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Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!

 

 

 

 

 

Queensland Adventures — The Jungle.

16 Jul

Chris and I travelled to the far north of Queensland, Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical jungle. In the popular imagination, fashioned by films and fiction, the jungle is a steamy, noisy, dangerous environment. One has to hack through dense, tangled undergrowth with a machete, be on the lookout for venomous snakes dangling down from the tress and be deafened by a cacophony of chattering monkeys, shrieking birds and a rasping chorus of cicadas. Rivers are infested with voracious piranhas and deadly crocodiles. Then there is the constant threat of encountering fierce cannibals or head-hunters.
Of course, that wasn’t the reality for us in the Queensland rainforest and we weren’t naïve enough to expect it. We had already been on a jungle trek in Ghana, Africa and the most dangerous thing we encountered was an army of viciously biting red ants which marched up several tourists’ legs! We found out where the phrase “ants in your pants” came from. Much of that African guided walk concentrated on the medicinal qualities of plants and the symbiotic relationship between certain trees and certain insects. All the birds and animals were hiding away high up in the forest canopy and we would have had to have got up before dawn to have any chance of seeing them.
It was the same in Queensland. The rain forest was disappointingly “safe” and quiet. Much has been chopped down anyway to make way for sugar-cane plantations. The Daintree Rain Forest even has a fairly busy, metalled road running through the middle of it, so the biggest danger for a bird or an animal is not being pounced on by a predator but being mown down by a 4 by 4. A lot of the wildlife is endangered because of loss of habitat or human enchroachment. Before the Daintree was turned into a National Park and a World Heritage Site, the Queensland government was actually selling off large chunks of it for development in order to make money. Luckily the buyers were prevented from creating farms, logging businesses, golf courses or tourist resorts by conservation laws that came in the nick of time to protect such a unique and fragile environment.
We drove up from Port Douglas on a small group tour. We knew that we wouldn’t be visiting the fantasy jungle of popular fiction, but did have high hopes of spotting a crocodile or possible catching a glimpse of a snake. There was also a very slim chance of coming across a weird flightless bird called the cassowary. It is the third biggest bird in the world after the ostrich and the emu. Only 110 survive in the huge Queensland rain forest and our chances of seeing one were rated as only 10%.
Our first little jungle trek was in the Mossman Gorge. It was along a well worn tourist track. No machetes were needed. A crystal clear river tumbled over a scattering of boulders, whilst jungle trout lurked in the shallows. A colourful Bush Turkey scuttled through the undergrowth. But apart from that, the main interest was in the trees, all fighting each other in a race for the light. We learnt about the Strangler Fig, a silent killer, which slowly squeezes the life out its host. Then there’s an unusual tree ( name forgotten) that opens up little splits in its bark to secrete a sweet, sticky sap. This attracts ants which then repel any other predators which might harm the tree. It is a fascinating example of cooperation in the wild. OK, we didn’t get pounced on by a jaguar or half squeezed to death by an anaconda ( wrong continent anyway), but it was still an absorbing and unusual experience for us urbanites from the UK.
Our first big opportunity to encounter one of Steve Backshall’s “Deadly 60” was our crocodile cruise on the Daintree River estuary. Here salty sea water mixes with the freshwater running down from the mountains to form an ideal habitat for Australia’s largest and most deadly predator, the Estaurine Crocodile. I had read about lethal crocodile attacks on people foolish enough to swim in the quiet lagoons just off the main river. We were told the story of a man who had taken his two sons, 7 and 5, on a fishing trip on the Daintree. At the end of the day, he pulled his boat up on to the river bank and briefly turned his back on his sons to secure it. When he turned back, his 5 year old, who had been playing at the water’s edge, had suddenly disappeared. An estuarine crocodile had struck without warning.
