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)