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Birding Costa Rica non avian organisms

Pelagic day Trip off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

“I love pelagic birding but it doesn’t like me”. I wish I had a tee-shirt with this slogan. I would wear it with pride when birding from docks, piers, and rocky promontories. Other birders leaving the shore behind in pursuit of petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and other drab yet very exciting birds would see the shirt and immediately understand why I stayed back on solid, dry ground to happily (if fruitlessly) scan the open ocean.

As they chugged their way out beyond the drift lines and the wave action carried out its unrelenting, uncompromising barrage upon their land-tuned senses, those who unwittingly added their own, personal brand of chum to the vast ocean might wonder if they should have joined me in surrendering all opportunities at getting very cool, tube-nosed lifers.

As those poor, suffering birders left last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast on the surface of the water, a mental image of me and my shirt would appear and what was previously cast off as fodder for the brain would suddenly take on profound, personal importance.

“Ahhhh, so that’s why he wore the shirt and stayed behind! Oh why or why did I scoff? Why did I not join him back on the wonderful, stable ground?”

Those rare few who are contemplative in times of duress might feel an odd “Eureka!” sensation upon realization that the seabirds who were partaking of their stomachal stew had been fed as a nestling in a very similar manner. The idea that they were bonding with and becoming momentary foster parents for Wedge-tailed Shearwaters would at the least spark an inner smile and perhaps such birders would feel more justified for sacrificing their stomach to the waves.

Most birders, however, have no such Zen-like thoughts as they hang over the railing or urgently, silently fight to calm their inner ears. No, they simply begin to wonder, “Was this trip worth it”?

As you may have surmised, I have problems with sea sickness. Although I liked roller coasters in my younger years, I have never been extremely thrilled about the Tilt-a Whirl, Spinning Teacups, Pirate Ship, or other amusement park rides. I think if I rode one of those now, after all of the spinning, vertigo, and brain-scrambling madness had come to a stop, if I were even capable of lifting the safety bar, I would probably be about as coherent as melted butter.

It was with extreme and sophomoric bravery then that I ventured out onto the open ocean for my first Costa Rican pelagic birding trip this past Sunday, November 14th. I was coaxed into accepting an invitation to bird the offshore waters of the Costa Rican Pacific Coast by the certainty of multiple lifers, new birds for my Costa Rican list and the year, and that on past pelagic trips with the same boat, the seas had never been “rough”.

I had such trepidations about doing a pelagic trip here or anywhere else due to the strong impressions left by my first and only pelagic birding experience off the coast of Oregon in 1996. What a memorable trip that was! Hundreds of phalaropes, flocks of Sabines Gulls, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, all three jaegers, dozens of Black-footed Albatross and two Laysan Albatross! The birds were fantastic but the way in which I saw them should have been included as a footnote in Dante’s “Inferno”.

Despite having taken Dramamine, I greeted nearly every bird species that approached the boat with unbridled vomit. You would have thought that they would have flown back up to the Bering Strait after such a horrible reception but fortunately, seabirds are such hardy, salty souls that they didn’t even blink an eye. For example, my lifer Laysan Albatross flew so close to the boat that I nearly stained its immaculate white plumage. Despite unwittingly chumming the water mere inches from this majestic bird, it just drifted on past on massive wings, completely unfazed.

I got a bunch of lifers and the experience was incredible but I assure you, I paid such a strong price for it that I had pretty much written off seeing all pelagic species anywhere unless they were blown to shore or inland by massive hurricanes.

Last week, though, local birder and friend Paul Murgatroyd sent me an invitation to join him and six other stalwart birders for a day trip out onto the Pacific in search of avian treasure. While I was pondering whether or not I should accept this gracious invitation, Paul called and with tales of smooth waters, hardly anyone feeling ill over the course of six trips, and the chance at several lifers, how could I say no?

Doing the trip without getting sick actually sounded feasible and was guaranteed to be an incredible experience. I would bring something other than Dramamine to fool the inner ear, nibble on salty snacks, watch the horizon, and see some new birds!

Early Sunday morning, eight of us departed the Los Sueños Marina on “The Floating Bear”, a fifty foot Beneteau sailboat that had brought Paul and other birders to Costa Rica’s first Tahiti Petrel, Christmas Island Shearwater, and other birds you just can’t see from the mainland. We knew we would have to be very lucky to get these and other deep water species because we wouldn’t be heading past the continental shelf but in such uncharted waters for birding, you almost can’t even guess at what might or might not show up!

