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!


The great escape and the pesky yet enticing squirrel!

Jonahay IMG_7882©Maria de Bruyn resSo, in honor of International Cat Day 2014, a departure from wildlife to celebrate my family cats. My household is currently graced with three feline companions, two males and a female. Jonahay, the senior cat, is 15.5 years old and the only one allowed to go outside now and again. According to my vet, he is the strongest cat and most stubborn cat he has met – it has taken two guys over 6 feet tall to try and hold him down to get a pill into him. In the end, they gave him a shot while he was immobilized.

In his younger years, he would occasionally hunt – not to eat anyJonahay IMG_2930©Maria de Bruyn resthing but to bring interesting, living and moving “toys” inside. Over time, I had to remove birds, a baby rabbit, chipmunks, garter snake and field mouse from inside the house. During that time, only a couple birds and a couple mice did not survive when he clamped down a bit hard to prevent them from getting away or me taking them from him. Now, he will sit in the yard or rest on the front porch rocker with a squirrel or bird two feet away and just cast them a glance. The only creature that will rouse him for a chase is a chipmunk – for some reason, he still finds them too cool to leave alone.

Moasi IMG_3418©Maria de Bruyn resMoasi, my 4-year-old female tortoise shell, and Oginali (Ogi for short), a 4-year-old flamepoint Siamese, are strictly indoor cats. Well, as strict as I can keep it, as you will see further on. Moasi would not mind going outside and has made it outdoors twice but she stayed right by the house. In the house and screened-in back porch, she will hunt mice and insects.

Her fascination with insects has been to her detriment a couple times. Once I took her to the vet because she was foaming at tMoasi IMG_4141©Maria de Bruyn reshe mouth and in obvious distress – she had likely eaten a stink bug, which is not a good thing for cats. About a week ago, she yelped with an open mouth and had some pain; a wasp that had gotten into the porch was gone.

Ogi also has a hunting instinct but his fascination is squirrels. When inside, he will occasionally join Moasi in getting a mouse but his great ambition is to catch a squirrel. He watches quite carefully when I open the back door to go out into the yard and despite my caution, over the years he has managed to escape about 5 times. He fortunately will stay in the yard but will not let me catch him; I just have to be patient and wait for his return.

Ogi IMG_0512©Maria de Bruyn resOgi IMG_0365©Maria de Bruyn res

Once he is outdoors, he will track and stalk the squirrels. They are not very fearsome as they learned that Jonahay will leave them alone. They wait until Ogi nears about two feet, and then either stroll or scamper away, depending on their mood.

Ogi IMG_0441©Maria de Bruyn resOgi IMG_0410©Maria de Bruyn res

The oOgi IMG_2968©Maria de Bruyn resther day, Ogi made another great escape. He hung out by the ground feeding station and stayed put until one deer came too close.

He then began stalking, one squirrel after another. One squirrel began taunting him. The squirrel got up on a fence about three feet above Ogi and waited until he was very near before jumping into a tree.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_0487©Maria de Bruyn resEastern gray squirrel IMG_0491©Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_2998©Maria de Bruyn resAt one point, the squirrel got into a crepe myrtle about 3 feet above ground. Ogi approached and was just about to jump up when the squirrel darted down and looked like he was going to smack Ogi with his paw. I sprinted toward the tree and yelled so the squirrel changed direction and went up. Ogi, of course, was quite disappointed. He has come very close to capturing a squirrel during a chase but just missed – to my relief.

After that, the squirrel jumped down and led Ogi on a merry chase through the yard, sometimes stopping until Ogi got a bit close and then continuing to run.


Panting with exhaustion – or excitement – Ogi laid down to rest for a while. After about 90 minutes, he condescended to come back inside. Keeping him an indoor cat will remain a challenge for sure!

Ogi IMG_0461©Maria de Bruyn res

Next blog – Hoppers!

Squirrels love fruit!

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As you may know, our furry, agile, smart little friends, the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), are fond of all kinds of vegetable matter. Acorns, nuts and seed are a favorite: they will chew through the screen of a backyard porch to get to bird seed (as my neighbors learned after leaving a bag of it there), chew through the plastic lids of food buckets in which I was keeping bird seed outside (the seed is now kept indoors) and spend lots of time contemplating how they can overcome baffles and other barriers designed to keep them off bird feeders.

