Friday, December 30, 2011

Costa Rica: Nature reserves awash with rare animals and birds

Home to countless species of endangered and rare birds and animals, Costa Rica is a nature-lover's dream destination, says Nicky Holford.

By Nicky Holford for the Daily Telegraph

If it weren't for the crocodiles, we might have seen the turtles hatch and take their first wobbly steps to the sea. But to get to their remote location at Buena Vista beach on the Nicoya Peninsula involved wading waist deep through a river, renowned at night as a croc hang-out.

Crocodiles, armadillos, jaguars, pumas, sloths, toucans and strawberry frogs are in plentiful supply in Costa Rica. Add to that a mix of rain and cloud forests, a great band of mountains, active volcanoes and stunning beaches on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, in a country the size of England, and it's hard to decide how best to spend your time.

To get to the turtle nests, we'd had to virtually circumnavigate the peninsula from Puntarenas, then wade across the river and walk a fair distance along an isolated beach. The only other footsteps that joined ours in the sand were those of a young boy galloping his horse, followed by another boy on a bicycle and a small dog panting behind.

The turtle project is one of several run by i-to-i for volunteers wanting to get a bit more out of their time off than lying on the beach. Sea turtles are an endangered species in Costa Rica, being prey to poachers for their eggs, meat and shells. The eggs are bought as an aphrodisiac, the meat for soup and the Hawksbill for their distinctive shells.

In the wild the potential survival rate of the turtle hatchlings is one in a thousand but at the carefully monitored turtle project the survival rate last year was 93 per cent. The volunteers and staff move the eggs from the original turtle nest to a secure site and monitor them throughout the night. "The 2am-4am shift is the worst," says Mia, a volunteer from the United States. "But I still ask to be woken if they start to hatch, whatever the time."

When they are not on turtle watch the volunteers can turn their hand to surfing. Trying our luck, under the careful guidance of Eric we set out into the rolling Pacific with our boards. Despite spending most of the time submerged, we did all manage to stand up – after a fashion.

As Costa Rica is sandwiched between Honduras to the west and Panama to the east, with Nicaragua to the north, it is hard to avoid the Pan-American Highway that cuts across the country. Huge juggernauts, known as "18- wheelers" thunder along the highway but short distances off it take you to another life, where horses graze in every field, cattle with floppy ears are plentiful and spectacular scenery is worth the drive over potholed roads.

Having worked up an appetite in the waves, we headed to Playa Samara, a horseshoe bay with a selection of open-air restaurants on its flanks. Forgoing the staple of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and plantain, we devoured huge tasty prawns and near perfect piña coladas.

Leaving the south we drove to the rainforest in the northern zone towards the Tenorio Volcano National Park. The four-hour journey took us through lush and varied country – pineapple farms, sweeping succulent banana plantations and rich cattle country where the cows looked fat and happy and horses, usually shared by families as a means of transport, were everywhere.

By the time we reached the small town of Bijagua in the Upala region, we had left all traces of tourism behind and turning left by a small supply shop and restaurant, we headed up a dirt track, climbing to the eco-lodge of Las Heliconias.

Fortunately our trusty driver knew the way as there are no street signs in Costa Rica, not even in the capital San José. Ask a local for his address and it's along the lines of "turn right at the bank and it's on the left, opposite Soda Lucy".

It was dark by the time we arrived, but within no time we were off on a canopy tour, crunching tentatively over soggy leaves and squealing at vast spiders.

The lodge is owned by local Costa Ricans who opened the centre to promote sustainable development and ecotourism. More than 300 species of birds, including five different toucans, 18 types of hummingbird and the ornate hawk eagle, inhabit this rainforest area.

We saw the beady eyes of a kinkajou, a brown furry creature at the top of a tree, and a translucent frog the size of a finger nail among a flurry of creepy crawlies on our night stroll. And contrary to expectation, we were not woken at 4am by the howler monkeys.

The next day we saddled up and rode on some Criollo horses (native to South America) to the national park, taking in the view of Nicaragua Lake, the border being only about 20 miles away. A guided walk took us to the spectacular Rio Celeste waterfall, which cascaded majestically down a cliff through light cloud and mist before exploding into a pool of turquoise water.

