Costa Rica: a visit to the Skutch reserve

February 7, 2012 • 6:30 am

I am way behind in recounting my travels: I haven’t even finished with Spain.  But I do want to describe my visit (along with Dr. Judy Stone) to the Los Cusingos Neotropical Bird Sanctuary in Costa Rica last month. The Sanctuary is in south-central Costa Rica, near the mountains, and is position “C” on the map of my travels given below. (“Los cusingos” is plural for the local name of a bird:  the Fiery Billed Aracari, a lovely toucan shown below the map.)

A fiery billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii)

Los Cusingos is a well-known mecca for birders because it was the home of the famous ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who lived to be only eight days shy of 100 (1908-2008). Trained as a botanist, he travelled widely in Central America.  While working for the United Fruit Company to cure banana disease (see the interview here), Skutch became interested in birds and realized that although the names and ranges of many neotropical birds were well known, their behaviors—particularly their nesting behaviors—were largely unknown.

Skutch, now in love with the tropics, bought a plot of land in 1935, built a small open-air house, and lived there for the rest of his life: 73 years! (Clicking on all photos will enlarge them.)

The Skutch house at Los Cusingos

In 1950 he married Pamela Lankaster, daughter of the British naturalist Charles Lakaster.  By all accounts it was a long and happy marriage, with her devoting a lot of time to improving the land, especially the lovely gardens around the house. She died in 2001, and I found a picture of the two of them on the walls of the house, whose contents haven’t been changed since Skutch’s death.

Alexander Skutch and Pamela Lankaster

Naturalist and artist Manuel Antonio describes Skutch’s contributions to science:

Perhaps the most important contribution that Dr. Skutch made to ornithology was the complete studies of the life habits of close to 300 birds of the american tropic, including the Quetzal, “a bird of superlative beauty”, in his own words. Furthermore, he demonstrated that the procreation of tropical birds is slower than that of the same families in the northern hemisphere. He also studied the dispersion of seeds by birds and mammals.

Even though the study of birds was his priority, he would not omit the observation and description of many other animal species – mammals, insects, reptiles- of the tropical ecosystems which he explored. With his observations, ladened with patience and reflection, he was able to define the associations and interactions that some of these species establish with their environment.

It is important to underscore his contributions to botany. His studies and collections of tropical plants for different museums and botanical gardens resulted in the discovery of species of flora unknown to science. Of great relevance is the study of the crossed reproductive system of the “aguacatillo” (Persea cerulia), and his studies on the Guarumo tree (Cecropia sp.). In recognition to his important contributions to botanical science, many authors have given the name skutchii to the plant species they have discovered.

Dr. Skutch´s observational skills, and his capacity to reflect on the nature of life, led to his writing numerous texts on philosophy and ethics, and his personal meditations on animal and vegetal life. [JAC: Skutch’s last book was Moral Foundations: An Introduction to Ethics (2006)].

However, as important as his studies and his written work for scientists worldwide, is his life and his ideals narrated in his books “The Farm of a Naturalist”, “A Naturalist in Costa Rica”, “The Imperative Call”, and other books of great descriptive power and inmense natural, cultural and historical value.

A simple, unmarked mound of earth marks Skutch’s grave behind the house (I suspect his wife Pamela is buried there, too.)

Let’s look at the house before we get to the surrounding natural wonders. As I said, its contents appear completely unaltered (the local naturalist verified this) since the day Skutch died (I understand that there’s been some reconstruction to restore the house as it was). For example, the bedroom still has the two single beds occupied by Skutch and Lankaster, with their intervening night table.  You can tell who slept on each side of the table!

Here is Skutch’s closet (note that the shoes appear to be the ones he’s wearing in the photo above).  It’s a simple wardrobe, but I wonder why he needed so many ties!

Skutch’s workroom, with the typewriter on which he wrote some of his books:

The family record player, with two of their albums:

Skutch and Lankaster had an extensive library.  All the books are still there, moldering away in the tropical humidity. I took a pictures of some of the interesting volumes:

But Skutch’s interests were wide (I was told these were his books, but of course they could also reflect Lankaster’s interests):

For those of you who don’t know that Ian Fleming took the name of 007, James Bond, from another ornithologist, here’s one of the books, West Indian Birds, by the real James Bond,

Here’s the real James Bond from Wikipedia, which also notes his connection to Fleming:

Ian Fleming, who was a keen bird watcher living in Jamaica, was familiar with Bond’s book, and chose the name of its author for the hero of Casino Royale in 1953, apparently because he wanted a name that sounded ‘as ordinary as possible’. Fleming wrote to the real Bond’s wife, “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.” He also contacted the real James Bond about using his name in the books and Bond replied to him, “Fine with it.” At some point during one of Fleming’s visits to Jamaica he met with the real Bond and his wife as shown in a made for DVD documentary about Fleming. A short clip was shown with Fleming, Bond and his wife. Also in his novel Dr. No Fleming referenced Bond’s work by basing a large Ornithological Sanctuary on Dr. No’s island in the Bahamas. In 1964, Fleming gave Bond a first edition copy of You Only Live Twice signed “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”.

