It is somewhere around 5:00 AM and the Howler Monkeys have started their morning symphony. It is a wake-up call for us. We are not so much on getting up so early – the “crap of dawn” as my friend, Glo, calls it – but we have adjusted to it so that we can go birding with our guide before breakfast. I throw off the damp towel I have taken to wearing to bed to keep my neck and head cool during the hot tropical nights…..another thing I was trying to adjust to on our recent trip to Costa Rica. The Howler Monkeys continue their morning song as I head into the shower to get ready for another day of birding. It is not only birds that we are seeing and enjoying in this country. There is life everywhere – it may be the reason for the saying we kept hearing so much in Costa Rica – Pura Vida – pure life. When we said hello to the people we met and asked how they were, someone would inevitably answer, “Pura Vida”, as if to say life is too short not to appreciate all it has to offer. We picked up the thought and carried it with us as we traveled and now that we are home. Indeed there is too much life to limit your exposure to it.
But those Howler Monkeys did not allow for too much pondering about life or nature or even the day’s agenda. They were up and sounding out the warning that this was their territory and other tribes need to listen up and stay out of the way. We saw the first Howler on our first evening at Selva Verde but he wasn’t doing too much howling at that point. I suppose it was evening and he was settling down for the night. The next day we saw a group of 10 or so in the same area so figured they all belonged to the same group. These were Mantled Howler Monkeys. Since we came home, I have been trying to download a ringtone for my phone but am not having much success at it. But if you would like to hear the sound of a Howler Monkey, click here. While looking for the sound video on YouTube.Com, I was surprised that people indicated that the sound was frightening to them. That was not our experience at all. The call of the Howlers seemed natural and right for the rainforest and we enjoyed hearing their “wake up call” every morning. That howl can travel quite the distance though – about three miles in the forest. We missed them when we moved on to another lodge. Perhaps, knowing that the monkeys are vegetarians eating only leaves, fruit, nuts, and flowers or seeing them high in the trees living out their lives takes away the apprehension. Because some of the trees contain alkaloids and other poisons, the monkeys tend to eat only the topmost and newer leaves which would have less poison so they spend their days high in the trees. And they do not howl to scare people, they howl to mark territory and communicate with other Howler Monkeys. Nothing to be afraid of, right? (More about Howler Monkeys.)
On the other hand, we didn’t have to get up early to see a Sloth. On our first full day of birding, we had stopped at Braulio Carillo National Park and spent a couple hours walking a trail through the forest there. As we emerged from the forest pretty much exhausted from our first foray into the hot and humid rainforest, our guide told us to hurry, to come and see. Now there wasn’t much hurrying in me at this point – I was dripping sweat and my clothes were wet through and my knees were already aching so I wasn’t about to run to see anything at this point. Turns out the guide, Erick, was making a little joke since the Sloth he was pointing out wasn’t going anywhere fast either. It was a beautiful Brown Throated Three-Toed Sloth and in full view. Because the sloth is not a very fast moving creature (sort of like me that day), Erick had plenty of time to tell us all about the animal. And it is a very interesting animal. The sloth spends most of its life in the treetops… in fact, mostly in a single tree scientists call his “modal” tree. They eat, sleep, give birth, etc., in their tree or one close by. They sleep about 10 hours a day hanging in the tree by their claws which are very long and sharp. The sloth comes down from the tree once a week to take a little bathroom break – digs a hole, does his business, and then buries it. The leaves, twigs, and bark that the sloth eats are not very nutritious so they tend to move very slowly to preserve energy. And they do not like to spend too much time on the ground since that is when they are most vulnerable to predators. By far, the most interesting thing about sloths is that a sloth’s body is an ecosystem unto itself. The hair on a sloth’s body hosts two species of symbiotic cyanobacteria, which provide camouflage for the animal and, because of the bacteria, the sloth also hosts small non-parasitic insects. One of the insects is a small moth that lives in the sloth’s fur and, when the sloth is at the bottom of the tree taking a potty break, the female moth jumps off and lays its eggs in the fecal matter and then jumps back on the sloth’s back for the return trip back up to the treetop. The eggs hatch and the hatching feeds until the larvae becomes a moth and finds a sloth (perhaps the same one) to live on and the process starts all over again. And, what does the sloth get in return? It is thought that the moth fertilizes the algae that live in the sloth’s fur that helps to camouflage the sloth in the treetops. It is all very complicated but works out quite well for the sloth. (More about sloths.)
But it wasn’t all monkeys and sloths, there were iguanas and lizards and frogs everywhere. Everyone loved the iguanas, mostly the Green Iguana, and there were specimens at two of the sites we visited – Selva Verde and Villa Lapas. And the iguanas also spent their days lazing around in the sun on a tree limb somewhere so the opportunities for photographs were abundant. I didn’t have as much trouble with blurry iguana photos as I had with the birds.