Away from the noise of the water, we saw two different toucans, a chunky chap with a red chest and another with a colourful beak. When it comes to flora and fauna it is hard not to take pleasure in the rich biodiversity of this small country.

It is home to countless species of endangered birds, from macaws and humming- birds to woodpeckers and parrots. Its miles of coastline, mangroves and rain and cloud forest are so varied that even untrained spotters can enjoy the thrill of seeing rare breeds of bird and mammals, not to mention thousands of different plants and trees.

But you have to be on alert all the time. We would never have seen the sloth, so perfectly camouflaged among the higher branches of a tree were it not for the razor-sharp eyes of our guide.

The country is awash with national parks and private reserves, all providing well- signed hiking trails at ground level. Above the trees lies a network of suspension bridges and even zip wires through forest canopies and plunging waterfalls.

Costa Rica also has its fair share of mountains, with Mount Chirripo the highest at 12,530ft, and 121 volcanoes. The best known is Arenal, which is currently erupting in some style and at night can provide an open-ended firework display as red-hot molten lava explodes from the summit and tumbles down its flanks.

As a fitting finale we found a collection of cabins that looked directly onto the volcano. Had it been a clear night we could have sat out on our porch and watched as the volcano erupted. The area is also riddled with natural hot springs, the result of a chemical reaction between volcanic minerals such as sulphur and calcium carbonates. Our hotel had funnelled these springs into a series of pools of varied temperature, beginning with very hot and gradually cooling, with the final pool shaped around a bar.

But sadly it was not to be our night. As evening set in, so did the clouds, gravitating to the highest point of the volcano. They descended like a curtain, obliterating the star attraction that hung like a shadow, somewhere out in the darkness.

By Nicky Holford for the Daily Telegraph

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pineapple and Vanilla in Naturewalk

A nursery has been established in NatureWalk and below you can see some of the first Vanilla Vines and Organic Pineapples growing in the Nursery

Friday, December 23, 2011

Costa Rica, the solution for retirees not having to work during their Golden Years

By Christopher Howard

According to Smart Money, In the past the whole idea of retirement was not working. But today’s retirees are increasingly becoming job-seekers. Roughly three out of four workers over age 50 say they plan to work at least part-time in retirement. Currently about 20% of retirees have a job. Indeed, working during retirement is becoming the “new normal.”
“The average boomer couple currently has a retirement savings shortfall of about $30,000, according to a recent study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, it’s a trend that experts predict with accelerate. Boomers aren’t as financially prepared for retirement as earlier generations. “

To make matters worse it takes employees over 55 more than 40% longer to get hired than their younger counterparts, according to AARP. Meanwhile, nest eggs are shrinking and retiree income is stagnating.

So what’s the solution? If retirees can reduce their living expenses significantly, then they might not have to keep working to make ends meet. One way to do this by moving abroad to a country like Costa Rica.

To start medical care is much less expensive than in the United States.

You won’t need a car here since public transportation is dirt cheap. This eliminates the need for costly auto repairs and maintenance, car insurance, yearly licenses fees and a lot of other headaches associated with owning a vehicle.

If you try to eat like the locals you can reduce your food bill. Weekend farmer’s markets are a place to find cheap produce. You can also have a decent meal for a few dollars at one of the local restaurants called, sodas. Go native and save!

Decent apartments can be found for around $500 and utility bills are a fraction of what they are in the United States. Heat and air conditioning are not needed in the Central Valley which equates to more savings.

Entertainment is also affordable with movies in costing around $5.
So, it is possible to retire abroad and have a quality lifestyle without having to work during one’s Golden Years.

By Christopher Howard on Living in Costa Rica

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas at NatureWalk

As a part of NatureWalk's commitment to the local community, NatureWalk and PRG Group sponsored a children's Christmas party in Pavonas, providing lunch, cake and gifts for the local children.

