For the Birds Radio Program: The Tropics
Ever since I was four years old, teaching myself to read by poring through our 20-volume encyclopedia, I’ve yearned to go to Costa Rica. In the bird article there was a black-and-white photograph of a Resplendent Quetzal. I had no idea what the words meant, or even how to pronounce them, but somehow resplendent sounded … resplendent. Even in black-and-white, the bird’s dramatic beauty touched me profoundly. It’s easy to understand how this magnificent bird with its splendid feathery train was the inspiration for Quetzalcoatl; a god of ancient Toltecs and Aztecs. When I learned that Resplendent Quetzals lived in a place whose name means “rich coast” in Spanish, and then became a birder and learned that Costa Rica, which is smaller than West Virginia, has more species than the US and Canada combined, I yearned to go there.
Now at long last I’m headed to Costa Rica, and am trying to learn as much as I can about this place of my dreams. What is a jungle like? I used to use the words jungle and rainforest pretty much interchangeably, but in my preparation for this trip, I learned they’re quite different. My dictionary defines rainforest as a dense evergreen forest occupying a tropical region with an annual rainfall of at least 100 inches. That same dictionary defines jungle as land densely overgrown with tropical vegetation and trees, but according to John Kricher’s book about the ecology of tropics, jungle has a narrower meaning. Kricher writes in “A Neotropical Companion, “when a rainforest is disturbed, such as by hurricane, lightning strike, isolated tree fall, or human activity, the disturbed area is opened, permitting the penetration of large amounts of light. Fast-growing plant species intolerant of shade are temporarily favored, and a tangle of thin-holed trees, shrubs, and vines results, soon a huge, dense, irregular mass of greenery, or ‘’jungle,” covers the gap created by the disturbance.”
Before I read Kricher’s book, I thought tropical rainforests were dense masses of greenery, but I was wrong. Looking at the photos and reading the book, I learned that rainforest trees are top heavy, and the dense canopy formed by a stand of these trees blocks the sun’s rays so little can grow beneath them, but many species of vines and epiphytes grow within the canopy tree branches. In some places, bridges hang above the canopy so I may see some species at the very top-that is, if l can overcome my fear of heights to walk on them.
Most of Costa Rica is comprised of neither jungle nor rainforest, which are both found at low elevations. Higher up, at about 5,000 feet elevation, a magical habitat called the cloud forest is so moist and so rich in mosses, epiphytes, and tree fems that branches often drop down from the weight. This opens the canopy to light, which in tum causes a profusion of plants growing at the lower levels, rather like a lowland jungle. It is in this cloud forest that the Resplendent Quetzal breeds, along with a host of other gorgeous birds.
It will take me a long time to master the names of 850 species of Costa Rican birds, much less the intricacies of tropical ecology. Just reading about it is makes my heart race-I don’t know how I’ll handle the thrill of witnessing it firsthand. Some people have asked me how I’ll be able to leave tropical lushness to return to winter at trip’s end, but the northland will always have two things that no tropical rainforest or jungle or any other habitat anywhere could ever have. No matter how wonderful Costa Rica proves to be, home for me will always be right here, the place on the planet where I can see good old Blue Jays and chickadees.