An Amazing Morning Walk in the Evening   3 comments


I have lived in Costa Rica now for 12 years.  For all of that time I have been based at Bosque del Cabo Rain Forest Lodge pursuing my studies as a research biologist.  My area of research is population dynamics of butterflies and amphibians measured against climatic variables, principally temperature and precipitation, to evaluate whether climate change is affecting the fauna and flora of this area of tropical season forest.  Due to the localized nature of the project and the fact that by necessity it involves monitoring over a long period of time I have been tied to the area for over a decade.  I don’t get out much.

Prior to the start of my studies, I had travelled extensively around Costa Rica, visiting many different locations to observe the richly varied habitats and the phenomenal diversity of life for which this small country is famous.  Now having spent 12 years at Bosque I am fairly familiar with the plants and animals found within its 800 acres.  The inventories I have made over that time of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and other invertebrates as well as the myriad forms of plant life would keep most biologists happy until the end of their days.  But I know there are other localized pockets of diversity that, despite their proximity, contain some species which are not found here on at Cabo Matapalo.

Schooldays

A good friend of mine, Mike Boston, (who I have known just about all of my adult life; we met at University 36 years ago where we shared, and still do, the same interest and passion for natural history), owns the most highly respected and renowned tour supply company on the Osa Peninsula, Osa Aventura.  Mike has been taking guided tours into Corcovado National Park for 15 years.   His reputation and esteem in the area are well deserved.  Mikes familiarity with the peninsula, the fauna and flora it contains coupled to his biological expertise and a personality that is willing to enthusiastically share a life of accumulated knowledge with his clients, (or anyone else who is happy to sit and chat over a drink or two) make him the area’s undisputed number one guide.  He also employs some of the best local guides who share his same vision of entertaining, educating and interpreting the natural world for those in their company.

Best of Friends

Escape from Paradise

A recent addition to the extensive range of tours Mike offers is a newly created ecotourism project started by a local man in the hills overlooking Corcovado.  The project is known as “La Tarde”.  As Mike now makes many guided trips to this site I decided to join him one day and go to see for myself everything that he was waxing lyrical about.  There are several species of reptile and amphibian that he regularly encounters there that have not recorded at Bosque.

The site of the project is a location off the main road between Puerto Jimenez and Chacarita, the turn south being made at the cemetery in the village of La Palma.  Once you leave the paved road and start up into the hills, the road at first is rough but rises gently for about 2 miles.  Then it starts to ascend more steeply so 4 wheel drive is most certainly required from this point on.  As you climb in elevation, some spectacular vistas open up on either side of the track.  Eventually after 5 miles you will reach the peak of the hill at 964 ft and then descend a short way to arrive at La Tarde.

La Tarde was started by the farmer on whose land it is located, Eduardo Castro.  Prior to the project Edaurdo had kept pigs, sheep, and chickens as well as tending vegetable gardens.  Unfortunately when you try to farm in the wild heart of the rain forest, then nature will visit you and sometimes with a frequency that you would rather it didn’t.  Jaguars arrived and ate the pigs, Pumas sneaked in and made off with the sheep, Ocelots raided the chickens and peccaries destroyed the vegetable gardens.  All of this did not happen of course on one night but progressively over a period of time.  Although at first Eduardo may have been frustrated and disconsolate, he realized it was not a situation he could endure.  But rather than fight nature, he decided to work with it and so was born the idea of ‘Ecotouristico La Tarde”.

Costa Rica in general is renowned for its fauna and flora and the Osa Peninsula in particular is regarded as a biodiversity hotspot within this special little country.  It also requires some effort to come down to and that along with its undeveloped nature gives both casual visitors and natural history aficionados the sense of being out in the remote and savage wild forest.  In point of fact, the rain forests of Costa Rica are fairly benign places with little potential danger being posed by the animals that inhabit its dark understory depths.  It is normally very safe to go walking through the forest especially if you stay on the trails.

