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!

 

Local beauties in the woodpecker family

My first blog on this website, written in October 2013, focused on woodpeckers; my first blog of 2020 was also about these birds (I know, the blog prior to that says 1 January but I posted it on 31 December; WordPress time is ahead of mine. 😊) Obviously, they are one of the bird species that I enjoy watching so to follow up my last blog, I’d like to share just a few more photos of three species that it’s my privilege to see locally. They are quite different from one another in appearance but equally beautiful and it’s always a delight to see them. (And no, it’s not snowing where I am; this is a photo from January 2018; we are supposed to have 70⁰ F/21⁰ C in a couple days!)

The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is found in the Western hemisphere and looks quite different from many other woodpecker species. In the US, there are two sub-species. In the West, there is the red-shafted and in the East the yellow-shafted variant. The “shaft” refers to the undertail feathers. When the bird flies, however, you can also see the beautiful, otherwise hidden, yellow hues on the underside of other feathers.

 

Those yellow feathers also come into view when the flicker is upset, like this one was with a brown thrasher who came to the feeder pole where it was taking a brief rest. (This is pretty unusual; they don’t come to the feeders often.)

The flickers have some interesting distinguishing features: they are one of the few woodpeckers that migrate; they are the only woodpeckers that primarily searches for food on the ground, rather than in trees; and they probably eat more ants than any other North American bird!

And, depending on the weather (overcast, cloudy but light, sunlight), their coloring can look different – this is not only because the photos were with different cameras).

 

They also eat berries and seeds in the autumn and winter.

 

Like other birds, the flickers do nest in tree cavities.

 

You can distinguish males from females by the black moustache stripe, which the females lack.

 

 

The yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) is a woodpecker that can blend in quite well with the trees on which it seeks its food. Their mottled feather coloring often provides a good camouflage and you might not see one if it is sitting still.

The males have red crowns and red throats; the females have a white throat and the juvenile birds lack the reddish hues.

 

 

 

These woodpeckers may be followed around by other birds. For example, last year I saw ruby-crowned kinglets following sapsuckers at one reserve. Why would they do this? It’s because the sapsuckers drill shallow holes into trees which will then ooze out sap on which the woodpeckers and other birds feed. And the kinglets will find insects around the sweet sap. (At a children’s workshop on trees that I conducted last fall, one young boy asked me if humans could also drink the sap from their holes. I hadn’t researched that but answered that perhaps we would like the sap from a maple tree but not from an oak.)

 

The sapsuckers eat insects, berries and fruit like other birds.

 

Last in my line-up of local woodpeckers is the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). The adult males and females look alike but adults and immature birds look very different indeed. While the mature birds are characterized by a deep red head, solid black back and white rump and belly, the juvenile and immature youngsters have brownish heads and bodies and black and brown striped rumps.

 

 

When they are transitioning to adult plumage, they will have mottled red heads and begin losing the brownish hues.

 

They have one of the most identifiable (for me) calls of the woodpeckers. Listen to this recording (Arkansas, 22 March 2005); it almost has a warbling quality to my ear, which many websites describe as a “churring” sound.

I’ve been lucky lately as there is an immature red-head reliably patrolling a certain territory in a forest that I visit so that I can be fairly certain of always seeing her/him sooner or later. This is a boisterous bird who loves to call and make its presence well known.

S/he doesn’t peck too loudly but if some vigorous drilling is required, this bird is up to the task. They have sturdy and powerful spike-like bills. The woodpecker beaks have three layers: the rhamphotheca (outer layer) is made of keratin; the middle layer is porous bone and the inner layer is made of mineralized collagen and contains a large cavity. The tongue bone (hyoid) winds around the bird’s skull and functions like a safety belt that helps cushion the brain when they are engaged in high-velocity and impact drumming and drilling. On the whole, however, these woodpeckers tend to drill less but fly out often into the air to catch insects on the wing.

They eat insects, fruit, berries, eggs of other birds but also really enjoy nuts, especially acorns and beechnuts. They make stashes of nuts in tree cavities, crevices and under bark for later consumption.

