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In Light of Earth Day

Blog Post by Amaris Norwood, Intern in our DC Office

A Couple of Purple Passion Flowers; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

A Couple of Purple Passion Flowers; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

It’s Almost Earth Day!

As Earth Day approaches, we can take this time to reflect on the current environmental state of the planet.  From habitat loss to climate change, from poaching to illegal animal trade. Over recent years, we have seen species decline.  At the same time, we’ve seen habitats and species regenerate. Marine restoration, reforestation, and other conservation and preservation efforts are to thank for this.  At times, we’ve even been fortunate enough to discover new species.  

A Serene Sloth Sleeping in a Tree; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

A Serene Sloth Sleeping in a Tree; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

In knowing that the natural world experiences both regression and progression, we can examine the current threats that the planet is facing while learning how and why certain areas have recovered or remained successful.  By staying in tune with current environmental events, whether positive or negative, we can strategize for the future. While understanding how and why certain areas experience success, we can apply this knowledge when finding solutions for struggling areas.

What Can We Do?

There are several approaches individuals, communities, institutions, and governments take when celebrating successes and managing environmental issues.  Some choose more focused, local approaches, where others expand their mission across borders.  When choosing an approach, we must decide how to pave our courses of action.  In my studies, I’ve repeatedly found how the most successful projects incorporate well-rounded knowledge of the issue at hand.  The question that remains is how can we, or a group or an institution of some sort, expand our knowledge on specific ecological issues?

A Puma Gazing Towards the Tree Tops

A Puma Gazing Towards the Tree Tops; Photo taken by Manuel Sanchez

A simple way is staying updated with news reports and further comparing the current environmental state with that of the past.  Other ways include becoming involved in conservation or other environmental quality projects.  Volunteering or other hands-on learning opportunities, for example, provide more immersive educational experiences.  Furthermore, hearing and learning about the perspectives of people living in areas that face or have faced environmental threats is invaluable.  First-hand accounts are crucial for a well-rounded understanding of the current state of the environment.

What’s Happening at Osa Conservation?

In my time at Osa Conservation (OC), I’ve learned how the organization works to educate people, whether through on-site volunteering opportunities or through updating social media followers and subscribers on various environmental successes and projects.  But something I consistently see as a factor in all of OC’s projects is a collaboration with different fields and groups of people.  

A Released Baby Sea Turtle Reaching the Shore; Photo by Frank Uhlig

A Released Baby Sea Turtle Reaching the Shore; Photo by Frank Uhlig

Osa Conservation works with local communities to increase the organization’s understanding of issues the Osa Peninsula faces, as well to properly educate people about these issues.  Furthermore, the organization wouldn’t be able to achieve its conservation successes without its volunteers.  OC’s volunteers, visitors, and research assistants help carry out the organization’s mission and goals by working with projects at the biological station. 

A Green Lizard Lurking on a Branch; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

A Green Lizard Lurking on a Plant; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

Because of these efforts, Osa Conservation can say that within the last year, they’ve planted over 40,000 native trees, helped release 14,700 baby sea turtles, dedicated 46,000 hours towards river education, and are leading one of the largest camera trap networks in Central America.   Though combatting environmental issues can seem intimidating, especially for an individual, we must remember how success cases have triumphed over threats.  As seen above, staying educated on environmental issues, spreading knowledge about these issues, and collaborating with others are the key factors in environmental accomplishments.  If we keep this in mind this Earth Day, and for the rest of the year, we can continue moving forward toward a more environmentally-conscious and preserved world. 

If you feel like getting involved now, consider donating to OC’s causes or joining our workers and volunteers down in the Osa Peninsula!

