Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

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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.

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A least chipmunk inquires if I might have something to offer it

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 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.

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Treeline from above
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A lake at the Continental Divide

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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).

 

 

Our Costa Rican Honeymoon Part 4: Everything Else

Part 1: Mammals
Part 2: Reptiles
Part 3: Birds

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.*

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A row of mangroves

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.

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That stinging plant
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The poisonous tree we were strongly warned to leave alone. Seriously, the manchineel or “beach apple” is not to be messed with.
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A mature strangler fig
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A branch awash in bromeliads and ferns
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A cute green orchid

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.

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A giant, or “helicopter” damselfly, Mecistogaster sp., probably M. ornata
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A giant grasshopper, Tropidacris cristata
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Just a leafcutter ant, cuttin’ leaves

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.

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This was, I believe, one of those ant-cultivated fungi. Then again, if that’s a termite mound we’re talking about something else entirely.

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.

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Then there was whatever the hell these things are.

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.

tree-crabSomething 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.

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A tree crab stalks the mangroves

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.

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A tree frog, Smilisca phaeota
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Another tree frog, species unknown
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A smoky jungle frog, Leptodactylus pentadactylus. That’s too many “dactyls.”

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.

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A wine-glass mushroom (Cookeina sp.)

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.

Our Costa Rican Honeymoon Part 3: Birds

Part 1: Mammals

Part 2: Reptiles

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).

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.

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A pair of magnificent frigatebirds and a brown pelican. This was about as close as we would get, but with binoculars that was more than adequate.

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.

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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.

black-guanOn 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.

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This was the best shot I was able to capture of any of the hummingbirds, and I’ve no idea what species it is.

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.

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Yeah, I just posted 5 uninterrupted photos with no text. What of it?

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.

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Possibly an orange-chinned paraket? Or a smallish parrot?
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Some variety or other of trogon sleeping in the night.
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Gorgeous songbird #1 (Identified by Eric Losh as Euphonia hirundinacea)

Our Costa Rican Honeymoon Part 2: Reptiles

Part 1: Mammals

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.

dsc02840The 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.

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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.

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The spotter scope’s lens dulled the red a bit on this green iguana.
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The black iguana: a rather stately fellow

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.

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.

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An adult eyelash viper
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and a juvenile

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.

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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!

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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.

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Wait… rocks don’t have feet.
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Not a living, breathing, thing, right? How can it be? Oh, it IS?

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.

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There’s gotta be a fence or something somewhere. I hope.

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.

Our Costa Rican Honeymoon Part I: Mammals

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.

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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.

dsc03007I 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.

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.

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One of the egg thieves enjoying his plunder.

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.

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A mantled howler monkey.
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A three-toed sloth reaching for some food.

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.

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Chillin’ like a sloth. Because it is one.

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.

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An agouti
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The same agouti, looking less than thrilled.

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.

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Hello good sir! Might that leaf you’re waving be something I could eat?
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You see, what had happened was…

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.