This is one birder's journal of his first (but hopefully not last) trip to Costa Rica on an organized tour with Grand Circle Tours. With my wife Glenda and close friends, Chuck and Darla (shown above - I'm the one with the glasses), and about three dozen other marvelous people (none of them birders), I travelled for thirteen days in March of 2005 through the northwest quadrant of the country. I visited numerous parks and out of the way places, most of which were not designed to optimize the birding experience. None the less, I was able to identify over eighty species of bird that I had not seen before, in addition to many that are common to my home in Maryland. This journal is a record of that event that I would like to share with anyone who is interested.
Although I love to watch birds, I'm not good at photographing them. Most of the links to birds are to places on the web, most frequently mangoverde.com which has excellent pictures. I hope I haven't violated any rules by linking to them without permission!
Please send any comments to the following address, which is presented in such a way as to evade spamers who trawl the web: ken [at] nethingham [dot]org
Tuesday - Mar 15
From the air, Costa Rica looked green and lush, as I had expected from all that I had read and heard. Although much of the land is given over to agriculture, there are numerous wood lots and fence rows, similar to what used to exist in the countryside of my youth, before massive corporate agriculture took over. I couldn’t help notice large sections covered with some kind of gray material that resembled mosquito netting. At first I thought maybe this was what they meant by “shade- grown coffee” but later I learned that they were fields of ferns being grown for export to florists around the world.
We were met at the airport by Guillermo Arrieta, our tour guide, who put us on a van to Melia Cariari, a plush hotel/gulf course resort in Heredia, a northwestern suburb of the city. My first tropical bird sighting took place in the lobby where a Keel-billed Toucan was kept in a cage. I read in one of the guide books that there are more of these beautiful birds in captivity than there are in the wild.
We quickly changed into short pants and explored the colorful garden across the street from the hotel. I immediately recognized the Clay Colored Robin, whose shape and behavior remind of the robins back home, with a similar but more musical song. We were to see and hear this Costa Rican National Bird dozens if not hundreds of times as we traveled throughout the northwest quadrant of the country. I also identified a Rufous Naped Wren, with the aid of my newly purchased field manual, Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. Most of what I already knew about the natural history of this country came from my reading of A Naturalist in Costa Rica by Alexander Skutch, in which the author shares his nearly life-long study of the flora and fauna from his base on a small farm near San Isidro, where he lived from the 1930s (when there were no roads or automobiles) until his death last year, just before his 100th birthday.
We took a short stroll around the neighborhood behind the hotel to scout a restaurant that Guillermo had mentioned, La Cocina d’ Lena. Much to our surprise, the homes were heavily fortressed, surrounded by substantial fences or stucco walls, some even adorned with razor wire. Along the way we met Rich and Sandy, from Chico CA, who were part of our group. They had just spent several days in Guatemala, an optional pre-tour that we hadn’t signed up for.
After checking with Guillermo, we learned that our friends Chuck and Darla weren’t expected until late tonight, so we returned to La Cocina for a romantic candlelight dinner followed by a session in the hotel hot tub before retiring.
Wednesday - Mar 16
I woke up at 5:30 to the loud music of the Clay Colored Robin and went outside with my binoculars. The garden across the street was too noisy from rush-hour traffic so I walked back along the golf course, through the residential community that surrounded it. I ended up inside the golf course where I found a place to sit for a while. I saw several interesting birds but the only one I was able to identify was the Rufous Collared Sparrow. I followed the golf-cart paths back toward the hotel but the only exit from the golf course seemed to be through the clubhouse itself. By this time there were many golfers waiting their turn to tee off so I backtracked and returned the way I had come. Along the way I fantasized about the possibility of a group of birders taking over a golf course and restoring it to its original condition, keeping the club house for social events and using the golf carts for leisurely birding along the smooth asphalt trails. I have heard that there are more birders than golfers but I’m not sure I believe it. I have also read that golfers have the highest incidence of pancreatic cancer of any group, attributed to the intense use of herbicides and insecticides on their playgrounds.
I joined Glenda and Chuck and Darla for breakfast in the pleasant open-air hotel restaurant. It was great to see them again and as usual, we picked up right where we left off, joking and chatting as if our last encounter had been the previous day. I immediately noticed a sizable gap where one of Chuck's lower left teeth was missing. After six decades of almost continuous smiling, it is difficult for him to conceal it. More about that later.
We gathered in a conference room with the rest of the group for introductions and a briefing by Guillermo. Each of us was asked to stand up and give just one reason why we came to Cost Rica. The reasons varied from serious to humorous, one woman saying that she wanted to escape her grand children! Most were interested in the culture or the ecology; only a few mentioned birds. I announced that I was curious to spend time in a country that has no military. Guillermo emphasized that, in the Grand Circle tradition, the tour was to be eclectic, providing us with a balanced view of the country, not only its nature but also its culture, economy and people. Before long we were on a bus headed for downtown San Jose where we visited the National Museum, with emphasis on the collection of pre-Columbian art and artifacts inclulding some interesting stone sculpture. We pondered the mystery of several large perfectly round stones in the court-yard. Were they carved or were they a natural volcanic phenomenon? The answer remains a mystery.
From there we went to the Opera House (Nat Theatre), adorned with magnificent frescoes and gold-leafed mahogany furniture. Just accross the street was an attractive fountain where pigeons went to bathe and preen while we stood in the hot sun outside the opera house waiting for Guillermo to tell us what to do next.
