We closed out last year’s trip to Colorado with visits to Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak,* two geological marvels. By this time we had moved our base of operations to Mueller State Park, which was delightful in its own right. The Park offers excellent campsites with access to good facilities, hiking trails, and gorgeous landscapes. During these few days even our downtime was filled with breathtaking natural scenery.
This was all during my 2017 bird blitz, so of course I can’t talk about any part of the trip without including some birding notes. In Mueller State Park we were welcomed by turkeys and pygmy nuthatches, and harassed by uppity gray jays. It was here I saw my first Williamson’s sapsucker. We also shared the space with crows and magpies, as well as mountain chickadees and Steller’s jays. At Garden of the Gods I only tallied seven bird species, but four of them were life birds for this East Coaster. High above the rock walls flitted many white-throated swifts, and I spotted a soaring prairie falcon. Closer to the ground I was introduced to a pair each of spotted towhees and Woodhouse’s scrub-jays. My Pikes Peak list was even shorter: American pipits and Lincoln’s sparrows were the only birds I could identify.
Birds were but a small piece of the overall majesty of the area. The view from our campsite in Mueller State Park spoke of the beauty and wonder that was to come. We enjoyed a few short but lovely hikes in the park between our ventures farther afield, and all were rewarding. I would spend a few days here again, given the chance. More forested slopes, broad vistas, and sheltered beaver ponds await my return.
A few more views from the park
It’s hard to do justice to impressive rock formations with still two-dimensional images, but Garden of the Gods is a heck of a place to try. The reddish stones loom over vast acres of fields, pockmarked with holes and crevices. Even in September, ice can be seen peeking out from some of these hideaways. A loop drive offers several access points to hike through the interior, and the access to the public is well set up and seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Pikes Peak beckons as a backdrop to the whole stunning scene.
Speaking of Pikes Peak… that was our next (and final) destination. I admit I had some reservations, fearing it to be a bit of a tourist trap. It felt like maybe it was cheating to just drive up such a tall mountain. I was wrong. I couldn’t categorize anything about Pikes Peak as disappointing. It was stunning. If you seek one of those places that makes you feel small in the face of the universe, this is a place for you.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to show you what Garden of the Gods looks like from the summit of Pikes Peak.
Yep. It’s those few pieces of gravel there under the arrow. I don’t think I can say much more except to throw a lot of superlatives and let them run down the page, so I will close with a collection of photos from our ascent and the summit.
*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.
It’s hard to choose a favorite site from last September’s trip to Colorado. As amazing as Rocky Mountain National Park was, I perhaps equally enjoyed our time at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is a place with engaging natural history and fascinating human history. Once a biological weapons facility that dealt untold damage to the local ecosystem, the site is now a refuge and a shining example of conservation. There is an excellent wildlife drive and plenty of available hiking trails. It also has one of the better visitors’ centers I have seen at similar facilities.
After the mountains, there was a different but equally real sense of immensity to this place. In this habitat, one can see the whole place opening before you on approach. Despite the openness, the wildlife can be hard to spot at first. This visit was just one more time I was struck at how adept animals can be at not being seen.
I think the first critter we spotted (and definitely the one we saw the most of) was a black-tailed prarie dog. I realize these adorable guys rate somewhere between “background presence” and “irritating pest” to the locals, but I couldn’t help but enjoy every one that scurried away or fixed me with a wary gaze. They’re so easy to anthropomorphize, with their social behavior appearing so comically playful. One imagines they are the true inspiration for the game “whack-a-mole.”
Other than the prairie dogs, the drive was largely uneventful for the first twenty minutes or so. We crawled through mostly open plains, scaring up the occasional vesper sparrow (identified by a flash of white outer tail feathers). Eventually we spotted a red-tailed hawk posing atop a telephone pole and paused for a photo.
Soon after, we began to see them: small, black dots on the horizon, yet unmistakable through my binoculars. American bison! Perhaps, like the prairie dogs, these creatures are not very exciting to anyone from the Great Plains region. I admit I would give some side-eye to anyone similarly amazed by a herd of cattle. Something about the buffalo (not this oddity of grammar) just strikes all the right chords of natural wonder. Especially once you see them up close. Clearly these beasts were the stars of the refuge.