The next local project for NatureWalk is to include an internet connection for the local school as a part of the installation of the infrastructure in NatureWalk 2.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Exploring Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula


“Randal was supposed to be your guide into the rain forest today, but a tree fell on his house,” the woman behind the counter tells me. “He’s fine,” she goes on, seeing my concern, “but his house isn’t.” Later, I meet a woman who slipped during a heavy rain and was swept into a drainage pipe, sucked under a road, and flushed out the other side, unharmed. And then, a man tells me about the jeep he was driving that was carried away and out to sea while he was trying to ford a river.

It’s not so much that these stories are crazy—which they are—it’s the offhand acceptance with which they’re related that’s so alarming. “My best friend was hit by lightning,” recalls Juan Pinto, another Tico (as Costa Ricans refer to themselves). “Don’t worry, he’s fine now. Here, nature is totally in charge. The Osa is a wild place.” That wild side of Costa Rica is exactly what I’m here to experience.

Tiny Costa Rica, sitting at the heart of Central America, became an outdoor adventurer’s playground after emerging as an ecotourism poster child in the early 1990’s. Since then, tales of overdevelopment have been well documented. There’s a well-trodden circuit here: Hit the cloud forest of Monteverde, check out the Arenal volcano, and end up at the beach in Guanacaste. Ziplines, lava, and surf school. It’s a great vacation, but I was looking for the unscarred Costa Rica of years ago. Then I heard about the Osa Peninsula.

Jutting off Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, the Osa Peninsula is still a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches, and backwater settlements. The rough-and-ready town of Puerto Jiménez, on the banks of the Golfo Dulce, is the area’s main hub. It’s an unglamorous burg of a few thousand where dogs wander free, scarlet macaws squawk from trees, and Ticos pedal bikes slowly up and down the unnamed main street.

“This place does me a lot of good,” John Podson, a sandy-haired transplant from Cape May, New Jersey, tells me. “And if you’re into nature.…” He spreads his arms wide. “Otherwise, there’s not a lot going on here.” That wasn’t always the case. In the mid 20th century, gold-rush fever ran deep in the Osa.

At Pulpería el Tucán, a wood-and-cement general store a few miles outside of town, I watch a young girl walk in, plunk down a pinky-nail-size chunk of gold that was mined from the nearby Río Tigre, and walk out with a chicken, a few potatoes, and some celery. Behind the counter, Sandra Campos pulls out her small digital scale and weighs the raw nugget. “To pay in gold, that’s just life here,” she says.

Outside, I come upon a sturdy man, known to me only as Edwin, who agrees to take me a short way up the Río Tigre to try my luck at gold panning. Knee-deep in the rushing water, Edwin pries large rocks free to create a small eddy and lays down a metal trough through which the water funnels. It begins to rain—hard. Edwin doesn’t seem to notice. Using a circular tin pan, he begins to sift the larger stones away. His thick hands work with delicate precision. It stops raining as quickly as it began, and eventually the grain of soil in the pan is fine. The sediment swirls. Edwin’s fingers dance over the tray. And suddenly, as if by magic, a dusting of gold settles at the bottom of the pan. My pockets a little heavier, I head back to town.

I’m told the man i’m looking for lives near the cemetery, beside the landing strip. And that’s just where I find John Lewis. A small man with thick glasses, he still looks very much like the insurance lawyer he was 25 years ago. Lewis and his then wife came here in the late 1980’s, looking to change their lives. They bought a thousand acres of remote rain forest about 12 miles south of Puerto Jiménez and built Lapa Rios, one of the first eco-lodges in the Osa Peninsula. “The only place people suggested wenotgo was here,” Lewis says. “It was full of jaguars, snakes, crocodiles, and no people. When we found that out, we came here as fast as we could.”

Lapa Rios has 16 cabins set high up on the hillside with views out over the canopy and down to the ocean, where surfers ride one of the longest breaks in the Pacific. The lodge is environmentally sensitive and discreetly run—a soft landing in a wild spot. A few feet outside the main entrance, I watch a 15-foot boa constrictor coil itself around a fig tree. Just off the deck outside my room, a toucan with a long rainbow beak lands on a branch, and spider monkeys scamper across the railing in front of me.