All this culture was all very interesting, but I was anxious to get on with the “eco” part of the program and felt as though I was wasting my time in this bustling crowded city. We stayed away from Mac Donald's and went instead to a simple restaurant for a "typical lunch" featuring mostly rice and beans, then wandered leisurely in and out of a few shops on the way back to the bus. Chuck took advantage of this opportunity to explain about the gap in his teeth. A rather large cap had fallen off some weeks ago but he was able to stick it back into position himself for a temporary fix. Then, after eating a banana just before this trip, he realized that the cap was again missing. He didn’t go into a lot of detail about how he retrieved the cap. Suffice it to say that he had it with him, ready for reinstallation.
From the bus windows we noticed again how the homes and business establishments were heavily secured, with barred windows and iron gates, even razor wire. This was true in both poor and wealthy neighborhoods and, as we would soon find out, even in the small outlying towns and villages. This observation quenched my budding fantasies about investing in property in Costa Rica. Guillermo said there was a problem with petty crime but the security measures seemed more elaborate than that. He also mentioned the “immigration problem” with Nicaraguans migrating down from the north to take the low paying jobs that are spurned by the more highly educated “Ticos”. The laws are such that after squatting for a while on “vacant” land, the migrants can claim ownership, even though not citizens. Guillermo told a story about his father almost losing his coffee farm when poor people who had been hired to care for the property later filed a claim to the land and even the house that had been built for them.
We returned to Melia Cariari mid afternoon. Glenda and I skipped the gold jewelry demonstration and took a nap. At 5:30 we were back on the bus, making our way through rush hour to the home of a family-owned meat distributor business, where they sometimes prepare meals for Grand Circle Tours. We walked through a large iron gate and into the back yard where there was a covered veranda. We had a pleasant dinner of steak, salad, a glass of wine and more beans and rice, all served by the family members. We got to know a few more of our fellow tourists, essentially all “seniors” from the USA.
Thursday, Mar 17.
We left early in the morning for Poas Volcano. Along the way, we enjoyed views of the beautiful country side, passing by many lovely country estates and through several small towns and villages. We listened to our guide tell us more about his country and himself. We learned about the economy - the banana era, the coffee era, the pineapple era and now, tourism and electronics. We learned about national health care and public education. We saw for ourselves how the school children wear uniforms - dark blue pants or skirts and light blue shirts. Since even the high schools were surrounded by chain-link fences, the uniformed children in the school yards gave the impression of being little prisoners. Because Costa Rica has no military, it is able to spend more on education and boasts of a 95% literacy rate.
We stopped at a working coffee plantation and learned from Guillermo some of the facts of coffee agriculture. We tasted coffee and purchased several bags of coffee beans. There was an old man with two oxen pulling a real oxcart down the road. Apparently he manages to be near this coffee plantation whenever a tourist bus arrives and has earned a bit of reputation among the guides. Guillermo had warned us that this colorful character is happy to be photographed but that he expects a small donation in return. Accordingly, he has come to be known as “Juan Dollar”.
At Poas National Park, we walked from the visitor center up a gradually inclined road to the edge of the volcano which was covered with clouds. Miraculously, after a few minutes of peering over the edge of the crater, the clouds began to thin and a beautiful turquoise lake gradually became visible through the wisps at the bottom of the crater. We felt very special at our good fortune and all applauded. Chuck almost got religion. On the way back to the bus, I took a side trip up a good trail that led to a platform overlooking a large lagoon. There stood a young couple with binoculars who called my attention to a Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher. I lingered a few minutes and then continued on the trail which wound up through the cloud forest and back down to the visitor center. Along the way I saw several more interesting birds including a humming bird (unidentified) and what I think was a Nightingale Thrush, perched on the ground in the middle of the trail. I was first attracted by its voice, which was reminiscent of the Veery’s, whose song I have heard many times. I also heard another beautiful song that may have been that of the Mountain Robin.
When I didn’t find anybody at the visitor center, I assumed that I was ahead of them since I had left a little early and hadn’t wasted as much time on the trail as I would have liked. But as I turned toward the parking lot, here came Guillermo looking for me. Everyone else was already on the bus! I felt bad at first but when told that I was only a couple of minutes behind, I was glad to have made the detour because of the blessed encounters with several interesting new birds. But it was frustrating to leave this beautiful national park after less than two hours exposure, a place where I could easily have enjoyed several days. I wished that I could stay behind and hitch-hike back to San Jose but that wasn’t a realistic option.
We stopped partway down the mountain at a lovely Abierto for a “tipico” lunch which, in addition to beans and rice, included our first good conversation with Harry and Loraine Kohlmann from Forest Hills NY, two of the people that we got to know quite well over the course of the trip. We also stopped at a little gift shop specializing in coffee liquors. We purchased a bottle of coffee almond liquor to take to the Platais’s, with whom we were scheduled to have dinner that night. We returned to Malia Cariari by mid afternoon.
Around 5pm we traveled under threatening skies to the home of Rodrigo Carazo who lived in the suburb of Escazu. Carazo is a former president of Costa Rica (1978-82), a friend of Jimmy Carter, founder of the United Nations University for Peace, coauthor of a recent book about the Future of Peace and one of the founders of the Grand Circle Foundation. He graciously escorted us into his home where we sat in a pleasant room overlooking the backyard garden. He talked to us about Costa Rican geography, history, politics and international relations, including the “immigration problem”, similar to ours. When asked what he thought was the best approach to that problem, he advised “keeping the doors open” - only then will immigrants be willing to return to their homes. Not everyone was convinced. In any case, I felt privileged to have been exposed to this interesting accomplished gentleman and flattered that he would invite all of us into his home.