With the wildlife drive completed, it was time to slow things down for a closer look. We chose the Lake Ladora loop trail for our hike, and were well-rewarded for this choice. We took our lunch at a picnic table near the trail’s namesake, watching cormorants dive and California gulls circle. Then we strolled through a naturalist’s paradise. Avifauna was a theme, but the flora was stunning as well and butterflies were omnipresent. The variety of bird life really spoke to the overall productivity of the environment here. I only counted 23 species of birds on our 2-hour hike, but the varied niches they occupied were the real story. I notched three species of raptor (red-tailed hawks, a Swainson’s hawk, and an American kestrel). Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and belted kingfishers shared the lake with ducks, geese, grebes, and American coots. The fields were interspersed with vesper sparrows, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and western meadowlarks. I even found one rock wren along the dam. All too soon it was time for us to be going.
Our next destination was Florissant Fossil Beds. I have to admit, this place somewhat disappointed me. It just felt like their public face was dedicated to all the wrong things. There was a brief video, which did a fine job of presenting the context of the site and building anticipation. Ancient fossils of fish, insects, leaves and more! Wonders of natural science unmatched anywhere! After the video, we joined a ranger-led tour group, anticipating all manner of scientific nuggets would be revealed to us. What we got instead was mostly stale repetition of the video, plus tales of Walt Disney purchasing a petrified stump and thieves stealing pieces of petrified wood. There was a good ten minutes on why metal bands were looped around the largest stumps (an early, ill-advised effort to excavate with dynamite).
These stories of course have their place, but they were related at the expense of learning much about the actual fossils or the window into ancient life they gave us. Eventually we slipped quietly away from the group to explore several of the short hiking trails on our own. This improved the experience somewhat, allowing us to see more of the grounds and picture the modern natural landscape in juxtaposition with the ancient one.
I think the biggest disappointment was the limited array of fossils available for viewing. Apart from the stumps there was a small room with perhaps fifty specimens on (confusingly presented) display, but absent was the staggering variety described in their video. I’m sure some of that is due for the need of research and study, but very little information seemed available about said research, except as it related to petrified wood.
The value and importance of Florissant Fossil Beds to the natural sciences is immense and unambiguous, and usually I try to write positively about such places. Here, though, something vital was missing in the presentation. Even with those shortcomings, the landscape was beautiful, and taken together with the refuge this made for a couple of great days exploring nature.
Our recent trip to the Rockies was really about people. An old college friend and his wife had moved to Denver and we’d been meaning to go visit them. Another friend’s wedding in Lincoln, Nebraska got us about two-thirds of the way there so we tacked a Rocky Mountain vacation onto those travel plans. It was a fantastic trip with great company all around. Yet for me, any trip to that part of the country without exploring nature is unthinkable.
From the moment we landed at DIA (no, not a spell dealing light holy damage… an airport) the Rockies beckoned. It’s a challenge to do justice in words or photos to the awe these mountains inspire in a Mid-Atlantic mind. They grab one’s concept of “mountain,” stuff it in a canvas bag, and swing it against a brick wall. No lens angle is wide enough to bring back the proof of this. Numbers like 12,005 and 14,115 (feet above sea level) or 35 (miles of visibility) don’t really do the job either. The photos below almost capture my earliest impressions.
Our first direct exposure to the mountains was a couple of days spent hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is so majestic that it was tempting to compare its eastern cousin (and one of my favorite places), Shenandoah National Park, unfavorably. Really everything about the two parks, except for the well-maintained road and facilities, is just different. Indeed I learned early on that even the seemingly familiar was subtly otherwise. On our first hike alone, before we got to a really high altitude, I picked up on a lot of this. I spotted wild geraniums, but these would prove to be the Fremont geranium (Geranium caespitosum), as opposed to the G. maculatum I am used to. The least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) is much bolder than its eastern relatives. Of course the trees at these elevations are also quite different, dominated by species like quaking aspen and ponderosa pine. White-tailed deer are present but joined by the similar mule deer.
This first hike to gem lake was a perfect introduction to hiking at altitude. It was a short, moderate-difficulty hike with a gorgeous destination. It taught us that in addition to the flora and fauna both the landscape and the very air are alien to dwellers of the coastal plain.
In the evenings, we made camp at the Lumpy Ridge Campground. Here our education on the eccentricities of our temporary new environment continued. The camp host regaled us with stories of the local black bear population. Apparently one small group learned to identify and target a specific make and model of car whose doors would pop open if a bear jumped on the roof in just the right way. For this and other reasons bear safety seems to be taken about thrice as seriously as in Shenandoah, despite Shenandoah’s higher population density of bears. We also learned that a bull moose had been spotted in the campground the previous day, and were cautioned to give him, too, a wide berth. Alas we did not get the opportunity to decide just how wide. It was also here that I started to spot the local bird species: Steller’s and gray jays, mountain chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.
