Saturday, April 2, 2016

Veragua Rainforest, Costa Rica - 21 Mar 2016

Endangered Tiger Frog
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica

We woke at 6 am found ourselves still 2 hours to port. I had no longer pulled open the shade to our balcony that a lone Brown Booby was gliding just out from the boat at eye-level. Light was still low, and I knew that any photo opps would be futile since the camera would fog as soon as I stepped out of the cabin. So, I packed up all the gear, including scope and tripod, and took it out on the balcony to warm up.

In the meantime, we would grab a quick breakfast and take our walk on around the top of the ship. It was warm and humid, not as severe as in Panama and Colombia, but still enough to fog Robin’s sunglasses as she put them on. As we neared the front of the ship I could see our lone Brown Booby now accompanied by a second, juvenile bird. They would drift out over the boat and swoop occasionally to check out the ocean’s surface, but generally were happy to soar alongside the ship.

Out to the west, as we began to see land in sight, heavy dark clouds hung low over the water. A large storm was breaking out just a quarter mile from us and heading our way. We could see the deluge of rain moving like an isolated curtain heading toward us, and we stopped to see if it would reach the ship; it wouldn’t. It moved on as we passed and soon dissipated in the distance. Meanwhile, the boobies drifted away from the ship and were soon joined by 4 more birds as they disappeared to the east. As we approached land I spotted a large island just off shore: Bird Island. It was home to nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Boobies and Great-tailed Grackles. It was a stunning, tiny island, with a large, flat lagoon surrounded by rocks that looked like the perfect vacation setting for visiting birders. Grey-breasted Martins were swarming in small flocks as we pulled into port, and docked next to roosting Laughing Gulls, and Royal and Sandwich Terns.

We were headed to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica today, and I was anticipating a great birding day. I had signed up for a trip to the Veragua Rainforest interpretive station high up in the Veragua Rainforest. There, students from the Universidad de Costa Rica and The Foundation For Rainforest Research were studying and collecting reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and insects from the region. Steven, our guide, would lead us through the large interpretive center and describe the research of local flora and fauna that thrive there. In the meantime, though, we drove a large tour bus through portions of the port town and high into the mountain region.

Along the way passed a small park, where I spotted a pair of Clay-colored Thrushes, Costa Rica’s National Bird! Tiny, rufous-colored Ruddy Ground Doves perched on fenceposts. Rooftops held numerous Rock Pigeons and Great-tailed Grackles. I spotted a pair of Northern Jacanas in a roadside ditch. The town itself was a scattering of rundown shacks, cottages, and construction companies that one would expect in a port town.

As we turned off the main highway and onto the dirt road into the highlands the landscape was replaced by more of the Costa Rican jungle. Indigenous peoples lived in this region, and they tended small farms that grew cacao, plantains, and other local produce. I attempted to get some pics through the window of the bus at the rolling hills and open fields, but it was not easy. I was desperately trying to identify unknown birds that would appear for fleeting moments. Pairs of Passerini’s Tanagers would fly by – the males black with stunning, scarlet rumps that flashed as they flew. They would be replaced in the southern portion of the country by Cherrie’s Tanagers, which are very similar in appearance.

Blue-black Grasquits were very common in this region; again, the males tiny little, all-black birds with lighter-colored females. Great-tailed Grackles and Bronzed Cowbirds could be seen in the distant lawns of the small schoolyards that dotted our travels. Every once in a while I’d see the flash of a yellow tail from one of the local Oropendola blackbirds, but couldn’t see well enough to determine what species.

With three tour buses arriving at the same time we reached the Veragua Rainforest Station. We split into small groups of approximately 30 people each and were assigned interpretors. Steven remained with my group and gave us the tour of the place. Jungle was thick in this area, with an infinite number of trees, plants and orchids everywhere. Butterflies were also abundant, with native species of clearwings, heliconias and Blue Morphs appearing everywhere. I saw a small falcon atop a tree, but could not see it in the backlight to determine what species (possibly a forest falcon or bat falcon). The sun was shining, and few clouds were around, but we were warned that it could rain at any time; it did.

The veranda of the station had a nice concession and large displays outlining the purpose of The Foundation’s research. I was immediately struck by the enormity of the spiders! Large, Golden Orb-weaver spiders (or Banana Spiders) hung in nets strung between posts of the displays – we were warned not to get stung. Unfortunately for me, no birds could be seen or heard. 

Steven took our group through the rainforest and described the local flora and how natives used them for medicinal purposes. He pointed out a small viper coiled around a palm next to the trail, and walked us past terrariums filled with local geckos, snakes, and chameleons. Since they were behind glass there was no interest in trying to photograph them. I was using the Better Beamer and SB-800 flash on the Nikon D7100 / 300mm/2.8VRII so I was too close, anyways.

A loud, creepy-sounding call from the canopy brought thoughts of monkeys calling, but they were coming from Montezuma’s Oropendolas. I managed a few rump shots of one bird, with its black head, rufous body and bright yellow tail. They were common here. An easier target was a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites that floated overhead. Skies were deeply overcast at this point so they appeared as silhouettes.


