UGA Costa Rica Blog

¡Pura vida!

Humans of San Luis: Part I

There’s an energy about Costa Rica. I can see it in the people; in the ever-widening eyes of tourists, in the infectious laughter and endless enthusiasm of interns and students, in the warm embraces of the local Ticos.

I’ve attempted to convey this bliss, this magic, in my writing, but in order to legitimately capture the genuine energy I have since decided to go straight to the source.

What follows are the premiere shots of a project I’ve started, in which subjects, whether tourists, volunteers or members of the San Luis community, spill the beans about their love affair with Costa Rica.  And a shout out to Brandon Stanton, the talented and passionate creator of Humans of New York, who’s daily photographic window into people’s lives has been an inspiration.

Kris Irwin Senior Public Service Associate at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia

Kris Irwin
Senior Public Service Associate at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia

“I love this campus. I just know in my mind what I feel like every year when I step off that bus for the first time in that parking lot it’s like ahhh, I’m here. I really do become just, calm, this joyful feeling comes over me because I know I’m going see really cool animals, I know I’m going see my friends.”

Jay Shelton Associate Professor at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia

Jay Shelton
Associate Professor at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia

“Once you’ve seen something really special, there’s nothing like seeing it through the eyes of someone else who hasn’t seen it before. For example, I so wanted to see bellbirds, not for me because I’ve seen them before, but when you see the way those students reacted, you see it through the eyes of a first timer. Which is even more rewarding than seeing it yourself. There’s a lot of that, seeing it through the eyes of someone who hasn’t, is very rewarding.”

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

UGACR Donor Profile: Paul Gross

During the month of March, I had the pleasure of interviewing two of UGA Costa Rica’s donors, Gail Hunnicutt and Paul Gross. They each shared with me a plethora of intimate stories, which demonstrate the reasons for which they continue to support UGA Costa Rica and encourage students to study abroad. Their gushing enthusiasm for this campus as well as their fervor for education is evident in their delightfully crafted, stimulating responses.

Without further ado, let’s meet Paul Gross!

Paul Gross stands with his wife, Roni beneath the Paul A. Gross Faculty Residence, a faculty house dedicated to Mr. Gross for his work in having established the Paul A. Gross Undergraduate Student Support Fund, which aids students in studying abroad at UGA Costa Rica.

Paul Gross stands with his wife, Roni, on the porch of the Paul A. Gross Faculty Residence, a faculty house dedicated to Mr. Gross for his work in having established the Paul A. Gross Undergraduate Student Support Fund, which aids students in studying abroad at UGA Costa Rica.

What is your affiliation with UGA?

My affiliation with the University of Georgia, quite frankly, first came about at a very young age as a seventh grade cadet at Riverside Military Academy located in Gainesville, Georgia in 1952.

Sandy Beaver was the owner and Founder of Riverside. He was a graduate of the University of Georgia along with his classmate, Herman Talmadge, later to become Governor of the State of Georgia.

I mention this brief history because on my first day at Riverside, General Beaver put his arm on my shoulder and said, “Son, it is not what you are today that matters, it is what you will become that counts.”  That was my first introduction to a lesson in values; to a picture of reward from a developmental dream; to what commitment to an education meant and service to that and those who helped bring you along. Most importantly through General Beaver, I received my first introduction to the University of Georgia, which engraved upon me at a very tender age the valor and importance of not only a good education, but also in the value of selection and service.

“In September of 1959 I was accepted to and transferred to UGA to complete my undergraduate education.”

In September of 1959 I was accepted to and transferred to UGA to complete my undergraduate education. Georgia was the right fit for the puzzle of my life at that particular time.  I was exposed to a Georgia culture through the University, through the faculty, and through that which the University gave to me and allowed me to become through growth, maturity and education.  I had climbed the second step of my affiliation ladder with UGA, really not knowing at that time when the additional affiliations would evolve.

Please describe an experience/visit to the UGA Costa Rica campus that stands out for you.

