Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

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Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

Denver Trip: Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak

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.

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The view from our campsite

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.

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Pikes Peak standing behind some of the Garden’s formations

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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.

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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.

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This beautiful lake sits at the foot with the peak in full view

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An alternative means for ascending the mountain

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*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.

 

 

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR & Florissant Fossil Beds

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.

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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.

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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).

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I mean, the petrified wood was pretty cool on its own, but…

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.

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This mormon cricket seemed an echo of the giant insects represented in the site’s fossil record.

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.

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 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.

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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.