Birding Costa Rica

Chugging straight out to sea, our first memorable sighting was of a mother Humpbacked Whale with her baby! They were kind of far away but still impressive enough to elicit excited exclamations from all on board as we watched mother then baby leaping out of the water to breach off of Playa Herradura. A few Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls could be seen but for the most part, inshore, the sea was devoid of bird life.

Birding Costa Rica

Water everywhere but not a drop to drink…

After a short detour, our trusty skipper “Greivin” pointed the bow towards Tahiti and we slowly but surely made our way into the realm of tube-nosed birds. As we left the shore behind, the water became ruled by an endless series of waves and thus began the battle with my inner ear for supremacy of my stomach. The fiercest fighting took place during the first two or so hours of the trip because this is when the inner ear makes its most vehement protest and attempts to coerce the gut into becoming its ally. I would never have won the fight on my own but that’s why I enlisted help in the form of a Dramamine like medication by the name of, “Gravor” (oddly enough sounding much like the name of the skipper) as well as an ample supply of salty plantain chips and crackers, and the determination to watch the horizon for hours on end. That little pill sometimes made it tough to think and would be a serious hindrance to giving an eloquent speech but it definitely helped me keep control of the stomach and calm down the inner ear when looking for pelagics off the Costa Rican coast this past Sunday. Nibbling crackers, sipping water, and watching the horizon also played their part but I think it was the Gravor that did the job.

My Sunday sea sickness challenge was toughest about one or two hours into the trip and it was also around this time that the specialty birds showed. We didn’t see huge numbers, didn’t chum the waters, and good looks were made difficult (at least for me) by the rocking movement of the boat but in addition to Magnificent Frigatebirds, Royal Terns, and Laughing Gulls near shore, we managed to see:

Brown Boobies flapping past the boat and looking smart in perfect light, we had these for much of the day and saw flocks winging their back to the islands they use for roosting after foraging on the open ocean.

Small groups Sabines Gulls (!) with crisp contrasting markings on their wings, I hadn’t seen this beautiful gull for many years.

A few flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes riding the waves like gray and brown bathtub toys, most of their kind had probably already passed through the area.

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters coming in three different phases, we saw dozens of this life bird throughout the day.

Birding Costa Rica

The two dark specs are Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

A single Pink-footed Shearwater was a good record for the area.

A few Audubons’ Shearwaters were seen. This lifer was my favorite bird of the trip because two individuals flew too close to the boat for binoculars. I snapped away with a hand-held camera and look what happened!

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

Black Storm-Petrels zipping low over the waves like shadowy nighthawks, this life bird was the most common storm-petrel.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel was another much wanted life bird for me. We had very few white-rumped storm-petrels on Sunday. I got a good look at the first group of birds and saw features for Wedge-rumped but may have missed a Band-rumped (gasp!) because Kevin Easley mentioned seeing a bird that may have been this species. In the second group of white-rumped storm petrels, I have a mental snapshot of one bird that lacked the white wedge of the Wedge-rumpeds as well as white on the undertail. I suspect it was a Leaches or Band-rumped and hope that photos taken by Kevin or Juan Diego will reveal its identity.

We had surprisingly few Least Storm-Petrels. The only storm-petrel I had seen in Costa Rica before this trip, they were pretty easy to recognize by their bat-like flight.

Several Pomarine Jaegers, adults and juveniles. How can one not be enthralled by a chunky, falcon-like seabird? Two big juveniles following a fishing boat were masquerading as skuas.

Parasitic Jaeger– at least one dark phase adult flew low over the water and was one of our first birds of the day.

We had scattered sightings of Black Terns until a flock of a 100 or so flew past around 4 pm.

At least one Common Tern was a year bird for me.

On the non-avian front, we had twenty or so Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, one billfish species that may have been a Swordfish, a few Manta Rays jumping clear out of the water, and two species of dolphins, Striped and Spotted. These were a highlight of the trip as they purposely swam close to the boat and proceeded to porpoise alongside us.

Birding Costa Rica

One of the Striped Dolphins.

Birding Costa Rica

One of the Spotted Dolphins.

