Monday, September 24, 2012

Nica/Tica 2012 part 2/3: Tortuguero

This is Part 2 [here's Part 1] of our early-summer trip to Costa Rica/Nicaragua. This segment's destination: Tortuguero, a little not-road-accessible town on the Caribbean coast.

We reluctantly departed La Selva and caught a series of buses to a fairly remote town called Cariari, seedy by Costa Rican standards but legitimately Latin American without any tourist influences at all. So it was cool that way. We had to wait for a couple hours for our bus but entertained ourselves by watching the drama as a pigeon got run over by a bus and lots of well-meaning people tried to help it out. That story ended with a big "crunch!"

From Cariari we caught another bus to Pavona which is where the boats to Tortuguero launch off from. The first boat we were in was overloaded and started to sink, so we got off that one. The next one was superior.

The boat ride took us through dozens of miles of jungle rivers. We were going too fast for much birding, but it's hard to miss guys like this:

Budsto really loved the boat ride and tried to see birds. He saw Mommy and Daddy birding so much that he just became infatuated with seeing birds. He even spotted some that we didn't see. His ID skills leave much to be desired [though he's got "duck" down pretty well], but the passion is there.

Tortuguero is a little Caribbean town that's also a popular tourist spot. It maintains quite a bit of charm due to the fact that it is only accessible by boat. The kids heard there was a beach, so before long that's where we ended up. This whole part of the trip, with the boats and beach, were aimed at pleasing the kids. It can't all be obscure birds and tiny frogs before the kids just get tired of it all.

Enough beach photos? There will be more later.

The kids felt free to just wander about at will in Tortuguero. The "streets" are dirt and have only foot and bicycle traffic, and the people are very warm. Once when we were eating lunch indoors we peeked outside and found Budsto dancing like crazy in the middle of the street to reggae wafting out of a nearby bar. Locals were gathered around egging him on. Another time the girls met and played with a local girl and set up a foot race in the street. We have no idea how they communicated the rules to their games but everybody seemed to know what was going on.

We took a 3-hour long private boat tour around Tortuguero National Park. It was quite an adventure for the kids and we had an expert birder/boatsman named Roberto.

Green iguana.

Anhinga. This is the species of bird that pooped on Mommy during our honeymoon [this was not the part of our honeymoon that we spent looking for birds in a giant landfill--that trip was full of romance].

Mangrove swallow.

Northern jacana. We spent a lot of time watching these great little guys from a few feet away.

They were walking on floating water hyacinth gleaning tiny bugs from the leaves.

Giant toes help a ton.

Black river turtle. The kids especially loved the turtles...

...but not nearly as much as the two caimans we saw at close range, dubbed "Damon" and "Laman" by Little. We told stories of the three brother caimans Raymond, Damon and Laman for months afterwords.

Spider monkeys.

Highlights include two snowy cotingas that Daddy spotted and a gray-headed kite. All the kids were intrigued by the spider monkeys. Overall it was a blast... fun, in fact, that when we got back Daddy took the Fellins out in a canoe around the canals and lagoons of Tortuguero.

Switching gears for a moment... several months before the trip, Daddy showed Little a video of somebody zip-lining through the canopy in Costa Rica. She was instantly obsessed. Like, she was so possessed with the vision of zip-lining in CR that she basically didn't stop talking about it. So:

Littler, Budsto and Daddy got to wait for the big girls in a mosquito-infested swamp. Littler thought it was so much fun.

Little's favorite part--and she still talks about this weekly three months later--was a free-swinging tree rope, probably 40 feet long and 60 feet off the ground. To hear her tell it, that was pretty much the coolest thing ever.

And more canoeing.

This picture needs some explanation. Budsto doe this really cute thing every day. He'll turn around and see Mommy or Daddy and decide he wants to run to our arms. So he leans forward, sticks his arms back in an anime running posture and sprints towards us with a huge grin. This picture hardly does it justice, but we think the arms-back thing was an innovation on the arms-wide-for-a-hug idea. He did this a ton on our trip since he was always wandering off exploring then running back to us.

Little and Littler both like to wait for waves to crash into them. It's the thing to do. But Littler has a degree of fearlessness that is downright terrifying for anybody watching.

