Costa Rica – varied landscapes and fabulous flora. Part 2 – heliconias and special plants

During the rainy winter season, Costa Rica’s foliage is abundant, lush, varied and beautiful. For plant lovers, it is awesome; for birders, it’s very cool and also very challenging.        In many places, the tall trees, like the Cecropias, towered over mid-canopy trees, shrubs and ground cover, creating dense foliage where we were challenged to spot birds on twigs and behind leaves.

 

 

 

When you are in the rain and cloud forests and wearing glasses, it can also be frustrating – in some areas where we were birding, my spectacles (a nice old-fashioned word!) fogged up every half-second.

 

Our guide used a laser pointer (the green spot on the right) to indicate when he had found a bird among the leaves — “Look a foot or two to the left, right, above or below” — and we attempted to locate the winged visual target. Sometimes I found the bird and other times, I just couldn’t focus with glasses that required constant wiping and getting good photos was really out of the question.

Fortunately, photographing plants was somewhat easier than creating avian portrait. Heliconias (of which there are about 200 species) can be seen throughout Costa Rica. They are very attractive with their elaborate “inflorescences” – flower heads that include stems/stalks, bracts (modified leaves or scales from which a flower emerges) and the blooms themselves. The large colorful hanging or erect structures on them might seem to be the flowers but those are the bracts.

Some heliconias are called false birds of paradise as they closely resemble the Asian birds of paradise flowers (Strelitzia reginae).

 

Others are called by avian and animal names as well.

Lobster claw (Heliconia caribaea)

 

Expanded lobster claw (Heliconia latispatha)

     

Parrot’s beak (Heliconia and Heliconia psittacorum)

One yellow flower is called the rattlesnake plant (Calathea crotalifera); it was featured in a “Garden of wisdom” at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

The name comes from the bract’s resemblance to a rattlesnake’s tail. Our guide told us that venomous yellow pit vipers will wait in the plant to ambush hummingbirds that come to feed on the flowers. Eyelash pit vipers will return to familiar ambush sites during spring bird migration!

Some of the foliage was enormous in size. The elephant ear (Xanthosoma) is a plant with huge leaves that can be seen along roadsides and in nature reserves. Other large leaf plants, likely philodendron species, serve as insect food.

 

 

Mushrooms similar to those we see in North Carolina were in almost all the habitats we visited. Here are just a few of them.

 

 

At one point, we birded near a small coffee (Coffea) plantation.

In one of the reserves, we came across cacao trees (Theobroma cacao). A member of our group touched the sticky insides of one fallen fruit and found it quite smelly.

Various species of palms were common and we were able to see some in bloom.

 

Elsewhere, we saw how small trees are pruned to form living fences along fields.

 

One of the most interesting plants we saw was the Columnea consanguinea. The green leaves are distinguished by translucent red heart-shaped patches on their undersides. These are visible from above the leaves as yellow-green areas.

 

 

The purpose of these markings is to attract the plant’s main pollinator, the green-crowned brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula).

   

When they see the yellow-green/red hearts, they know the plant’s inconspicuous flowers will be lying nearby against the plant’s stem.

 

This plant with aerial roots had been cut off somehow; it was now in the process of covering itself with a gel-like substance, intended to discourage animals from chewing on it before the roots reached the ground.

Here are a few more lovely flowering plants that I couldn’t identify but certainly enjoyed seeing.

   

To conclude this focus on Costa Rican plants, I’d like to show a photo kindly shared by Nan DeWire – it reflected our attitude as we toured the marvelous natural areas.

The next Costa Rica blog will feature some of the mammals which we were lucky to encounter as we moved from place to place. However, a quick side trip to North Carolina will take place first to document a lucky event for a birder.

Costa Rica – varied landscapes and fabulous flora. Part 1 – gingers and bromeliads

Our trip to Costa Rica in August this year took place during the rainy season, making for some challenging wildlife photography but giving us good views of lush vegetation everywhere we traveled. Our journey went through Guanacaste province with dry scrub, salt flats and mangrove swamps, the Monte Verde tropical cloud forest, the area around the Arenal volcano, and Caribbean lowland rain forests.

We traveled along highways lined with rocky walls featuring drainage pipes to help prevent landslides, as well as some narrow mountain roads with very deep and steep drop-offs alongside our driving lanes – at those times, I wasn’t necessarily looking out the window, especially when we had a nerve-wracking encounter on a narrow road with another vehicle requiring some backwards driving by our well experienced driver!

At one point we visited some salt flats to get a view of some water-loving birds such as plovers and sandpipers.

Other times, it was a pleasure to gaze out at the passing landscapes featuring forests, plantations, small settlements and homesteads, lush valleys, waterfalls and rivers.

