Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Costa Rica Part V - Hotel Gavilan and Tirimbina

We got nice looks at Collared Aracaris while kicking it in front of our rooms at Hotel Gavilan, while trying-but-not-really to take afternoon breaks from birding.

Yeah, I'm doing it again...taking my sweet time with these Costa Rica posts aren't I? Well, these aren't normal times, or good ones. I could say that bird blogging feels silly, trivial and trite in light of current events and that I have not been in a good headspace to be churning these things out...but I won't say that because I've always had trouble churning out travel posts, even during The Perpetual Weekend (what is dead may never die). 

While the year has mostly been shit, steadily snowballing into an even bigger and more dangerous rolling boulder of shit that we are all trying to stay in front of while running down a mountain of doom, there have been good times, the pre-shit times. So while bird blogging seems as insignificant as ever, it's also about time BB&B gets some of the attention it deserves, from me anyways. Cass and Felis really nailed it with the last post, didn't they? BB&B is, after all, an institution, a life-changing blog. So without further witty banter to get us off the proverbial ground, I will just say I am packing this post with a shitload of photos...more in one post than ever before I reckon. So no more time to talk, away we go.

Getting to travel to some exotic location sounds especially tantalizing now doesn't it? Costa Rica continues to beckon, though I am really happy with how this year's trip turned out and grateful we did it when we did. Here at Hotel Gavilan, I eventually figured out that the aracaris were so reliable because they were getting their nest on in the legendary The Tree of Lifers.

We heard and saw many Yellow-throated Toucans over the course of the trip but I think this is the only one I have passable pictures of. They are exotic and large and ridiculous and, when I look at this photo, I feel that being bitten by one would be highly regrettable.

In 2012, Hotel Gavilan provided a pair of easily viewable Spectacled Owls. No such luck this time (here or anywhere else) but there was a Black-and-white Owl that could be seen from the parking area. Sick.

Here is the courtyard with the Tree of Lifers. Other good birds we had here included Short-tailed Nighthawks, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Brown-hooded Parrot (lifer for me), Gray-chested Doves, and a massive Turkey Vulture migration one day. Jen and Jacob also found a sloth latrine (lifer latrine) - sloths refuse to shit from up in trees for some reason, they descend all the way to the ground to unload. It is an interesting and unexplained approach.

Very unlike 2012 (rage) we actually put in effort trying to find interesting herps at night on this trip. The abundance of blue jeans frogs/strawberry poison dart frogs was surprising, as was my complete inability to spot them the first night. Obviously, this is one of the best frogs in existence. We also saw the legendary red-eyed tree frogs for the first time ever.

I have no clue what this is. An exotic-but-not-exotic-looking frog.

I do have a clue about this - this is a cane toad aka marine toad. They are huge and common. You are probably thinking "Aren't cane toads a terrible toxic pest?" and you would be right...if you were thinking about Australia. They are native in Costa Rica and therefore lovely.

My boy Steen already identified this for me but since I'm a bad person I don't remember what it is. We saw a few. Litter toad (Bufo haematiticus) perhaps?

Wow this is really turning into a major herp barrage. I don't think I've ever posted so many herps, ever. Exhilarating. Look at this very long/very thin anole thing. It's got a tail for days.

Finally it was time to check out of Gavilan and move on. After a preemptive ATM run and scraping together many colones (their card reader was down), and then much waiting around for the correct person to wake up in the morning (it's fine, this isn't the U.S.), we were taken care of. I would still recommend staying here, especially if you want to save some $$$...just don't expect much variety in the meals or a super comfy bed. It is definitely tranquilo though - not a tourist trap - and certainly has some good birds...and herps!

We didn't have to go far for out next stop though, the Tirimbina Preserve was right down the road.

The first birds we saw after parking, while still in the parking lot, was a small group of Plain-colored Tanagers....PARKING LOT LIFER. And no I don't mean that I've just never seen them in a parking lot before, I hadn't seen them anywhere. So not only were they parking lot lifers, we would never see them again! Birding in Costa Rica requires Constant Vigilance.

This Rufous-winged Woodpecker was hanging out near the reception area, devotedly pecking at the same spot and refusing to move. I can only remember seeing one before, very early in the morning with little light and a tremendous amount of bleariness. This was much better.

One of the species that drove me crazy in Belize after my piece of shit new Nikon camera body died was White-whiskered Puffbird. At Black Rock Lodge you can walk right up to them, they just sit there along the trail like you are utterly nonthreatening and unimportant. Still butthurt about missed photo ops, as you can probably tell. Anyhow here is a mediocre pic of a definitely non-mediocre bird.

