The drive from home to Heathrow was uneventful but longer than necessary. We arrived at a hotel ready for an early flight in the morning to Newark, New York. Getting through security was smooth enough. The first mammal of the holiday was seen – a House Mouse, scuttling around the departure lounge at Terminal 2. The flight left on time, landing at Newark at around 13.40 UTC. Our connecting flight to San José wasn’t for another four hours, which was just as well as getting through US customs and immigration took forever, despite the fact we were never going to leave the airport. After the obligatory digital fingerprints, photographs and questioning, we were allowed to leave the US again. By the time we were flying over Costa Rica it was dark, and we landed in San José pretty much on time. It was now around 22.30 CST so we stayed the night in a hotel in down-town San José. The hotel was behind huge metal gates which were opened to allow the car inside, and the hotel advised us not to leave again until daylight.
Optimistically opening the curtains at dawn the only bird life I could see were Rock Doves, the first bird of Costa Rica! Aside from an interesting millipede in a potted plant in the hotel foyer, that was the only wildlife seen in San José!
Leaving the city we soon passed through Braulio Carrillo National Park, a protected area of 95% primary forest. From the vehicle the occasional Blue Morpho was seen fluttering out of the foliage, and indeterminable flycatcher species were seen. The only identifiable birds were the Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures soaring high overhead – a sight that you get used to seeing throughout the country.
We stopped for a drink and something to eat along the way, but very quickly got distracted by wildlife, so much so that by the time we had to leave, I’d forgotten to eat or drink anything. Black Vulture was the first bird to be photographed, and then my attention was grabbed by the call of a bird I was already very familiar with from hearing it on videos, and was keen to watch for myself as it dropped upside-down on its perch to call – the Montezuma Oropendola. Chestnut-sided Warbler, Clay-coloured Thrush (the national bird) were next, and in pursuance of more birds, the first mammal of the trip was found with a Three-toed Sloth in a tree just metres away and giving superb views.
They only come down to ground level once a week to defecate, which is exactly what this one did, so we gave it space and time to ascend again. It wasn’t going to go far after all. Minutes later, another Three-toed Sloth, this time with a baby clinging on to it. Neither sightings were in light conducive to easy photography, but the views were amazing.
Setting off again, the tarmac turned to gravel, which in turn gave way to potholes interspersed with gravel, as we passed through banana plantations and pasture land, where Cattle Egrets clustered around the cattle, and the occasional Great Egret and Snowy Egrets were seen in ditches. Eventually, the track ended, and we’d reached the river that would take us to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean side of the country. Luggage in one boat, and us in another. On the other side of the river, cows competed with Cattle Egrets and Snowy Egrets for space on the muddy banks. As the boat left the bank and negotiated the first corner, we were met by a huge American Crocodile – the first (and largest) reptile of the trip. Southern Lapwing, Great Blue Heron and a couple of Double-crested Basilisks were also identified before the boat was able to pick up more speed, and the only other species seen were undeterminable species of swallow.
As soon as we stepped out of the boat, an adult Green Iguana looked upon us from the base of a large tree. The wildlife kept coming – Chestnut-sided Warbler, butterflies including Sara Longwing and lots which I’m yet to identify, Yellow-headed Gecko, Slender Anole, and more butterflies. In a small pool a Caiman lurked, with only its head sticking out from beneath the overhanging bank. The first toucans of the trip (Collared Aracari) flew in to a nearby tree which seemed to be doing its best to stop me getting clear photos. Huge webs of the Golden Orb Spider were numerous, constructed of silk five times stronger than steel. More anole species and a Black River Turtle were seen in and around the waterway connected to the Caiman pond. The first hummingbird of the trip was a Long-billed Hermit, busily nectaring from nearby flowers. A wander back to the river we arrived from produced a fishing Anhinga, a number of land crabs and yet more anoles, and more birds such as Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and Olive-backed Euphonia. A troupe of White-faced Capuchin soon made themselves very apparent, and Great Green Macaws became the last bird of the afternoon.