Frogs were the stars of the day. Steven found a Tiger Frog, a species that is Critically Endangered in Costa Rica. Much of the research at the station is designed to increase the local population and figure out how best to keep it healthy.

More common and abundant Red-eyed Frogs were everywhere, and we had opportunities to see them and their egg sacs on walls of the building and trailside plants. Poison Dart Frogs (red and green) were hopping about in the leaf litter below our feet.




As we stepped inside the amphibian building to see displays of other frogs the power to the building went out, sending us into complete darkness. We continued our tour with the use of a small flashlight. When the power came back on we were able to go downstairs to see the lab where the frogs and butterflies were being studied. We spent 15 minutes walking through the butterfly garden, where the rest of the tour’s members loved; they were all gardeners. Blue Morph Butterflies were abundant, and everywhere. Unfortunately, they’re not much to look at when they land. They are only gorgeous in flight (and impossible to photograph).

We spent 1 minute in the hummingbird garden. Still, I managed to see a Blue-chested Hummingbird and get a few photos before our tour continued on. A 10 minute bathroom break gave me a chance to run back and spend a few more minutes there.



a watercolor

The tour then loaded into open-air gondolas (large cages) for a trip 1200 meters down to the bottom of the rainforest station. We heard Howler Monkeys, but couldn’t see any of them. We also had an opportunity to see how expansive the rainforest was. Steven could not even estimate the size of the region, as it blends into other rainforest habitats. A century’s old Mahogany Tree was a nice find; fortunately cutting is no longer permitted in this mountain region. At the bottom of the station we had the opportunity to see a Two-toed Sloth, but it was sleeping high in a tree just out of view. At the end of the boardwalk was a dry steam bed where a Three-toed Sloth was also seen; sleeping. Better yet, though, I spotted a Sunbittern flush from the stream side! Steven asked if I had seen it, since we both only caught a flash of its gorgeous wings. Great bird! Then the skies opened.

We high-tailed it back to the gondola station, getting soaked with about 3” rain in about 10 minutes. I used my hat to protect the camera / flash system and managed to keep it relatively dry. Once we dried ourselves off we took the gondola back up. We spotted Dusky-Faced Tanagers and heard a flock of Red-lored Parrots along the way, but again had no opportunities to photograph them; I put the camera away until we were back on top.

A quick lunch break allowed me to go back to the hummingbird garden and get some better pics of the Blue-chested Hummingbirds.


I also had a quick few seconds to photograph a Stripe-throated Hermit as we headed back to the bus.



The drive down the hill was highlighted by brief looks at a Keel-billed Toucan, and a flock of Motezuma’s Oropendulas that had formed a colony in the trees on the other side of the bus. This pic was taken through the bus window… We also spotted several Groove-billed Anis, and I desperately tried to get a record shot while the bus was moving.

I also spotted a pair of Long-tailed Tyrants, a small black flycatcher with long tail streamers. A White Hawk was seen flying across the field at a distance; I thought Cattle Egret at first, but black in the wings and more of a hawk shape led me to the latter conclusion. Several pairs of Blue Dacnis were seen flying across the fields; from a distance they look like Indigo Buntings, but showed more of an azure-blue or cerulean blue coloration.

We then made a stop at the Tortuguero River where we loaded into a canopy-covered longboat for a quick tour of the river. We immediately came upon Basilisk Lizards sunning themselves on logs in the river and riverside mud banks.




A huge Iguana swam across the front of the boat, but I was in the rear busily photographing one of numerous Great Kiskadees along the shoreline. We would also see a Little Blue Heron, and several Mangrove Swallows.



A Three-toed Sloth was then spotted high up in a tree. We maneuvered the boat several times in order to see it, and this time it was not sleeping, but was also not moving. I managed a few pics at really difficult angles. I was impressed to see two road workers stop their vehicle to get out and photograph the sloth.

Up ahead a small family of Howler Monkeys was feeding in the trees. Again, lots of boat maneuvering allowed everyone decent looks at the family, but photography was difficult. Roosting Vampire Bats were a bit more cooperative.


The highlight of the boat trip would come just moments later when a Three-toed Sloth was seen, and it was awake! The cutie was climbing and giving everyone great views. It even climbed out into the open along the trunk a white tree! What a thrill.




On the way back I spotted and photographed a Ringed Kingfisher. Similar to Amazon Kingfisher the Ringed Kingfisher has a red chest that extends all the way to the base of a spotted tail, while the Amazon Kingfisher has a white belly and red chest.

The bus trip back to the ship would bring a few more sightings of Short-billed Pigeons, Blue-black Grasquits, a pair of Palm Tanagers, and a possible Gray Kingbird; this ID is a bit tenuous as the birds are rare, but it looked like one of many Tropical Kingbirds w/o any yellow. ?

We would arrive back at the ship just in time to clean up before disembarking. Overall, I very much enjoyed the day, but once again wished I had some non-moving time to just explore the areas. Great day, though. We hope to come back!


1 comment:

Cathy Carroll said...

Too many good photos in this post. Don't know which to comment on! Love the frog photos! Also, was the snake called an eyelash viper?

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