Leapin’ lizards! Remarkable reptiles in Costa Rica

Today is the United Nations’ World Wildlife Day, a time to especially raise awareness about and celebrate the earth’s plants and animals. The holiday was instituted in 2013 to be commemorated on 3 March, the day of the year on which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed. The theme for World Wildlife Day 2020 is “Sustaining all life on Earth”, which includes all wild animal and plant species as key components of the world’s biodiversity.

To honor this international day of commemoration (and hopefully awareness-raising and action), I’d like to share some of the reptiles that I’ve seen in Costa Rica. But first, let me show you one North Carolina turtle that I saw yesterday and that I don’t think I had seen before. It’s a large turtle called a Florida cooter (Pseudemys floridana), which has a nice pattern with yellow accents on the carapace.

In Costa Rica, we came across one turtle at which we got a good look — a black wood turtle, also called a river turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea). This is the largest turtle among the reptiles in its genus; individuals can grow to 14 in (35 cm).

black wood turtle

We came across several snakes during our trip in 2019, but a few of them were dead on the road and I decided not to show those. One feisty individual was the cloudy snail-eating snake (Sibon nebulatus); when our guide neared it, the snake reared up in self-defense. Of course, it’s good to remember that most snakes will not strike if they do not feel threatened, as we are reminded by the North Carolina Carolinas Reptile Rescue & Education Center.

 

A snake that I found particularly beautiful was spotted during the 2018 trip in which I participated; our guide spotted it after we had stopped at the side of a road. The neotropical bird snake (Phrynonax poecilonotus), also known as the puffing snake, eats small vertebrates such as small mammals, frogs, lizards and insects, but it is known to have a preference for birds and bird eggs.

These are non-venomous snakes, but they will bite hard when feeling threatened. They also will inflate their neck area in a way reminiscent of a cobra in order to appear dangerous.

The presence of caimans was advertised in various places we visited in Costa Rica but I didn’t see one until a spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) was spotted as we were driving down a highway one day.

This brings me to the various types of lizards I saw. Anoles (Anolis) were in all the areas we visited, Although I couldn’t identify the specific species for several, I enjoyed seeing the differences between them.

 

While searching for birds in a heavily shadowed marshy area, we caught sight of what I thought was a slender anole — obviously a male given its prominent inflated neck flap. However, it turns out that slender anoles have white dewlaps with a small orange blotch so this was a different species.

 

I do believe that this anole was a ground anole (Norops humilis) but would welcome correction if I’m wrong. Their diet includes various insects such as termites, beetles, crickets, termites and flies.

 

 

A somewhat larger reptile than the anoles was the – in my opinion – quite attractive Central American whiptail (Holcosus festivus occidentalis). Like the other lizards that you will see below, they have exceptionally long tails.

Juvenile whiptails have blue tails; their skin patterns are quite lovely, which may account for part of their species name – festivus which means merry or joyous in Latin.

Not much information is available online about these lizards, despite their apparent wide distribution. Some studies have been done about another whiptail genus seen elsewhere that aroused scientific interest because reproduction is by parthogenesis. This has not been reported for this species.

 

The iguanas are the very large reptiles seen in Costa Rica. Despite their size, they appear to be quite agile; it was not unusual to see the large black spiny-tail iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) high up in trees.

The male black spiny-tails can grow as large as 4 ft 3 in (1.3 m), while females are a foot or more shorter. During breeding season, the males develop blue- and peach-colored hues on their jowls, as can be seen in the portrait below, captured by fellow traveler Janet Kurz in 2018.

 

They have been said to be the fastest lizard species, reaching a speed of 21.5 mph (34.6 km/h) in a sprint. Running away is a strategy to avoid predators but they can also bite and lash with their tails if cornered. They are mostly herbivorous, although they will also consume small animals and insects. Unfortunately, they are eaten by humans, some of whom think they can cure impotence.

 

The green iguanas (Iguana iguana) are somewhat smaller than the spiny-tails but they are also large, growing to 4.9 ft (1.5 m) or more. We were lucky to see a juvenile green iguana meander along a smaller tree, posing for quite some time. There might have been others nearby but we didn’t see them. It turns out that these iguanas are quite social – juveniles form pods of about four animals and then spend time grooming one another and sleeping together.

 

 

Their coloring is quite bright but can be other hues such as reddish brown, black, lavender and blue. These iguanas are good climbers, often staying high in trees; reportedly, they can fall as far down as 50 ft (15 m) and still land unhurt.

 

The green iguanas are often found near water and they swim well, being able to stay submerged as long as 30 minutes at a time. Like the spiny-tails, they can use their tails in defense. They can also drop their tails when caught and grow new ones.
 

The basilisks are among the “showiest” reptiles even though they are smaller than the iguanas (e.g., growing up to about 2.5 feet/76 cm in length). They gained the name Jesus Christ lizard because they can “walk” across water when rapidly moving (up to 15 mph/ 24.1 km/h) to escape predators. They have special webbing between the toes on their hind legs and cross the water “standing up” on those legs.

The male common basilisks (Basiliscus basiliscus) have a distinctive fin-like crest on their backs. Both sexes range in color from olive to brown; they are distinguished by a light-colored stripe along their upper lip.

 

The common basilisks also have a stripe along their body, although this fades as they grow older. The females and juveniles look somewhat similar. The females do not care for the young, leaving the eggs once laid. The hatchlings instinctively know how to care for themselves.

 

 

The green basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons) is also known as the plumed basilisk. Males have three crests (on the head, back and tail), while females (shown in the photos here) only have a head crest. The juveniles have no crests.

