©2005 Matthew Dodder. All rights reserved.
Costa Rica 07-14-05 to 07-29-05 (Section 5: Selva Verde Lodge, La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)
Choose a different section:
Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)
Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) with our guide Rudolfo
We awoke to find the area around our raised cabins had turned from black to a brilliant green. The rain had nearly stopped and the rising light illuminated the shiny leaves and reddish mud so it was unrecognizable from the night before. A few birds stirred in the trees, nothing I could focus on yet, but I knew it was time to get started.
Above: Aiko's shot of the emerald morning at Selva Verde Lodge
Above: rise and shine!
Above: Cricket and I standing outside our door. Aiko and Kaz have the room right next to us
The dining hall provided coffee and cereal for early risers and the four of us ate what we could before our ride showed up at 7:30. In addition to having this cold breakfast, we packed a few lunch items to take to the preserve because we weren't exactly sure about how we were going to spend the day. We later discovered the preserve has a cafeteria, but as it turned out we didn't feel like eating until dinner.
A ten minute drive to the preserve with our driver, Henry, allowed us to get a better look at the neighborhood. A long straight road led through a modest community with small homes, various businesses and a school. Nearby hills and emerald pastures created a beautiful scene. We arrived at a barricade where a uniformed guard waved us in. A moment later, there was another guard stationed at another gate. We continued in toward a small cluster of buildings and a large radio tower. At the super cooled station office we gave our names and the prepaid voucher for our guided tour. A moment later, our guide Rudolfo was shaking our hands and sizing us up. He was not immediately likeable, rather distracted it seemed, and not overly warm. Still, like Leo, we grew to like him as we learned how to make him talk. He began by pointing to the various birds in the trees outside the office. Crested Guan was the first. It is a turkey-sized ground bird that perches in trees and flies heavily from branch to branch. Noisy Gray-capped Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Boat-billed Flycatchers, Social Flycatchers and Great Kiskadee were in a constant state of movement overhead. Various Tanagers, like Blue-gray and Passerini's flitted back and forth, while their smaller cousins the Scarlet-thighed and Blue Dacnis, and Shining Honeycreeper (all three extraordinarily blue) foraged in the top branches. Quite a colorful beginning, considering how drab our guide was.
Above: the main plaza at La Selva OTS
La Selva is famous worldwide among naturalists and cannot be visited without a guide. Various research projects occur on the preserve year round, some having to do with plant communities in the canopy, others cataloging bat species, rain forest mushrooms or nesting birds. It's an exciting place, like an outdoor campus, and numerous young researchers move between the buildings carrying samples of this and that or chat with staff members. We saw some researchers sitting at computers recording their observations for future publication and I though what a wonderful experience it must be to study here and stay in the small cabins.
Above: Kaz, Aiko and I look upward as our guide Rudolfo directs us
Above: looking across the main suspension bridge
Above: looking down along the banks where Black-cowled Oriole was foraging
Above: the view of the river from the suspension bridge
Rudolfo led us down a riverside trail where Fasciated Antshrike and Band-backed Wren made brief appearances. Deeper into the woods, all secondary growth, and farther from the river we walked. Rudolfo made a quick turn down a grassy trail to show us Green Ibis, which continued to forage in the grass as we watched. We continued to see small groups of three to four visitors with a guide and it me the feeling that the preserve was like a more controlled version and better-behaved version of Monteverde. As Rudolfo strolled along the paved trail, speaking only occasionally, I had ample opportunity to ask questions, some of which were answered, others not. "Is this forest primary or secondary?" That was my first mistake. I should know better than to ask a question that can be answered with a single word. After a pause that was not completely polite for someone who is being paid, "Secondary." I asked several more questions of this type just wanting to get direct answers and not yet knowing how to get him to warm up. Some questions had to do with specific birds, some about the habitat. It just toook too much effort to rephrase everything like a I was a cheerful salesperson. Finally I asked, "Rudolfo, how is this lowland rainforest different from the rainforest at Carara?" "Ahh," began the answer. He was still avoiding eye contact, choosing to gaze up into the branches instead. "It's very similar actually. But for some reason there are many more species of trees on this coast. Two researchers, a married couple, have been here for 25 years cataloging all the trees. They have counted several thousand and found many new ones..." It didn't entirely answer my question, but I felt satisified with his response anyway. Note to self: Rudolfo is interested in trees...
Above: a marshy area along the river where we saw many Poison Arrow Frogs and a Green Vine Snake
Above: me along the boardwalk in the marsh
Above: arm's length again...