Kerri and Gunars Platais and their children, Emma and Niko, our neighbors and friends from Garrett Park, MD are living in Costa Rica on temporary assignment for the World Bank. As it turned out, they live close to Carazo’s home in Escazu. After communicating with Kerri by cell phone, Guillermo offered to drop us at a small plaza near their home, where Kerri could walk down to meet us. Their rental house is adjacent to the spacious high-security grounds of a more recent former president, Miguel Angel Rodrigues (1998-2002), who had just a few days earlier been placed under house arrest for corruption during his term in office. This had attracted much media attention and Emma and Niko were impressed to have seen their house on CNN! As we entered their yard through the automatic gate, Niko was shooting baskets. Chuck asked him for the ball and abruptly sank one from about 15 feet which impressed even me and immediately put him on good terms with Niko. Both of these children are handsome and gracious, like their parents. Emma, who just entered middle school, is a sophisticated little woman and Niko, a little younger, seemed to enjoy giving us a tour of the large house. We had a fabulous dinner of grilled salmon followed by much wine and stimulating conversation, including an entertaining story by Kerri about how she first met Gunars at Colorado State University, and how they eventually fell in love. After we had finished the coffee almond liquor, Gunars insisted on driving us back to the hotel. Glenda and I felt that we had strengthened our relationship with these fine people. Chuck and Darla raved about them and were delighted to have been included.
Friday, Mar 18
At this point we had only been in Costa Rica two full days and already our memory banks were overloaded with fond images and experiences. But I was still concerned at not having had enough exposure to Nature and was really looking forward to the next leg of the trip. We were instructed to have our bags outside the door by 7am and be in the lobby by 8am to board the bus. As we left Malia Cariari , we wondered if our next accommodations would be as comfortable as that.
We traveled north-northwest out of S Jose into the province of Alajuela, stopping at interesting sites along the way. First was the town of Grecia where we visited a colorful open air market and learned about some of the many fresh vegetables and fruits that make up the typical Costa Rican diet. We also saw an interesting red metal cathedral whose panels and structure were imported from Belgium. We next stopped at an oxcart factory where we observed artisans building and hand-painting decorative oxcarts of various sizes, as well as other wood items and spent considerable time perusing such items in the gift shop. Later we found ourselves in the small village of Sarchi to see another wood-working shop, this a small old fashioned one with all kinds of belts and pulleys that connected the band saw, lathes andn other tools to a modest sized water wheel. There were several items of furniture in progress and a few for sale. One member of our party purchased for shipment a large coffee table made from scraps of different kinds of native wood pressed together in an elegant design.
After lunch we continued through the beautiful country side, passing through small villages and towns. By the time we got to Zarcero, school was letting out and it was fun to watch the children coming and going. When we waved at them through the bus window, they often responded in kind, although some more bashful than others. Zarcero is famous for its beautiful topiary garden, with shrubs carved into various forms including one of a monkey riding a motorcycle. Then further north to San Carlos (Quesada) and beyond, finally arriving at the lovely and comfortable Tilajari Resort which was to be our base for the next 3 nights. Our rooms were located in several low buildings strung out along the San Carlos River. Guillermo, without our asking, had arranged for Chuck and Darla’s room to be next to ours, which made it possible for us to spend some time together talking and watching the scene from the Adirondack chairs out front. The first thing I noticed was a huge Iguana, one of many that would be seen lounging on the grass and in the trees between our rooms and the river. The next thing was a little black and yellow bird busily building a nest in a low swaying branch right in front of our room! I spent considerable time observing it from the comfort of an Adirondack chair but had difficulty finding it in the book. Finally, with advice from Guillermo, I concluded that it was a Sooty-capped Bush Tanager. There were other Tanagers around also, including the Scarlet Rumped and the Blue-gray, both of which frequented the bird feeders that were set up near the open air dining room, making a colorful display every morning at breakfast. There were many birds residing on the grounds of this resort and I succeeded in identifying about 20 new ones over the next couple of days. This does not include another 7 identified on a boat trip in the Canon Negro Refuge.
Saturday, Mar 19
We drove north to the village of Los Chiles, close to the Nicaraguan border. Along the way we stopped by a bridge where it was easy to view dozens of Iguanas lounging in the sun in trees close to the bridge. From Los Chiles, we went a short distance south to a small village along the bank of the Rio Frio where we boarded a boat with comfortable shaded seats and powered by a modest outboard motor. Before the boat departed, Guillermo invited a 12-year old Nicaraguan boy on board and interviewed him for our benefit. Guillermo had been telling us more about the migrants from Nicaragua where unemployment is 40%. This boy was living with a local police officer in order to attend public school in the local village. He was a charming young man. We took up a small collection for him.
We traveled up stream into the Canon Negro Refuge where we saw an abundance of iguanas, caymens, Jesus Christ lizards, monkeys and birds. Guillermo was adept at spotting and identifying birds and other wildlife, and used a small mirror to reflect sunlight onto the spot where they were located. We saw Green Herons, Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers, Ibis, Egrets, numerous Anhingas, a Sun Grebe, a Lineated Woodpecker and a Gray-necked Wood Rail. This all happened very quickly and all too soon we were speeding back toward the dock, having barely penetrated the refuge. In fact, much of the shoreline that we passed was populated with picnickers, fisherman and “squatters”, presumably from Nicaragua. Some of the squatter camps looked pretty comfortable to me and I couldn’t really blame a Nicaraguan for setting up camp there, especially if there were the possibility of claiming it as my own after a while! In any case, the part of the Canon Negro Refuge that I saw, while beautiful, wasn’t as remote as I had expected. It felt more like a rural river with a narrow strip of buffer on each side beyond which was agricultural activity. From looking at the map, I don’t think we ever reached the wider part of the refuge. Maybe I’ll return on another day?