I believe it was in 2006 the Georgia Review Magazine featured a cover story on the University of Georgia Costa Rica, its uniqueness as a distant learning campus, its dedicated on-site faculty, and most importantly on a six week course studying the entomology population of Costa Rica, highlighting Costa Rican butterflies, taught by Professor Jim Porter.  I applied to audit the course, not really knowing what lay ahead.

“Simply living on an eco driven, Costa Rican culturally designed campus in the middle of the jungle in a foreign country was in itself a life enlightening experience for me at the tender age of 70.”

I cannot begin to tell you how much my experience at UGA Costa Rica meant to me. Things I never dreamed of occurred.  Simply living on an eco driven, Costa Rican culturally designed campus in the middle of the jungle in a foreign country was in itself a life enlightening experience for me at the tender age of 70. Every day geometrically exploded into one asset after another. Sitting at the dining room table every day with the students and the faculty gave me an exposure to their perception and need for an education in such a unique setting with such talented faculty.

There was one student from the University of Missouri who each day would wait after the meal and we would just chat about life, her dreams of what and how she was to become, what she wanted to be, and in addition making me feel that my life’s adventure aided her’s in thinking through the challenges she faced. Soon other students took up the same opportunity, and I was having great sessions with many students every day.

Can you put your finger on what it is about UGA Costa that makes you a proud long-time supporter and why others should be empowered to follow your example?

To have participated in a living laboratory of nature, wrapped with educational bonding, and feeling the ingrained need and appreciation of the students, I determined that the reward to me would be emotionally, physically and mentally stimulating to participate through UGA philanthropy in support of the UGA Costa Rica Campus.

“I have gained a vicarious identity with each and every student in their plight of life, education, growth and maturity to feel with them the need not just to get an education, but to build your life around seeding the soil for the future educational needs of students, faculty and our University.”

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

UGACR Donor Profile: Gail Hunnicutt

During the month of March, I had the pleasure of interviewing two of UGA Costa Rica’s donors, Gail Hunnicutt and Paul Gross. They each shared with me a plethora of intimate stories, which demonstrate the reasons for which they continue to support UGA Costa Rica and encourage students to study abroad. Their gushing enthusiasm for this campus as well as their fervor for education is evident in their delightfully crafted, stimulating responses.

Without further ado, let’s meet Gail Hunnicutt!

Gail

Gail Hunnicutt observing Costa Rica’s national flower, the Guaria Morada (Guarianthe skinneri) orchid, during a visit to Rancho de Lelo, a local restaurant renowned for homegrown tilapia.

What is your affiliation with the University of Georgia?
I am a UGA graduate, my husband is a UGA graduate, all our siblings are UGA graduates, our children and children-in-law are all UGA graduates and I hope all five of our grandsons will be UGA graduates one day.  I have been a Trustee of the University of Georgia Foundation since 2005 and President of the UGA Costa Rica Board of Trustees since 2006.

Of all the incredible scenery – from butterflies, to rainbows, to sunsets, what are one or two things you enjoy seeing most on your visits to UGA Costa Rica’s campus?

I agree the scenery, the flora and the fauna in and around the campus are beautiful and fascinating; however, the main thing I enjoy seeing when I am on the campus are the students.  They are eager, enthusiastic, bright, engaging, ambitious, friendly – everything I would wish for in every UGA student whether on the Athens campus or on the Costa Rica campus or on any of our other study-abroad locales.

“The main thing I enjoy seeing when I am on the campus are the students”

The entire UGA Costa Rica campus has been an open-air classroom for me not only as a student in the past but also as a current intern. Can you describe what UGA Costa Rica has meant/means to you?
The opportunity to observe first-hand the influence a study abroad program and campus can have on the students lucky enough to study there is the main benefit I have personally gained from my relationship with the UGA Costa Rica campus and the students, faculty, and staff there. The communication with students from my hometown who had studied there, the communication with students I have never met but who contacted me following their return from a session there, the letters from grateful students who could study and live in Costa Rica because the University and the Foundation provided the campus, scholarship money and the program will forever remain the highlights of my tenure as President of the UGA Costa Rica Board of Trustees.

Can you put your finger on what it is about UGA Costa that makes you a proud long-time supporter and why others should be empowered to follow your example?

