Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 3 - Selva Verde, all day

Waking up in the rainforest is like nothing else in the world, and if you have not done it - I highly suggest that you find a way to do so at some time.  It is pretty special.  Now mind you - I wasn't waking up on the rainforest floor itself, sleeping next to the buttressed roots of some huge tree, or even camping - nothing so adventurous as that.  Nevertheless, when I awoke at 4ish on our first morning at Selva Verde it was pretty damn cool.  Frogs that I was (and still am) unable to identify were still chirping, as well as who knows what other denizens of the forest were making noise that I also couldn't id - all I can tell you is that as I lay in the dark, waiting for dawn to bring the technicolor variety of birds that we traveled to Costa Rica to see, I was really happy, comfortable and at peace.
As the next hour passed, I heard the distant crowing of Selva Verde's neighbor's roosters... and then at about 5:10 I heard that sound that many who have spent time at eco-lodges in Costa Rica or Panama or any of a number of other places have woken to - Howler Monkeys!

I took the above photo a little later in the day - not a great photo as they were high in the trees - but at five in the morning when they are doing their thing, it sounded like they were just on the other side of the screened and slat-shuttered windows above my head.  Some people complained of being awakened by these guys, but I was pretty happy for my first primate experience.  As dawn approached, I got up and dressed to head over to where the feeders (and the coffee) are - Pamela decided to stay in a bit later and get up at her own pace.  As I passed the large almond tree, I spotted several Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, as well as my first Keel-billed Toucan.
Also known as the Rainbow-billed Toucan, I think this was probably the inspiration for 'Toucan Sam' of Froot Loops fame.  Interestingly, it flew in the direction of the Dining Room. 
"No way!" I thought to myself, and headed in the same direction - I half expected to find Froot Loops available for breakfast, but there was only coffee at this hour. (And when the cereal was put out, there was only corn flakes, etc) By the way, I just bought this cereal from our local cantina truck, just so I could include this pic - I hope you all appreciate the lengths I am willing to go to on this blog for you!

After my prior experience on the veranda at Asa Wright in Trinidad, I expected the feeders to be a mob-scene, but was actually surprised to see almost no birds at all at the feeders in Selva Verde in the early morning!  I guess there is plenty of food throughout the area that they don't check in at the feeders first thing.  I chatted with a few other guests over the morning's coffee, then many of them left to join the 6am daily bird walk.  On my way to wake Pamela for breakfast, I encountered an Orange-billed Sparrow and a Chestnut-backed Antbird.  After waking my wife, who was pleasantly dozing in the morning's warmth, I headed back outside to wait to go with her to breakfast - I didn't want to waste a moment being inside!  I wandered over to the white sheet that they had set up to attract bugs and moths at night...

These were among the more interesting ones on the sheet (well to me at least - as much as I do like moths - I like the big crazy ones, and haven't delved into the smaller, plainer looking ones yet.)
Pam soon joined me and we had out first breakfast at Selva Verde, and soon enough a few birds showed up at the feeders, which contained mostly bananas.  Again, maybe not as busy as the ones at Asa Wright, but we certainly saw some cool birds there...
Among the larger birds that came to the feeders were Montezuma Oropendola...

as well as one of the birds that would easily contend for a spot in my top 10 favorite birds of the trip (hey - that's not an easy call to make on one's first trip to Costa Rica) Collared Aracari:

After taking a ton of photos, I had to try taking a video as well...

Birds weren't the only ones interested in the bananas though - this Caligo Butterfly landed for a little while and posed for a photo...
Sometimes the butterflies in the Caligo genus (there are about 20 species) are referred to as Owl Butterflies - I really hope I don't have to explain to you why.

We had signed up for an 8:30am walk across the suspension bridge into the primary forest (yes, all of this and more was before 8am) and so after breakfast we stuck close to the dining area where we would meet our guide.  This the the only way you can access this portion of the Selva Verde property these days.  While waiting, we watched  a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (one of the most common hummingbird species that we'd see in Costa Rica) enjoying some sunlight and apparently doing it's morning calisthenics:

Soon enough we met our guide and crossed the bridge to the primary forest. Surprisingly, we encountered few birds there, but we did learn quite a bit about the ecology of the rainforest, watched many leaf-cutter ants (which seem to be pretty much everywhere in Costa Rica), saw many more Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs, as well as quite a few Green-and-Black Poison Dart Frogs:
As well as a photo of this little guy, who seems a little angry and embarrassed that I caught him at such a unflattering moment:
As we were wrapping up, we were treated to wonderful extended looks at two male and one female Red-throated Ant Tanager. And as we crossed the bridge back, a bird flew in front of me in the distance, and something about the shape said "trogon" to me. Up until that point, I'd been walking very cautiously and carefully across the suspension bridge, but now I was moving, and in no time we were looking at our first trogon of the trip - a Slaty-tailed Trogon:

