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Monday, October 7, 2013

The Mountain School I: Coffee Tasting

Nicaraguan coffee
Quality control in a coffee farm culminates in the most tempting of all jobs: coffee tasting. At The Mountain School, Spanish students learn about the coffee production process, including how the coffee is taste-tested professionally. Coffee tasting is still an art, but a fine art, with diligent procedures involved in the tasting process. Here are some photos of the coffee taster, Nelson McKuen, explaining the process to our group.
coffee in Nicaragua
When coffee leaves the wet mill, there is still a papery husk covering the bean, having the pulpy outer "cherry" removed and washed. Samples taken from the coffee are taken, measured and stored for documentation purposes.
coffee in Nicaragua
In the quality control laboratory, the coffee is dried under controlled conditions, in a cabinet dryer.
green coffee
Coffee drying in a cabinet in the quality control laboratory. Photo by Tania Company.
We gave the green coffee a taste-it doesn't taste like anything at all. Someone wondered aloud how anyone ever would have discovered the great taste of coffee, given that the raw product has no strong flavor.
coffee tasting
Nelson shows us how the coffee from the wet mill is dried before testing and storing samples. Photo by Tania Company.
As in any factory, there are lots of tests made by the quality control laboratory, including the quantity of "reject" material, moisture, and other things, but we were wanting to taste the coffee!
coffee roasting
A sample of coffee was wieghed before roasting for a taste test. Photo Tania Company.
The coffee roasted in the laboratory smelled wonderful. We were all excited before even drinking any coffee. Then someone reminded us that the taste test did not involved drinking coffee. To the contrary, the tasted coffee is spat out by the professional taster. How can they do that?
Nicaraguan coffee
Freshly roasted coffee has an incomparable flavor. Photo Tania Company.
Nelson ground the roasted coffee and placed a spoonful in each of several cups with hot water. The foam was removed by hand, then sampling began. Coffee makes The Mountain School even better!
The Mountain School
Nelson guides each participant through the tasting process.
Our results, however, were abysmal. None of our group recognized the differences between the different lots of coffee. Perhaps our group was anxious to drink coffee, not just swish it around in our mouths and then spit it out. Gaia Program director Jeffrey McCrary gave the coffee a taste, and yep, it was good.
coffee farm
Tasting coffees is diligent work. Photo Tania Company.
The coffee tasting and quality control processes are essential to any high quality coffee farm. We learned more about how good coffee is made by participating.
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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Camouflage and hiding animals of Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is known for its deep, blue lake, whether from near or far. The forest around the lake, however, holds a reservoir of life in great diversity. Animals large and small climb its trees and hide under its rocks. Some wildlife fly, others crawl, and many hide while in plain view. Here are a few images of the wonders we have encountered recently.

laguna de apoyo
Order Phasmatodea in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Laura Ruysseveldt.
The walking sticks (Order Phasmatodea) are insects, widely distributed in warm climates. Over 3000 species are found in this group. Generally, the females have broader abdomens than the females. They have additional defenses against being detected, by swaying as if a twig in the wind, and falling to the forest floor if molested. Some walking sticks may flash bright colors when they detect danger, and some even emit foul-smelling substances when attacked. The walking sticks are easily overlooked, as their natural disguise is quite successful.
Praying mantis (Order Mantodea) in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Laura Ruysseveldt.
The praying mantis (Order Mantodea) is also an immensely diverse group of species. There are more than 2400 species of praying mantis throughout the earth. Which is this one? Who knows!
scorpion nicaragua
Scorpion in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, Nicaragua. Photo Laura Ruysseveldt.
Scorpions are much feared, in some places even deadly. Thankfully, we have no deadly scorpions in Nicaragua, but that consolation only reduces the pain of a sting to annoyance. In the forests of Laguna de Apoyo, the scorpions can be abundant. The Order Scorpiones contains more than 1500 species, but only about 25 of them are deadly. They are not insects, but closer relatives to the spiders. Their colors are usually neutral to the human eye, but they remain undetected often because they stay still long periods in crevices. The scorpions can last long periods without food or water.
nicaraguan satyr
Nicaraguan Satyr, Cissia themis, in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, Nicaragua. Photo Max Schellekens.
Our research group at FUNDECI/GAIA has been studying the butterflies of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve for a few years already. Among the species which spend extensive time on the forest floor among leaf litter, the undersides of the wings are usually more brightly colored and patterned than the uppersides. The underside of the Nicaraguan SatyrCissia themis, demonstrate this tendency. The ventral wing pattern, seen above, is delicate and more complex, especially along the posterior edge of the hindwing. The dorsal wing patter, seen below, is contrastingly dull and simple.
Cissia themis
Dorsal view, Nicaraguan Satyr (Cissia themis) in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, Nicaragua. Photo Max Schellekens.
walking stick