To enable more students to take advantage of study-abroad opportunities, the Foundation continues to endow scholarship and support, money which I hoped would be the beginning of a snow-ball effect.  My wish has become a reality for the Costa Rica campus through a challenge endowment begun by Paul Gross.  I am so pleased to support this fund since it goes to the heart of my passion to provide as many students as possible the opportunity to experience the Costa Rica campus and the study-abroad program there.  I can’t think of a more important legacy for my relationship with UGA in Costa Rica.

“I am so pleased to support this fund since it goes to the heart of my passion to provide as many students as possible the opportunity to experience the Costa Rica campus and the study-abroad program there.”

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Plant-O-Rama!

Each day a symphony of bird songs, monkey calls, and pattering rain is carried through campus by the whispering wind. Rustling bushes, likely a coati or agouti crunching its way along the decomposing forest floor, add to the orchestra of sounds. Occasionally, however, something much bigger may be lurking behind the swaying green curtains surrounding you. Oh, yikes, sorry for the goose bumps – I’m just taking about resident naturalists preparing for one of our campus activities!

UGA Costa Rica offers a Plant-O-Rama: a hands-on workshop in plant identification for students, tourists, plant masters, and newcomers alike. Naturalists spend mornings or afternoons hunkered down in the cloud forest collecting leaf samples for this crash course in cloud forest plants. You may raise an eyebrow when they emerge from a dense sea of Heliconia leaves with a garbage bag. But taking a peek inside reveals a kaleidoscope of green and yellow; the forest’s smooth, rough, straight, jagged, citrusy and smelly plants morph into a visual and olfactory puzzle.

Students listen as a naturalist launches into the Plant-O-Rama.

Students listen as a naturalist launches into the Plant-O-Rama.

Guests take notes or simply absorb the clarity of the information flowing their way. The main objective of the activity is not only to teach guests the basics (and not so basics) of identifying plants and plant families, but also for them to practice and engrain their newfound knowledge.

The guests’ first hands-on task is to disassemble the bouquet of forest sitting before them, defining and dividing the plant samples as either monocotyledon or dicotyledon, which are the two divisions of flowering plants. A monocot, at the time of germination has one leaf sprout, and a dicot has two. As the plants grow, they develop specific characteristics that keep them identifiable as one or the other. A monocot typically has an elongated leaf with a sheathing central stem, and veins that run parallel to each other throughout the leaf. A dicot’s leaves are attached to either a stem or branch by a stalk and the veins are web-like.

Once sorted, the next round of musical plants involves grouping plants according to family. Naturalists name and describe characteristics of plant families while guests look, touch and smell their green subjects.

This bamboo palm waits to be sorted. Looking closely, you can see bright parallel veins stretching vertically on each leaf. It’s also not woody, so (check the hints above..) you know it’s a monocot. The plant has compound leaves, and with a striking resemblance to a palm, this bamboo palm falls into the Aracaceae, palm, family.

Having categorized these leaves as dicots because of their network of veins, these high school students attempt to identify the family. Members of the Rutaceae, citrus, family often have thorny stems (ouch!) and oil glands, which appear as lighter spots in the leaves. Members of this family also have a citrusy smell if the leaves are crushed. Well done, ladies!

Blog post contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Rancho de Lelo

If you’ve never visited Rancho de Lelo to catch your own tilapia dinner, you’re missing out!

Weekend Snapshot: Mar. 14-15

Last week, two UGA spring break groups celebrated the culmination of their week in Costa Rica with a homegrown, homemade, local dinner at Rancho de Lelo. The tour bus crawled along rocky slopes, weaving through the narrow roads of San Luis. Within twenty back-massaging, bumpy minutes the doors peeled open and music slipped through the cracks, lassoing ears and pulling students from their seats. Lelo himself greeted all in his open air dining hall. Futbol in hand, he beckoned students onto his field where they worked up a sweat before heading to the oval pond. Occasional quivers and ripples would dance across the surface; though in minutes the water would be alive with thrashing waves from fish and fishermen. After strapping on and securing science goggles, teams plunged into the water. Using a seine net, students splashed around with jumping fish, successfully catching their own tilapia dinner!
Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Dalton State College visits UGA Costa Rica

During the first week of March, students from Dalton State College in Dalton, Georgia visited UGA Costa Rica. These enthusiastic, passionate, future teachers, specializing in working with English language learners, spent their spring break student teaching in schools neighboring our campus.

