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.