"ADVENTURES" IN BIRDWATCHING IN COSTA RICA
by Sally Blanchard
Going Further South
Almost forty years ago I went on a birding tour of Costa Rica. I recently found my extensive notes from the trip. Although many of the details are lost to my memory, I have often thought of writing about my many adventures there. They were all jammed into a relatively short period of time — just a little over 2 weeks. I was living in the Midwest and for a few years, I had been making a yearly bird watching pilgrimage to South Texas in January. But for the last two winters, the weather was worse in Brownsville and Padres Island than it was in Kansas. Consequently, I decided I needed a real southern vacation and signed up to go to Costa Rica with a bird watching tour. I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica before I signed up for the bird watching experience.
Every birding trip I took started the same way. I would pack up my parrots and load up the car and take them to a friend’s house. This was quite an adventure in itself. With 5 cages roped to the top of my Subaru station wagon, I looked somewhat like an avian version of the Grapes of Wrath. One time, as I drove over a bumpy railroad crossing, the cages fell off and until I could safely pull over, I dragged them behind the car — it made me think I should put a parrot version of a ‘just married’ sign on the car. Once all my pets were safely at their sitter’s house, I went to the airport and flew to Miami to catch the plane to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. During the layover in Miami, I met several others who were taking the same tour — I barely remember most of the people on the trip. It is the birds and the situations I remember most.
On our approach to San Jose, I remember a vast amount of lush, bright green as the plane came out of the clouds and circled to land. It was my birthday and I decided this magnificent sight was the most fitting birthday present I could give myself. We stayed a night in San Jose where we socialized with our fellow birders and met our two American bird watching guides and Rafael, the Costa Rican ornithologist, who would accompany us on our travels. The next morning, we all took our bus to a small village across the river from the Organization for Tropical Studies Rainforest Research Station at La Selva in the Caribbean lowland rainforest. I saw the first wild parrots from the bus — a small flock of Amazons flying off in the distance. We recognized them solely from their flight pattern — strong and direct almost like the flight of ducks that I was quite familiar with. I presumed they were Mealy Amazons because of their size but I never did know for sure. Still, the moment was special to me. As we drove farther from the city, it became easier to tell what had been but was no longer verdant rainforest. In huge areas of land cleared mostly for cattle, there would be two to five very tall high crowned trees clumped together. These trees seemed lonely to me and I wondered how long they could survive in a habitat that had become so alien from the one in which they had evolved and grown.
Sadly, my first view of several colorful Central American avian gems, such as bananaquits, honey creepers, and dacnis, were of them in small cages hanging from the eaves of local homes in the village. Our guide, Rafael informed us that many natives kept these small tropical songbirds this way as ‘pets.’ They were easy to catch by putting a sticky substance on branches near the flowers where they fed. When the caged ones died from poor care or malnutrition, they were readily replaced. (Bananaquit sculpture by Sally Blanchard)
Real Life Examples
A birding trip such as this is rich in ornithological principles. Many birds have what is called ‘cryptic coloration.’ A classic North American example is the Brown Creeper, a small mottled brown bird that forages along tree trunks and branches, They are so well camouflaged you rarely see one unless it flies. Many tropical birds have similar cryptic coloration that makes them difficult to find. Certainly, brightly colored gaudy parrots could not be well camouflaged? Guess again. During the trip, I watched several psittacine flocks virtually disappear into the foliage. The first I saw was a group of Orange-chinned parakeets. I watched at least three dozen fly into several flowering trees and become instantly invisible to the naked eye. The only evidence we had they were there was the leaf and flower petals being profusely tossed from the trees. Then there was the group of about 30 Orange-fronted conures. They didn’t quite disappear into the tree but they were equally messy. Later I watched what appeared to be a family group of Mealy Amazons, much larger parrots, do the same thing with pretty much the same results. I am sure the behavioral trait of tossing half eaten food is well-known to anyone who keeps a companion parrot in their living room! This instinctive messiness has a good reason which the parrots are most likely conscious of doing. When they litter the rainforest floor with seeds from the native plants in their habitat, they help to guarantee the survival of that plant species thus guaranteeing food for their descendants. Of course, it is much more difficult to understand this environmental principle when the food scraps are landing all over our living room carpets.