A Beach in the Osa during Sunset; Photo by Frank Uhlig

A Beach in the Osa during Sunset; Photo by Frank Uhlig

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Journals from Sea Turtle Volunteering

Blog Post by Yoshinari Fukuzawa from Middlebury College

Sunny day on the beach at Osa; Photo by Frank Uhlig

Sunny Day on the Beach at Osa; Photo by Frank Uhlig

Journal 1: The sea turtle eggs were so soft, so delicate.  While we knelt on the warm sand and reached deep into the hole we dug, our hands gently searched for the surface of the eggs.  Once found, we took each out, one by one, clasping the soft shells that individually held a life inside.  Although frightened we might break an egg, we felt thrilled once our fingers came upon the smooth surfaces.  “Mother’s touch,” one of us spoke out, which referenced our roles as a group.  That morning on the beach, we were the mothers of the baby sea turtles.  We were removing them from danger and relocating them to safety.  We were their caregivers.

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Volunteers Searching for Sea Turtle Eggs

However, as we looked east, we saw a coati breaking into another sea turtle nest and eating the eggs inside.  Seeing the animal, our guide told us that we unfortunately couldn’t save the nest.  Even as caregivers, we have our limits.  We could not fend off every animal that preys on sea turtle eggs. Regardless, that experience gave us motivation to do better and try harder while working with Osa.

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Cluster of Baby Sea Turtles Before Venturing into the Ocean

Journal 2: On Friday, we rolled out of the bed at five in the morning and slowly made our way to the beach with our guide and another group.  Taking off our boots and flip flops, we entered the hatchery and walked toward the protected nests containing baby sea turtles. “Olive Ridley species,” our guide told us.  After this brief introduction to the species, we got down to business.  Taking turns, we took the sea turtles out of their nests and placed them into a bucket.

Throughout this process, the sea turtles were scrambling and climbing on top of each other and faced toward the ocean, eager to start their journey into the crashing waves.  Once we placed the last turtle in the bucket, we left the hatchery and headed toward the shore.  A bird cawed above us on a tree.  We took the baby turtles out one by one, hoping that predators would not come swooping down.  Once we placed them on the warm sand, the energetic turtles started making a beeline into the blue water.

The ocean started to tease them by engulfing them but not carrying them along with the tide.  After the sea turtles stroked their flippers a few more times, the waves crashed and covered them once again.  However, this time, the turtles were taken into the water.  We stood behind the crawling little creatures, keeping watch until the last one was finally welcomed by the blue-green sea.  We could then say that we safely sent the sea turtles on their way to their home, the ocean.  I wonder how many of them will survive into adulthood and create more sea turtles to continue the cycle.

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A Baby Sea Turtle About to Begin Its Great Adventure

The sun was shining brightly in the sky and the waves crashed loudly onto the soft sands of the beach.  From there I, along with my group, walked back to the station with the sound of the ocean following us.  I hope for the best for the baby sea turtles as they embark on their new adventure.

 

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Immersion

Blog Post by Sarah Karerat from Middlebury College

The beach during sunset at Osa; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

The beach during sunset at Osa; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

While spending our first night in our cabina at Osa, I awoke in the middle of the night to the noises that surrounded us.  The howler monkeys were screeching, rain was pouring, and I could hear insects and the Pacific Ocean crashing against the coast. I remember thinking that I may as well be sleeping outside.  During my stay, I truly felt like there was no barrier between me and the outdoors.  It felt incredible. What I experienced that night and every other night was total immersion, a term that I think applies to every moment I spent in the Osa.

On our very first day, we put on our rubber boots and ventured out to the trails. With staff member Rachel, we learned about the biodiversity that surrounded us.  On another day, we walked in the humid heat through the fields of balsa trees.  Here, we identified birds in the area for rewilding research.  Then on Monday and Thursday, we helped out at Osa’s sustainable farm with tasks like husking corn for the animals and flipping the soil.  Our work was a small way we contributed to its massive conservation efforts.

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Hummingbird overlooking the dense forest of the Osa; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

 

One of Osa's nature trails through the forest; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

One of Osa’s nature trails; Photo by Manuel Sanchez

None of this was immersion without a purpose.  With every activity came a dedicated, in-depth explanation from a staff member of why these tasks and projects mattered.  We were aware of how every action carried the weight of impact, specifically on conservation efforts.  I am grateful for the patience and care of the staff members who took the time to explain their work to nine college students from various walks of life.