Our trip back towards shore was more easy-going than the way out because we rode swell after shore-going swell the whole time. Night fell at least an hour before we pulled into the marina. As everyone else descended below decks, I opted for staying up top to feel the wind and watch the dark waters go by. It was an experience made limbo-like by the sounds of constant wind and waves and onshore lights that never appeared to get any closer. As we approached shore, I could smell land- a mixture of smoke, earth, and dank, tropical vegetation. The dark forms of two Magnificent Frigatebirds hovering above the mast of the Floating Bear also reminded us that we were no longer coursing over the open sea. We had made it back from the watery pelagic lands after the briefest of jaunts into uncharted birding territory and I had done so without getting sick! I’m not sure when I will find myself in the company of pelagic birds again but until then, I will always be wondering just what else is out there beyond the horizon.

biodiversity Butterflies and moths of Costa Rica Introduction non avian organisms

The Uraniidae moths are invading Costa Rica!

When birding Costa Rica and many other exciting, birdy neotropical countries with rain forest, one can’t help but notice a striking black and green moth that looks like a butterfly. It doesn’t look anything like the usual, amazing, hairy little beasts that show up at night lights and resemble miniature lost aliens. This beautiful creature doesn’t goes against the moth standard because the lepidopterists say that it’s mimicking swallowtail butterflies. I won’t deny that they resemble swallowtail butterflies in shape but its green and black coloration sure seems one of a kind. I mean it really does look more like some refrigerator magnet or sticker that shows a butterfly dreamed up by the design team of the Fukien All Purpose Happy Factory in China.

“Leung Chu, we have an order of 50,000 butterfly magnets for our biggest customer- the Dollar Store. Quick, design a pretty butterfly!”

“Sure Mr. Wong! That’s easy to do because all butterflies are pretty- how about this?” He shows a sketch of a black and green butterfly.

“Yes, that will be perfect!”

These Uraniidae moths look incredible but I have to admit that I have become habituated to feeling a bit let down when I see one because I think, “Now that’s one heck of a butterfly! Oh wait that’s right, it’s just a moth…”  I realize this a very discriminatory thing to do and I can’t justify it but all I can say in my defense is that the Urania moth tricks me. It throws me for a loop into thinking that I am watching some super cool, psychadelic butterfly instead of a mere masquerading moth. I really shouldn’t put it that way because I love seeing moths, especially the bizarre and beautiful creatures that make their appearance in the dark of the night, so I will attempt to overcome my feelings of betrayal and enjoy their presence.

That’s a pretty easy thing to do these days because the Urania moths are currently invading Costa Rica. I think the scouts showed up two weeks ago before the main drive on September 18th. On that day, while birding at Quebrada Gonzalez, a constant broad wave of Urania moths were flying in a general west to east direction over the canopy of the forest. The skyscape was littered with butterly-like moths and none were observed stopping to alight on the vegetation. The message must have also gotten out long ago about their bad taste because they were completely ignored by birds (of which we saw few due to the hot, sunny weather). I have also seen them up here in the Central Valley as they bravely (more dramatic sounding than the truth- hopelessly driven by blind instincts) flutter among the concrete and cinder block structures of Costa Rica’s urbanized sector.

Urania fulgens moths apparently undertake massive migrations like the one we witnessed once every eight years or so and might make it all the way to Colombia. In looking for information about their movements, I didn’t find as much as I had expected but did come across a paper written by Neal Griffith Smith who studied a migration of these awesome looking insects in Panama in 1969. He estimated that several million moths flew over the canal zone during Autumn of that year and hypothesized that they might migrate to take advantage of greater resources available to larvae during the wet season. Whatever the reasons are for the massive movements they make, judging by the small number of papers I found that investigate this moth, I don’t get the impression that the migrations of Urania fulgens have been studied very much.

If so few studies have been carried out on such a lovely, day-flying moth as Urania fulgens, just imagine how incredibly little is known about the majority of the fuzzy-antennaed creatures that flutter in the night and get eaten by owls (had to throw that last bit in- this is a birding blog after all).

Image of Urania fulgens at top is from Mike Quinn’s Texas Entomology website.

