Thursday, July 28, 2011

Costa Rica Part 2: Animal Adventures

It's been longer than I intended since my previous Costa Rica entry, but I'm still planning to write about the whole trip. So, let's pick up from where I last left off, in Tortuguero National Park.

Tortuguero means "Land of the Turtles." It gets this name because of the sea turtles that make their nests on the beach there. There was an optional excursion to go see the sea turtles at night, which we unfortunately didn't have the cash for. We did, however, see a multitude of other extraordinary animals, almost from the moment we arrived. As we stood in the open-aired reception area, enjoying juice drinks and getting our introduction to the accommodations, there were some bats on the high ceiling, and a small lizard on the wall. We soon made our way to our room, a charmingly rustic place with nice wooden floors and rocking chairs on the porch. It's worth mentioning that we had no air conditioning. Now, we were fortunate that the temperatures at night were comfortably sleepable, helped by big rain storms on both nights we stayed there. The downside to the lack of a/c? It was so humid that it was almost impossible to air-dry clothing, and the money in our wallets even became damp from the air! But that's really a minor quibble; it was an amazing place to stay.

The Laguna Lodge where we stayed is located on a narrow strip of land with water on both sides - a wide river to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. After setting our stuff down in the room, Cara and I headed out to the beach. Yet before we even reached it, we were met with what I'd consider one of the most amazing sights of the trip.

On the ground before us, there was a line of moving things. Leaves - pieces of leaves, to be more accurate. A closer look revealed they were carried by red ants. Lots of ants. In one direction, scores of the insects carried their burdens; in the other direction along the same path, ants headed out to gather more. The line extended for probably fifty meters before disappearing into the forest.

Now, I study invertebrates, so I'm perhaps more inclined than most to find this a captivating sight. But I think just about anyone would have to admit that this was really freaking cool. Especially once you learn more about what the ants were actually doing. They're called leafcutter ants, and as I later learned, they use leaves to cultivate a fungus that they have a mutualistic relationship with. Seriously, ants have a complex society in which they practice agriculture. Check out the Wikipedia article. Ants are amazing. Life is amazing.

After observing the march of the ants, we continued out to the beach, to see a choppy Caribbean. We weren't supposed to swim there because of the currents, but it was definitely fun to put our feet in the water. We also saw some more neat animals out on the beach - crabs, in a variety of sizes, scuttling in and out of their holes. Walking back from the beach, we encountered two more fascinating critters, a large lizard and a very colorful grasshopper.

So at this point, we had been at the lodge for maybe an hour, and I'd already seen an astonishing array of wildlife. As a biologist and all-around nature enthusiast, I was pretty much in heaven, and I found myself marveling at what a wonderful place this was. Things would only get better from there.

The next morning, we went on a guided wildlife cruise through the canals and waterways of the park. Our tour group headed out in three boats, making our way from the wide and open channel by the lodge into narrower, more secluded waterways. Now, I definitely have to give major credit to the tour guides and boat captains here. Most animals find it beneficial to blend in with their environments. I could easily imagine having gone on the same cruise without expert guides and seeing almost no animals at all (although I did feel a certain sense of pride when I was the one who spotted a turtle swimming near our boat). Time and again, we would be slowly floating through the waterways, when one of the guides would point to something, and there would be some conversation in Spanish. We would float closer, all eyes would hone in on the indicated location - and there, among the lush foliage, would be some fantastic bird, or reptile, or even a group of monkeys.

Here in Northeast Ohio, one of the most exciting animals to spot is the Great Blue Heron. We've seen quite a few in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as well as closer to home at the Shaker Lakes. They're beautiful creatures, incredibly graceful in appearance with their long necks and beaks. In the Tortuguero National Park of Costa Rica, there's an incredible diversity of birds that are each just as astonishing as the herons here. We saw several different types of heron on the cruise. The most striking in appearance was probably the aptly-named Tiger Heron.

We were also lucky to see wild turkeys - both a male and a female at the same time. According to the guides, this was a rare sight indeed. A toucan was another treat. Probably my favorite bird, though, was one I'd never heard of before. It's called an Anhinga. This bird, unlike some waterfowl, does not have oil to waterproof its feathers. This makes diving easier, but before the bird takes flight, it must dry its feathers by spreading its wings out. This leads to a truly spectacular sight.

I spotted several of the birds over the course of the week, and it was always a thrill. Perhaps even more exciting than the birds (and the iguana and caimans) was when our guides spotted monkeys in the trees. We saw groups of both howler monkeys and spider monkeys on the cruise. The encounter with the spider monkeys was especially amazing. We were in a section of the waterways where our boats were roofed in by the trees, and there, up above, were several monkeys, watching us. (They're very intelligent creatures, and I have to wonder what goes through their heads at such moments). After some time, they decided to move, and it turned out that there were more than we were initially aware of. And the way they move through the trees is just spectacular to witness - swinging from branch to branch with what appears to be wild abandon but is no doubt greatly controlled. I'm sure most people have heard of how monkeys have prehensile tails, but I don't remember ever seeing such a thing in action - certainly not in person and in the wild. The way the monkeys would propel themselves through the air and then grab on to a branch with their tails before letting go and grabbing the next branch with their hands was simply incredible. As with the ants, I got a sense of just how amazing life on this planet Earth is.

So, the wildlife cruise was definitely one of the (many) highlights of the trip. The whole stay in Tortuguero had a certain magical quality to it. There are no motor vehicles there at all, adding to the sense of peace and connection with nature. We enjoyed relaxing in the pool, or in our rocking chairs on the porch watching and listening to the rain pour down at night. We also enjoyed some fabulous food. I'm generally not much of a seafood person, but the fish we had at dinner the first night in Tortuguero was probably the best I'd ever had, and it got me on a kick of eating seafood throughout the week. Fresh seafood and fresh fruit are two things that I would never get tired of if I lived in Costa Rica. When it was time to leave Tortuguero after our second night, we were a little sad, but also very excited about all the other great things ahead of us on our tour. And those will be discussed in blog entries to come.

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