For those who choose to go walking slowly with eyes and ears open, the rewards, in terms of sightings can be enormous.  If the terrain or habitat is unfamiliar to you, it is always advisable to go with a trained and recommended guide.  Mike has been leading tours through the forests of the Osa Peninsula for many years and very little escapes his eye.  With his profound knowledge of neotropical plants and animals, the walk that if you had taken it alone would have been no more than an enjoyable stroll, now becomes an eye-opening glimpse into one of the most complex series of biological interconnections known to man.  A local guide such as Eduardo, while lacking the formal scientific training, has a fantastic eye for spotting and when coupled to the immense knowledge of a man like Mike Boston that produces a dream team powerhouse duo whose company for one or two days will provide you with enough memories to savor for the rest of your life.

Yellow Peril

Snakes are never the easiest of creatures to find.  Some enthusiastic herpetologists come armed to the teeth with grab sticks and snake hooks and go off in search of some prize captures.  They can turn over every rock and log in the forest finally returning at the end of the day downhearted and disappointed at the lack of serpentine encounters.  These are rainforests; they are supposed to be teeming with life.  And so they are, it’s just that sometimes tropical rainforests are somewhat reticent about revealing the secrets they contain.  This is where hiring the right pair of eyes and local knowledge comes in.  There are snakes, they live in the trees, they live on the ground, they are out during the day, they are out at night, in short there are snakes everywhere all the time, you just might need some help finding them, (although there are never any guarantees).

In 12 years of walking the trails, almost on a daily basis, at Bosque del Cabo, I have found many snakes in terms of individuals and species but only on 3 occasions have I encountered the Eyelash Viper, (Bothriechis schlegelii).  All 3 have been of the mottled green morph, not the bright yellow coloring I had previously seen on the Caribbean coast.  Mike had told me that some yellow individuals had been seen lately at La Tarde.  So off we went, camera equipment packed, in search of this elusive but beautiful reptile.

We arrived at La Tarde early in the morning.  It was a gorgeous day, the sun was shining brightly and I was so happy to be out “herping” with Mike again.  I was full of optimism and looking forward to a great trip.  I had 4 species on my list, (5 really but the fifth was no more than a dream).  I wanted to photograph an Eyelash Viper, the Granulated Poison Arrow Frog, the Rocket Frog, the Aquatic Anolis Lizard and a Bushmaster.  The first 4 I had hopes of finding, the fifth, not.

La Tarde Restaurant

We got out the car and walked over to the restaurant where I was introduced to Eduardo and after exchanging pleasantries I explained my desired plan of action for the day and the animals I wanted to photograph.  Eduardo pointed to a bush at the side of the restaurant and little less than 3 feet in front of me was a stunningly little Eyelash Viper neatly coiled on a branch amongst the vegetation.  Not only that but it was one of the yellow morphs, this individual being of the most vivid lemon yellow imaginable.  This wasn’t going to be a great day; this was going to be a fantastic day, I hadn’t even got the camera out of the car yet.

Eyelash Viper

Vipers of the genus Bothriechis have a prehensile tail which is an indication of their largely arboreal habits. The Eyelash Viper is virtually unmistakable due to the two pointed scales above each eye forming the “lashes” which determined its name.  The Eyelash Viper is normally active at night and will take a wide variety of food including frogs, lizards, birds and sometimes even bats.  The purpose of the scales above the eyes is not really known but they may serve to prevent vegetation rubbing against the eye as it moves through dense foliage.  In Costa Rica, the yellow version is known as the “Oropel” or “Golden Skin” and the one I was looking at certain lived up to that.

