Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Carara National Park, Costa Rica - 15th August

We were heading to the pacific coast for the first time, as a part of the journey I had asked to have a stop off in Carara National Park and as we sat waiting for the pick up I couldn't help wondering what the day would turn out like, would we see what we were hoping to see, would we have time, would we just be dropped off?  We were picked up on time, and almost immediately any concerns I had were dispelled.  We had a driver and a guide, and were told it would be at least a five hour drive to Quepos, but with the stop at Carara the trip may take eight hours, so plenty of time, our guide then started to discuss the wildlife there and what we may see, and it was clear he was going to guide us around.  We were looking forward to it.

The journey took us through changing farming practises,and many different landscapes, up and down steep hills and valleys, and through a few large towns.  The farming changed from agricultural for fruit and rice, to the large scale growing of house plants for sale to Europe and the USA.  There were fields and fields of plants at various stages of growth, some instantly recognisable from trips to B & Q and Homebase.  When we told our guide how much they are priced in these stores he went quiet.  The local farmers being paid less than a dollar per foot of growth.

As we reached the central valley the landscape was very undulating with small hills dominating the scene.  This is as a result of the lava flows and rocks coming from the volcanoes that created the area.  We crossed the continental divide between the Atlantic and the Pacific continental plates, the main reason for the intense volcanic activity in the country, and headed along the Pan American Highway.  We finally turned to the south and made our way along Highway 34 in the direction of Jaco, we had reached the coast and were now on an almost straight road to Quepos.

Out of the blue, our guide asked if we would like to stop the view the crocodiles that can be seen in the Rio Tárcoles, apparently this river holds the largest density of American Crocodiles in the country, maybe even the world.  We agreed, and the van stopped and we got out and walked across the bridge.

It is obviously a big tourist attraction as many others were crossing the bridge too.  With a narrow pathway, and huge tractor trailers passing at speed the walk was a little daunting.  Nevertheless I was happier on the bridge when I looked down at what was in the water.

We counted in total 36 of these huge crocodiles in the water and on the banks.  The American Crocodile is mostly found in the neotropical regions.  It is present in the southern half of Florida, but is overlooked, and it is usually assumed that the Alligator is the only crocodile in the USA.  In fact the American Crocodile is the most widespread of the crocodiles found in the Americas.  The American Crocodile is susceptible to cold weather which restricts their distribution against the more tolerant Alligator, but the American Crocodile is more tolerant of salt water, and they are regularly seen off beaches on the pacific coast.

In the Rio Tárcoles dozens of four-metre and a few five-metre individuals frequent bridge crossings (where they are fed daily, which may have helped them reach such consistently large sizes) and are a popular tourist attraction.  in other countries in the neptropics individuals as large as six metres have been recorded.  The largest ever measured in Costa Rica was 6.3 metres, and was caught in the Rio Tárcoles.  There are one or two reports of cattle or horses being taken a year, but mostly they feed on the abundant fish in the river.  I still wouldn't fancy an encounter with one of these

These individuals were resting on the bank.

While others could be seen in the river, where you can see how adapted they are for the ambush strategy they employ when hunting.  The nostrils are on the top of the snout, and they can keep the head just above water with the rest of the body submerged and out of sight.

As well as the crocodiles there was a couple of Whistling Ducks, and a Roseate Spoonbill feeding in one of the pools alongside the river.  It would sweep its bill back and forth as it sifted the water in the pool.  It was nice to finally get to see one again, after missing them in Cano Negra.  The little sandpiper in the foreground was a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, a whole flock was seen flying around the river

Above us there were power lines, and these were being used by birds of prey.  A Pearl Kite sat watching the ground below, while a Bat Falcon used the line to perch and dismantle the dragonflies it was catching.  As we alternated between the falcon and the kite on the wires, and the crocodiles in the river, loud calls came from across the river.  The guide quickly pointed out a group of birds flying across the river, and the owners of the calls - Scarlet Macaws.  They were the reason I wanted to stop here, this is one of the few areas in which they can be found in Costa Rica, and one of the reasons Carara became a National Park.

We watched as these stunning birds flew across the river in pairs heading towards the trees on the other side of the road. 

As they flew out of sight into the trees we couldn't believe our luck.  They are normally seen coming across the river at dusk to roost in the trees in Carara, this was around midday, and they had put on a wonderful show.

Our attention turned back to the birds on the wire, and I was able to get some nice shots of a Bat Falcon, they look and behave very much like the European Hobby.

We reached the end of the bridge, and the van was there to pick us up.  We had only moved a small distance when the driver stopped and pointed to the trees on the other side of the road.  We fell out of the van and looked up into the trees to find the Scarlet Macaws had landed in the trees, and were putting on quite a show.  It was difficult to cross the road and keep and eye on the Macaws, but we managed it, and we stood there and watched them as trucks and cars sped past.  At first they were spread out.  I counted at least twelve, but couldn't get them all in the view.