Down the hill from Lapa Rios, in a lushly forested area known as Matapalo, the expat crowd convenes each Friday evening in an open-air bar named Buena Esperanza, which everyone knows simply as Martina’s. Martina Hoffmann, a blond, heavily tattooed earth mother/surfer chick, came to the Osa from Düsseldorf, Germany, 18 years ago, “By pure luck,” she explains. “And I thought this place needed a bar.” Colored Chinese lamps hang beside a disco ball. Surfboards and Tibetan prayer flags adorn the area by the kitchen. “Everyone’s welcome here,” Hoffmann says. “Kids, grandmothers, Ticos, expats, tourists—although we don’t get too many of those. But they’re coming.” Hoffmann locks eyes with me, leans in close, and winks. “There’s magic in the Osa.”

It’s a sentiment I hear often, and one shared by Seattle native Kurt Kutay. Kutay runs Wildland Adventures, and he’s been leading tours down to the Osa Peninsula for 25 years. “There are very few places like it,” he says. “We’re way off the grid, in the middle of the rain forest, and I’m sipping a nice cold beer.” Kutay’s in the Osa now to do a little surfing and take stock of the changes. “It’s still very pristine here, the way it was when we first came.”

But all that may be changing. A proposed hydroelectric dam just across the Golfo Dulce from the Osa is in an advanced stage of development. The El Diquís project, backed by the national electrical utility, would provide power for more than a million households, with the potential to employ thousands. But it would also flood almost 17,500 acres of land, including parts of the Térraba and China Kichá indigenous reserves. An international airport is also being considered for the area. “Can the ecosystem take that?” longtime Osa resident Nichole DuPont asks from a bar in Drake Bay, on the Osa’s northern shore. She shrugs and answers her own question: “Check back in ten years.”

There’s strong local support here for keeping things wild. “There’s no resort tourism on the Osa,” says Mike Boston, who has lived in the region since 1996. “If anybody paves that road, there will be people out there at night digging it up.”

For now at least, the road remains pretty raw, and beyond Lapa Rios, it gets rougher. Years ago, patches of the rain forest along here were cleared for cattle; lean cows, hip bones protruding, nibble grass or lie in the shade. Acacia and palms line the road. It hasn’t rained in some time and the Río Oro is low. I ford it without managing to lose my jeep. Coming out of a bend in the unpaved road I see a barefoot man on horseback moving toward me. A two-foot machete hangs from his hip. I slow to a stop. The horse settles beside me, and a man with a black moustache and dark eyes stares down.

Read the full story on

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Health and Nature

If you are thinking of moving to Costa Rica or just shopping for a real estate investment you might want to look at it as an investment in your childrens health and well being.

Lots of people that dream of moving to tropical paradise surrounded by nature. Have we ever wondered why this might be. Well it turns out it is only “natural” to want to be surrounded by the very eco system that gives you life. This, it turns out, is hugely important for children and adults need to reconnect their children to nature.

In Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods — Saving kids from Nature-Deficit Disorder” he talks about the damaging affects of raising children in a world where they have more “screen time” than “stream time”. Kids grow up so detached from nature he says that they have much higher risk of health problems such as obesity and attention disorders. He also argues that this detachment from nature could have a devastating affect on future generations and the functioning of societies.

For those that have moved to Costa Rica and found themselves in a tropical paradise surrounded by nature like on the ridges of the Dominical area surrounded by jungle with views of the Pacific I can assure you that their stress levels have dropped. If you decide to move down to an area of Costa Rica surrounded by nature and you have your children experience the beauty of the tropics you will be opening them up to the natural world at an early age which will be nothing but beneficial to their future health.

Richard Louv studied the effects of kids lacking exposure to nature and it would be interesting to study how much health improvement has resulted from a move to Costa Rica.

Read the full story on

Friday, December 9, 2011

EU set to ban illegal timber from 2012


The EU is set to finally ban illegal timber in 2012 after protracted legal wrangling over the issue.

After two years of negotiations, legislators reached a compromise on a deal that will require companies to trace where their timber was harvested.

Up to 40% of the world's wood production is estimated to come from illegally logged tropical forests.