biodiversity Introduction non avian organisms

Snakes and Birding in Costa Rica

Recent conversations and inquiries about snakes (especially the venomous ones) followed up by a close encounter with a Fer-de-Lance has prompted me to finally write “the snake post”. Like many birders, although I focus on the feathered, I am also interested in many other aspects of nature (I almost said, “the natural world” but how could it be anything but natural). Among the myriads of life forms on our precious planet, snakes rank pretty high up there as creatures I would love to see more of and I admit that I keep a casual world snake list (my best species are Anaconda and Eastern Hog-nosed) but the list is pathetically short because I hardly EVER see any of the 130 plus species found in Costa Rica. While tromping around the tropical woods, I often wonder where they all are and you probably will too unless you spend all of your time herping instead of birding (and even then it might be easier to see birds). In actuality, snakes are probably somewhere in the vicinity no matter you go in Costa Rica; they just don’t want to be seen. Since they are easy to catch and have such a wide spectrum of predators that include coatis, peccaries, a variety of birds, other snakes, and unforgiving people, they have more than enough reasons to remain hidden. Some have even evolved to hide in plain sight with the help of fantastic camouflage; a trait that despite being very impressive, tends to promote anxiety and paranoia among guides and field biologists. One starts to get a little paranoid because the more time one spends in tropical habitats, by sheer probability, the more likely it is that one will be too close for comfort to a Fer-de-Lance. Realizing that that they are common and incredibly camouflaged doesn’t help either even though there are plenty of stories of people walking close to or even grabbing this highly venomous snake without getting bit. As of this past Sunday, I can now add my own encounter with a Fer-de-Lance to the long list of stories with happy endings that involve this infamous pit-viper.

I was at Quebrada Gonzalez with a client and my driver for the day and we were doing the loop trail behind the station for the second time (I often find different species doing the trail more than once, the additions on Sunday being White-whiskered Puffbird, Streak-chested Antpitta, and Spotted Antbird). Earlier on, during our morning walk, one of the rangers had passed us on the trail and had casually mentioned that he was going to use the long pole he was carrying to remove a large Fer-de-Lance from the path. Being occupied with staring into the trees on our search for birds, we didn’t see him move the snake but didn’t see the Fer-de-Lance that first time around. Although he had lifted it off of the trail, he apparently didn’t relocate it far enough away from the path because much to our nerve-racking surprise, it came back in the afternoon. Despite knowing where the snake had been hanging out and watching where I was stepping, I didn’t see the 5 foot serpent until it was practically underfoot. Its camouflage worked so well that I only noticed it because it was kind enough to move off of the path before I stepped on it. Although it was rather alarming to find that I didn’t see the snake until it moved, at least I can say that I am pleased with my instincts and reaction time. As soon as I perceived motion near the ground, I moved so fast that the only thing I recollect is possibly flying for about ten feet while exclaiming, “Stop! Snake! Snake on the trail! Don’t move!” After uttering a few other choice words to release the tension, I quickly calmed myself down (kung-fu birding at its best), and noticing that Linda and Janet could make a safe detour around the snake, directed them past the scaly beast. Although I didn’t notice exactly where the Fer-de-Lance had been at the start of this encounter, it ended up moving entirely off of the trail and took up a defensive posture.

See if you can find the snake below!

Here is a close-up of the head.

And if you had trouble finding the snake, here it is outlined.

It was pretty big and I am very lucky that it didn’t strike. Its reaction, though, is consistent with most other encounters that I have heard about. The few people who have gotten bit in Costa Rica have not been birders. They are usually people who picked one up, were cutting low-lying vegetation with a machete in a garden, or were walking at night along a forest trail in bare feet (this from a Bribri woman who told me that she got bit during a full moon and so of course her foot aches at every full moon). Although it sounds like the Fer-de-Lance typically reacts the way this snake did, that doesn’t mean that you should ever get that close to one! I take this encounter as a warning of sorts and in addition to never walking where I can’t clearly see the ground, will also scan the trail 10 meters ahead with binoculars to specifically check for snakes, and will watch 2 meters ahead of where I am walking. If I had done this, I am pretty sure that I would have seen the snake before almost stepping on it because I was only checking the ground directly beneath my feet. Rubber boots probably also add some protection (I usually wear those anyways).

It was actually a bit unusual to see a Fer-de-Lance deep inside the forest as they are much more common in second growth, grassy areas, at tree-fall gaps, and along streams. Be especially careful near marshy areas or other habitats that harbor lots of frogs because contrary to what has often been said about this infamous viper in books and TV shows, at least on the Caribbean Slope, they appear to be strict connoisseurs of the “grenouille”. I found this out last year when speaking with a naturalist who lives in the Reventazon Valley and is probably more of a herper than a birder. Over at least twenty years, in checking the stomach contents of at least a 100 Fer-de-Lances, every single one had fed almost exclusively on frogs no matter what size the snakes were. He also said that Bothrops asper were very common in fields with tall grass-keep that in mind next time you want to leave the trail! On his property, the venemous snakes that were taking larger rodents were Bushmasters. Much rarer and harder to find than Fer-de-Lance, on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica, they appear to be restricted to mature foothill forests (such as that of Quebrada Gonzalez) rather than in lowland forest. These observations also reflect my own experiences in Costa Rica and southeastern Peru. When I worked at the Posada Amazonas lodge in Tambopata Peru, during occasional explosions of mouse opossum and rodent populations, it was never Bothrops that suddenly showed up but Boas and Bushmasters (although it still took a lot of effort to find either of those). Regarding Bushmasters, they also blend in with the leaf litter but are more likely to occur near a log or base of a tree than on the trail itself (unless the log is lying across the trail). They are also pretty darn rare in Costa Rica so it is very unlikely that you will run into one (although rangers have told me that this species is untypically common at Hitoy Cerere).