After a brief tour of the village, we took a fairly large canoe type boat down the river to La Selva. In the trees at the edge of the rainforest, we were able to view a sloth hanging from a branch over the river. Yes, their fur really does look green. This is one animal who doesn’t scurry away when he sees he is being viewed. I have no idea what the research station is like at La Selva now, but I have intense memories of it. The buildings were located on a slight bluff overlooking the river and behind the cleared area was ‘the jungle.’ There was an almost incessant blend of bird, insect, and frog chirps, buzzes, and croaks with the occasional never-to-be-identified mammal sounds. It was warm and humid and as I stood quietly a few yards down the path to the rainforest, my mind and body sensed with awe the adventures ahead of me. It was unlike any place I had ever been before. That afternoon we stayed fairly close to the buildings and watched a presentation about what the researchers were studying. Even close to the station there was a tremendous variety of birds. All you had to do was stand and watch for them. That evening after sunset, just before bedtime, several of us wandered a few yards down the path. The frog and insect sounds were almost deafening. I remember feeling so out of place and a sense of both awe and fear. It was almost as if the jungle taunted us to go farther but none of us could bring ourselves to do so in the dark. We were also told not to wander away.
A Clearing in the Rain Forest
Daylight certainly made it seem safer and early the next morning, we divided into two groups and headed out to be one with the rainforest. I was fascinated by the width and the height of so many of the trees and the tangle of other living plants around them. I wish I had more of an interest in botany although as a wood sculptor at the time I often used tropical woods and was familiar with the names of several of the trees. This was real ‘warbler neck’ habitat with many of the small birds foraging through the high treetops. Eventually, the path led to a clearing where several species of trees were being planted to determine their growth patterns and potentials. Because the clearing was somewhat elevated, the view was magnificent and we had the opportunity to see many birds flying both over the clearing and through the trees. On the walk and in the clearing we saw many birds — flocks of Crimson-fronted parakeets, Mealy Amazons and an incredible variety of birds including Trogons, Toucans and Aracaris, Mot Mots, Woodpeckers, Woodcreepers, Flycatchers, Wrens, Cotingas, Tropical Robins, and colorful Euphonias. One of the most impressive of the trip was a White Hawk, a striking white raptor with black on wings and tail, sitting quietly close by on a bare tree branch. We had hoped to see a Buffon’s macaw but even then, they were very rare.
Bala Means Bullet
In the year before my trip to Costa Rica, I had developed a serious allergy to bee stings. One summer, I had been stung three times and the last time I had gone into mild anaphylactic shock. Because the next time could be even worse, my doctor had instructed me to take a bee sting kit with me everywhere I went. Though I had been told that (at that time) there were no stinging bees at La Selva, I chose to take it with me anyway. We were warned about a particularly dangerous wasp-like ant that inhabits the lowland Caribbean rainforest called the Bala (which means bullet) but we were reassured that the whole time the station had been in operation, no visitor had been stung by this venomous insect. (But then I was the first one on my block with a telephone answering machine.)
While watching birds in the clearing, a few of us had just had a close encounter with a Fer de lance (a beautiful but deadly snake). Once hit my boot but I don't know it struck it or not before it slithered away from us into a thicket of leaves and branches, but it was still an occasion for a sigh of relief. We were vehemently told to tuck our pants into our heavy hiking boots which we were cautioned to wear and I had dutifully done so. I was intently watching a pair of toucans who were mutually bowing their heads, probably as a bonding or mating ritual, but maybe as a territorial warning — no one there really knew. I noticed everyone else clustered around a dead tree trunk so I wandered over and stood towards the back of the group The guide was pointing out the inch or so long Bala ants and burning a few of them with a cigarette (I never understood that?) as several were crawling up the tree. I was somewhat appalled that he was doing this and was about to voice my opinion when I was suddenly overwhelmed with the sensation that someone had stabbed me in my left leg with a serrated knife that they were wiggling in and out. I screamed ... then another sharp stab, and another, and another. The pain was as intense as anything I had ever felt. Everyone’s attention was on me. Rafael yelled, “BALA!”