MEPs will vote on the proposal in July before it is presented to the European Council in the autumn.

Members of the European Parliament and the European Council on Wednesday reached a provisional agreement that there should be a "prohibition" on illegal timber in the EU.

'Substantial penalties'

The plans also set out the responsibilities along the supply chain, and say companies will have to carry out risk assessments and use "due diligence" systems in areas where illegal activities are suspected.

"Substantial penalties would apply in cases of non-compliance, which could be calculated on the basis of environmental damage caused," the European Parliament said in a statement.

The Finnish Green MEP who steered the legislation through the parliament, Satu Hassi, welcomed the agreement.

"I am delighted that the Parliament was able to secure fundamental improvements to the draft regulation on illegally harvested timber," she said.

However, timber used to produce printed material such as books and newspapers will be exempt for a further five years.

Illegal logging is a major driver of deforestation, with the volume of industrial wood from illegal sources estimated at 350-650m cubic metres each year.

Although certification schemes do exist, experts say that in many regions, just as much timber is logged illegally as legally, making it very difficult for consumers to make an ethically based choice.

Illegal logging is blamed for depressing timber prices, strips natural resources and tax revenues, and increases poverty of people who depend upon forests.

"The world's largest market is about to shut its gates to companies profiting from illegal trafficking and forest destruction," said Sebastien Risso, forest policy director for Greenpeace EU.

"The black market for wood products is often run by criminals fuelling conflict, robbing governments of revenue and causing irreversible environmental destruction."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Ten Most Popular Destinations in Costa Rica

By the Costa Rica Guide

The most popular tour route in Costa Rica encompasses must see destinations: volcanoes, beaches and cloud and rainforests.

The individual destinations described below were chosen in a purely objective manner based on visitor statistics compiled by the ICT, SINAC and MINAE. For others there are no statisics and we deterimined the most popular by personal observation, and talking to residents, expats and people in the travel industry to come to a consensus.

Also have a look at the most popular adventures in Costa Rica, and the best kept secrets for Costa Rica travelers.

The single most visited place in Costa Rica is the capital San José. More travelers are taking advantage of the "new" international airport in Liberia but San José is the hub for all domestic flights and public buses. Because the geography demands that nearly all roads lead to the capital the majority of foreign visitors spend at least a day or two there.


Manuel Antonio is the most popular National Park beach in Costa Rica. So popular in fact that several years ago the park service imposed strict limits on the number of visitors to prevent the tiny natural area from being loved to death.

Playas Tamarindo and Jacó are a tossup for the most popular surfing beach, but Tamarindo is coming on strong, and Jacó is fading.

On opposite sides of Cabo Blanco at the tip of the Nicoya peninsual, Playas Montezuma and Mal País(Santa Teresa) are the most popular "undiscovered" beach destination in Costa Rica.

Turtle Nesting

Tortugero National Park is the premier destination to observe sea turtle nesting. The canals and estuaries are also prime locations for nature cruises, canoeing, and kayaking.

Rain Forest

The most popular rainforest in Costa Rica measured by the number of visitors each day is Braulio Carillo National Park. It stradles the Guápiles highway, the main route from San José to the Caribbean coast. Most of the traffic just passes through perhaps pausing at some of the scenic overlooks, but there are beautiful trails for those who want to explore more.

Cloud Forest

Monteverde —This private reserve provides the easiest access to the cloud forests, and an infrastructure of guides and resources to help you make the most of your visit. Like Manuel Antonio, it has gained tremendously in popularity, but has much less chance of being loved to death. Monteverde is much larger, the cool, wet, windy weather means shorter visits, and as a private reserve it has better funding than most of the National Parks. Despite the growth in tourism in the surrounding community, a few hundred yards off the main loop (el triangulo) you may still have the trail to yourself.

Hot Spring

Tabacón resort is far and away the most popular hotspring in Costa Rica. The Tabacón river is heated as it flows close to surface lava seams on the slopes of Arenal volcano.