On the way back we stopped for lunch under a covered veranda with an adjacent bird-feeding station. I quickly grabbed a spot near the feeding station and was soon looking at a colorful woodpecker with red on top and yellow nape - a Hoffmnan’s Woodpecker.
Back at Tilajari, we were free to do what we wanted. I took advantage of the optional butterfly tour. While Guillermo was explaining the life cycles of butterflies and moths, I spotted a large colorful bird high in a nearby tree. “Guillermo! Guillermo! - is that a Toucan?” (Guillermo had advised us to alert him when we saw something unusual so everyone could benefit.) Just then, the bird left its perch and flew straight toward me, affording a good view through the binoculars. It turned out to be a Collared Aracari, one of the more exotic birds on my growing list. After that we entered the enclosed butterfly garden and enjoyed watching all the colorful specimens, of which the most spectacular were the Blue Morphos. Then over to the “medicinal garden” and to a palm grove where Guillermo showed us the origin of the palm hearts that we had been enjoying on our salads.
Meanwhile, Glenda had gone to the pool and now I also decided to try it out. I managed to swim a few laps, enough to get a little badly needed exercise, but the water was too warm for serious swimming and I never returned.
Guillermo arranged with the bus driver to take some of us to a nearby bar for a taste of local nightlife. It was a relatively lively place, far from any city, filled almost to capacity with young adults lined up at the bar or seated on high stools around small pedestal tables. There was a juke box in the corner and several TV screens tuned to soccer games. It must have been amusing for the regular clientele to see this bus full of geezers descend on their neighborhood gathering place. But everyone was friendly and made room for us as best as could. Chuck and Darla were soon sitting at separate small tables carrying on conversations with local folks. I was a little reluctant to become so intimate but Darla motioned me over to join her table and what could I say. She had already told quite a bit about herself and now proceeded to try and explain that I was the father of twins and two grand children. I was never sure if they got that message. Before long, our chaperone was herding everyone back onto the bus. Upon arrival at Tilajari, we weren’t in the mood for bed so we headed for the comfortable bar with outside tables. There we joined Rich and Sandy and the Kohlmanns, for a nightcap or two before retiring.
Sunday, Mar 20
Guillermo had announced that he would lead a bird-watching tour this morning at 6:30am. I was quite excited about this because by now I was convinced that he really knew his stuff. Amazingly, I was the only one on the tour to take advantage of this opportunity. Frankly, it’s a little depressing. How can we hope to save bird habitat if so few people, especially from this select group, are interested enough to take advantage of such a splendid opportunity? And how will I ever be able to realize my dream of birders taking over a golf course? I tried not to let these questions prevent me from enjoying my own private session with Guillermo, who came armed with binoculars and his own dog-eared copy of Stiles and Skutch. We strolled around the grounds with him pointing out Kiskadees, Boat-billed and Social Flycatchers, a Black-cheeked Woodpecker, a Red-legged Honeycreeper, a White-crowned Parrot, a Golden-hooded Tanager and several others that I had already identified by myself. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me. After we separated, I lingered a while and ended up with a nice picture of a Clay-collored Robin drinking rainwater that had collected during the night in flower blossom.
After breakfast, the rest of the group departed for a trip to a local school followed by lunch in small groups with local families. I decided to stick around Tilajari, do more birding and write in my journal. It had rained hard during the night; some were awakened by the noise. Today was somewhat overcast, hot and humid, but pleasant enough in the shade down by the San Carlos River, where I spent some time watching several kinds of herons but nothing new. I did spot a Wood Creeper but couldn’t begin to determine which species; more than a dozen are listed in my book. I saw a Brown Jay feeding on the fallen fruit of a guava tree, a Northern Water Thrush bobbing its tail near the river’s edge, and an Orchard Oriole. It was getting hot but still comfortable if sitting quietly in the shade.
After lunch I returned to the palm grove where Guillermo had shown us palm hearts the evening before. It was dark and relatively cool under there. Suddenly a medium-sized bird flew up from the ground, glided ever so silently close by me and lit again on the ground in plain view just a few meters away. I focused my binoculars and studied it until my arms ached. As soon as I moved it again flew and landed a little further away. During its flight I noticed white bars on the wings, suggesting it might be a Night Hawk but Guillermo later suggested that because of location, it was more likely to have been a Common Paraque. They all look very similar in the book.
Glenda and the others returned from their encounters with Costa Rican school children and their homes and families. They had also taken a tractor ride through a botanical garden with explanations of local farming activities. Their glowing descriptions of the adorable children made me envious but I wasn’t sorry to have spent some time alone with the birds. Glenda and Darla enjoyed a massage.
Late that afternoon, we took a side trip to La Fortuna, a small village near the active Arenal Volcano. We had hoped to continue on further to dine at a restaurant with a fiery view of the emerging lava but clouds and rain interfered with that idea. Instead, we returned to Tilajari for a pleasant dinner followed by good conversation over wine and Drambouie on the Rocks.
Monday, Mar 21
Although it was sad to leave Tilajari, we had the beach to look forward to as well as a long bus ride up through the mountains and over the continental divide into the more arid province of Guanacaste, named after the glorious national tree. The scenery was beautiful. It included many specimens of a bright yellow flowering tree and many beautiful views of Arenal Volcano, whose summit was clouded over, and Lake Arenal, a large man-made reservoir that according to Guillermo produces 60% of Costa Rica’s power. We stopped at a gift shop with a spectacular flower garden. I spent my time walking around the area looking for and listening to birds and admiring the lake. Not too much later we stopped for another “Discovery”, a macadamia nut brittle factory, where I saw a Montezuma Oropendola. This gregarious bird nests in colonies and we had earlier passed a tree filled with several dozen of its nests, hanging down like stockings from the mantle at Christmas time. We were treated to a demonstration of the making of Macadamia Brittle and we couldn’t resist purchasing some to take home - if we didn’t eat it all on the bus!