Though we had only a week at Osa Conservation, it was enough time to feel immersed in the heart of the organization.  Our knowledge expanded exponentially in so many directions.  We learned about biodiversity, conservation, ethical community service models, the inner workings of a nonprofit, Costa Rican culture, and more. Not only did we learn, but we also lived immersed in the pura vida lifestyle. We swam in the river during breaks, experienced the patience and flexibility of the staff, and ate delicious central American food for each meal.

When arriving at the remote Osa Peninsula, I was unsure of what to expect.  What could the team and I even achieve in one week?  Luckily, Osa Conservation threw us into the thick of the organization, culture, and environment, which pushed me intellectually and physically.  I will continue to think about the unique ways in which it challenged me to grow.

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Dutchman’s Pipes: Velvet Traps and their Pollinators

Blogpost written by Marvin López, Botanical Specialist

Flowers of Aristolochia goudotii, commonly called pipevine, in its natural habitat. It is a woody, evergreen, twining vine of the birthwort family that produces unusual apetulous flowers, each of which features a calyx resembling a dutchman’s pipe.

Flowers of Aristolochia goudotii, a plant commonly called pipevine, in its natural habitat. It is a woody, evergreen, twining vine of the birthwort family that produces unusual apetulous flowers, each of which features a calyx resembling a dutchman’s pipe.

I have lived most of my life here, in the Osa Peninsula, one of the places with the most extensive forest cover of my country, Costa Rica. It holds a vast diversity of plant species, some of which are still unknown to the scientific world. There have been many changes in the region but, unfortunately, some of them like the population growth and soil degradation have not been good for the local flora and fauna.

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Aristolochia leuconeura, growing in the nursery. This plant is characterized by its pretty glabrous cordate leaves with leaf veins in white.

I started working in the forest almost 9 years ago and since my first day, I have not stopped learning about the flora of the region; every day I learn something new. Last year, I had the honor of joining the staff of Osa Conservation to work on the conservation of plants and their ecological processes. I have spent every New Year’s Eve in this unique place, in the middle of the rainforest, because I like to give myself lots of time to admire the vast diversity of plants. One of them is a vine full of flowers, the genus Aristolochia, commonly known as Dutchman’s pipes.  The species in this genus are characterized by a stunning pollination process. It is also said that these plants are carnivorous, but they only trap flies and other insects for a day then release them.

Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) section in the nursery.

Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) section in the nursery.

Their flowers have a tubular shape with a wide base that allows them to capture insects. The first flowering day, the flowers emit an intense perfume that smells like rotten meat to attract their pollinators. The flies then travel down the flower tube to where the receptive female part is located. The flies will get trapped inside of the flower, unable to escape due to the hairs that cover the inside. The second day, only when the flower have been pollinated, the smell disappears and the hairs wither as the floral tube widens, freeing the flies that get covered in pollen on their way out. Then, the flies will go inside another flower with fertile female organs, get trapped and pollinate the flower thanks to the pollen they were carrying. Finally, they escape the next day to start the process from the beginning.

Marvin labeling Aristolochia goudotii, in the nursery.

Marvin labeling Aristolochia goudotii, in the nursery.

In the Osa Peninsula, there are approximately 6 species of Aristolochia. We have been able to collect 3 species and plant them in the greenhouse. We will keep looking for more species in order to learn more about this wonderful plant and its ecological interaction with flies.

I would also like to encourage all of you to come and visit the Osa Peninsula during this season because, like this plant, many others develop flowers with beautiful and striking colors. It is a present that nature gives to our eyes. During these hot months, there is nothing better than finding a tree with good shade to lay down under, rest and enjoy the beautiful landscapes and sunsets of the Osa.

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Why Everyone Should Care About Rainforests

Post by Philip Przybyszewski, DC Office Intern.

A view of the far-reaching canopy and the Pacific Ocean from up above.

A view of the far-reaching canopy and the Pacific Ocean from up above.