Visitors enjoy views of the eruptions from seats under the heated waterfalls and in the swim up hot pool bars. Qite possibly the most relaxing spot in Costa Rica as long as it doesn't make you nervous that the resort isdirectly in the path if a major eruption occurs. The Costa Rican government has considered forcing the resort to relocate but so far the popularity of the current location has prevented it.


Owing to its spendor, and location next to the highway from Barva to San Miguel, the waterfall popularity champion is La Paz. Many visitors just stop for a few minutes, take a picture or two and head on to Arenal. Others spend a night or two in the Peace Lodge and take advantage of the improved trails to the upper falls and butterfly gardens.

Nature Cruise

The canals of Tortuguero and wetlands of Cano Negro are the most popular places to sit back relax and let the boatman be your guide to bird and wildlife spotting. Caño Negro has a slight edge in numbers because of the popularity of day tours, but Tortuguero gets many more overnight visitors. The mangroves of the Damas estuary are gaining popularity with tourist from the adjacent Manuel Antonio area.


Most people familiar with Costa Rica would immediately think of Arenal's fiery Lava flows if asked for the most visited volcanic destination, but it's actually third on the list. Irazu and Poas volcanoes each attract more than twice as many tourists as Arenal. In fact they're the two most popular National Parks in the country.


Corcovado and Chirripo draw most of the trekkers in Costa Rica. You don't necessarily even need a tent. Corcovado has some bunk space at the backcountry ranger stations, and Chirripó has a refugio system that includes 60 bunks near the summit.

To read the full article in the Costa Rica Guide click here

Monday, December 5, 2011

Birdwatching in Costa Rica

For the uninitiated, a bird watcher’s enthusiasm for hearing, sighting and studying our feathered friends, is hard to fathom. Why would anyone rise with the sun, walk for hours while toting binoculars, spotting scope, tripod, field guide, check list and notebook just to observe something so mundane as a bird? We all see birds every day, so what’s the big deal? Hard-core bird watchers have even been the brunt of jokes and cartoons. One of my favorites is a Gary Larson Far Side Cartoon with a view through a pair of binoculars, showing a large nasty looking bird sitting in an equally large nest, staring evilly at the observer -- the person looking through the binoculars. Dangling from the edge of the nest are several pairs of binoculars, a birder’s hat and a tote bag with a Field Guide to the Birds of America. No caption was necessary.

Seriously though, bird watching is big business, and Costa Rica is a hot spot for birders. To begin, it is located in the tropics, a warm hospitable climate, midway between the North and South American continents. Migrants from both may find a warm haven during their respective winters. It also has coastline on two oceans. In altitude
Costa Rica’s terrain ranges from sea level to nearly 4000 meters (13,000 feet,) well above timberline. In the tropics, a slight change in altitude brings a corresponding change in climate. There are more than 20 micro-climates in Costa Rica, and A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, list 20 distinct habitats found in the country. Because of this diversity of environmental conditions and factors, Costa Rica is host to over 830 species of birds, more than the United States and Canada combined.

As any ecotourism establishment well knows, bird watching enthusiasts come from every part of the world. I remember an afternoon in January of 2004 when all six of Hacienda Barú’s cabins were rented to bird watchers from as many different countries. Prior to setting out for their late afternoon birding hikes, everyone had congregated in the garden to compare notes and checklists. Spotting scopes, field guides, cameras and binoculars surrounded the tables where the aficionados were gathered. The enthusiasm was contagious as people from
Costa Rica, United States, Canada, Germany, Spain, and England talked excitedly about the one thing they all had in common, an intense interest in birds.

I have long admired British bird watchers. This is partly because their approach to birding is so methodical, but also because my first birding experience with experts was with a British couple named Roger and Sharon. The experience took place in the late 1980’s when we had just begun to cater to ecotourism at Hacienda Barú. The couple stopped by one afternoon and scheduled a hilking tour called “The Rainforest Experience” for the next day. When I told them that they would see many more birds in the lowlands on the “Mangrove Walk,” Roger agreed, but said the birds would probably be ones they had already logged during their two weeks in
Costa Rica. What they wanted to see were the rainforest birds, fewer species in a habitat with limited visibility and unlimited hiding places. We scheduled the “Rainforest Experience” for the next morning, before daybreak. Little did I suspect that within 24 hours I would be afflicted with bird watching fever; that I would return from the hike a full-fledged addict.