The real James Bond (1900-1989)

The gardens around the house are gorgeous, and replete with hummingbirds. Here are some flowers from that garden: an iris and a ginger (at two stages of development). I’m told that the ginger isn’t native to the New World, and I’m not sure about the iris.

But the surrounding trails of the 180-acre reserve contain much natural vegetation.  Here’s a palm showing “stilt roots,” which have been theorized as a way for a tree to maintain mechanical stability without having to invest in a thick trunk:

A fungus:

Army ants taking advantage of the trail’s constructed edge. (If anyone knows the species, weigh in below.)

Here is a tattered butterfly that has been identified as Eryphanis lycomedon by my friend and tropical butterfly expert Phil DeVries. He also says that the “rip” across the bottom of the hindwings is certainly due to a bird attack, and that the trapezoidal notch on the forewing is probably the remnant of a lizard bite. It’s tough for a tropical butterfly, but some, like this one, manage to survive with considerable damage.

I talked to Phil about the “eyespots” last night. In moths these spots, which appear on the hindwings, are classically thought to induce “startle reactions” in predators: the moth rests with wings open but hindwings covered by the forewings. When a predator (usually a bird or lizard) approaches, the moth uncovers its eyespots, startling the predator since those spots resemble vertebrate predators like owls.  This has been shown to scare away predators.  Here’s a saturnid moth with the “startling” eyespots (photo by Leroy Simon):

Leucanella lynx, a saturnid moth with eyespots

Phil thinks, however, that the eyespots of butterflies like the Eryphanis above have a different function. Unlike moths, these butterflies rest with the wings folded up, and don’t display them in a “startle” response.  Thus the predator sees only one eyespot at a time. Phil thinks, and his students have published on this, that the eyespots are “targets” that deflect a predator’s attention away from the vital body, so that it merely takes a chunk out of the wing.  He and others have shown that the areas of the wing that harbor eyespots are structurally weaker than the rest of the wing, and thus easily torn away. (A butterfly, as you can see above, does pretty well even with sizeable chunks of its hindwings missing.)  The thesis, then, is that weak areas of the wing co-evolve along with the eyespots to enable predators who have already spotted the butterfly to attack less important parts of the body.

The site harbors some really nice pre-Columbian petroglyphs:

And what would a visit to the Skutch reserve be without birds? Here are two that have already been identified by reader John Harshman as a Golden-hooded tanager (Tangara larvata) on the right, and a female Green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spize) on the left.

I’m not sure what this species is, but I am sure that some reader will promptly identify it:

It was a pleasant few hours in the Skutch reserve, but we departed with pressing botanical business further south.

UPDATE:  An alert reader, Peter Scheers from Leuven, Belgium, found a few errors in my post, and has some addenda as well:

Thanks to google alerts I immediately received info about your travel to Skutch’s farm in Costa Rica. I visited the place in January 2011 and really do like your photos (also with his books and so on!) and impressions. As it turns out, I have your own book on my table, waiting to be read.
Just a few remarks: Skutch bought his farm in 1941 (in 1935, Costa Rica became his principal country of residence). The Skutch house as it is now is not exactly as it was before (due to restoration work after 2004; afterwards, most items have been placed back more or less in their original position. Last name of his wife was Lankester. Skutch died on May 12, 2004 (born May 20, 1904). Skutch is indeed buried next to his wife, in the garden. Moral Foundations was published after his death and is, in fact, a manuscript from the 1950´s (also: it already appeared in Spanish translation in 2000). Arguably, Trogons, Laughing Falcons and Other Neotropical Birds (1999) is his real last book (as it was indeed conceived in the same period, not a manuscript written many years before).
I have been working on a selection of unpublished texts by Skutch, which is expected to be published later in 2012 by the Tropical Science Center in San Jose (as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations). This will include a large section with Skutch´s own impressions about the first four years of his stay at Los Cusingos (1941-1945).

24 thoughts on “Costa Rica: a visit to the Skutch reserve

      1. The eyebrows? He usually wore glasses as I recall. He and my Dad would bird together in Pretty Marsh and Seal Cove on Mount Desert Island.

        1. Yep, the eyebrows, but the nose and square jaw, too, just by memory of Connery’s face.

          Cool about Seal Cove, too. My first scientific mentor retired from MDIBL just a few yrs ago.

  1. I’m pretty sure that the other boid is a Tennessee Warbler – a boreal forest breeder that spends winters in the tropics eating fruit and nectar (mostly).

  2. I love your travelogues. They just kind of meander from one interesting thing to another. Kind of the way that I like to travel.

