Tag Archives: Costa Rica

Costa Rica: Part II – three ecosystems explored

We have already explored how Costa Rica is a birding paradise. However, it is much more than that. Costa Rica is believed to contain the greatest density of species in the world. There are a couple of good reasons why this should be so…

Forming the Isthmus

Costa Rica is geologically young. Only a few million years ago, the North and South American continents were separate. The Pacific and Atlantic oceans freely intermingled in an increasingly narrowing gap. As the continental plates pushed together, the pressure caused fissures and volcanos to form; breaking up out of the sea. Sediment gradually built up around these volcanic islands and around 3 million years ago, the oceans were separated and the Central American Isthmus was formed.

The area remains volcanically active, and we were lucky enough to see a number of volcanos such as with Poas Volcano below…

Poas Volcano

The narrow corridor that was formed between two continental giants allowed species to flow in both directions and mix in the tropical lands in between. This is known as the Great American Interchange.

Ecosystem I: Cloud Forest

Crater lake

Rich tropical forests coat the slopes of the volcanic highlands, and between the altitudes of 500m-3000m, there is semi-permamnent cloud or fog that keeps everything perpetually moist.

Cloud forest stream

This means that every tree is its own micro-system, covered in bromeliads, moss, and fungi…

moss

Only 1% of global woodland is characterised as cloud forest, yet they support an enormous array of flora and fauna. This includes some fabulous mammals such as the White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica), seen here, foraging in a bin like its northern racoon cousins:

Coati

We were immensely lucky to see the almost scientifically unknown Bang’s Mountain Squirrel, or Poas Squirrel, (Syntheosciurus brochus) which has only been found on three mountains/volcanos in the world (one in Panama, and two in Costa Rica including Poas pictured above):

Poas Squirrel

Cloud Forests are also rich in insect life including butterflies (about 1,250 species of butterfly occur in Costa Rica) such as this clearwing (Ithomia heraldica):

Heraldica clearwing

As with many tropical habitats, cloud forests come alive even more at night. The light below was set up at a research station in the Los Angeles cloud forest near San Ramon to attract and study insects:

Los Angeles

Seeing a squirrel that is only found in three hills was special, but it was walking through cloud forest at night with an expert scientist and guide that we were treated to something incredibly special: we saw one of the rarest frogs in the world. The Red-eyed Tree frog is relatively common, but far, far rarer is the critically endangered Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa). Only captured on film once, I feel an immense sense of privilege that I was able to photograph an amphibian that may be one of only c.250 individuals still alive:

Re-eyed Brook Frog

Ecosystem II: Rain Forest

Canopy

Rainforests are estimated to contain somewhere between 40%-75% of all biotic species in the world. And Costa Rica contains some absolute corkers! We flew in a small plane into the Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast…

Tortuguero

Much of Tortuguero is a remarkable example of the resilience of nature. It had been heavily logged, but has now largely grown back as lush secondary forest (simply lacking the mightiest of trees that characterise primary forest). The forest is criss-crossed with a network of rivers and loggers’ canals that can now be navigated by tourists and scientists exploring the rainforest:

river

The jungle is a noisy place at most times, but never more so that when the loudest creatures on earth are in the vicinity: Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata)…

Howler

I photographed three of the total of four species of monkey found in Costa Rica. Aside from the peaceful, but noisy, howlers, we also saw clever, but aggressive, White-faced Capuchin (Cebus capucinus)…

White-faced Capuchin

… and the endangered Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), a juvenile male below:

Spider Monkey

One of the other mammals found up in the trees is the extraordinary Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus)…

Sloth

… and the widespread (unlike its Poas cousin) and bulky, Variegated Squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides)…

Variegated Squirrel

Bats are the most diverse family of mammals. They include the fascinating Long-nosed Proboscis Bat (Rhynchonycteris naso), which sleep during the day nose-to-tail on the underside of branches…