We arrived at Playa Flamingo in the early afternoon. Here was another comfortable hotel of modest scale just a few feet from a clean white beach. We relaxed there for a few hours and I went for a good swim but had to watch out for the jet skier who was wisking in and out of the bathing area. Chuck and I got into a conversation with a Bulgarian real estate scout who claimed to be investigating beach property for some rich clients. Chuck jokingly asked him if his job required him to spend time on the beach to get an accurate assessment of the quality of the sunsets, etc. He replied in the affirmative without a hint of embarrassment - nice work if you can get it! The sunset was indeed beautiful and it was rendered even more entertaining by the dozens of Brown Pelicans diving for supper and the Magnificent Frigate Birds heading for their roost. Behind us, moving in and out of the trees that lined the little dirt road between the hotel and the beach, was a noisy flock of Baltimore Orioles, their orange bellies reflecting the last rays of the sun. That night we walked a short distance for yet another great dinner at a local restaurant, Maria’s.
Tuesday, Mar 22
The outdoor restaurant at Flamingo Hotel was delightful and the buffet breakfasts were outstanding. The bus left early for the optional “Congo Trail” canopy cable ride. I felt a little antisocial not joining Glenda and Chuck and Darla but I was told by Guillermo that it was more of a thrilling ride than a nature experience. So instead I walked along the beach toward a rocky bluff that protruded from the shoreline, defining the south side of the little cove around Playa Flamingo. I had hoped to find a comfortable place to spend some time in the shade of the bluff and watch sea birds for a while. However, the rocks were too sharp and covered with hundreds of small crabs crawling every which way and I was afraid that I might get trapped on the rocks if the tide came in. I lingered a while, observing what I imagined to be a rare Snowy Plover but was probably just a common Sanderling. The sun was already getting high and there wasn’t any shade so I retraced my steps back to a spot where I could climb up onto the bluff, emerging into the yard of the home that was perched on top of it. A large SUV was parked in the driveway. I walked out onto the narrow road and past several other houses to a vacant lot with a for-sale sign. I sat down in a shady spot overlooking the lovely gardens of the adjacent homes and tried to imagine what kind of place would soon be built on this lot. There were several bird songs in the air. Eventually I spotted a Gray-capped Flycatcher and got a good long look at a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
I descended down the winding road into an older, more established residential area with beautiful tree-shaded homes and lovely tropical yards. Birds were everywhere and I sat down under a huge Guanacaste tree to enjoy the sights and sounds. There was human activity as well, a few people coming and going on foot or in cars, some workmen taking care of yards. Suddenly I heard a loud noise coming from behind me, something like the braying of a donkey. Being at the moment heavily engaged with a singing Kiskadee, I didn’t pay much attention at first, figuring it was probably someone like Juan Dollar going about his business with a donkey-drawn cart . But the sounds became more intense and numerous and it slowly dawned on me that I might be sitting under a tree full of Howler Monkeys! I stood up to discover 8 or 10 dark objects lounging and crawling around in a neighboring tree, the larger ones taking turns with the howl. I moved closer and watched them for several minutes through my binoculars. Meanwhile several people passed by paying no attention. Something extraordinary for me was apparently quite ordinary for them.
Not to far from where I saw the monkeys, the dusty unpaved beach road turns away from the coast and winds through abandoned overgrown farm land. I followed it for half a mile, then proceeded to a break in the fence where someone had recently dumped a dozen large black plastic bags full of yard waste. With minimal effort they could have emptied the bags and their act would have become a good thing. I picked my way through what was once and orchard, with several orange trees still bearing juicy fruit. I reached a shallow ravine that during the rainy season would probably be very muddy. I settled down on my pack stool beneath one of several large Guanacaste Trees. It was close to a hundred degrees but I soon became quite comfortable sitting quietly in the shade. There were several birds flitting about and singing and soon a large one caught my eye in the branches high above. It was gray underneath and rust above, with a yellow eye ring and a long barred tail. It ran along the branch, then jumped to another branch, paused for a while, then continued scurrying along the new branch before hopping over to another, behavior reminiscent of a squirrel. It didn’t take me long to find it in Stiles and Skutch - an aptly named Squirrel Cuckoo. I watched it for a long time.
On the way back, near where I had seen the monkeys, a new sound attracted my attention, coming from a tree not far from the road. Eventually I spotted a rather large bird perched on a limb not far from the road. The light was such that I couldn’t see too many colors but in silhouette I noticed a large beak and a long tail squared off at the end. Then it flew to another branch and I saw that its head was perfectly black and separated from its yellow chest by a sharp horizontal boundary. The tail was mostly white with a few black bars and spots. I sat down to consult Stiles and Skutch and it flew away. By the time I found the right page, my mental image had faded. Fortunately I was blessed with a repeat appearance, even longer and closer, so that identification was unequivocal. From the pictures in the book and the description of the song, it had to be a Black-headed Trogon.
I returned to the beach and cooled off with a nice swim in the ocean. Shortly thereafter, the group returned from their adventure. It turns out that Glenda had also seen Howler Monkeys and, even better, Guillermo had pointed out a Turquoise-browed Motmot. After looking in the book I was jealous! I also envied Darla when I saw heard about her exciting ride through the canopy.
