About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Superb Costa Rica - some other animals

Last time I introduced you to Costa Rica, a truly remarkable little country in Central America, at the very southern tip of North America. After looking at some key habitats we met some of the country's wonderful bird life. Today, as promised, I'm going to offer centre stage to some of the other superb fauna that we encountered - and as I also mentioned, we were only there for a short time, doing the preparation for a return trip in 2020.

It's traditional to start such a tour of  'other animals' with mammals (showing our bias) - so I'm going to start with frogs, of which Costa Rica boasts some 140 species. We saw some truly superb frogs, especially on a night walk in the rain with brilliant but self-effacing local guide Jaime, in the private reserve called Tapirus Lodge (the name celebrates the tapir genus name) in the montane rainforest alongside Braulio Carillo National Park not far north-east of San José. Jaime's ability to locate and pluck frogs and small snakes seemingly at will from the forest (and return them later) was miraculous.
Crowned Tree Frog Anotheca spinosa, one of the most amazing frogs I've ever seen (and I've been lucky enough
to meet a few), with its 'crown' of head projections. Not easy to find, I'm told - except for Jaime.
Red-eyed Tree Frogs Agalychnis callidryas are spectacular and abundant, though this photo doesn't
do it justice. I'll try and do better next time!
Not all frogs require splashing through the night forest however (though that's not a pleasure to be foregone). The exquisite poison arrow frogs (family Dendrobatidae) are active in the daytime. Despite the name only four of the 170 species are apparently known to be harvested for their toxins by indigenous Neotropical people.
Strawbery Poison Dart Frog (also affectionately known in Spanish as 'Blue Jeans') Oophaga pumilio La Selva Biological Research Station, in the mountain rainforests on the northern edge of Braulio Carillo National Park
(on the other side from Tapirus Lodge).

Green and Black Poison Dart Frog Dendrobates auratus, also at La Selva (or rather just outside it,
in a cocoa plantation). The porcelain-like texture of these little frogs is astonishing.
Reptiles are even more diverse - some 220 species of them. One that we came across more than once, from the rainforest floor to the canopy, is the small but deadly little Eyelash Pit Viper Bothriechis schlegelii. It does not of course have eyelashes, but fine scales above the eyes. The pit vipers are a relatively modern family of venomous snakes from Asia and the Americas - too modern to have found their way to Australia. This species varies greatly in colour.
High in the canopy at Monteverde, in the central mountains (seen from a suspension bridge high above a gully).
They are only active at night; this one's head can just been seen in the coils.

This one, low in shrubbery at Tapirus Lodge, became active at night -
the 'eyelashes' are clearly visible here.

Another viper is much bigger, sometimes up to two metres long, though not typically. Fer-de-lance is a name used for several species of the mostly terrestrial genus Bothrops (including B. asper in Costa Rica), though some would say this should only be used for B. lanceolatus from Martinique. They are dangerously venomous, though not usually active in the day.
This Fer-de-lance was resting in the shade of a bench in a shelter along a walking track in Carara National Park
on the mid Pacific coast. Staff had declined to disturb it, but had put up a temporary barrier to keep people off the seat.
Of course most snakes are not venomous, or are only slightly so from our point of view. Among these are the slender little nocturnal snail-eating snakes, which have teeth and jaws adapted to extracting snails from their shells. We found a couple of them on our frog walk at Tapirus Lodge.
Common Snaileater Sibon nebulatus, Tapirus Lodge.
Costa Rica has twice as many snake species (140) as lizards, though the latter, being mostly diurnal, are much more conspicuous. The small quick anoles are seemingly everywhere, and many are not readily identified (at least by me!). Here is a representative of them!
Unidentified anole, Carara National Park.
They are variously placed in the iguana family, or given their own, Dactyloidae.
Big Spiny-tailed Iguanas Ctenosaura similis run the carpark at Carara NP.
This one is limited to Central America and Mexico, while the more familiar Green Iguana Iguana iguana is found from Mexico and the Caribbean to southern Brazil.
Green Iguana in a street tree, San Isidro. (This one was actually in the same tree as the exquisite
Turquoise Cotinga that I featured last time.)
Other related families contain the spiny lizards and helmeted lizards, both featuring in Costa Rica.
Green Spiny Lizard Sceloporus malachiticus, Family Phrynosomatidae,
at a chilly 3400 metres above sea level in the central mountains.