She just thinks it's a blast. When a giant undertow comes and pulls her in deep and shoves her under she just thinks it's hilarious.

This is one of Daddy's favorite pictures. Little and Littler love to try to jump over waves, here they are doing it with Mommy. Bud wants to be doing the same thing but is scared of the water, so he's standing a good 30 feet behind them and just jumping whenever he wants. He's not even close to the water. It's super-cute, and... well, look at those hops!

Little and Littler made "Mount Everest" on the beach and waited for much of the afternoon for the waves to demolish it.

After getting back from the beach, we all took turns getting showers and getting the grit off. Budsto was first, and we let him loose in the room while we got the girls bathed. When we found him again he was running around the room squishing ants with his penis. Boys...

Overall we saw 20 new species of birds on this part of the trip despite never setting foot inside a primary forest. And nothing was more fabulous than an espresso-colored black-collared hawk sitting on a low branch in the river as we boated back to Pavona. Really stunning bird!

After boating back to Pavona we caught ride with a great guy named Eric all the way back to San Jose, which trimmed about 3 hours of bus rides out of our day. The kids and Mommy piled in the back seat, with Budsto jamming out to the music on the radio. Little boy loves to dance.

Next stop: Nicaragua!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Nica/Tica 2012 part 1/3: La Selva

Around about the time we stopped feeling the afterglow of our 2009 Costa Rica trip [that is to say mid-2011], a super flight deal to Costa Rica landed in our inboxes. We were sorely tempted, but we just couldn't do it. Money, graduation, blah blah blah. So the next day a super stupendous flight deal to Costa Rica landed in our inboxes and of course we just bought tickets immediately and hoped to work out the details later. So that's how this all started.

This time around we would split our time between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and we'd be there in the rainy season. Most of our destinations average over an inch of rain a day in the "green season" so we knew things would be soggy. But the frogs promised to be good and the tickets were cheap, so off we went.

When Bud realized that he was in a real airplane he got super excited and started doing very fancy moves, yelling "I AIRBENDER!!"

Our flight from the Bay Area was a red-eye [great with kids, give it a shot!], so this happened in the Miami airport:

But so did this:

Littler and Budsto were insanely wired from minimal sleep and ran around terrorizing the entire airport for several hours. Nobody could catch them, they were shrieking at the top of their lungs, running the wrong way on the moving walkways, generally causing mayhem. But they were happy, so...

We flew in to Liberia and rode a bus to San Jose, about 4 hours away. One of our principle rules of foreign travel is to use the local transportation so we can better understand where we are. But at least on this bus ride there wasn't much cultural exchange going on.

Along this bus ride we saw several domestic animals. As we passed some cows, Littler yelled out "pigs!" while Budsto simultaneously enthused: "doggies!" We'll have to work on this.

Somewhere around this time Budsto started saying "hola" to everybody we passed. Everybody. Except he said it like "ohhhhhh-laaaaaaaaaah." It cuted out literally hundreds of Costa Ricans and a few confused tourists.

After a night in San Jose and another several-hour bus ride, we finally arrived at our most sacred place in the universe: La Selva Biological Station. We spent a few days there in 2009 and whatever money we saved on tickets we just couldn't avoid blowing on another 4 nights this time around. Between the bus ride and hauling all our stuff [read: kids] up the 1km entrance road we didn't get started until after lunch. But the birds were waiting for us.

Little caught a litter toad immediately upon arriving.

Rainy season in Costa Rica means:

The birding was astounding. Despite birding here for several days previously we added seven new species just getting settled in on the first day.

Collared aracari. Not a new one but a fun one.

This trip we got a family house near the cafeteria that is usually used by the families of visiting researchers. Beside the house being overrun with invisible fire-stinging little ant swarms which ate Bud alive every time we were indoors, making him terrified of the invisible Bud-munchers that could eat him anywhere at any time--beside that, the house was awesome and it allowed us to let the kids draw and play while we birded nearby.

Bud wanted to get in on the photography.

Almost immediately on walking into the rainforest the first day Daddy found a beautiful tiny white-headed snake. He snapped a safety shot then started setting up his lighting gear and... the snake disappeared. Missed opportunities would become a major theme for this trip, but so would great snakes [by the way, how tiny is this snake? Those are cobwebs on its head].