We spent the second day driving the Trail Ridge Road and pausing for several short hikes. Eventually the alpine forests give way to tundra, and here the views are stunning. I will never forget my first time standing above the treeline looking down at it, or my first glimpse of one of the beautiful montane lakes. Nor will I forget our encounter with a pika (Ochotona princeps) – a sort of rabbit-gerbil only found at very high elevations. This part of the trip also included my first sightings of mule deer, elk, and yellow-headed blackbirds.
It’s unlike me to include so many landscapes and so few wildlife images, but it was the landscape that had me reaching for the camera in this park. I haven’t run out of things to say or images to share about Rocky Mountain National Park, so if you’d like to see more feel free to look me up on Instagram (where I am also wildlymistaken).
This one gets a superlative, too: most overwhelming. I’d love to be able to bring you a whole bunch more categories: amphibians, insects, trees, flowers, mushrooms, etc. I either didn’t see or photograph enough for a whole post (amphibians, mushrooms) or the taxonomy was far too complicated to tackle in a single trip (insects, plants). Still, there was far more to take in in Costa Rica than mammals, reptiles, and birds.
*Quick note to readers: in the photo collages scattered through this post, one can click to expand any individual image for a larger view.*
Plant life is notoriously diverse in rainforests, and this was evident before we even debarked from the plane. As we made our descent all I could see in all directions was a verdant sea. Early on we took a mangrove boat tour and learned that there are three types of mangroves: black, white, and red. The guide also instructed us on how to tell the difference, but I have since forgotten. In Manuel Antonio NP we were introduced to a plant whose name I don’t remember with violently stinging leaves as well as the poison-death-murder-your-family trees (OK, you got me. I also forget what those were called) which lined the beach. EDIT: Sue Ball identified this tree for me as the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella). In Monteverde the trees of note were scores of strangler fig species. These trees grow from the canopy down and choke out the tree whose branches they germinate in. This forest was also chock full of bromeliads and orchids. Everywhere there were beautiful flowers and fruits which for the most part remain a mystery to me.
I can’t believe I just tried to cover Costa Rica’s rainforest and cloud forest plants in a single paragraph. Can’t be done! I suppose my point is, even the tiny percentage that I learned anything at all about and/or got a good look at was beautiful, complex, and mesmerizing. There’s one last plant tidbit which kind of blew my mind. In Costa Rica there are two plants which, if the leaves are crushed, will serve as a natural insect repellent. One occurs at lower elevations and the other higher. The awe-inspiring thing is how the white-faced capuchins have adapted to this. Not only do they know both plants and use them to ward off insects, but they know which to look for at what elevation. That’s right, there are monkeys who are better naturalists than yours truly.
The diversity of plants leads to diversity in the animals which feed on or otherwise exploit them. Insects in particular are dazzlingly varied. A somewhat alarming number of them are called “giant” something or other, like a whole family of damselflies and one six-to-eight-inch grasshopper.Something about the latter felt straight-up prehistoric.
We saw some rainforest classics like walking sticks and leafcutter ants as well. Speaking of ants, there were ants with gold abdomens, average-looking red and black ants, ants which certainly were giant though I never learned if “giant” was part of their name, and ants cultivating a fungus. It seems as though there’s a different species adapted for just about every plant. There wasn’t quite the same diversity among those walking sticks, but I did see a number of different species – probably more species of walking sticks in a week than I’ve seen individual walking sticks in my lifetime outside of that week.
Butterflies also had a strong presence. We saw some glasswings, Heliconius species, zebra longwings, banded peacocks, and more. I am fairly certain I caught a quick glimpse of a blue morpho but it didn’t stick around long enough for me to really be sure. It may have been a different large butterfly and my eyes playing tricks.
As far as arachnids, I really only noticed the one in my header image, a golden orb weaver. Actually, if you look closely you will see two. The female is front and center, but on the right side of the photo near one of her legs is the much smaller male. That’s a pretty extreme example of sexual dimorphism.
Something I didn’t really expect at all, much less in dozens of varieties, were the tree crabs. On its surface, this combination of words seems as ridiculous to me as “river giraffe” or “desert walrus.” Nevertheless, they are a thing – a surprisingly common thing similar in appearance to fiddler crabs but with a highly developed climbing hobby. Once they were first pointed out to us, we could not stop seeing them.