Proboscis bats

… These small bats have been known to fall victim to the large species of spider, Argiope savignyi which encase the sleeping victims entirely in silk before feeding on them:

Argiope savignyi

Another impressive spider is the female (much larger than the male) Golden Orb-web Spider (Nephila clavipes), which has occasionally been known to feed on birds, but is generally recognised as being less aggressive than most spiders and has even been known to share its web with smaller spiders…

Golden orb

It is estimated that there are over 300,000 species of insect in Costa Rica. One of my favourites that I saw was this monstrous purple lubber grasshopper (Taeniopoda reticulata)

Mr lubber lubber

I was pleased not to bump into any of the venomous vipers present in Costa Rica such as the Bushmaster or Fer-de-lance, but we did see this beautiful non-venomous snake slithering out of a river in the northern tropical forests, known as the chicken snake or oriole snake (Spilotes pullatus):

Chicken snake

On the same river, as we paddled past trees you would often hear a splash and then watch a lizard run across the surface of the water which is why one of its names is the Jesus Christ lizard, otherwise known as Plumed Basilisk Lizard (Basiliscus plumifrons):

Basilisk

I also saw several of the much larger Green Iguana (Iguana iguana):

Iguana

In the rivers we saw:

Meso-american Slider (Trachemys venusta)…

Slider

… and Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)…

Caiman

Out of the water, in the rainforest, amphibians we saw varied from the large Savage’s Thin-toed Frog (Leptodactylus savagei):

Savage frog

… to the small Stawberry Poison-dart Frog (Dendrobates pumilio) which builds up its toxicity through a diet of specific beetles and ants…

Strawberry poison dart frog

Ecosystem III: Caribbean coast

Tortuguero National Park is named after the fact that the jungle borders one the most important turtle-breeding beaches in the world:

Tortuguero

We were lucky enough to witness, by infra-red light, a huge Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) laying its eggs late at night. Cameras are prohibited, so no pictures I’m afraid, but it takes us back to where we started which is the fact that these long-lived titans of the sea will have been visiting the beaches in Costa Rica since they were formed three million years ago.

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Costa rica: Part I – the birds

Crimson-fronted Parakeets Above: Crimson-fronted Parakeets (Aratinga finschi) in flight over the Central Valley

The Honeymoon

Costa Rica is one fifth of the size of the UK (if it were a US state it would be 42nd by area). However, it is one of the most biodiverse places on earth and boasts nearly 900 species of bird. What better place to choose for a Honeymoon destination? In our three weeks in this beautiful country, my wife and I took part in a range of activities and adventures, but a birder cannot visit Costa Rica without spending some time watching birds. Even my wife got into the spirit … seen below photographing Black Vultures…

Lily and Vultures

By the end of the trip, I had photographed at least 117 different species of bird (there are a couple I haven’t been able to definitively identify), and spotted many more. Here is a selection of the avian fauna of Central America (many birds will be familiar to American readers, but were largely excitingly new for a Brit abroad).

The birds

Gray-headed Chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps) congregating in heavy rain:

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Crested Guan (Penelope purpurascens), a rainforest-dwelling cousin of the Turkey, and the Chachalaca above:

Crested Guan

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) a smart-suited relative of the cormorants, that we saw fishing the rivers of the rainforest:

Anhinga

A couple of snaps showing a female and juvenile (respectively) of the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) soaring over the Caribbean coastline. I last saw these stunning birds a decade ago nesting on the Galapagos. They famously harry other other birds to steal their fish so as not to get their own feathers wet by diving:

Magnificent Frigatebird

Juvenile frigatebird

We saw a number of different herons including: this Bare-throated Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)…

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

… the enormous Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)…

Great Blue Heron

… Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)…

Snowy Egret

… Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)…

Cattle Egret

… the almost ubiquitous (and not very green!) Green Heron (Butorides virescens)…

Green Heron

…and finally, the extraordinary looking nocturnal Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius)…