Orange-billed Sparrow is an appealing ground-dweller that knows it is not always necessary to be skulky.

Tirimbina gave us our first taste of suspension bridges for the trip. I had forgotten how great they are for seeing things when absolutely no one is moving, and how maddening it is to see anything when someone is walking on it from even a great distance away. The highlight of the first bridge was this Purple-crowned Fairy nest that a guide pointed out to, not a nest I ever expected to see in my life. It's hard to even see one of these stay in any one spot for more than a few seconds, so this was some luxurious viewing.

Crossing over the Sarapiqui River.

On the other side of the river I found a pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes, another bird I hadn't seen since 2012. We then heard a strange sound coming from back by the bridge and so returned to watch a Chestnut-colored Oropendola fly past - life bird, and the only one of the trip! We then were tortured by a mostly uncooperative mixed flock for too much time.

A pair of Broad-billed Motmots allowed themselves to be seen well at least. This became a ho-hum bird after a while, but it was undeserved. It's truly an obscene species.

The trails at Tirimbina were muddy...very muddy. Maybe the trails we did not go on were less muddy, but this one was pretty gnar. I was glad I was wearing my hiking boots. Here is FJ doing a semi-controlled-but-almost-not descent down a steep mud slope with a Tirimbina employee doing trail work looking on approvingly.

This post is brimming with herps, so why not another? Here is some kind of whiptail thing that seemed pretty common.

While taking a brief break on the trail during some rain FJ noticed that we were standing right next to a Semiplumbeous Hawk. Everything is fine.

It was at this point that reality had confirmed my suspicions - that I was probably not the best member of our group at spotting things in the rainforest and I was probably lumbering past fantastic wildlife all the time. Oh well, at least my earbirding game was pretty good. Semiplumbeous Hawk didn't seem to care that we were all hanging out with it. After watching it for a long time we left it on its weird giant noodle perch and continued on our way. 

Pale-billed Woodpeckers seem too large and exotic to be common, but they seem to be in most places/countries I've seen them. Considering the luck that other large Campephilus have had in the Anthropocene, that's a very good thing. I don't think I can fathom the number of species (bird, mammal, insect and otherwise) that make their homes in old Pale-billed cavities.

After exiting the forest and crossing the suspension bridge again we ran into a big mixed flock - don't you love a mid day mixed flock? It's always such a pleasant surprise. This confiding Eye-ringed Flatbill (aka "flatbill jealous") was a trip bird and got a lot of attention from us. Be sure to note flatbill sad face/frowny mouth in the first photo

Female manakins can be very confusing, but when they are showing off glowing orange gams they are not - this is a female White-collared Manakin.

This post requires an additional hummingbird - how about a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer? Green. Pink feet. Excellent.

A pair of mellowing Smoky-brown Woodpeckers were members of the mixed flock.

Finally we were able to stumble out the other side of the flock in search of food. It's not easy eating nothing but cookies for breakfast day in and day out. We ate lunch at Tirimbina's restaurant, which turned out to be challenging because there was pretty much a stationary mixed flock right outside the entire time, despite no feeders being present...BONUS GERI BIRDING. This Black-faced Grosbeak was kind enough to drop by for a minute.

Golden-hooded Tanager is a mixed flock staple in secondary forest/edge habitats but it's always painful to tear your eyes away from them. They cannot be ignored.

We had good times at Tirimbina, although the mature forest on the other side of the river was not quite as birdy as hoped. That said, there is no doubt the birding could be ace if we hit it on another occasion - just crossing paths with another mixed flock could have totally changed the outlook. The bird activity by the entrance/reception/restaurant was excellent though and I would totally recommend you consider staying there if you are birding the area - they were booked during our visit (and Geri were pretty thick) but they are affordable.

Phew, this was a hell of a post to finish, thanks if you made it through. The next CR post (whenever that is) will take us to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the warm embrace of Chambita, an extraordinary guide.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Dispatches from Mescalia

What else to do in these uncertain days of turmoil and unrest than to retreat into sweet sweet NOSTALGIA. The following tales are plucked from a six week trip spent aimlessly wandering the mountains and beaches of Old Mexico. Felis and I can not guarantee the validity of any these recollections, as many of them were made under the influence of strong spirits, sold to us by a woman and her parrot at the beginning of our journey. 

