Natural Moments That Make A Difference

A Passion for Conservation, Exploration, Writing, and Photography

Posted on: June 30th, 2021

Executive Director’s Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #46

Iconic species like this Cecropia tree in the rainforests of Costa Rica support many species of wildlife and provide opportunities for learning from the encounters.

The life of a naturalist is filled with exploration, discovery, and wonder. The moments that leave a mark in one’s psyche tell stories that go beyond the details of the moment, extending into experiences that stay with someone for a long time, often for a lifetime. Sometimes, these experiences take you in new directions you never  imagined, and the impact is often seen years later. I have shared some of these personal experiences in this blog before (for example, the essay on midges featured in the March Wildlife Wonders newsletter). While the experience may seem esoteric and even strange, learning about the richness of an encounter with a wild animal or a person that studies it or cares for it can shape the way we see ourselves, our careers, passions, and future involvement and relationship with nature. The essence of Lindsay Wildlife Experience is built on these moments: experiences with animals and their stories, which engage us intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. Every visit to Lindsay, to a new natural area, or an encounter with a wild animal has the potential to be exciting, interesting, and emotional at the very least; at best, the experience can be transformative.

Here is one encounter that left a deep mark and impression on me some years ago, while living embedded in the chaotic and wild richness of a Central American rainforest.

The beginning of one of many miles of rainforest trails at the La Selva Research Station in Costa Rica. The Three Rivers Trail holds many surprises for the first-time visitor as well as the experienced biologist.

It was one of those days where I took time away from the busy schedule of meetings and administration of the La Selva Research Station to immerse myself for a couple of hours in the extraordinary setting of the wet and quiet rainforest. I walked down a trail deeper and deeper into the forest, sunlight filtering through the dense canopy creating a kaleidoscope of light spots and shadows. I knew this rainforest well, having worked as a researcher there for over half a decade. This tangled jungle never stopped surprising me. I had walked this trail probably a thousand times since I first arrived at the research station, and every time, without exception, I saw something I had never seen before. An insect, a plant, an interaction between an animal and its prey or host plant. The stories had been endless, and the fascination ever-growing. After an hour’s walk, I stepped off the muddy trail, following a hunch. I had seen a patch of Heliconia plants a few days before, their broad leaves looking like small versions of banana leaves. A leaf on one of the plants had collapsed, its central vein damaged by a creature that every visitor to the rainforest longs to see. This particular day, I approached the plant slowly and silently so as not to disturb the treasure hidden by the folded leaf.

Heliconia plants look like small banana trees. Here, one of the leaves has been modified by the creature of our story.

There was no movement within, and not even a gentle breeze stirred the leaves. The heat was palpable, and my sweat sat there, soaking my clothes and sticking to my skin, moisture that would not evaporate in the calm, humid air. I kneeled near the base of the plant, took a peek under the folded leaf, and saw small movements. They were there, slightly disturbed by my sudden appearance in their field of view. I could actually see their silhouettes when the subdued rays of sunlight hit the leaves. I retreated a couple of steps to prepare my approach. I laid on my back on the wet leaf litter, camera in hand, and slowly scooted forward, inches at a time until my head was right under the leaf tent. I looked through my camera’s viewfinder and saw the creatures: a cluster of Ecuadorian white bats, Ectophylla alba. They were resting under their leaf tent that they themselves made, waiting for nighttime to fly off into the forest and forage for ripe fruit.

Silhouettes of the tent-making white bats.
Under the natural light, filtered through the leaves, the bats look like green bumps (left). A soft amount of light directed towards the bats revealed their while pelage and cute faces (right).

They were tiny, smaller than a golf ball when cuddled with each other; five of them, tightly clustered. One was smaller and grayish, a juvenile, probably still nursing, snuggled closely against the body of its mother. Under the natural light filtered through the leaf surface, they looked like green bumps on the plant, their fluffy white coats reflecting the filtered light in a stunning camouflage display. With the aid of a small light, I snapped a couple of photos, and their whiteness became evident. I retreated slowly from under their shelter, careful not to disturb them, exhilarated by the moment. I looked forward to studying the images showing the exquisite detail of their anatomy on my computer. One of 70 species of bats that live in this rainforest, the white bats still hold a special place in my heart. They feed on wild figs and other small fruits, spreading the seeds through the forest. Their life history is as extraordinary as their looks, and I’ve spent many hours researching, reading, and learning about how they connect to the cacophony of life in this endangered ecosystem.

Atsá, Lindsay’s resident Bald Eagle, wows visitors every day with her beauty, her calls, and her personality.

Years later, at Lindsay, I experienced similarly exciting and stimulating encounters with our animal ambassadors. Fresh in my mind is my first visit to Atsá the Bald Eagle’s enclosure, hearing her high-pitched call, and seeing the whiteness of her head plumage, and her huge talons and strong yellow beak. She immediately reacted to me. We made eye contact for a few seconds, a direct connection to my soul that increased my heart rate and made me feel emotional and touched. I knew well the Bald Eagle’s story as a long-threatened species, including their struggles to overcome the impacts of our careless disposal of dangerous chemicals into their environment, which nearly drove some of California’s wild Bald Eagle population to the brink of extinction. Entranced by the close encounter, my brain scanned through years of knowledge about the species, its habits, distribution, their significance to our culture and national pride, and how much they still need our help to recover and thrive in a changing and dangerous world. Every species in Lindsay’s live collection tells a similar but unique story; every encounter with each of them is an opportunity to learn about our precious biodiversity and our role in their survival and protection. Our animal ambassadors are an open and accessible book of knowledge about our challenges as a society to coexist in some form of balance with the extraordinary biodiversity around us.

In her new Eagle Eyrie habitat, Atsá moves freely, unattached to a perch, enjoying a bath in her pond, or looking over from a branch at the park below.

Encounters like this make my work as a biologist, photographer, and storyteller an exciting personal activity, and complement my professional work leading non-profit organizations and my lifelong love for nature and wildlife. The survival of species like the Bald Eagle, the Ecuadorian white bats, and the tens of thousands of species that populate the remaining rainforests of the world and the rich and diverse ecosystems of California depend on our knowledge, appreciation of, and commitment to their protection. All of these species play unique and vital roles in the stability of the world’s ecosystems. People—including those that live far away from the tropics or that seldom venture into the depths of our local natural areas—depend on the health of all ecosystems for their own sustainable development. By learning more about the world’s biodiversity, we can become better stewards of nature and wildlife. My passion for conservation is fueled by the knowledge that everyone can play a role, no matter how small, to save the precious, irreplaceable, and extraordinary life on this unique blue planet.

Let me know how you are finding your passion and your role in preserving our nature and wildlife wonders.

Carlos L. de la Rosa
Executive Director