The Hotel Bougainvillea is a relatively small, privately owned hotel in a suburb of San José in Santo Domingo near Santa Rosa in the Herdia province popular as a starting point for nature tours in Costa Rica. Part of the reason making this a popular choice is the affordable prices but the real selling point of the hotel is the 10 acre garden. It has been my experience that the most beautiful, varied and interesting gardens are created by a collector. While I never met the owner(s), this is truly a world class garden, with sculpture, mature local and special rare species from the surrounding countries and even an amazing rock collection. The rooms are typical of a Motel 6 but the restaurant is good, especially with local favorites and it has air conditioning. The Costa Rica National Gardening Association has given them an award as the best garden in Costa Rica. In this garden you can find small samples of the country’s crops, such as coffee, cocoa, bananas, pineapple and papaya. They have 22 types of bromeliads, 51 different orchids, 28 types of heliconia and 29 types of lilies among many other plants. Because it was winter, I only got to see a fraction of the garden in bloom but trust me, this is a garden you will want to visit.
I thought I would add a post on the trees of Costa Rica since there are so many beautiful and unusual specimens. This trip, I visited during the winter or dry season, so many of the plants were without leaves or flowers. Nonetheless, there were many fascinating examples of trees that we in North America rarely get to see. I have roughly divided them into fruit trees, large trees and palm and palm-like trees. Cassia grandis, seen above, is one of several species called pink shower tree, and known as carao in Spanish. It is a flowering plant in the family Fabaceae, native to the neotropics, that grows up to 98 feet (30 m). The species is distributed from southern México, to Venezuela and Ecuador. It grows in forests and open fields at lower elevations, and is known to be planted as an ornamental. In at least Costa Rica, its pods are stewed into a molasses-like syrup, taken as a sweetener and for its nutritional and medicinal effects, called Jarabe (or Miel) de Carao.
Most of Costa Rica’s forests can be primarily classified into three groups; rainforests, cloud forests and topical dry forests. And while rainforests are the most common habitat, the cloud forests of Costa Rica are a magnificent sight to behold. Rainforests can be found in the southwest of the country as well as in the Atlantic lowlands, with towering trees and looping vines that create a magical wispy environment. Receiving a high annual rainfall, these dense forests are characterized by a wealth of plant and animal life. Rainforests are located at lower elevations, and as a result, they tend to be much warmer, especially during the dry season. Cloud forests, on the other hand, are usually located at much higher elevations, and are much cooler. This difference in temperature contributes to the mist and fog that is often visible in cloud forests, as the milder temperatures slow the evaporation process. However, despite being a little cooler than rainforests, cloud forests are very humid. Cloud forests generate water by capturing water from fog (surface clouds). Water condenses on the leaves and branches of cloud forest trees, epiphytes and lichen, drips to the forest floor, and enters streams. The tropical evergreen cloud forests on the slopes of the Cordillera de Talamanca in Costa Rica’s southern highlands is of vital importance both as a source of drinking and irrigation water to the main cities in the Valle Central and as a bastion of many endemic species. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of the plants in the cloud forest, concentrating instead on important and noteworthy plants in this ecosystem.
Heliconia is named after Mount Helicon, the seat of the Muses, nine goddesses of the arts and sciences in Greek mythology. These are known as lobster-claw, wild plantain, flowering banana, parrot flower, macaw flower and false bird-of-paradise. Heliconiaceae in the order Zingiberales, are among the showiest plants of the Neotropical rainforest and represent a spectacular co-evolutionary adaptive radiation with hummingbirds. Heliconia originated in the Late Eocene (39 million years ago), making it the oldest known clade of hummingbird-pollinated plants. Heliconia, the only genus of the family Heliconiaceae, has approximately 120 species in tropical America and the western Pacific. These large perennial herbs have brightly colored bracts and bear numerous flowers. Heliconia are typically pollinated by hummingbirds. Most of the 194 known species are native to the tropical Americas, but a few are indigenous to certain islands of the western Pacific and Maluku. Several species are widely cultivated as ornamentals, and a few are naturalized in Florida, Gambia, Thailand and Costa Rica. The plants have stout, reed-like stems and are related to Tropical Gingers, Bird of Paradise, Bananas and Canna Lilies, whose leaves are all similar. These are all grouped in the order Zingiberales, which includes many familiar plants, and are used as ornamental plants (Bird of Paradise flower, Heliconias, Prayer-Plant, Tropical Gingers), food crops (bananas, plantains, arrowroot), spices and traditional medicines (ginger, cardamom, turmeric, galangal and myoga). I saw a nice selection of these plants when I visited Costa Rica this year and thought it would make an interesting post.
I happen to love woodpeckers, they are colorful, noisy and just fun to look at. Their cheerful tapping always calls to me to take a look. There are about 200 known varieties, many of which are threatened or endangered. The plumage of woodpeckers varies from drab to conspicuous. The colors of many species are based on olive and brown and some are pied, suggesting a need for camouflage; others are boldly patterned in black, white and red, and many have a crest or tufted feathers on the crown. Woodpeckers tend to be sexually dimorphic, but differences between the sexes are generally small, usually involving the head. I thought it would be nice to present these all together so that you could see and compare the various forms and colors that woodpeckers exhibit in different places. I have some beautiful woodpeckers from Africa, Costa Rica, Colorado and Arizona. Sapsuckers are also part of the Woodpecker family and I have a beautiful Red-Breasted Sapsucker from Humbolt county in California.
