Yep, that 5:30 a.m. departure sure came early. Oh, well—we can sleep when we get back to the States. The dining room had coffee on early for us (hurrah!) and we snacked on some pre-packaged cookies (a.k.a. biscuits) that tasted vaguely like animal crackers. We clambered onto the bus, a tad bleary-eyed, and stopped for Roger in town. Off to OTS! We scoured the road leading to La Selva for about an hour, turning up nice views of a Snowy Tityra and our first Violaceous Trogon (left) of the trip—even though it’s the most common and widespread trogon in the country. Even in this far-from-perfect photo, you can tell it’s a Violaceous: Of the 3 Costa Rican trogons with yellow bellies, the Violaceous has notably narrow barring on its tail. Both of these field marks are (kind of) visible on this photo. (How’s that for a great tail and lower belly shot? We are definitely not giving up our day jobs to become bird photographers…) Here’s an interesting factoid: Violaceous Trogons will often perch next to wasp nests and fly out to catch and eat them. They actually excavate wasp nests for their own nests. Wow.
Another fleet-of-foot Gray-necked Wood-Rail dashed along the road edge. That blur in the photo gives you a sense of how fast this bird moved. (Seriously—have you ever seen a rail move like this? Not I. Those I’ve seen in the U.S. move more like chickens, poking around in the vegetation. Those that you can see, at least.) As the hour of 7 a.m. neared, more and more cars made their way toward the La Selva gate. Many of the drivers stopped and talked with Roger, who had worked here for a number of years a while ago.
OTS provided us a delicious breakfast; afterwards, we met up with Rodolfo (a friend of Roger’s) and Yorleni, both guides for OTS. How great—we were going to get 2 guides! We waved good-bye to Roger—our first outing without him!—and headed off with Rodolfo and Yorleni. Except for a break back at Selva Verde for lunch, we spent the entire day on the grounds of OTS. Typical for the rainforest, it was hot and humid; not so typical, it was clear and sunny all day. I had worn my gaiters to help shed the expected rain from my hiking shoes (closed-toe shoes are required—no sandals allowed!). Great idea but they were totally unnecessary. We also had our rain gear with us—again, completely unnecessary. Who’d have thought?
Below are just a few of the highlights we had in this spectacular area.
Rodolfo found a brown-throated three-toed sloth and we got some digiscope photos of its departure. In the first one, you can get a hint of its “mask;” its back is facing the camera and the head is showing just a bit over the right shoulder. (Click on any photo to see a larger version.) In the second, you can see the stump of the tail and the very short hind legs as it moves away from the camera. Slowly. Veeeerrrrryyyyy slowly.
Here’s a better close-up. Look at those claws on those eponymous 3 toes! (This photo is from Wikimedia Commons; photographer, Christian Mehlführer.) Unlike the primarily nocturnal Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, the three-toed sloth is often active during the day. Since sunlight can hit any part of its fur as it moves around, the algae can grow on its fur pretty much anywhere on its body. As a result, it sometimes has a greenish cast overall. (The two-toed only has a greenish tinge only on its back.) The male three-toed sloth has a patch black and orange fur on its back; you can see a bit of that in the photo on the right. (Again, this photo is from Wikimedia Commons; photographer, D. Gordon E. Robertson.) Because its arms are longer than its legs, it doesn’t move well across land, instead spending most of its life in the tree canopy. You get a sense of the short legs in our photo above, as the sloth takes its leave.
A lone Collared Peccary wandered across our path. Despite looking like pigs, peccaries are not closely related to them. In the order of artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates), which includes deer, these animals have a scent gland at the rump and their downward-pointing tusks separate them from wild pigs. Costa Rica has a 2nd species of peccary—the White-lipped Peccary—that is much less common than the Collared Peccary. One account notes that whales may have evolved from early artiodactyls, since both groups share a unique ankle bone. (Really? Whales have ankle bones? Who knew?) Later, a Central American agouti, the 2nd largest rodent in Costa Rica, zipped across our path. (In case you’re wondering, the nocturnal paca is the largest rodent in Costa Rica. Thanks to a reader for offering that information.) Looking rather like a large, long-limbed guinea pig, it is (according to Yorleni) the cutest rodent species in the country. Couldn’t really argue with her, since we saw no others.