No, this isn’t just an issue for raving environmentalists. This is a big deal for everyone. Even though they only cover 2% of the Earth’s surface, they are of utmost importance to all species, particularly humans.

Tropical rainforests are the wettest, most vegetation-intense biomes in the world, so densely-grown that a canopy is formed that weaves together the ecosystem into a far-spanning green landscape. Incredibly, this ecosystem is said to sustain over 50% of the world’s species. Often, these species are endemic, meaning they only inhabit these specific regions covered by rainforest. The diversity in the kinds of species present is unbelievable: from primates to felines, amphibians to insects.

A Capuchin monkey scours the tall trees and swing through its habitat in the canopy. Photo by Manuel Sánchez.

A Capuchin monkey scours the tall trees and swings through its habitat in the canopy. Photo by Manuel Sánchez.

For humans, rainforests are vital in diminishing the impact of climate change, as the dense vegetation absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen. Rainforest plants store the carbon emitted from human economic activity and offset the key negative impact of fossil fuels on the environment. Despite the clear service provided by this ecosystem to all species on Earth, their presence is dwindling, with an estimated 78 million acres lost every year, deforested to make room for hydroelectric dams, agricultural development, and mining operations. In the process of these globally-significant economic activities, humans destroy carbon-holding vegetation and simultaneously release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while eliminating one of the Earth’s best ways of storing it away.

The tropical wet forest of the Osa Peninsula is incredibly rich in vegetation. Here is just one angle covered by a camera trap.

The tropical wet forest of the Osa Peninsula is incredibly rich in green vegetation. Here is just one angle covered by a camera trap.

The Osa Peninsula is predominantly classified as a tropical wet forest, the biome most conducive to the flourishing of a rainforest. This small part of Costa Rica, alone, has over 300 species found nowhere else in the world and has the most intact system of mangrove forests and wetlands in all of Central America. Protecting tropical rainforests has been a local priority with global significance: rainforest health not only preserves the habitat of thousands of species, but also mitigates the negative impacts of unsustainable human economic development. The decisions of a geographically-limited few affect everyone, in the sense that Osa Conservation’s mission to preserve and protect the tropical rainforest of the Osa plays a small, but important part in the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Massive, rain-carrying clouds form and unleash torrents of water daily in this topical environment. The intensive growth of the rainforest would be impossible without the sustenance provided by the beautiful thunderheads in the distance.

Massive, rain-carrying clouds form and unleash torrents of water daily in this tropical environment. The intensive growth of the rainforest would be impossible without the sustenance provided by the beautiful thunderheads in the distance.

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Buzzing about Stingless Bees

Blogpost written by Sydney Denham, Conservation Volunteer

Sydney's favorite stingless bee nest

Sydney’s favorite stingless bee nest.

Studying bees can be tedious work, but not because of needing to carefully avoid the stingers. The bees I’ve been observing (thankfully) lack them, making it easy to get up close and personal with my little buzzing friends. Rather than getting stung, this work is difficult because the nests are very challenging to find.

I’ve learned that field biology is not just recording data vast quantities of data all day. First, the subject must be found to be analyzed, which is easier said than done. In the case of the stingless bees, romping through the thick jungle searching every nook and cranny for the small tube-like hives is the real challenge. The study is an exploration of the relationship between stingless bees and their local ecosystems and their role in pollinating native plant species, particularly vanilla. More knowledge about these bees could potentially lead to the harvesting of their medicinal honey by local farmers and conservationists.

Johan and Luis point out a bees nest.

Johan and Luis point out a bees nest.

It is as exciting as finding buried treasure when we spot one of the hives. My pencil glides across my field notebook to record the finding, and I get to work observing any behavioral patterns that could be significant to the study. I craftily set up a log bench at the base of a tree and observe a hive to really get to know the bees. Not knowing what might turn out to be important, I jot down any activity that could come across as useful information.