I was coherent enough to realize I needed my bee sting kit which was in my backpack draped over a log a few feet away. I motioned for someone to get me the pack. As I recall, there were at least four people in the medical profession on the tour but somehow they had all gone with the other group. I had only practiced giving shots from my epi-pen to oranges and although that seemed simple enough, I thought it would be much more difficult to actually stick a needle in my own flesh. I collapsed on the log and for one moment didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, I realized my throat was swelling and I was having difficulty breathing — I jabbed the needle through my pants into my thigh and released the epinephrine. As I did this, I could feel myself starting to pass out but in what seemed like just a few seconds, I could breathe again even though it was labored. I was aware that everyone was standing over me looking quite helpless. I don’t quite remember the sequence of events, but at some point, I realized that the Bala was still in my pant leg and was stinging me again. Somehow I shook it out. The pain continued to be quite intense and we determined that I had been stung 6 times on my left calf muscle — not like a one-sting bee, the Bala was the ant that kept giving.
Quality Care from the Staff
At some point, I ingested the strong chewable antihistamine pills which were in my bee sting kit and they made me quite drowsy. Someone had run back to the station for help — I believe it was only a couple of miles or so but that day I could have been convinced it was a hundred miles! Despite my pain, being an obsessed birdwatcher, I was momentarily delighted when I observed my first and only Ruddy-tailed flycatcher. I remember alternately hobbling, being dragged, and being carried on a stretcher back to the station, but I really can’t remember for sure how I got there. As I recall, Giselle, a young Costa Rican woman, who had a supervisory position at La Selva was there to study the Bala ant. I was told that a relative of hers (perhaps her sister?) was stung in the neck by a Bala and threw herself in a river for relief and drowned. I do not know for sure if this was true but it was a frightening story. Evidently, some people could be stung and barely have a reaction. But since I had such a severe reaction, I became a classroom for Giselle who studied my every breath and barely left my side for the next twelve hours. If I had needed to go to a hospital, they would have had to take me down the river by canoe and then by jeep to an area where a helicopter could land for me to be transported back to San Jose many miles away. The combination of the intense pain from the stings, the toxins in my body, the antihistamines, and the morphine they gave me made me incoherent but it was difficult to sleep because of the pain. I think I babbled my life history to whoever would listen and remember both lucid moments and some pretty interesting hallucinations. As long as my leg was smothered in ice, the pain was bearable but the available ice was used up quickly and there was no local 7-11 to get more. The staff froze more as fast as they could but when my leg wasn't iced, I remember screaming at the top of my lungs but was told later I had not disturbed anyone. I am certain they were just being polite.
All visitors at the center, men and women, slept in an open barracks on bunk beds and when the time came for everyone else to go to bed, the staff wisely moved me to another location where the others would only have to listen to me moan and groan and scream from next door — not right in their faces. At about 3 or 4 am (about 12 hours after the stings), I suddenly came out of the push/pull dramatics of the pain and sat up. The toxins were evidently out of my system and although there was still a great deal of pain in my leg, it became barely bearable. Once I was able to stand up and walk, I realized my lower leg was twice its normal size. The sting areas looked like ‘marshmallow’ whirls in the magenta color my right leg had turned. Most likely because of the toxins from the Bala ant and the morphine, I actually became somewhat paranoid for a few days but I didn’t become aware of this odd behavior until a few days after it stopped. At one point I was just about convinced that people were so angry at my screaming all night that they were plotting to throw me in the river. Of course, the truth was that people were genuinely concerned about me.
That morning while the others went out in search of birds, I sat in a lawn chair with my leg propped up on a log and bird watched near the research building. Although I missed a few avian gems that the others saw, I saw many wonderful sights just sitting quietly. Later I hobbled a few yards down a pathway to the river and watched as a mixed flock of brilliantly colored tanagers, euphonias, honeycreepers, sparrows, and other unique songbirds came through the trees and bushes. Amongst them was a relative of our Orioles, the Scarlet-rumped Cacique. Other songbirds benefit from traveling with this black oriole type bird with a bright red rump as they act as a sentinel bird for all the birds in the area. If there is danger nearby or a hawk overhead, the cacique sounds the warning.