Oropel

Granulated Poison

We have two regularly seen species of poison arrow frogs at Bosque del Cabo; the Black and Green Poison Arrow Frog, (Dendrobates auratus), that can seen in large numbers all over the forest floor, particularly in the wet season, and the Golfo Dulce Poison Arrow Frog, (Phyllobates vittatus), which prefers the moister sanctuary of the creek beds.  Having spoken to Mike, I knew there were localized pockets of two other species of Dendrobatid on the peninsula that we don’t find at Bosque.  One of these, having a rough skin, is known as the Granulated Poison Arrow Frog, (Oophagus granulifera).  I wanted to see this species especially as it has recently been found that in both distribution and abundance its numbers have been declining.

Granular Poison Arrow Frog

We set off on one of La Tarde’s 5 reasonably well maintained trails, this one eventually going to lead us down to a waterfall.  The path was bordered on either side by higher growing vegetation.  Mike stopped in his tracks and told me to listen.  There was an anuran chirping sound coming from within the vegetation which he informed me was the distinctive call of the Granular Poison Arrow Frog.  Most amphibians call be identified immediately by their species specific calls and doesn’t take long to acquaint yourself with the diversity of species you have in your area simply by using your ears.  The aural I.D. was quickly verified by the keen eyes of Eduardo who spotted the individual tucked in amongst a tangle of roots.  It was not in a good place to take a photo but I was excited to have seen my first Oophagus granulifera.

Less than 5 minutes later Eduardo said we were in a good location for finding this frog and within seconds he had produced a perfectly beautiful specimen perched on top of a leaf which simply invited a photo.  In 10 minutes and less than 100 yards and I had images of 2 of the creatures I had desired to see before arriving.  It didn’t matter what might happen next, the day was already made for me.

The Granular Poison Arrow Frog is a handsome species with a red head and body offset by blue green sides and belly.  The males call from the onset of the rains, particularly at the height of the rainy season from July to November.  They call early morning and late afternoon from low lying vegetation.  The males are very territorial and don’t suffer interloping males in their patch with much patience, physically wresting them out.  A female attracted to a males call will be lead by the male to a chosen site on the ground.  The female rubs her head on the males head, they then turn so as their rears are together, then the eggs are laid and fertilized.  Only 2-4 eggs are laid at a time although the female may lay more than one clutch.  The male looks after the clutches moving frequently between one and another.  When the tadpoles hatch, they crawl onto the females back.  She then ascends into the trees looking for plants that retain a body of water.  There she deposits the tadpoles but she doesn’t abandon them.  In a strange display of parental care, (at least as far as amphibians are concerned), the female regularly re-visits her offspring and lays an unfertilized egg in the water which constitutes their main source of dietary nutrition.  This oophagy, or egg-eating is what has given the frog its genus name.

Strangling Giant

Our next step was to go to the waterfall itself and try and find the aquatic anoles.  The path winds down through a forest setting of spectacular mature rain forest trees.  We were watching and listening intently for anything that may catch our attention.  The next thing that presented itself as a photographic opportunity was not moving or making a sound and we actually had to walk through it.  Straddling the path was probably the largest strangler fig I have seen. The anastamosing network of aerial roots that had been sent from germinating seeds in the canopy had given rise to this awesome specimen.  I had to use the wide angle lens to capture the full majesty of the tree.  Mike informed me the strangler was of a species endemic to the peninsular, Ficus zarazalensis.

Strangler Fig

The strangler figs are known locally as matapalos which translates into tree killers.  Just as with other figs they produce a huge crop of fruit.  Should a bird or a monkey consume one of these figs and then move off some distance later to defecate elsewhere in the canopy, then that is where the strangler fig seed will germinate.  The first thing they do upon germination is rapidly send roots to the ground where they will root and take up water and nutrient.  The epiphytic seedling has now become an hemiepiphyte.  Once that is in place, up in the canopy where it originally germinated, it sends out more shoots but this time up and above the host trees leaf layer.  It now produces its own leaf which overshadows the host tree.  Meanwhile the roots that had descended to the ground start to thicken grow in girth and wherever they touch proceed to fuse together.  Some matapalos produce a tight fitting shell around the host tree which being so constrained can no longer grow.  Up at the top it is now not receiving enough light to photosynthesize, it dies and as it decomposes consequently provides a large source of nutrient for the matapalo which subsequently becomes a tree, albeit a hollow one, in its own right.  This species has a more loosely meshed root system but a huge girth.

