First Moments in Costa Rica – A Student Adventure

The front porch at the student center provided peace, quiet and tropical jungle at our footsteps.

  • Tropical Rain Forests, Ecology and Coffee
  • Endless Valleys, Lush Flora, Warm Climate Fauna
  • Chalupas, Refried Beans, Pico de Gallo, Guacamole, Gallo Pinto…Delicious Food
The lush mountains of Costa Rica offer uninhabited jungle,  small villages and pristine, clean air.

By Kiley Voss

The word “surreal” had been in my vocabulary several few weeks before leaving the United States. As the plane slowly descends, the mountains seem different somehow. They are seemingly more majestic, if only in the way rolling hills covered in trees can be, some partly covered by a few white puffy clouds, adding to the effect.

August 27th, 2018 – Day 1: This day had probably been one of the biggest leading-up-to-days of my entire life. All of the researching, applications, paperwork, scholarships, doctors, farms, preparations and packing for almost one year has led to this day. Success! Here I am in Costa Rica!

Studying Conservation Biology at SUNY ESF (State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry), I have used the second to last semester of my senior year to complete a study abroad program for three months in Costa Rica, taking classes and getting hands-on learning. The School for Field Studies (SFS) title of their program is Sustainable Development Studies, with classes in resource management, tropical ecology, environmental ethics and directed research.

Arriving at the SFS Center, after the bus took all 22 of us students down winding roads, through hills and valleys of lush emerald green flora, passing vibrant-colored one floor houses, cattle and dogs…and people in cars and on motorbikes, we saw our home for the next three months. It was located at the very end of a road just before the level land drops off into a valley.  The Center is more plants than buildings, with orange trees and mango trees, a pollinator garden, greenhouses, vegetable beds and composting areas (to make affordable mulch).

Driving in Costa Rica offers the exciting view of high-rising mountains and rolling hills galore.

Touring our new home briefly, we find the outdoor classroom, where in a few moments we will be having dinner. Dinner will always be served in the dark, as the sun sets at 5:30 p.m. and dinner will always be at 6 p.m. Wearing our rain boots, which is required of all of us after dark to protect ourselves from possible venomous snakes that are on our Campus Center, we head to the open classroom. We get our first taste of Costa Rican food as we make our own chalupas, an open-faced hard tortilla, in a buffet line style, with options in order of meat, refried beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole and shredded cheese.

I’m still in awe. I can’t believe I’m actually here! There are so many noises that I hear outside my shared bedroom, that I don’t know if they are bird or monkey or insect, and that’s the weirdest, but most exciting thought! I am so used to hearing birds, mammals, or insects back in New York that I can place to the species if heard that this is a whole new world.

August 28th, 2018 – Day 2: Waking up with the sun at 5:30 a.m. today gave me time to journal on one of three hammocks we have on our dorm front porch, as well as two swinging chairs and rocking chairs. It was the absolute best. So peaceful. Time to think with nature. Looking out into the trees surrounding our view, I saw two hummingbirds and two ground birds, while hearing a variety of sounds that for the life of me, I can’t place.

Our front porch at the Campus Center provided the peace and quiet of nearby tropical forest. 

At 7 a.m., the breakfast bell rings, and the aroma of unknown food lures us to the kitchen. We find that the kitchen, which is at the very edge of the center and the hill that it sits upon, offers a beautiful overlook. Breakfast was absolutely delicious, a mix of rice and beans (which I would later find out is called gallo pinto), scrambled eggs and fried plantains, which are, put simply, a bigger form of a banana.

The kitchen window provided a bountiful view of our backyard.

Getting a tour of the farm, after learning about the cucumbers and peppers that are grown in the raised beds, one of the students spots a small brown body low on an orange tree. Looking more closely, we realize it’s an owl! I run quickly back to the dorms to grab my camera, and later learn it was a little Ferruginous pygmy-owl! An avid birder, this is a huge find because:

  1. Birds of prey are always harder to see in the wild than sparrows, finches, or other herbivore/omnivore birds are.
  2. An owl seen during the day is a rarity.
  3. After looking up the range of the species, I realize I would have never had the chance to see it in the northeastern U.S.
A common owl of tropical lowlands, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is often seen during the daytime (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

This is the first time I have ever seen this bird and it may be the last. Thankfully, this bird’s “pinging” sound will be heard from our dorms all throughout the three months, I will later discover.

