They Came, They Saw, They Birded

There is a whole lot to say about my first independent guided tour of Costa Rica. There were highs and lows. Some highs: ziplining through the Cloud Forest, birdwatching from a hammock strung above a seaside overlook, and kayaking through mangrove forest. Some lows: ziplining late in the day during cold pouring rain, renting a coastal bungalow during peak millipede season, and trying to play human tetris to get several people and their bags into a car that was certainly not–despite what I was assured by the rental company–a “fullsize SUV.” I learned a lot.

Still didn’t find them a sloth, though. In fact, one of them found this before I did. I’m still pretty salty about that.

Out of professionalism and respect for my client’s privacy, I won’t go into detail on the trip. But bottom line: It went well. Not as great as I’d hoped, but far better than I’d worried. My clients had a good time. And so did I.

This is what I like best about guiding, in concentrated, personalized form. I got to be the one to observe, firsthand, someone’s encounter with their first parrot or monkey. I got to lead them myself through the jungle, pointing out animal signs and explaining the life history of strangler figs. I got to savor their reaction when I prepared them for, and nature delivered upon, leafcutter ant highways or lizards that run across water.

Jesus Christ!

Everyone was safe. There were no injuries or tropical illnesses. They all respected my rules and heeded my advice on jungle safety. We all stayed on the trails and had no close calls with snakes or whatever.

Pictured: whatever.

On top of that, the weather was great. It only truly dumped on us once, and that was just enough that I feel vindicated for having warned my people about tropical rain. The usual classic charismatic megafauna of monkeys, coatis, and large snakes made their appearance. Birding was phenomenal: Quetzals in full plumage, toucans right above the cabins, motmots that practically posed for photos and in fact wouldn’t get out of the way after a while.

Look at this guy, giving a little-the-shoulder-look like a supermodel. He knows he’s pretty.

Costa Rica, you didn’t disappoint. Did us all proud. This was a trip I had been planning for about six months. This is a career path I have been moving towards all my life. I’m back in the Monkeyverse now, hard at work, but with a little luck, plenty of agency, lots of patience, and some newfound confidence, I just might be able to pull this off again in the future.

The Christmas Quetzal

Back again from my family Christmas vacation within a vacation.  At least, that’s what it felt like.  True to form, my family works, exercises, and agonizes over plans far more when they are traveling than when they are not.  I’m exhausted, back at work, and have over a week’s worth of wildlife photos to post and write about.  So I’ll be breaking this past week into multiple parts, trying to play catchup.

So here goes.

The trip kicked off to a great start with a visit to the Cloud Forest Preserve, a place where, surprisingly, I had not returned to in some time.  Within minutes, we managed a few blurry photos of the classic yet illusive Resplendent Quetzal, a male in full plumage, no less.

Dressed appropriately for the holidays.

This was followed by howler monkeys, impressive ficus trees, some spectacular scenery, and a long, photogenic montage of hummingbirds at the feeders.  We sat there, enjoying our lunches in full view of the colorful birds, and concluded that it had been a truly successful visit.  We were perfectly content.

And then an olingo crawled down a tree in full view of everyone and proceeded to perform what I recognized from the more regrettable of college parties as a keg-stand on one of the hummingbird feeders.  He power-chugged it dry in seconds, and then moved on to the next one while several dozen tourists shot photo after photo while the bewildered guides tried to explain why a usually nocturnal and shy animal was going on a junk food binge in broad daylight.

Rough night? Breakup? We’ll never know.

Which turned out to portend a week of similar encounters with wildlife that should otherwise have required at least a little effort to see.  Things that I have raved about, along with other more seasoned naturalists, things that normally necessitate days spent in the field for a single, out-of-focus photo.  The things that should be special, rare, illusive, but frustratingly refused to even act uncommon.

Manuel Antonio National Park had so much wildlife, I felt lame for taking pictures.  Not even a kilometer down the main road we were directed by guides toward a white-tailed deer, a brown vine snake, and a three-toed sloth.  Hacienda Baru–a less well-known and severely underrated alternative—turned out to be less active but still yielded a monkey fighting a green iguana, something I had not realized how much I had wanted to see until I witnessed it.