We thanked our guide and decided to relax and do a little easy birding close to the room until lunch time, as we planned to hike a bit around the secondary growth forest across the street in the afternoon.  Along the covered walkways, we noted a few other interesting birds like Buff-rumped warbler picking insects from along a stream's edge and flicking its tail about.  The grounds of the lodge are incredibly full of life if you stop to notice it.  Even if you are a birder and there aren't many birds around to look at (?!?), chances you will stumble across some other interesting forms of life, from little caterpillars:
to HUGE Iguanas!
(yeah, this guy was easily +4' from head to tail)

Lunchtime provided more opportunity to watch Aracari Antics, as well as watch a Strip-throated Hermit (hummingbird) zipping around some of the smaller flowering plants, and noticed a large Basilisk hanging out in a tree.
We then headed across the street, but as it was the hottest part of the day there wasn't much bird activity, although we did find a family of Howler Monkeys lounging in the upper branches of the canopy.  Arriving back near the dining room area, I noticed a different hummingbird where we had seen the Rufous-tailed doing it's funky posing earlier.  Figuring (well, maybe more hoping) that it was probably "trapline" feeding (typical of hummingbirds, where they have a pattern of food sources that they regularly visit) we decided to sit and relax and hope that it returned.  After about 20 minutes we were rewarded with pretty good looks at a Violet-headed Hummingbird.
At almost any point it was easy to entertain ourselves watching the many (well, at least 9) Chestnut-mandibled Toucans that constantly worked the nearby big Almond Tree...

While I was taking photographs of these colorful characters, Pamela called over to me that she had a big woodpecker working on one of the other trees.  She didn't have to say it twice - I was almost running.  Lo and behold, my lovely wife had found what was one of the species I had most hoped to see here - a Pale-billed Woodpecker.  The photo isn't great, but the moment was!
We watched him fly from tree to tree for a while before losing him in the forest.  After a day like we'd already had, a siesta was well in order, and we enjoyed it immensely before heading to the bar (which overlooks the river) late in the afternoon for a few Imperial cervesas, and then another great meal that evening.  And again, we headed early to bed as the next day would certainly be a long one - we were scheduled for a full day at La Selva OTS just down the road.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bird Photography Weekly #83

Clay-colored Thrush - Turdus grayi
The national bird of Costa Rica. These birds were found everywhere that we visited on our recent two-week trip there.  And not just at feeders (although it certainly made it easy to photograph them there).
I think that they like bananas...
"Darn right, I like bananas!!!"

PS - as always click on the photos to see larger versions!

To see some great bird photos from around the world, check out:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 2 - Hotel Bougainvilla to Selva Verde

Whether due to excitement for waking up my first morning in Costa Rica, or perhaps because we'd spent most of the day traveling the day before, I found myself awake at 4:30am on our first morning.  Knowing that we had a full day ahead of us, I decided not to get up and explore the gardens in the dark, but instead to lie in bed and listen to see what I could hear and possibly identify.  The Hotel Bougainvilla is not far away enough from residential areas to minimize the noise of people starting their cars, trucks and motorcycles going down the street, even though when you are in the gardens, you feel like you are miles away.  Interestingly, the first "heard" bird that I could identify was a Grey-necked Wood Rail doing it's crazy "cartoon walk" call in the distance.  (Well, that's what I think of when I hear it - judge for yourself here. Xeno-canto is such a great site for stuff like this!)  Next up were the ubiquitous Clay-colored Thrush and then many sounds I could not identify.  I understand that Clay-colored Thrush actually has quite a repertoire, so I might have been hearing more of them than I recognized.  Something that I seemed to forget from the last time I was about this far south, is how fast the light seems to change.  Daylight and night are almost the same length of time, but it seems like the transition between the two go very quickly.  Soon after it was light, we headed out to the gardens again for a few hours birding before breakfast and transferring to our next location - my hopes were high for seeing Prevost's and White-eared Ground Sparrows, which are not common, but are seen here.  We started the day with a Blue-crowned Motmot in the shadows that didn't have any tail rackets.  (And I have just learned that the Blue-crowned Motmot complex has just been split into six species - so to be taxonomically correct, I should say that we say a Blue-diademed Motmot.)  Throughout the few hours that we wandered the garden, we watched a young Clay-colored Thrush ignoring food on a feeder just a few feet away while trying to subdue a butterfly deep in a hedge, and Pamela spotted a Squirrel Cuckoo while I chased around a Rufous-collared Sparrow hoping to improve on the photos that attempted in the previous day's waning light.  IAfter a wonderful breakfast buffet that included the freshest of fruits, pinto y gallo, and some excellent coffee, we went up to grab our bags and then meet our driver.
The gentleman that was to take us from Hotel Bougainvilla to Selva Verde was named Eric Campos - and every minute of the ride from one place to the next was great with him.  We stopped along the way to pick-up bug repellent and water, and he joined us to make sure everything went smoothly, as my Spanish is poor at best (something I am hoping to remedy over the next few years).  For no reason other than generosity and hospitality, he also picked out and bought us a ripe mango, which was amazingly delicious! For the few hours trip through Braulio Carrillo National Park and the cloud forest, we talked about everything from the areas we traveled through, to the few years he and his wife spent working in NYC.  It was obvious that he loved his country - something that we would experience regardless of where we were.  Everyone seemed to be an ambassador for Costa Rica, talking about the wonderful food and land and weather and parks and flora and fauna, and they are very proud of the preservation work that the country has done, and they understand how much tourism - and especially eco-tourism - can be good for the country and it's economy.