When depositing or withdrawing from holes in trees, they will use their tails like other woodpeckers to help them balance as they perch.

 

A surprise for me was that they also occasionally eat cambium and tree bark.

 

If climate change continues and results in an overall warming trend of plus 2 degrees, these birds could lose up to 64% of their range. Yet another reason to do what we can to decrease our energy consumption and advocate for policies and regulations to reduce global warming due to human actions.

 

One more interesting note about woodpeckers (for the time being): did you know that there are no woodpeckers (including flickers and sapsuckers) in the polar regions, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Madagascar?

 

I’ll end with a quote from an interesting book that I am currently reading. The author, Robert Macfarlane, describes research into the “wood wide web” and then muses on what it could mean for humans:

 

“If there is human meaning to be made of the wood wide web, it is surely that what might save us as we move forwards into the precarious, unsettled centuries ahead is collaboration: mutualism, symbiosis, the inclusive human work of collective decision-making extended to more-than-human communities.” (Underland; my emphasis)

 

Creepers and peckers who attract our attention (but these are good guys!)

No, I’m not referring to plants, humans or an anatomical feature but rather avian woodcreepers, tree creepers and woodpeckers! During our nature outings in Costa Rica in August 2019, they were definitely crowd-pleasers and reminded me of how much these birds are appreciated elsewhere, too. So today I’ll share with you some of my photos of these species in Costa Rica, The Netherlands, South Africa and the USA.

 

The insectivorous woodcreepers are endemic to the neotropical regions where there are some 57 different species. They tend to be brown in color and look similar, making identification a challenge at times. They hold their bodies upright, using a stiff tail (a similarity to how woodpeckers maintain a vertical position). Although they mainly look for insects in tree bark, they also will eat army ants. They have strongly clawed toes to help them cling to tree trunks.

 

Research has shown that the woodcreepers may use one of two techniques to capture insects. The “probers” look behind bark, mosses, lichens, leaves, etc. to find their prey. Those who engage in “sallying” launch themselves into the air to catch insects in flight after their movement up a tree has flushed them.

 

The plain brown woodcreeper (Dendrocincla fuliginosa) is distinguished from other woodcreepers by its lack of streaking or stripes.

   

The cocoa woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus susurrans) tends to be a more solitary feeder that looks for insects in bark.

The streak-headed woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii) was aptly named. It tends to be a solitary probing feeder.

 

The wedge-billed woodcreeper (Glyphorynchus spirurus) is the smallest species of woodcreepers; it also has a shorter bill, which helps in identification. Research has shown they tend to favor ants, beetles, spiders and pseudo-scorpions for their meals.

 

 

The brown-billed scythebill (Campylorhamphus pusillus) is obviously distinguished by its very long, curved bill. It was raining and the bird was not sitting still so my photo isn’t great; I really wish I’d gotten better photos of this species (a goal for the future).

In North Carolina, we have a similar type of bird – the brown creeper (Certhia americana). I cannot hear their high-pitched call and therefore must rely on noticing movement to catch sight of them.

 

Watching them demands some concentration as they are continually on the move as they probe the bark and lichen. They really blend in well with the bark of their trees of choice. It’s a challenge to keep them in view.

 

They tend to nest in hardwood trees but prefer conifers for foraging. Like the neotropical woodcreepers, they have impressive claws to help them cling to the vertical tree trunks. An interesting fact: “By eating a single spider, a creeper gains enough energy to climb nearly 200 feet vertically.”

 

The short-toed treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) that I saw in the Hemmeland nature reserve in The Netherlands in 2018 is a similar bird. Like the brown creeper, it flies to the base of a tree and then works its way up the trunk as it searches for insects to eat. (It looks almost identical to the Eurasian treecreeper, so I hope it is identified correctly!)

 

 

The woodpeckers I’ve been able to see in Central America include several species that have similar-looking cousins further north. The golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) has a yellow nape and patch at the base of the bill in much of its range. However, there is a Velasquez’s variant of this species that has a red cap and nape. I saw this one in a botanical garden in Quintana Roo, Mexico, in 2012.

