Costa Rica 3: Horizontal Rain

The Silver-throated Tanager enjoying apples in the year-round orchard at Hotel Savegre.

Earlier posts in this series:

    1.  A Two-Toucan Day
    2. What a Week of Birding!

Our plan was pleasantly affirmed as we drove another narrow road to the  San Gerardo de Dota area. We’d read several blogs attesting to the value of a trip to the Rio Savegre region, comparing it to Monteverde without the crowds. From the Pan American Highway, we dropped into a drainage and continued approximately 10km down a very steep, windy, dead-end road. It must have been a 2,000′ elevation change, but upon arrival to sublime sunlight to our destination, situated at 6,000′, we were confused about what to expect from a “cloud forest?” Here was a location where apples grow year round–farmers simply remove the leaves of trees in sections of orchards on a schedule, forcing new flowers and, eventually, fruit. Several species of wildlife thrive on the juicy fruit, and we thrived on the cool, fresh air.

Our guide for a couple days, Raúl Chacón, is the grandson of the lodge’s founder. He was extraordinary—fully educated in Eco-tourism, including his birding guide father,  extremely knowledgeable in all things nature, and a terrific person, Raul drove us in his truck to all the places we needed to be. Not necessarily the places we thought we’d need to see but the spots where we had the best chance of spotting many of the area’s endemic birds in a timely fashion. He led us up rough mountain roads, carried his scope while we scooted along behind along beautifully carved paths carpeted with mostly oak leaves, and led the way through low ground cover listening and looking for the Buff-fronted Quail Dove, the Ghost Dove, and the Spotted Wood-Quail. Alas, we didn’t see the Ghost Dove with him but both Sooney & Carol did spot the Spotted Wood Quail not far from our bungalow on a well-traveled path.

El amigo del hombre appeared curious of my shutter clicking away.

It was on one of these trails that we spotted a bright yellow and black bird that simply refused to skitter away. The Collared Redstart, affectionately nicknamed El Amigo del Hombre (Man’s Friend) lived up to its moniker in spades. We’d driven roughly a ½ km uphill from the lodge, and were birding at around 7,500′. On the hills across the valley clouds were drifting lazily along the tops of the adjacent ridge, leaving moisture on the leaves that eventually finds its way into the soil for nourishment. This is referred to locally as horizontal rain and is the sustaining feature of a cloud forest. The forest remains green throughout the year after a couple of months of rain (Sept-Oct.). the weather is sunny and pleasantly cool year round in the shade with some seasonal cold mornings. Our bungalow was equipped with a fireplace and plenty of wood although we slept just fine with the windows slightly ajar. *Carol from Miami gets cold when the temp decreases to 67, so there was the remote control war to turn it up to 80 (OR NOT) in the evenings and mornings.

The Resplendent Quetzal (male)

On our final day of birding with Raúl, we passed on the offer to see the resident Resplendent Quetzals (it wasn’t the bird but the tourists that was the turnoff) and returned to the highlands in search of the Costa Rican Pygmy Owl. Beginning at 5:30am, we stopped periodically to listen and assess. The elusive Barred Falcon called and returned our calls with those of its own but remained hidden (to me—Sooney and Carol saw it perched in the dense forest and fly to another perch further in). We continued to the the “Pioneers” trailhead, named after Raúl’s grandparents, where we parked and continued on foot for a half hour following the distinctive call of the Pygmy. With uncanny precision, aided by warblers and euphonias noisily keeping the owl always in view, Raúl spotted the softball-sized owl cozied up on a cushion of moss waaaaay up on a snag of an ancient White Oak, the tallest oak species in the world. He set up his scope, gave us all a good look of the cute little critter hooting its heart out. He even managed to capture a reasonably good photo with Carol’s iPhone through the scope’s eyepiece. A great find, and altogether we spotted 7 new species BEFORE heading down to the Savegre Lodge for breakfast. Pura Vida.

It’s not all about birding, however. We noticed a considerable amount of dwarf bamboo in the upper elevation and learned about the relationship between the Peg-billed Finch and the success of the species colloquially named “walking bamboo.” In the rainy season, the 5′ cane bends down and roots adjacent to the mother plant who then dies. While it’s not particularly unusual to see successful propagation of plants just about everywhere in the tropics (stick it into the ground and watch it grow), this species of bamboo flourishes when special weather conditions occur. It produces and drops seeds coveted by the endemic finch. The bird mysteriously shows up on cue, digests the seeds,  and poops ’em far beyond the reach of the mother plant. This produces a far healthier offspring of the bamboo, and illustrates yet another important symbiotic relationship among plants and wildlife.

Click on the hummingbird’s bill to see what all the excitement’s about.

Another interesting relationship is between two birds. The delicious (and sustaining) nectar of the Angel’s Trumpet flower is deep inside its cone-like blossom. The depth of the flower is beyond the reach of some shorter-billed hummingbirds, however. So what to do? Enter the Slaty Flowerpiercer, a small bird whose diet is predominantly nectar. Using its pronounced hook on the upper mandible to grip the base of the flower, the Flowerpiercer uses its sharp lower mandible to puncture the base of the flower to gain access to the nectar without pollinating the flower. The whole process takes little more than a second, and resulting hole becomes the portal for hummingbirds to tap into the pool of nectar and, in doing so, possibly gather pollen to deposit elsewhere.

This Slaty Flowerpiercer was “rescued” after colliding with a window. Fortunately its “hook” wasn’t damaged.

After nearly a month on the road, our journey is winding down. I’m writing this at a wonderful breakfast buffet at the Hotel Bougainvillea with its 10 acres of garden in the outskirts of San Jose. We overheard tales from other diners about their birding experiences, and one gentleman during 2 visits to Costa Rica this year had spotted 499 species. Another fellow was just planning his journey, having initially visited Nicaragua and El Salvador. He’s the host of an adventure wildlife/travel show in England, and encouraged us to visit his site for information about his travels. While we didn’t see 500 species of birds OR wrestle with iguanas in murky rivers, our month-long safari was wonderful beyond our exceptions with excitement, humor, adventure and, fortunately, no drama.

So far, I have compiled hundreds of photos captured during the 8 episodes of this journey. Understandably, a majority will be culled from the inevitable slideshow to be shared with friends. Thankfully, the good thing about a blog is the ability to pull up galleries down the road whenever there’s an Internet connection. The following will be cherished for years to come.