 

Our arrival in Costa Rica immediately drew attention to the need to protect plants as the airport had numerous signs warning travelers about bringing in Fusarium wilt, a disease that can wipe out banana plantations within a short period of time. Along roads and in nature reserves, the banana plants (Musa) fortunately looked healthy.

   

While I enjoy gardening and am slowly replacing lawn with native plants around my house, I’m no horticulturist or botanist; identifying plants is a challenge for me. But I hope to show you a little here of the beautiful vegetation we saw in a two-part blog. And perhaps some of my fellow travelers may be able to identify some of the plants pictured (like those below) or correct anything I’ve mis-identified.

 

Guanacaste province, where we started out, has dry terrain as this region does not receive much rain and has consistently high temperatures. This contrasted with the tropical cloud forest in the Monte Verde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves where we spent time. Rain gear and umbrellas are a definite boon when spending many hours walking outdoors in these areas.

These forests may be chilly with temperatures at night sometimes falling to 55°F (13°C). The humidity can be close to 100% and we had to change our itinerary a couple times to avoid slick mountain roads when some storms came inland.

The tropical rain forests see the most rain and the temperatures usually range from 70˚F (21˚C) to 93˚F (+34˚C). We were fortunate to visit the La Selva Research Station owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies which has many species of plants and ants. Less than 10% of our world is (still) covered by tropical rain forests, but scientists have found that the rain and cloud forests are home to about 50% of the earth’s terrestrial species.

The natural areas where we stayed and visited offered up a wealth of wonderful flowers and plants. The gardeners among us especially appreciated the variety of foliage and colors. It wasn’t always easy to figure out which plants we were seeing, especially because many of the gardens and reserves also feature tropical plants from other regions of the world. They did put signs by some plants but not all of them; of course if your area is home to over 2000 plant species, as in La Selva, keeping signage up to date would be an endless task.

African blue butterfly bush (Clerodendrum ugandense)

Bougainvillea

As mentioned, many gardens and reserves in Costa Rica feature plants that originated in other world regions. One of my favorites, true ginger (Zingiber spectabile) is one of these. It is commonly known in the Western hemisphere as beehive ginger. The tubular bracts fill with rainwater and emit a ginger-like fragrance, which attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The bracts start off yellow in color and eventually achieve a wonderful red hue. The actual flower is a white petal protruding from the bract.

This type of ginger is promoted as a decorative cut flower as the bracts and flowers can survive long after having been cut. It has been used to treat illnesses in Indonesia and an academic study has indicated that this plant has antimicrobial properties; it also contains an enzyme that could possibly be effective in the treatment of colon cancer.

Other ginger plants were also lovely.

 

Red ginger (Alpinia purpurata)

 

Torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) – one of my favorites!

 

 

Indian head ginger (Costos woodsonii) at left.

There are about 2500 species of bromeliads around the world and Costa Rica has its fair share. These plants can use water more efficiently than other plants because they have a specialized form of photosynthesis.

 

 

 

Bromeliads (Tillandea cyanea at the right)

The tank bromeliads feature leaves that hold water at their base in a kind of reservoir; the largest ones can hold up to two gallons of water. We were fortunate to see blue dacnis birds (Dacnis cayana) enjoying baths in a large epiphytic bromeliad. The reservoir in this air plant must have been a nice bathing spot since a line formed of birds awaiting their turn.

 

A flower that is probably familiar to US residents who have visited botanical gardens it the Angel’s trumpet (with white blooms, Datura arborea; with pink and yellow hues, Datura sanguinea). There is also a Brugmansia arborea, a tree with white blooms, that has been declared extinct in the wild. The Costa Ricans call this plant the Reina de la Noche – Queen of the night.

 

One newspaper article touted this plant as a form of aromatherapy because it has a fragrant and “relaxing” scent. However, my Costa Rican friend Esmeralda warned me that it is a highly poisonous plant and this has been confirmed.

The flowers below might have been Anthurium species.

 

                       Next blog – the heliconias!

“Wattle” I do to get a better photo of you?

In mid-August 2019, it was my privilege and good fortune to participate in an interesting, engaging and VERY fun “Birding Plus” tour in Costa Rica thanks to a great roommate, Nan, knowledgeable guide and tour organizer, Steve and Sherry, and group of fellow travelers (Ann, Art, Bill, Gordon, Len, Tom and Ylva). My next blogs will mostly focus on the birds, amphibians, mammals and insects we were fortunate to see there. The photos are not all great as taking shots in the rain and dark cloud/rain forests was challenging for multiple reasons. But they will give you an idea of the fascinating and beautiful sightings we had. (Clicking on photos enlarges them; then back arrow.)