I watched a Brown-hooded parrot feed in a small tree with small green fig-like fruit. He seemed very shy and I am sure he would not have shown himself if I had not been so quiet for so long. I have never seen one in aviculture, perhaps because they are not flashy but he was a handsome little fellow. A small group of Mealy Amazons flew by following the path of the river. I wandered inside the main building and talked to some of the Americans doing research there. One woman had recently found a blue-headed pionus after it landed in the garden area of the center. This species was not endemic to that particular area and with poorly trimmed wings, the bird was evidently someone’s escaped pet. She was keeping him in her room and had named him ‘Gallopintos’ after his main food source — a rice and bean dish which I was told is the national dish of Costa Rica. She hoped to be able to take him back to the states when she left the station. Although he was semi-tame, it was a delight to get to meet my first Pionus up close and personal. Our last night at La Selva, I was given a special award — my own Bala Ant (dead, of course) encapsulated in a specimen tube with preservative. I still have it to this day. I have talked to several people who have visited La Selva since and evidently, my encounter with the Bala Ant has developed into a legendary caution.
The Cloud Forest & A Big Decision
The next morning we traveled from the lowland rainforest to the cloud forest at Monteverde. While I realize that the word Mercedes applied to transportation usually signifies luxury, this was not true of our bus — particularly for someone in pain. Every bump and every time my leg was jostled, I wanted to scream out in pain. I will never forget the mountain road on the way to our pension (hotel) near the National Park at Monteverde. The way everyone drove around the curves so close to the steep drops, I was waiting for my next (or last) big adventure but we arrived safely at our lodging, the Pension Quetzal. The first treat was watching the numerous species of Hummingbirds feeding at the flowering shrubs in front of the building. There was also a small grove of banana trees nearby where a pair of Emerald Toucanets was doing their gymnastics.
I awoke early the next morning to the spectacular sight of a Blue-crowned Mot Mot sitting next to the porch of the pension. These are fascinating predominately blue/green birds who have a unique tail. Extending from their normal length tail are two long bare feather shafts with racket-feathered tips. It was thought that the birds purposefully plucked the feathers from these shafts but apparently, the barbs are so loosely attached that they naturally fall out after the feather is completely grown. Why? There are, of course, many theories of why so many species of birds have evolved such unique characteristics, but the most common one suggests that it has to do with mate selection. The more an individual attracts a member of the opposite sex, the more likely their genetic coding will be passed on to future generations. In some species, it seems as if the individual who is the most unique is most attractive to the opposite sex.
The next morning I had a major decision to make. My plans to come to Costa Rica evolved mostly because I wanted to see a Resplendent Quetzal, a member of the Trogon family. All of the Trogons are beautiful but the spectacular, vibrantly colored green and red male Quetzal can be over 2 feet long including his tail coverts. It is not actually the tail feathers that look like ‘streamers’ but the coverts or covers or the tail. These birds were quite rare even then and the chances of seeing one were good only because our bird guides knew where a pair had been nesting. But to even take the chance of seeing one, I would have to hike up the side of the rain-soaked mountain with the rest of the group. Despite my tangle with the Bala Ant two days before, I made the decision to go for it. At times I had to crawl up steep areas on my knees because I could not bend my leg without serious pain.
Was it worth it? Perhaps it did not seem like it most of the hike but in retrospect, I am glad I went. We saw a female quetzal but only saw a flash of the magnificent but seasonally short-tailed male in the distance. Evidently, the tail coverts grow to great length over the tail and are used to attract the females. Once nesting starts, the long tail covert feathers become damaged from going in and out of the nest cavity and usually break off. We hiked to the surreal ‘elfin forest’ at the top of the clouds where the short rain saturated trees are gnarled from the constant wind. The only new bird we found there was a recently deceased body of the rarely seen Zeledonia (or wrenthrush) but we had seen so many other bird species that the climb was well worth it. The road we walked back on was so muddy we were often ankle and even knee deep. One delightful gentleman from New Jersey had twisted his leg and it became a true comedy of errors to see which of us could slip, slide, and fall down the most. I think I won.
