Costa Rica allows a writer to realize a dream, see new bird species

As Published in The Leader-Telegram

They have a saying in Costa Rica: “Pura vida.”

It literally translates as “pure life,” but to Costa Ricans, it can be inserted into many contexts and applications: “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” “So it goes,” “Wonderful.” It is used so freely here I wouldn’t be surprised if it meant, “Pass the papaya, por favor.”

I’d dreamed of visiting Costa Rica since I was 12, and recently for two glorious weeks I got to sample the “pure life” – visiting the southernmost quarter of this West Virginia-sized nation – from San Jose down nearly to Panama.

My introduction to the Pacific rain forest lowlands began with Roy Orozco, a soft-spoken, gracious naturalist out of Quepos. First light for birding in the tropics is 5:30 a.m., so Roy picked me up at 4 a.m. at the Costa Verde II parking lot near Quepos to drive an hour and a half up the coast to Carara National Park, west of San Jose.

Carara, one of Costa Rica’s marquee ecotourism destinations, is a unique mix of “life zones,” where the drier habitat of the north meets the wet lowlands of the south.

A day in the field with Roy – a whirlwind of activity from pre-dawn to post-sunset – netted us 110 bird species, lounging crocodiles, great conversation, much learning, and casados for lunch – Costa Rican “comfort” meals typically composed of salad, beans, rice, potatoes, fried plantains and a meat side.

The special of the day was pollo sudado – “sweaty chicken,” traditionally enjoyed with a cold beer and a splash of Lizano salsa – the national condiment of choice.

The heady blend of Costa Rican highlights rendered me emotionally and intellectually lightheaded. We decided to do it again the next day.

At 4 a.m. the next morning, we barreled – a generously mild description of Costa Rican driving style – up the highway to San Isidro and beyond, rising 8,500 feet into the cloud forest at Mirador de Quetzales, a rustic Costa Rican-run resort where the quetzal is king.

If you don’t know about the resplendent quetzal, you haven’t been paying attention in life. The male quetzal is a 2-foot-long (more than half of which is tail) beauty decked in iridescent red and green. The female, even without the tail, could star in her own TV series.

The quetzal is the Holy Grail bird. Nature lovers everywhere seek it, and when they do, they pilgrimage to Costa Rica.

So here too was I. It was 41 degrees in the dawn, and because of poor planning, I was wearing sandals. But the adrenaline rush of seeing birds such as the fiery-throated hummingbird, the flame-colored tanager and the flame-throated warbler kept me warm.

We located six quetzals feeding in the fruiting moss-draped avocado trees, plus a dizzying assortment of other high-altitude wonders such as the yellow-thighed finch, long-tailed silky-flycatcher, slaty flowerpiercer and wrenthrush.

From there we traveled down a long valley to Savegre Mountain Lodge, where a leisurely mountain hike provided birding highlights such as the black-faced solitaire, the sulphur-winged parakeet and spangle-cheeked tanagers – eight in one tree.

A quick stop before dark descended like a velvet curtain at 5:30 p.m. rewarded us with the green-crowned brilliant hummingbird, silver-throated tanager and a total of 70 bird species for the day – a full half of which I had never seen before.

Back in my room the phone rang. It was Roy calling to joke that “he missed me already.” I thanked him again for the thrill ride. It had been a fantastic two days exploring southwestern Costa Rica, but the biggest part of my adventure was yet to come.

The next day I returned to San Jose to meet up with a contingent heading down the Pacific Coast to the Osa Peninsula.

The tour was led by Craig Thompson, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources West Central District land program manager based in La Crosse, in conjunction with Osa Conservation, a Costa Rican nongovernmental, nonprofit conservation organization.

The rest of the group consisted of Mary, Craig’s wife; Carole Schneider-Phillips of La Crosse; Sarah Hole and Eileen Mershart of Madison; Mary Jo and Tom Clark of Melrose; and Rory Cameron of Chippewa Falls. Rory and I had decided to team up with the tour back in June.

After an hourlong flight, we deplaned at the jungle airstrip in Puerto Jimenez. For the next six and a half days, it would be just us and the rain forest, but the rain forest has got a lot of personality.

Five percent of the world’s bird diversity – more than 800 species – lives in Costa Rica, half of them in the Osa Peninsula. Fifty-five of those bird species breed in Wisconsin and winter in the Osa Peninsula – the “Wisconsin-Costa Rican connection” that is at the root of the tour’s origins. (Among those birds are the Tennessee warbler, golden-winged warbler and Baltimore oriole.)

The Bell Family Foundation, a private charitable foundation, donates annually to the DNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources. Of that, $25,000 is passed on to Osa Conservation to help preserve rain forest habitat. A $500 portion of the trip cost each of us had paid also went directly to the cause.

“You try to protect as much forest as possible,” Thompson said. “There is a real urgency associated with this kind of work.

“This is such a beautiful place that a lot of people from Europe, Canada and the United States are coming down and building second homes, and as a result, land prices are skyrocketing.”

In the 1970s Costa Rica experienced one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. By the ’80s, national parks like Carara and Corcovado, in the Osa Peninsula, were being created.

Costa Rica faces a bit of an irony. The beautiful parks that support the country’s No. 1 “product” – ecotourism – are still threatened.

Gold miners that work the parks poach freely, sometimes bragging of killing off hundreds of wild peccaries, or pigs.

There is talk of building an international airport in the mangrove forest where the endangered yellow-billed cotinga lives.

But the real indicator of habitat health lies not in bird populations, but with cats. As the jaguar goes, so go the birds.

“The jaguar is the umbrella species, so if you protect enough for them, everything else falls in place. Their primary prey is peccaries so you need the big forest to keep everything stitched together,” Thompson said.