The Green Basilisk Basiliscus plumifrons, Family Corytophanidae, here in a private reserve at La Fortuna,
also in the central mountains, is seemingly almost literally fabulous.
My small offering of invertebrates does not indicate disrespect, but simply my inability to go close to identifying them. Let's just enjoy them.
Butterfly, Cerro Lodge, on the Pacific coast near to Carara NP.

Grasshopper, La Selva Biological Research Station.

Moth (and an amazing one!), Tapirus Lodge.
Land Crab, Monteverde. Not what I expected to encounter on a mountain forest track, even in the rain!
And so to the mammals, who've been waiting their turn patiently.

There are only four species of monkey in Costa Rica, of which only Mantled Howlers Alouatta palliata are widespread and readily seen.
Mantled Howler female and baby, high above the ground in the canopy below a suspension bridge at Monteverde.
White-faced Capuchin Cebus imitator, Cerro Lodge. Unlike the Mantled Howler, which extends down the South
American Pacific coast to Ecuador, this monkey is restricted to Central America.
It takes to the ground much more readily than the other local monkeys; we watched them scurry back
to the trees on their hind legs at Cerro Lodge, clutching purloined bananas to their chests!

White-nosed Coati Nasua narica, Arenal Volcano. This is an adult male, which are generally solitary.
This coati replaces the widespread South American Coati in Central and southern North America.
They are voracious hunters, as well as fruit fanciers.
Variegated Squirrels Sciurus variegatoides are strikingly handsome with an array of coat colours,
though the grizzled tail is fairly constant. Widespread but not usually in mature rainforest.
Baird's Tapir Tapirus bairdii, Tapirus Lodge (appropriately). Here they have become habituated to people so
are unusually easy to watch, though by no means always present. This is the largest of the four
American Tapirs, weighing up to 400kg (the closely related Malayan Tapir is larger still).
And finally, the only mammal presented here whose ancestors actually arose in South America - the others either came from the north (coatis and tapirs) or crossed the Atlantic from Africa long ago (monkeys and squirrel). 
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth Bradypus variegatus, Tapirus Lodge - in the carpark! Sloths are not so hard
to find in Costa Rica, and it is quite usual to see a tour bus stopped by the road with its occupants peering into a tree.
One day I'll do a post on the old South American mammals - sloths, anteaters and armadillos.

And that's it for today; again I hope you've found this little series of interest. If not, rest assured that the fault is mine, not that of the wonderful little land of Costa Rica.

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Thursday, 5 September 2019

Superb Costa Rica - an introduction

I had long wanted to see something of Central America, and in particular Costa Rica, and very recently we had the opportunity to do so in the form of a reconnaissance trip preparatory to taking a group there next year. As well as our long-term friend and tour organiser extraordinary, Peruvian Juan Cardenas, we had the company and remarkable knowledge and skills of local guide Leo Garrigues. 

For now I just want to offer a very brief overview of this remarkable little country with an introduction to some of its habitats and birds today, to be followed up next time with a selection of some of its other spectacular wildlife. 
Montane Rainforest from above; Canopy Walk at Monteverde, northern Pacific slopes. (a)
See map for locations of photos, using the letters at the end of each caption.
Costa Rica is tiny, just 50,000 square kilometres (about 75% of the size of Tasmania, for my Australian readers) with a population of five million. It is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean to the east. A spine of mountains from north to south divides it. 
The letters on the map refer to the locations of the habitat photos above and below; letters follow captions.
(Approximate only.)
It is fairly well-known that Costa Rica dissolved its army 70 years ago after a brief six week civil war; since then it has known only peace and prosperity. Moreover it has a refreshingly responsible approach to social and environmental issues which most wealthy countries should be embarrassed by. For instance its education budget is 7% of its total expenditure, compared with a world average of roughly 4.5%. (The most recent Australian figure I can find is 5.9%.)

Remarkably it is seemingly the only country to meet all five of the United Nations Development Program criteria for measuring environmental sustainability. We were constantly struck by just how much forest remains, with regeneration programs to supplement this. By 2016 98% of its energy was produced by renewables, with a goal of being nationally carbon neutral in the near future. And for a visitor, the infrastructure for nature-based tourism is just superb!

Nowhere is perfect of course, but few of us come from a country which could look down on Costa Rica’s aspirations and achievements. I certainly don’t come from such a one.