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Animal Rescue XIV: White-faced Capuchin Monkey

It is human nature to love animals and want to be near them. Humans domesticated dogs from wolves over 10,000 years ago, for instance, and today the two are inseparable. But not all animals are evolved to live dependent upon humans, however. Our love of animals sometimes becomes a kind of fetish, in which we twist our appreciation and admiration into a desire to own and control. Wild animals, in general, do not make good pets. Trying to make a wild animal such as a monkey into a pet almost always ends badly.

A young child bonded with this monkey, but she knows it's best for the monkey to live and die in the jungle, where it can live wild. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Something may happen, however, that triggers in us a realization about something we had never considered before. Surely this was the case with a Nicaraguan family who decided on their own to place their pet monkey with us in the interest in having it return to the wild.

This white-faced capuchin monkey loved to run free, and now he lives with other monkeys of his kind, deep in the forests of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
This monkey cared little for adults, but was gentle with children. He was rambunctious, and insisted in making a mess in the kitchen. We soon hoped that he would indeed want to find his kind and rejoin them in the wild! This wild animal rescue was a real challenge.Fortunately, we had volunteers available to attend him and even to help him return to the wild.
Our Spanish students-turned-environmental volunteers preparing for a monkey release mission. Photo Julie Akey.

It amazes us at GAIA how often well-educated people from the US and other developed countries end up with wild animals as pets when they come to Nicaragua to live. These people obviously are not thinking of the long-term welfare of the animal nor of the entire commodity chain in capture and sale of wild animals, when they purchase one of these poor animals that was stolen from its natural habitat. We often encounter foreigners in Nicaragua claiming to "rescue" the animals from the pet trade by purchasing them. Who do they think they are fooling?

This poor White-faced Capuchin was brought to Estacion Biologica for return to the wild. Photo Julie Akey. 
Sooner or later, these people face reality. An animal such as a white-faced monkey is not the same as a dog. Its ancestors did not live hundreds of generations in dependence upon humans. The monkeys are wild animals and putting one in a cage or on a chain does not domesticate it. The animal suffers in captivity and usually, the owners do, too.
Our volunteers carry the white-faced capuchin monkey through the forest to a site inhabited by a troop of its same species, to be re-united with its friends. Photo Julie Akey. 
Recently, we received such a donation. A white-faced capuchin (Cebus capucinus), friendly enough and very active, was nonetheless, no longer invited by its owners to be a captive animal. We are amazed athow easily people can "un-adopt" their animals, but so be it, this one was brought to us in that way. We agreed to take the animal, and we immediately contacted the local office of the Ministry of Natural Resources that this animal was a likely candidate to return to the wild.
After a week of observation, we decided that this guy could make it in the wild, if he could only re-integrate with a group of his species. There has been plenty of good news over the past few years regarding the white-faced capuchin populations, which also encouraged us to release him here. Once reduced to three small groups in precipitous canyons along the western side of the lake, the populations have been expanding and even colonizing new areas. We have even sighted a small group in the north section of the reserve, directly behind Estacion Biologica, with an infant born in early 2013.
FUNDECI/GAIA staff member Elmer Nicaragua observes a group of white-faced capuchins nearby, assessing where and when to release the rescue animal to make contact with the group. Photo Julie Akey. 
White-faced capuchins are very intelligent animals. They often use tools in the wild, using rocks to break open seed pods. Their social hierarchies have been the subjects of numerous scientific studies. They live many decades in captivity, often exceeding fifty years age.
The released white-faced capuchin monkey begins his first steps as a free animal in many years. Photo Julie Akey.
Because this animal had been accustomed to humans, we chose to release him into a troop located far from any houses, in the southwestern corner of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve. The largest troop of this species is found there. The release required a drive in our sturdy Land Rover, followed by a hike through the forest to reach a troop and then assess the situation. Elmer Nicaragua, accompanied by the students of Apoyo Spanish School, found the troop easily and there made the release.
Unlike their close relatives the Golden-mantled howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins often make their way to the ground where they forage for fruits and arthropods, turning over leaves and rocks. Photo Julie Akey.
As we expected, the monkey was quite timid in the new, wild surroundings. After some time on the ground, he ascended the trees where his new friends were watching. Another wild animal returned to his place in Nicaragua!
Another wild animal release has been made! Photo Julie Akey.
Releasing a wild animal is always a nervous scene. The wild is full of predators and prey, and any animal new to its surroundings is likely to become prey quickly. Our objective is to give the animal an opportunity to integrate into its environment with appropriate skills to survive especially until making its way into the community. We were relieved with the monkey scaled a tree and began acting like the wild animal we hoped he would remember he was.
animal rescue
Our rescue animal examines his surroundings with other monkeys observing him from nearby trees. Photo Julie Akey.