I really feel like a scientist, designing timed experiments and collecting a few small samples to take back to the lab for identification and further investigation. The study is in its early stages, making it very open-ended. Hilary Brumberg (Rios Saludables program coordinator and the leader of our bee expeditions), a few other Costa Rican and international volunteers, and I brainstorm methods to make the study as logical and effective as possible. Having a say in the study design makes me feel involved on a whole new level with the team here at Osa Conservation.

Equipped with my waterproof notebook, sample collection supplies, and hiking gear, the budding biologist in me is ready to take on the jungle and all its buzzing little critters.

Bee team volunteers Sydney, Rachel, Luis, and Johan during an expedition.

Bee team volunteers Sydney, Rachel, Luis, and Johan during an expedition.

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Gliding Tree Frog Frenzy

Blogpost written by Manuel Sánchez, Sea Turtle Program Coordinator and Wildlife Photographer

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The first rains.

After six long months of the dry season, strong downpours have returned at last to wake the forest once more, and with them return the creatures that hid away from the rainless weather. The first glass frogs (Neobatrachia centrolenidae) begin to sing in the creeks and rivers, the water level gradually rising with the first floods of the year. The rainy season advances across in a roaring song, and various amphibian species begin to search for water pools or swamps in which to lay their eggs. Throughout my whole time in the Osa, I most anxiously await the opportunity to watch the reproductive explosion of a species of red-eyed frog, the gliding tree frog (Agalychnis spurrelli). It’s an event that leaves me speechless: thousands of frogs congregate to lay their eggs. The first time I saw the spectacle, I stayed for the entire day, along with other animals that mirrored my interest; predators stayed day and night as I watched. For the past three years, I’ve visited this place annually and every time I stay for hours on end to see these frogs and contemplate the incredible species which we have in our forest.

The rainy season will always be my favorite. And even though the water might be a little much, that’s how our rainforest is sustained!

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Young Citizen Scientist: From Butterflies to Pumas

Blogpost written by Eli Boreth,  9 years old Conservation Volunteer

This Butterfly Isn’t Blue

Courtesy of Active Wild

Credit: Active Wild

 

This is a Blue Morpho Butterfly. This butterfly lives in tropical and neotropical (which are slightly drier) rainforests in Mexico and Central America, and throughout South America.

Although this butterfly looks blue, it has no blue pigment. It appears blue because of how its wing scales are structured. The wing scales are made up of cells that are shaped like Christmas trees. When light bounces off the “branches” of these cells, some of it bounces off the top and some off the bottom of each branch. The colors within the light waves then intersect and cancel out so they don’t reach your eye, except for blue light.  

The wavelength of blue light is the perfect size so that when it bounces off the “branches” the waves travel parallel to each other and reach your eye.

But that doesn’t give them their incandescent blue. That’s because the scales also have cells that absorb green and red light to make it even more blue.

I Built a Cat at Osa Conservation

Puma skeleton

While my family and I were with Osa Conservation, we built a puma skeleton that was found in a tree. The puma was a juvenile. The people who found it think that maybe this puma was hunting a bird or monkey, then it slipped and caught its neck in a “V” of the tree where it died.

When we got to Osa Conservation, the puma bones were in a box. The “wild cat guy” with Osa Conservation, Juan Carlos, helped us start  building the skeleton and was excited for us to finish it on our own. We started the second week that we were volunteering with Osa Conservation, and finished it a few weeks later.

While we were building the skeleton, we learned a lot about the anatomy of cats and how perfectly all of a cat’s bones fit together. We also saw that the front foot was larger than the back foot. Also, behind the rib cage and ALL the way to the pelvis there are no bones! It was also really cool that because the puma was climbing when it died, I could see the retractable claws!

The following week, we were going to construct a Tamandua Anteater skeleton that Juan Carlos had buried a couple years ago, but we couldn’t find where he had buried the bones or perhaps something had moved them!

 

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Christmas Bird Count 2017 – Birding in the Osa

Blogpost written by Eleanor Flatt, Restoration and Biodiversity Monitoring Research Field Assistant and Birder.

