Costa Rican rambles 3 – Parque Nacional Los Quetzales and Miriam’s restaurant

Our usual daily trip routine in Costa Rica began on the first day: coffee and tea at 5:45 a.m. (except the last day when we had it at 4:30 a.m.!) – birding – breakfast around 7 a.m. – travel & birding – lunch around noon-1 p.m. – travel and birding – dinner/supper around 7 p.m. And on two nights we went owling after supper. One of our group members tracked our steps – over 8 days, we walked and hiked a bit more than 50 miles. This meant that although I ate more than usual, I didn’t gain any weight, which was an added bonus!

On the first day, we set off for the National Park Los Quetzales, passing small settlements and villages along the way. Between them, we saw the rolling hills and mountains covered with lots of vegetation – this was the end of the dry season, so when the rainy season begins the scenery must be even much more lush.


We were going to see several species of birds which are endemic only to parts of Costa Rica and Panama, which was a treat for the birders who keep life lists counting how many species of birds they have seen.

The day had an overcast start, which made photographing the birds at Los Quetzales a bit challenging. Sometimes they blended in really well with the vegetation in which they perched and discerning them was a bit of a feat (especially if you don’t have binoculars). One of the first birds we found was the slaty flowerpiercer (Diglossa plumbea). The male has a rich blue-gray color while the female is a much drabber olive gray – it was her upturned beak that helps her pierce the base of flowers for nectar that helped me ID her in the photos.


The black-capped flycatcher (Empidonax atriceps) gave me some issues, too, until one finally alighted atop a plant – giving me a chance for a quick, backlit photo before he flew off.

There were many flowering bushes and shrubs and bees were buzzing among them. A timberline wren hopped around these bushes, but I was unable to get a photo of her. I did succeed in getting some shots of a couple volcano hummingbirds (Selasphorus flammula), who were very active – challenging one another and hunting insects. These very small hummingbirds only breed in the mountains of Costa Rica and Panama; they are only 3 inches (7.5 cm cm) long and very quick flyers. One ended up posing for a while!


A sooty-capped bush tanager – also called a sooty-capped chlorospingus (Chlorospingus pileatus) was scurrying about the same bushes. At first, I couldn’t get any photos of him, but finally he emerged from behind some leaves. At our lunch stop, I was able to get a close-up photo of this species.


A large-footed finch (Pezopetes capitalis) made its arrival known as s/he perched in a nearby tree branch; a few hours later, I was able to get a closer photo of this bird, too. This is one of the larger birds we saw, almost reaching 8 inches (20.3 cm) in length.


Another larger bird, the sooty thrush (Turdus nigrescens) posed prettily atop a tree. These 10-inch long (24 cm) birds behave similarly to American robins, rooting around in leaves for insects and spiders.

The flame-throated warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis) showed up nicely against the green foliage.



In some flowering bushes nearby, a fiery-throated hummingbird (Panterpe insignis) put in an appearance. These hummers are larger than the small volcano hummingbirds.  Like other hummers, their brilliant colors may only show up when the light rays hit their feathers at just the right angle. My only shot demonstrating a bit of their fiery beauty was unfortunately a bit blurry.


A black and yellow silky flycatcher (Phainoptila melanoxantha, below) was hopping around in a distant leafy tree and then finally emerged for a couple minutes before flying off to another leafy abode. In contrast to many of the other birds who dine on insects, these birds favor berries and plant materials. A yellow-winged vireo (Vireo carmioli, right) emerged briefly, rounding out our endemic species sightings.


Before leaving the park, I was lucky to see a forest forager (otherwise known as a branch bird) and some lichens growing on the ground. 😉

For lunch, we stopped at Miriam’s restaurant, a well-known birding station in the San Gerardo de Dota area. In addition to a very nice lunch menu, there are nectar and fruit feeders behind the eatery, which attracted a large number of birds when we first visited (a return visit a few days later had very few birds – perhaps they were all busy with nests and insect feeding by then). Besides the rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis), there were gorgeous flame-colored tanagers (Piranga bidentata) – both males and females/immature males.



A group of five acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) came to enjoy the fruit, perfectly willing to share the space with the other birds. These birds, which are also seen in the Western USA, do eat lots of different nuts but insects and fruit are obviously also desired meals.


There were three main species of hummingbirds at the nectar feeders. According to some bird websites, the white-throated mountain gem is only found in Panama, while the very similar gray-tailed mountain gem (Lampornis cinereicauda) is seen in southern Costa Rica. They are beautiful birds, with the females sporting a cinnamon-colored breast and the males a blue-purple crown when the light hits their feathers just right.