We returned the way we came, to access the suspension bridge leading over the river from the main plaza. Like the bridge at Monteverde, this wobbled up and down as we walked its length. It was very tall and green, held between two towers by long green cables. The river below moved lazily, churning in places like coffee with milk. "Macaws." he said flatly. This was a typical manner with him. He never seemed to get too excited about anything, at least not visibly. I could only assume he meant Great Green Macaws, a new species for us, and indeed he did. We missed what he was talking about, as the birds disappeared over the distant trees. But a Green Iguana, some four feet long, was visible on an exposed horizontal limb as it warmed itself in the patch of sun.
Above: a 4' long Green Iguana basking in patch of sun
More Black-faced Grosbeaks and several Olive-backed Euphonias foraged in the small fruit trees near the laboratory buildings. And in the tall dead trees above the dorms a Bat Falcon perched. We had missed the bird in Monteverde and here it was in perfect view. Rudolfo seemed slightly bored with the bird before us, but smiled wryly when he spoke of the Crested Eagle he had seen there once years ago... So this is how it's going to be, I thought. Throughout the day we would hear several more stories about birds that had been there once before. Of course, this is interesting in a historical sense, but tends to lessen the excitement about what you've got in front of you. I teased him about this a few times and even got him to smile once or twice. I began to like him more, even if he was enjoying his little game.
Above: Rudolfo (left) claims Umbrellabird had been seen in this part of the forest... Yeah, right. Notice how my hand is swollen from bug bites.
He guided us past the building into the forest on the far side, stopping to say hello to a worker sweeping leaves off of the roof. "It's not a good day to clean the roof" he said quietly. "It's going to rain soon and all the leaves will fall again." He smiled and laughed softly, like he was sharing a private joke with us. He was right though, it would rain later, and how.
The forest he took us into was obviously primary, and he offered that information without being prompted. Black-faced Anthrush, a short-tailed forest floor skulker, was the first to appear. It moved deliberatly through the tangle of wet leaves and twigs beside the trail, its pale blue eye ring showing conspicuously on its dark mask. White-breasted Wood-wren and Stripe-breasted Wrens were next. Both possess beautiful songs that continued to echoe through the forest long after we moved on.
Above: a White-nosed Coati roots around for food in the underbrush
It began to rain and since it was approaching 11:00, Rudolfo suggested we head back toward the headquarters. We could have lunch, he suggested, while he checked email and took care of some paperwork. "Glad to see you enjoy your job so much", I thought, rather purturbed. It seemed to us he was cutting things a bit short, we weren't even hungry... but maybe he was right. It was begining to pour.
"Ok, we'll get started again around 12:45" he said. And then he was gone.
The four of us sat outside on the bench by the main office. Suddenly, fatigue set in. Maybe were hungry afterall. We agreed a little rest would be good. One or two at a time, we stepped inside the office to enjoy the air conditioning and get a cold drink. Kaz bought a folding umbrella, which I would do as well a bit later. We all sat and nibbled on almonds, crackers and other little snacks. Cricket shared a cold gingerale with me, and gosh, that tasted good. All the water we carried had heated up to the ambient temperature, roughly 80º, so anything cooler than that seemed like a gift from heaven.
We explored a bit along the paved first section of the riverside trail, finding White-collared Manakin and Dusky-faced Tanager, two birds we were very happy to report to our joyless guide. I also made an effort to identify the Swifts that foraged overhead. Earlier, Rudolfo had simply shrugged his head and said they were Swifts. That wasn't a good enough answer for me. I needed to know which one of the 6 possible species we were seeing. If he couldn't do it, I would. I swept my binoculars widely left and right, trying to follow the fast moving birds and eventurally caught a glimpse of the rump, which was distinctly gray and extended almost completely to the tip of the tail. The throat also appeared quite light, but that turned out to be unhelpful. I examined the field guide and the preserve's checklist, discovering that two species were common, and the others were much less so. When Rudolfo reappeared I proclaimed that we had seen Gray-rumped Swifts during lunch. "Yes. They are very common here. That is good." I didn't know whether this was a complement or a putdown, but I didn't care too much. I had solved a little mystery.
And so the second half of our day began as the first half had ended, in pouring rain. It wasn't long however, before the rain slowed and the sound of individual drops falling heavily on the palms replaced the white noise of the downpour. Across the bridge we went. Past the dorms and the laboratory with the students working at their computers, past the guy sweeping the roof with an embarrassed little look now on this face... and back into the forest we marched. The Wood-wrens sang with increased vigor now that the clouds were moving away and patches of the forest were illuminated by the sun.