So it was with a frisson of fear tinged with nervous excitement that we set off on our croc cruise. I had already decided that if we spotted one I wouldn’t lean too far over the side of the boat to take a picture! The river is densely bordered by mangrove forests. We glided slowly along the river bank, scouring the tangled roots and branches for signs of life. As the undergrowth closed in on us I was briefly transported to the scene in “Dr No” when Bond and his companions are penetrating deep into the villain’s jungle heartland. The side creeks, favourite haunts of crocodiles, were so overgrown that we could barely struggle through them, with overhanging branches regularly lashing the roof of the boat. We went to a place where a female crocodile had been located all week, but when we got there, she’d disappeared! Another crocodile nesting place on a wooded island had been attacked and destroyed by a gang of feral pigs, eager for an easy meal of eggs and tiny reptiles once the adult mother was away. The pigs had been set loose by people in the past so that they could have fun hunting them. Now they are a real problem.
We didn’t have much luck. All we saw were two baby crocs, one a few weeks old and one about a year. They had left the care of their mother and stood very little chance of survival. Both of them lay completely still on logs by the waterside, well camouflaged and barely discernible. As we looked at the second young croc, a green tree snake slithered through the leaves, causing a ripple of excitement to run through our group. It disappeared in seconds. The snake proved to be the highlight of the river trip and our scary encounter with a giant crocodile remained firmly in our imaginations.
North of the Daintree river, we left the main drag to explore a side track barely wide enough to contain our vehicle. This went through a stretch of private forest that the tour company had negotiated entry to. On another bushwalk we spotted a large, greeny grey lizard clinging to a trunk. It was completely motionless. It was a Boyd’s Forest Dragon. It had large, swivelling eyes, a double crest on its head and a line of fleshy spikes running along the length of its back. Like the baby crocodiles, it was very well camouflaged and we only spotted it due to the expertise and sharp eyes of our excellent guide. With patience and skill there is wildlife to be found in Australia’s rain-forest. It’s not just a mass of trees.
We drove on, deeper into the jungle. Then, as casually as you like, a very large, flightless bird wandered out of the forest and on to the track right in front of us. It had a blue face that turned pale orange at the back of its longish neck. At the bottom of its throat hung a small red, turkey-like wattle. It’s round, dark brown body looked as if it was covered with fur rather than feathers and its long white legs ended in 3 large splayed toes, festooned with talons. The most extraordinary thing though was a bony crest that sat on top of its head. It was an adolescent cassowary, one of those mysterious birds that we had only a minimal chance of spotting. It was probably a female as it was on its own. The males look after the eggs and the chicks. while the females wander free, leading a promiscuous lifestyle.
It was the high spot of the trip. We had seen a large exotic and rare bird, in the wild. This wasn’t a zoo. We watched it for a minute or more and then it melted back into the forest.
Later we went to see an adult cassowary at Port Douglas wildlife park.( the excellent Wildlife Habitat.) Its head and neck were a deep glowing blue. It had a bright red wattle hanging down at the front and red, bubbly skin at the back, just before it’s neck joined the dark feathers of its body. The bony crest or helmet was large and striking. It is called a casque and grows to about 7 inches ( 18cms) in height. Nobody know for sure the purpose of this casque. It could be used for sexual signalling or employed as a weapon or a foraging tool. It may be a device for amplifying sound or simply a battering ram, as the cassowary lowers its head and charges through the forest at speeds of up to 31 mph. It’s a strange but beautiful bird and still very much a mystery wrapped up in an enigma ( with apologies to Winston Churchill.) Cassowaries can be dangerous when startled, lashing out with their large, sharp claws. The middle one is particularly dangerous. They are capable of disembowelling a human or a dog if cornered. But such attacks are rare and it is the cassowaries that are in most danger, from dog attacks or speeding traffic. Also those pesky feral pigs are a problem again. They destroy eggs and nests and compete for food. Cassowaries can swim in rivers and the sea. They emit a low, booming sound, right on the edge of human hearing. They live for 40 to 50 years.
So, no big crocs, only one small snake, no poisonous spiders, no Tarzan and no Jane. But our brief sighting of the elusive Southern Cassowary in the wild was a thrilling encounter leaving an indelible memory. It was our David Attenborough moment and the unexpected highlight of our Queensland jungle adventure.