Early Morning Alarms
Our next adventure took us to the Guanacaste Province towards the western coast. This was a very different habitat consisting of dryer forests, savannas, and open grasslands. Our group stayed at a ‘resort’ in circular buildings with 4 rooms and a vented central bathroom. There were 3 or 4 of us to each room. Most of all I remember sitting in the bathroom looking through my bird guides and suddenly realizing I was not alone. I was sharing the bathroom with a 3-foot long iguana who had crawled in from above for a drink in the shower. In this hotel, no one ever was ‘aloud’ to sleep in. This was howler monkey habitat and they provided an unforgettable sunrise alarm every morning. Imagine the classic monkey call we hear commonly … you know the ‘hoo hoo hoo hoo haaa haaa haaa’ and make it at least 20 times louder!
We ate some variation of rice and black beans at almost every meal on the trip and the open air restaurant here was no exception. For breakfast, they were mashed together. For lunch, they were served separately. For dinner, they were often served in a sort of casserole with what I always hoped was chicken, pork or beef but never really knew for sure. There was always lots of yummy fresh fruit - the most delicious oranges, melons, mangoes, and pineapple I have ever eaten ... and the bananas - if you have never eaten a truly fresh ripe banana not long off the tree, you have never really lived! But sadly, I again experienced a problem. At the time, I joked I was going to be writing a guidebook to the bathrooms of Costa Rica. I thought I must have had what is often called ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ until a few months later when I was tested positive for food allergies to melons, bananas, and black beans. One afternoon, among the dense trees, I separated myself from the group — intrepid rainforest explorers learned to use their rain ponchos as a sort of portable porta-potty. Sitting quietly is the best way to see birds and I was joined by two yellow-napes chattering only a few feet above me. I am sure one of them was speaking Spanish so I presumed they were semi-tame escaped pets. Once they discovered me it was almost as if they felt betrayed. The cadence of their conversation sounded as if they were cursing at me and they flew away.
We stayed at the resort for several days and took daily side jaunts. This was cattle ranch territory but was the area where we actually saw the most parrots. At one point, we were standing in a field near a cattle ranch with a heavily wooded stream nearby. I immediately recognized the calls of parrots long before we could see who was making them. Shortly two flocks of parrots flew over about a dozen yellow-napes followed by a smaller group of mealy Amazons. They were flying fast and straight and it was clear they had a specific destination. Long after they disappeared over the trees, we could still hear them calling. Every time I listen to people complain about their parrots being noisy, I think of that day and those sounds. I become very thankful that few companion parrots even come close to their potential in decibels.
It is at this point that my memories fail me as to where we actually were when we saw various birds. We visited such places as Finca Tobogo, La Pacifica, and Palo Verde but I cannot always remember exactly what was seen where. At one point, a few of us split off from the main group and explored a river bank. I was hoping to see the very unusual boat-billed heron but saw unexpected pleasures instead. We did see an absolutely beautiful king vulture gliding above us. After some heavy duty belly crawling, a few of us watched a small group of yellow-napes bathing in a pool created by a small waterfall. They danced, splashed, and carried on much as my own double-yellow heads did at home, except they weren't as noisy. Then with great labor, they flew to a bare branch to preen and drip-dry. Soon it was evident they would fly off and I asked Rafael where they would be going. His response was both obvious and profound, “To know, you would have to have wings.” This, of course, is one of the main reasons the study of wild parrots (and other birds) still has so many puzzles.
Some people are content to check off birds on a list without going much further in their learning. I have always been fascinated by the behavior of all birds, not just parrots. There are so many variables and it is somewhat absurd to presume that we really understand why the many members of the avian kingdom do the things they do. One of my strongest memories of the trip was a little bird called a long-tailed manakin. Jet black with a bright blue back and a red crown — at almost 11” long, over half of him was two long streaming tail feathers. His mating ‘dance’ is to alternately jump and fly in a circle around a small twig sticking out of the ground. In doing so with such intensity, his fragile little tail actually wears a shallow circular groove around the twig — all this to attract a mate! Rafael pointed out the indented circle in the dirt around the twig or we never would have seen it.