At my house, they are somewhat lucky since I also put some seed under feeders for the ground-feeding birds such as dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, mourning doves, Eastern towhees and sometimes Northern cardinals and blue jays. The squirrels will amiably scurry about beside the birds to consume some sunflower seeds or millet. I also give the squirrels a treat now and then by putting out fruit bought from the reduced-produce rack at the supermarket, where I can buy veggies that the supermarket would otherwise throw away.

IMG_8399©Maria de BruynEastern gray squirrel IMG_5039©Maria de Bruyn

Apples are a common treat and the squirrels often eat those on the spot, although they may feel a need to carry away their meal to enjoy it at some distance from their family members. Blueberries and plums are nice, too.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_7166©Maria de BruynEastern gray squirrel IMG_3723©Maria de Bruyn 2013 (2)

The squirrels’ tastes in fruit have surprised me on occasion though. After learning that banana peels mushed up at the base of azaleas will help their growth and blooming, I took to putting overripe bananas by those plants. Sometimes, when checking the next day, I would find the peels someplace else in the yard and then realized that squirrels enjoy a tasty banana now and then. When I put out oranges in an attempt to attract orioles, the citrus didn’t last long once the resident tree rodents discovered them.

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Squirrels will hoard food for later consumption, hiding the fruits of their labor in numerous spots around their territory. According to Wikipedia, each squirrel will make several thousand such caches every season! If they think they are being watched, they will also pretend to bury food in a cache, while actually hiding the morsel in their mouth to bury it someplace else later. Clever indeed!

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_8965©Maria de BruynI must admit, though, that I had not expected to see a squirrel assiduously burying grapes one day. Researchers have found that that they will eat the most perishable acorns right away, while caching those that will stay preserved the best. So what made this squirrel think that the grapes she was burying would last underground? Unless this was one sneaky squirrel who was just temporarily hiding her/his bounty until s/he could enjoy those grapes in relative solitude.

I’m looking forward to spring when I can sit outside to watch the squirrels ‘ behavior some more; the yard can be a real learning lab!

For more information see:

Acrobatic squirrels

The Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is a well-known – and sometimes quite annoying! – visitor to our yards in North Carolina. One way in which they earn themselves a reputation as a pest is when they get into attics, where they could end up chewing on wires. This happened to me, so I had to have a pest control agent come to trap them humanely (rather than poison them). Unfortunately, I found out later that when they are released outside their home territory, it’s tough going for them as other squirrels see them as invaders. I hope they made it.

Squirrel IMG_0820©Maria de Bruynres2 Eastern gray squirrel IMG_2144©Maria de Bruynres2

The second way in which they can be a nuisance is when they go to extreme lengths to get at the food in bird feeders. My yard squirrels and I have had an ongoing game of wits over the years, with them doing all they can to get to the feeders and me taking new measures to prevent them from doing so.

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The gray squirrels mainly eat plants and seeds, including acorns and pine cones, but they also like a variety of other foods, including fruit, seeds and suet. Fortunately, I haven’t had the same experience as my neighbors, who had squirrels chew through the screen on their back porch to get to a bag of seed left there. These agile little mammals have posed a challenge to me, however, in situating my feeders in places that they can’t get to them.

Squirrel IMG_8418©Maria de Bruynres2squirrel IMG_0120© Maria de Bruynres

If the feeder is within a few feet of something they can use as a launching pad (a bush, pole, etc.), they will manage to jump the distance in their ever-present quest for food. Various attempts to prevent this, by moving feeder poles and using combinations of squirrel and raccoon baffles have – sometimes! – proved useful.

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However, if the baffles are too low or near a tree, they jump over the baffle to land on top so they can enjoy a meal at their leisure (or until I see them and chase them away).

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I must admit, though, that they are a source of entertainment, too; watching their antics and persistence in thinking about how to overcome the barriers can be very amusing. And it’s not like I don’t give them a treat now and then!

Next blog: how ticks get around