We continue on our day, learning about our home, this new country, and getting to know one another, getting our first glimpses at what life will be like here.

First thoughts of Costa Rica?

A grand adventure full of firsts, but I already know I’m going to love it here!

 

 

State Parks Offer Fun, Adventure, Awe

Letchworth State Park in Western New York State

The Genesee River flows in splendor and grace over the Middle Falls.

A beautiful hidden oasis, one of many natural wonders in New York State, has earned the title of the “Grand Canyon of the East”.

Why, you wonder?  In addition to having three natural GORGEous waterfalls, Letchworth State Park also contains wonderful overlooks of the gorge that has been carved out by the Genesee River.

Anyone can drive into to the park for a $10 fee per vehicle, which covers the cost of the whole day.  There is also an abundance of camping options, from tenting to bringing a camper, to staying in a cabin or renting out a shelter for a day.

My friends and I – fresh home from college and looking for an outdoor adventure, decided to drive the hour or so and make a day trip.  We found what USA Today described as the “Best State Park in the Nation of 2015.”

We parked at the High Falls and started hiking north to the middle and lower falls.  Yes, this river flows south to north!  Along the way there were breathtaking outlook points and an easy-to-follow trail that kept us mostly next to the river and gorge.  The park offers an additional 66 miles of trails to choose from!

Our trail included several steep walking sectors where various levels of stairs eased the trek and climb, both on the way there and back.  We explored a small creek that ran under a bridge, waved hello to other hikers, and stopped at various outlooks to stare in awe at the intriguing beauty of the Devonian bedrock, shale and limestone, that make up the sides of the gorge.

The Upper and Middle Falls aren’t extremely distant from each other, only about a half-mile; it’s the Lower Falls that’s the most remote and takes up a majority of the hike.

An overlook of the Devonian Bedrock that defines the gorge.

All in all, hiking the Upper Falls to the Lower Falls and back again is a 7-mile excursion (this includes, of course, taking closer looks at “that tree over there” or “this really cool stream over here”).  We all had a fantastic time!  It was a beautiful day and reaching the Lower Falls was worth the effort of the hike, especially with it adjacent to a stone bridge that crosses the gorge.

After we hiked back to the car, we drove through the park at the far entrance so we could view so many of the other wonderful views.  There are many “pull-over” points designated as “Photo-Spots” along the drive.  This park has a diversity of activities and accommodations, including a restaurant, museum and gift shop, while offering kayaking, cross-country skiing, exquisite bird watching and thrilling white-water rafting.

For more information on visiting this park, check out http://nysparks.com/parks/79/details.aspx

Happy Hiking!

Kiley Voss, student at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Powering-Up near Old Faithful

Millions of people have been a part of this crowd watching Old Faithful erupt. Photo by Ed Austin/Herb Jones

Yellowstone National Park is celebrated for its pristine wilderness and the habitat it provides for countless creatures, from bison and wolves to eagles and hawks.

Yellowstone was established as a protected area for the joy and pleasure of visitors in 1872, almost 40 years before the National Park Service was created in 1916.  Known as being the oldest park in the United States, and possibly in the world, Yellowstone offers many popular visitor favorites such as the Old Faithful Geyser and its many prestigious canyons and rivers.  One feature that is not well-known to the public is their new and powerful renewable energy system.

The new battery power grid at Yellowstone is well engineered and organized to power the remote Lamar Buffalo Ranch Station. Photo courtesy of Toyota & Iecomento

Yellowstone has teamed up with Toyota and the world of engineering systems to electrically power their Lamar Buffalo Ranch Station (visit: https://www.yellowstoneassociation.org/lodging/lamar-buffalo-ranch).  The Camry hybrid battery packs (208 of them) are now providing electric power to the the station, with the battery system storing the energy transferred from nearby solar panels.  Buffalo Lamar Ranch is very secluded, offering only one road to drive there and back during the winter months to tourists and visitors who can stay in rustic cabin accommodations.

All the (used) batteries were dissembled and tested before being re-built to their present capacity to capture the energy from the solar panels.  Collecting power from the sun during daytime, the solar panels generate enough energy to run six American households.  The new battery system at the Station will allow it run completely on sustainable energy for the first time since it was built in 1907.