When we arrived at Selva Verde in the early afternoon, we discovered that our room wasn't quite ready yet, but they were happy to store our bags if we wanted to explore the grounds a bit, which we happily did.  The first bird that Pamela spotted, right along one of the side trails from the main boardwalk was a Grey-necked Wood Rail.

What a great way to start our stay at this beautiful location!  We wandered over to the suspension bridge that goes over the river that passes over the Rio Sarapiqui, and had our first looks at the many Chestnut-mandibled Toucans that reside in the area.
They seemed to be particularly fond of a large Almendo (Almond) Tree where they obviously were feeding.
We then headed back to the reception desk to learn that our room was ready, and brought our luggage to the room.  I knew from the moment that we'd arrived that I was going to love this place.  There are well marked, covered pathways (that are surprisingly unobtrusive) that lead from the different buildings -so even if it is raining (which it often seems to do on our vacations) you could still be outdoors and immersed in nature without really getting wet.  Thankfully, that was not the case for this vacation for us.  The rooms are basic, clean and comfortable, and I was very comfortable there.  Meals are served buffet style and again were always very good with a nice variety for each of the three days and nights that we spent there.  As with many other eco-lodges, they do have bird feeding stations set-up, though they didn't seem to get as much action as others I've seen - probably because we were there at a time when there was plenty of food to be found in the nearby forest.  Not that the feeders didn't attract any nice birds - future posts will show that simply is not the case!
That afternoon/evening, we participated in an evening bird walk, and learned about some of the other areas of the property, and were treated to looks at some species there that are common there like Orange-billed Sparrows more Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Social Flycatchers, Olive-backed and Yellow-crowned Euphonias, and my first (of many) Black-cheeked Woodpeckers.  We'd also spotted Silver-throated Tangers which I'd been hoping to see.  The best birds of the day though had to be three Great Green Macaws the flew over us. No photos unfortunately - I was too busy admiring these big, beautiful (loud!) members of the Psittacidae family, to try to take any late evening in-flight photos.  (Which I'm not good at to begin with)

The day wasn't over yet though.  After dinner that evening, they also had a night walk which I was very excited for.  There were so many people attending, they had to break it up into two groups!  We didn't encounter any night birds, but really, that's not what this walk was about...
Male Red-eyed Tree-Frog
Female Red-eyed Tree-Frog
Males and females are told apart mainly by size - the female seems almost twice the size of the male!

Common Tink Frog

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog (aka 'Blue Jeans' Frog)
One cool thing about the poison dart frogs in the Costa Rican rainforests is that they lay their eggs on the leaves on plants, but once the tadpoles are born, they carry them on their backs to small pools in the trees of in bromeliads to develop, and the females leave them with unfertilized eggs for nutrition while they are growing.  They are called 'poision' dart frogs because of their toxic, alkaloid secretions.  Their bright coloration is also a warning sign that "I don't taste good." 
We also saw Green-and-black Poison Dart Frogs on the walk but I didn't manage any good photos at the time.
Just before wrapping it up for the night, I did find one last creepy crawly, a rather large centipede that I've not got an ID on yet, but maybe that's just as well:
After that, we retired to our room to shower, relax, and I took notes about what we'd seen, then drifted off to sleep listening to a Pauraque calling in the distance.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Costa Rica, Day 1

This will be the first of many posts about our recent trip to Costa Rica from March 7th through the 20th.  Pamela and I had planned this trip with the great folks over at Costa Rica Gateway, and especially wish to thank Sonia there.  We had considered taking a birding tour with one of the very many companies that lead them there, but in the end, decided to save some money and do the trip on our own.  Costa Rica Gateway acts as an agent in helping to arrange reservations, guides and transportation, and they did a spectacular job for us.  We spent three nights at Selva Verde Lodge, three nights at Rancho Naturalista, two nights at Savegre Mountain Hotel, and three nights at Punta Leona, bookended by a night each at the beginning and end of the trip at the Hotel Bougainvilla - a sort of a birder's introduction to Costa Rica.