For those fortunate few who view a King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) for the first time, the experience will be unforgettable. King vultures are one of the largest New World vulture, second only to condors. It is not their size however that is visually arresting, but their bright white feathers with a vividly colored head. Certainly early native Americans would have immediately sensed the singularity of this majestic bird and would associate it with a god-like presence in their jungle world. In fact in Mayan legends, the bird was seen as a king who served as a messenger between humans and the gods. They would have observed its habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait, thus warranting the crown of a king among fellow birds. This bird was also known as the “white crow” by the Spanish in Paraguay. It was called cozcacuauhtli in Nahuatl, derived from cozcatl “collar” and cuauhtli “bird of prey”. [Read more…]
Parrots are among the most intelligent and colorful birds, found in most tropical and subtropical regions and popular as pets. The parrot family includes the most beautiful birds in the bird kingdom, and are broadly divided into families including macaws, eclectus, cockatoos, New Zealand kakapo, Madagascar lovebirds, parakeets, budgerigar and conures. Parrots are found on all tropical and subtropical continents and regions. Macaws are native to Central America and Mexico, South America, and formerly the Caribbean. Most species are associated with forests, especially rainforests, but others prefer woodland or savannah-like habitats. Costa Rica has 17 species of parrots and parakeets of the 365 species in the world. They vary in size, from tiny little parakeets to very large macaws. Parrots and parakeets are widely distributed throughout Costa Rica. The Scarlet Macaw is found from the Central Pacific south to the Osa Peninsula. There are several rescue organizations that are breeding in Guanacaste as well, with some success. Visitors interested in the Great-green Macaw, will need to visit the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The very small existing population lives on the Caribbean slope. I visited a rescue sanctuary run by a farmer near the SarapiquiS Rainforest Lodge on the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica where I took most of these photos.
I can honestly say that the hummingbirds of Costa Rica are the most beautiful birds I have ever seen and I will share them with you in this post. Hummingbirds are from the New World and constitute the family Trochilidae. They are some of the smallest birds in the world and have the greatest metabolism of any animal. To keep energy when food is limited, and nightly when not foraging, they go into dormancy, a state similar to hibernation, slowing metabolic rate to 1/15th of its normal rate. They are known as hummingbirds because of the humming sound generated by their whipping wings which wave at high frequencies audible to humans. They flutter in mid-air at rapid wing-flapping rates, typically around 70 to 80 times per second, allowing them also to fly at speeds exceeding 34 miles per hour. Hummingbirds fall into nine main groups or clades, the Topazes and Jacobians, Hermits, Mangoes, Brilliants, Coquettes, the giant hummingbird Patagona, Mountain Gems, Bees, and Emeralds as established by DNA evidence. These clades also define their relationship to nectar-bearing flowering plants and the birds’ continued spread into new geographic areas. The brilliant, iridescent colors of hummingbird plumage are caused by the refraction of incident light by the structures of certain feathers. Like any diffraction grating or prism, these structures split light into its component colors, and only certain frequencies are then refracted back to your eyes. Thus, you have to be in a particular location with respect to the light and hummingbird to see the bright colors of the head and neck or gorget. I have arranged the hummingbirds in this post roughly by elevation with the highest elevations first and the lowest elevations last.
When I visited Costa Rica recently, on several occasions we ran across groups of White-Nosed Coati (Nasua narica). These curious creatures are related to raccoons although they have many idiosyncratic differences. The White-Nosed Coati (Nasua narica), also known as the coatimundi is a member of the family Procyonidae which includes three other species of Coati, raccoons and ringtails. Unlike raccoons, Coati are active during the day although they will sometimes forage at night. Local Spanish names for the species include pizote, antoon, and tejón, depending upon the region. Coati females and young males up to two years of age are gregarious and travel through their territories in noisy, loosely organized bands made up of four to 25 individuals, foraging with their offspring on the ground or in the forest canopy. Males over two years become solitary due to behavioural disposition and collective aggression from the females and will join the female groups only during the breeding season. Coatis are common, with habitants ranging from hot and dry regions to humid rainforest or even Cold Mountain slopes, including bushy areas and grasslands. They can be easily seen in all part of Costa Rica and and the countries national parks.
While we were visiting the Hacienda Solimar, with my Tropical Birding tour, we went one afternoon to a nearby rookery. It was located on both sides of what appeared to be an irrigation canal and the marshy environment seemed to be a magnet for all sorts of birds, but especially Wood Storks and Cattle Egrets. During the dry season water is scarce in other parts of the country. Due to this, many birds flock to Palo Verde National Park and its river basin. The park protects one of the most endangered ecosystems. It is one of the last remaining tropical dry rainforests that once covered most of Central America. Tropical dry rainforests now exist in less than 0.1% of their original size and are considered to be the most endangered ecosystems in the tropics. Palo Verde National Park was declared a Wildlife Refuge during the 1970s because of over 60 different species of birds used the Laguna, or wetland, as a migratory stop. There were once 35,000 black bellied whistling ducks, 25,000 blue winged teal, and several hundred migrating ducks during the dry season. Although Hacienda Solimar is not in the park, it benefits from the conservation efforts occurring there. The dry season concentrates the watering locations for the birds and while just about any time is good for birdwatching, the dry season makes the areas more accessible. A good example is this Wood Stork rookery we found on the grounds of the ranch in February with a large variety of birds.