Basingstoke Conservation Volunteers
Hands-on help for local wildlife

BCV Home About BCV Events Programme Latest News Attending a Task Contact BCV
Join Up! Conservation Links Sites directory Archive Members' Area Random Info

Coast Rica - Cloud Forest and Crocodiles

by Graham Dennis

Monteverde is an unusual place. It was founded in 1951 by a group of ex-pat American quakers and has developed into an eclectic society supported by tourism and arts and crafts. Judging by the state of the roads the community does not include any highway engineers!

The forest here is lower montane rain forest, more familiarly referred to as 'cloud forest'. The reserve came to the world’s attention because of the golden toad, which was common in these parts until the late 1980’s, when it suddenly disappeared – for good. It is now thought that this may have been one of the first instances of extinction caused by global warming. The forest has another claim to fame as home to the Resplendent Quetzal. This is a fantasy bird. Its head, body and tail are glittering and iridescent green, the belly is cherry red and the tail feathers of the male are up to three feet long. Our quest for the Quetzal began at the park HQ, where we paid $6 entrance fee and picked up a trail leaflet.

A lot of people visit this reserve so we decided to leg it further up the trails to get away from the crowds. Before long we were rewarded with plenty of birds and the strange croaking calls of the Quetzal but alas we could not catch a glimpse of one. Back near the HQ we stopped for some refreshments at a small café that has become known as the Hummingbird Gallery, for obvious reasons.

For about an hour we were enthralled by dazzling hummers attracted by the feeders put out for them. It was evident from the start that there was a definite pecking order. Top of the pile were the Violet Sabrewings (or violent sabrewings as we liked to call them) that chased off everything in sight. Next came Green-crowned Brilliant and Purple-throated Mountain-gems and finally Green Violet-ear, Magenta-throated Woodstar and the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald.

Relaxing at dusk
Back at our hotel we relaxed in the garden with a beer and watched Emerald Toucanets and Brush Finches as the sun went down.

The next day we chose a different trail and made it to the continental divide, where moisture laden air from the Caribbean forms dense fog as it is forced over the mountains. We could see why the forest is called `cloud forest`. Loads of good birds were seen but still no Quetzals. When we got back to the car park there was a crowd of people gathered and it soon became clear why -- there was a male Quetzal in all his glory, sitting right out in the open above the parked cars. We returned home happy.

Adjacent to Monteverde there is another reserve called Santa Elena, which is less busy and at slightly higher elevation so it promised something different. When we arrived there was only one other car in the car park and we headed off with the place to ourselves -- a big contrast to Monteverde. Almost immediately we could hear the ringing calls of the Three-wattled Bellbird, our target for the day. Armed with a trail leaflet we headed off to find them but soon discovered that the trails did not necessarily go in the direction the calls were coming from. The calls carry for over a kilometre so we seemed to get no nearer to them and often ended up further away. We decided just to walk the ‘bellbird trail’ in the end and eventually started to get nearer. Once the calls were deafening and apparently over head the next step was to locate one. That is not easy as the birds call from the tops of trees and are difficult to see through the tiny gaps in the foliage.

Purple throated Mountain Gem, Monteverde.

Eventually we stumbled on a canopy gap caused by a tree fall and soon were staring at a most amazing bird. The male has a white head, shoulders and breast, and rufous-brown wings, tail and under parts. From near the base of its beak sprout what look like three grey worms about three inches long that hang down either side of its beak. Then it throws its head back and emits that ear splitting noise.

We headed home happy and ready for our next excursion, a night walk. A small private trail offered night excursions so we gathered at dusk armed with torches and set off into the gloom. Many creatures come out only after dark and soon we were finding some of them. Large crickets and katydids were common and there were a few scorpions on the centre walls. Our guide took us to the burrows of several tarantulas and coaxed them out by using a grass stem.