Rudolfo was taking us to the "arboretum", a section of the forest that to outsiders appears rather like any other. But to the careful observer it was quite different--a multitude of tree species grew in the close quarters of an isolated grove, each one labeled with both common and latin names. Nearby, the forest also features numerous short trees with small football-shaped fruits growing directly out of the trunk. This we learned was Cocoa. A century before, the land had been a plantation with the novel approach of growing commerical grade coffe within the canopy, allowing the forest to grow around it in its usual manner. It worked in so far as the chocolate grew happily in the forest, but plans were eventually scrapped because chocolate (and coffee) could be produced elsewhere and more efficiently. The benefit to buyers was the cheaper price, of course, but that demand resulted in vast tracts of forest being leveled for the industries. Obviously, the noble idea of the Selva Plantation was not marketable. Ultimately it was purchased and turned into a biological research station.
Above: Cocoa growing wild in the forest. These fruits are about 8" long.
Above: the Arboretum
Above: the Arboretum
We also were show the mysterious Walking Palm, a small tree with no central trunk from about eye level downward. Instead, three dozen or so heavy roots project out at angles like the butresses on mangroves. One one side of the tree however, the roots appear wooden and dry. These roots are dead Rudulfo informed us. On the other side he showed us they were greenish and very strong. "These pull the tree toward them" he said. The result is that over the years the tree will guide itself slowly toward a patch of sun. It walks infact, a centimeter or two a year, until it has reached its destination. Blows my mind... to see phototropism taken to this extreme.
Above: a Walking Palm
In this area too we saw a small hill of huge ants. These were the famed Bullet Ants of Costa Rica. Agressive and merciless, they are the 3/4" long things of nightmares. The hive contained about 200 black insects with great biting jaws and unusually long legs. They moved rather slowly in and out of their hive, apparently up to something. Rudolfo paused for only a moment and then moved past the hive, saying in a sober voice, "You don't want to let one of those bite you. No."
Not all ants are that dangerous of course. There are the comparitively mild Army Ants as well here... As we decended into a kind of dell, with spring green grass beneath the towering trees, the trail began to crawl. More accurately if seemed to flow forward. We found ourselves in the middle of a parade of some countless thousands of soldiers, all of us going in the same direction. Army Ants are famous for these movements. Night after night, they relocate to a new bivouac, so you never see the back and fourth of normal ants. They move as one unified stream of devouring millions. Awesome but frightening. They move fast too, of course. Humans can always outrun a few million Army Ants, at least I think, but all I remembered was the image of savages being stripped to the bone in one of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books. I read them as a boy and they came back to me suddenly. If only I could have had an orchestra in the forest, I might have asked them to play Edward Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" to accompany the spectacle.
We saw birds here as well. Olive-backed Quail-dove, a lovely portly bird with white facial stripes and a forest-floor-colored body. We also heard a deep woofing, much like that of the male Blue Grouse in the Sierras, but this we learned was the male Great Currasow. Huge and black, with a curly crest, this Turkey-like bird inhabits both the trees and undergrowth of the primary forest. We saw only the female on this morning however. She is terra cotta with a gray crested head, and heavily barred wings and tail. I never expected to see one; it is so rare and shy, and inhabits only uninterrupted forest. But here she was and somewhere her mate called to her. The high pitched, mechanical whining of Great Tinamou came from the forest as well. In fact, on many occasions here, in Rancho and Carara the strange sound was heard. Monotonous, pumping and increasing in volume it sounds more like a squeeking pump than a bird, but with more resonance I suppose. Since we never did see the species, it became a running joke on our walk and I insisted that the Great Tinamou was simply the invention of local bird guides, designed to confuse and frustrate visitors. Rudolfo allowed himself to laugh.
Later in the day I spotted a feather along this trail. It resembled a Turkey feather but was more heavily barred. I asked Rudolfo if was a Currasow and he said yes. I began to put it back, not wanting to break any regulations, but he said I could keep it if I didn't make a big deal about it. So here is how I don't make a big deal about things. I don't notify the newspapers or anything, but tell the story on my website and I include a photograph of the evidence... It is the only real souvenir I brought back, besides John's books of course.
Above: the only souvenir I brought home, a Great Currasou feather
Soon we were taking a narrow thrail through the now familiar Manakin habitat. Spindly vines fell downward, a few inches a year, draping the forest with a strange wooden web. It was silent here except for the sound of Red-capped Manakin coming from my tiny speakers. Rudolfo explained that the bird would not likely investigate the recording as he would during the breeding season. Instead, he was content to defend his territory with a few vocal replies. We heard him on an off for the next 15 minutes, each time seeming to move from side to side and not toward us as we wished. Still, I'm using "lifer bold" for this Red-capped Manakin account, because there really is nothing else that sounds like it.