That evening we bussed a few miles away to an out door ocean front restaurant where I had excellent Spaghetti del Mar, others had lobster. The view would have been spectacular in daylight but after dark with no moon we had to settle for the sound of waves lapping at the shore. Costa Rica, being so close to the equator, only gets about 12 hours of daylight regardless of the season. I’m sure that if I lived here, I would miss those long summer evenings.
Or maybe I would take advantage of the night life. Chuck, always ready to party, had the idea of returning to Maria’s for a drink. But when we got to Maria’s it was pretty quiet and Darla managed to tease out of the proprietor the directions to a place nearby where there was supposed to be music and dancing. Sure enough, around the corner and up the hill and there it was, complete with cover charge and a rubber stamp on the back of the hand. We had our choice of almost any table since, even though it was almost ten o’clock, we were among the first ones there. Apparently this aspect of Costa Rican social life is fashioned after that of its colonizers. We ordered tropical drinks and managed to have a good conversation in spite of the loudly amplified recorded music. I wasn’t much in the mood for dancing but nothing could stop the other three, especially when the young female professionals got up on their stage and started wiggling in sync with the flashing lights. I hung back on the side and watched, much to my chagrin. Before I knew it, some young Don Juan was dancing with my wife! I felt like a fish out of water in that place and wasn’t sorry when the others decided they’d had enough. The walk back to the hotel was pleasant, with the sound and feel of the music gradually fading behind us.
Wednesday, Mar 23
By daylight I was seated in an open field next to one of the “wild” orange trees, close to where I had been the day before. There were many sounds in the air, some familiar by now, and some new ones. Over the next hour or so I saw several new birds including a Red-fronted Parrotlet, a Streak-backed Oriole, and a Tropical Gnat Catcher. Also, I finally associated a beautiful song that I had heard many times since arriving in CR with its singer, the Rufous-naped Wren, one of the first birds I had seen in the garden across from the Malia Cariari hotel. I moved to a spot under the same tree where yesterday I had seen the Squirrel Cuckoo. After a few minutes, something different flew by and landed on a low branch about 30 yards away. It had several shades of green and blue, including a pronounced blue-green line over its eye. The most distinguishing feature was its tail, consisting of two six-inch long streamers with round discs at the ends. There was no confusion - it had to be a Turquoise-browed Motmot, the same species that Glenda had seen yesterday.
I returned to the Hotel Playa Flamingo in time for a quick 15 minute power swim; the water at low tide was much smoother than the previous night. Then a quick shower and breakfast and board the bus for the day’s events. First we went to the Monkey Park, an animal shelter/rehabilitation facility where we saw up close Scarlet Macaws, Keel-billed Toucans, Collared Aracari, several small mammals and 4 species of monkey (Spider, Howler, White-faced, and ? ). While Chuck stood close to the cage, one of the monkeys reached out and affectionately put his arm around Chuck’s shoulder. Long lost cousins, or brothers? In any case, when Chuck walked away, the good feelings suddenly turned sour as the monkey went into a rage, screaming and shaking the wire enclosure until I thought it would break. We shopped for souvenirs and made a small contribution to the cause.
From there we traveled a little further to a horse ranch, a delightful establishment owned and operated by Kay Dodge, a former teacher from Michigan. By special arrangement with Grand Circle Tours, she oversees the serving a typical lunch to tour groups, with ample assistance from local staff, one of whom made tortillas from scratch over an open flame while we watched and sniffed and got hungrier. Before lunch under a special veranda that is attached to her home, Kay told us her story, how she had taken early retirement, married a Costa Rican cowboy (her veterinarian) and purchased a ranch. She had planted trees and shrubs all over the ranch and as an example of how fast things grow in this climate, she pointed to one large tree that was only twelve years old. She also built a new ranch house, which we entered freely and made use of the bathroom. After lunch, we moved to another covered area next to a corral where the various breeds were paraded around one at a time, ridden either by the handsome husband, one of several grandchildren or by a 72-year old hired hand named Don Juan, slimmer and more wiry than Cool Hand Luke with a dark tan. I made a vow to Chuck that the next time he saw me I would look like Don Juan.
The horse show lasted quite a while and I found myself easing out from under the viewing area to a point where I could monitor the local avifauna. I saw a large globular nest that had been woven into the end of a low swinging branch of a Guanacaste Tree. It had a side entrance and Guillermo said it was the nes of a Rufous-naped Wren.
The show ended with a special demonstration of a game played by cowboys in which they ride their horses as fast as possible down the driveway toward a rope that was slung overhead and from which hung several small rings, each attached with a clothes pin. The cowboy holds a short pointed stick in his hand like a miniature javelin with the object of using it to snag a ring from the rope as he races under it. Several of them tried several times but seldom succeeded. In any case, it was still fun to see them riding fast on their horses, just like in the cowboy movies! This visit to the ranch was very interesting and entertaining and we all felt privelaged to meet Kay Dodge and her husband.
We returned to Playa Flamingo in time to spend a few hours at the beach and pool, have a drink and watch the sunset. This was also the afternoon that Chuck got his tooth fixed. He was fortunate that one of our tour-mates (Lew) was a retired oral surgeon who apparently kept a few dental supplies in his travel kit. He was able to do the job in short order. That evening we gathered for a nice dinner at the hotel, then hung around the empty pool with the Kohlmanns, finishing off some of wine that we had purchased in advance of the Easter moratorium.
Thursday, Mar 24
I went for a short early morning walk north of hotel, hoping and expecting to see the flock of Baltimore Orioles that I had seen the previous nights at sunset. They weren’t there. Don’t know where they went. In stead, a little further from the hotel, I saw an orange-fronted parakeet (with huge yellow eye-ring) and a Spotted-breasted Oriole.