The Dalton group’s objective was twofold: to experience student teaching in the field with English language learners and to yield academic development during down time when kids would otherwise work alone on assignments while waiting for the teacher to wrap up another grade’s lesson.

Let’s step into the classroom with them!

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Weekend Snapshot: Mar. 6-8

My brown paper lunch bag made more noise than me. It crinkled with each gust of cloud forest wind while the not-yet appetizing scent of peanut butter and jelly danced around my nose. At 5:45 am my eyes finally began to adjust to the sleepy dawn, and my ears perked as the grumpy hum of a morning taxi grew louder.

By 6:30 am seat no. 14 on a bus bound for Manuel Antonio was occupied and I was en route to the sight of beautiful beaches and a national park teeming with biodiversity. A number of times I dozed off, hypnotized by the synchronized undulating of everyone aboard, succumbing to the dips and bumps on the twisting mountain road. And of course, while munching on my PB&J sandwich along the way, cliché thoughts of coconut drinks and sand between my toes popped into my mind. But what I couldn’t have dreamed of was the sublime wildlife and flora I would encounter while spending a weekend exploring the rocky beaches and dense forests of Manuel Antonio National Park in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.

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Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Pop Quiz #4!

Test your knowledge on the flora and fauna growing along UGACR campus trails and throughout the Monteverde Cloud Forest here in Costa Rica. You never know when a trivia night will call for tropical ecology facts…

True or False?

The spaces between the horizontal rings on a cecropia tree, Cecropia obtusifolia, indicate how much the tree has grown over the course of a given season.

Cecropia

True.

Typically, wider spaces represent a wetter season and thus more growth, whereas smaller distances between rings mean less growth during the dry season.

Cecropia is a hollow pioneer plant. This means they are among the first to spring up in secondary forests because they require plenty of light. Growing quickly (up to 4 meters per year) and living for about 25-30 years, cecropia trees allow less light-dependent species to sprout in their shade. Because the trees have a short lifespan, they need to be sure to remain healthy; their symbiotic relationship with ants is key for successful longevity. The tree provides housing for the ants and the sugar produced by its leaves acts as ant food. In return, ants protect the tree from all types of predators from monkeys to epiphytes by releasing a formic acid that dispels predators. Not every cecropia tree is home to ants, however; those without symbiosis are likely covered in vines and epiphytes.

Blog contribution by Alex Fylypovych, UGA Costa Rica Photojournalism Intern

Weekend Snapshot: Mar. 1

Night hikes might more aptly be described as slow walks rather than hikes. The campus trails that students get to know by day harbor completely different ecological communities at night.

Colorful, vocal, mixed-flocks of birds retire to their roosts as bats take their turn to forage for choice fruits and insects. We usually preface our hikes with some information about the species we are likely to encounter, sounds we are likely to hear, and how to spot eye shine. We never know what we are going to see, but we usually expect to hear a chorus of cricket and katydid stridulations, punctuated by the chirping of bats. Night hikes are exercises in patience as a dozen flashlight beams scan the forest floor, dense surrounding foliage, and upper canopy for the creatures of the night. As much as everyone (naturalists included!) would love to see an olingo, kinkajou, sloth, or family of bats, it is important to remember that it is the elusive nature and cryptic colorations of many nocturnal species that enhances their survival in this ecosystem of abounding predators and prey.  We expect to see some animals on every hike- usually some of the six-legged varieties- but sometimes you just get lucky!