Ficus zarazalensis

Matapalo seeds will not germinate on matapalo bark so they can strangle any other tree in the forest but not each other.  You will quite often see pasture land with massive matapalos left standing.  The loggers do not take them down because they are hollow, the wood is difficult to cut and the timber has not value.  But their presence is not deleterious.  The matapalo is a complete ecosystem in itself, so lives in them, on them and the crown provides an excellent location for other epiphytes to grow.

Toxic Rocket

After having paused for photographs at the strangler fig it was now time to continue down to the waterfall.  Not too far from the tree Mike and Eduardo pointed out a young Hoffmanns Two-toed Sloth, (Choloepus hoffmanni), that was hanging from the underside of a branch, about 30 feet up and 10 feet off the path.  Neither the angle nor the lighting would have allowed a good photo.  It is not uncommon to see Three-toed Sloths, (Bradypus variegatus), but their 2 toed cousins are not seen as frequently.  Due to the fact that sloths inhabit the canopy and move very slowly it makes them difficult to observe.  The two-toed is more nocturnal in habits than the three-toed which compounds the difficulty.

A little further on the descending path we saw a small colony of Common Tent-making Bats, (Uroderma bilobatum), roosting under a leaf not too far above our heads.  I used to see these bats all the time at Bosque, but they have to keep changing their day roosts to stop predators being able to readily locate them and they change their night roosts depending on the proximity of the fruiting trees from which they will be bringing their nightly meal of whatever figs and berries may be in season.

We were approaching the end of the path when Mike found another snake, this time a small brown Litter Snake, (Coniophanes fissidens).  These are the most likely snakes to be seen by anyone walking the trails at Bosque.  As we watched the snake disappear into the leaf litter Mike brought my attention to another amphibian call I was not familiar with.  Seconds later calling from near my feet we had the third creature on my wish list for the day, the Rocket Frog, (Allobates flotator).  There are two species of Rocket Frog found on the Osa Peninsula; A. flotator has a white lateral stripe while A. talamancae does not.  This one most clearly does.

Rocket Frog

Although they belong to the family Dendrobatidae, the Rocket Frogs lack the bright aposematic coloring of the Granular, Golfo Dulce and Black and Green Poison Arrow Frogs that also live on the peninsula.  They are diurnal and the males call for females throughout the day from amongst the leaf litter, quite often near running water.  They mate and lay their eggs in the dead leaves on the forest floor.  When the eggs hatch and the tadpoles emerge the male will transport them on his back to the water where they then complete their development.

Spotting Danger

Well, three down, one to go but there was yet another surprise in store.  We made our way down the last few yards to the water fall.  There at the base was another snake.  It had fallen the day before on a branch that had crashed down from the top and it had stayed in the same area.  This was the largest Eyelash Viper I had ever seen.  Unlike the golden yellow individual that was hanging out by the restaurant this one was a bright green with beautiful orange spotting down the head and body.  It seemed to be reasonably placid, as most snakes are if they don’t feel threatened.  I managed to get fairly close to get some shots of the head.

Eyelash Viper

Eduardo said that several snakes seemed to have fallen from the top of the waterfall in the few days previous to our visit including a Terciopelo, (Bothrops asper), and a Boa, (Boa constrictor).

Bothriechis schlegelii

Life in the Chasm

Finally we arrived at the bottom of the path.  The light levels had dropped dramatically and we were faced with a sheer rock wall with a small creek cascading over its lip which was backlit by a shaft of sunlight penetrating the verdant umbrella of green.  At my feet was a large female Smoky Jungle Frog, (Leptodactylus savegei).  This spectacular amphibian is outsized only by large female Marine Toads, (Rhinella marinus), in Costa Rica.  The subtle hues of broken brown and gold blend the frog’s form almost invisibly into the dead leaf litter.  But I see many of these frogs at Bosque, what I wanted here was a little lizard.

