A Bridge to the Clouds
I have been told that the season changes throughout a day here in Costa Rica. The early morning offers clear blue skies for a short time until rising mist quickly envelops the cordilleran cloud forest. By noon or early afternoon the rain comes with a fury, and the many rivers and creeks of this region rush and tumble down the steep slopes of the Talamanca to the Pacific Ocean. Night falls abruptly here - in one moment a gray-blue light fades to a blinding darkness and by morning's first light the skies will be blue again.
It's like a fantasy for any naturalist here in the montane cloud forest of the tropics. Life is teeming in every little nook and cranny and a pervasive organic aroma ceaselessly permeates my nostrils. Strange noises, frightening insects, musical chatter in the canopy, and structural forest diversity beyond comprehension all mark my first impressions of this region. I am ecstatic and overjoyed to finally be here.
The photo above is taken above the Cloudbridge waterfall in the Cloudbridge Nature Reserve near San Gerardo de Rivas, Costa Rica. The two men in the foreground, Mathias and Dennis, are my roommates from Holland. We stay in a rustic cabin not far from where this photo was made
The great surprise to many is that much of this reserve was formerly degraded cattle pasture. In 2002, Ian and Genevieve Giddy purchased a 60 hectare (148 acre) cattle farm adjacent to Chirripó National Park in southern Costa Rica. It was later expanded with the purchase of six small ranches to encompass a total of 283 hectares (700 acres). Of this, only 28 hectares (70 acres) were originally primary cloud forest.
The location of Cloudbridge Nature Reserve in southern Costa Rica. It borders the largest protected area in Central America, which includes La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that extends into northern Panama. This map was taken from the Cloudbridge Reserve website: http://www.cloudbridge.org/the-project/
The couple's mission is to eventually reforest the property through volunteer tourism while creating a sanctuary for ongoing scientific research.
I am here to document the reserve's bird diversity while developing a database with CyberTracker software that can be accessed and used on a personal digital assistant (PDA) device. This database will record the GPS location of bird sightings, species-specific information, observation details, vocalizations, and photos. Not only will it assist with identification in the field but it will provide a foundation for tracking changes in bird populations within the reserve.
After completing my month-long stay at Cloudbridge, I observed a total of 160 species of birds. Here is a link to my finished report:
Below I've photo-documented some of the diversity that can be found near our cabin, two miles from the entrance of the reserve along the Gavilanes Trail.
The Talamanca mountains of the Cloudbridge Nature Reserve and surrounding Chirripó National Park. The peak in the back is 3600 m (11,811 ft) Mount Uran
This beautiful flower is known as Pavon de montaña (Razisea spicata). It is a member of the family Acanthaceae. It grows in the understory of the cloud forest
We observed several python millipedes (Nyssodesmus python) crawling across the trails at Cloudbridge. Each body segment has two pairs of legs, unlike the carnivorous centipedes that have one pair of legs per body segment. When threatened, the python millipede will curl up in a ball and secrete an odiferous liquid containing hydrogen cyanide and benzaldehyde
It seemed like every morning we could hear the black-handed spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) swinging through the treetops above the roof of the cabin. Here, a female carries her baby on her back
Preparing for a good night's sleep in the Gavilan cabin. It takes about an hour to hike to this cabin from the entrance of the reserve. It is Cloudbridge's most remote housing accommodation. Once the candles were blown out, we could hear the many mice running across the windowsills and tabletops
This wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) was found on a leaf outside our cabin. This bug truly looks like a metalic robot, with its long, slow-moving legs and a large hemi-circle on its back. Wheel bugs are true bugs, or Hemipterans, and can be found all throughout North and Central America. They are part of the Reduviidae family, which include the assassin bugs that spread Chagas disease
My guess is that this is a South American milksnake (Lampropeltis micropholis) but I can't be too sure. There are many species of Coral and False Coral snakes in the tropics, the latter mimicking the lethally venemous former, and there is no sure way to tell them apart. In North America, one can get by with the phrase "Red next to black, you're in the clear Jack, Red next to yellow, you're a dead fellow" but this cannot be relied upon in the tropics. I kept my distance from this serpent
This emerald swift (Sceloporus malachitus) made its home under and on the front porch of our cabin at Gavilan. This lizard is the southern-most representative of a genus that is widespread among the U.S., Mexico, and Northern Central America
The slate-throated redstart (Myioborus miniatus) is a widespread warbler in the tropics. It is commonly found in foothills and mountain forests throughout Central and South America
The five-star orchid (Epidendrum radicans) is a common roadside weed at middle elevations in Central America. Although not taxonomically related to milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), there is speculation that this orchid evolved similar physical characteristics to milkweeds by being subjected to similar ecological pressures, a process known as convergent evolution
Trees in the tropical cloud forest are covered with moisture-loving epiphytes. Here, a Tillandsia bromeliad clings to the side of a giant emergent canopy tree. Bromeliads (Family Bromeliaceae, also known as the pineapple family) are easily recognized by their rosette-like leaf arrangement that capture water and provide small pools for insects and larvae which later become food for frogs, snakes, and even some species of land-dwelling crabs
I took this photo upon returning home from a bird survey early one morning on the Uran Trail. Stepping over muddy slabs in the trail, bouncing from slippery rocks to slick roots, I gazed intently on the ground before me and was taken aback with this alien sight. No other animal in the world has a track quite like it: four toes in the front (most often only three show) and three equally-spaced toes on each hind foot. Central America's largest wild mammal, the Baird's tapir (Tapirus bairdii) had happened upon this spot not long before me. Belonging to the Paridactly family, the tapir is a close relative of the rhino and horse, only it has a short, elephant-like proboscis that it uses to gather plants. Maybe it was returning from a regular bout of water defecating, an odd behavior that may have evolved to more effectively conceal their scent, reducing detection from predators like the jaguar (Felis pardalis) and puma (Puma concolor). The reserve manager Tom tells me that this is the first discovery of a Baird's tapir within the reserve limits
There are certain moments in life I'll never forget, like the time I saw my first resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) land in a tree across from the cabin's front porch. The colors of this "God of the Air" were so vibrant that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming
This is a great overview of the reserve and what is currently (summer of 2020) happening there
Sadly, Ian Giddy passed away from cancer in 2009. His wife Genevieve (Jenny) continues to manage the reserve. Ian has undoubtedly left behind an inspiring legacy. The positive impact of the work that has been done over the years at Cloudbridge can be seen from these before and after photos:
Before and after reforestation at Cloudbridge Nature Reserve. Photos taken from the Cloudbridge Reserve website: http://www.cloudbridge.org/the-project/reforestation/
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected Cloudbridge Reserve, making it difficult for them to meet monthly expenses, much less meet their goals. If you can afford to do so, please consider donating to help Cloudbridge obtain their goals of building a more sophisticated research lab and expanding the reserve to allow for more habitat connectivity. Their crowdfunding campaign can be found here: