Apr 192018
 

Wildlife in Costa Rica can almost seem other-worldly: toucans with rainbow-colored beaks nearly as big as their body; huge Blue Morphos cruising about like computer-generated butterflies from the movie Avatar; and, as I’ll describe this week, wing-snapping manakins leaping back and forth like frenzied ping-pong balls. This amazing offering of the natural world was why my wife and I, along with our friends Mike and Sonja Barker, had decided to spend four weeks this winter in Puerto Viejo on the country’s southern Caribbean coast.

Keel-billed Toucan in palm tree metres from our house at Loco Natural – Drew Monkman

Despite the large number of tourists – the vast majority in their 20s and 30s – Puerto Viejo still has a gritty, grassroots vibe. This comes courtesy of Afro-Costa Ricans with their dreadlocks and Rasta hats; beat up ‘pirate’ taxis and three-wheeled tuk-tuks ferrying customers; reggae and hip hop music emanating from streetside bars; the aroma of rice and beans wafting from Caribbean restaurants; rickety fruit and vegetable stands spilling over with a dizzying array of product; and, more often than not, the skunky smell of marijuana on the evening breeze. There’s not a fast-food chain restaurant to be seen anywhere and, so far, local activists have been able to protect the area from large resorts and condominium complexes.

Manakins

As I outlined last week, the house we rented at Finca Loco Natural provided a non-stop parade of large, flamboyant tropical birds and mammals. One of the most common and fascinating species, however, was also the hardest to see. For the first couple of days, we wondered what in the world was making a non-stop snapping sound – reminiscent of someone banging stones together – emanating from the shrubbery. Pamela, our accommodating host, provided the explanation. The mystery sound was courtesy of the White-collared Manakin, a plump, chickadee-sized bird that is a master of concealment. Like other manakins, this species puts on a highly amusing but hard-to-observe mating dance. It all happens in an area known as a ‘lek’. To create the lek, the male removes all of the leaf litter and vegetation from a patch of forest floor under a dense stand of shrubs. When a female is lured to the area, he leaps back and forth at high speed between the stems of the shrubs. Each time he leaps, he snaps his wings, thereby creating the loud sound. Sometimes two males jump together, crossing each other above the bare soil. This was happening right beside our house! Only by going up on the balcony and peering down from above were we able to observe the spectacle. The manakin’s dance is an intriguing example of how evolution through natural selection – the females, in this case, doing the selecting – can drive male breeding behaviour to the most outrageous extremes. Go to bit.ly/2qAHEd5 to see a great YouTube video.

Male White-collared Manakin – Photo: Wikimedia

Abel and Alex

By far the best way to appreciate Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity is to hire a guide. Costa Rican guides are highly trained and actually licensed by the government. With Abel Bustamante, I spent a morning exploring part of the wonderful Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, located a short distance southeast of Puerto Viejo. His unbridled enthusiasm and energy were contagious. If you ever want a reluctant friend or spouse to discover the joys of birding, an outing with Abel will do the trick. Thanks largely to his knowledge of bird song, I was able to add nearly 20 new species to my life list – everything from Fasciated Ant-shrike and White-ringed Flycatcher to Pied Puffbird and Snowy Cotinga. Together, we also marvelled at a flock of 30 or more Swallow-tailed Kites migrating overhead.

On another occasion, I returned to the Kekoldi Hawkwatch tower with a second indigenous guide, Alex Paez. The native guide I’d gone with originally, Kesh Hernandez, was fully booked that day. Only minutes up the trail, Alex’s sharp eyes spotted a small sloth, almost at eye level. Alex explained that sloths make a weekly, slow-motion descent from the treetops, dig a hole in the ground, defecate and then cover their scat. Why they go to all this trouble remains a mystery. Sloths may have algae growing on their fur, but at least their bathroom manners are impeccable! Although the raptor-viewing from the tower was slow that day, peering down on the rainforest canopy from above did produce other new species for me such as a pair of beautiful Black-crowned Tityras.

The Three-fingered Sloth that we came across on the trail up to the hawkwatch tower. – Drew Monkman

A few days later, I did a rainforest night hike with Alex and his eight-year-old son. I had only seen one snake and relatively few frog species on the trip and wanted to see more. Sporting headlamps, we inched our way along a muddy path, peering under huge Heliconia leaves, inspecting roots and vines, watching for the reflection of distant eye shine. Thanks in no small measure to the eagle eyes of Alex’s son, we found two species of snakes, nine kinds of frogs, five Emerald Basilisk lizards, roosting Great Owl butterflies and countless moths, spiders and fireflies. I was able to take great photographs of a Masked Treefrog as it posed beside red and yellow Heliconia flowers; a Red-eyed Leaf Frog – the iconic Costa Rica T-shirt species –  which actually jumped onto my shirt pocket; a beautifully camouflaged but highly venomous Fer-de-Lance snake, curled up in the roots of a tree; and a Blunt-headed Tree Snake, which was almost identical in length, shape and colour to the vines in which it moved. These latter three species were exactly those I was most hoping to find.