In the realm of amphibians I really don’t have much to report. I got a look at four frogs, I believe of four different species, and nothing else. None of these was the documentary star I’d hoped for, either. No glass frogs, no red-eyed treefrogs, and no poison dart frogs. I did get to see some poison dart frogs in captivity at the serpentarium in Santa Elena. Not quite a substitute, but fascinating and adorable nonetheless.
That brings me to the fungi, which are a personal interest of mine that had to take a back seat on this trip. For one thing, with all the other exciting stuff surrounding us there was hardly time. For another, mushrooms in different parts of the word are quite easy to confuse with one another and correct identification often requires a knowledge of local plant species and/or a spore print. In other words, I snapped a few photos of interesting specimens but didn’t even try to ID them.
probably oyster mushrooms or angel wings
The bottom line is that this was an amazing trip, and Costa Rica has incredible biodiversity which is incredibly accessible. I think in order to really understand the ecosystem there I’d have to live in Costa Rica, learn Spanish, and earn a couple of advanced biology degrees. That actually sounds pretty nice, but I’ll content myself with the small bits of knowledge I can gain as a tourist.
With most exciting and most abundant out of the way, it’s time for the most disproportionately beautiful group of animals in Costa Rica. That would be: birds. With a landmass about the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is home to nearly 900 bird species – more than all of the US and Canada combined. With such variety in such tight quarters, one can’t help but stumble across some exceptional beauty now and again. Beyond that, even the most common birds seem more alive with color than our relatively drab robins, sparrows, and mockingbirds.
Much of the bird life does overlap with those familiar in North America, and we of course saw some of that: herons, egrets, and pelicans, for example, as well as many of the smaller brown or gray birds one tends not to really notice. But then there were the flocks of parakeets, the tropical kingbirds (Tyrannus melancholicus) and great kiskadees (Pitangus sulphuratus), and the two species of ani (black, crowlike birds with funky-looking beaks).
A Yellow-crowned night heron
A muscovy duck
A green heron
A tropical kingbird
One of the two species of ani
A great kiskadee
One of my priorities on the trip was to see some magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens). As with the basilisks, I’d been fascinated by them since childhood. We got this out of the way quickly via an evening boat tour. I wish I had better pictures from that evening; I recall it more fondly than I can account for with what I have. Our vantage point was from a distance as they soared high above, but it was enough to know that “magnificent” is the right word.
Toucans were another priority bird group, due in this case less to personal reasons and more to the universal agreement on the awesome beauty of toucans. We found a couple of emerald toucanets (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and they remain among the most beautiful animals on my lifetime list. I also caught sight of one of the larger species (either a keel-billed or chestnut-mandibled toucan) in flight – a glorious but fleeting view from our moving vehicle.
Among all the fascinating wildlife I did see stands at least one significant miss: the scarlet macaw (Ara macao). It’s far from the only wonder I missed, but we did hear some in Carara National Park. It’s another of my bucket list species, so that was a little frustrating (the first-worldiest of first-world problems encountered in pursuit of a first-world hobby… perspective). Anyway, I’d have insisted we try for longer but this was our travel day (the one with the crocodiles) and we had a check-in time to make.
On our first hike through the Monteverde Cloud Forest, our guide set up his scope, said “black guan” and had us take a look. A black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor), it turned out, was a sort of dark-feathered, arboreal turkey. A tad smaller and a lot less ugly than its northerly cousin, it nonetheless had that same furtive head bob.
Then there were the hummingbirds. Costa Rica has over fifty species (compared to one where I live and twenty or so in the entire US). It seemed like we saw all of them. It was probably only a half-dozen or so species but hummingbirds seemed omnipresent, especially in Monteverde. Their being hummingbirds and my lack of a high-speed lens conspired to limit my photo ops somewhat. I was a bit annoyed that the hostess of our hotel had both hummingbird feeders AND an outdoor cat, and would point out its stalking of the birds with amusement. I didn’t say anything but did work in some surreptitious facepalms.
I’ve saved my favorite for last: the blue-crowned motmot (Momotus momota). This bird is a true standard-bearer for the beauty of nature.The blue crown for which it is named is maybe the third or fourth thing one notices, after the blue discs at the end of its very long tail feathers and the sharp blue-to-black contrast near its eye. We were able to watch three different individuals and had it been twenty I still would have been left wanting more.
There were hundreds more birds glimpsed too fleetingly to make an accurate ID. The forest was alive with an aerial parade of colors in motion. These final few images are of birds I couldn’t quite pin down – if anyone has a clue I’d appreciate the hand.