One day our bus traveled down a dirt road alongside swampy rice fields. We saw thousands of ducks, including Muscovy, Whistling Ducks, and many of our familiar species on their winter ‘vacation.’ We were told that farmers often set out poisoned grain because the blackbirds destroy the crops. Of course, the poison does not discriminate blackbirds from ducks or parrots who also fed in these fields.
At one point ahead of us, we spotted a breathtaking Laughing Falcon perched on a dead tree limb. We stopped and everyone took out their cameras because we knew if we got any closer, he would fly away — they always do. We repeated this process several times until we were right below him. He still did not fly away or even budge at our presence. He was so handsome and is probably my favorite non-parrot bird I observed on this trip. We also saw a Peregrine stoop from high above to strike a death blow at a fast-moving dove. I was in awe - I’d seen Peregrines a few times before (they were still pretty rare in the United States because of pesticides diminishing egg viability), but I had never seen anything move that fast. Somewhere on this trip, I also spied a hunting orange-breasted falcon, a somewhat smaller flashy falcon with charcoal, white, and bright orange feathers. What a stunning little falcon!
I was anxious to see macaws. There was a large aviary near to the open air restaurant at the resort and in the cage were several scarlets. They were fairly well cared for and received the scraps from the restaurants which would have been a relatively nutritious diet. But this was not the way I wanted to see macaws. I wanted to see the ‘real thing’ and I wanted to see them free and flying.
We had been promised there was a pair of scarlet macaws we would see at Palo Verde. It was one of the last remaining pairs in that area of Costa Rica. As we approached the tree they were supposed to be nesting in, there was no sign of them. Perhaps they were off flying and would return? I sat at a reasonable distance and watched the cavity opening while most of the others went off in other directions. I waited for close to 15 minutes. Then I heard rustling in the tree and within moments I saw the curve of the upper beak and then the head, and then the body as a scarlet slowly climbed out of the nest. She shook her feathers and launched herself from the nest and flew in a downward slope. I heard her raucous calls echo throughout the valley and shortly she was joined by another. I am presuming the bird in the nest was a hen but I could have been mistaken as both birds take part in raising their young — I just refuse to refer to such a magnificent animal as ‘it.’ I was spellbound. It is impossible to use words to explain the awe and exhilaration of watching a pair of brilliant scarlet macaws flying over a lush green valley. We lost sight of the pair for some time and I placed my ear against the tree trunk to see if I could hear the sound of chicks but didn’t hear anything.
Later as I was intently watching a tiny fuzzy baby in a green-breasted hummingbird nest, I heard the macaws calling again in the distance. As they approached the nest, their calls ceased. They both landed on a nearby branch and one climbed into the cavity while the other one stood outside watching us. He seemed accustomed to people in the area. We were told there were locals who lived at the park whose job was to protect this nest site from poachers and they were armed. After several minutes, he also climbed into the nest cavity and for some time we heard them milling about inside. I could have observed the tree for hours but, unfortunately, it was time to leave.
The PG Version (P-I-G)
So, of course, I had to have one more amazing adventure. Our next day-long excursion was to the coast to observe a Pacific tide pool and see water birds. I am telling the PG version of this story. I only spent a few minutes walking on the beach before “nature” called me again. Perhaps too many bananas, melons, and black beans had affected me and Rafael escorted me down the long flat open beach to find a suitable restroom in the local village. As we approached, Rafael talked with one of the villagers. The village was in mourning because the day before a storm came in and a fishing boat had capsized in the bay. A local family had drowned and there were several boats in the bay trying to reclaim their bodies. Despite this, Rafael found me a bathroom to use for the Costa Rican equivalent of about a quarter. The one-story building had several one-room apartments on each side with a central bathroom for all the tenants.