We made it to the rainforest campsite about the same time as the first crimson rays of sunlight filtered through the rainforest canopy. Over a breakfast of coffee and sweet rolls we listened to a cacophony of jungle wake-up sounds, hundreds of creatures struggling to make themselves heard. No small portion of the calls came from birds. Roger would cock a thoughtful ear to one side for a moment or two and pronounce the name of the bird that had made the sound. The most interesting sighting at the jungle camp was a pair of Mealy Parrots, large impressive birds that squawked outrageously for the duration of breakfast. It was a first for me, but Roger and Sharon had already logged it elsewhere. Preparing to set out through the forest, Roger described the type of habitat they were looking for, areas with thick under story and vine growth. Antbirds and manakins were what they really hoped to see. I pretended to know what they were talking about.

Roger’s highly trained eyes and ears picked up many birds that I missed. I saw all the toucans, motmots and big red headed woodpeckers, but those didn’t seem to impress my clients. Instead they seemed more excited about some of the little birds that I tended to dump into the single category of “little brown jobs” or “LBJ’s.” But, as I listened to Roger and Sharon, their enthusiasm captivated me. My education was only beginning.

Within an hour after leaving camp we began hearing calls from several distinct bird species. The sounds all seemed to be coming from the same general area. As we approached, the volume and number of different calls increased.

“This is a birder’s dream,” said Roger, smiling. “Certain species of birds have learned to look for any sort of commotion that disturbs the insects and small invertebrates. They hang out nearby and grab everything that flies, hops or runs from the source of the commotion. Sometimes they follow monkeys, but marauding army ants cause more havoc.”

Carnivorous army ants hunt by fanning out as they march through the jungle like a battalion of soldiers. They try to surround, capture and eat everything in their path. When army ants are on the prowl, general panic ensues in the animal world. Insects, beetles, lizards and small mammals flee for their lives. A number of different bird species have learned to take advantage of this general panic by hanging out around the edges of the ant mass and picking off all the small animal life that escapes. Upwards of 20 species of birds may participate in a mixed feeding flock, each one with its own specialty.

The first one we saw was a Chestnut-backed Antbird as it scurried around on the ground at the edge of the ants, snapping up beetles and roaches that bolted from beneath sticks and rocks. Another ground feeder, the Scaly-throated Leaftosser, was more aggressive, tossing fallen leaves left and right and snatching what hid beneath. A pair of Buff-throated Foliage-gleaners searched the lower branches and leaves of bushes for insects, occasionally dropping to the ground to rummage in leaf litter. A little higher in the foliage Sharon spotted a Black-hooded Antshrike flitting through the under story, snaring an occasional insect. Higher still was a Russet Antshrike pulling apart a cluster of leaves, probing for whatever morsel might be shrouded inside. A Tawny-winged Woodcreeper grabbed a fleeing spider that scampered up a tree trunk ahead of a fan of army ants. Higher up on a neighboring tree was a Buff-throated Woodcreeper searching every crack and crevice, always hopping up the trunk, never down. A pair of White-throated Shrike-Tanagers were catching insects on the wing, flying out from a perch in short sallies. A Black-throated Trogon was hungrily gobbling down larger insects such as katydids and cicadas, and a Double-toothed Kite was hunting everything that moved. A Chestnut-mandibled Toucan was even hanging out in the crown of a large tree, waiting for any opportunity. We identified 18 different species, five of which were new for Roger and Sharon and eleven for me, although I am sure there were more. Roger pointed out that each species was represented by no more than one pair. Any new species was welcome to enter the group, because it would stick to its own specialty and not compete with the others. Every species took advantage of one niche or place where its prey might be found, but didn’t interfere with other species. However, if another member of a species already present in the flock tried to join, it would be soundly rebuffed by its own kin. The resident would defend the niche against intruders, and the only likely competitors would be members of its own species. We hiked on through the forest totally vitalized by the experience.