Boat-billed Heron

We also saw lots of Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis)…

Green Ibis

… and hundreds of Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)…

Black Vulture

…and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)…

Turkey Vulture

… which would sometimes swarm together on thermals way above the forest canopy:

Vultures

Whilst we photographed White-faced Capuchin monkeys (see next blog post) from a boat in the jungle, a Double-toothed Kite (Harpagus bidentatus) flew in and fed off a large insect disturbed in the trees by the boisterous monkeys:

Double-toothed Kite

We were also afforded good views of the Roadside Hawk (Buteo magnirostris):

Roadside Hawk

… and the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo Platypterus)…

Broad-winged Hawk

I was hugely lucky to see the unusual (as it is the sole species in its family) Sun Bittern (Eurypyga helias) which, a few seconds after I took this photo of it, flew away revealing a mesmerising sunburst pattern hidden whilst walking but which explains its name:

Sunbittern

We got close to the Northern Jaçana (Jacana spinosa) which holds the record for having the largest feet in relation to its body size of all vertebrates:

Northern Jaçana

There are many beautiful doves and pigeons in the Americas. I photographed a few, including the Red-billed Pigeon (Patagioenas flavirostris)…

Red-billed Pigeon

… and the wonderfully marked Inca Dove (Columbina inca)…

Inca Dove

The tropics are famous for parrots. We were incredibly lucky to see the rare and enormous Great Green Macaws fly over our car, but were unlucky in not capturing them in pixels. Whilst often seen at great distance and so only just identifiable in fuzzy shots, I did photograph three of the Psittacidae: Crimson-fronted Parakeet (Aratinga finschi)…

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

… Brown-hooded Parrot (Pionus menstruus)…

Brown-hooded Parrot

… and, White-crowned Parrot (Pionus senilis)…

White-crowned Parrot

I was warned by a local guide about the ominous powers of the strange looking Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris):

Groove-billed Ani

The proximity I was able to achieve with the Crested Owl (Lophostrix cristata) was a result of the fact that the bird had an injured wing (I obviously kept enough distance to avoid causing distress). This normally terminal misfortune was countered by the owners of the eco-lodge where we were staying who took the owl off to a rescue centre, from where we were told the bird was making a strong recovery towards being released back into the wild:

Crested Owl

Costa Rica is blessed with over 50 species of Hummingbird – always a delight for visitors to the New World from the Old World where they do not occur. Here are a small selection from the 12+ (uncertainty reflects the difficulty I have in identifying some of them) species I photographed during my visit: Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemilecurus)…

Violet Sabrewing

… Magenta-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox bryantae) on the left and Brown Violet-ear (Colibri delphinae) on the right of the feeder…

Volcano and Brown Violet-ear

… The beautiful Rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) was perhaps the hummer I saw most frequently in a range of different environments…

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

…Purple-throated Mountain-gem (Lampornis castaneoventris)…

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

…Violet-crowned Woodnymph (Thalurania colombica)…

Violet-crowned Woodnymph

… and finally, one of the birding highlights of my trip to Costa Rica. One of two endemic hummingbirds (found only in Costa Rica) and of a total of three endemic birds found on the mainland (there are three more found on Cocos Island way out in the Pacific), is the Coppery-headed Emerald (Elvira cupreiceps)…

Coppery-headed Emerald

Birders travelling to Costa Rica will often hope to see the Resplendent Quetzal. We did not have this pleasure, but we did see its close relative, the Slaty-tailed Trogon (Trogon massena):

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Equally stunning are the Motmots, such as the Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota)…

Blue-crowned Motmot

…and Broad-billed Motmot (Electron Platyrhynchum)…

Broad-billed Motmot

I photographed three of the six species of Costa Rican Kingfishers, including:

The common Green kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana)…

Green Kingfisher

… and, largest Kingfisher in the hemisphere, Ringed Kingfisher (Ceryl torquatus)…