Once darkness fell, the noises of the rainforest were loud and constant – frogs, cicadas, crickets were relentless, interrupted occasionally the the distant call of Mantled Howler Monkeys. A night time explore yielded more reptiles, a hunting Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Bullet Ants (the identification of which I was unaware of until the following day, and far more care was taken around them the next night!), more spiders, tree frogs, Savage’s Thin-toed Frog, and yet more frogs and spiders. All the while there was constant flashes of bright green LED-like lights as fireflies advertised their presence. As with most of my night time outings, many species are still in the process of being identified. Finally, a trail camera was set up in the jungle in the (very remote) hope of catching one of the six wild cat species in Costa Rica.
At dawn, we took to the water to explore the canals of Tortuguero – a mixture of natural and old logging waterways, creeks and lagoons that cut through the rainforest, and provide the only realistic means of exploring this habitat. A Great-tailed Grackle was the first bird of the day, and the Mantled Howler Monkey which was only heard the night before, was now visible in the treetops, while others were occupied by the ever present vultures. A couple more Green Iguanas, and a good number more Double-crested Basilisks were all seen basking. An Anhinga had just caught lunch, and was beating its catch against a fallen tree to kill it before consumption, while a Northern Jacana was moving amongst a carpet of floating aquatic plant of some kind. A male Bare-throated Tiger Heron was performing his courtship routine for the benefit of a nearby observing female and a Little Blue Heron hunted slightly further down-river. Another Caiman, and then the third primate of the trip, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, was briefly seen swinging through the canopy up above. Keel-billed Toucan, Snowy Egret, Royal Terns, Antbirds, more White-faced Capuchin, more reptiles and butterflies amongst other things were seen before returning to shore.
Up until now, the weather had been incredibly hot and dry, with nothing but clear skies. A rainforest hike started with excellent views of Grey-necked Wood Rail and a couple more (as yet unidentified) small lizards, before it started to rain and the water proof cover went on the camera. The rain got harder and harder until I didn’t think it could get any harder, and then it rained even harder still. If I hadn’t been trying to keep all my camera equipment dry it would have actually been incredibly refreshing, but the rainforest had become a swamp suddenly, and it was all I could do to remain upright whilst I hunched over my gear to keep it as dry as I could. As soon as we made it back to cover, the sky predictably cleared and no more rain fell for the rest of the time in Tortuguero. The rainfall had brought out more frog-life, including the spectacular Strawberry Poison-dart Frog – tiny, but containing enough poison to kill up to 10 men. The weather had also relocated some Mantled Howler Monkeys which were now able to be seen at relatively close range, while another Green Iguana was in a nearby tree canopy. A Rufous-tailed Hummingbird was seen making regular feeding trips to and from its miniature nest.
Hoping the rain wouldn’t return, we headed back out on to the canals. More Anhinga, basilisks and Howler Monkeys, then a Social Flycatcher perched on a fallen tree over the water. A vertical column of Brazilian Long-nosed bats roosted on a tree trunk, in a formation perhaps designed to mimic the appearance of a snake. A Great Egret, another Northern Jacana and another Collared Aracari and then a Green Kingfisher followed by Black-mandibled Toucan high in the canopy. More herons in the form of Little Blue and Green, and more Montezuma Orpendola constantly performing their pleasing upside-down call. Yellow-crowned Night Heron gave great views before we headed back to land.
By dusk, I’d found a Double-crested Basilisk that I was able to move very near to and get some eye level shots at close range. By darkness in the rainforest there were Leaf Mimic Katydids, Cane Toads, more spiders and frogs, an amazing Blunt Head Tree Snake, and an all too brief glimpse of a Four-eyed Opossum, though I did manage a very quick record shot. The unmistakable sound of something large shifted in the forest behind me, so I silently retraced my steps to investigate, now with the flashlight off to avoid disturbing whatever it was. I must have nearly bumped in to it as there was a sudden crashing about right next to me as I held my breath before turning on the light to see a very startled looking White-tailed Deer make a hasty retreat before looking back at the light. A huge stick insect sp ended the evening.
Heading back up river to somewhere that wheeled vehicles could once again be used, it was time to leave Tortuguero. Along the way, more herons, another American Crocodile, Spotted Sandpiper, Northern Jacana, and the final bird before we departed for our next destination was the all too familiar House Sparrow.