It had long since ceased to rain, and yet we'd heard drops continue to fall inside the canopy, and occasionally a small branch or fruit would plummet to the ground. Then we heard a strange sound, like a pack of firecrackers. The loud cracking sounds came one or two at a time first, and then a dozen or so in close succession. Larger sounds, like those of snapping branches came next. A tree was falling somewhere nearby. A large tree! We had no more than three seconds to make use of the warning and all we could do was look up in hopes of seeing the direction of the event. But we couldn't see a thing, the sound of the cracking and snapping just grew louder and louder until it was almost deafening. Then there was a huge crash and a deep thud not far away to the left of the trail. In retrospect, it seems more likely that vibration of the impact, which could be felt through the ground, is what made the fall seem close. We never saw a thing so we really don't know how close we were. There were no falling branches or scattering birds. I'd like to say we saw something to prove the tree fell, but we didn't. Not a thing. Still, the sound was enough to frighten us. If the tree had decided to fall in our direction, the situation would have been different. We would have had no chance. Rudolfo said after that falling trees are common after such heavy rains. The branches become heavy and the old rotting trees can't take the added weight. The fall, predictably then, and that is why the staff usually waits a day before venturing out into the primary forest. Now he tells us...
Almost as if designed to demontrate the great contrasts present in the forest, shortly after experiencing the thunderous collapse of the giant tree, we saw the smallest Passerine in the world. The Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, despite his lenghty name, measures only 2.5". This song bird fortunately is a member of the Flycatcher family and thus spends much of its time sitting and waiting for flying insects to blunder into range. He's tiny and greenish with bold yellow wing bars a grayish breast and a black cap with bright white eye rings. He sat plumply on a horizontal branch allowing us to admire him for several minutes before we continued on our way. We crossed a small bridge where we paused to search for the endangered Agami Heron, or "Forest Heron" as Rudolfo referred to it. None were seen, but a two foot long Spectacled Caiman rested on the banks.
And so we wended our way back to the main plaza, having seen both the largest and smallest events in the rainforest. We thanked Rudolfo for his help in identifying the many birds and animals and then a strange thing happened. He asked what we would be doing tomorrow. "I suppose we'll come back to La Selva and explore a bit in the morning," I said. "I will try to be here so I can be your guide again tomorrow." I was shocked. Here he had been so aloof I had the impression he couldn't wait to go back to his office and talk to the other staff members, but in fact, he was making an effort to be social. I glanced at the others and we silently agreed that would be a good idea. "Yes, we'll be here and ask for you." He offered also that if we arrived at the first gate at 6:15, about 1 kilometer from the headquarters, we could walk along the road and find good birds before rendez vousing with him at 8:00 when the preserve officially opens. He listed a few possible birds. "That sounds great. We'll do that!"
It was now late afternoon and we met our driver outside the office, parked beneath a tree that contained an awkward looking Crested Guan struggling to move between branches. The guards at the different gates lifted the barricades and waved us through. We returned to the lodge where another guard ushered us in. We made arrangements with the driver to pick us up the next morning at 6:00 and hoped he understood. There was just enough time to rest before dinner.
Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS with our guide Rudolfo
Our driver showed up exactly as arranged at 6:15 and after we had inhaled a small breakfast of cereal, toast and coffee, we met him in the lobby. He appeared a little bedragled, but at least awake. The drive was quick and we were in position at exactly 6:30, ready to bird. We were excited also because for the next hour and a half we would be birding on our own. The walk to the preserved from the main highway was lovely. It appeared like a tropical version of a French country road, with small meadows enclosed by decaying fences. The sun was shining and it was already becoming warm. As we had been told, various Parrots began to appear, mostly Orange-chinned Parakeet, but also White-crowned and Mealy Parrots. Masked and Black-crowned Tityra perched in the dead branches of the same tree, allowing for a nice comparison. As well, Aiko spotted a large Sparrow and when we all had it in our glasses, it turned out to be a Black-striped Sparrow, green on the back with a gray breast and dark headstrips, much like the Olive Sparrow of Texas. Finally a heavily barred bird flitted about in the tangle of branches bordering an old orchard. It was a Barred Antshrike. Its slightly smaller size and white iris distinguished it from the previous day's Fasciated Antshrike. Very cool birds, both of them. They look rather like avian versions of a Zebra.
Above: remember in the "Right Stuff" when all the astronauts walk toward the camera...? Our self-guided walk along the La Selva entrance road
Before we knew it we were within the second gate of the preserve and felt empowered by all the unassisted identification we had been doing. We couldn't wait to tell Rudolfo, but expected his reaction would be underwhelming.
Oddly, he seemed a bit more lively today. He smiled and remembered one or two of our names... It was now becoming quite hot and very humid. We made the decision to revisit the old growth forest and search for anything we had missed the day before. Among the new birds were Semiplumbeous Hawk ("partially gray"...) which called from the tall branches of a sacropia tree. There Rudolfo pointed to a nest and the mated pair perched nearby. They called several times in a high-pitched whistle, typical of pairs and even copulated while we watched. One bird flew off and we could see how small the species is, roughly Crow-sized.