But I think I liked the Basilisk Lizards more than the iguanas. The Lizards are part of the iguana family but were loads quicker and, there I was, back to taking blurry photos – this time of lizards. You may have heard of Basilisk Lizards. They are also called “Jesus Christ Lizards” because they can run across water. I don’t think it is any sort of miracle – just more speed and agility. More recently, you may have heard of these lizards because one was featured in one of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. The lizards do like to bask on rocks in the warm sunshine but that’s not where the name comes from. Okay, I couldn’t resist the pun on the name. The name comes from the Greek word, “basilskos” which means “little king”. In mythology, the lizards could turn things (like people) into stone merely by looking at them and made problems with this habit for Harry Potter. But the lizards did not turn anyone to stone that I am aware of on our trip – just entertained us a bit when they ran across the water. (More on Basilisk Lizards).
But our favorite reptile was the frog. We saw several in the rainforest to include the Red-Eyed Tree Frog which was beautiful. Alex, the naturalist at Selva Verde, helped us to see, appreciate, and photograph the gorgeous frog on our first evening there.
But, drumroll please, our very favorite frog was the little Red Poison Dart Frog whose nickname is the “Blue Jeans Frog” because he has denim blue legs. What made this frog special? Other than being so darned cute? Well, the Poison Dart Frog is known for its manner for reproducing. The rainforest is very humid but there are not so many puddles and ponds for frogs to use for laying eggs. The frogs live in the trees and come down to earth to lay the eggs in the leaf litter on the forest floor. The eggs are fertilized externally – the female lays the eggs and then the male fertilizes them. There is no physical connection between the two frogs. Per a movie we watched at the lodge, the male will also keep the eggs wet by bringing bits of water to the site until the tadpoles hatch. But the interesting part is that the tiny tadpoles cannot live on the forest floor so the female carries the tadpoles one at a time on her back up into the trees. When she finds a bromeliad plant that has collected water in its cup, she deposits the tadpole there and leaves it to mature. She might also lay some un-fertilized eggs in the bromeliad so that the tadpole has something to eat while it grows. We were lucky enough to see a tiny female with a tadpole on her back climbing up a tree on one of our walks at La Selva Biological Research Station The photo isn’t great but you get the gist of it and can appreciate why we absolutely loved those little blue jean frogs. (More on poison dart frogs.)
But, oh my, I haven’t even gotten to the American Crocodiles. No, they are not just named American because they come from the US of A…..they didn’t. American Crocodiles are native to and live in the neotropics. I believe there are a few in Florida but nowhere else in the US. Basically, they are huge! I didn’t realize how big they were. I thought they were smaller than alligators. We saw these monsters in the Rio Tárcoles near the Pacific Coast.
There is a bridge over the river on the Coastal Highway and, believe it or not, everyone (i.e., all of us tourists) stops there and walks across the bridge to look at the crocodiles in the river below. There are fruit stands/souvenir shops on the north side of the bridge where you can get a tasty fruit smoothie or a coconut milk drink or a whole bunch of souvenirs. I got a Blackberry Coconut smoothie that was delicious. I am not sure if the blackberry we have here in the states is the same as the blackberry in Costa Rica because I have never heard of blackberry juice here but there, they have wonderful fruit juices available at every meal and blackberry turned out to be one of our favorites. But I digress, back to the animals; I also got a chance to see the beasts close up on a river cruise that came as a part of our tour. I have seen American Alligators quite a bit on trips to Florida and they are scary enough but I have to say the Crocodiles were very fierce and scary. I was very glad the boat was as big as it was. When we were at Selva Verde, we also went for a boat ride and saw a Spectacled Caiman which was awesome enough but nothing to compare to the crocs. I had noticed the Caiman but I had noticed that the local people were also on the river swimming and fishing and enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon. They didn’t seem to be bothered that Caiman might also live up river. On the other hand, when I asked about people swimming or wading in the Rio Tárcoles where the crocodiles live, I was told, “Sure, people can swim in this river…..ONCE”. Another little boat guide joke there. There actually were people fishing in the river but closer to the tidal parts nearer the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t see anyone in or near the water where the big crocs were lounging around. (More on American Crocodiles)
And I haven’t mentioned the tiny little Central American Agouti we caught sight of near the entrance to La Selva or the White-Nosed Coatis who stole the fruit right off the bird feeders at Bosque de Paz or the Blue Morpho Butterflies in the rainforest and in the butterfly garden/pavilion at the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation, or the Long-Nosed Bats we glimpsed in broad daylight perched tightly to a tree trunk over the river at La Selva or the two types of squirrels – Red-Tailed and Variegated – or the Leaf Cutter Ants that caught our attention that we tracked all along the paths as we walked at La Selva – they have a whole ‘nother story of their own. So much I do not have time to mention……So much life. Pura Vida indeed.