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Levin: Costa Rica Revisited

Except for the twice-yearly pulse of migratory birds that pass through Mesoamerica and a roster of New England birds that winter in the tropics, Vermont and Costa Rica are quite literally a world apart. But recently, while I was roaming nine days through the cloud forest and along the humid central Pacific coast, I discovered a rather profound similarity between my home state and the Central American isthmus. Make no mistake... Costa Rica is overwhelmingly tropical. Ever the list-maker, I recorded 137 species of birds, with none more stunning than the laughing falcon, a buff and black-colored, snake-eating raptor of the lowland jungles.

Another bird, the royal flycatcher, sported a narrow, red-speckled crown. Crown closed, the flycatcher looked like the head of a hammer; open, a slice of watermelon.

I recorded eight species of mammals, including monkeys, sloths, peccaries, and eight species of reptiles, including a jumbo crocodile named Osama and a striped palm pit-viper, three loops of a leaf-green snake, fat-bodied and venomous, coiled on a horizontal branch, directly overhead.

One encounter with a tropical creature I could have done without was being twice stung by the same scorpion, an arachnid the size of a small lobster.

One night, flashlight in hand, I was surprised to come across a wood thrush asleep on a low limb, just off trail. And one morning, I watched a Swainson’s thrush scratch around the forest floor looking for tidbits, building up fat reserves for a return flight to its boreal breeding grounds, perhaps even on Mount Ascutney.

But what really cemented the connection for me between Vermont and Costa Rica was this: a volcanic mountain range in southeastern Costa Rica called the Cordillera de Talamanca, the summits of which separate the water-logged Caribbean jungles from the nearly as saturated Pacific lowlands. Once actually glaciated, the Cordillera has a well-defined treeline, wide ice-gouged valleys, and moraines.

At the end of the Ice Age, approximately 10,000 years ago, three familiar migratory Vermont birds stayed behind in those mountains where they evolved unique races or species acclimated to the high-altitude tropics. Red-tailed hawks hunt the treeless summits, hairy woodpeckers search for morsels in the bark of elfin oaks, and pecking through the leaf-litter are volcanic juncos - a direct descendent of the dark-eyed junco, transformed through thousands of years of isolation and mutation.

Unfortunately, Vermont and Costa Rica also apparently share in the current effects of climate change. I found no clouds in the cloud forest, and no rain in the rainforest.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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