On Saturday night (March 1st) I led a group of students from Steller Secondary School in Anchorage, Alaska. Our walk began with a silent passage through the small banana forest on the Cecropia Trail.  The leaf-cutter ants were quite active, in spite of the wind and the rain, and we carefully stepped over leaf-cutter ant highways that cross-cut the trails. Eda, our resident Orange-kneed Tarantula, was in her rock cave near the fork of the Sendero Cecropia and Sendero Buho. Orange-kneed Tarantulas (Brachypelma smithi) are indigenous to the tropic and subtropic regions of Central and South America. This particular species is sexual dimorphic. We know Eda is a female because she is has a dark brown coloration and bright orange bands around her legs and abdomen; males have lighter brown or gray bodies with duller orange bands. In contrast to many web-spinning spiders, Orange-kneed Tarantulas are nest builders and prefer to make their homes on the ground in rock caves or piles of leaf litter, from which they can catch the unsuspecting beetle, ant, or small arthropod and hide from predatory army ants and hawk wasps. Despite their frightening appearance, they are relatively harmless and shy. Their first line of defense is to runaway and hide. If seriously threatened, they will rear up on their hind legs and flick urticating hairs from their abdomen at the antagonist. Biting is an expensive, last resort and their bite is less potent than a bee sting. “No one has ever died from a tarantula bite,” I say as we leave Eda’s hideaway.

We found a sleeping, pot-bellied bird with its head tucked snuggly behind its wings, bobbing up and down, seemingly unperturbed by the movement, at the end of a branch. Contrary to what one might think, many birds deliberately sleep at the end of a branch, far from the trunk of the tree. They do this to put more distance between themselves and any snakes which might be lurking around the trunks or at the base of tree limbs. Farther along the trail I found a Phasmid- stick insect – which crawled around my jacket and passed from palm to palm as students held up the insect for closer inspection. Stick insects are one of the quintessential examples of cryptic camouflage. In addition to looking like twigs, some species are able to alter their colorations to blend into their surroundings like a chameleon. Wood ThrushReturning our phasmid to his post, we moved on to the Casita Trails where Steller students spotted many crickets and katydids, all of differing sizes and colors. As we entered the Casita Trails, we also stumbled upon a Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) perched at eye level on a bush. These are migratory birds that spendmost of their non-breeding, winter months in Central and South America, spending most of their time unseen, rummaging for insects in the understory. Later in our walk we found a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina). From afar, the Wood Thrush looks similar to the Swainson’s Thrush. At a mere arm’s length away, however, we could see that the Wood Thrush has a starker white belly with more pronounced dark brown spots and a reddish-brown back. The Swainson’s Thrush’s speckled belly is more subtle and its back and wing feathers have a more cinnamon hue.

Turning toward the moth wall – a hallow of light in otherwise impenetrable darkness – we found an iridescent green beetle with red legs, moths of varying sizes, five glass winged butterflies and a blue morpho butterfly. As students peered through the translucent wings of the butterflies, the brown and seemingly nondescript blue morpho took flight, its wingbeats revealing its brilliant blue coloration.

The coup de grace of Saturday’s night hike was spotting a male and female pair of Orange-bellied Trogons (Trogon aurantiiventris aurantiiventris) perched in a thicket over-hanging the trail. The male has a vibrant orange belly separated by a white line from its dark black-green head and neck. Its long, squared-off tail feathers are one of his most eye-catching features, displaying a horizontal pattern of black and white striations. The female has a paler orange belly and brown head and back. Our close proximity allowed us to see her elliptical white eyeing and yellow beak.

Endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama, this species is commonly found between 700-2300m in northwestern Costa Rica. Trogons are secondary cavity nesters. Lacking the ability to bore holes in trees, they use tree cavities made by woodpeckers. Preferring the lower canopies of secondary and disturbed forests, trogons feed on a variety of fruits and insects. They are sally-glean foragers, meaning they will leave their perch to snatch an insect or fruit and return to their perch, using their heavily serrated bills to chew their meals. Trogons are among the most colorful and, arguably, most beautiful birds in the Neotropics.

Saturday night’s excursion was a testament to the sheer diversity of life in our premontane humid forest life zone. I am glad I was able to share this experience with so many enthusiastic students and budding naturalists. Thank you!

Blog contribution by Hannah E. Durick, UGACR Resident Intern Naturalist
Photo Credit: Jonas Banta, Steller Secondary School Group, Alaska

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