One of the most difficult birds to “capture” in a good photo was likely the one about which I was most excited, the three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus). This species, which also lives in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, only breeds in the mountains of Costa Rica. These bellbirds are known to be shy, secretive and elusive as they remain mostly in the dense, high canopies of the forests. They apparently prefer to perch on uncluttered branches that are 33-72 ft (10-22 m) high and 0.98-2 in (25-50 mm) in diameter.

The males usually sing from March through June, so we were lucky that some of them were calling out in mid-August. Here we see a couple digiscoped photos of a male bird. The females look very different with olive coloring and a streaky yellow breast (we did not see a female). They are quite different in size, with males in one study having a mean wing length of 6.5 in (165.5 mm) compared to 5.7 in (145.1 mm) for the females.

 

 

The common name for these birds comes from the sound they make. In some articles, it is described as a 3-part song. To me, it sounded like they first made a high-pitched brief screech, squeak or whistle sound and then a deeper call.

 

Others have described their calls/songs as a “boink,” “bonk” or “Hee-aahh” sound. In any event, they obviously work at producing the sound. As we watched, “our” bird would open his mouth very wide, so that you could see the white and black lines surrounding the bill.

He seemed to be breathing in plenty of air as he sat there silently for a while. You could see his neck getting ridges, which I assumed was due to the oxygen he was gathering and holding to be expelled in the call. (This turned out to be a correct assumption according to one study!)

Then, he moved his head up and down a bit and you knew the sound was coming. It is unmistakable once you have heard it as in this brief video that fellow traveler Ylva made.

It is said that the bellbird’s sound is one of the loudest avian calls, audible to humans who are more than 0.5 miles (0.80 km) away. The calls and songs are not instinctive – the birds learn the calls and there are different “dialects” among the birds from different areas! One bird studied in Costa Rica could perform the song/call repertoires of Talamanca and Monteverde – in other words, he was bilingual!

 

Research has also shown that immature male bellbirds not only take 6 years to achieve their full adult plumage but also to perfect their entire song repertoire! Kroodsma et al. also note that: “Males appear to be highly attentive to the nuances of songs produced by their competitors, as both immatures and adults visit each others’ display perches, listening there for up to several minutes at a time.”

The other really striking characteristic of this species is the three wattles on the male’s head which begin growing when he is 6-12 months of age. One dangles from each side of the bird’s mouth and one is affixed to the base of the upper bill.

The wattles have been described as “wormlike”. Nan and I thought they looked a bit like hair-braids and on the flight home I sat next to a woman who had three braids ending in a point with interwoven gold thread that immediately made me want to give her the nickname “Bellbird”. (I didn’t tell her that though.)

The wattles are about one-third of the bird’s size (9.5-12 in or 25-30 cm). They cannot be controlled by muscles or made rigid, but they can be extended in length up to 3.9 in (10 cm) when the bird is interacting with others or singing.

The birds are frugivorous (eat only fruit) and prefer wild avocados (Lauraceae). They play an important role in the tree’s seed dispersal.

 

Due to habitat loss and hunting, the numbers of the three-wattled bellbird have declined to about 20,000 individuals and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared its conservation status to be vulnerable. They obviously inspire artists in Costa Rica, however, as witnessed by a mural at a restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

 

 

After three blogs in quick succession, I’ll now take a break to process and sort some more photos from Costa Rica to share with you. In the meantime, bye bye from the bellbird!

Further information

Costa Rican rambles 7B – Cerro Buena Vista and a night prowl

 

After seeing the beautiful green and blue emerald swift lizard, our attention went back to birds and we rewarded with sightings of a few gorgeous little yellow birds – a yellow-winged vireo (Vireo carmioli) and yellowish flycatcher (Empidonax flavescens).

Since I photograph insects to contribute to BugGuide in the USA, I was watching for them in Costa Rica, too. Insect galls on plant stems and leaves were in evidence and a blue damselfly (Argia pulla) posed for a moment.

A yellow weevil was a fascinating find – those blunt-nosed small insects make me think of Pinodchio.

Then – to the delight of everyone in our party – we had the good fortune to see a resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) fly across our path. We had caught sight of a couple flying high over the Lodge before setting off for our hike, but this bird actually perched not too far away, not staying very long at all but giving me a minute to step around a fellow birder and get a couple shots.

A hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), a more familiar bird for us, looked down on us from high above and a flame-throated warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis) brought another spot of color to our upward trek.

 

When we started down to make it back in time for lunch, we had time to examine the surrounding flowers and then were lucky to see yet another emerald swift lizard, also kown as the green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus).

After a meal, it was a treat to see a collared redstart (Myioborus torquatus).

 

 

   

 

A black-thighed grosbeak (Pheucticus tibialis) gave us another yellow-hued sighting before our attention turned to birds with more subdued coloring – an ochraceous wren (Troglodytes ochraceus) which made me think of hobbits in woods for some reason, some ruddy treerunners (Margarornis rubiginosus) and a spangle-cheeked tanager (Tangara dowii).