Bushmaster or “Matabuey” at the Monteverde serpentarium.

Other snakes to watch our for on the ground are Jumping Viper (sounds scarier than it is), two species of Hog-nosed Vipers, and the Tropical Rattlesnake. The first three are rather small vipers that blend in quite well and could occur on a trail. Although I haven’t seen either of the Hog-nosed Vipers in the wild, I had a run in with a Jumping Viper at Bijagua that left me pretty frazzled. We were both in a hurry and like pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk, nearly ran into each other. Although I was the only one that jumped, I think it was just as startled because the viper opened its mouth and hissed at me. Hoping that it would continue on its way if I left it alone, I backtracked and birded for about twenty minutes before walking back up the trail. Much to my dismay, it hadn’t moved an inch and even knowing where it was, I still didn’t see the two foot snake until I was within ten feet of it. Oh yeah, just to make sure that I couldn’t miss it, the unfriendly serpent also hissed again. I ended up lifting it off the trail with a very long stick (which it struck repeatedly), and was hissed at as I walked past the snake even though it was at least ten feet away from me. Needless to say, I focused on the trail so much on my way out that I didn’t see any more birds.

Jumping Viper at the Monteverde serpentarium.

Western Hognose Viper at the Monteverde Serpentarium.

I don’t have any personal encounters with Tropical Rattlesnakes to relate but assume these are pretty easy to avoid because they would be easy to see along roads or the wide trails where most birding in the Pacific Northwest is done (don’t walk into the tall grass!).

Tropical Rattlesnake at the Monteverde Serpentarium.

In addition to watching where one walks, one also has to always be careful of the understory vegetation. In other words, don’t brush up against the leaves and do not grab any stems or tree trunks. Spines, thorns, nasty caterpillars, and sting-happy ants are just waiting to give you a surprise, and Eyelash Vipers won’t ask if you really meant to grab them before biting. The Eyelash Viper could be the most common venomous snake in Costa Rica and is the one most often seen. Rather small, this arboreal pit-viper rarely reaches more than two feet in length. It prefers to sit and wait in bushes, and on the understory vegetation for lizards, frogs, and birds. The beautiful golden phase stands out but the more typical mottled, green phase blends in perfectly with the mossy vegetation. Just don’t get too close to the vegetation though, and you will be alright.

A small Eyelash Viper at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Another at Bijagua.

There are also other rarer, arboreal vipers found at higher elevations but I don’t have any images of those.

Coral Snakes are far from rare in Costa Rica and at least a few species occur here with the two most common being the Central American and Allen’s Coral Snakes. I see a Coral Snake every once in a while in the woods, on a grassy lawn, or even in a coffee plantation. Although highly venomous, since they don’t blend in with their surroundings, you aren’t likely to step on one and are only likely to get bit if you pick one of these cobra relatives up and play with it (an obviously bad idea that herpetologists somehow can’t stop themselves from doing).

Central American Coral Snake at at the Monteverde Serpentarium.

Of course the poisonous snakes are the most exciting but in reality, on the rare occasions when I come across a serpent, it is of one of the many non-venomous species. One of the more frequently seen species is the Oriole Snake. This arboreal species can get quite big- in fact the largest snake I have seen in Costa Rica was a 8-9 foot individual of this species hanging out in the trees next to the HQ at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Oriole Snake in the Monteverde Serpentarium.

And here is a Tiger Rat Snake I saw at Rara Avis.

Some other fairly common snakes that I do not have pictures of are Salmon-bellied Racer, Mussarana, and Vine Snakes. I would like to have more images or at least augment my snake list but it’s just so hard to focus on looking for herps when there are so many birds to look for, watch, and study.

In any case, I hope this post doesn’t scare anyone from visiting Costa Rica. I think no matter where one travels, visitors will be safe as long as they take proper precautions for any potentially dangerous organisms. In Costa Rica, this means staying on the trail, watching where you walk, and it doesn’t hurt to hire a guide.