Higher is better, up he goes! Photo Julie Akey. 

Now he's looking like a wild animal again. Photo Julie Akey.

The monkey moves from tree to tree, exploring cautiously but surely. Photo Julie Akey.
We at FUNDECI/GAIA promote the protection of the wild areas of Nicaragua and the flora and fauna found in them. Learning how to appreciate our wild nature is a process, and we are learning as we go, too. We are happy when we can make a small contribution.
Our volunteer helpers in the animal release watch the monkey as he adapts to his new home in the forest. Photo Julie Akey.
Would you like to help us with wild animal rescue? We need funding to build cages for more animals, such as monkeys and squirrels, and purchase special foods such as cashews for our macaws. We also need assistance in care for the animals-volunteers are especially welcome. You can donate here, or volunteer here!
white-faced capuchin
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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Under the water

We spend hundreds of hours per year under the water in Laguna de Apoyo, in counts of fish, documentation of the quality of the habitat where they live, the vegetation found there, and yes, even in retrieving the trash that folks discard which ends up all along the lake bottom. Here is a small collection of photos which show what we see when we are down there, in the most beautiful spot in Nicaragua. In the photoessay below, you can experience what one of our interns saw during a study of the fish with the director of the Gaia Program, Dr. Jeffrey McCrary. Dr. McCrary is leading an international team in the study of the fishes of Laguna de Apoyo, and to date five new species have been discovered as part of the program. 
These fry of an Amphilophus zaliosus pair recently hatched in a nest hole which is often seen with babies. 

Lots of fish are hanging out in this site, including a probable male Amphilophus zaliosus in breeding coloration in the center of the photo. 

Counting fish along a transect.

Juveniles and nonbreeding adult Amphilophus seek refuge under rocks in Laguna de Apoyo.

Breeding season is approaching, and breeding pairs are forming. A pair of Amphilophus zaliosus are in the foreground, and a pair of jaguar cichlids, Parachromis managuensis, are in the background. 
As can be seen from the photos, several Midas cichlid species are locally abundant in the waters of Laguna de Apoyo. Of the six species recognized in Laguna de Apoyo in this group, the most abundant of the group in most locations is the little Apoyo cichlid, Amphilophus astorquii. Other fish species are in the lake, too: Atherinella sardina, Poecilia sphenops, and Parachromis managuensis, as well as some invasive species.
Fish ahead!

A multispecies school of Amphilophus cichlids.

The species of Amphilophus cichlids in Laguna de Apoyo vary by body shape, spot pattern, and background colors. 

Dozens of cichlids are always under this rock!

Much of the lake bottom is covered with recently eroded sediments which cover the rocks and destroy all the high-quality habitat. Furthermore, ordinary garbage accumulates along our transects, such as this plastic cup, sold by the local bars. 

In some areas where waves clean the substrate, the lake bottom is covered with fine mud or sand. 

Fragments of snail shells (Pyrgophorus coronatus) litter the surface in many places. Snails are an important component of the diets of the Amphilophus species flock in Laguna de Apoyo. 

Filamentous algae has displaced Chara vegetation along the bottom in much of the lake. We do not understand why Chara often disappears from the lake, although it is known that tilapia will consume large quantities of it. 
In shallow areas with small rocks, juveniles of the invasive species Gobiomorus dormitor abound. 