White-headed snake [Enulius sclateri]

At La Selva there is a swamp appropriately named Cantarana; it is a popular breeding spot for local frogs. On our previous trip, during the dry season, it was very quiet. But we were happy to find that it was pretty noisy on our first night, despite the wet season not having really started in full force yet.

Hourglass tree frog [Dendropsophus ebraccatus].

Craugastor megacephalus.

Hourglass tree frog again. These guys were everywhere at the Cantarana swamp.

Overnight it started to rain a bit. By a "bit" we mean like a Costa Rican bit. It would have been monumental in California. In the morning the girls liked to play in the warm showers. And what better to do than dig through a giant leafcutter ant mound? They could have kept at this for weeks:

Daddy went off alone several times with the blessed blessing of Mommy. On one of his jaunts he ran across a pair of great tinamous in the understory. He spent a long time tracking them in the extremely dark and cluttered rainforest floor and only managed a couple marginal pictures. It's a stupendous bird we've heard many times and it was great to finally see.

Great tinamou.

This beautiful streak-headed woodcreeper liked to hang around our front door.

The clouds parted in the evening just enough for the sunset to break through. It was symbolic of the friendship between these two girls during this day [if you get the drift]:

Before nightfall we had added 10 more birds while exploring thoroughly in the rainforest.

That night we went out in an absolutely devastating downpour. Apparently this was the first real drenching of the rainy season and it was definitely impressive. Like, giant badger-mammoths were falling from the sky and stuff. But we can't miss a night of herping, so:

We met a fellow herper out at the swamp and he directed us toward a little snake he found. We weren't sure what it was at the time, but it turned out to be a very rarely seen snake--Panamanian dwarf boa. It's incredibly handsome and lives its entire life up in the canopy. I suspect that this guy was blown down from the canopy on a branch broken by the storm. So we got super lucky by stumbling upon him that night.

Panamanian dwarf boa [Ungaliophis panamensis]. In the torrential conditions we didn't have the chance to get decent photos of this gorgeous snake. Big regrets...

Lots of red-eyed tree frog pairs were enjoying themselves in the rain, reminding Daddy constantly of the great quote: "I like the looks of frogs, and their outlook, and especially the way they get together in wet places and sing about sex." [Archie Carr]. And... these guys were done singing.

Red-eyed tree frogs in amplexus [Agalychnis callidryas].

Herping with the girls at night was a treasure. Nothing fits the 4-6-year-old psyche better than getting dirty and exploring a strange and alien place. Little specialized especially in finding red-eyed tree frogs, and they both wore headlamps and were flat out floored by the amount of eyeshine they were getting back. Both Mommy and Daddy remember this as an all-time highlight.

Mommy found a yellow blunt-headed vine snake which finally gave Daddy a chance to try out his home-made lighting setup. This snake is slender--the head is maybe 1/4" in diameter--but very long and vine-like.

Yellow blunt-headed vine snake [Imantodes inornatus].

The next day we hiked around a lot more, looking for birds. It rained steadily all day at a rate Californians would call typhoonish.

Little tends to do this with cecropia leafs:

Costa Rica 2012.

Hawai'i 2010:

Costa Rica 2009:

On our first visit Little stripped down to her panties and danced in the rain. Little really wanted to strip down and dance again so we hiked over and let her do it exactly where she had before.

It's hard to over-stress how consistently and torrentially it rained.

Budstoic in the rain:

Littler is... down.

Daddy rented a bike and rode completely around La Selva for almost the entire afternoon. He had a grand old time stalking a sunbittern through a swamp and stumbling upon a boa constrictor carcass, that type of thing. Sunbitterns are extraordinary birds!

Female great curassow.

Little had discovered a pair of common pauraques by eyeshine the previous night. We checked on them each subsequent night and Little was very proud of her birds:

Common pauraque.

At night, Daddy took the bike and went on an extensive and fruitless search for his main targets--glass frogs. [Bushwhacking up and down rainforest streams in the dark is a magnificent way to stage the beginning of an arachno-horror film it turns out]. Nothing. Not even a snake. After 24 hours of deluge nothing even seemed alive any more. Well... this is La Selva, so it wasn't completely dead:

Rhaebo haematiticus.