The guide was made aware that we were interested in owls, so when one was heard we set off and quartered the area with our torches, looking for the tell tale reflected light from the eyes. Soon the bird was found and everyone saw a slightly dazzled Mottled Owl. Our night was complete when a small green tree snake was located close to the path.

Carara and the coast
Leaving Monteverde the next morning we endured the obligatory bumpy road and were relieved to get to the rather less pot-holed Pan American Highway. Our only target for the day was to be at the bridge over the River Tarcoles at dusk, so we took the opportunity of some easier birding (not in forest) at some salt pans on the coast. Driving down gravel tracks we finally came to the salt working area and the friendly workers, after exchanging greetings, gave us permission to walk around. After the cool of Monteverde the heat was stifling and the only shade was a small wooden shelter in the middle of the site. Most of our birding was done from there and we added a host of migrant North American waders to our list, along with an impressive number of Herons, Egrets, Ibises and Storks. Eventually the sun was too much and we retreated to the comfort of our air conditioned car.

Lunch and Iguanas
We stopped for lunch at a hilltop restaurant where we were entertained by some very large iguanas and a pair of Green-breasted Mango hummers that were attracted to the flowering shrubs, the only ones we saw on the trip.

Back on the PAH we headed south for our rendezvous with a bridge. At 4.30pm we arrived to find the bridge was quite a tourist attraction. The reason was, sunning themselves on mud banks 20m below us were around 30 crocodiles, the largest about 4m long. But this was not why we were here, impressive though it was.

Scarlet Macaws
Minutes later we heard the noise we wanted, the raucous calls of Scarlet Macaws. Then a party of five flew over head on their way to their roost in the mangroves. Small groups flew by for the next half hour and we counted a total of 52 -- not bad for a threatened species eliminated from most of Costa Rica by trapping for the cage bird trade.

Our information was good though. A small and growing population survives in Carara National Park, where they roost in the safety of the inaccessible mangroves. Their flight path takes them directly over the bridge just before dusk.

Our hotel for the next five days turned out to be a tropical paradise, surrounded by forest and with a rocky stream flowing through the grounds. Its fresh fruit juice was divine, especially while drinking it we could watch Trogons and Bare-faced Tiger-herons.

Carara National Park
Next morning we headed into the national park along a well appointed trail and were soon noticing that the birds here on the pacific slope were different from those in the lowland rain forest of the Caribbean slope. We had some useful info on a couple of target species, the first being the Orange-collared Manakin that has a `lek` close to the trail.

A lek is where male birds gather to display. Male Manakins are some of the more bizarre lekkers. We did not have to search hard because a loud snapping noise gave them away, as did the well worn track leading to their lek.

The males dance for the females by leaping back and forth between vertical stems, their bright orange throat feathers extended forward. As each male jumps he emits a loud wing snap, and when a female approaches the intensity of the display increases to a frenzy. Other males join in and the resulting noise carries quite a distance through the undergrowth.

This was a well used trail and we encountered several groups, some guided, with whom we were able to swap info on a regular basis.

About 2km from the entrance the trail reaches a river with an oxbow where views across the wetland are possible. Here in a tree overhanging the water, not 20 feet away, was the second of our target species, a Boat-billed Heron. This is a difficult bird to see if you do not know of a roost as it is nocturnal. It is a weird looking heron with an outsized, boat shaped bill and large eyes.

While looking at the six herons in the tree we had not noticed an approaching commotion, partly because we had not encountered it before. It was caused by the advancing front of an army ant swarm. The ants are nomadic and swarm through the forest killing and dismembering all kinds of insects and other small animals that were unfortunate enough to cross their path.

Other hungry mouths
As the swarm approached cockroaches, spiders, crickets and all manner of other bugs fled for their lives, only to be snapped up by other hungry mouths.

Attending the ant swarm was a variety of birds practically impossible to see without an ant swarm. Most of these are the aptly named Antbirds. We watched transfixed as two species of Antbird came to within three feet of us along with two species of Woodcreeper and a group of Grey-headed Tanagers, all oblivious to us.

To be continued . . .