The Gulf of Nicoya

Thursday morning, 2/17

At mid-day the previous day, the cabina was 92o F.  (Our travel alarm clock has a thermometer in it—pretty handy.)  La Ensenada had no air conditioning—just a ceiling fan and cross-ventilation via windows in the front and back.  Would that be enough for comfortable sleeping?  (Since we spent little time in the room during daylight hours, the temperature of the room didn’t bother me then.)  By early morning, the room was a comfortable 72o F.  No worries!

In Kaua’i, the free-ranging roosters serve as your alarm clock; at La Ensenada, it’s the howler monkeys.  Around 4 a.m., the howler wake-up call began. The local troop was moving through the trees just behind and beside our cabina. The cabina walls were thin; the windows were open; I’m a very light sleeper. No sleeping through that! (Click here to get a sense of this sound.  I feel transported back to that cabina whenever I play this audio clip…)  You might consider bringing ear plugs, although I wouldn’t have traded that wake-up call for anything—even another hour of sleep. Among the largest of the New World monkeys, 9 species  of howler monkey are currently recognized.  Costa Rica hosts mantled howler monkeys.  (You can see the yellow-brown mantle on the sides of the body in the photo on the right, generously made available for public use by Hans Hillewaert on Wikimedia Commons.)  Howlers are the loudest land mammal and the 2nd loudest mammal on the planet;  their “howls” (which sounded more like roars to me) can be heard clearly as far away as 3 miles—Guinness World Records has verified that.  (In case you’re wondering, the blue whale claims the prize as the loudest of all mammals.)  Howlers are folivores—specialists in eating primarily leaves at the top of canopies; no other New World monkeys eat leaves to the same extent.

We got dressed and headed out to await the morning’s pre-breakfast bird exploration.  This place was the first that had decent coffee (by my standards, anyway—moderately strong and flavorful) and it was ready and waiting long before breakfast.  (I was there at 5:45 a.m. and the coffee had been ready even earlier than that.)  The dining area also had a water dispenser that delivered either cold or hot water 24/7—a nice touch for the tea drinkers of our group.

For the pre-breakfast walk, Roger had hoped to track down a Double-striped Thick-knee in a pasture near the lodge.  A toro bravo (fierce bull) in the pasture had other plans—he planted himself by the gate and stared us down.  Discretion being the better part of valor, Roger decided we’d scan the field from outside the fence.  No Thick-knee, but we did get quick glimpses of 2 scampering Crested Bobwhite.  They were so perfectly camouflaged that it looked like the grass itself was making short, quick dashes intermittently.  An Eastern Meadowlark also provided good views, although—being very familiar with this bird from my years in the east—it wasn’t my most enthralling species.  Others in our group seemed much more interested.

Some speculate that the name “Nicoya” may come from the Nahuatl word for “peninsula”—necoc meaning “both sides;” lau, meaning “sea.”  The departure time of the boat ride into the Gulf of Nicoya and up the Río Tempisque depended on the tides—we needed a tide sufficiently high to get the boat into the gulf.  When we first stepped out of our cabina in the early morning, the boat was high and dry.  But by 9:30 a.m., the water had risen sufficiently for us to climb on board and head out to the coasts and coastal mangroves.  Our first spotting was an Osprey (left), perched behind Laughing Gulls (dark bills) and Royal Terns (orange bills).  (Click on the photo to for a larger version.)  One stand of mangroves had trees decorated with Magnificent Frigatebirds— predominantly males and birds in juvenile plumage (right).  We knew these birds well from the Galápagos Islands.  I wondered where the females were.  (Females can be easily distinguished by the deep white V stretching from their throats across their chests.)  Many of the adult males showed the red gular sacs, which emerge during breeding season.    The boat ride was fun—it was wonderful to be out on the water and the boat went kind of fast at times!  But most of the birds we saw were relatively familiar shore- and waterbirds.  Z did take some photos of the lodge grounds as we came into the dock.

Thursday afternoon, 2/16

The afternoon consisted of a trip around the grounds in a wagon pulled by a tractor.  (Sounds kind of odd, but it was great—seats in the wagon made it comfortable, although the tractor was a bit loud.  And we got back into the tropical dry forest more than we could from the lodge.)  Kike—the lodge manager—came along and helped Roger spot birds and communicate with the driver over the engine noise.  Early in the outing, Roger spotted a Crab-eating Raccoon sleeping in the crotch of a tree trunk.  It looked rather like our native Northern Raccoon, although it was a bit darker overall, with very dark legs.  Z (a.k.a. Raptor Boy) had an especially good time here—long, clear, and multiple views of a little Roadside Hawk (right).  About 15″ tall, it is one of the most widespread in the neotropics and one of the most common hawks in Costa Rica; it is often seen—wait for it!—along roads.  Shortly after this encounter, a large (~22″ tall) Common or Mangrove Black-Hawk (left) made an appearance.  Although they look very much like the bigger Great Black-Hawk, you can see its yellow lores and solid dark thighs; a Great Black-Hawk has dark lores and barred thighs.  (On some monitors, this bird just looks dark overall and seeing these details is difficult.  Your results may vary…)  Some hold that the Mangrove Black-Hawk is a subspecies of Common Black-Hawk; others say they are now considered separate species.  (Roger could distinguish these 2 sub/species, but I wasn’t sure.  However, given how close we were to the Gulf and vast expanses of mangroves, it is likely that this was a Mangrove Black-Hawk.)

La Ensenada has a salina (salt production facility):  During the dry season, the ocean water fills the pools and evaporation leaves behind sea salt.  This facility produces 1300 bags/week.  A good number of wading birds worked the pools at the salina, but we didn’t stop to identify them.  Instead, with daylight beginning to wane, we headed up the steep hill to the promontory overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya.

There, waiting for us, was our libation of choice and a breath-taking sunset.  In the photo on the left, you can see the salina in the center; on the right, you seen the mountains west of the Gulf.

Friday morning, 2/18

We gathered in the dining area to board the bus—last chance for coffee and spotting birds around the flora.  Z took a photo of the cashew tree by the dining area.  (Cashews—my favorite nut!)  This tree had fruits of many different ages (ripenesses).  The fruit in the photo below was very nearly ripe; the “cashew apple” (called marañon) was bright red and huge; the cashew (the little brown seed at the bottom) was small and dry-looking.  (Although the marañon looks like a fruit, the cashew is really the fruit.)  When younger, the marañon and cashew were both green and about the same size; as they ripened and matured, the marañon grew larger and reddened while the cashew stayed about the same size and darkened.  People use the marañon for marmalades and a sweetened juice drink; the cashew must be roasted to release the toxins that protect it from birds and insects.  No wonder cashews are so expensive—1 cashew on each marañon and no more.

We climbed on board our trusty chariot and headed to our next site—Caño Negro, on the Caribbean.  ¡Vamanos!  Click here.

2 Responses to The Gulf of Nicoya

  1. Linda Ellis says:

    We are scheduled for this trip in mid-February, and your blog is making me realize how lucky we are to have made these plans! Thank you so much for this informative and compelling report.
    Linda Ellis, Rockville, MD

  2. martha Pfeiffer says:

    Thanks for your report. I’m going there next January and this gives me an indication of what I”ll see and experience. Martha Pfeiffer, Vermont

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