We passed through an area where the under story seemed denser and the vine growth thicker. I heard a loud snapping sound but couldn’t imagine what might be making it. As we got closer, I noticed that the “snap” was preceded by a “buzz.” Ever more curious I carefully scanned the surrounding foliage for the source of this strange disturbance. I spotted the Manakins almost at the same time as Roger.

“Unbelievable! Absolutely amazing! I have never seen this,” he whispered. “This must be the mating dance of Pipra mentalis, the Red-capped Manakin. Brilliant!”

The setting was as perfect as a carefully set stage arranged precisely for the actors that were performing in this pristine theater. At center stage sat the dull, light-greenish, rather nondescript female, preening herself while four suitors took turns competing for her favor. Her throne was a small twig. Four longer branches, each coming from a different direction, extended inward toward the princess, with one aspiring beau on each. One by one each of the males danced the length of his branch, starting on the far end with his bright red head bobbing, his vibrant orange thighs and yellow legs in a flurry of movement, carrying his coal black body the length of his branch to within a few centimeters of his lady love. At this point he emitted a loud “buzz,” leaped into the air and made the loud “snap” that had attracted me to the scene. The “snap” was so quick that it was impossible to discern how he produced it. I remember thinking that it might be by clapping the wings together, but then discarded that possibility thinking that the force necessary to make such a loud “snap” would certainly break wing bones. The fervent suitor repeated his dance in an outward direction finishing with another buzz and snap. Then he waited quietly, the perfect gentleman, while his rivals made their bids. During the entire performance, the object of all this attention, the lady in waiting, appeared not to realize that she was the big attraction, and totally ignored all four aspirants. After each proud
Costa Rica performer had received two or three opportunities, the seemingly unimpressed female stopped preening herself, sat up, looked around and flew away. The four males looked at each other, totally dumfounded, jumped into the air and flew after her. I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Roger explained that the stage for this incredible mating game is called a lek. A Guide to the Birds of
Costa Rica confirmed that the loud “snap” was, indeed, produced by slapping the wings together. Each species of manakin has a slightly different version of the dance. Though four other species of manakin are found on Hacienda Barú, Blue-crowned Manakin, White-ruffed Manakin, Orange-collared Manakin and Thrushlike Manakin, even Roger admitted he couldn’t tell the females apart. The males, however, are quite distinct. With the exception of the Thrushlike manakin, all of these forest denizens have leks and ritual dances, and make a high pitched peep each time they jump up into the air from their perch. In Spanish their common names tend to suggest jumping or dancing, “saltarin” or “bailarin”. They are all small and beautiful, but none quite so charming as my redheaded favorite.

Though we sighted several more birds, the walk home was uneventful in comparison to the spectacles we had already witnessed. Though I was supposed to be the guide, in all honesty, I did little more than keep us from getting lost. Roger and Sharon were the experts, and they graciously shared their knowledge as well as their enthusiasm. Never again would I wonder at the fervency of the typical bird watcher. That day was my initiation into a new world.

Bird watching means more to me than the excitement and satisfaction that comes from the pursuit and identification of avian species. I firmly believe that the conservation and regeneration of the rainforest is of utmost importance for the future of our planet. I also believe that the only that way conservation will work is to make it profitable. There simply aren’t enough philanthropists in the world with enough money to save these critical natural environments. If however, we can find ways to make a living from intact rainforests, without harming them, we will have a built-in incentive to protect them. Responsible ecotourism is a proven method for doing this. Without ecotourism we could not afford to protect Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge and maintain it in its natural state.

Article courtesy of Jack Ewing

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Aeromexico commences biofuels service between Mexico City and Costa Rica

In Mexico, the country’s largest airline, Aeromexico, has just begun using a 25% biofuel mixture on its flights from Mexico City to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As part of the “Green Flights” project designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a Boeing 737 will now fly the route using a mixture of 75 percent conventional jet fuel and 25 percent synthetic paraffin biokerosene.

Aeromexico carried out its first transoceanic commercial flight using biofuels last month on the Mexico City-Madrid route.

Read the full story on the biofuels digest here