 

Like the other basilisks, these lizards can dive under water after running along the surface for a time. They can stay submerged up to an hour but often do not do this as they could fall prey to aquatic predators.

 

 

Like the common basilisks, the green basilisk females leave their eggs and the newly hatched babies are able to run, climb and swim right after birth.

Among the brown basilisks (Basilicus vittatus), also called striped basilisks, the juveniles (shown below) can often run further across water than the adults.

   

The crests are similar to those in other species. These basilisks have dark bars across their backs and quite yellow stripes.

Like the other basilisks, these lizards often eat insects but also eat berries and other fruit, making them omnivores.

 

The last type of lizard in this reptile review is another iguana known by a couple popular names: the casque-headed lizard or the smooth helmeted iguana (Corytophanes cristatus).They have several distinct features that make them quite unique.

They are characterized by very long toes, a long tail like the other lizards and highly variable coloration, ranging from olive, grey, black, brown to reddish-brown, often with irregular blotches of other color.

 

 

 

They are also able to change their color rapidly as a form of camouflage. Unlike the other lizards, they tend to freeze in place when predators approach (a strategy called catalyptic freezing). If this and trying to appear larger by erecting their crest and expanding their gular pouch do not scare off predators, they will bite and attack.

 

 

 

They differ from the other iguanas and basilisks in that they often do not actively seek out prey. Rather, they sit and wait for worms, other lizards, insects and spiders to wander by and then pounce on them.

One final noteworthy and unexpected fact: because these lizards sit still for very long periods of time, both a fungus and a plant have been found growing on their skin!

Happy World Wildlife Day!

 

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 5A: the Talari Mountain Lodge

This edition of Costa Rican rambles will be a two-parter. Remember that you can click on a photo to see it larger and then click the back arrow to go back to the blog. The Talari Mountain Lodge, located in the El General Valley next to the Chirripo River, became our pied-à-terre for two nights. We had lush surroundings, as you can see from our view looking out of the dining area.

 

Several of the signs were made of old tires that had been artistically cut and painted – beautifully and colorfully done! Some hanging plant holders had also had a previous life as tires.

There were some other decorations, too – a brightly painted cart and some snakes (we only saw one real one during the trip).

Having gotten some coffee and tea, we set out to see the lodge surroundings before breakfast. After passing a strangler-fig covered tree (Ficus aurea), we stopped by the rooms in which some of our group were staying. There we were welcomed by a very handsome roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris).

We neared the river, which was rather low. Some of our group members managed to catch sight of an otter there a few times but I never had that sighting. I did see a sandpiper on a rock in the river, which our guide said was a spotted sandpiper but it looked like a solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) to me.

 

The trees along the banks were filled with birds. One of the first that really caught my eye was the bay-headed tanager (Tangara gyrola). I would have given it a different common name, but its distinct head color really did set off its beautiful blue and green feathers, which looked almost neon in the bright sunlight  .

 

 

   

Now that spring has come to North Carolina, I’ve been having fun watching the blue-gray gnatcatchers building their nests. They have a counterpart in Costa Rica, called the tropical gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea). It seems to be about the same size as our gnatcatcher, with its gray feathers and tendency to move about a lot, but its head reminds me more of a Carolina chickadee. Perhaps this is what a hybrid blue-gray gnatcatcher/Carolina chickadee would look like.

 

The next bright bird to occupy my attention, while my fellow birders peered through their binoculars at other species, was the yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla). The adult males have bright yellow and blue plumage; I only saw younger males and a female who seemed to be checking out a nesting cavity.       

 

A scaly-breasted hummingbird (Phaeochroa cuvierii) put in a brief appearance, while several species of swifts were circling overhead.

On our way back to breakfast, I admired the lodge’s stone bird bath and noted they have an invasive plant that we have in North Carolina, too, the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis).

 

   

Then I got some photos of a banded peacock (Anartia fatima) and a Cucullina ringlet butterfly (Hermeuptychia cucullina).

 

I was not able to find out the species (yet) for a brown skipper, a white moth and another pretty butterfly.

 

The feeders at the lodge had a black-headed male green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) visiting along with a lovely male Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) whose red feathers looked like a fringed shawl covering his lower back. The next morning the female honeycreeper came by as well.

  

 

Our first trip of the day involved a visit to the UNA (Universidad Nacional) campus, where I had my first views of a double-toothed kite (Harpagus bidentatus). The stripe underneath its chin, along with its coloring, made it a very attractive bird for me.

 

 

 

   

We then drove to another university campus site, stopping along a road where we saw a white-crowned parrot (Pionus senilis) in the distance.

   

 

Our guide, Steve, had warned us to wear hats as we would be in areas with lots of cicadas, which are called chicharras locally. We had already heard them in the morning – there seemed to be at least hundreds of them in various wooded areas. The 23 Costa Rican species emerge from underground during the breeding season of several bird species that feed on them, such as motmots, trogons and flycatchers. Their cacophony of mating calls was sometimes so loud that you had to speak loudly to other people to be heard over it. But why would we need hats – don’t they just perch in the trees and call?

As I stood on the road, photographing the parrot, I thought we had run into a quick shower – then I realized what the slightly sticky (to me) droplets were – cicada rain!!! The cicadas drink xylem, which is tree sap, and urinate as they process the nutrients– when they do so in large numbers and you are standing underneath them, an umbrella would not be out of place. I tried to photograph the rain to give an idea of the falling pee.

 

 

   

More on Talari Lodge and its surroundings in the next blog!