Costa Rica: Breath of the Jungle

FLORA & FAUNA

Photo credits:

Most wildlife & birds: Aaron White
Most plantlife & others: Kath Perreault

 

 

 

In planning our travel in Central America, Costa Rica was not on the itinerary, mostly due to the high cost of living and westernized culture we had heard about. Our interest was piqued, however, by tales of abundant wildlife and natural phenomena. Perhaps we would spend one expensive week there, and do the rest of our time in Guatamala, Nicaragua and Panamá. That was the plan — that is, until we saw an ad for a two month care situation in the jungle near Dominicalito, Costa Rica. Long story short, we got the gig and here we are, with two free months in a Tico casa in a remote jungle, in exchange for caring for pets (13 rescue dogs and cats! — see my last story for details).

 

 

Our Costa Rican experience began in San Jose, where we booked a shuttle bus to Matapalo Beach on the Pacific coast. We were scheduled to spend a week as innkeepers, filling in for friends from Canada before going on to our Dominicalito destination. When the driver pulled in for a rest stop at Rio Tarcoles, shops and bańos, and pointed me towards the ‘cocodrilos’, I expected a couple of tourist-friendly beasts to be paddling around in the rio hoping for picnic scraps. I was astonished to witness about 25 enormous crocodiles basking and swimming along in the river below a high bridge. Sure, it is a popular tourist attraction, drawing hoards of oglers each year. Nonetheless, my reaction to the sight of the powerful creatures below was visceral — I was both horrified and mesmerized. I had no doubt these reptiles were wild enough to devour me for lunch if I made a false step on that bridge and ended up in the water below.

 

 

Our first evening at Matapalo, we expected to flake out early with travel exhaustion. Not so. When a kerfuffle broke out at a neighbour’s home, we were treated to a lengthy display of shenanigans from a troop of local white faced monkeys, as they swooped from tree to tree, scampering over a rooftop and mischievously taunting the dogs by shaking palm fronds at them. Highly amusing! We then headed to the beach to experience an outstanding sunset performance in oranges and pinks, just happening to encounter a 3-toed sloth draped lethargically over a tree branch. When the creature did make a move, it was with such painful languidness that I felt like I was watching a suspenseful movie, wondering where that 3-toed paw would land. We marvelled at our first live sloth and crocodile sightings, all in our first hours in Costa Rica! Over the week at Matapalo we were to see several sloths, even a mother with baby on board, as well as repeated visits from monkeys. Easy to see why ‘monkey’ is a term used for impish and rambunctious beings. Aaron captured the classic beauty of a wide variety of birdlife — herons, egrets, ibis, stilts —fishing on a laguna nearby. However, I think I am happy to report that I did not see the crocodiles that were reported to be spotted swimming in the ocean at the mouth of nearby rivers.

 

 

Our time at Matapalo was definitely one of exceptional wildlife experiences, as we wrapped up the week with an unexpected encounter with a mama sea turtle! It was past mating and gestation season so we weren’t even looking for the signs. After dinner with friends, Aaron took a stroll out to the beach to gaze at the stars. He was momentarily puzzled to see some odd looking ATV tracks in the sand, before realizing it was the track of a turtle! We followed her trail to discover a sea turtle, her shell about 2’ in diameter, energetically carving out a hole with her flippers. After the mother turtle laid her eggs and made her exhausted way back to the sea, our new European friend stayed with the eggs all night, guarding them against night poachers that were seen skulking about. In the morning a conservationist was called in to relocate the eggs to a safe spot. We moved on to our next adventure at Dominicalito a couple of hours south, with dreams of young turtles making their arduous yet joyous way to the sea.
(Turtle photo by Stefan Schmidt)

 

 

Iguanas and geckos abound in Costa Rica. At Dominical Beach I spotted an iguana shooting out of sight up a palm tree — it must have been two feet long, without the tail! As I walked the beach one evening, I was delighted to spot in my path, this perfect little seahorse. So now I know they really exist, are not like unicorns and dragons, much as they seem to be like creatures.

 

 

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D8FDBFEE-F777-4DC4-B90A-83DAD8C53395Arrival at our jungle casa (kennel), thirteen needy pets launched at us in one stroke, you would expect there to be little else but those animals to capture our attention. Still, it was impossible to overlook the massive shift of sensual experience which happens with immersion in a Costa Rican jungle. Though it was dry season and had not rained in months, the very air felt swampy — heavy, humid and hot. Growing gills to breathe did not seem out of the question. And the volume! My head filled with a cacophony of sound unlike anything I had experienced. Chirping, whistling, buzzing, clicking, hooting, roaring — why, there are even creatures that produce car alarm sounds and wolf whistles, not to mention the gutteral roar of howler monkeys! Though their growls are a frequent sound in the background, beginning at 4 or 5 a.m., the monkeys themselves are shy and elusive. We saw our first troop just last evening at nightfall. The feisty creatures invaded our yard and seemed to be demanding that we vacate the premises with suitable threatening growls and advancement towards us. We made a hasty retreat inside with the dogs, still unable to get good shots. Aaron has had opportunity to shoot the friendlier white faced monkeys, right in our back yard, as seen below.

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‘Seething with life’, cliche though the phrase may be, is likely the most apt way to describe this jungle. Butterflies of many colours abound, and of course, we spent much time trying to capture the magnificent blue morpho butterfly with our cameras. Elusive as they are massive, we only managed to get distant, slow motion video, unloadable here. However, I have included a google image of the famous creature, much larger than the fabulous blue metallic butterfly beside it. Other insects, crawling and flying creatures — cicadas, grasshoppers and locusts up to 4” long, moths, dragon flies, cockroaches, giant banana spiders, scorpions, leaf cutter ants, the impressive golden carpenter ant which is pure art!, fireflies and more, whose names I don’t know — all cohabit in this jungle and some join in song with a multitude of birds to create a discordant kind of harmony. Below see photos of many of the above mentioned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Density of plant life and the constant shedding, cycling of leaves and blossoms, is another remarkable feature of the jungle. Everywhere are blankets of dead leaves, crackling on the jungle floor and creating colourful images in the stream beds. Particularly fascinating are the epiphytes, plants which exist on air. Attaching themselves to a tree yet not a parasite, these plants draw their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids can be epiphytes though not all are. I confess to often not knowing if a particular abundant jungle plant is wild, cultured or perhaps even gone-wild. We enjoyed fresh bananas from our tree, and remain hopeful about the mini pineapples we see growing — exotic backyard bounty to us northerners!

 

 

How creatures such as agouti and coatimundi find their way through this dense mass of undergrowth is a mystery, though this feature may be a source of comfort and refuge for them. I was lucky enough to see an agouti at about 4 feet away, as it escaped capture, though there was no Kodak moment as it appeared and disappeared into a hole instantly. The coatimundi is another small jungle creature. Though I know that the jaguar is native to these jungles, it is generally not seen near human habitation.

The famous Costa Rican toucan makes a raucous cry. Below is a frequent morning visitor to our backyard tree as we enjoyed our coffee. Many birds of this jungle seem to be elusive yet vocal, however below are some that Aaron managed to capture with his patient and skillful telephoto lens — black vultures, hummingbirds, yellow headed caracara, trogon and the great kiskadee.

 

 

It has been a most educational nature experience — this jungle saga — both in the ways of the jungle and the ways of rescue animals! Below are sweet Zuma & Bigote.

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