Daddy felt dejected and tired and almost gave up for the night. As almost an afterthought he headed over to cantarana swamp to see a few "sure" frogs. The swamp was downright ALIVE. He could hear it from a hundred meters away. There were thousands upon thousands of frogs singing about sex. Loudly. It was bewildering to just find a single target to photograph.

Red-eyed tree frog.

Apparently we had just witnessed the official first day [and night] of the rainy season and it was a spectacle we'll never forget. And 10 more bird species for the day to top it off.

The next morning we decided to explore less in the intrepid sense by trying really hard to bird the local area thoroughly to spare the kids from another grueling tropical hike.

Little is as tough as they come.

We found a stunning white-necked jacobin dominating a patch of heliconias in a spot of sunlight. He single-handedly held off several rufous-tailed hummingbirds, a violet-crowned woodnymph and even a long-billed hermit. It was exciting to watch and we sat for hours enjoying the drama [especially when the woodnymph repeatedly snuck into the edges of the patch and tried to steal nectar]. We didn't actually see the jacobin eat a thing; he just loved owning the farm.

White-necked jacobin, the self-appointed tyrant of the heliconia patch.

Violet-crowned woodnymph.

White-necked jacobin.

We did end up going on a hike in primary forest. This might be a good spot to explain those boots. La Selva doesn't let people tromp around in normal shoes due to the extremely dangerous fer-de-lance pitvipers. They like to hang around near tree roots and strike at things that move by. We discovered very quickly that jungle boots are no fun at all when worn without socks. And yet it is hot. So... shorts with knee-high socks and jungle boots. If only you had seen Daddy...

Little here recreates yet another 2009 photo.

That evening we had one of the most thrilling experiences of our birding lives. A beautiful rufous motmot appeared and gave us stunning views in the waning light. This is a quintessential neotropical extravagant bird and it was spectacular to watch.

Rufous motmot.

After watching the motmot for a long time, we started to walk back due to the diminishing light. Daddy said something like "that was amazing! All we need now is to see a jacamar and it would cap off an impossibly perfect day of birding." Right then...

Rufous-tailed jacamar.

We saw 9 new species this day, but the combination of gaudy birds and great views of fun behavior made it a day that stands apart from any birding days we've had.

More night-time herping. We saw a caiman that Little named "Raymond."

Mommy is trying to describe where a frog is.

Costa Rica... it has spiders.

Little and Littler are such great little naturalists. They often spot things nobody else sees [especially Littler with strawberry poison-dart frogs--she saw them everywhere] and have the best kind of curiosity.

Daddy didn't want to miss any La Selva herping so he went back to Cantarana swamp after the Fellinators went to sleep to see if the frog orgy was still in full swing. No such luck--it was very quiet. But soon he learned why...

Cat-eyed snake [Leptodeira septentrionalis].

Cat-eyed snakes specialize in eating red-eyed tree frog eggs, which is what this one is doing. It paused only long enough to swallow the female frog that had laid the eggs then went right back to the ovular glut.

In fact, Daddy saw two of these snakes and four others along the 50-foot boardwalk. It was a flat-out bonanza of anuran death.

Annulated tree boa [Corallus annulatus] high above.

Stejneger's snail sucker [Sibon longifrenis], I kid you not.

This Sibon was an incredibly cool snake and it stayed for an hour or so just out of reach. Daddy still kicks himself for that missed opportunity. There were a couple yellow blunt-headed vine snakes eating frogs too.

We finished our stay at La Selva with a tidy 35 new bird species [we had 26 in one less day in 2009]. The herp life was astounding. What a great place!

A lasting legacy of our visit to La Selva: we often heard howler monkeys in the distance. It's a very eerie sound and they are spectacularly loud. It always scared Bud. So now, 3 months later, here are the things he still calls "monkey!" and scare him enough to come running to Mommy: dogs howling, jet aircraft overhead, cars driving by in the forest, thunder and distant semi-trucks engine-breaking. Leave it to our kids to recognize a howler monkey by sound but not a dog.

Next part: Tortuguero.