Ringed Kingfisher

You don’t have to be nutty birder to appreciate the incredible Toucans:

One of my favourite photos of the thousands I took in three weeks was of the Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)…

Collared Araçari

We also saw the Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)…

Keel-billed Toucan

… and the Chesnut-mandibled Toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii)…

Chesnut-mandibled Toucan

Here are two of the four woodpeckers I snapped:

Lineated Woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus)…

Lineated Woodpecker

… and the much smaller Black-cheeked Woodpecker (Melanerpes pucherani)…

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

I only photographed a couple of the huge variety of similar looking treecreepers such as the Streak-headed Woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii):

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

One of the largest families of birds in Costa Rica are the flycatchers, such as:

Common Tody Flycatcher (Todirostrum cinereum)…

Common Tody Flycatcher

The devilishly difficult to identify (there are numerous species that look almost identical) Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens)…

Eastern Wood Pewee

It is perhaps worthwhile me pausing here to thank Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean for their excellent book, Birds of Costa Rica (Helm Field Guides) which was invaluable…

Birds of Costa Rica

…the appealing Black Phoebe (sayornis nigricans)…

Black Phoebe

And then, there are the birds I unscientifically call, the yellow flycatchers (Yes, I know Tody was yellow, but he is different), which are probably two-a-penny to Americans but are exotic and different to us Europeans:

There was the noisy and widespread, Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)…

Great Kiskadee

… the similar-looking Social Flycatcher (Myozetetes similis)…

Social Flycatcher

… and the beautiful Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholichus)…

Tropical Kingbird

There is a strange and small selection of corvids in Costa Rica, such as the Brown Jay (Cyanocorax morio)…

Brown Jay

There are numerous wrens in Costa Rica, but they are very tricky to spot hidden in dense jungle undergrowth. I probably heard five or six, species, fleetingly saw three or four, and photographed a couple, including the Stripe-breasted Wren (Thyrothorus thoracicus)…

Stripe-breasted Wren

I saw a few different members of the Thrush family including the familiar-looking Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) with its differentiating spectacles…

Swainson's Thrush

…and… *DRUMROLL*… ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the National Bird of Costa Rica…

…the Clay-coloured Thrush (or Robin) (Turdus grayii)…

Clay-coloured Thrush

…the rather nondescript bird holds the honour of the being the National Bird of Costa Rica because of its impressive song.

There are lots of warblers in Costa Rica including residents, such as the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (Geothlypis poliocephala)…

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat

… and, a number that migrate down to spend the winter away from North America, such as the Tennessee Warbler (Vermivora peregrina)…

Tennessee Warbler

There is also the unique and scientifically confusing cousin to the warblers, the wonderfully named Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)…

Bananaquit

I was lucky enough to photograph 12 members of the Tanager family, including the common, but beautiful, Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus):

Blue-gray Tanager

…and the Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata)…

Golden hooded Tanager

Whilst the photo is heavily cropped and blurry, I had to include the stunning Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus)…

Red-legged Honeycreeper

… and the closely related – albeit this female and juvenile look quite different from the male – Shining Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes lucidus)…

Shining Honeycreeper

The most common sparrow in Latin America is the Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonatrichia capensis):

Rufous-collared Sparrow

There were lots of the invasive, Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus):

Great-tailed Grackle

And the extraordinary, Montezuma Oropendula (Psarocolius montezuma) famous for the huge hanging basket nests across Latin America:

Montezuma Oropendula

And finally (finally), I wanted to share a photo of the beautiful little Olive-backed Euphonia (Euphonia gouldi) which I had never even heard of before I went to Costa Rica, but which was often present during our stay in so many wonderful places there:

Olive-backed Euphonia

And relax!

I am aware that I have posted a few too many photos to be good blog etiquette, but I wanted to give a sense of the variety of the incredible avian life in an incredible country.

And that was just the birds, but I shall share other wildlife in another blog post when people have had a chance to get some fresh air.