Many shallow areas are covered with snail shell fragments, demonstrating the abundance of snails in Laguna de Apoyo.
A human-altered waterscape in Laguna de Apoyo. Filamentous algae and a plastic beverage bottle displace native fish and vegetation. 
Silversides, Atherinella sardina, put on a show in the water column. Silverside schools may exceed ten thousand individuals. 
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Monday, August 12, 2013

Apoyo Spanish School

Learning Spanish is not always easy. A good teacher is important. An appropriate environment is equally important. We try to emphasize both at Apoyo Spanish School. Ours is the longest operating of the Nicaragua Spanish schools, and our teachers have the most experience of those of any of the schools in Nicaragua. Our teachers have conducted numerous teacher trainings; many of the teachers in other Spanish schools in Nicaragua have learned to teach Spanish with us.
Apoyo Spanish School
Students of Apoyo Spanish School enjoy private Spanish classes with the most experienced teachers in Nicaragua. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Learning Spanish in Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve means receiving high-quality classes with experienced teachers in the longest-running program in the country. It also means enjoying a natural environment, in which monkeys are overhead, the clear water of Lake Apoyo is a few steps away, and interactions with rural people are the order of the day.
Apoyo Spanish School
Spanish classes at Apoyo Spanish School are held from 8 am to 12:30 pm, and lots of homework keep the students busy and learning afterward. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Our teachers at Apoyo Spanish School have developed our own study materials, based on more than twenty years of accumulated experience. Our methods are so successful that many Spanish teachers in other schools use our materials as their instruction guides.
Nicaragua Spanish School
Spanish classes are adapted to the level of the student, from the most basic beginner to advanced students needing academic or business Spanish skills. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Students at Apoyo Spanish School receive exposure to the local culture during their stay, including Nicaragua foods and cooking, popular culture, history and politics. Nicaragua is a poor country in many ways, but its culture and history are rich beyond comparison.
Apoyo Spanish School
How do they make that sopa de queso? Spanish lessons may extend into the kitchen. Photo Pablo Somarriba. 
Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve is a great place to see wildlife. Every week, bird experts on our staff take Spanish students, visitors, and volunteers on nature walks. Howler monkeys, oropendolas, trogons and motmots abound in our vicinity, easily seen during the day. Evening walks may uncover owls, snakes, and tarantulas! 
Nicaragua Spanish School
International topics are common among the many nationalities who visit us at Estacion Biologica. The patio is a great spot to relax and share with others. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
There are also some spectacular views in the volcanic landscapes in and around Laguna de Apoyo. The views, for instance, from Coyotepe are expansive, both across Masaya and the Volcano Masaya with its laguna hidden in the caldera, and toward Tisma and Lake Nicaragua. The horrific history of Coyotepe, with invasions of the gringos, and later, imprisonment and torture of the opponents to the dictatorship, can be heard in the echoes throughout the cavernous structure of the fort. 
Nicaragua Spanish Schools
Lake Masaya and the city of Masaya are below Coyotepe, one of the sites visited by students of Apoyo Spanish School. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
By walking the paths of Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, one can retrace the steps of Cacique Diriangen and view the landscapes which motivated his people to resistance against the Spanish invasion. His spirit lives on in the resistance of the people of Masaya and Los Pueblos. 
Everything done with a smile! Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Most students of Apoyo Spanish School enjoy the multinational company at Estacion Biologica, but one can make an entirely Nicaraguan experience en espanol easily. Our staff conduct all activities in Spanish. 

Nicaragua Spanish School
Afternoon activities are designed to expose the students of Apoyo Spanish School to the language in new settings. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Apoyo Spanish School is in a rustic but clean and safe setting, with toucans, monkeys and forests overhead. The lake is best enjoyed by a daily swim or SCUBA dive, but the spectacular views from along the edge of the Apoyo crater are to be appreciated, too.
Apoyo Spanish School
Granada and Lake Nicaragua are seen in the distance from the Catarina mirador. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The people who live around Laguna de Apoyo are artisans from centuries past. Leather working, wood carving, weaving natural fibers, and fired ceramics are among the products made in the region. The lifestyle of the Nicaraguan is one of farming, artisanry, and rural values, even when people move to the big cities. Every Nicaraguan has artisan crafts on display at home. 
How to embellish a ceramic object before its firing is the lesson of the day, in San Juan de Oriente, the pottery capital of Nicaragua. Photo Pablo Somarriba.
The teachers of Apoyo Spanish School come from the area, and know the reality of the rural people of our area. In their families vegetables, fruits, and grains are grown, artisan crafts are made, and vendors hawk all kinds of dry goods in the municipal market. Educations have come to the younger generation, thanks to the advances of the Nicaraguan Revolution, but the lifestyles still value the country style life.
Nicaragua Spanish School
Throwing a pot on a wheel is not as easy as it looks, especially when the motor for the wheel is your foot! Photo Pablo Somarriba.
Nicaragua Spanish School
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