Red-eyed Leaf Frog photographed on a rainforest night hike. Note the blue side pattern (Drew Monkman)

 Conservation

Over the course of our stay, we visited a number of conservation initiatives. One of the most interesting of these was the Jaguar Rescue Center. Its raison d’être is the rehabilitation of mistreated, injured, orphaned, and/or confiscated birds and mammals. Those animals that can be successfully rehabilitated are then reintroduced into their natural habitat in a nearby protected area. The Center is a great place to get close up views of sloths, monkeys, snakes, ocelots, toucans and parrots and learn from the knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides.

We also spent a wonderful afternoon at the Manzanillo field station of the Ara Project. The Project’s goal is to re-establish a breeding population of Great Green Macaws in the southern Caribbean region. The station is located high up on the mountain side where it offers spectacular views of the surrounding forest and ocean. The highlight, however, was seeing the macaws themselves. Almost three feet in length and garbed in green, blue and white, it was heart-lifting to see these birds flying free once again over Caribbean lowland forest. Volunteers offer supplemental feeding to the macaws and maintain nesting boxes.

I was also encouraged to learn that conservation initiatives extend beyond just birds and mammals. Alejo Pacheco, who I met one morning while out birding, is working hard to promote snake conservation. Sadly, the habit of killing snakes on sight is still the norm in Costa Rica. Increasingly, however, when people encounter a snake on their property, they call up Alejo, who catches and relocates the animal. Mike and I were able to accompany Alejo on the release of a metre-long Fer-de-Lance. The three of us squeezed into the front seat of his old truck and drove down to the end of deserted dirt road. Before releasing the snake, he held it briefly in his hand, allowing us to get a great look at the fangs and beautifully patterned skin. Rest assured that there are only about seven snake deaths per year in Costa Rica. Driving is far more dangerous!

Alex Pacheco holding a venomous Fer-de-lance. Alejo is a champion of snake conservation in Costa Rica – Drew Monkman

Alejo has the friendly personality that is typical of so many Costa Ricans. He is also the owner of beautiful tourist houses such as Casa Balto and Casa Yacky, which he rents out. Perched high on a mountainside, they not only offer spectacular views but the surrounding area is also incredibly rich in bird life.

Chocolate  

No account of Puerto Viejo would be complete without mentioning chocolate. The area has half a dozen local bean-to-bar chocolate makers. To learn more, we did an exceptional tour with Caribeans. They have been successful in rehabilitating a cacao plantation, which was abandoned in the 1980s after a deadly fungus struck. The highlight of the tour was sampling four kinds of local chocolate in pairings with coconut, garlic, curry and a wide array of spices. The tasting took place on a mountainside balcony with a stunning view of the ocean and rainforest. I later learned a great deal about the significant health benefits of cacao from Sandra Candela, a woman I met with for Spanish conversation. From Sandra, I learned a great deal about climate change in the south Caribbean region as well as birds, trees, cacao production and the importance of cacao farming to indigenous peoples. Sandra also produces and sells dehydrated, raw cacao beans which she markets under the name RaWo She  explained to me that raw cacao is thought to be the highest anti-oxidant in nature.

Sandra Candela is a wonderful Spanish teacher. She also dehydrates raw cocoa beans, which she sells at the Puerto Viejo Saturday morning Farmers Market – Drew Monkman

Climate change

Like everywhere, Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is grappling with climate change. The area is seeing an increased number of tropical storms, hurricanes and heavy rains. Sea level, too, is rising and destroying coastline. We saw this at Cahuita National Park where coastal erosion has eaten away at beaches and numerous trees have fallen. Warmer water temperatures and increased acidity have also damaged coral ecosystems. Disruptions in the climate are making life more difficult for indigenous farmers, as well. As Alex Paez explained to me, seasonal weather differences are now far less clear, which results in confusion about when to plant crops.

Despite these challenges, the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica remains a wonderful place to visit and to experience nature at its most diverse. Personally, I can’t wait to go back. Next week, I’ll conclude this series with some highlights from our stay in San Isidro de Heredia where we spent the final 10 days of the trip.

