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Wildlife Adventure in Costa Rica (2016) Part I

My second trip to Costa Rica, but still as excited as the first. I had an unforgettable time in one of the most beautiful and biodiverse countries in the world, located in Central America. I returned home with a lot of photographs and stories. I hope you enjoy this first part of the story, in both words and photography. 

Alajuela

My girlfriend (Yara) and I arrived at night in Hotel Old House in Alajuela after a long flight from Amsterdam. We stayed here for a short time. Our plan was to leave to Monteverde in the morning. That plan did not work, but after some good help from the lady of the hotel we were able to take the bus in the afternoon. Meanwhile we had a nice walk in Alajuela and saw the most beautiful leafcutter ants parade of the trip.
Leafcutter ants carry leafs, or parts of leafs, to their nest. They use it to grow a fungus. The fungus cultivated by the adults is used to feed the ant larvae, and the adult ants feed on leaf sap.

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Monteverde

After the worst busdrive ever, but for that reason unforgettable, we arrived in Santa Elena. We did not have a seat on the bus so we had to stand (and sit on the floor) during the trip. The sunset was absolutely stunning, but hard to see when you are tall (I was staring at the bagage compartiment).
The first person that we had met in Santa Elena was Andy (Andrés Alvarado) from Forest Alive Expeditions. He wanted to help us to get a taxi. We started talking and we found out that we both like snakes. We booked the private night tour (more about that later) and he helped us a lot.

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Free hike

After a visit to the butterfly garden in the morning (Yara loves butterflies) we had a lazy afternoon. Andy told us about a free hike, which is quite rare in Monteverde. We decided to do this hike in the late afternoon.
From the Hotel Belmar you can hike up the road to a wonderful viewpoint (which we did not reach). It is a steep but nice place to walk. An highlight was our first reptile of Monteverde. It was a male Green Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus) basking on a rock.costarica2016pentaxgreenspinylizard20160807-28

Night tour

The night tour was something that I had been really looked forward to. I really wanted to see a Side-striped Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis lateralis), but I would be fine without seeing one. Luckily we saw one! Not an adult, but I am very happy!
A sad warning to the herpetological photographers wanting to visit Monteverde. You are not allowed to use flash for you photos. It is a rule, but there are ways to avoid.
Side-striped Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis lateralis)
One of my favorite photos of the trip is the photo of a scorpion under the UV-light. I might consider buying an UV-flashlight myself, because I love the effect.

Scorpion under the UV-light
Another ‘Forest Alive Special’ was seeing hummingbats feeding with army style night vision.
Adding a sleeping Three-Wattled Bellbird, a sleeping Quetzal, and a sleeping porcupine to the list, makes this night tour a successful and great experience.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

On the last full day in Monteverde we went to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We had a nice walk in a beautiful forest, but we did not see many animals.

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Rio Tarcoles

On the last night in Monteverde we met our (also Dutch) friends Daniël and Daphne. I met them two years ago on Borneo, and they are great people. Together we would travel to Manuel Antonio, Drake Bay, and San Gerardo de Dota. The next destination was Manuel Antonio.
On our way we stopped at the famous bridge over the Rio Tarcoles to watch the American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutes) in the river. As you can see on the photos, there is room for an extra towel.

American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutes) American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutes)

Manuel Antonio

Manuel antonio national park

I must admit that I was a bit worried about Manuel Antonio National Park. I had read all the horror stories. Indeed it is very touristic and at the gate there are many guides offering their services. Luckily we were not in the ‘high season’ so no lines at the entrance.Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus)On the main road in the park we did a lot of ‘freeloading’. With ‘freeloading’ I mean walking from group to group to see if there is something interesting. All groups have a guide and they know where the obvious animals are. Only one guide was angry and wanted us to hire him if we wanted to watch the animals he points at. Ehm, no thank you!
Further into the park it was not so crowded, but still crowded to my standards. Mantled Howler (Alouatta palliata)Orb-weaver spider (I think Gasteracantha cancriformis)A lot of people walk here on their flipflops, because it is easy walking on concrete trails. It was like walking in a zoo, because it was also very easy to spot wildlife.Green & Black Poison Frog (Dendrobates auratus) Even with so many people walking here, we were able to do some ‘naughty frog photography’. I have to admit that I did a little side step of the trail to photograph a very beautiful Green & Black Poison Frog (Dendrobates auratus). The name is an obvious name. 
In Manuel Antonio I also made one of my favorite anole photographs. It is an Anolis charlesmyersi showing his dewlap. It was a very beautiful display! Anoles use the dewlap to communicate with each other.
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Manuel Antonio National Park is indeed very touristic and almost like a zoo. I would still recommend this national park to visit, but do not stay longer than one full day.
In the park we had also encountered: Spinytail Iguanas (Ctenosaura similes), Crab-eating Raccoons (Procyon cancrivorus), White-nosed Coatis (Nasua narica), one Armadillo, Three-toed Sloths (Bradypus variegatus), Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloths (Choloepus hoffmanni), and many more.

