Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dr. Alexander F. Skutch 20 May 1904 - 12 May 2004.

     Late last night, around midnight in fact, Miriam and I returned from a two week adventure in Costa Rica, where we shared many outstanding experiences with other birders, some known to us and others whom we met for the first time. I will prepare a report of the entire trip in due course, but this will take a little time; all of the photographs are not yet uploaded from the card onto the computer even, let alone the narrative begun.
    There is much to blog about in the meantime, however.
     One of the signal highlights for me was a visit to Los Cusingos, the former home of Alexander Skutch, one of the greatest ornithologists of all time. 
     When Skutch decided to make Costa Rica his home, he chose a site at an altitude of around eight hundred metres, near the rapidly flowing Río Peñas Blancas in the southern part of Costa Rica, not far from the Talamanca highlands and near the border with Panama. 

     Fittingly he chose for the name of the property Los Cusingos, representing the Fiery-billed Araçaris Pteroglossus torquatus, with whom he shared the forest. It was a name easily understood by his less than literate neighbours and it was important to Skutch that they understood the designation.

    It was the presence of nearby unspoiled forest that so attracted Skutch to the area, presenting as it did so much scope for research into avian behaviour. At the time standard practice was to shoot birds as specimens for laboratory and museum study. Skutch wanted none of this and wished only to study the birds in life, to see how they coped with their surroundings, what they ate, how they secured their food, how they built their nests, how many eggs they laid, what was the incubation period, what predation they were subjected to, did one or both sexes participate in nest construction, what materials were used...and so on. Skutch was a consummate and dedicated ecologist before the term was even coined. In the process he made huge discoveries about birds, including the hitherto unrecognized concept of helpers at the nest- i.e. the young from one generation helping to raise succeeding broods.
     He garnered world wide fame and had numerous important awards bestowed upon him, none of which affected him at all, and certainly never lured him from the simple home he had built at Los Cusingos where he was happiest - without running water or electricity  - at a time when he could have accepted teaching positions in any of the major ornithological centres of the world. 

     In the process he became known to his fellow Costa Ricans as Don Alejandro, a term of both respect and endearment, worth more to him I am sure than all the other honours heaped upon him.
     Charlie Gomez, who knew Skutch well, and was associated with him one way or another for many years, told me a story which illustrates in a small way the sheer humility of this great man. At one of the various awards ceremonies which he agreed to attend, Charlie opted to drive Don Alejandro and his wife Pamela though the traffic nightmare of San José and attended the event with them. Skutch was presented with a pair of Swarovski binoculars, absolutely top of the line, with the latest perfection in optical technology. Charlie said he never saw Skutch use them even once, always preferring the trusty old binoculars he had used for years.

     An essential tool when bushwhacking through virgin forest is a machete, and Don Alejandro never ventured far without one. Here it is in its scabbard as though waiting for another skirmish with recalcitrant vegetation.

     Living so far from centres of civilization one needed to be self-sufficient and no doubt this manual sewing machine was put to good use.

     The wife of Alexander Skutch was Pamela Lankester, daughter of the English botanist and ornithologist, who left the wealth, comfort and prestige of her parents' home to dwell with Skutch in this lonely, spartan outpost - surely a testament to true love and kindred values if ever one existed. I took this picture of a picture on the wall showing the two of them together at Los Cusingos.

       It was Nancy Newton, a member of our group, who perceptively noticed that the shoes on display were the same as those worn in the picture.

     The following views show the simplicity of Alexander and Pamela's life together; a life filled with stellar achievement and an exceptional contribution to the world of ornithology. Their tenacity in clinging to their values is inspirational to say the least.

     Not for them a soft and billowy mattress to lie upon. 

     Perhaps their few items for personal grooming are as close to luxury as they experienced.

     No doubt after a long day in the field they looked forward to a period of quiet relaxation on their porch, with Gartered Trogons Trogon caligulatus and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans Ramphastos swainsonii to keep them company.

     I have several of Dr. Skutch's books and will now make a dedicated effort to obtain a copy of all the rest.