Toyota already has an extensive recycling program to reuse its hybrid car batteries and Yellowstone is a functional extension of improvements from re-useable science.  But, the Yellowstone program extends past the new battery system with old batteries, as hybrid cars are now also used for operations in the park, along with helping build the “green” building, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.

For more information on Yellowstone, follow this link: https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

Wetlands Offer a Food Web for New Life

wetlands1

Wetlands can be compared to rainforests and corals reefs in their abundance and importance of the biodiversity that they support and sustain.  The wetlands is a rare ecosystem that provide habitats for a variety of wildlife, supporting valuable species of fish, insects and animals that cannot live anywhere else.

Wetlands support the basis of many food webs because their “high levels of nutrients and primary productivity is ideal for the development of organisms,” according to the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) article, “Wetlands Protection and Restoration.”  Water from rain saturates the soil, establishing a unique home for many unique aquatic and terrestrial species.

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The high nutrients allow for an abundance of plants to be grown, which in turn feed the fish, amphibians and insects.  These are then eaten by birds and mammals, which also rely on wetlands for nesting and migrating.  Florida is one of the most prominent spots in the country for wetlands, but it is also one of the most populated people places too.  Florida’s wetlands are numerous, but could be endangered due to development.  The wetlands found in Florida consist mostly of coastal wetlands, which include salt marshes, bottomland hardwood swamps, fresh marshes and mangrove swamps.

You might ask, why should wetlands be saved?  Why should they be important to people?  Coastal wetlands provide generous amounts of helpful services to our human community, such as protecting homes from flooding and preventing erosion.  They can absorb sea level rises brought about by storms and absorb ocean currents that would erode away rock.  Not only do they protect housing, but they also provide sustenance, since about 50 percent of commercial fisheries in the Southeastern United States are near coastal wetlands, according to the EPA.  Coastal wetlands also complete important tasks that can’t be seen, such as controlling water quality by filtering out particles before the ocean and carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is when coastal wetlands are good at storing carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere, much like old-growth forests do.  Very important.  This is due to their slow decompositions and quick growth abilities of their plants.

Coastal wetlands are beautiful places that provide extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities, such as fishing, hiking, kayaking and hiking.  Thankfully there are organizations trying to safeguard these lands, but all of us can do our own helpful part too, by being mindful of items we use and understanding if they can contaminate water.  For example, use phosphate-free laundry detergent (can suffocate plant life by supporting algae growth), or use only non-toxic sprays for gardens and lawns, since the runoff can trickle into a watershed and then contaminate a wetland.

Doing those few and simple things, we can all enjoy the great outdoors and know that we are working together to keep the place clean!

wetlands3

Florida Wildlife Refuges, One Goal

While I enjoy shooting, fishing, photography and many other outdoor facets of fun, one of my personal goals through my education in Conservation Biology is to insure the survival of endangered species through the support of proper management and well-being of all native, wild species.  Early in January, I had the chance to travel south to Ft. Myers in Florida and visit my grandparents, so of course, I took the opportunity to journey to a few wildlife sanctuaries, both public and private.  There are multiple sanctuaries, dotted not only around Port Charlotte and Ft. Myers, but around all of southwest Florida.

Florida Photo1

Florida Photo2

The privately funded refuge called the Peace River Wildlife Center is a humble organization with a simple goal, “Dedicated to the care, preservation, and protection of Charlotte County’s native wildlife.”  With the limited supplies they have, they re-enable injured wildlife for return to the wild.  If the injuries are too severe, however, the animals stay at the center and are open for the public to see and learn from.  They manage their operation and keep it running through private donations, volunteer services, paid sponsor memberships and a recycling program.  The public is invited to contribute from near and far at http://peaceriverwildlifecenter.org.  Their inhabitants are mostly birds, including pelicans, ducks, red-tailed hawks, even some bald eagles.

The publicly funded refuge we visited was the J.N. Ding Darling wildlife refuge.  It is one of the 550 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System administered by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  J. N. Ding is a vast national wildlife refuge, covering almost the entire half of the luxurious vacation site, Sanibel Island.  This well-organized site promotes natural habitat restoration of the mangroves, which many fish, wildlife and animals depend on for survival as a food source and a habitat.  Although it is home to many native birds, amphibians, alligators, fish, and countless insects.  One of the most important functions at J. N. Ding is that it provides place for migratory birds to nest in the winter.  The other half of the island is occupied by shops, hotels, and vast homes on five-star sandy island countryside.  The refuge is also on 5-star real estate acreage; luckily the founder, J.N Ding, bought the 6400 acres of land in 1945, and it has become a vital place where mangrove forests, seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks are safe from realtors.  For more on J. N. Ding, see their website: http://www.fws.gov/dingdarling/VisitorInformation.html.