If you look at the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), which we see a lot in North Carolina, they look quite similar.

 

The Hoffmann’s woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii) reminds me of the red-bellied species. The males have a red crown; the females do not. With their pale yellow napes, these birds look like a “pastel” version of the red-bellied species to me.

Red heads seem to be a popular “accoutrement” for the woodpeckers. The black-cheeked species (Melanerpes pucherani), seen in Arenal, Costa Rica, this past August has a red nape but a yellow forehead.

 

The acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) has a white forehead but also sports a red patch on the back of its head. Fewer than 9% of birds engage in cooperative breeding (where several related or unrelated adults cooperate in raising broods) – the acorn woodpeckers do this through coalitions of adults who nest together.

 

Another woodpecker with yellow hues that I’ve had the privilege to see is the golden-tailed woodpecker (Campethera abingoni), which I saw in Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2009. Like the above-mentioned woodpeckers, in this species the male also has red hues on its head.

 

In North Carolina, two very similar smaller woodpeckers are characterized by males who sport a small red patch on the back of the head and females who lack the red coloring. The hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus, below left) is the larger of the two species; the downy (Picoides pubescens) looks almost identical except that it is slightly smaller, has a shorter bill and no white spots on the outside tail feathers.

 

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) looks like a larger version of the hairy and downy birds but it lacks any red patches anywhere on the head. Their common name refers to an almost invisible red streak (“cockade”) at the top of white cheek where it meets the black feathers atop the head. Unfortunately, this species (the only woodpeckers to make their nest holes in living trees) is under increased threat as the US Fish and Wildlife Service may remove some of the protective measures that have helped increase the population.

 

The great spotted woodpecker male (Dendrocopos major) that I saw in The Netherlands in 2018 does have a red patch on the back of its head; as in other woodpecker species, the females lack the red spot. This species also sports an obvious red belly (much more so than the red-bellied woodpecker!). An interesting feature of this woodpecker is that they undergo a complete moult after breeding that lasts up to 120 days.

 

 

 

The rufous-winged woodpecker (Piculus simplex, right) only put in a very brief appearance this past August, but made it obvious that they, too, have a red crown. The golden-olive woodpecker (Colaptes rubiginosus) continued the red accented plumage – the males complement their crimson crown with a red “moustachial” stripe. There are 19 sub-species with slightly different coloration.

 

 

The large lineated woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus, left) in Costa Rica closely resembles the pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus, right) that we have in North Carolina. The males of both species can be distinguished by the red stripe going down their faces and both types of woodpeckers are known for their drumming.

The pale-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus guatemalensis) looks a bit like the lineated and pileated species but they are even larger birds that feature an entirely red head. The adults have a light-colored beak that gives them their common name; immature birds have darker bills that lighten with age. The females can be distinguished by their black instead of red throats.

We were lucky to see a pair of these birds foraging along a large stream, accompanied by a third bird – perhaps one of their young from the previous breeding season? This species has not been studied thoroughly – for example, the incubation period and time from hatching to fledging are still both unknown.

 

Finally, I’ll end this long blog with two more woodpeckers that we saw in Costa Rica. There were smoky brown woodpeckers (Dryobates fumigatus) in a couple places we visited but it was difficult for me to get a good photo in the overcast rainy conditions. They are rather plain birds but again the males are distinguished by a red cap. These were in a tree with black-cheeked woodpeckers.

I had a bit more luck photographing the chestnut-colored woodpecker (Celeus castaneus). This attractive bird has reddish brown plumage and a shaggy crest. Its head feathers may be lighter in color and the males have bright red cheeks.

 

 

As there are a couple more woodpecker species where I live that I also enjoy seeing, I’ll feature them in the next blog (a shorter one!) Have a nice day!

Kinglet capers – defending territory!

A birder recently remarked on a Facebook feed that ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) seem to have a diet consisting solely of caffeine and Ritalin, which might account for the almost constant motion in which these lovely little birds seem to spend much of their time. They really get revved up, however, not when they are feeding but when they are defending what they consider to be their territory.

