Costa Rica, Osa Peninsula – January 2016

Flying to the Osa Peninsula

We left Monteverde before first light, as we needed to get back to San José early to catch a flight to our next destination, the Osa Peninsula. Our flight was a small twin-prop plane flown by Nature-air, who claim to be the worlds first carbon-neutral airline, which is also an ambition of Costa Rica as a whole country – an impressive goal, which they appear to be well on the way to achieving. The flight was non-pressurised, confirmed when the pilot opened the front window mid-flight to let some cooler air in! The views were spectacular, and over too soon as we started losing height as we reached the peninsula – one of the most remote parts of the country. Frigatebirds came in to view on final approach. Leaving the plane, we grabbed our gear and stepped off the runway into the town of Puerto Jimenez. Immediately some Scarlet Macaws flew into a nearby tree and we enjoyed watching them before heading to the southern coast of the peninsula to an eco-lodge on the very edge of Corcovado National Park.

Osa sunset

A car would only get us so far, and on the journey we had our first sightings of Squirrel Monkeys, more White-faced Capuchins, a brief but exciting view of a White Hawk which we couldn’t subsequently relocate. The car took us as far as it could. We took our luggage and left it with a man who would deliver it later in the day by horse and cart when the tide would be lower. For now, we were free of having to carry anything but the camera as we set off along the coast until we reached the lodge. Miles of sand, Hermit Crabs, Scarlet Macaws, honeycreepers and manikins, the occasional coconut being washed ashore… it’s a stunning place, with who-knows-what hiding just metres away in the tropical forest which spilled out on to the beach. The realisation that we were very quickly going to dehydrate if we didn’t press on with finding our accommodation kept us making progress, until we finally reached our lodgings – a collection of discrete, temporary tented structures mingled in to the forest. Brown Pelicans skimmed the surface of the sea as we arrived, and on setting off for an explore, Spider Monkeys, butterflies, anoles, Great Curassow and Black-throated Trogon were quickly seen.

Ocelot paw print

A night walk revealed no end of frogs and spiders, Tailless Whip Scorpions, fishing spiders, basilisks, and then a series of Ocelot footprints! This was where I would set up my camera traps, in the hope of catching it, or indeed, any of the other cat species. After doing that, we soon encountered a Cat-eyed Snake (confusingly referred to by the locals as a ‘False Fer-de-lance’, which it isn’t, as the False Fer-de-lance is another species in its own right). This provided pretty good photo opportunities, and we moved on further down the creek in search of more snakes. A Coral Snake, a species I was particularly keen to see, passed in front of us, and I hesitated in taking a picture, firstly to watch it, and secondly to wait for it to stop in a safer position. It kept moving until it reached the water which I thought would be my moment, but it swam straight across the river to the other side, and couldn’t be relocated.

Northern Tamandua

The next morning we set off along the beach in the direction of the Corcovado National Park. A warden keeps tabs on who passes and returns, as they keep a constant look out for illegal gold miners and poachers, and also for the sake of the safety of visitors. It’s a long way to go to get medical help, so access is restricted to daylight hours. Red-capped Manikin was the first bird that morning apart from the ever present formations of pelicans on the water. Squirrel Monkeys gave good, if rather dark, views, and a Yellow-headed Caracara flew in, perching not far away. Short-billed Pigeon and White-tipped Dove were new for the trip. Red-tailed Squirrel and Spider Monkeys made another appearance, more tanagers, flycatchers and honeycreepers. Tent-making Bats were found under large leaves that they had nibbled along the spines of in order to make a shelter to roost under. These became easy to locate in the end, and later on a white variety was found too. A search for sloths proved unsuccessful, but shortly afterwards, footsteps on the forest floor turned out to be those of a Northern Tamandua, a species of anteater. The light was bad, but I was thrilled to see this species as it made its way around the forest, eventually disappearing in to thick cover. A large troupe of White-nosed Coati were soon encountered, and then another Northern Tamandua, which was scouring trees for termite nests to raid.

Black-throated Trogon

Back near our base, some rustling in the dry leaves turned out to be a Nine-banded Armadillo, a truly remarkable mammal, which I was able to watch for around 10 minutes before it disappeared in to the jungle. A Golden-naped Woodpecker was the last bird before darkness fell, and I went for another explore at night. More frogs, another two Cat-eyed Snakes, but sadly again, no Fer-de-lance.
An early morning walk to the creek to collect the camera traps from the stream, then back towards the place where we left our luggage with the horse and cart, but this time through the jungle rather than along the beach. Buff-rumped Warbler, Black Hawk, Red-lored Parrot, Green Kingfisher, Spotted Sandpiper, a variety of tanagers and honeycreepers, Great-tailed Grackle, anoles and lizards were all seen on the return hike.