I had already learned that not all of the bathrooms in Costa Rica came close to the standards to which I was accustomed. The toilet tissue was course newspaper which was then thrown into a metal container. Being someone who prefers privacy, I was somewhat mortified that the only door was cafe style which allowed me quite a view from my vantage point and I presumed the opposite was true. Several feet away, the ladies of the village had formed a circle for ritual mourning. In unison, they leaned forward and when they straightened again, they all let out a deep resonating anguished cry. Thankfully, no one was paying attention to me. Out of nowhere, I heard a rustling, thumping sound and within seconds, a large sow pig forced her way under the cafe door. Evidently, her job was to empty the metal container of its refuse. The door quickly gave way and I was knocked down. For a brief moment, I was on top of this pig as if I was riding a bucking bronco backward. Finally, after some struggling, I managed to right myself, stumble out of the room, and regain my composure. It was as if the mourners had not even noticed me — the women never missed a beat in their ritual. There had actually been quite a commotion involving me and the pig; perhaps they were just being polite?
I quickly made my way back to the group and was grateful that they had all waded into the water. I needed a bath after my altercation with the pig and quickly walked into the ocean. As I was standing waist to chest high in the waves gently breaking around me, I realized I was standing in a school of fish. While I know this is relatively unreasonable, fish swimming around me has always given me ‘the creeps.’ As I was planning my escape, a brown pelican dived straight into the waves within just a few feet of me. The splash nearly knocked me over. He seemed as startled as I was when he came up within a foot of me. I love brown pelicans but had never seen one so up close and personal before.
Meeting a Legend
Our final birding destination was to Los Cusingos, the home of the famous naturalist, Dr. Alexander Skutch. On the way there, near the city of San Isidro de El General, we stopped off at a Costa Rican coffee factory. I have a gap in my maturation process and never learned to appreciate coffee but I enjoyed watching its processing in action. Around the back was a draining area where the by-products of processing coffee beans formed a fermenting pool. I have never in my life smelled a more hideous odor — this was certainly not the aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Interestingly though, it was in this same area that we saw several brightly colored gorgeous Tanagers, Euphonias, and Warblers we had not seen before. Was this proof of the often stated misconception that birds have no sense of smell?
I have been an obsessive bird book collector for almost 30 years and possess all of Dr. Skutch’s remarkable books on birds. I had recently read his A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm. I am so grateful that such an erudite and sensitive man has devoted his life to studying the birds and wildlife of the world and even more grateful that he chose to share all of his knowledge and observations. I had planned my trip without realizing the tour included a visit with Dr. Skutch and was very excited to learn I would be meeting him and seeing some of the birds and places mentioned in his books. In the photo, Dr. Skutch is the man in the middle and his wife is to his right.
At the time of our visit, Alexander Skutch was 78 but one would have never guessed his age. He had the tanned, lean, muscular body of a man half his age. I could have stayed in his presence listening to his bird stories forever. I am afraid I hogged the time with him continually asking him questions about parrots. I learned a great deal from him about their natural habits but most of all, he was saddened that he rarely saw them on his farm any longer. When he first moved to his property in Costa Rica almost 40 years before, there were large flocks of Red-lored Amazons, various conures, and many Scarlet macaws who visited his farm. When I talked with him he saw the Amazons only occasionally and the macaws never came through anymore. He blamed it both on habitat destruction and the pet trade. He frowned when I explained I had pet parrots. even though they were bred and raised in the United States. We had a relatively lengthy conversation and when I convinced him that I intended to learn as much as I could about them so I could teach people about their proper care in captivity, he was much more agreeable to providing me with information about their habits and behaviors. I owe him for much of my still meager understanding of what parrots are all about. (Dr. Skutch died a short time before his 100th birthday and never did write a book about parrots … a true loss to people interested in psittacines in the wild.)
As I recall, the home on the farm was a simple L-shaped stone and clay building without electricity. Skutch built the house himself mostly with local materials including troweling cow dung to cement the stones together, which, thankfully, had long since lost its odor. The airy home was inviting and I could imagine being very comfortable there. Dr. Skutch’s wife, the daughter of a coffee planter, gave the appearance of being a very proper New England lady. However, she obviously shared her husband’s love of nature and had quite a twinkle in her eye which clearly suggested that she did not simply sit around and sip tea.