Waterfront Hotel Verde Mar

As with a lot of places the national parks are not the only places to find wildlife. To me that is obvious, but I am always surprised by the beauty of some animals around, for example the hotels. There are photography opportunities everywhere!

Marine Toad (Rhinella marina)

As with the Marine Toad (Rhinella marina). They were walking around the hotel and inside the garden of the hotel. Yara and I both found one, but the one she found was the better model.
The Spinytail Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) was basking on the boardwalk of our hotel. Not really the most idilic habitat to photograph this prehistoric looking animal. People came, and they are still there.
Spinytail Iguana (Ctenosaura similis)

Drake Bay

Corcovado National Park was very high on my wishlist to see. It was the main attraction for this trip to Costa Rica. So we spend almost five days here.
During the preparations for the trip I was looking into Corcovado National Park and found out that you are not allowed into the national park without a guide. So when sleeping at La Sirena Ranger Station inside the national park you will need a guide for all the days and nights spending there. Besides that, you have to bring a lot of food and gear with you.
While searching on Google I found a lot of names of good guides. This way I found Steven Masis of Utopia Drake Outdoors. After contacting he told me the prices of the ‘La Sirena Option’. It was too expensive. His alternative, staying in Drake Bay and doing hikes from there, was a lot cheaper. So I booked a ‘One day tour in La Sirena’, a ‘One day tour to Wildlife Refuge Punta Rio Claro’ and a ‘Night hike in Drake Bay’.
Also for Corcovado counts that wildlife do not respect the borders of national parks.
The last part of the trip to Drake Bay was a spectacular boat trip from Sierpe through mangrove and open sea. On arrival we checked in at the Cabinas Jademar and were ready for some adventure!

Drake Bay (view from Cabinas Jademar)

La Sirena

We met Steven on the first night for a briefing. Daniël and Daphne were also already there. They had arrived a few ours later in Drake Bay. Steven told us about the plans and that the boat to La Sirena would depart at 6.00 AM.
After a very bumpy boat trip we arrived at La Sirena. We were definitely not alone, but after a while the other groups were further away. Spinytail Iguana (Ctenosaura similis)

The hike was in the secondary forest, but on the border of secondary and primary forest. It is not the most beautiful part of the national park, but it is the place where animals are easier to find.
The absolute highlight of this tour were the Baird’s Tapirs (Tapirus bairdii). We saw one big sleeping male, but more beautifully a mom with a baby. It was special because the reproduction rate of Baird’s Tapirs is slow. This makes the population very vulnerable when people hunt them.
Having no tapirs is a big loss. I just read an article about research that links the loss of large herbivores like tapirs to the loss of a forest’s capacity to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in leaves, wood and roots. The big trees, that store a lot of carbon dioxide, need large herbivores (tapirs) to spread their seeds. So without tapirs those trees disappear, and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise. This is also bad for us, humans. Baird's Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) juv.

Seeing a very diverse collection of monkeys in the Corcovado National Park was also very enjoyable. My favorite species is the Central American Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri oerstedii). The other species we saw are the White-headed Capuchin (Cebus capucinus), Mantled Howler (Alouatta palliata), and Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi).

American Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri oerstedii)

Wildlife Refuge Punta Rio Claro

The second tour with Steven was the hike to Wildlife Refuge Punta Rio Claro. This place is more unknown, but much more wild. We definitely needed boots here. Steven provided them. This was the real rainforest experience! Tiger Rat Snake (Spilotes pullatus)

During the hike I was looking for frogs and lizards, but most of all for snakes. Not just for my safety (a dangerous Fer-de-lance for example), but also because I wanted to photograph some of them. After walking on muddy trails we came near the river. A Tiger Rat Snake (Spilotes pullatus) was also there, probably hunting for lizards. We saw this snake species before in Manuel Antonio, but this time the snake was in a much better position to photograph.

While walking I thought that I saw an anole. You can see them a lot at Drake Bay. While inspecting the lizard I saw it was something better. It was a juvenile Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus). Yes!

Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus)

Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus)

Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus)

The trail we had followed ended at the beach. After a refreshing swim and a lot of ‘yoga poses in front of a beautiful landscape’ we walked back along the beach.
This time, we did see a real anole, the Jumping Anole (Anolis polylepis). This anole was very cooperative, so I could use my 100mm macro.
Jumping Anole (Anolis polylepis)

The hike to Wildlife Refuge Punta Rio Claro is highly recommended! The walk is very rough and wild, and very successful finding reptiles!

