Tweeting through Costa Rica the old-fashioned way

by Elizabeth Willoughby

The number one country on the Happy Planet Index, the greenest country on Earth and en route to becoming carbon-neutral, Costa Rica has something even more interesting to offer: birds.

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A cloud forest aviary

An overnight downpour ends suddenly, leaving the sound of water droplets tapping down onto lower leaves from higher reaches, and puddles shrink as they are absorbed into the dirt and evaporate under the rising sun, but the jungle's earthy scent and freshness from the rinse remains, and the greenness of the plant life glows healthy and strong.

As I approach the entrance to Monteverde's biological reserve in the Puntarenas Province of Costa Rica, my guide, Eric, points out a viper snoozing in the crook of a tree above my head. I look up, but can't make it out. He slides a tripod off his shoulder, lines up the sight in his telescope, and there appears a long, lime green snake drooping and looping off one side of a branch and the other, fast asleep — or at least not moving. In its highly-relaxed state, maybe it's as pleased as I am that the June shower has cleared, for now.

We're just south of the gently-puffing Arenal Volcano and its lake. The reserve we're about to enter is classified as cloud forest, which means it has a higher altitude (800 to 2,500 metres), less rainfall (three metres per year) and cooler temperatures (16 to 23 degrees Celsius) than rainforest, plus it's cloudy. Gone are the toucans and parrots; welcome exotic quetzal birds.

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Eric, a tall, mid-forties ornithologist, is wearing jeans, a baseball cap and a jacket with big pockets for his reference books, rather than the beige multi-length, zippered pant legs that make up today's tourist uniform. As we ramble up the jungle paths, he shares interesting facts at a rapid, steady pace, and seamlessly injects twitters into his dialogue. I think he thinks he's talking to the birds and me at the same time. Maybe he is.

I simply enjoy looking at the ones he points out and expounds upon, except that I don't have a keen eye to spot them like he does. Eric points to a bird perched high on a branch. I follow the line from his finger and see green trees and bromeliads. He describes it further — it's yellow, it's right there. I follow the line from his finger and see green trees and bromeliads.

As I struggle to exact the form of a bird out of the foliage, he slides the tripod off his shoulder and lines up the sight in his telescope. "Look through here," he says. A warbler fills up the circle of the viewfinder. I peek above the eyepiece straight at where the bird should be, and although it hasn't moved, it has disappeared for me.

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Exploring the canopy

My eagle-eyed guide stops bothering to point things out and just carries his open tripod along, ready to aim its spyglass at each new find. He lines up a black-faced solitaire whose grey plumage somehow camouflages it. Next is a three-wattled bellbird — it's a male with a large chestnut brown body and wings, a white head and wattles that hang wiggling from three sides of its bill like long black worms. It opens its beak gaping wide, waits and looks around, then lets out a loud call that sounds like a submarine sonar, and I watch to see if he'll bite the wattle dangling from the top of his bill when he closes his beak. He doesn't.

With 450 species of songbirds, we're wandering through a virtual aviary. Costa Rica's national bird, the clay-coloured robin, has 25 distinct melodies. Although Eric's mother tongue is Spanish, he says the birds here like the sound of spoken English the most of human sounds. I don't know how he knows that, but if he tells me they told him so, I might believe him.

At this time of day, the quetzal should be returning to its nest, which is in a hole high in a tree trunk, and which is the real reason I'm here. A bird important in local mythology, it is also famously beautiful and I want to see one. It is green with a brilliant red chest and an enormously long, elegant tail plume that can reach up to 40 centimetres.

As we loiter near its tree, Eric whistles and tweets and is answered seconds later, and I wonder if it's birds that are responding or other birders. Eric points out bugs, birds, medicinal plants and lifecycles until it's time to go. The quetzal, which has not yet returned, will have to remain mythological for me until my next visit. Now, I'm heading north to "birder" by river.

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River cruising open-air zoos

La Fortuna, just east of Arenal Lake, provides a good base for daytrips into Costa Rican forests in every direction. My next tour is a covered, wooden boat cruise up Rio Frio in the Caño Negro refuge by the border of Nicaragua.

The birds along the river are easier for me to spot than they were in the cloud forest, due no doubt to my training in the clouds. I spot one bird after another hiding on the river's exposed branches, stumps and trunks sticking up out of the water.

Within minutes I've spotted all kinds of colours: a scarlet-rumped tanager, a yellow-breasted great kiskadee, a grey-necked wood-rail, green and blue herons, wood peckers, kingfishers and more. But there are other creatures to observe as we chug upstream.

A dozen grey, blasé iguanas doze on a mess of thicket, basking in the sun. I watch a snake swim by, its erect head and upper body thrusting forward, pulling itself along until it leaps into the air spreading its wings because it's really a cormorant.

We come upon a group of black howler monkeys lounging in the treetops, using their long tails as a third arm. I see a white-throated capuchin monkey with its bare face, white head and bib, and then a group of brown, thumbless spider monkeys hanging upside down, feasting on the fruits of the palm trees they're occupying.

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A green iguana watches the boat pass by from the riverbank, but it's not as impressive as the bright green, blue spotted, frilly crested emerald basilisk, also known as the Jesus iguana for its ability to run across water. This male lays tense and still on a broken log on the shore, keeping his yellow eye on us until we're out of sight.

The sky darkens, large raindrops blop into the river, and caimans slide off logs to prowl the murky water with only their eyeballs and nostrils above the surface. Under torrents of rain, the boat heads back to the dock. A three-toed sloth naps curled up in a ball in a tree overlooking the dock, oblivious to the change in weather.

After lunch and after the rain, the return to La Fortuna offers further sightings: northern jacanas with very long toes, redwing blackbirds, great-tailed grackles that poop everywhere and eat everything, pretty, yellow, tropical kingbirds and strange-looking groove-billed ani. We pass a herd of cattle – one cow has raw, shredded flesh hanging off its rib cage on both sides of its body. It has been attacked by a jaguar, and survived. I try to imagine what excuse the wildcat used when it returned home empty handed after losing a battle with a cow.

Back in town, relaxing in the natural hot spring pools, I need to decide which macroclimate to bird watch in next. In Costa Rica, there are many birds and many choices.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2011

This article was published at © 2011

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