Bird-watching in the Presence of a Giant
I will never forget the bird watching tour of the rainforest habitat on the Skutch farm — not only for the birds I saw but for the incredible presence of a giant among ornithologists. Before we left the garden area, Dr. Skutch grabbed a large sharp machete to carry with him. As we walked into denser and denser foliage, he would motion with his hand for us to stand back and he cleared the pathways — ever vigilant that he was not destroying an essential part of the habitat. He would stop suddenly and crane his neck to listen. “That is the call of the Three-wattled Bellbird,” he exclaimed, “I doubt if we will see one today as they are being quite secretive lately.” I would have given almost anything to have seen one but the unusual metallic whistling call was memorable by itself. Dr. Skutch would stop without warning and we would all come close to falling backward all over each other. He would then point to a branch that we did not realize he was even looking at and proclaim the presence of a Short-tailed pigeon, Blue-chested hummingbird, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, or some other tropical treat for the eyes and we then would move on to the next sighting. My favorite discovery almost hidden in the tree canopy was the large (18”), incredibly handsome Squirrel Cuckoo (an arboreal relative of the Roadrunner) with its long tail. The top of the tail is rusty colored but the bottom is striped black and white.
The machete was not just to clear the path. Dr. Skutch’s hatred of snakes was quite well-known — even nonpoisonous ones — because they destroy nests and eat both bird eggs and babies. Several of his books tell stories of ways he has done snakes in when they were threatening his precious birds. At one point along the trail, he froze in his tracks and motioned for us to all backup. He moved stealthily a few steps into the brush and started swinging the machete with a vengeance — snake pieces flew everywhere. While, in my lack of intimate knowledge of the area, I was surprised at this because I think that snakes are indeed, natural phenomena — a part of the grand scheme of nature’s balance. It took me some thought to understand his attitude. He has witnessed a rapidly increasing decline in both the habitat and populations of his beloved birds. He has devoted his life to preserving them and educating others in the hopes that they will also understand their value as a part of the intricate pattern of natural life on this planet. The balance has become seriously skewed and the birds need all the help they can get even if it means his destruction of one of their natural predators. I can understand this kind of fervor. I often feel this passionately against people who mistreat birds — especially those horrible people, who not only raise and sell sick, poorly socialized, unweaned parrot chicks to unsuspecting novices but also brag about their ignorance and demand their right to do whatever they want to with parrots. But doing bodily harm is against the law so I just keep trying to educate so that people will recognize these people for what they are.
I read in one of Dr. Skutch’s more recent books (1996) that in 1993 the land at Los Cusingos was acquired by the Tropical Science Center of San Jose, Costa Rica. I am pleased that the habitat in the tropical valley that Dr. Skutch respected so much is now a nature reserve. My fervent hope is that Dr. Skutch’s message about birds and their habitats remains an account of what continues to be rather than a history of what was.
I saw over 200 bird species in two weeks. A few were ‘old friends’ such as Scissortail flycatchers and Wilson’s warblers in their winter grounds but many were exotic tropical birds, unlike anything I had seen in the U.S. and northern Mexico. Obviously, I loved seeing the parrots, but also was awed by every raptor. Each newly sighted Trogon or Tanager species outdid the previous one for beauty and intense coloration but even they could not come close to the color and feather variations of the twenty-three species of hummingbirds I saw. Fifteen years later, I can shut my eyes and see the Common Tody-Flycatcher flitting about the shrubbery at La Selva, the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher who eluded us when we knew it was there but finally sat and posed, the Large-footed Finch peering out of a clump of weeds along the road to the fog-shrouded volcano, or the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrows who showed up almost everywhere.
Each bird viewed within its natural habitat is a lesson well worth learning. I often think of traveling again but I have become a slave to time. Despite a few less than positive adventures (which I have steadfastly maintained a sense of humor about), I would love to return to Costa Rica. I am sure that there are changes that would disappoint me but Costa Rica has done a superb job of saving at least some of its natural heritage. Perhaps one day I will return there but my guess is if I ever find the time or have the money to travel again, I will be in search of a new adventure. I will take along my Kaopectate and just hope I am thoroughly warned about the stinging insects wherever I go.