The Talamanca hummingbird males (Eugenes spectabilis) have a brilliant gorget and forehead when the lighting is right. The females of this large hummer species lack this coloring but also have a prominent white spot behind their eyes.


My favorite hummingbird at this stop was the lesser violetear (Colibri cyanotus). They have a subtle violet color underneath their eyes and pretty bands of blue in different shades on their tails.


Next up – our visit to the Bosque del Tolomuco!

** Thanks to Janet Kurz for the group photo

Costa Rican rambles 2 – exploring the fauna of the hotel botanical garden

My first close-up spotting of wildlife in Costa Rica was a butterfly familiar to me from North Carolina – a beautiful monarch (Danaus plexippus). Lots of little flies were buzzing about but they were a bit too quick for photos.

I wasn’t familiar with the first bird I saw, but after running into fellow traveler Dave, he kindly identified it for me as a white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).



Later and the next morning, I saw several wandering about the grounds and at the birdbath.


Another common dove was the white-tipped one (Leptotila verreauxi).


While roaming around, I ran into two more fellow travelers, Joy and Janet; together with Dave, we climbed a wonderful lookout tower placed in a strategic spot for birders. It looked down on a pond in one direction and a birdbath in another, where I saw the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) – Costa Rica’s national bird, known locally as the yigüirro.  Its beautiful song is said to welcome the green rainy seasons and these birds were abundant in this garden and the other sites we would be visiting.


A couple species of hummingbirds appeared but I was only able to photograph the rufous-tailed hummer (Amazilia tzacatl).


While looking for it, I spotted what was to become one of my favorite Costa Rican birds, the rufous-naped wren (Campylorhynchus rufinuch).


I just fell in love with its brown speckled appearance and followed a pair flitting about the flower-laden bushes in the area.


Some “Northern migrants” put in appearances, including a Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) and some yellow-throated vireos (Vireo flavifrons).



Birds flitting in the treetops further included a few yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) and Tennessee warblers (Leiothlypis peregrina), which I had not yet seen in the USA.


A beautiful blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus) flew by and I saw my first male Cherrie’s tanager, for which I’ll post a better photo in a later blog. 

The high perch which we birders had offered me a first spotting of the variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides), which lives up to its name with individuals showing very different coloring on their bodies.


I left the lookout tower to investigate more of the 10-acre garden and as it began raining, found a spectacular wasp or hornet nest. It looked quite different from varied perspectives, the underneath view making it look like a pair of pants hung from the tree by its legs.






The garden featured several man-made hives for stingless bees (Tetragonisca angustula); I didn’t see any buzzing about but perhaps they preferred to stay indoors during the rain.

Back near the lookout tower, I began hearing a pair of birds calling to one another with beautiful songs and notes. I was looking around for some small songbird but suddenly realized the concert was being offered by a pair of large melodious blackbirds (Dives dives), who really deserve their common name!


A somewhat more raucous set of cries alerted me to the arrival of a group of brown jays (Psilorhinus morio). They are much larger than the blue jays I see in my own garden and certainly seemed more social; they tend to move around in flocks. At first sight, they seemed a bit drab but a closer look shows they have a pretty muted appearance.



As I began following a hummingbird in an effort to get a close-up, Janet and Joy alerted me to a trio of Inca doves (Columbina inca) who were smushing together in a compact group for the night. It was almost dark and I had to adjust my camera settings a lot to be able to photograph them; they were becoming barely visible in the vegetation but oh so cute. Occasionally, one would leave the line and sit atop the other two but those below always got the third one to come down to the branch again.

Seeing some very cute rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis) foraging in the grass.

The next morning began with a spotting of a pair of masked tityras (Tityra semifasciata), who were difficult to photograph in the early dawn light.

A Hoffman’s woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii, right) came by briefly and as the day started to brighten, a tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) alighted on a branch.


It was after that sighting that I discovered a new bird (for me) – the social flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis); I had been calling all birds that looked like these great kiskadees – and they do look very similar to be sure!  And if readers see I have identified a bird incorrectly, please let me know!


My first evening and morning in Costa Rica taught me that the bird photography could be challenging; the lush vegetation meant that the birds are often in between dark leaves and shadows. This meant that I was shooting at high ISOs much of the time, with somewhat grainy photos as a result. I guess perhaps I should finally look into getting a photo editing program!


Costa Rican rambles 1: a flower-laden arrival

Traveling to countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas was a privilege I really enjoyed as part of my work in health care, gender and rights for immigrants and people living in developing countries. That frequent travel came to an end due to the circumstances of my retirement, so it was with enormous pleasure that I just participated in my first post-career trip to Costa Rica, giving me the first stamp in my most recent passport!


