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!


“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.


Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.


My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.


White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)


Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)


Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal


Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)


Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.


Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.


The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.


Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.


So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)




Finding fungal friends!

Although I find mushrooms interesting, they honestly are not especially favorite members of the plant kingdom for me. However, they do attract my attention when they are unusual or unusually abundant after rainfall. And I do find them a tasty addition to a meal for sure. So when the non-profit Friends of Bolin Creek sent out an invitation for a mushroom walk, it seemed like a nice way to take an outdoor break from my numerous tasks and chores.


I was hoping to see a lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) on the walk – mushroom enthusiast friends had recommended this one to me and I happened to have purchased one from a fungus grower at the farmers’ market the previous day.

The walk was organized by the Association’s nature walk coordinator, Salli Benedict, and led by Van Cotter, a retired mycologist and volunteer with the University of North Carolina’s Herbarium in Chapel Hill. He still mentors students involved with environmental studies and our group included several students who were intent on adding to their collection of 25 species for a class assignment. So, the walk participants included people of various ages and degrees of fungal knowledge.*




We divided into two sub-groups and our group set off into the woods. Our first spotting was a Suillis mushroom. This type is associated with pine trees and we did indeed find three growing at the base of a tree. A mycologist in our group pointed out the veil, a membranous tissue covering the cap, and she cut it length-wise so we could see the inside. These mushrooms are also called butter mushrooms.



As we walked on, we came across a few species of fungi growing on fallen and rotting logs. A few were polypores, which are mushrooms with pores or tubes on the underside of the cap. Some of them were shelf or bracket mushrooms.


Some species look as if they have a maze of tubes underneath the fruiting body. The polypores are important in furthering wood decay, which in turn is important for cycling of nutrients and production of carbon dioxide in forests.


The tiny Mycena mushrooms have conical caps with gills and fragile thin stems. Some species are edible, but others contain toxins.



The Lactarius mushrooms, known as milk-caps, release a milky substance when the cap is cut or damaged. The undersides of the caps are gilled.

Armillaria fungi are also known as honey fungus; these mushrooms grow on rotting wood in clusters and can eventually become quite large. In fact, it is thought by some that an Armillaria in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest is the largest living organism on earth – it now covers about 2470 acres and may be about 8650 years old!


When I spotted these brightly colored Pholiota mushrooms, they were greeted with enthusiasm both by the non-mycologists and the student collectors. They only took a few and left the rest for other walkers to admire.



When we returned to our starting point, the two sub-groups laid out all their specimens and Van told us interesting facts about them. The Lepiota mushrooms are often poisonous. Because edible and poisonous mushrooms can look very similar, people without in-depth knowledge of fungi should not eat mushrooms they find growing outside. In North Carolina, for example, only about 200 of the more than 3000 identified mushrooms are common edible ones.

Few people die from eating poisonous mushrooms (7 deaths were reported in 2012), but people are hospitalized because they don’t recognize unsafe species. Some mushrooms need to be prepared for consumption in a special way to make them safe; some should not be consumed while drinking alcohol and some individuals may have personal problems with particular species.

Van also pointed out that mycologists use spore prints in identifying fungal species. The color of spore prints is particularly important.





When I returned home, I prepared the lion’s mane as recommended by those who eat them regularly (sautéing or grilling; I sautéd it). It was with great anticipation that I took my first bite, remembering how much I loved oyster mushrooms when I first tried those. Sad to say, I found the lion’s mane bland and rather tasteless, but at least I had tried it. And I did have an enjoyable time on the mushroom walk, thanks to Friends of Bolin Creek!

** Thanks to Salli Benedict for providing the group photo!