Ave de Mexico
Oaxaca Highlands
Up in the mountains, perched someplace between yucca drylands below epiphyte-laded cloud forests above. At the center of a small town, a 17th century cathedral rests like a dormant spacecraft that landed centuries ago. A village built around this artifact from Andromeda. A teenager shoots from the foul line of a basketball court built adjacent to the courtyard. A woman next door puts laundry out to dry in the morning sun. We sleepily make our way from the cabina towards food and day ahead.
Magdalena welcomes us each morning with a slow, measured, monotonous BUENAS DIAS CHICOS. Her booming voice at once jarring and nurturing. We mumble our reply, shuffle to a table and play out the rest of the script. CAFE? Si, gracias. CHOCOLATE CON AGUA? Si, gracias. We mostly eat in silence, occasionally making halting, probably incomprehensible small talk with Magdalena. Our attention drifts out the window to a kestrel perched upon the crucifix that crowns the church belltower. The red paint of the cross does nothing to diminish the idea of this taloned sentinel spilling the blood of rodents brought back as offerings to god. But what god? Whose gods? 

Sangre de los ratones

As per protocol, Magdalena brings us two sandwiches which will be our sustenance during the daily exploration. Like two schoolboys off to the classroom, equipped with our brownbags, Magdalena, our madre whilst here, our madre still in some ways, booms after us BUEN VIAJE CHICOS as we depart for another day. Back out in the courtyard, a descending series of cries emanate from within the cathedral. Over and over, these plaintive calls repeat. Magdalena’s voice, elemental and grounding, mixes with the mind-splitting spiral singing of the canyon wren in the bell tower. It's vertiginous song, echoed and trapped within the tower, transports us back to the 17th century. To the building of the church-the blood and sweat of slave labor mixed with the mortar that holds these walls. Back further still, to when the rocks were stacked along the trails we've been walking these past days—rocks covered with millennial lichens, the craggy oaks above laden with epiphytes whose folds and fissures are ceaselessly interrogated by warblers and vireos. The imprisoned song gets compressed further and the mountains are leveled. We come to, back to the present. We look around, shaking off the shackles of time the wren has saddled us with. Now equipped with the knowledge that the current flora and fauna that surrounds us is only the latest incarnation in a series of living skins this range has adorned, we step into the future.  

Piel de las montañas 
And Magdalena. Somehow she has always been here.

Puerto Escondido
Two gringos walking the busy coastal highway, too cheap to rent a taxi, too dumb to understand the bus service in the area. No matter, the ditch birding is incredible and when coupled with the life-threatening danger of oncoming traffic, the experience is transcendent. The obscene conglomerate of feathers and pluck that is the white-throated magpie jay causes Felis to yell IS THAT A BIRD. Moments later, after a near decapitation from a passing trucks' side mirror, a foraging streak-backed oriole is found. THAT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BIRD I'VE EVER SEEN I scream into the roar of traffic, my reasoning perhaps influenced by the recent near-death encounter. That said, it is certainly a bird to die for.

Awkwardly (everything we do in this country is awkward), we rent two kayaks and set out upon an estuary? Bay? River mouth? What is this big bodied brackish mirror we're floating on? We see a mangrove hawk we think, looks like a black hawk. Range/habitat seems right. Who knows. Who cares. Heat stroke squashes any sort of shit giving re: lumping/splitting/ID in general. A dragon descends and skims the surface, a frigatebird drinking. We nearly capsize. A bush in the middle of nowhere keeps producing boat-billed herons as we draw nearer. Like Mary Poppins' bottomless purse, the scene is positively impossible. They just keep coming, 5, 10, 20, clapping their massive bills at us, the racket shattering the serenity of this mysterious pond. The herons shit as they fly past us, their turds milking the still waters, the only clouds we see that day. 

Cold and pre-dawn, we bounce up a steep mountain road in the back of a camioneta. Two tall gringos, we don’t fit. Blood-pumping warmth begins to return as we climb stairs into high forests of abeto, pino, encino, oyamele at first light. We see a few monarch butterflies, but expected many more. Cold and tired, convinced we’ve been led into another gringo tourist trap, we glance at one another in dismay. We are impatient. We are American.
Then we look harder into the slowly-brightening understory, and we see. They hang from the trees like dead dusty leaves. Strings of mussels. The branches are laden. The branches are strained to breaking. The sun has risen high enough to bring some warmth. Some fluttering movement begins. Dozens of monarchs begin descending out of the trees, floating down towards food. For a moment, we think it’s a lot, we are impressed. We are winners.
But as the sun’s warmth grows ever stronger. They keep coming. They land on every surface. What was dozens is now thousands. Tens of thousands. Millions. Uncountable, all-encompassing. The sky is thick with gliding orange and black kites. The air is audibly moving from the push of their collective million wingbeats. A river of wind courses between the treetops. They land in mud and water to drink, wings twitching, like they are straining to take off and carry the earth back up into the sky with them. They mate, rolling circles in the air, the male carrying the female in coitus. They mate on the ground, rolling in the mud over the wings of their dead, recently dispatched by the red warblers that take only the heads and thorax. 