  3. Your ginger pictures are not one species in two stages of development, but two different genera. The first plant, with the scaly pinecone look, is Zingiber spectabilis (I think) and the second one is definitely the torch ginger Etlingera elatior. Neither is native to Costa Rica but they’re widely cultivated. The Etlingera is from SE Asia.

  4. This reminds me of my visits to Costa Rica and the bit of nature watching I was able to do in the mornings before meetings. It’s a wonderful country.

    1. The ants look like the common ‘leafcutter’ ants one sees there, except of course that none of them are carrying leaf sections. Perhaps it’s just their day off?

  5. Beautiful pictures. Costa Rica is next for me for places to go.

    That’s funny about the origin of the name James Bond. I grew up in north Toronto and down the street there was a James Bond United Church. No idea who this James Bond was but Fleming did live in this area shortly after the second world war for a few months. Sounds like just a coincidence to me now. On the other hand, if I was to become religious, I definately be going to the James Bond United Church. What could be more cool.

  6. I’d say those books were Skutch’s, based upon what I know of him. He was a dedicated observer and recorder of the avian community on his land. Unfortunately, in his later years, he became increasingly disturbed upon finding nests that had been predated. Deciding that snakes, in particular, were “evil”, he began to kill every snake he encountered. Sad to reflect that one who did such magnificent work, and celebrated the exuberance of life on his farm, came to find that some of its inhabitants were beyond the pale.

    1. Yes, he was a great observer and an important pioneer who began asking (and testing) interesting questions about nesting behavior, but he did have some strange ideas about snakes.

      I met him around 1999 or so, at a birders’ convention in Costa Rica. ( I was invited to give a talk on why Ecuador is twice as interesting as Costa Rica…) The thing that most impressed me about him was that he had been birdwatching for so much time that his neck nerves were damaged, and he could not lift his head to look at birds any more. What a sad fate for such a person!

    2. Along similar lines, in the interview Jerry links to, Skutch states that one type of bird–hawks–were not welcome at Los Cusingos, as they ate the other birds. So he shot them. Except for the Laughing Falcon, whose presence he encouraged–because it eats snakes!

      Perhaps the growing ecological work on the importance of predation in maintaining diversity did not reach him…

      Lou Jost, in that same interview he alludes to his neck problem. Thanks for filling in the details. How sadly ironic!

      1. Thanks Dian, I had forgotten his hatred of hawks. This was a complicated man. Still, he asked really good questions about nesting behavior, and managed to answer many of them using very simple technology.

        If anybody wants to see what a modern-day version of Skutch looks like, I should mention my friend Harold Greeney, He won the Alexander and Pamela F. Skutch Award in 2005. He did much of his early work with Phil DeVries on butterflies but also has done intense nesting observations of neotropical birds. He built his own scientific station, Yanayacu, in Ecuador:
        Check that site for his publications. He makes (and analyzes) incredible videos of the entire history of each interesting nest he and his students find, often beginning with the early stages of nest construction.

        1. Thank you for that reference! Wonderful site. I’ve filed it away in my folder on the tropics; along with your website, of course.

          It is always inspiring to find the age-old curious naturalist approach still in productive use. (I don’t think I expressed that well.)

  7. I appreciated the photo of the work room, especially with the typewriter that apparently never had the keys cleaned. As Series Editor of the University of Oklahoma Press Animal Natural History Series, I saw the manuscript he typed for his 1997 “Life of the Flycatcher.” It was often hard to distinguish e, o, c, G, etc., since all were solid black circles! Nevertheless, he was a distinguished author of bird books.

  8. Oh, I SO echo daveau’s comments about your travelogues! You take the sorts of photos I would (“moldering books!”), and viewing them captures so much of the Skutches’ way of life. Just look at that hard desk chair…

    A couple of notes–first, according to the Wikipedia article you link to, Skutch’s father-in-law was Charles H. Lankester (not Lankaster). Secondly, the author/artist whose website you quote about Skutch’s scientific contributions is Roy Orozco, not “Manuel Antonio.” Manuel Antonio is the name of a spectacular National Park in Costa Rica, and apparently also may be applied to parts of the nearby countryside between the park and the town of Quepos.

    (It appears that Orozco got his Skutch write-up from the “Tropical Science Center.”)

  9. The first picture depicts a female Green Honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) in the background and a Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata). The second indeed depicts a Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina).

  10. A Polythemus moth wrongly identified as a butterfly on a Flickr image led me to images of a Luna moth to one of yours, the Leucanella lynx. They are BEAUtiful. We speak about beautiful people, but no-one is, really, when compared to these beauts. Must be the eyespots.

    I’m all for Darwinism and have enjoyed a few movies about his journeys and findings.

    Loved your post on the rules of communication in your comments. I am about to complete a post on pot – just for fun – and I sure was going to make it very obvious that I did not want a for and against debate on the post. Why do you not edit ugly language, or not accept it, or don’t you have time for that? I’m new at blogging so was just wondering.

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