Black-cheeked ant tanager, endemic to the Osa Peninsula; photo by Manuel Sanchez

Black-cheeked ant tanager, endemic to the Osa Peninsula; photo by Manuel Sanchez

In the 1900’s, the first Audubon Christmas Bird Count was conducted in 25 areas with 27 birdwatchers in the US & Canada. 100 years later, the tradition has expanded to over 2,200 areas in 20 different countries. The Osa Peninsula is one of these locations and this year marked its 8th annual Christmas Bird Count. Data collected from Christmas Bird Counts form long-term bird population studies. These are used by scientists to detect bird declines from habitat disturbances and climate change.

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The Christmas Bird Count is a 24-hour event that occurs every year in December/January. In 2017, we were excited to work with partners to coordinate the First Junior Christmas Bird Count highlighted in a previous blog, as well as to continue this traditional Christmas Bird Count with community members of all ages. On Saturday, 16th December, 2017, volunteer citizen scientists headed out at the break of dawn all over the Osa Peninsula to count birds and became part of a long-running tradition. Participants included private landowners, eco-lodges, NGOs, local guides, national parks, and travel companies. Our team was 1 of 16 initiatives participating this year.

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Our bird count team was up before the sun, beginning the birding at 5am. The team split into groups to survey several habitat types; primary forest, secondary forest, plantation forest, swamp, restored wetland, and abandoned pastureland. This was to ensure we captured a result that reflected the diverse bird fauna in the Osa Peninsula, a global biodiversity hotspot. Birding continued throughout the day until the evening, with all teams finishing at the rock pools to watch the sun settle over the ocean.

Our team walked a total of 30km, actively birded for a total of 12hrs and recorded a total of 142 bird species! This included the Golden-Winged warbler that was featured wearing a Christmas hat for the Christmas Bird Count 2017 logo. We recorded endemic species such as the black-cheeked ant tanager. Also, a spectacular sighting of the white-tailed kite! This data all goes towards valuable birding databases, like Cornell’s eBird, which has designated Osa Conservation’s properties as an official birding hotspot.

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We want to thank all the Osa Conservation’s volunteers, staff, friends and families that joined us to make this day successful. We wonder how many species we will get next year.

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Ornithology & Neuroscience: A Student Research Experience

Blogpost by Patrick Newcombe, Volunteer and Student Researcher

My time at Osa Conservation’s biological station was an incredible experience, full of birds, nature, and exploration in the tropical rainforest. It was particularly meaningful as I got to follow up on my highschool ornithology research in the Osa and present it at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C.

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Society for Neuroscience Conference

Over 30,000 people from 80+ countries attended the annual meeting, which filled DC’s convention center. I presented a poster that included my research on the elaborate courtship displays that manakins use to attract their mates in the Osa. As scientists walked by my scientific poster, they were eager to learn more about my findings!

 

Newcombe's poster on his research

Newcombe’s poster on his research

As a part of my summer research, I hiked the trails around the biostation searching for manakin “leks” – a term used to describe the gathering of two or more males performing courtship displays. I found that for each of three manakin species found in the Osa – including Red-capped, Blue-crowned, and Orange-collared –  each one frequented and displayed in different habitats.

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Red-Capped Manakin, by Manuel Sanchez

The Orange-collared Manakin lived in secondary growth forest, within meters from trees that remain from plantations that previously occupied the same land. This was really interesting as it illustrates Osa Conservation’s success in reforestation and the importance of not just preserving existing rainforest, but also re-growing new rainforest, which is valuable for birds such as the Orange-collared Manakin! I also found Red-capped Manakins in primary forest, although they were near the borders with secondary growth. Blue-crowned Manakins were in both primary and well-established secondary growth rainforest.

 

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Students at the Society for Neuroscience Conference

 

Overall, I had a great time doing my research in the Osa and enjoyed being able to present what I found in the field to bring together ornithology and neuroscience at a conference in DC! What an experience!

 

Note: Patrick visited Osa earlier this year and is part of the Sidwell School’s Upper School’s BRAIN Club. Click here to learn more about the students and their “Biological Research and Investigations in Neuroscience” Club!