We heard more woofing. It's so deep, almost subsonic, and can be felt more than heard. The Great Curassow was near. We walked slowly along the darkened path and through a very dense patch of old growth trees. Then a short distance away we located the source of the sound. He was spectacular! Through the crisscrossing branches along the trail, we spotted him sounding about 6' from the ground on a heavy branch, dimly lit by the dappled light above. The yellow wattles on his face were the only things that appeared bright. His breast heaved each time he made a sound and his wings shuddered slightly. A pause between each woof and then it began again, several deeps sounds in a row. Then he was away, perhaps to find another perch from which to sing. I'm confident though that we didn't chaser himaway, we were so quiet as we watched and he hardly seemed to notice our audience. In this dense setting, we were surpised to find the Little (Stripe throated) Hermit a tiny ocraceous Hummingbird with a long curved bill that prefers the dense primary forest.
We birded with Rudolfo until just before noon and said our goodbyes. He seemed curious about our plans for the afternoon. He explained that he would be working in the office until around 4:30 and if we wanted he could pick us up and take us to a place to search for Pinnated Bittern and Nicaraguan Seedfinch. I hadn't even considered these two species, but the suggestion sounded good. He added, "I would charge you just $40 for the time." I paused and glanced at our parents. They seemed to have no objection. "Sure, let's do it!". He told us he would pick us up at our lodge and drive us there in his own car. "It's small," he added, "but about the size of your driver's car." He gestured to our driver's tiny Hyundai two-door. Somehow, the van had morphed into a four seater. "He says there was a problem and he has to use his own car now. The driver, as if to verify the story, held out his grease-stained hands. "No problem." I said. "We can fit."
Back at the lodge Cricket and I decided to bird the grounds while Kaz and Aiko rested. First order of business was to locate the Sunbittern, a bird I have wanted to see since I was a boy. It is the only member of its family, completely isolated from other birds, except for a loose and poorly understood distant relationship with the Kagu of New Caledonia, the Seriemas of South America and the Finfoots of the Tropics. Exactly how and when these species diverged is shrouded in mystery but remains a constant subject. of speculation. All I knew was that this Coot-sized autumn-colored bird inhabited riparian woodland and when startled, would raise its wings to reveal startlingly patterned flashes of rust, gold, black and white. This display would create the impression that this rather small bird had transformed itself into a much larger, very frightening beast with huge eyes and great strength. Wow!, I though! I simply have to see this...
Cricket and I walked along the river, through beatiful forest bordering the lodge. An oddly proportioned Hummingbird, the Long-tailed Hermit was feeding on flowering bush, a species we missed at other locations. We saw first a Fasciated Tiger Heron (there's that adjective again. It means "Heavily barred"). It's a big heron, about American Bittern sized and similarly structured. Its neck is long and stout and its legs relatively short. Contrary to Bitterns however, this Tiger Heron feeds rather openly and we saw it standing on the rocks in midstream, where the current washed over a kind of weir. There, we supposed, fish prey would be easily seen and captured.
The rain began to return, I guess it was late afternoon now. Along the bank of the river, among some rounded water splashed rocks, foraged a slender-necked bird with an impressive facial pattern. Its comparitively long bill and body marked with crypic leafy patterns cofirmed it. It was a Sunbittern. We watched it for a minute or two before it moved down river. It took a while, but when we finally relocated it it was actually along the forest trail leading back to our cabin. We slowly approached it and it slowly kept the same distance ahead. It appeared grayer than I had imagined, but still was so wonderfully patterned, just like dried leaves arranged in neat rows. We followed it for a while, not quite believing our luck, and we left it at the trail head that leads directly out from the gravel loading zone outside our cabin!
We realized it was almost 4:30 and time for us to meet Rudolfo. We quickly found Kaz and Aiko, who had decided they would remain at the lodge and explore the grounds instead. So Cricket and I jumped into our guide's tiny car. I don't know how we would all have fit anyway. This car was distincly smaller than our lunch time vehicle...