If mammals were the most disproportionately exciting animals in Costa Rica, then reptiles seemed the most disproportionately abundant. Lizards were freaking everywhere: underfoot, in the trees, in the water. We even shared a hotel room with several small geckos. At night they made soft chirping noises like muted crickets as they scurried across the walls. During our hikes I felt constantly on the verge of treading on Ameiva lizards and anoles. Yet lizards were just the beginning. En route to Manuel Antonio National Park our guide said “If it’s open, we’ll drop you off at beach #1 for about an hour. Yesterday it was closed.” He waited, obviously for us to ask why. We obliged. “Crocodiles in the water,” he said.
The anoles (Norops sp.) were particularly abundant, but identifying them to species was a virtual impossibility. Apparently Costa Rica boasts some twenty-five species of anole, and the mere handful known in the US are already notoriously difficult to distinguish. After all, one of their key features is their noted ability to change color, and they are crazy fast. Picking out field marks is a fool’s errand.
In contrast there are only four species of Ameiva, or “whiptail” lizards in Costa Rica, but they too were a little tough for me to tell apart. These guys were drawn to the sides of forest trails for the sunny spots, so we saw quite a few. The excitement at seeing them eventually gave way to disappointment that they weren’t something more unusual.
We were pleased to observe a few green iguanas (Iguana iguana) and black iguanas (Ctenosaurus negra) as well. It’s captivating to see the wild version of common pets; in that regard Costa Rica’s iguanas did not disappoint. I had no idea that some green iguanas have a striking red coloration, or that black iguanas are not really members of the Iguana genus.
I’d pretty much always wanted to see basilisks, so my glee at their presence was unmitigated. I wasn’t quite fortunate enough to witness their Jesus-runs but did see and photograph (albeit poorly) both the common (Basiliscus basiliscus) and double-crested (B. plumifrons) varieties at rest.
A common basilisk
A double-crested basilisk
Snakes were a rarer treat, but we did observe two of the classic rainforest species in the boa constrictor (Boa constrictor… I know, right?) and the eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). The juvenile individual of the latter, second photo below, is among the deadliest animals I’ve had the privilege of viewing. Before adulthood venomous snakes can’t control the amount of venom they inject with their bite, so one always gets the full dose. I’m told these snakes are perfectly safe to observe… it’s the failure to observe that tends to cause problems. Several people per year die from the bite of an eyelash viper in Costa Rica, almost always because of a misplaced step or blind reach.
Progressing upward in size brings me to the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus). We only saw the one, but were able to observe it two days in a row. It had taken up residence in a stream between the two major beach areas of Manuel Antonio NP, and its contentment there was our gain. The header image for this post is its face.
My favorite day of the trip was our travel day between Manuel Antonio and Monteverde. While we breakfasted at our hotel with the company of sloths in one nearby tree and parrots in another, the staff chatted with us about our plans for the rest of the trip. “Oh, you have to stop at the crocodile bridge,” they would invariably say. This, we were told, was a bridge over the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. We should park and walk out onto the bridge for a “good chance” to see “a crocodile.” After a brief pause at a pleasant, rocky beach we did just that. I’m not sure how best to put… let me collect my… if I could just have a mom- HOLY SHIT!
As we began walking the span and looked down, I didn’t see much in the way of crocodiles, but I did note some huge boulders. As we drew closer to the river itself, of course, I became more and more certain that the boulders were, in fact, the crocodiles I wasn’t seeing. My god, they were huge! And there were so many of them – at least two dozen. And they just kind of looked… like they weren’t real, somehow? Clearly these were actual, living crocodiles but part of my brain kept insisting that they were not real things. Nothing alive could look like that. We knew we were stopping to look at crocodiles (if we were lucky) but were wholly unprepared for the reality of what we were seeing.
Just across the bridge we stopped for lunch (and I’m not sure which of Costa Rican lunch or Costa Rican breakfast is best, but both kick the crap out of what we eat in the US). I was tracking the progress of an iguana across a playground when it occurred to me that this was a playground. Approximately a hundred yards from the river teeming with prehistoric killing machines. I didn’t want to consider the implications of the emptiness of said playground at midday.
The rest of that day was also quite enjoyable, except for the 17 kilometers of death-defying mountain driving, but I can’t say that much could compete with the crocodile bridge. It neatly divided our trip into BC and AC (Before Crocodile and After Crocodile). During the AC portion we toured a “serpentarium” in Monteverde, where researches house a huge variety of native reptiles and amphibians. This was a great way to kill a couple hours and fill in the blanks of some of the creatures we’d missed out on.
