Drew Monkman: A Return to Fantastic Costa Rica

The decision to return to Costa Rica last winter was not a difficult one. Much of my attachment to this country comes down to the way it elevates all the senses. Your eyes are treated to colossal trees adorned with ferns and bromeliads; flowering shrubs such as bougainvillea and fuchsia; colorful exotic birds in every yard and streaming overhead; giant blue morphos butterflies dance on the wing; columns of leafcutter ants crossing paths; geckos peering out of tree trunks; black and green poison dart frogs hopping around in the leaf litter; huge fireflies light up the inky darkness; and beaches and forests of breathtaking beauty.

Your ears are treated to non-stop, boisterous birdsong, thanks in large part to parrots and toucans; by the booming roar of howler monkeys; by the buzzing of crickets; and at night by the soft cry of frogs and the pounding surf of the ocean. Your nose comes alive with the scent of ylang ylang trees; the sharp humidity; the aroma of fresh coffee; the tinge of the ocean air; and the earthy, green scent of the rainforest.

Costa Rica is also the feel of slippery clay mud on a forest trail; the cool dawn; the blazing sun; the ocean breeze; and your pounding heart when you come across a rare bird sitting just meters away. It’s also the taste of gallo pinto, a daily staple of rice and beans, seasoned with coriander, bell peppers, and onions; and refresco, a heavenly drink of fresh fruits such as mango or papaya mixed with ice. The country is a paradise for fruit lovers.

But not everything is idyllic. Your senses must also deal with the ugliness of litter; the smell of steaming garbage; the sound of weed pickers and barking dogs; and the constant assault on your skin from tropical heat, high humidity and insect bites. I should also mention that you need to untangle yourself from the toughest cobweb threads you will ever encounter!

Canton of Talamanca

Our destination was again the area around Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, located on the southern Caribbean coast. The region is home to Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean community – the descendants of laborers who came here from countries like Jamaica in the late 1800s. Although they speak Spanish fluently, many also speak ‘Limon Creole’, a dialect of Jamaican Patois. This area is also home to the country’s most prominent and culturally intact indigenous groups inhabiting the Kekoldi, Cabecar and Bribri areas.

This year we chose to stay at three different locations for two weeks each. The first was Playa Chiquita, a few miles east of Puerto Viejo. The house, nestled among flowering shrubs and gardens, was only a five minute walk to the ocean through a forest of towering trees. The trail ended at a lovely, quiet beach where we could sit under beach almond trees and just relax.

A highlight of each morning was sitting on the balcony — a cup of rich Costa Rican coffee in hand — and enjoying close-up views of secretive species such as wrens and antshrikes. One of the most memorable moments was watching a hook-billed kite – a type of hawk – eat a snail while sitting no more than four meters away.

The caretaker, Gilberto, always let us know when interesting animals showed up, such as an entertaining troop of capuchin monkeys. The fact that he didn’t speak English – but liked to talk – allowed me to regularly practice my language skills. Being able to talk to local people in Spanish is extremely rewarding to me.

Vulnerable Sloths

Sloths were also regularly seen. But things are not going well for these iconic strains. We learned about their plight during a Sloth Conservation Foundation fundraiser. The Executive Director, Dr. Rebecca Cliffe, is probably the world’s leading expert on sloth biology and ecology – and she’s only 32. It was exciting to meet and talk to her.

The organization raised money to purchase trail cameras for a study comparing urban sloths, such as those in Puerto Viejo, with those in forest habitats. The goal is to help sloths and humans coexist peacefully. Sloths face numerous threats ranging from dog attacks and traffic deaths to power lines and housing construction. You can find more information at https://slothconservation.org/

Nests of macaws

We were delighted to learn that a conservation program known as the Macaw Project has succeeded in restoring a breeding population of great green macaws in the region. We had visited the project site in 2018, but the captive-bred birds were not yet nesting or finding food on their own. Now we saw independent, raw herds every day. Their loud “bark, hit” is one of the loudest bird sounds I’ve ever heard.

Even more exciting was a couple nesting in a tree not far from the house. About three feet tall and dressed in a beautiful mix of green, blue and white, we had incredible views of the male and female as they stood guard at the nest cavity. It’s so heartwarming when conservation programs like this are successful.

Overload disorder in birds

Where to start when describing birdwatching in Costa Rica? Perhaps an excerpt from my diary will give you a foretaste.

“As I positioned myself to shoot oropendola nests in the soft morning light, a masked tityra flew over a hydrocution and landed among the orange blossoms of a poró tree. But when I raised my binoculars, I was immediately distracted by a swarm of migrating Swainson’s and broad-winged hawks hovering just 10 meters above me. As I tried to photograph the hawks, my attention was further diverted by a pair of noisy chachalacas berating me from a low branch and then by a flash of red and black when a beautiful male red-rumped tanager came in and posed right in front of me. All the while, trogons and woodpeckers were calling from the forest as honeycreepers, tanagers, and golden orioles fluttered in the blossoming crowns of trees.

What are you doing? Tense your neck to scan the treetops? Try another photo? Consult the Merlin bird app to check an identification? I know I should try to relax and fully understand the richness of the moment, but it’s not easy. “Bird Overload Disorder” is a clear and present danger in Costa Rica!

What is certain, however, is how privileged I feel to have experiences such as I have just described, especially at a time of such chaos in the world. To be continued.

Drew Monkman is a retired teacher in Peterborough and co-author of The Big Book of Nature Activities. Reach him at dmonkman1@cogeco.ca. Visit www.drewmonkman.com to view past columns, recent wildlife sightings, and his other books.

Update climate chaos

Heap: A surprising deal with the US Senate has paved the way for unprecedented action on climate change. The bill, due to be passed mid-month, includes the largest climate spending package in US history, spending hundreds of billions of dollars on clean energy technologies. The deal aims to reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 40% by 2030 from 2005 levels across the economy. See https://tinyurl.com/2p8krbvm

Events: On Aug. 8 at 7 pm Jacob Rodenburg will be the guest speaker at 4RG Meets. Rodenburg is an award-winning educator and Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. He will help you refresh your connection with nature by introducing you to a slew of activities from his new book “The Book of Nature Connection: 70 Sensory Activities For All Ages.” From creating microtrails to ‘drawing sound’, Rodenburg explains how to use all your senses. Sign up for this Zoom event at https://tinyurl.com/3nhnm6fm

carbon dioxide: The atmospheric CO2 reading for the week ending July 30 was 417.84 parts per million (ppm), compared to 415.68 ppm a year ago. The highest level deemed safe for the planet is 350 ppm. Rising CO2 means more climate chaos and increasingly severe storms ahead.

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