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 Rican rambles 4: Bosque del Tolomuco

After lunch on our first day birding, we set off to visit a lodge called Bosque del Tolomuco, named after a weasel-like mammal called a tayra (tolomuco in Spanish). Located in the Talamanca mountains, the gardens featured three fruit feeders and numerous flowering plants, shrubs and trees that attract varied birds.

About 600 of the 870 species of birds recorded in Costa Rica are year-round residents and a considerable number are endemic to this West Virginia-sized country (and Panama). In addition, about 200 species of birds migrate there during the North American winter. At this stop, I saw a couple migrants as well, notably a Baltimore oriole and a rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus).

A large bird was at one of the fruit feeders when we arrived; it was a gray-headed chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps). This particular feeder seemed to attract larger creatures – a little while later, a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis) showed up.

   

Some smaller birds were feeding on fruit and nectar shrubs. One was the bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) with a striped head; the other was a somewhat drab bird with a fancy name, the paltry tyrannulet (Zimmerius vilissimus).

 

 

 

 

The male and female red-headed barbets (Eubucco bourcierii) were anything but drab; in fact, they were quite eye-catching. Their striped abdomens made me think of a man’s striped trousers.

   

High overhead, making a good shot a bit difficult, were some blue-headed elegant euphonias (Euphonia elegantissima). At least I got a recognizable photo of them, unlike my attempts to photograph some sparrow species who appeared in darker shadowy areas.

  

Several of my birding friends are raptor fans; a couple others are very partial to warblers. On this trip, I realized that I am quite fond of tanagers. I saw a few summer tanagers in Costa Rica but was really delighted by the species native to this country. Several were enjoying fruit at feeders, including a beautiful blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus). Some birds are not so brightly colored but have a muted beauty, which was how I saw this species.

The male Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) with his black plumage highlighted by a red rump is eye-catching; his female companion was also a real looker with her soft orange, olive and yellow colors.

 

 

The silver-throated tanagers (Tangara icterocephala) immediately became one of my favorites; their beautiful shades of yellow were stunning as far as I was concerned.

They were accompanied by a larger bird, a buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus), which is related to the tanagers.

  

 

Another very attractive bird was the speckled tanager (Tangara guttata).

 

 

The flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata), which I had seen before, continued to delight with its bright colors. There were also several hummingbird species, which I think I have identified properly. Their rapid flights on an overcast day that was darkening as the afternoon progressed made for some challenging photography, but it was fun trying to capture them. The snowy-bellied hummingbirds (Amazilia edward) were the first ones I saw.

   

The bottlebrush flowers (Callistemon) appeared to be a very attractive food source for them.

     

A green hermit (Phaethornis guy) was dashing in and out among the hanging flowers to get some nectar.

       

 

The very cute white-crested coquette (Lophornis adorabilis), on the other hand, was flitting from bush to bush for quick meals and then finally decided to pose for a while. I couldn’t resist taking multiple photos of this little beauty.

 

 

 

  

  

The green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) was a much larger hummingbird. Both females (with white and green spotted breast) and males were taking nectar from feeders and then taking little rests on nearby shrubs.

     

The stripe-tailed hummingbird (Eupherusa eximia) was enjoying the bottlebrush blooms, too.

The gray-tailed mountain gems (Lampornis cinereicauda), which I’d seen earlier in the day at Miriam’s restaurant, were here as well and much more difficult to photograph in between flowers rather than feeders. However, I was able to get better glimpses of their colorful feathers as they turned their heads in the light.

 

Finally, the white-tailed emeralds (Elvira chionura) rounded out the group of hummers to admire at the Bosque del Tolomuco.

We finally left the lodge after admiring a blue and white swallow on our way to the Talari Mountain Lodge. Along the way, I saw a horse (Equus caballus) – which finally satisfied my desire to see an animal other than a bird! We then stopped along a street and later at a soccer field in San Isidro El General, where local boys were having a game – half of them wore shoes and half were barefoot (perhaps their way of identifying team membership).  A tropical mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) was moving along treetops, while a great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) perched in another tree.

 

The bromeliads were again beautiful. Our guide directed our attention to the underbrush, however, as he had spotted an Isthmian wren (Cantorchilus elutus). We stared at the dark leaves, waiting for some movement that would indicate where the little bird was; finally, it emerged from behind some leaves for several seconds so we could get a better look.

 

  

As cattle egrets flew by overhead, we saw a lesser elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis) and then a yellow-bellied elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster), which reminded me of the great-crested flycatcher I have seen in my own yard.

  

A cool seed pod and rose-breasted grosbeak caught my attention.

 

 

And then the highlight of that stop for me came by – a streak-headed woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii).

  

We arrived at the Talari Lodge for a quick stroll in the garden before our meal and then prepared for an early morning walk to the nearby river. More to come!