Rudolfo pointed out his small yellow home along the main road and waved to his daughter who was playing in the yard. She was eleven and looked very happy to see her dad. We drove for about 20 minutes or more to a large pasture along a busy road. The habita was roughly three miles wide and a mile or so deep. Big, in other words. Trucks and cars whizzed past quckly and sprayed us as we readied for a short walk along the fence. Rudolfo's scope had changed to a nicer model since morning and the more expensive model proved quite helpful in the declining light. We watched for the better part of an hour, seeing very little. A pair of Roadside Hawks called loudly from a tree, Red-winged Blackbirds, Green Ibis, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule... Except for the Hawks, all were quite familiar and none of them our target. Rudolfo seemed ever-so-slightly nervous, and well he should be. He had all but promised us two lifers here and neither had appeared. "There it is!" he said after the sun had completely dropped out of site and all that remained was the faintest hint of late afternoon. "Pinnated Bittern!" Far away, nearly a kilometer away, there was apparently a bird in flight over the flooded pasture, visible with difficulty through the mist. Did I see it? No. And neither did Cricket. We continued to watch as it got darker and darker. Finally, and only for an instant, I caught a large straw-colored Heron with distinct white stripes on the wings... Three or fours seconds at most I had it. "It's over the marsh!" I fumbled to say, trying to get her on the bird. You know how this story ended. Perhaps Kelly will forgive me some day for failing to find a better description of the location than, "It's over the marsh!" as it flew away and disappeared...
Needless to say, the rumored Nicaraguan Seefinch remained a rumor, but we did see a few Variable Seedeaters and a new bird, the Red-breasted Blackbird. Cricket missed that one too and glared at me sharply. I would continue to hear about these two birds for quite some time. Despite the disappointment of not finding everything we had wanted, we still felt the adventure was worthwhile. We saw a new area and learned a little more about our guide. We gave him the $40 and went to find Kaz and Aiko back in their room.
Dinner was in the second floor dining hall again. A buffet as usual and quite good. Lots of new guests had arrived, and rather noisy ones at that. I appeared to us that they were not birders and here on some kind of retreat. They talked loudly and sat in large groups. We heard a few of them discussing the lodge's nature walk and the various things their guides had shown them. They mentioned a few birds, garbling the names almost beyond recogition. I whinced each time I heard names like "Montezuma bird" or "yellow Toucan"... No matter, I reasoned. They enjoyed seeing the many colorful birds from and that made me happy.
We retired to our rooms, packed as much as we could for tomorrow's drive back to San Jose. We would bird in the morning around the lodge and then leave for the cityh. A slight sadness set it. This was our last evening in the jungle. Packing was a slow process and each item seemed to get heavier and heavier as we recalled the beautiful preserve and the green bridge leading ove the river. We turned the lights out and listened to the animals outside.
Selva Verde Lodge
1:00 pm transfer to Hotel Bougainvellia (San Jose suburb)
(2 hour return drive to central plateau)
We made a few more last minute preparations in the morning like pouring all the half-full fruit juices into a single larger container, disposing of all powerbar wrappers and tossing the pulverized crackers and unrecognisable spungy cake that somehow remained in our bags since the flight out of Houston. Then we were off to breakfast and whatever birding we could fit in before 1:00.
Kaz and Aiko were eager to look for the Sunbittern we had told them about, and Kaz especially wanted to show us a Tiger Heron he had seen. We finished up breakfast quickly and went directly to the river. There not one, but two glorious Sunbitterns foraged in full view of the bridge. It was raining steadily now, a change since we first awoke, but it wasn't too heavy to bird. Kaz and Cricket both held umbrellas and we passed them back and for so each of us could view the birds uninhibited. The Sunbitterns appeared like either a mated pair or an adult and immature. One was distinctly more storngly patterned than the other, with bold black and white facial stripes and more intense rufous. We watched as they moved deliberately among the rounded rocks where the Tiger Heron had been the day before. Once or twice we saw one of them fly a short distance and reveal the fabled eye markings on its wings. This was the first time we had seen the wings unfolded and they were as stunning as expected. We saw them fight over a small crab, and then we saw one get away with it. Next we saw it share the same crab with the other. It's hard to say what exactly was happening, but it was wonderful to watch.
Above: we cross the suspension bridge from the dining hall toward the primary forest on the left
Above: the primary forest is closed to guests unless accompanied by a guide
Above: ...but the area can be admired from the gate
Above: it was very near here we saw the Sunbittern and the Fasciated Tiger Heron
We continued along the river and through the forest to find multitudes of Green Poison-arrow Frogs, made bold by the recent rain, and a few of the smaller Strawberry Poison-arrow Frogs. As well, we were stopped dead in our tracks by an enourmous locust-type insect that measured about 4" from head to tail. As we approached, it stood motionless and menacing, seeminly unwilling to let us pass. We chose to ignore him but leaned back as we maneuvered around his throne.