 

 

Apr 122018
 

If Costa Rica taught me one lesson, it was to never go anywhere without my binoculars and camera. Not to put clothes on the line, not to go for water and especially not to walk into town. I could  be certain that some kind of exotic creature – be it a sloth, a toucan, a poison dart frog or a new bird species – would pop up right in front of me, almost begging to be identified or for its picture to be taken.

My wife Michelle and I, along with our friends Mike and Sonja Barker, had the pleasure this winter of spending four weeks in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica. Our daughter Sophie, and Mike and Sonja’s daughter Karina, also joined us for part of the time. Puerto Viejo is located on the southern Caribbean coast near the border of Panama. We chose this area for two reasons. First, we had never been there before but knew that the temperature is more moderate than on the Pacific side. Equally important, there is still a large areas of primary rainforest, which has been relatively unaffected by human activities.

Bicycles are a common means of transportation in Puerto Viejo – for locals and tourists alike. (photo: Drew Monkman)

This region is the heart and soul of Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean community. Approximately one-third of the people living here are the descendents of immigrants who came here from countries such as Jamaica at the end of the 19th century. Their distinct culture is immediately recognizable in their clothes, food, music and, of course, language. Although they are all fluent in Spanish, many also speak an idiom known as ‘Limon Creole’, which is a mix of English, Spanish and other influences. This area is also home to the country’s most prominent and culturally intact indigenous groups who inhabit the Kekoldi, Cabecar and Bribri territories. Since the 1980s, the southern Caribbean has become a popular destination for large numbers of European and, increasingly, North American tourists, many of whom have chosen to stay and become business owners. Tourists are attracted by the rich cultural diversity as well as the beautiful beaches, great surfing, amazing biodiversity and spectacular land and seascapes. The area also has wonderful restaurants and cafés.

Loco Natural

We rented a three-bedroom house at Finca Loco Natural from a lovely Chilean and American couple, Pamela and Carter. It was only a 20-minute walk from town and just five minutes from the ocean. Nestled in seven acres of Heliconia gardens, flowering shrubs and towering trees – and backing onto rainforest – the ‘Bird House’ was everything a nature enthusiast could ask for. It was a treat for all of the senses. Every morning we awoke to the non-stop, frog-like clicking of Keel-billed Toucans, the wing-snapping of White-collared Manakins, the harsh squawking of Gray-cowled Wood-rails and the cacophonous cries of Howler Monkeys. The approach of nightfall was signaled by the loud, far-carrying “gwa-co” of the Laughing Falcon, followed shortly after by the throaty growl of the Great Potoo and eventually by the gentle hooting of the Spectacled Owl.

A Black-mandibled Toucan photographed from the kitchen table at Finca Loco Natural (photo: Drew Monkman)

In the middle of the day when bird activity slowed down, butterflies took centre stage. At times, it was like being in a butterfly conservatory as Julias, Banded Peacocks, Blue Morphos and various species of Heliconius and Caligos butterflies flitted about. Identifying them is no easy task, since the country has more than 1300 species. Compare this to only 300 in all of Canada!

Occasionally, a Blue Morpho would fly right through the kitchen or balcony, since they were both completely open on three sides with no windowpanes or screens. This meant that visitors of the non-human variety were common house guests. In addition to butterflies, these included giant six-inch walking sticks, geckos, leaf-like katydids, frogs, moths, hummingbirds and, on one occasion, even some fruit bats, which gobbled up most of a banana we had left on the counter. An added bonus was the rich, blossom-scented air, often courtesy of two Ylang-Ylang trees that grew behind the house.

A highlight of each day was simply sitting at the kitchen table – a cup of exquisite Costa Rican coffee in hand – and watching the parade of mammals, birds and butterflies attracted by the diverse flora. On numerous occasions, Howler Monkeys and Three-fingered Sloths provided spectacular entertainment and photo ops one can only dream of. Agoutis, a large, comical, guinea pig-like rodent, were regular visitors, too. For me, however, it was the birds that stole the show. These included outrageously coloured toucans like the Keel-billed, Black-mandibled and Collared Aracaris, boisterous Montezuma Oropendolas, exquisite Long-tailed Hermit hummingbirds and flashy Passerini’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers. Many of the birds fed in palm and Cecropia trees only metres from where we sat. As Sonja remarked, “The problem here is not Nature Deficit Disorder, it’s total Nature Overload Disorder!”