Here is a sample of the range of habitats we enjoyed in our stay,

Primary Lowland Rainforest, La Selva Biological Station, Caribbean Lowlands. (b)

Cloud Forest, Talamanca Mountains, southern Pacific Slopes. (c)

Wetlands, Medio Queso, near the Nicaraguan border. (d)

Parramo heath vegetation, 3400 metres above sea level, southern Pacific slopes. (e)
Mangroves, Puerto Morales, Pacific coast. (f)
And with that, please meet some of the more than 300 birds species we saw (in just 9 days of travelling!) that lived there and particularly impressed us. Perhaps we should start with one of the most famed and sought-after birds of Costa Rica.
Resplendent Quetzel Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre Valley.
Maybe the name is a bit over the top, but then isn't he??
A stunning trogon, restricted to central America, and the national bird of Guatemala.
And she's well deserving of an introduction too.
Resplendent Quetzal female; a small flock of these amazing birds were feeding on fruit in this
tree early on our very first morning in the country!
And from here on let's just take them in random order.
Collared Aracari Pteroglossus torquatus, in a private garden in the Central Valley
north of the capital San José. This one is found from southern Mexico to Ecuador.
Male Great Curassow Crax rubra, La Selva Biological Research Station, lowland rainforest.
A very big bird, a metre long and weighing up to five kilograms. Threatened by hunting in much
of its range, which is similar to that of the Collared Aracari, above.

Pale-billed Woodpecker Campephilus guatemalensis, Carara NP, near the Pacific coast north of San José.
A big Central American woodpecker.
Staying with the spectacular... Scarlet Macaw Ara macao, Cerro Lodge near Carara NP (see above).
It has a large range into South America but this has been very fragmented by clearing
and the pernicious illegal pet trade.
Turquoise Cotinga Cotinga ridgwayi, San Isidro, south-east of San José. Another exquisite bird, but very restricted (to a narrow band of Pacific forest in Costa Rica and adjacent Panama) and threatened by clearing, especially in Panama.
Turquoise-browed Motmot Eumomota superciliosa, found only from Costa Rica to southern Mexico.
It has the honour of being the national bird of both El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Like other motmots it flicks its tail back and forth like a pendulum and is thus known in Spanish as the clock bird.
Red-headed Barbet Eubucco bourcierii, Bosque de Tolomuco, yet another superb private reserve,
this one in the cloud forest north of San Isidro, south-east of San José.
You won't be surprised to read that barbets are fruit eaters!
White-throated Magpie-Jay Calocitta formosa, western Central Valley.
A dramatic big jay, one of the crow family, noisy, gregarious and eating almost anything.
In a boat in the wetlands of the far north (near the wonderfully named Medio Queso, 'Half Cheese') we saw some waterbirds that are normally very hard to encounter indeed.
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis, indeed one of the world's smallest herons (less than 35cm long
and weighing less than 100 grams) and usually notoriously hard to see. Not this one!
Yellow-breasted Crake Porzana flaviventer, fairly widespread but like most crakes usually a skulker.
And tanagers and hummingbirds are always going to earn a place on any list of special Latin American birds - Costa Rica is certainly no exception here.
Crimson-collared Tanager Ramphocelus sanguinolentus, Mariposaria private garden, Caribbean slopes.
Another bird limited to Central America.

Speckled Tanager Tangara guttata, Restaurant de Nayo, near San Isidro, south Pacific slopes.
 A lovely open-sided rustic restaurant overlooking a forested valley with close-at-hand bird feeders,
which produced this beauty, among others, as well as excellent simple local cuisine.
Purple-throated Mountain-gem Lampornis calolaemus, Monteverde. A gorgeous hummingbird even by their lofty
standards; the throat can be dark one moment and shining purple the next, depending on the angle.
Found mostly in Costa Rica, with outlying populations in adjacent Nicaragua and Panama.

Snowcap Microchera albocoronata, one of the most exquisite hummers I've ever met, with its snowy cap
and purple body. It's tiny, only six centimetres long and weighing a mere 2.5 grams!
It was relentlessly bullied by the bigger hummers in the Mariposaria private garden,
and got very little chance to rest or feed. It lives along the Caribbean slopes from Honduras to Panama.
But just before we go, I really should acknowledge the Costa Rican national bird, given that we've met representatives of three other Central American countries. It seems somehow appropriate that this bird is not spectacular or rare at all, rather it is plain-coloured and ubiquitous, perhaps a bird of the people. Here in fact is a whole patriotic feeder tray of them.

Clay-coloured Thrushes Turdus grayi, La Fortuna; the national bird of Costa Rica!
Costa Rica is truly wonderful. I hope you can join me next time to celebrate some of its other animals. 

(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.
And I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!)