Volunteering in biological research in Costa Rica

As the natural world transforms with the changing of the seasons, we recognize the common signs of spring: Tundra Swans passing through on their migration north, Skunk Cabbage poking out of the swamps; ice melt pooling up or rushing by. This past February I was impatient for spring.

In the heart of winter I found myself in a rut, with skin sun-deprived and dry, mind struggling to focus on the present, and an overall aching to wander and explore. In addition to my yearning for sun, I felt that it had come time again to step out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in an intense learning experience. A close friend undertaking an extended stay in Costa Rica offered the opportunity that I was seeking. I booked a flight, made arrangements for volunteering, and packed up my binoculars, rain boots, and bathing suit. I didn’t doubt that the trip would have its challenges, but I was armed with my Lonely Planet guidebook, extensive knowledge of the Spanish language, and the experience of studying for four months in Ecuador. What more could I need? Adaptability, patience, and a willingness to walk 13 miles on the beach at night all came to be useful.

In the North’s dead of winter I was welcomed to Costa Rica by flora in full bloom and fauna abundant, temperatures in the mid-80s, and Costa Ricans who went out of their way to point a wanderer in the right direction. On day two I skillfully navigated my way by taxi, three buses, and a boat to Cano Palma. Accessible only by a network of waterways, the biological research station is situated in the Barra Del Colorado Wildlife Refuge and sits only some 200-300 meters from the Caribbean Ocean. When I lay in bed that first night in a daze, I thought I recognized the sounds of a highway. The next day I realized my mistake when I was introduced to the Caribbean and its wild and messy waves.

Cano Palma was founded by the Canadian Organization for Tropical Education and Rainforest Conservation (COTERC) and is managed by a Canadian woman and her Costa Rican husband. I joined a group of eight, made up of biologists, researchers, students, and volunteers from Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Spain. Each had a purpose and passion for being in this place. The ecosystem of the area is known to be one of the most biologically rich in all of Costa Rica and its shores provide crucial nesting grounds for sea turtles. Clearly this was a place where I could learn a thing or two in the field of conservation biology, not just about sea turtles, but countless other neotropical and coastal species.

Each day came with new discoveries, starting with the first cries of the Howler Monkeys at the break of dawn. The day proceeded with a combination of census and research, resting, eating, and enthusiastic sharing of knowledge and discoveries. During my nine days at Cano Palma I had a chance to learn about and work on each of a wide range of projects. One of my most enjoyable afternoons was spent alongside the offbeat character from Belgium, observing monkey behavior and following a pair of Spider Monkeys by kayak as they swung through the canopy. His research entails measuring levels of testosterone and serotonin in monkey feces to determine how their stress levels respond to their proximity to the water channel and motorboats passing by. By the end of the day I was proud to be deemed an “expert monkey feces collector.”

Other projects underway at Cano Palma include bird banding and shorebird census. A bird species that I found most unforgettable was the Montezuma Oropendola, displaying striking field markings and an entertaining call with accompanying somersault around the branch it was perched on. Daytime surveys on mammals and nighttime censuses of snakes and caiman each have their relevance at the research station as well. However, it was only on my second to last day at the station, February 26, that we began morning turtle census. I was told not to expect sea turtles to come ashore until early March, but it was on that morning that we spotted a huge horseshoe-shaped disturbance in the sand indicating this beach’s first Leatherback nest of the season.

Night patrol began that night. Three of us walked more than three miles of transect back and forth, back and forth, from 8pm-2am. The night was dark, the moon absent, and very little light was produced by the stars and phosphorescent organisms that washed up with the waves. We studied dark shapes for minutes, waiting and wishing for them to move before disregarding them as logs and continuing on. After 1am I found myself drifting in and out of sleepwalking. The next morning the tracks of a Green Turtle were found, leading out of the water and back in to continue her search elsewhere for the ideal location to lay eggs.

Up and down Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast, the arrival of the sea turtles- Leatherback, Green, and Hawksbill, indicates the beginning of nesting season as here we await the return of Robins and Red-Winged Blackbirds, Crocuses and Pussy Willows. I found the challenge, renewal, and meaningful experience that I was seeking in Costa Rica and I brought back knowledge and inspiration to carry me into spring.

Visit Audubon for signs of northern spring along our trails. They are open from dawn to dusk. The building is also open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4:30 p.m. More information can be found at or by calling (716) 569-2345. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Rd., just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown, N.Y.

Emma Cook is an intern at Audubon.