        

A black-faced solitaire (Myadestes melanops) graced us with its presence before we took an afternoon break. Some of our fellow birders went to rest, but Janet invited me to her cabin where we had the rare pleasure of seeing a lesser violetear hummingbird (Colibri cyanotus) sitting on her nest! When she flew off after a while to get some sustenance, we noted that she had not yet laid any eggs.

 

 

Then, as I scanned the surrounding trees from Janet’s balcony, I discovered another nest, occupied by the young of a gray-tailed hummingbird (Lampornis cinereicauda). It was not easy to see but peering through the leaves, I managed to get a shot of the hummer stuffing some food down an offspring’s throat.

   

Janet’s balcony was a wonderful birding spot – the next visitor was a gorgeous red-headed barbet (Eubucco bourcierii). A flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata) was yet another brilliantly hued avian visitor.

Walking along the nearby roads, I saw the horses (Equus ferus caballus) used for tourists’ horse-back riding galloping along – beautiful, well-fed animals to be sure.

  

We soon left on our next excursion to the Páramo zone (montane shrub- and grassland mountaintop environment), where we scaled the Cerro Buena Vista (“Good View Mountain”) by van. This region contains the highest point of the Pan American Highway in Central America (3492 meters or 11456.69 feet in elevation). The peak harbors telecommunications equipment and is noteworthy for the many bird species endemic to this area.

   

The one for which we were especially looking was the volcano junco (Junco vulcani), a great bird that was not shy at all and posed for us in numerous positions and at great length.

After leaving the mountaintop, we descended to the rainforest and there spotted a black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor).

 

Our day ended with a night prowl after dinner, looking for the dusky nightjar (Antrostomus saturatus). And we were lucky enough to have one fly right in when it heard the playback of a compatriot on our birding guide’s sound system!

 

 

 

Well satisfied, I retired to a good night’s sleep after catching a rather large cranefly-type insect, which I let go outside. I wanted to be prepared for our next day’s adventures with the wildlife beauties of Costa Rica.

Costa Rican rambles 7A – the Sueños del Bosque lodge and environs

And now my Costa Rican wildlife travelogue continues after a long absence. Busy projects and chores, a vacation abroad and illness all conspired to delay the writing of this next installment, And now one of my photo software programs is refusing to work, making photo processing a real pain. But I was still able to get some shots to share of beautiful creatures in the Costa Rican Talamanca highlands. 😊

 

We started our fourth day early, first going out to see if we could find local favorites at sites near the Sueños del Bosque (dreams of the forest) Lodge. Located near the town of San Gerardo de Dota, the elevation is 7200 feet at this spot. A few busloads of other birding enthousiasts were also there; the guides all knew one another.

When our guide ran into his brother – also a birding guide – we were told about a spot where some spotted wood quail were hanging out. I did get a photo but it was still so dark, that the photo was not all that great. Our next venture was to a spot where the resplendent quetzal had been seen – a few people with binoculars didn’t have much trouble spotting a really distant pair of birds building a nest across a valley, but I bird with a telelens and had no such luck. So I admired the flowers and plants– and saw some very nice ones throughout the day as you can see below.

      

 

Back at the Lodge, we had time to look for birds near our rooms and the dining area. This cute little mountain elaenia (Elaenia frantzii) was a pleasure to behold. The lodge’s pond had numerous domestic ducks in residence, including a crested duck (Anas platyrhynchos domesticus).

 

 

   

Next, we took a walk along trails leading away from the Lodge up the mountain. We passed a stream, stocked with rainbow trout, which were imported by Efraín Chacón, who discovered the Rio Savegre Valley and built the visitors’ accommodations.

   

 

 

Wasp nests were hanging above our heads in the trees in several places.

 

 

 

       

 

A beautiful white-throated mountain gem hummingbird (Lampornis castaneoventris) gave us a good view as it perched nearby, and a small grayish bird that I haven’t  yet identified was flitting about the flowers as well.

 

 

    

 

A black-billed nightingale thrush (Catharus gracilirostris) was smaller than I would have expected. Two tanagers showed themselves briefly – a sooty-capped bush tanager (Chlorospingus pileatus) and a pair of common bush tanagers (Chlorospingus flavopectus).

 

  

A rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) was busy collecting material for a nest.

  

A hummingbird was busy having a meal, while a sulphur-winged parakeet (Pyrrhura hoffmani) had a little rest and watched us.

  

For those of us interested in all wildlife besides birds, a treat was running into an emerald swift lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus) along the trail. We admired the reptile’s beautiful colors before setting up further along the rising path. (More on this day’s excursion follows in the next blog!)