We left Playa Flamingo at 8 am and motored toward Herradura, with, as usual, a number of “discovery” stops along the way. We also heard an excellent ecology “lecture” by Guillermo. He talked about the biodiversity and how the national park system came about. The first to be established was Poas and that was 1972. Others have since been added to the point that now 32% of Costa Rica is “protected”. I admired the way Guillermo was able to explain some fundamental ecological concepts in such clear fashion to a bunch of tourists from the USA, a country where the current official attitude toward ecology is an embarrassment.
The first discovery stop was in a small village at the home of an artist named Mario Garita. I wonder if his friends call him Mar for short? He is a stone carver and sculptor whose life work has been dedicated to elevating the heritage of the native people who first occupied Costa Rica. His entire home, located in a modest neighborhood, is a work of art, each outer and inner wall having been sculpted from stone. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering the home. Even the head-board of his bed was made of stone and there were several free-standing pieces displayed in the living room. We strolled from one exhibit to the next with Mario interpreting the art and Guillermo translating the Spanish. One message that stuck with me was the high positions that women occupied in the pre-Columbian culture. Mario Garita impressed me as an exceptional person, gentle, serene, almost spiritual, like a shaman. I later told Chuck that I would now strive to become a mixture of Mario and Don Juan (Kay Dodge's hired hand).
When I went outside, only one of my sandals was in the place where I had left the pair. I panicked. My first shameful thought was that one of the neighbor children might have taken it but why only one? Then it became apparent that I wasn’t the only victim of this treachery. I started looking around and with some help from others finally spotted a number of sandals up on the roof of the garage, almost out of reach. Apparently there was a jokester among us, with Dan Stanley being the number one suspect based on his previous tendency toward kidding and pulling the leg of our tour guide. But this time it seems that our bus driver Leo was also involved, or at least he ended up with most of the blame.
The next stop was in the village of Guaitil which is famous for native pottery produced by descendants of the Chorotega people. We were treated to a demonstration of the process of throwing the clay and then had an opportunity to purchase some of the many lovely items on sale.
We stopped for lunch near the coastal town of Caldera. The beaches were filled with “Ticos” on Easter vacation. Many were camping in tents. Before we had finished lunch there was a substantial downpour, only the second of our trip, the first having occured in the middle of the night at Tilajari. I felt sorry for the campers. Those among us who had been lugging umbrellas around since day 1 were now able to stay dry for the short trip from restaurant to bus. The rest of us made do and soon we arrived at our destination, the new La Suenos Marriot at Herradura Bay. This rather lavish resort reminded me and Glenda of the Prince William Hotel in Kauai where Ali and Brent got married. Too fancy really, more than anyone should need to have a good time and certainly more than most Ticos could afford. Most of them were crowded into the campground a little way down the beach. Just being registered in that place made me feel like a conspicuously rich gringo.
The hotel and elaborate swimming pool were surrounded by the sea on one side, an “eco” golf course on the other, and condos all over the adjacent hills. Some of the tall grass and trees had been spared and not far from the patio of our room was the remnants of a wetland where a few birds could be heard. There were also some managed ponds nearby, part of the oxymoronic “eco” golf course, where I eventually saw a Northern Jacana and a Lesser Grebe.
It was still raining on and off and we were blessed with a rainbow. We joined Chuck and Darla at the fitness center, spending about 40 minutes on the weight-lifting machines. Before dinner I walked down to the black-sand beach, waded in the water and watched what I later concluded was a Lesser Nighthawk, flying low, swooping and darting, coming rather close to me and then turning sharply, its white wing bars clearly visible. It was making the rounds of the grounds, hunting insects at dusk, which always comes early in Costa Rica.
For dinner we taxied with Chuck’n Darla to a restaurant in the famous surfing town of Jaco, just a few miles south.
Friday, Mar 25
Up at 5am - watching the Lesser Nighthawks again at dawn on the lawn outside; it was hot and humid and my glasses and binoculars, still cool from the air conditioned room, immediately fogged. Once they had cleared, I spotted two bare-throated tiger herons building nest in a large tree across the lawn, then a Green-throated Mango Hummingbird high in a tree (thought it was a fly catcher at first, the way it was sallying about), then a Toady Flycatcher.
All this before boarding the bus to the early morning areal tram ride over a nearby privately-owned rain forest. This was not as rich of an experience as I had anticipated. The scenery was beautiful and we did see many interesting plants and some Blue Morpho Butterflies in the wild but not too much in the way of birds. Heard some but had difficulty spotting them. It would have been more productive to hike the trail that wound up the mountain beneath the tram.
After the tram ride we walked through a herpatarium, saw some snakes in captivity, including a tiny one that hides inside a flower blossom and waits for insects to come nosing around. On the way out we spotted some birds along the road from the bus window, including a Ruddy Ground Dove, a Crested Caracara and a Scarlet Macaw. We arrived back at the Marriot in time to have brunch (breakfast was served from 6am to 11am).
In the afternoon we went on a very enjoyable boat trip on the Tarcoles River and a mangrove-lined tributary. Many more birds were identified including Roseate Spoonbill, Wimbrel, Black-necked Stilt, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Yellow-headed Caracara, Mangrove Black Hawk and a White-winged Dove. We saw 2 dozen brown pellicans roosting in a single tree.
After dinner with the whole group at a nearby restaurant (too much ice cream!), we returned to the Marriot for a hot and sexy dance performance by hotel staff. It was excellent. I wish I'd had my camea then! Toward the end, the dancers came out into the audience, enticing people to join them. Chuck and Glenda ended up on the stage and did a good job of boogyin’. After that we called it a night - gotta get ready for an early morning excursion..
