I'll Not Be Home for Christmas (Costa Rica - Part 2)

Updated: Jan 28

12/17/2021 - 12/24/2021


As I mentioned in my previous post, we decided to travel during the holidays, again. We planned a trip that spanned the holiday and allowed Carmen to follow her dream of doing another Spanish immersion class. I joined her after her first week of classes.


After discussing several locations for Carmen to take her classes, we settled on Costa Rica. There were several reasons for this. 1) It was a country we were familiar with, and one that we trusted she would be safe in while on her own for a bit. 2) It was a place that I could comfortably drive. 3) Most importantly, for her, the school was located near a couple places we had planned to visit on our first trip to Costa Rica but had gotten rained out on the days we planned to visit.


Since we are discussing rain, let's get this out of the way. No matter what you read on the internet, the "dry season" in Costa Rica does not start in December. It starts in January. It rains quite often in December; almost daily. We were told that the thunderstorms were unusual, but it is hard to take that seriously. Later, we would head north, towards Sarapiqui, and we were told that they get more rain there in December than any other time of year. A lot of times, the rain is not awful, and you can still enjoy time out in it. On the flip side, it can quickly turn into a complete downpour that you really just do not want to be out in. Depending on where you are at, the rain can be quite nice. It often drives birds to visit feeders; feeders that can see almost no activity on sunny days. In short, pack your rain gear for you and your gear, and make the best of it - or just wait until January.


The first place on Carmen's list of previous "misses" was Rainmaker. The place is about a half hour from Quepos and features a number of hanging bridges. We headed there on my first day in Costa Rica after spending the morning birding in Esquipulas. True to its name, the rain started falling as soon as we arrived. I carry a waterproof pack, and I had my rainjacket for me and a rain cover for my camera. If things got crazy, the camera goes into the pack and the hood goes up. No worries. There was no one around when we arrived; so, we hit the trails. The trails are not in great shape, and the bridges were not great either. What I crossed seemed safe enough. I was still pretty wore out from the previous day's travel and the early start. At one point, I decided to shortcut down to the river and would wait down there as Carmen finished the main loop around to the hanging bridges. Along the way, I did some birding and kept an eye open for frogs. I saw quite a few Black-and-green Poison Dart Frogs. Unfortunately, I could not get a photo of any of them. They were pretty lively in the rain. Couple that with the extreme darkness of the trail and their super small size.... Well, I have a lot of blurry shots. I was lucky enough to run across a pair of Orange-billed Sparrow. One perched up for a few shots before disappearing again. The only other bird I saw there was a Blue-crowned Manakin. Photos of an all black bird in the dark of the undercanopy did not go well. In the end, Carmen enjoyed her hike, got to cross a place off her wish list, and I got an okay shot of a beautiful sparrow. We had more success tracking down the owner on the way out and made sure to pay for our time on the trails.

Orange-billed Sparrow

Manual Antonio NP is one of the "must visit" places you hear about when discussing Costa Rica. One word is on everyone's lips - sloths. By far, one of the best places to see sloth. They have both Two-toed and Three-toed Sloth there. For this reason, the place attracts visitors by the hundreds. The entire area is basically a large tourist trap filled with sub-par restaurants, tourists, and people trying to scam tourists. If you are heading here, drive toward the park entrance, and do not stop for anyone (even when they step in front of the car) until you get to the location marked as the last parking lot. Pull in and pay they guy running the lot. It is reasonably priced and as close as you can get to the entrance. If you go to the beaches down here, know ahead of time which lots are free parking versus pay parking. People will try to charge unwitting visitors to park in the free lots.


Anyway, back to the reason why we are here. Carmen wanted to see sloths, and she had arranged for a guide on Sunday. We met our guide, Beatriz, at a local restaurant and then drove her down to the entrance where we met the rest of our group. Like most guides I have dealt with in Costa Rica, the guides here are amazing. It is incredible how easily they spot things. Years of practice and cooperation among the guides really pays off here. It is well worth paying for a guide; a bit expensive but worth it.