This was only my second time traveling as part of an organized tour (the first time was in the 1970s on a visit to the Soviet Union). While I would have liked to linger longer in some places, the accommodations and good food arranged by the trip organizer, our birding guide’s wit, our driver’s helpfulness, and my fellow travelers’ good spirits made for lots of laughter, interesting sightings and delicious, companionable meals – and it was relaxed as I didn’t have to worry about how to get somewhere and find a place to stay.

Costa Rica’s natural beauty was a daily delight, and I’d like to share some of what I saw in a series of blogs. Many blogs nowadays are short on text; my blogs will be long with lots of photos, which may be a challenge to some readers in these days of imited time (attention spans) and Internet surfing. But I hope those of you who stick it out will enjoy the descriptions!

Since this was a birding trip, the series will mostly feature avians, but I managed to get some photos of mammals, insects and reptiles, too. But to start, we’ll take a look at the abundant flora in the 10-acre Santo Domingo hotel garden where we spent our first afternoon and next morning. The Hotel Bougainvillea received the Costa Rican National Gardening Association’s award as the best botanical garden in Costa Rica and it was a pleasure to visit.

Not being a botanist and having never studied plants, it took me an inordinate amount of time to identify some of the plants; half-way through my searching, I finally understood that this garden also features tropical plants from other continents. I wasn’t able to ascertain the names of many flowers – if anyone can identify the unnamed ones, please leave a comment!

The bougainvillea were blooming and an African blue butterfly bush (Rotheca myricoides) also caught my eye.


The native Heliconia flowers were abundant and varied, appealing not only to humans strolling about the gardens, but also to the birds who sheltered among them, searched for insects there or drank the floral nectar. Some of these plants are also called lobster claws, parrot flowers and wild plantain.




Some of the 40 species of heliconias can grow up to 30 feet high; there are heliconias whose flowers grow upright and others that hang. Their bracts – modified leaves or scales that surround a flower – may be larger and more colorful than the actual flower.





I quite enjoyed the bromeliads, like this one (Guzmania lingulata); we saw them in abundance throughout the trip and it made me long for some in my own trees.

There were plants with which I am familiar such as lantanas and lilies.




I’ve seen the Angel’s trumpet in the NC Botanical Garden; all parts of this plant are toxic, as my Costa Rican friend Esmeralda pointed out. All seven Brugmansia species are listed as extinct in the wild. These flowers were either Brugmansia versicolor or insignis.


I had also seen the Anthurium and passion flowers (Passiflora coccinea) before.


One tree had me stumped; it reminded me of a mimosa but was different. It took more than an hour searching the Internet but I was finally able to identify it as the pink shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum)! It became one of my favorites.


Another favorite, which I would love to have in my garden, is the torch ginger (Etlingera elatior). Near it were some attractive golden shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea).


A few plants had handy name signs by them, like this mateares cactus (Pereskia lychnidiflora), which is almost extinct in Costa Rica (but abundant in other parts of Central America). It was right next to what looked like a type of prickly pear cactus.

Some of the non-Central American plants were really lovely. The bottle palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) is endemic to Mauritius. The fan palm may have been a native though.


The blue-green jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), which looked like someone had dyed it, comes from the Philippines, while the bright orange flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) is a Mexican plant.



The lily of the Nile (Agapanthus) is native to Uganda and Kenya.

The balloonplant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus), native to southeast Africa, didn’t look like a type of milkweed to me!

There were some lovely orchids, like a purple one that could be Guarianthe skinneri or perhaps Guaria morada (the national flower) and a yellow one, which I thought was Oncidium sphacelatum.


This type of lady slipper orchid had a name tag but unfortunately I forgot to write down the name!


And then there were the ones I couldn’t figure out.





The garden also featured a couple tables with examples of geological specimens for the mineral and rock collecting enthusiasts.



One part had what I think was petrified wood.

If you visit San José, I’d definitely recommend a visit to the hotel garden. Next up –  wildlife in the garden!


All about Ollie – barred owls at Mason Farm Biological Reserve

The end of winter and start of spring is a good time to look for some of the birds that you don’t see so often. They are not hidden by foliage and may come out more to hunt for a meal as they prepare to cope with the rigors of upcoming parenthood. That has proved to be a boon for me during visits to Mason Farm Biological Reserve where there are several pairs of barred owls (Strix varia) in residence. While these birds usually hunt at night, they have recently been seen out and about much more often in the daytime, perhaps getting ready for nesting and brooding in March and April.