     I cannot end this narrative without recounting the experience of my good friend Ruth Marie Lyons who corresponded with Dr. Skutch from time to time over a period of many years and used to send him his favourite kind of work shirts as gifts. Just before his death, Ruth Marie visited Los Cusingos and was privileged to meet the great naturalist, frail and in failing health. She was reluctant to ask Dr. Skutch to sign her book due to his frailty, but was thrilled when he volunteered to do so. I am sure that the quavery signature, inscribed as she stood by his side, is one of Ruth Marie's most treasured possessions. It certainly would be mine. No doubt it was one of the last autographs he registered.
      It would be a tad hyperbolic to call my visit a pilgrimage, but it was certainly an homage of sorts. I will obviously never get to meet this great man but visiting his home was the next best thing. It continues as a centre for the study of birds and I know this would have pleased him immensely.
     Ruth Marie actually planned the itinerary for this trip and was with us when we visited Los Cusingos. I owe her a great debt of thanks for including it on our list.


  1. Welcome back David and Miriam, This must have been a most wonderful trip, and I can not wait to read and see more of what you both have been seeing.
    In the mean time thank you for your reactions on my blogs. It was nice to see you even had the time to react strait from Costa Rica.

  2. Dearest David,
    You did go on a kind of a pilgrimage, admiring such a pioneer as he really braved the wilderness for the purpose of cataloguing its majestic birds!
    They lived a life of simplicity and probably found true happiness.
    Looking forward to your photos and welcome back home to winter.

  3. Very interesting David.............

    Oh and those!

  4. First of all welcome home David and Miriam,looks like a fantastic time had by both,look forward to your full report.

  5. What a wonderful journey you have made and what a beautiful birds let you see here.
    I am very curious about the rest.
    Sewing machine we used to have at home too ;-))
    Great week, greetings Tinie

  6. Bonjour David !
    L'intérieur est sommaire mais ils vivaient dans la nature, alors à quoi bon s'embêter avec du superficiel. Bravo à eux, ce refuge semble parfait.
    Et les espèces que tu as photographiées font rêver !!!
    Merci !

  7. What interesting insight into Skutch's life and home!
    Gee, when I think I could have been there with you.....
    I hop you brought me back this pair of Swarovski binoculars, if they are of no use... LOL! But I bet they are now!!
    Can't wait to see what else you brought back in term of birds, but those Araçaris are already quite a marvel.
    Warm hugs to share with Miriam

  8. I wish you had been there with us, chérie. When I think of your skill with a cameras I can only imagine the pictures you would have taken.

  9. What a trip, everything is in order, great images, and the Fiery-billed Araçaris, they are some of the wild birds.

  10. What a great trip and beautiful photos !!
    I've never seen toucans ! They are so beautiful birds !

  11. Very interesting. And the toucan is wonderful.

  12. That is a lovely story expertly told and illustrated David. I'm looking forward to reading more of trip and seeing the exotica you encountered.

  13. A fascinating post. Such naturalists certainly give/gave a lot to their passion. It's a wonderful country to visit and I'll be looking forward to further posts.

  14. Beautiful pictures, David, your story shows much respect and is a great homage to mr Skutch.
    Gr Jan W

  15. How wonderful to be able to do this. They deserved your homage...or even a pilgrimage! Costa Rica is the top destination on my wish list. Sigh so many birds, so many beautiful places, so little ....

    It has been cold in Florida, but that meant good viewing of the Manatees.

    1. I envy you the Manatees. I had a slim chance to see them at Tortuguero, CR, but no such luck.

  16. Hello David,
    you're safely back home with your wife after a very nice trip.
    What is it nice to see and also very special to take us into the house and the life of the family Skutch. Beautiful pictures you have made there. The simplicity also gives the love for nature again.
    The Toucans are great but your story about these special people.
    I look forward to the rest of your trip.

  17. Sorry to be so tardy in welcoming you both home, David. I've been working to a deadline with a talk, whilst trying to keep other balls in the air!

    I'll show my ignorance by admitting that I'd never heard of Alexander Skutch. Thank you so much for the insight into the life and work of this wonderful person!

    Best wishes to you and Miriam - - Richard

  18. Before your post I don´t know the existence of Mr. Skutch, thanks to that I could discover his magnificent life and his prolific work. Thanks for sharing