Even the grand idea of pristine forested parks isn’t enough. “Islands” of good habitat do not ensure viable gene pools.

“What we want to do is create a corridor that extends from the tip of the peninsula all the way up to Corcovado’s southern boundary,” Thompson said. “You’ve got a swath of protected lands that extend from Corcovado, so you’re not going to get isolated patches of forest that result in isolated populations and the host of problems associated with that.”

Studies have shown birds forced into subprime habitat arrive later and have smaller clutches of eggs, while birds that come from healthy habitat are more successful breeders.

“If tropical forests cease to exist, the birds are gone. It’s really very basic,” Thompson said.

So, why not invest in Costa Rica?

“(U.S. citizens are) currently sending $180,000 a year to Canada to support wetlands conservation – supported mainly by waterfowl stamps. This is a chance for birders to step up to the plate. It’s a really big deal.”

Our bird guide for the week, Nito Castro, was one of sharpest naturalists I’ve ever met. Not only was he a step ahead of me on all the birds, but he could line them up in the scope before most of us could get them in our binoculars.

He did it all on a gallon of gallo pinto a day – a Costa Rican staple consisting of black beans and rice – well … maybe two gallons.

The “jungla” isn’t for everyone, and I think that is a good thing. This is not a place for the tiny hawk of heart. Paltry tyrannulets need not apply.

You are going to tramp for miles in clunky knee-high boots meant to guard your shins from venomous snakes and you are going to sweat.

You also will pass beneath “cicada showers.” So many of the insects are feeding in the treetops that their bodily waste sometimes falls down like rain from the canopy.

And the spiders here eat small birds.

But I survived each day supremely, thank you. My only complaint was a serious case of “binocular shoulder” from watching all the birds high in the trees.

From the veranda at supper, we admired the coastline tailing off to the northwest. Bunking down for the evening, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf broken by the tremulous wails of great tinamous and the purring of crested owls.

Once again we rose before light for a bite to eat before hiking. Nito pointed out not just the slaty-tailed trogons and the charming hummingbirds, but also tent-making bats; ajo – or “garlic trees”; and a parrot snake.

The group paused faithfully at every scarlet macaw crossing. The bright red, gold and blue birds – more populous here than anywhere else on Earth – are always paired. With their long tails, they appeared to be 4 feet long in the air.

After all the hiking I was one “sweaty chicken.” It was time for a rinse.

But in the Osa Peninsula, they run a tight green ship. They conserve everything – especially hot water. I must confess I emitted an unmanly whimper the first time I ducked under the shower head – shifting from 88 degrees to 40 in one pass. Now that’s invigorating. It felt good to be clean again, however, and I no longer smelled like an ajo.

After two nights at Cerro Osa, we hiked to to Piro Research Station, where we would spend the next three nights catching whatever sleep we could between the raucous barking of howler monkeys.

From there, Playa Piro – the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in Central America – was an easy stroll. We got a monkey “grand slam” along the way, seeing all four of Costa Rica’s primate species: spider, squirrel, white-faced capuchin (aka Taco John ads) and the incredible howler.

The mantled howler monkey is widely considered to be the loudest land animal on the planet. (Funny … I thought the title belonged to us humans).

My first encounter with them – in the deadest, darkest middle of the night – was one of those “What the hell was that?” moments. Like everyone else, I quickly became enamored of the wild and spectacular sound.

I topped every day of hiking off with a cold Imperial, the cerveza (beer) of choice in Costa Rica, and great food, whether I was ready to eat or not. In fact, upon returning to the States, I was briefly rendered confounded and helpless when no one volunteered to step forward and slide a heaping plate of food in front of me.

Dinner at Piro is by candlelight in the high-ceilinged open veranda, with pauraques – the common Costa Rican nightjar – strafing the airspace between the supper table and the high thatched roof in pursuit of bugs.

After supper one night fellow traveler Sarah Hole had an announcement to make:

“The bathroom around the corner is temporarily closed; the army ants are cleaning it.”

That, of course, brought Nito and me at a run. The entire floor of the tiled bathroom, and halfway up the walls, was crisscrossed with lines of ants. Nito, flashlight in hand, pointed out the vanquished black ants, crickets and spiders being carried back to the invaders’ bivouacked nest, while a tiny cockroach dashed madly through the lines, escaping with its life.

For the last two days of the tour, we said goodbye to Nito and loaded into taxis for the bumpy ride to the Golfo Dulce region and Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge near Dos Brazos.

“BRT,” as it is called for short, is a lovely, compact, two-storied resort operated by Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo. Abraham and his nephew, Ulysses, serve as expert bird guides.

Short forays into the wild got us up close and personal with a dozen species of hummingbirds and a shy uniform crake.

Lounging in hammocks, we were treated to a “mixed flock” of birds including bay-headed Tanagers, endangered black-cheeked ant-tanagers, a squirrel cuckoo and red-legged honeycreepers.

Little tinamous, blue ground-doves, and gray-necked wood-rails congregated at the feeding station to peck at rice before it was carted off by leafcutter ants.

When we did the “bird roundup” at days’ end, we were delighted to tally 141 species.

Each night, unfailingly, I lay in bed, with bats passing in and out the open windows, thinking, “I’m sleeping in the jungle” and wondering what was going on in the “outside world.”

But the “outside world” is here inside the rain forest.

What we call jungle is really life turned on high – a rain forest buzzing with diversity and drenched in cicada pee and filled with 1,500 kinds of trees – that is more raw and more real than anything you ever will see on television or read about in a newspaper. Nothing on earth substitutes for deep immersion.

Pura vida.

Steve Betchkal is a freelance writer for the Leader-Telegram based in Eau Claire, WI.

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