Our luggage had already been delivered by horse when we arrived, so we loaded up the vehicle and headed a short distance north to our final destination, still on the Osa Peninsula. The first job was to relocate the camera traps again. A group of resting Collared Peccary were found in the forest, so one camera trap was placed there (Collared Peccary are the Jaguar’s favourite food!), and another was placed near a trail that looked ideal for large mammals to pass through the jungle easily.

Yellow-flecked Glass Frog

That evening after the sun had set, an explore produced Turnip-tailed Gecko, various stick insects, glass frogs, tree frogs, more fishing spiders, and finally, in a stream camouflaged in the brown sunken leaf litter, rose the head of the Fer-de-lance! Remembering the Coral Snake incident, I grabbed a poor photo immediately, before moving in to position for a nice head-on shot. I only had my macro lens with me, so started approaching much as I would for an Adder back home. Once the distance between us had reduced to a few feet, the snake raised its head and started flicking its tongue, and I realised that this probably wasn’t the best approach. I moved myself around to the side and was able to get much closer shots with hopefully a little more time to react if things went wrong. Still pretty reckless in retrospect. A few more frogs later, and yet another Fer-de-lance appeared. Considering their amazing camouflage, I had to wonder how many I might have missed on previous searches elsewhere.

The following morning we went for a hike in the forests above our new lodgings, and found a young Agouti which, unlike the adults we’d seen up until now, I was able to get very close to, and even managed to use flash without disturbing it. At the rare times when we managed to get a view down to the sea, more Frigatebirds and Pelicans were seen, and occasional Red Macaw flybys, usually in pairs. A paid of Black-mandibled Toucans offered excellent and close views as they plucked fruit from a nearby tree.

Lineated Woodpecker

A bit later we headed in to a new habitat, streams crossing pasture land bordering secondary forest. Along the way Spider Monkeys, Fiery-billed Aracari, and a White-necked Jacobin were seen. The birds then came thick and fast – Black-throated Trogon, Bright-rumped Attila, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Crested Caracara, Social Flycatcher, Red-lored Parrot, Variable Seedeater, White-collared Seedeater, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Lineated Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Streaked Flycatcher, Southern Lapwing, Wood Stork, Red-crowned Woodpecker and Red-breasted Blackbird.

The next day we took a boat out on to the lagoon between the peninsula and the rest of Costa Rica, and Panama to the south-east. Pulling in to a mangrove forest first we saw Spotted Sandpiper, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, White-crowned Parrot and Southern Rough-winged Swallows. Back out to sea, and a small flock of American Black Terns appeared, then a juvenile Red-billed Tropicbird landed on the water and gently floated in our direction, eventually showing too close to focus. A single Bottlenose Dolphin appeared for a few minutes, and a species of flying fish sped past, skimming above the water surface for an infeasibly long time. A quick snorkel produced a species of Stingray, and countless fish which will probably remain unidentified. A large pod of Spotted Dolphins remained visible for a good twenty minutes or so, but proved very tricky to photograph, rarely breaching more than a dorsal fin above the water. On the drive back to our accommodation, we spotted a pair of Black-bellied Whistling Duck, a Tropical Screech Owl, and a juvenile Black Hawk.

Black Hawk juv.

Black Hawk juvenile

I collected the trail cameras for the last time, and went looking for more birds. A variety of species were seen, but the best, and last, was a perched White Hawk, compensation for one we lost on the way to the Osa Peninsula. A last minute plan started to hatch, and I managed to arrange to leave one of my camera traps set up for at least a couple of months, whilst a kind local man has agreed to replenish the batteries and send the camera back eventually. I’m not normally superstitious, but it’s probably superstition that tells me not to write what I’m hoping to capture on it, but I remain hopeful that one of the mammals I most wanted to see is still in my grasp, long after landing back on home soil.

The last birds seen upon leaving Costa Rica were predictably Black Vultures, seen through the window of the 767 as it left San Jose. The entire journey home involved walking, driving, flying, waiting, flying, waiting, flying, driving, for around 24 hours, and I’d happily do it all over again.