Smoky Jungle Frog

Just as with the other 3 species on my wish list, I needed to wait no more than a matter of seconds before Mike and Eduardo started pointing them out.  There they were, the Water Anole, (Norops aquaticus), small, dark in color and clinging to the vertical cliff face beneath the spray of falling water.  This was going to present something of a photographic challenge and as it happens, one that I failed.  I did manage to get a shot but not quite as clearly in focus as I would have liked.  You can see the body covered in water droplets that exemplifies its predilection for aqueous habitats.

Water Anole

At Bosque I regularly see 5 species of anolis lizards, Norops polylepis, Norops biporcatus, Norops limifrons, Norops pentaprion and Norops capito.  The Water Anole is a fairly common species found throughout the south west of Costa Rica and typically along the banks of slow flowing streams.  There is a creek which winds back and forth through the land comprising Bosque but I have never seen this particular species here.  I think I am going to take another look.  To get a better picture I think it is imperative to go back to ‘La Tarde’.

La Tarde Waterfall

Pre-Colombian Days

Once all the photographs had been taken, Mike, Eduardo and I made our way back up to the restaurant area.  Duly a flask of coffee and a pitcher of fresh lemonade were produced and we sat down for lunch.  It had been a wonderful morning’s walk.  I had images of all the things I had wanted to see and some more besides.  Even if we hadn’t accomplished the photographic mission, seeing ‘La Tarde’ through the interpretive eyes and ears of Mike and Eduardo had been delightful.

View From La Tarde

As we sat chatting I found out a little more about the project and its location.  It was named after the Quebrada La Tarde which means ‘Evening Creek’.  The stream that flows through the property had previously been panned for gold.  It passes through a narrow gorge where it gets very dark giving the impression of the sun setting and the evening darkness descending.  It had been owned by Eduardo’s mother before him but she was not the first to have lived here.  Digging anywhere around the grounds will unearth a never ending source of Pre-Colombian pottery.  There are items such as axe heads on the reception desk and Eduardo has a collection of maize grinders put to one side.  Fossils of a Quaternary age can also been found in the sediments around the grounds.

Pre-Colombian Pottery

From the restaurant area, over the period of lunch I also managed to see a lot of skipper butterfly species taking nectar from the purple flowers of a large patch of Porterweed, (Stachytarpheta frantzii).  From the surrounding forest I could hear the calls of the Little Tinamou and the Laughing Falcon.  Scarlet Macaws and a Swallow-tailed Kite flew overhead.  Around the restaurant were the continual comings and goings of House Wrens, Bananaquits, Variegated Seedeaters and both Rufus-tailed and Stripe-throated Hummingbirds.

If ever you are ever visiting Costa Rica or on the Osa Peninsula and want to find one of those hidden but magical places then ‘La Tarde’ is it.  Take a look at their facebook page for details.

https://www.facebook.com/ecoturistico.latarde?ref=ts

Or better still get in touch with Mike Boston at:

www.mike@osaaventura.com

He will ensure that your visit will be as memorable as mine was.  If you are interested in something a little more adventurous then go to the Osa Aventura website for a detailed list of tours into Corcovado National Park and the surrounding area.

www.osaaventura.com

Oropel

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3 responses to “An Amazing Morning Walk in the Evening

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  1. Wow! What an awesome morning Philip! Those herps are all fantastic but the Golden Eyelash Viper is spectacular. That’s one snake that I would love to see. Congratulation on such great pictures.

  2. Hi Phil,
    Good to see that bro Mike is doing well, please say hello to Mike from Olivier 😉

    For information I used to see the Golden Eyelash Viper at Lana’s place above Carate.

    Cheers
    Olivier

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