Above: the enormous bug
Cricket and I also explored the area across from the lodge while Kaz and Aiko avoided the increasing rain. We found the area easily but the supposed bird walk was completely overgrown and inaccessible. Instead, we wandered the flower garden and discovered a two story observation tower. From there we looked into the secondary forest and saw "yellow Toucans" and "Montezuma birds" in the distance. The sky was very dark and it was raining very hard now and I refused to shelter myself from any of it. Cricket offered her umbrella several times, but I answered defiantly "This is our last day in the rain forest and I'm going to get as wet as possible!" And so it was. As it poured I stretched out my arms as we stood on the on the platfrom, looked upward and got thoroughly drenched. For the first time, I really didn't care. I opened my mouth to swallow a few drops. Of course my eyeglasses were covered by the heavy rain and I couldn't see a thing, but I loved every warm drop of this final storm. I revelled in it and lost all sense of dry. If my face weren't already wet, tears would have made it so. I was happy and sad alike.
I kissed Cricket several times. As it rained on us atop the metal tower we were compelled to remember the clock and so descended the steps, encouraged by the loud crack of thunder and sudden flash of nearby lightning. We crossed the road and entered the compound through a gate with a blue uniformed guard. We took shelter, laughing under the covered walkway that lead inward toward the river and found a set of stairs leading up to an area we hadn't yet explored. There we found a small group of buildings and a library belonging to the lodge. As we approached there was another flash of lightning and a very loud clap of thunder. The rain was intense and there was now a fierce tropical wind. Not fifty feet away a tree began to fall. It snapped and cracked like the fire crackers we'd heard in La Selva only this time we could see the trunk moving to our left. Which direction it was falling was unclear and both our hearts beat more quickly. I grabbed Cricket's hand. Would this be how we would die? ...crushed by a large falling tree on our last day in Costa Rica?? It fell with a loud boom parallel to our path and smaller branches and leaves fell with it. Would they crush us beneath the covered walkway...? We rushed forward hands held and hoping no additional trees would follow in a huge falling domino parade. None did and for that we were grateful. We let out a huge sigh of relief. We came to a clearing outside the library that overlooked the river. Below us overlooking the gravel weir we saw the Tiger Heron again, foraging peacefully in the rain.
Nothing stops a countdown, it seems. Soon it was time for our final Imperial beer on the covered patio below the dining room and after that our final lunch at the Selva Verde lodge. We drank and ate in view of the river, made deeper and more rapid by the dramatic rain. And when that was done, we lugged our bags through the gorgeous network of covered walkways and dripping palm trees up to the lobby. Our driver was waiting for us there and smiling. It seemed like of all the days he might find some way to be late, this might be the day... but no. He was quite on time and ready to return us to civilization. Damn it all anyway.
Roberto helped load the bags into the van and immiately after checking out and paying our bar tab we were on the road. The rain had subsided somewhat and the drive back to San Jose was very easy. Long straight roads were a nice contrast to the road we had taken in. Infact, as we passed the enourmous Braulio Caurrillo National Park, an area we were told had only limited public access and the rest is completely unspoiled, the road widened to become six lanes. Roberto was very much a birder. He had his binoculars hanging on the headrest and a signed copy of Skutche's fieldguide between the front seats. The book had been so long in service that many pages were rubbed almost white and pages falling out. He had also circled many names but said what he would really like to circle was a Harpy Eagle. The bird is extremely rare, and all of our guides during our trip had tried and failed to see one. Adrian had been especially emotional when he spoke of the bird. Roberto was cool though. He loved birds, but he said he would stop after he had seen the Eagle. I guess that means he'll be birding for a while...
"Have you ever been to Kansas?" Cricket asked. "No, not Kansas, but I've been to the United States. Colorado with 4H." This was almost as unexpected as the Kansas reply, but not quite.
We were driving up a long steep incline when Roberto suddenly pointed out the window. Trucks were rushing by on our left, but we could see the two white birds he found. They were White Hawks, pure snowy white except for a black subterminal band on its tail and a dark outline on both wings. Very striking and clearly not making use of anything like camoflage. Both birds were shockingly obvious against the solid green backround of the trees. Not long after that, and again in mid conversation, Roberto pulled to the side of the road and parked. Great Green Macaws were perched on a distant tree. Through our binoculars they were clearly visible, but because of the backlighting their colors were not apparent. As if Roberto had pushed a button, the birds lifted off of their treetop branches and dropped below the sky, bringing them into better light and against the dark background of the canopy. As such, were able to see their luminous green body, red facial feathers and long tails. They are an unforgetable combination of emerald, vibrant carmine, deep cobalt and pure cyan. Their flight feathers were also blue, so that when the approached nearer, it became obvious that "Green" is not really the best name for this bird. But I suppose when the bird is perched, green is the most prominant color. Roberto was please to hear that the birds were new for us. He asked if we had seen the Prevost's Ground Sparrow. "No, we heard it can be found at our hotel, but we missed it the first time." He assured us that we would be able to find it if we looked in the garden. "There should be plenty of time." he smiled.