Unlike many other bird species, these kinglets don’t tend to hang out in groups of their peers. On the contrary, they often chase away others of their kind and this can turn into an actual campaign against an intruder that can last for quite lengthy periods.

 

This was brought home to me when I saw a vigorous little male who was confused by his own reflection in an installation at a local garden, aptly entitled “Self-reference”. The NC Botanical Garden organizes a yearly outdoor sculpture competition and this year included Jonathan Davis’ entry comprising a series of shiny glass balls arranged in a tall column supported by encircling metal struts and rope-like cables.

The orbs provided the kinglet with mirrors in which he could see himself, although he was obviously convinced that another male was trying to take over his winter domain. The raised red crest was like waving a flag in front of a bull. (These kinglets usually have the red crest hidden; they only raise it when excited or perturbed.)

My friend Lucretia had seen him attacking the “intruding bird” when she was at the Garden and she alerted another photographer, Mary, and me to his presence. Mary headed over to the site right away and got a lovely photo of Edward looking at himself. (I named him Edward as the meaning of that Anglo-Saxon name is “guardian of prosperity.”)

 

I only got to the Garden later the next morning, but Edward was still spending his time trying to drive away the interloper.

 

The sight of another male kinglet with HIS crown raised undoubtedly only incensed him further.

The day that I was there, he took frequent breaks to restore his energy levels by flying to nearby trees and shrubs to gather food.

He also took some time now and again to sit quietly on the sculpture’s metal rings – when his back was turned to the balls, he didn’t see the invader and could catch his breath, so to speak.

 

It was interesting to see how he tried to peck at the opposing bird, over and over again despite the fact that he was bumping his beak on the sculpture.

 

 

After observing him for a couple hours, I decided to leave Edward alone. However, there was a Garden party that evening and I returned to see the sculpture lit up with reflections of nearby Christmas lights – Edward was still busy in the late afternoon challenging his rival!

 

 

When I returned a couple days later, the sculpture had been removed, to the relief of some birders who were worried that Edward was going to wear himself out and perhaps be compromised when temperatures were due to drop considerably. As I had seen him feeding frequently, I was not too worried about that, but I am glad that calmer times have now returned for him so that he can spend his coming weeks in a more peaceful atmosphere. Hope to see you in your normal foraging mode soon, Edward!

Kinglet capers – finding food and enjoying short rests

It seems that at least once a year, ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) feature in my blogs; they are one of my favorite bird species and I always enjoy seeing them again and again.

These small birds are bundles of feathered energy, almost constantly in motion as they seek insects, which form the bulk of their diet.

 

They are only slightly larger than ruby-throated hummingbirds: 9-11 cm (3.5-4.3 in) long versus a length of 7-9 cm (2.8-3.5 in) for the hummer.

When they scour the vegetation for food, they may be flicking their wings continuously.

Fortunately, they do take little breaks now and again, so we can admire their beauty.

These breaks often last less than minute, however, and often are even briefer so you have to be ready and waiting to capture a photo.

I’ve been lucky this fall to find a few spots where I know some kinglets are hanging out, so I get to see them quite regularly.

My yard-visiting kinglet has returned for the winter season as well; I usually see him mostly at the suet feeder, where he will hover like a hummer as he takes quick bites of peanut-flavored vegetable lard laced with grits, oatmeal and nuts. He is a bit more gray in color than many other kinglets.

I’m wondering if this year’s bird is the same one who has been here the last 5 years. Unlike my previous visitor, I’ve seen him take a seed from a feeder as well. This has not happened before, even though it is known that they eat berries and seeds in winter.

This year’s bird also seems a bit shyer than my kinglet(s) from previous years. When I lift up my camera, he tends to take off. My resident the last years was not shy at all, a couple times actually perching on the suet feeder as I carried it to the pole. Still, my yard visitor’s anxiety has been nowhere nearly as obvious as that of another kinglet whose story I will relate in the next blog!