Florida Photo4

J.N Ding not only saved a spot for migratory birds to have a place to rest on their journey, but it is also an elemental part of the rare estuarine ecosystem, which is an area that freshwater and saltwater mix together.  These estuaries located here provide an abundance of resources for many fish and wildlife species, from providing habitats to attracting prey for the multiple species of birds to feed on.  They also provide nesting and resting areas for manatees and sea turtles where these species can feed on the abundant seagrass beds.

Florida-Photo5

All in all, the privately funded site was a rehabilitation center adjacent to a refuge area, while the publicly funded site provided a museum-like tour (free) and was a refuge with a drive-through park-like area that protected a whole ecosystem. Although very different in their funding sources and the functions of their establishments, they both have one goal in mind, the protection, management and well-being of all native, wild species.

-By Kiley Voss, student at SUNY college of Environmental Science and Forestry

Go Outdoors to Embrace Passion and Wisdom of Indoor Instruction

outdoors

As lovers of the outdoors, most of us are inspired students of nature.  This past October, I gained the opportunity to spend an entire weekend in the Adirondacks as part of a university project that included hiking, canoeing and collecting data for ongoing research projects.

On day one, half of our group was split up into 4 pairs of two to study beaver dams and I was part of the pair that traveled down a river that led to Rich Lake.  Our team was assigned the task of collecting data in the form of pictures and identifying the number and condition of beaver dams and lodges.

outdoors3With no formal trails to follow besides the river, we were fully immersed in nature; it was scary and exciting, all at the same time.  There was no yellow-brick road!  I had never been left so alone without a path to follow or teacher to guide us through the isolated and wild outdoors The three hour hike was amazing, I was half expecting to see a bear around each river bend!  There were so many things I saw and learned!  We were trained and provided with a compass and map with coordinates to later identify beaver dam locations We reached our final destination several miles later, the Adirondack Interpretive Center located on the shores of Rich Lake.

The next day, we also hiked Goodnow Mountain, except it was raining so hard that by the time we reached the summit, we could only see 20 feet in front of us!  Soaking wet, I learned that hiking is fun even without a great view at the mountaintop, because it means we’ll just have to go back and see it again!  outdoors2

Maybe the most interesting thing I learned didn’t start outside, it started in the classroom.  Thanks to the “Diversity of Life” class, students including myself, were able to identify different types of mushrooms and fungi and conks.  We learned before our trip how to identify the different forms of lichen (crustose, foliose, and fructose).  I never knew just how many types of mushrooms there were or how abundant they were until after learning details in class.  We were then able to apply this knowledge outside the classroom.  I knew what different types of mushrooms looked like in the lab, but actually finding a bunch of puffballs on a rotting tree and seeing them release their spores helped my understanding!  Basically, being outside reinforced what I had learned in the classroom.

Learning effectively outside starts inside.  Children dropped into the outdoors with no prior instruction will find difficulty in understanding what they see, but not if parents and teachers take the time to share details, ideas and plans, and then head outdoors.  Trying to teach music without instruments and only sheet music is similar; the concept is not realized until play and practice with real instruments takes place. The same goes for the outdoors.  Children can be given maps and charts, but unless they experience their meaning outside, they may not fully develop and understand the lesson intended.

Explain to them what you want them to learn, teach them the details, and remind them what they have studied, then turn them loose.  They will grow a deep respect with more understanding for the outdoors.  Enjoy every moment with our amazing nature outdoors!

By Kiley Voss 

Student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry 

The Power of Good

Alabama Power is Helping Each Other Make a Difference

Alabama PowerThis past October, President David Gray, CEO of the new website service, www.ShareTheOutdoors.com, met with energy giant, Alabama Power Company, an electricity corporation that supplies half of the power to Alabama. The large corporation that serves over 1.4 million customers while managing 14 hydro-facilities along the Coosa, Tallapoosa and Black Warrior Rivers, is not just an ordinary corporation, it’s a corporation that gives back. Alabama Power has many programs that provide grants for schools in sports, education, and conservation.