The kitchen and balcony of the ‘Bird House’ that we rented are open to the elements on three sides. (photo: Drew Monkman)

How right she was. I was hardly able to sleep, given all there was to discover. I headed out each morning at about 6 am to take advantage of peak bird activity. A favorite destination was a nearby Cecropia tree, where I snapped pictures of the parade of birds coming to feed on the seeds. These often included oropendolas, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Buff-throated Saltators, Social Flycatchers as well as Blue-gray, Palm and Passerini’s Tanagers.

Creek and pool

Pamela suggested we explore a nature trail on the property that leads to a creek and, a short distance upstream, to a lovely waterfall. As we walked through the ankle-deep water, we were thrilled to find both Strawberry and Green-Black Poison Frogs on the steep, shaded banks. I had no idea these frogs were still so common. Giant Helicopter Damselflies fluttered overhead – flying just like their namesake suggests – while insanely tame Tawny-crested Tanagers bathed along the stream edge. We stopped at one point to admire a giant fig tree with massive, four-foot-high buttress roots spreading out on all sides. This root design is an adaptation to the shallow, nutrient-poor rainforest soil and improves the tree’s ability to withstand strong winds. Finally arriving at the waterfall, the cool, clear water felt wonderful as it spilled over us. It was a scene right out of a Costa Rica tourist ad!

A Three-fingered Sloth that was hanging out in a Cecropia tree near the pool. (photo: Drew Monkman)

Tawny-crested Tanager bathing along the side of the creek up to the waterfall (photo: Mike Barker)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small swimming pool at Finca Loco Natural was another favourite hangout – and not just because of the refreshing water. It also provided wonderful nature-viewing. Much of the time, it was nearly impossible to sit and read. There was almost always a sloth, a family of monkeys or a flock of toucans or oropendolas to grab our attention. A four-foot-long Green Iguana was also a source of constant entertainment, especially when it relieved itself on the vegetation below! With four pairs of eyes doing the watching, we continually spotted new and interesting birds. Two of the rarer species we observed from the pool area included a Bat Falcon – actually feasting on a bat – and a regal, adult King Vulture. Sonja spotted the huge black and white bird as it soared overhead among hundreds of migrating Turkey Vultures.

Guides

You can’t experience the full diversity of tropical bird life without hiring the services of a guide. Finding many species depends on recognizing their vocalizations – a major undertaking in a country of over 900 species – and having local knowledge of their whereabouts. I was lucky to go birding with three highly talented and passionate individuals, all of whom seemed to enjoy themselves as much as I did. They were Keysaur (Kesh) Hernandez, Alex Paez Balma and Abel Bustamante. Kesh and Alex are indigenous guides of the Kekoldi community.

Kesh, with my daughter Sophie, on the raptor-viewing tower (photo: Drew Monkman)

The morning Sophie and I spent with Kesh was an amazing introduction to the rich biodiversity and indigenous culture of the area. Not only does Kesh speak five languages, but he is also one of the most enthusiastic and profoundly ethical guides I have ever met. He moved effortlessly along the steep and muddy rainforest trail, reminding us to talk in whispers. At regular intervals, he would stop to point out the songs of elusive species like antbirds, treecreepers and wrens – all of which he imitated in a near-perfect whistle. At one point, his whistling brought a Stripe-breasted Wren almost to our feet.

Thanks to Kesh, we saw hummingbird and manakin leks (an area where males display for females), bullet ants, huge orb spiders, glass-winged butterflies and even a family group of rare Spider Monkeys swinging through the treetops. He even invited us to suck out the nectar of Heliconia blossoms to show us why hummingbirds are so attracted to them. As we walked past a small farm, we sampled the delicious fruit of Cherimoya and Star Apple trees, while he spoke at length about the importance of cocoa beans to health and to indigenous culture.

The highlight of the morning, however, was spending several hours at the top of the Kekoldi Hawkwatch raptor-viewing tower. This area of Costa Rica is considered one of the four best locations in the world to see migrating hawks, kites, falcons and vultures during spring and fall migration. Two to three million raptors pass over the region each year. As we looked out over the forest canopy – the Caribbean Sea to the east and the mountains of Panama to the west – a river of Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons and Plumbeous Kites streamed by, slowly making their way northward. Although the migration had only just begun, it was an experience I’ll never forget. We were also treated to an array of tropical songbird superstars like Golden-hooded Tanagers and Shiny Honeycreepers as they perched in the treetops, illuminated by the morning sun.

Broad-winged Hawk (photo: Wikimedia)

Next week, I’ll share more of my Costa Rica adventures and talk about threats such as climate change.