Flores para la vacia

Los arboles que estan hechos de mariposas
Suddenly and without notice, the day has passed and darkness nears. Eight hours dissolved into an infinitum of wingbeats. We descend from Monarch Mountain exhausted, emptied out. Gravity pulls us to our beds somewhere in the town below, miles away, hours away. The song of the brown-backed solitaire, atmospheric ice glitching and tumbling, drags up deeper into the valley. The ice bits rise and merge with the first burning stars above. 
The next morning, awake in a mountain town, a boozeless hangover, we lurk forth in search of cafe, pan and whatever else along the way. Miraculously the solitaire's song, still ringing in our heads from the night before, is heard from the middle of town. It is close. We follow the winding street to the headwaters of this ethereal ringing and find it. Caged and tailless, he is rendered comic and tragic without his beautiful rudder. The song fills the town and spills into the alley gardens, passes through the panaderia, the trashed choked streams and up into the groves of sleeping monarchs above.
Los ornitologos
If you haven't had enough of these frivolous tales of bumbling self-indulgence then continue on to our Palenque fiasco which was featured in an earlier episode of BB&B.  Vaya con pajaros - Cassowary

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Costa Rica Part IV: Sarapiqui River Cruise

Back to Costa Rica. I am going to attempt to execute this post with concision and precision.

One afternoon I scheduled us for a boat trip on the Sarapiqui River. I didn't expect to see a ton, but afternoon birding is hard anyways, so why not just hang out on a boat for a while? It's pretty much like geri birding, you just sit there and look at the things that are presented in front of you. Plus, there was a realistic-albeit-not-high chance we could see Sunbittern. We could have booked a boat through Hotel Gavilan, but I ended up going with Oasis Nature Tours and booked our boat through their Facebook page. A very low and mostly unobscured two-toed sloth passed out next to the parking lot was a good sign when we arrived at the main boat dock at Puerto Viejo.

Our guide (Carmela) and driver were on time and our party of four had the whole boat. Carmela wasn't a great birder (I wasn't expecting one) but she was a good guide and really came through for us later in the trip. She also introduced us to something we had not previously noticed, the Tico/Tica habit of attaching an affirming short question ("yes?") or affirmative sound to the end of sentences spoken in English that aren't meant to be questions. For example, instead of saying "Here in Costa Rica, it is the dry season", one would say "Here in Costa Rica, it is the dry season, mmhmm!", where the second syllable of "mmhmm" is much higher than the first and both syllables are spoken rapidly, so it sounds really enthusiastic. It's rather similar in emphasis to the "su-wheet!" call of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. We all thought it was a brilliant mannerism.

So much for being concise...

There were tons of Mangrove Swallows, many of which would feed right next to the boat or remain perched while we passed very close by (see above). Another common but more familiar bird worth mentioning (not pictured) was Spotted Sandpiper...I don't know if I've seen so many in one place in my life.

A mixed flock along the shore contained this Bay-breasted Warbler. It was cool to see them outside of spring and fall migration for the first time, even though they all looked like fall migrants.

I rarely see Anhingas up close so was happy to crush on this bird a bit. In the first two pics you can see it getting at the oil gland at the base of its tail. Mmmm, sweet precious Anhinga oil...

Cattle Egrets are common in the area, and a couple flocks were taking their afternoon egret tea down in the river.

We saw quite a bit of non-avian wildlife. I think these are Rhinoclemmys funerea, black river turtles aka black wood turtles. Life turtle! We also saw a guy on the riverbank mocking us for birdwatching. In response, I also mocked us for birdwatching, which guide and driver appreciated. Their English was good enough to know what "NERDS!" means.

This green iguana was a particularly fine specimen.

Of the three monkey species we saw on the trip (howler, spider, white-faced capuchin) I think I like howlers the most. They make the coolest sounds by far and have the best scrotums, as you can see here.

The nerds enjoyed themselves. Boat times are good times.

We also saw our first spectacled caiman of the trip. This one has a massive insect next to its eye, presumably trying to get tasty caiman tears.

Yeah, it happened. About halfway through the trip, Carmela let us know that we had an excellent chance at seeing a Sunbittern. She was right and the bird obliged. This was a life bird for all of us and I was beside myself. The bird gods were with us.

We got great, prolonged looks. This is one of those birds that you see for the first time and think to yourself, "I can't believe I'm actually looking at this". Sunbittern is an iconic species and there are not enough superlatives out there to do it justice.

And yes, we got excellent looks at everything it had to offer. I could not have been happier.

It was a winning afternoon on the river topped off by an unforgettable bird. Stoked!