The monkeys won, but only after the whole troop ganged up and drove the iguana under a bridge. It’s OK, iguana. You did your best.

Turns out, my family are some of those people who just have the best luck when it comes to spending a brief time an area and seeing all the rare wildlife.  The kind of people who usually drive me crazy with envy.  Like the puma group a while back.  But this time, I got to go along with them, and join in their unearned jungle fortune.  To partake of their Beginner’s Luck Feast.  And it was delicious.  At last, I learned what it felt like to casually tell a lifer local naturalist of the day’s haul, and display pictures that would make them seethe in their rainboots.

And it only got better from there.  Tune in tomorrow for “The Return of Elepigorse”.

Nighthike Salespitch

Of all the activities and tours we offer here, night hikes are my favorite.  Shoot, even if there isn’t a scheduled tour, I sometimes just walk around at night for about an hour before bed.  I’m always happy to take guests for a stroll through the woods in the dark and just see what we find and talk about it.

It’s our least structured activity.  Most hikes have a spiel or script that I try not to follow exactly, but always rely on several landmarks to stop and talk about.  But the night hike is different.  I usually give a brief intro about locating animals at night (look for eyeshine), mention some safety tips (insects are drawn to light, so don’t where a headlamp over your eyes), and remind them to be as quiet as possible (this rarely works, but I mention it anyway).  Then we just start walking until we see something cool.  There’s no guarantee of what we’ll see, and each hike is a little different.

The only problem with this is if guests are set on seeing a particular animal, or want to know beforehand what they will find.  When people ask this, they usually get disappointed when I say the only thing I can guarantee is lots of insects.  I had a family once that was crazy about owls.  One kid really wanted to see a kinkajou.  While we sometimes do see those things at night, it’s never something we can promise.

But while most people will leave without seeing their poster species, practically everything they saw was new to them.  The advantage for tour guides there is that we can potentially make any animal interesting or exciting, provided that we sell it right.

For example, there are these things called amphipods.  Little jumping crustaceans, also called scud.  They come out from under the leaf litter at night, and get everywhere.  In the showers, in the cabins, and then they die en masse and their little corpses dry out and smell like low tide.  They’re kind of a pest.


But on a night hike with newcomers, I can astound a group by pointing out how the ground is literally crawling in places with these little guys.  And how they’re an important part of breaking down organic matter.  And how on a clear night, there are so many you can hear them hopping.  No one from around here would be impressed; it’s like showing someone from the US ants on the sidewalk.  Or aphids on a plant.  But I can sell it as something interesting because to them, it’s new.

Check out this spider, guys!  I swear we don't see these things all the time.
Check out this spider, guys! I swear we don’t see these things all the time.

But that plan can kind of backfire.  We found a frog last night, a little Craugastor that are very hard to spot.  I had to locate him by his call, a tiny squeak.  I talked about how special it was to get a good glimpse of.  But a little further on, we found another.  Then another.  Then more.  By this time, the two tourists I was leading were ribbing me about how big a deal I had made about the first frog.  But I really had been excited to see it.

And sometimes my efforts to ham up a sighting fall flat.  Even if they are sincere.  I was leading a group of middle schoolers a few days ago and found a tail feather of a Resplendent Quetzal.  You know, the green iridescent bird hunted to near extinction, worshipped by the Mayans and Aztecs and rarely ever seen today.  This was evidence that we had a male in full plumage in the area, and I went full bionerd waving this thing around and telling the kids how special it was.  Some of them got into it.  Most others thought it was just a neat feather.  Someone accused me of planting it there ahead of time.

According to legend, I am now blessed by the Mayan gods or something?
According to legend, I am now blessed by the Mayan gods or something?

On hikes, we have to be prepared for anything.  That includes apathetic tourists.  Or ones with too high expectations.  But we cannot disappoint, and we can’t lose our own enthusiasm for our work.