We flew into San Jose, Costa Rica on March 7th from Boston with a layover in Miami, and arrived at about 1:30.  After waiting in an incredibly long line to get through customs there, we retrieved our baggage, and our driver was waiting for us at the exit to take us to the beautiful Hotel Bougainvilla.  You might have heard people talk about the beautiful gardens at the hotel, and it is no exaggeration - they are wonderful!

This was the view from our balcony of the gardens behind the hotel (well a small percentage of the gardens)

A wonderfully landscaped area with a large variety of plant and flower species - which of course, also attracts a number of birds.  Within a few moments of walking out the door into the gardens, the birding began in earnest.  The first bird we found was, oddly enough, one that we are quite familiar with - a Baltimore Oriole spending time at it's winter home.  Soon after though we were also spotting species that are a little less known in the US as well as many that never make their way north of the border at all.  For instance, the national bird of Costa Rica, the Clay-colored Robin which is seen pretty much everywhere in C.R. has been seen with some regularity in the southern Rio Grande Valley in Texas in the last few years.

A few years ago, when Pamela and I went to Arizona, we felt pretty lucky to see Rufous-capped Warbler from a pretty good distance.  In the gardens at the hotel, we had a pair hunting insects within a few feet of us.

Another species that I thought was pretty cool was the Rufous-collared Sparrow:
What I didn't realize at the time, was exactly how common this dapper little sparrow is. As a friend on facebook said - it one of the world's prettiest 'trash birds.' I think this might have been my first of very many 'life birds' for the trip. My first new woodpecker of the trip was also easily found in the gardens here. A Hoffman's Woodpecker made it's presence known by the familiar tapping as it foraged along.

Adding to the list of birds we saw in the short time we spent in the garden before the sun set and we headed in for dinner included some more familiar species from the southern US like Great Kiskadee and Tropical Kingbird, a few species we'd seen on last year's trip to Trinindad & Tobago like Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers and  a few other lifers like Greyish Saltator.

At the bar in the hotel (we were a little early for the restaurant, but were ravenous from the day's travel) we ordered a traditional Costa Rican dinner plate which consisted of rice and beans, plantains, salad, and I had chicken while Pamela had a fish - both of which were delicious.  Oh yes, we also had our first of many Imperials - la cerveza de Costa Rica.  I'm no beer connoisseur, but I found this lager consistently refreshing.  (Actually reminded me a little bit of the Carib we found in Trinidad & Tobago)

That evening we enjoyed a luxuriously comfortable night's sleep at the Hotel Bougainvilla.  Well, for a little while at least - I was so excited for the trip, I could hardly wait for the next day to begin and woke at 4:30 am.  But I'll pick-up there in the next post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A little bit about me before I get into the Costa Rica posts

Well, it's been quite a while since I've added much to the blog.  There was the Superbowl of Birding back in January, and that provided some great content for a little while - but other than that, my posts have been random, few and far between. There are some good reasons for this... a general lull in birding this winter (don't get me wrong, I do love our New England winter regulars like all the ducks, and Snowy Owls - not to mention the occasional rare visitor like an Ivory Gull) rarely motivated me to write.  Also, just as autumn was passing into winter I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, so much of my cognitive powers have been directed more towards dealing with that and all its attendant tests, consultations, trying to get the meds and side effects straightened out, etc.  I've also spent a lot of time contemplating how this is going to affect my future - but more importantly, what I can do so that it does NOT prevent me from living my life on my terms.  The good thing is that we seem to have caught early, I have a good support team in my neurologist and MS nurse, not to mention the great support from friends, family and especially my lovely wife, Pamela.  Frankly, I've given it some thought, and it's really not something that I have any interest in blogging about (beyond this one explanation), nor do I mention it to fish for sympathy (in fact, I am going to turn off comments for this post!)

All that being said, there are going to be some great things on the blogging horizon.  We just spent 13 nights in Costa Rica, so there is plenty of material to work with, and I've got tons of photos to go through and share, so stay tuned!