Saturday, Mar 26
Our early departure for Carrara National Park was delayed because of power lines down across the only road out of La Suenos. Apparently a drunk driver had collided with a utility pole late last night on the way back to the hotel. I immediately became a little agitated and suggested that since the park was only 30 minutes away we could take the hotel van or hire a taxi (apparently cars could get through but not busses). Glenda admonished me for being too aggressive but I was frantic that I might miss what I had been told by Guillermo would be the overall best opportunity to see rain forest and tropical birds. (In spite of this only about half of the people showed up!). The situation resolved itself when we saw another bus coming into La Suenos and realized that the road was more or less clear - we had to drive over the downed power lines. In the end we arrived at the park only about 40 minutes behind schedule. But this was not insignificant because again, the plan was to return to the Marriot in time for brunch. Since I can have brunch at the Marriot in Bethesda any time, I was already mulling over the idea of staying on at the park.
This was indeed the best part of the trip for me. The large old trees and lush undergrowth and the air filled with strange sounds rendered a fairy tale ambience. Guillermo was in his element, pointing out birds (dusky flycatcher, euphonia, black-hooded ant shrike, lady-tailed trogon, orange-billed sparrow, chestnut-sided ant bird, scarlet macaws) and stopping along the way to elaborate on items of special interest, all the while injecting serious ecology lessons into the presentation. He explained about the social hierarchy of leaf-cutter ants; soldiers, workers, and the quality control inspectors. The latter are tiny but on close inspection could be seen crawling around on pieces of leaf that the others were tirelessly hauling in single file on what gave the appearance of a busy interstate highway viewed from the window of a jetliner. Apparently these tiny free-loaders have the important responsibility for detecting and rejecting any harmful fungi that might contaminate the nest and interfere with the growth of the particular brand of fungus that the colony is cultivating. Outside of the nests were huge piles of rich sawdust-like debris that will enrich the soil and perpetuate the recycling process so essential to the health of the rain forest. After seeing leaf-cutter ants this closeup I could almost hear the voice of E. O. Wilson, the famous entomologist/ecologist whose popular books I have been reading (Diversity of Life, Biophilia, Conscilience). We encountered many of these trails, leading to their nests, outside of which was an enormous pile of debris generated by the ants.
Interestingly, it is difficult to estimate the age of the trees in a tropical rainforest because they don’t have annual growth rings - they just grow continuously. One of more fascinating trees that we learned about was the Strangler Fig, which starts out as a vine growing up the trunk of a host tree. Eventually, the vines become so thick that they coalesce and fuse around the trunk of the host which then dies leaving a hollow fig tree with nothing but the ghost of the host inside.
This all ended so quickly that when it was time to board the bus, I decided to stay behind and take a taxi home. I returned to the headquarters building where we had started, hoping to get a map of the trails but none were available (they may not exist). I then hiked along the hot sunny highway to a bridge over the Tarcoles river, the same river that we had experience by boat the afternnoon before. Dozens of tourists had gathered on the bridge to observe the crocodiles basking in the mud below. Beyond the bridge was a restaurant with a view of the river where I ordered some beans and rice, a healthy alternative to the lavish brunch that I would have been eating (with no exercize!). I then returned to the other side of the bridge and started down trail number three which paralleled the river and offered occasional views of it and the waterfowl that gathered there (tricolored and other herons, black-bellied whistling ducks, a black-necked stilt). It was now over 100 degrees in the shade, of which there wasn’t too much on this trail, which was really a road down which a couple of vehicles passed during my time there. This part of the park was second growth and I was wishing that I had simply returned to the original set of trails in the old growth section that had been only partially covered with Guillermo. Such hind sight is of little use when you are leaving the next day. None the less, I was rewarded with a closeup view of a Rufous-tailed Jacamar. Its identity was confirmed by a professional guide who approached with a small group as I was watching it. They had a spotting scope that allowed a real good look. Later on I encountered a green vine snake attempting to swallow an oversized frog.
By the time I returned to the headquarters I was exhausted, having walked over five miles in the heat and humidity. I took off my shirt and reclined on a shady picnic table where an occasional breeze wafted. Before long, the taxi that the ranger had kindly called arrived and carried me back to La Suenos where I found Glenda and Chuck’n Darla at the pool. I drank two beers at the pool bar, then took a nap and watched UWV almost beat Louisville on TV.
That night we traveled to the woodsy resort of Villa Lapas for dinner and entertainment. The latter consisted of a short history of Costa Rica beginning with the native Indians, their conquest by Spanish conquistadors, the demeaning influence of the Catholic Church, the rise of colonialism on up to contemporary times, all as interpreted by the Villa Lapas Dance Troupe in full costume. Very enjoyable. We arrived back at the Marriot in time for the tail end of a dance show there, similar to the one seen the night before (hot and sexy!).
Sunday, Mar 27
Up early for another look at Lesser Nighthawks outside our patio door. Bussed from Herradura to S.Jose. We stopped at a souvenir shop and at a shopping center for lunch; watch part of the USA vs Brazil Soccer Game. Chuck got a deal on two pairs of sneakers (the clerk said $60, Chuck heard $16!). Arrived at the Hampton Inn near airport ~2pm. Nothing to do. Watched NCAA game. Attended final farewell dinner on the veranda of a private home with live singers (including one of our own) and another prank by Stan Daniel. Ended up the evening at a lounge in the Hampton Inn with Kohlmann’s and Steven’s.
Monday, Mar 28
What’s to do at the Hampyon Inn? The lucky ones left for Tortuguero Nat Park early this morning. We spent extra time at the airport because our flight was delayed 2 hours. Finished Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. Arrived Dulles at 10:15 pm.