Hotel Bougainvellia was still there when we arrived. Right where we had left it. It was mid afteroon, and the first order of business was, of course, to bird the hell out of the place and make sure we found the Ground Sparrow. We dumped the bags into our huge room, bigger and more luxurious than the first room, and with a nicer view of the garden. The recovery effort was so focused, only one bird, that I decided not to carry any field guide. Instead, I snapped a quick digital photograph of the bird in the book and took the cameral. If we had any question about what we were looking for, we'd just turn the camera on and look at the tiny screen on the back of the camera. Then we rushed down to explore the grounds. Cricket and I timed ourselves. We looked along the fence lines, beneath bushes, in the herb garden... any place you might expect to find a Towhee. The herb garden was especially good habitat we felt, with its yard trimming piles and numerous hiding places. There was also a metal observation tower from which we could survey the entire area. So we climbed up and at exactly 52 minutes from the time we started, the bird appeared. Across the herb garden, maybe 50 feet away, a small Towhee like bird marked with overall olive body, russet head and a large white spot before the eye came out to explore. Prevost's Ground Sparrow! A quick look at the digital preview confirmed it. It was rather shy and startled easily when other birds approached. But we saw it finally. It was the first bird we missed, and the last lifer of the trip.
Above: number 18 is the Prevost's Ground Sparrow
The birding portion of our Costa Rica adventure was now official over. We returned to the room feeling that we had accomplished our mission and found a beautiful sunset off our balcony. There on the ledge was also a striking Green Page Moth, as colorful as any butterfly we had seen. It looked like a green and black zebra. We sat for a few minutes soaking in the peach-colored sky and waiting for dinner to begin.
Above: our last afternoon in Costa Rica was spent enjoying the view from our balcony at Hotel Bougainvellia
Above: I believe this is called a Green Page Moth, and unlike most moths, it flies during the day
We knocked on our parents' door and they opened it immediately. Showered and dressed for dinner they joined us in the hall. Downstairs in the familiar dining room we sat at white clothed tables and were greeted by a very happy waiter. He explained the specials for the evening and we ordered wine to accompany our food. Cricket had Chilean Sea Bass with white wine and caper sauce, Kaz had the same with a spicy lime sauce, Aiko and I had curried prawns. Dinner was elegant and delicious, just perfect for our last evening. A few feet away, the piano was being played by one of the guests. Later another guest took the post and played her favorite piece. When the waiter reappeared with desert menus we ordered chocolate cake and coffee. It all tasted so good.
We were beyond happy and almost forgotwe were leaving in the morning. We toasted to our various guides, good and bad, our many birds and all the adventures we'd had. We retold our favorite episodes and laughed the entire time. "What was your favorite bird" The answers were all different, and no one found the question easy. When you see that much beauty, boiling it down the one favorite or the most beautiful is just about impossible. I had come to Costa Rica to see the Quetzal, and yet it was probably no more my favorite than the Sun Bittern or the Rufous Motmot... I can only say that the Quetzal has a special place in my heart, but saying it is my favorite it not something I can do. I think we all felt something similar. There was a slight pause after that, we knew our trip was complete, and we were ready to leave. We all agreed we were satisfied with what we had seen. No birds were left on the table, nothing missing from our experience. That's not to say we wouldn't like to have stayed more, it's only that we did not feel like we were leaving too early. We were full.
Besides that, we were tired of smelling like deet.
We went to bed in our big lovely room, with the moon and stars shining through our window. Tomorrow we would be going home and begin the slow process of recording these experiences for others to enjoy. At 4:15am our driver, the only one whose name we never learned, picked us up and drove us through the early morning to the San Jose Airport. The darkened houses and little gardens passed by our fogged windows. A church, a school and a closed grocery store. Strange, we didn't talk much as we left the hotel. Too much on our minds, I guess. The nameless cab driver seemed like a phantom escort, a mysterious guide into (and out of) this magical place. If we learned his name, perhaps we could stay. Somehow I we never asked. It was time to leave. A $10 tip saw him off into the shadows and we into the sliding chrome doors of the terminal.
Choose a different section:
Section 0 Introduction
Section 1 Day 1-3 (arrival in San Jose, Rancho Naturalista)
Section 2 Day 4-6 (Racho Naturalista, Savegre Lodge)
Section 3 Day 7-9 (Tarcol Lodge and Carara, Monteverde area)
Section 4 Day 10-12 (Monteverde area, Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS)
Section 5 Day 13-15 (Selva Verde Lodge and La Selva OTS, return to San Jose)
Trip total: 359 species (300 of them lifers for Cricket and me!)