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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
November 2013 - Michael Ryan

River at Tortuguero

  Wildlife Watching In Costa Rica

  Although Costa Rica isn’t a lot bigger than Ireland with a similar population, 4.5 million, it holds 6% of the world’s biodiversity and with 20 national parks, 26 protected areas, nine forest reserves, eight biological reserves and seven wildlife sanctuaries it has become the number one destination for ecotourism. It was my second trip to Costa Rica in 15 years and we decided to go in August the same month I’d gone the previous time which although it is in the rainy season the rain rarely lasts all day and leaves everywhere fresh and, though humid, rarely too hot. In fact our first day was the only day of the trip it stayed dull and damp all day as we went on a coach trip to a coffee plantation followed by a visit to the active Poas volcano. Beside this volcano was another inactive volcano which was filled with water too toxic to support any life but surrounded by thick vegetation and trees.

  Huge Gunnera plants grew on the slopes and it was on the leaves of one of these we saw our first hummingbird of the trip, a female of the aptly named Volcano Hummingbird species. Hummingbirds are magnificent little creatures hovering in front of flowers in a blur of beating wings their iridescent plumage flashing brilliantly in the changing light.
   After the volcano we went to the La Paz waterfall which had its own small zoo, aviary and butterfly house. But flying free in the gardens were many more hummingbirds which came to feeders which contained sugared water. They were almost oblivious to the presence of people and you could stand inches away from these tiny birds as they hovered or perched at the feeders or flew past your ear with a great thrumming noise. Next day we went to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast, travelling by coach to be transferred to a boat which would take us along a river to our hotel. We had a very amusing guide who among many other things told us that it was written in Costa Rica’s constitution that visitors always had to have a camera ready to be prepared for the appearance of some spectacular bird or animal. We stopped to eat at a restaurant and before we sat down to eat he took us on a quick tour around the grounds to spot vivid red tree frogs among the roots of the trees. Before leaving home I had read a review of this restaurant from someone who said they’d seen a sloth in the grounds of the hotel and I’d mentioned this to our guide wondering was there any chance we might see one.

Roufus Hummingbird
  Before we’d finished eating he came over to us and told us, yes, there was a sloth in a tree in the grounds. Although sloths are famously one of the slowest moving of mammals and the chances of it being gone before we got there were very slim we rushed out to see it. Not only did we get to see the sloth but it also had a baby resting on its chest as it hung upside down from the tree, the baby reaching up to grasp the branch with its tiny claws. It turned out there was another sloth in the grounds climbing down a tree and then my companion Lucy spotted another one hidden in the fork of a palm tree. That night from our hotel we travelled across the river to the coastal strip where we hoped to see Green Sea Turtles landing on the beach where they would dig out a hole in the sand to lay their eggs in.
   This Caribbean coastline is one of the most important breeding areas in the world for these turtles and for many years they suffered great losses from poaching of their eggs as well as the turtles themselves being killed for food or their shells which would be sold as ornaments. The turtles are now protected by rangers and many volunteers who monitor and guard them as they come in from the sea. Access to the beach when they are nesting is very scrupulously guarded and visitors are only allowed if accompanied by a registered guide and they are not allowed to take flash photographs or wear light coloured clothes which could deter the turtles from landing. The guides have infrared head torches whose light wouldn’t disturb the turtles and we all had to follow the guide quietly and in single line. Once the turtle has begun to dig out a nest hole it won’t stop and while it is doing this spectators are allowed to watch. After our guide had his documents checked by the ranger we made our way on to the sand and eventually gathered around a turtle who was about to lay eggs. The turtles dig out a large hole with their flippers and we were able to watch the turtle laying her eggs into the bottom of the chamber. When the eggs eventually hatch the tiny baby turtles will dig themselves out and make the perilous journey to the water at risk from birds, crabs and mammals. Only a tiny percentage (one in a thousand it is estimated) of the baby turtles reach adulthood which is why the adult turtles lays around a hundred eggs at a time and may nest quite a few times every year.
   You might feel it is intrusive gathering around this big creature at such a sensitive time but the income generated from turtle watching helps pay for all the conservation work and the presence of guards and tourists helps deter poachers. Before we set off on our holiday I’d heard a turtle warden had been murdered by poachers in Costa Rica and while there we heard suspects had been arrested for that crime. The following day at Tortuguero we awoke to the resounding calls of a group of howler monkeys, apparently the second loudest call of any mammal. Our walk to the hotel restaurant would be enlightened by views of land crabs, one resident Rufus-tailed humming bird, toucans and butterflies and once one of the staff called us to see a sloth climbing up from the base of a tree. Later that day we went on a boat trip through rivers and canals where vegetation spilled down over the river banks and we watched howler and white faced monkeys, river turtles and lizards and many different types of birds. On land you would see long lines of leaf cutting ants marching along with their tiny (and some not so tiny) segments of leaf held above.
   Here on a stretch of water where trees leaned precariously over from opposite banks and where two trees met in the middle, we watched a long line of these ants marching up one trunk and down the other one to cross the water. Eventually the leaves are placed in the ants nest where they eventually break down and ferment into a fungus which the ants will feed on. But one of the most fascinating creatures we saw on the water was the caiman, the Central American close relative of the alligator. Unfortunately scientists have very recently found that these particular Tortuguero caimans have high levels of pesticide in their bodies. The pesticide probably comes as run off from banana plantations upriver and the caimans ingest it through the fish they feed on. To produce regular shaped unblemished bananas a particular type of seedless banana is grown and this is particularly prone to fungal infections and disease. The fact that heavy rains often wash off the chemicals means the growers spray on even more chemicals, another good reason to buy organic bananas. A couple of our guides told us that intensive pineapple growing is also a big problem in Costa Rica with the pesticides run off polluting groundwater and land. Whether sunning themselves on the bank or gliding through the water the caimans seem to have a deadly intent but they are primarily fish eaters and rarely grow to more then 6 feet in length unlike another much larger inhabitant of these waters, the American crocodile. We only saw one in Tortuguero, a very large specimen dragging itself onto the river bank but we would have much closer experiences later in our trip.