These beautiful raptors sit quite still and often make no sound at all as they turn their heads scanning the ground or a creek nearby for small rodents, crayfish, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles.


Their brown and white mottled feathers are a perfect camouflage to help them blend in with the bare gray and brown tree trunks and branches of winter. To spot them, you learn to scan trees in the distance looking for a “lump” which your binoculars or long camera lens can then help distinguish as an owl.

These owls tend to stay in one area; a study of 158 banded birds showed that none of them had ventured further away than 6 miles from the spot where they were first seen. At Mason Farm, we tend to hear the owls in specific areas – along a creek, near a couple of open fields and near a bog. These are likely different pairs who can live there for decades – the oldest known barred owl was 24 years old.

After hearing that friend Mary had been seeing one particular owl daily, I began going there more often to catch a glimpse of him/her. I nicknamed the bird Ollie – short for Oliver or Olivia. It turned out that I was fortunate enough to see both Ollies; the pair has become fairly tolerant of people nearby, sometimes perching in trees right next to the walking path.

One mid-afternoon, I was searching the fields for Ollie, noting some of the other birds who were easier to spot because of their movement, like the red-bellied woodpeckers and song sparrows. I was looking into the mid- and long-distance and then glanced up at a small tree next to the path – there was Ollie staring back at me! I had never been within about 5 feet of a wild barred owl before and was able to see him/her really well – what a beautiful bird!

To get some photos, I actually had to back up as I had a long-distance lens on the camera. Some runners came by and saw that I was focused on something, but they never looked up to notice that they were passing couple feet underneath this large raptor. Ollie just watched silently as they ran by and then returned to scanning the ground for prey.

Another day, Mary and I were following an owl from one field to the next. The hunting pattern appears to be: perch in a tree and look intently at the ground around for 10-20 minutes or longer, fly some 20 or more feet away to scan another patch. It appeared that the owl and caught something and s/he flew to a tree branch at the other side of the field. I happened to glance away in time to see the second Ollie flying toward and past us in the field on the other side of the path.  The owls fly completely silently so you have to be lucky to spot them.

Although I’ve seen the pair fairly often now, I continue to find them really beautiful.


When they spot some prey, the owls drop quietly but swiftly down to pounce on the animal. Sometimes they sit there for a minute or two, presumably swallowing the entire animal if it is small. If it is larger, they will carry it off to have their meal in a tree.

On one of our walks, Mary’s sharp eyes spotted an owl pellet and friend Lucretia and I dissected it. The pellets can contain the remains of several meals and we thought that a couple small animals’ remains were contained in the fur-covered mass. A tiny skull and pair of jaw bones with minuscule teeth could be distinguished – perhaps a vole or baby mole.

On one of my most recent spottings of Ollie, s/he was spending time taking little power naps in between ground scans. On other days, the owls had brief snoozing periods, too. The feathers on their eyelids are very cool! When a pair calls to one another, you can distinguish the male and female. The male’s call ends abruptly while the female adds a little trill to the end of her call.


On my last foray to the reserve to see owls, I was following Ollie’s progress along the field when another birder spotted me taking photos. After a while, about six or seven walkers were watching and Ollie finally flew to the top of a pine tree not far from the path so they could all admire him/her.

The one predator that goes after the large barred owls is the even larger great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).


When people go too close to a barred owl’s nest, the owls will become agitated, so we should keep that in mind and not bother them there. Oliver and Olivia seem not to mind people too much right now, since they will fly to perch near a path where people are passing. I do try to limit how much time I spend following them, though, even though they can fly away. Just like us, the owls do want to be able to go about their business in peace!


Chilean Open-Air Art~

This is not my own blog and also not about nature but it does depict a part of our beautiful world. I spent time in Chile doing research and love the country and its people and wanted to share these really beautiful images of gorgeous street art. Thanks to Cindy for sharing what she saw.

Chile is full of stunning street art.

Throughout Chile, large and small towns, are decorated with amazing open-air art, that is valued by the country and citizenry.

In Punta Arenas for example, the local government issued a statement saying that street art, “is a cultural manifestation, scenery which makes the walls more attractive and vital.”

The Punta Arenas city council actually financed a 400 metre section of street art.

They actively encourage street art in other parts of this most charming southerly city.

Santiago, Valparaiso, and Puerto Montt, all have a plethora of amazing open-air art.

Post the repressive Pinochet regime,

Chilean citizens exuberantly embrace and exercise their artistic talent and freedom of expression.

Walking amidst these amazing street art displays, is a wonderful experience.

Cheers to you with Chile’s stunning open-air art~

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