So, what did we see? Everything the guide could show us. We are tourists at this point. We are listening and patiently looking at everything the guide wants to point out. What we are wondering is when we will see a sloth. We saw anoles. We saw other various lizards. We saw land crabs. Things got more interesting when we saw some bats. Things went down a notch when she pointed out the huge morpho species of butterfly flying down the path. Howler monkey are great, but it was just sleeping lazily in a tree. Finally, we found a sloth; right were I would have expected one - in a cecropia tree. We ended up finding both species of sloth on our walk. They were not close and giving awesome looks, but they were easily seen. I think we had three this day. We walked on up to the cafe, where things were relatively peaceful, and then headed down to the beach. The guide did find a nice Boat-billed Night-Heron here; this was the first and only bird found by the guide. We saw another species of freaky bat that cannot close its eyes (Greater White-lined Bat), some more lizards, and hermit crabs as we rounded out the trip. The guide parted ways with us at the far end of the beach, and he walked back up to the cafe.


After a short break and some refreshment, we hiked over to another beach. Along the way, we suddenly heard a large crash from directly behind us. Turning around, we had walked right past a sloth that was hanging over the trail. Even crazier, we had walked past a sloth with a tiny baby. We would not make good guides. I tried hard to get some decent shots, but the lighting was tough and there were branches everywhere. I kept some phots, but they are not good.... It was still nice to see.


Birding was still painfully slow. I was up to about 6 species (not including the heard-only Tinamou species). Granted, I was not trying hard, but the park does not seem to host an extreme number of birds. I am sure there are plenty, but maybe they stay away from the busier areas? We walked the trail that cuts up to the overlook trail, and Carmen spotted a Black-throated Trogon. I decided I had done enough walking and cut back to the cafe. Carmen headed down to the overlook. I stopped to photograph some Chestnut-backed Antbirds along the way. At the cafe, chaos had erupted in the form of monkeys.


In the eyes of this troop of White-faced Capuchin, you are not a tourist, a person, or even all that particularly bright of a being. You are a victim. They walk around, hang out in the trees, distract, and watch. Above all, they watch. A moment of distraction is all they need. I watched a table full of people taking cell phone pics of the other monkeys as they were victimized. A nearby monkey hopped down near them, walked over, weaved its way around behind their backs, hopped up on the table right between two of people looking in different directions, stole some food, and was practically off the table before they even realized what was going on. It happened in a few seconds. And this happened repeatedly. Of course, there were also the Americans that were purposefully feeding the monkeys; in spite of the sign and warnings that prohibited it. When asked to stop feeding and touching the monkeys, they responded that the monkey was technically touching them when it was grabbing the food. *sigh*


Carmen eventually made it back from the overlook and spent a while taking photos and watching the antics. We headed back out the way we came and ran across our guide from Esquipulas, Jason, along the way. We got some better views of Howler Monkey on the way out, but the sloths (in spite of their purported laziness) had moved off and disappeared.


Fast-forward a few days, and I am back at the park. I was hoping to get more photos of, well, everything. I opted to not get a guide and bought a solo ticket off the Manuel Antonio NP site. At $20, it was cheap entertainment for the day. Well, it is a lot harder to see things on your own, and I did not want to be a jerk and ask the guides where things were at, exactly. I did okay, though. Birding was a bit better. I ran across a mixed species flock of warblers high up in a tree. The highlight was a Prothonotary Warbler. Down at the beach, I missed Boat-billed Night-Heron but pished out a Northern Waterthrush. I even closed out the visit with great views of a Cocoa Woodcreeper - a life bird for me. I had high hopes of spotting a Mangrove Hummingbird. I had two flybys down along the path through the hammocks, but the birds were too quick to ID and impossible to track down. I did a bit better on mammals, too. Agouti, Crab-eating Raccoon, White-nosed Coati, and Squirrel Monkey were all new for the trip. I had close but heavily obstructed views of a napping Two-toed Sloth. I even saw Costa Rica's national mammal up at the cafe. White-tailed Deer. Yep, travel the world; see exotic species. Rumor was that there was an anteater there the day before. It really is all about being in the right place at the right time. Time, money, resources, and luck play into everything. The morning quickly passed, and I headed back to the hotel to clean-up before Carmen returned from classes. It was a very sweaty but fun morning.


Some of the following photos are not all that great. The lighting was tough. Mostly, you are shooting in the dark. Sunnier areas provided their own challenge. Usually things were backlit and the lighting was tinted a harsh yellow-green from filtering through the canopy. I am happy that some turned out. I do wish the conditions for shooting the baby sloth had been better.... Next time.

Thanks for reading,

Mike



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