As we watched them, you had to remember that these were wild birds, and not part of a parrot show.  The colours were incredible and they stood out from the green of the trees.  They all  preened in the group, and then in their pairs they started to interact.  One pair went through this amazing display where they intertwined, gripping each other by their bills, and turning through 180 degrees as they hung from the branches.  As they opened their wings they looked like huge red, yellow and blue butterflies in the trees.

The two continued this display for a good five minutes, and then almost as quickly as they began, it was over and both birds moved aside to preen individually.

Reluctantly we had to leave them in the trees, it was starting to rain, and we wanted to have time in the park itself.  We had been so lucky to get these fantastic views of an incredibly stunning bird.  This was one of the birds we had dearly wanted to see on this trip, and had taken this detour to find them.  As Helen said as we watched them flying across the river "bears do exist".

The entrance to the park was about a couple of minutes from where we were, and we pulled into the car park elated and wondering what else was going to turn up.  While we waited on the  usual formalities for entering the Costa Rican National; Parks, we wondered around the car park.  On the ground we found a pair of Inca Doves, and up in the trees a new woodpecker.  This was a Hoffman's Woodpecker, and it showed well in several of the tall trees surrounding the car park.

Just before we set off into the park there was a little flurry of activity in the car park, with a juvenile Yellow-headed Caraca flying through the car park, and a pair of Scarlet Macaws flying over.  We were by now used to the dark and humidity of the Costa Rican forests, so as we walked into the park we knew what to expect.  Leaf Cutter Ants were threading their trails across the path, and there were some enormous nests with lines of ants and leaves making there way into them.  We were given an indication of how powerful the jaws of the soldier ants were as our guide had one hold a fairly substantial piece of palm in them. 

The bird life was found once again by calls and song.  The darkness and thickness of the forest made photography impossible, but we were able to find a Bay-headed Tanager, and two White-shouldered Tanagers.  The trail took us to a clearing that overlooked the Rio Carara, and in the sky above the trees were White-collared Swifts and the odd Turkey Vulture.  A little further on we could walk down alongside the stream, allowing us the opportunity to get better views over the tree canopy, and alongside the water.

A group of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys appeared in the trees alongside the river, and used the spreading branches to get across the river, the final route being a leap from one tree to the other.  the groups are known as troops, and they can wander together up to three kilometres a day, in a territory that can extend to 210 acres.  In this troop were mothers carrying babies, and they didn't seem to care as they made the leap from tree to tree across the river. 

Some of the adolescents would spend some time evaluating the jump. but they all made their way across in the end.

While we were watching the antics of the monkeys our guide was scanning the skies, this was a good spot to see King Vulture, another Carara speciality.  He picked up a very distant bird that was a juvenile, the shape of the head and the tail in flight picking it out from the commoner Turkey and Black Vultures.  We managed to pick up an adult male, but it was too high to photograph, you could make out the white head and white in the wings enough to satisfy the identification.  Finally a young bird was more confiding as it flew over the tree tops a little closer to us.  You can see the difference in shape and jizz from the other vultures, the long neck, broad wings with the white patches on the primaries, and the short thin tail..

A hummingbird teased us on the other side of the river, and butterflies used the sunlit trees to pause and warm up.  This one is a tigerwing of some kind, but there are so many I can't pin (!) it down to a species.

We walked back into the forest, and followed the trail alongside the river.  We came to a bridge and as we started to cross it we disturbed a White Ibis below us, it flew a little way up river and settled again.  The bridge marked the turning point of the walk, so we began the walk back to the car park.

As we left the bridge we stopped to investigate a call from the floor of the forest.  We were not able to find the owner of the call, but we did find a Black-faced Ant-Thrush foraging amongst the dead leaves.

By now the birds were very quiet, and the main item of interest on the walk back was this delightful cup fungi, that we found in amongst the dead leaves and branches on the forest floor.  What light there was from the dappled sunshine picked out the orange colour and it stood out in the dark brown background.

We arrived back at the car, looking forward to the air conditioning in the van.  We had just over an hours drive now to reach our hotel just outside the Manuel Antonio National Park.  It was pretty much a straight road, alongside the Pacific costs.  We passed some amazing beaches that reminded us of the surf beaches in Tofino on Vancouver Island, the temperature was a little better though.

On the other side of the road the landscape was dominated at first by farmland, abut as we got closer to Quepos we drove through kilometre after kilometre of African Palm plantations.  They used to grow bananas here but in the seventies the banana plantations were destroyed by a virus, and the company turned to the palm trees to provide palm oil.  It is a huge industry, and support communities with housing, shops and schools.  It doesn't look pretty, but it provides much needed work and acceptable living for many of the local population.

On the telegraph and power lines there were plenty of birds.  The highlight though were two Grey Hawks, and a single Laughing Falcon.

When we arrived at our hotel a storm was threatening from over the mountains in the east.  We settled in, and as it started to get dark the storm struck.. The rain was extremely heavy, and the thunderstorm overhead lasted for a good part of the evening we some of the loudest claps of thunder I have ever heard.  As we ate dinner and looked out across the ocean, the islands that line the coast were lit up by the incredible lightning strikes.  We learnt the next day that the storm had taken out power and internet services, and that it was one of the heaviest storms they had encountered this summer.

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