They have contributed over $150 million since Alabama Power was created, on over 90 programs that are centralized around the environment, education, art, health, and community. Their environment sector focuses most heavily on environmental education, offering 14 grants that support programs that teach about environmental conservation in classrooms, and 6 grants to offer outdoor learning in schools. One grant was awarded to Brookwood High School, which used the $7500 given to build a sustainable outdoor garden to grow plants. The Agriculture Career Class uses the classroom almost every day, studying how to propagate plants and manage erosion, giving youth an opportunity they never would have had without the grant.

In addition to their multiple grants, Alabama Power has their own volunteer system, called the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO). These volunteers provides their hands and time with ongoing projects or events throughout the community. One event, held last May (2015), was a three day event called Just Gone Fishin’, which indulges children and shows them the joy of fishing by teaching them about baits, life jackets, and of course giveaways of rods and reels so they can continue to experience fishing after the session. This event would not have been possible without over 100 volunteers from the APSO, who helped kids bait hooks, learn about safety and kept the event running smoothly.

This company is instilling knowledge about the environment for current and future generations currently in the learning process, when so many schools do not have a set curriculum for teaching environmental science at all. Alabama Power goes above and beyond, when placed in comparison to many other similar power companies across the country that offer few or no outreach or volunteer programs. Alabama Power is not compelled to do any of the work they do. Alabama Power could choose to not offer any of these programs and would still be a great company, but maybe that is what makes them even a better company. Alabama Power does not have to offer grants and support for volunteer programs, but they do anyway. It seems to me, that Alabama Power really makes a positive difference. That is the power of good!

Harvest is about Understanding the Weeds

….Sportsmen must help Teach Corporations this Message

ConservationIf we can see that the Earth and everything in it holds as much value and worth as the value of people themselves, then we might be headed in the right direction toward changing the mindset of over-harvest. Robin Kimmerer’s native people lived life by minimizing harm to plants and all living things around them.

They provided a good example for the rest of today’s world to consider an everyday task. Instead of take, consume, and repeat, we as modern people need to be smarter, we need to harvest, but conserve what we have.

We only have one Earth, so full of life that can give us so much, so many natural wonders, and modern culture participants (corporations) often only perceive it as simple property, something to harvest infinitely, something to own and make profit. They seem understand the value of oil, and wood, and meat, but they do not understand the value of the soil, of trees, of life.

We know that life in the outdoors is bigger than that. We need a better way to teach the people who live life in the indoors just how much bigger.

When we lose diversity of life species of any type, we also lose knowledge and wisdom. We lose the possible trail to a medicine or DNA root that could have led to a cure for serious diseases that still befuddle modern man, such as cancer. We risk the loss of a different direction in thinking that could supersede the status quo, we lose intelligence.

Sportsmen as conservationists need to remember that we have the right to harvest and we also have a larger duty to assure continued generations of that species of harvested fish, plant, tree or animal. All are equally important to all of us. Tell the corporations of the world this same message. Teach this to others and work to spread the word!

 

Place-Based Education Can Help Grow Conservation!

ConservationAs David Sobel pointed out, not one environmentalist became an environmentalist because they heard about deforestation, or poaching, or pollution in drinking water, or endangered ecosystems. They became environmentalists because they had a strong connection to the outdoors in their childhood; I know I did!

I came to care about the natural word not because I heard of scary environmental happenings, but because I learned to love the outdoors at an early age. I loved hiking in my backyard and sledding down the hill. I loved riding my grandpa’s ATV through the trails in his woods and tapping maple syrup out of his maple trees. Then I loved identifying different birds and trees as I got older, and my biology class in high school, not in elementary school. That really taught me to heighten my awareness of the natural world. It solidified my love and need to help protect the environment and to influence others to understand the flora and fauna sooner in their life.

Let the children play and learn while they can, especially in the outdoors, because soon enough, they will also learn that not everything is OK in our natural world. Some of this time, we can fill an elementary need for understanding in nature when we fish and when we hunt. People learn about catch and release, management of wildlife populations that need an organized plan, license dollars support research funding – all this is very important to the complete understanding of harvest, not over-harvest. This manner of benefit is an ancient indigenous manner that preserves survival of human life, human health, we also grow wisdom of conservation. This must also be understood and fortified for all generations.