I’m going to take Wildly Mistaken abroad for a bit to talk about probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done – a trip to Costa Rica for my honeymoon in 2012. This was about two weeks of eco-tourism through tropical rainforests, beaches, and cloud forest as newlyweds, and the 103 degree fever I was running the night before wasn’t nearly enough to ruin it. It was so jam-packed with wildlife sightings that I’m going to have to break this up into several posts.
Today I will focus on the mammal species we came across. These were the most disproportionately exciting compared to the wildlife found in eastern North America. These creatures were so different from anything I’d seen in the wild before that the forest felt almost like an alien world.
I have to start with the monkeys. Costa Rica is home to four native species, of which we saw three (sorry, Central American spider monkeys, some other time). All three were a wonder to behold. White-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) seemed to be everywhere and were particularly mesmerizing. They visited our hotel, met us on a mangrove boat tour, crossed our paths in the forest more than once, and hung out with us on the beach. Our guide on the mangrove tour was more circumspect than some, nothing the ethical concerns of feeding the monkeys to ensure a higher rate of sightings for tour groups. Some other guides nearby were doing so, and I took advantage by snapping a few photos… but the practice did make my conservationist spidey-sense tingle. Eco-tourism can be a tricky balance between disturbance and education, and for me feeding wild animals for this reason is way over the line. I have to admit, though, that watching a wild monkey high-five some guy was pretty cool.
A high-five for questionable ethics!
Taken from inside our hotel room.
My other capuchin stories involve their thievery. I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen an animal gloat before or sense, but these guys were clearly having fun at the expense of their human neighbors. One troop was stealing eggs from our hotel’s chef. She had an eggs-to-order station set up for breakfast, and each time she would deliver finished eggs to a table the monkeys would break for the bowl of raw eggs. Another troop stole food from some beach-goers. In both instances the successful thief moved just out of reach and ate his plunder while staring down the victims.
No great stories come to mind about the red-backed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii) or mantled howler monkeys (Allouata palliata) but they too were awesome creatures. The sense of wonder that came over me each time I saw a fellow primate in the wild cannot be overstated. One can’t help but anthropomorphize and believe that they are experiencing the same feeling of warped kinship. When you’re talking about baby monkeys, well, just give up all hope of not melting into a puddle of delight.
Baby squirrel monkey. Squee!
Adult squirrel monkey. Lesser squee.
Another famous group of rainforest mammals are the sloths. Costa Rica is home to both the two-toed (Choloepus hoffmanni) and three-toed (Bradypus variegatus) varieties, and we were blessed with glimpses of both. A word about the toes: both varieties of sloth have three claws on their hind limbs; they differ in the number of claws on their forelimbs. Sloths are as much as ten times more abundant than monkeys but are harder to spot due to their camouflage, signature lack of activity, and tendency to stay in the canopy. I viewed these animals with a very different kind of wonder. They’re so alien, and frankly kind of ugly, but somehow cute in their way and very fascinating. It didn’t hurt my opinion of sloths any that one morning at breakfast we were able to watch from the deck of our hotel as a couple of two-toed sloths (mother and baby, I think) fed one another. I later learned that this food sharing behavior is actually common even among adult sloths.
Then there were the real oddballs. Quite regularly an agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) would scurry off into the forest as we passed. These guys resembled giant hamsters, or maybe rabbits with their ears lopped off. We also got one good look at a kinkajou (Potos flavus) – a strong contender for “weirdest mammal I have ever seen.” His face looked like claymation or, for fellow nerds, Nien Nunb from Return of the Jedi.
I think my favorite, despite the monkeys, were the coatimundi. The white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) is such an adorable, inquisitive little beast. Whenever I saw one I couldn’t help thinking of my dog back in the States, and indeed they were described by some locals as “raccoon dogs.” They were somewhat wary of humans, but not enough to run and hide at the first sign of us. If anything they seemed to regard us as potential – if potentially dangerous – sources of food or other interest. They had this capacity to look apologetic for whatever they might have done; something we witnessed a couple of times as one emerged from a building into which it had not been invited.
We missed out on spotting any of the forest’s big cats, peccaries, and anteaters. No complaints: these are all fairly rare sightings even for professionals. Word was that there was a sighting of the elusive jaguar near us the evening before we arrived in Monteverde, but it faded back into the mists of obscurity. Out of the 200-plus mammal species calling Costa Rica home I couldn’t have asked for a much better sampling on a single trip.