Rodolfo was quite the jokester. For example, every time he got a bird in the scope, he’d say “Come see the most beautiful bird in the world!” no matter what bird it was. His philosophy—not a bad one, at that—was that the most beautiful bird in the world was always the one you were looking at. He really had us going at one point in the afternoon. He motioned to the group to be quiet and said in hushed tones, “There’s a Crested Guan in that far tree!” He proceeded to give elaborate instructions to see the far-distant bird. As we all struggled and scanned and squinted, none of us could see it. Then he abruptly said, “Oh—let’s look at this one instead” and impishly steered us to an actual Crested Guan that was perched on the tree practically over our heads. The Crested Guan is a large bird—almost 3′ in length—rather reminiscent of a turkey. Despite its large size, it is commonly spotted in these kinds of situations—peering down from a tree where it is searching for leaves and fruit.
To explore a different area of the grounds, we crossed Stone Bridge—not a stone bridge at all but a sturdy metal bridge named after Donald Stone (who died shortly after we were there). A professor at Duke University in the U.S., Donald Stone had been involved with OTS since 1965. He served as the Executive Director from 1976 – 1996 and returned for a stint as the CEO from 2003 – 2005. Much of the current financial stability of OTS can be traced back to the fundraising and grantsmanship of Donald Stone. Upon crossing back on the bridge, I hustled across, cognizant of the 15-person limitation. (Our group alone had 16 people plus Rodolfo and Yorleni. Yikes! An acrophobe’s nightmare, especially in light of the understated sign (left) gently cautioning against swimming in the river.) Those who were more sane and lingered a bit longer on the bridge got to see the only Chestnut-headed Oropendola of the trip. Bummer—acrophobia rears its ugly little head yet again… I fought it back long enough to stop again for a quick glimpse the lovely Sarapiquí both upriver and down. As a huge fan of good rivers, I can occasionally allow their beauty to give rise to temporary sanity. (Photos by Z, who is not acrophobic and did get to see the oropendola.)
The day before, some of our group had had a discussion about which word was correct: “beak” or “bill.” No resolution was reached. Someone thought to ask Rodolfo and Yorleni which term was correct. They looked at each other for a beat and then laughed. Yorleni said, “You tell us. It’s your language. Spanish has only one word: ‘pico.’ ” Once again, the English language attempting to make differentiations that the rest of the world sees no need to make. As far as I can tell, no consensus exists within ornithology, although many opinions are proffered.
We had a good long time to watch a female White-whiskered Puffbird close to the trail. (We had seen a male early one morning on a power line at Villa Lapas, but we didn’t get such close views.) This chunky bird is not easily confused with any other. This diminutive elfin bird usually sits quietly on a horizontal branch at eye level amid foliage that helps it blend into the surroundings. (The photo to the left is a good example. I had to lighten it considerably because the shade and leaves made the area quite dark.) The eponymous white feathers behind the bill (or is it a beak?😉 ) give it the whiskered look. The male is a light cinnamon color while the female is speckled brown.
A male Green Honeycreeper posed distantly on the top of some bare branches; you get a hint of the brilliant green in this photo. (You will definitely need to click on the photo to see a larger version.) Probably the most memorable sighting was of a pair of Giant Tinamou mating just a few yards off the trail. Even Rodolfo and Yorleni were excited about this. Nearly all of the tinamou species are heard far more often than seen. But to come across a pair mating—whoa, Nellie! The foliage was so dense we could barely see them, but we got some decent (or perhaps I should say indecent) glimpses. Photos were out of the question. And give the couple some privacy, please.
This link goes to the cameras on the canopy towers at La Selva: http://184.108.40.206/home/homeJ.html. If you get a login screen, try typing in “visitante” (no quotation marks) as both the User Name and the password. Not only can you see the canopy, but you can move the camera around. If only it had an audio link, it’d be almost like being there again—without the humidity and risk of sunburn. It doesn’t always work for me. But when it does—it’s great fun.
Our final bird of the day was a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (below). At about 22” head to tail, it is the largest toucan in Costa Rica. The lower bill (also called the “mandible”) is solid chestnut and the chestnut stretches across the lower portion of the upper bill (officially called the “maxilla,” although many birders just refer to upper and lower mandibles). The upper part of the upper bill is bright yellow. Researchers have found that toucans can control blood flow to their huge beaks, providing an effective method of dissipating body heat in the heat. (NOTE: As of summer, 2011, the American Ornithologists’ Union—the decider of all avian taxonomy issues in North and Middle America—has determined that the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan is actually a northern subspecies of the Black-mandibled Toucan, rather than its own species. Regardless, a very cool bird.)
Tomorrow—off to the mountains! But first, a brief stop at Braulio Carrillo National Park on our way to San Gerardo de Dota. Click here.