown San Jose, leaving little time for birding. Even so, we saw most of those plus several Blue-gray tanagers, a Rufous-tailed hummingbird, a Yellow warbler, an Ovenbird, and others not yet identified. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we're going to the Poas volcano, about 25 miles north from here, and expect to see many hummingbirds and other forest species. Stay tuned!.

Thanks to my brother Dan for giving me hints on how to do the necessary Web site update tasks from a foreign (non-Mac) computer. To say that updating this page on a Windows system was difficult would be an extreme understatement. Almost every minute step of the way some mind-boggling indecipherable nuisance popped up. I MISS MY MACINTOSH!

Andrew Clem Archives

February 12, 2005 [LINK]

Coming attraction Costa Rica trip

Jacqueline and I will be traveling to explore the exotic rain forests and volcanoes of Costa Rica next week, and I will (hopefully) spend a few days in Nicaragua after she returns. If all goes well, I plan to update this blog every couple days or so while we're down there. Costa Rica is probably the number one eco-tourism destination on the entire planet, and is a paradise for bird watchers. If I don't spot at least fifty new bird species while I'm down there, I will be quite disappointed. I should be back in the States by March 3 or so...

I'm posting this on the baseball page for the benefit of the majority of folks who visit that portion of my Web site / blog. Baseball is not nearly as popular in Costa Rica as it is in most other countries in that region, probably because U.S. military forces never occupied it. smile