Night hike in Drake Bay

After two nights with heavy thunder and rain we were hoping that we could still do a night hike. On our last night in Drake Bay the weather was perfect. We had some rain during the day, but it was dry at the end of the afternoon and night.
The other nights we had already found some beautiful frogs like the Red-eyed Leaf Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) and Masked Tree Frog (Smilisca phaeota). When you know where to search and have acces to the better places you can find even better stuff.

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Steven took us to a privately owned area of rainforest at Drake Bay. Also here we saw Red-eyed Leaf Frogs (Agalychnis callidryas). If you visit Costa Rica, you have to see them. For the people who know them, they look a bit different (less colorful) in this part of Costa Rica.Red-eyed Leaf Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) Red-eyed Leaf Frog (Agalychnis callidryas)

Daniël, Daphne and Yara had never seen a glass frog before. We heard them a lot the nights before, but they were hard to spot. Steven showed us some Reticulated Glass Frogs (Hyalinobatrachium valerioi).
Glass frogs are characterized by the translucent skin on their ‘belly’. You can look through them.
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One of the Reticulated Glass Frogs was guarding eggs. Other males that approach the eggs are aggressively attacked. I created my favorite photo of the trip!Reticulated Glass Frog (Hyalinobatrachium valerioi)

Rivers are always a great place to find wildlife. While walking through the river we also found a Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis), probably looking for glass frogs. We saw a Speckled Glass Frog (Taratohyla pulverata) at the same location. Speckled Glass Frog (Taratohyla pulverata)Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis)

Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis)While I was busy photographing a snake there was also something very different and special to photograph. The looks can fool you. It is a caterpillar and not a snake. It is the Hemeroplanes triptolemus mimicking a snake to defend himself. One of the things that make nature so fascinating!

Hemeroplanes triptolemus

The Granular Poison Frog (Oophaga granulifera) was the next highlight of this night hike. As very colorful frog, which was not easy to photograph. They love to hop away.Granular Poison Frog (Oophaga granulifera)At the end of the night hike we almost lost our guide. He was almost too intimate with an Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). This Eyelash Viper has very good camouflage when you look at them from above. Eyelash Vipers are typical ambush predators and not known to be aggressive. They seem slow, but they can even catch an hummingbird in midair.  Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii)

Again, a spectacular hike! If you are planning to visit Drake Bay, contact Steven Masis (Utopia Drake Outdoors).

Cabinas Jademar

The hikes we did in and around Drake Bay were unforgettable, but there was more. We stayed at the Cabinas Jademar. The room was good enough, but when sitting in front of our room we looked over the bay. The view was stunning and we shared this view with more people who stayed at the Cabinas Jademar. There were always people to talk with and there was always wildlife to watch.
Breakfast was the perfect moment. A Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) was eating the fruits that were meant to attract birds in one morning. On another morning two Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) visited us. Yara and I could watch them from a few meters distance.
Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)In one afternoon I was just relaxing a bit when I saw a Common Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus). I am not a bird photographer, but when I can make an easy bird photo I take the opportunity. While photographing the hawk a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) flew into my frame. I call it a lucky shot. When you plan something like this it never happens!

Common Black-hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) While planning your stay it is always good to find something with a lot of wildlife around. When you do not have the energy to search for wildlife it comes to you.Woodpecker that went to the same hole every night. Right in front of us.

Behind the camera

My reports are about the animals I encounter. The photographs show only a small frame. Everything around is not on the photo. This gives the illusion I am always in the wilderness, alone in a shelter, waiting for the right moment. This is not how it goes.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Some photos are for example next to the road, like at the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles to photograph American Crocodiles.

Rio Tarcoles

Sometimes ‘not being the photographer’ is very relaxing. There used to be a time I wanted to photograph everything. Now I just photograph when I think I can make a good photo. So being on a boat trip, from Sierpe to Drake Bay, is a time to enjoy the surroundings.

Sierpe to Drake Bay

Finding wildlife to photograph is not always easy. Especially not in a new environment. A good guide can really help to increase you chances of finding beautiful wildlife. My new friend on the photo is not my guide in Drake Bay (Steven) by the way.  My new friend in Drake BayOne of the best wildlife moments was the mother Baird’s Tapirs (Tapirus bairdii) with baby. Being so close for a long time and observing the animals was unforgettable. On the photo you can see Steven (left), Daniël (center), and I (right). On the background you can see the tapirs.

Tapir photography © Daphne Melenhorst

Photographing a Tiger Rat Snake (Spilotes pullouts) or another animal in a shallow river can be tricky. Lying in the water is not very comfortable if you did not bring dry clothes with you on a hike. If you do not want to photograph naked, most modern DSLR-cameras have very good liveview. You can use the screen like you are used to on a mobile phone. The autofocus of this function improved a lot on recent cameras. I love it! Using live view on my Canon 5D Mark IIIThe last photo is a group photo of “Team Costa Rica”. Thank you for the great time!

Daniël, Daphne, Ronald, Yara in Corcovado NP

Support me

Part II of my Wildlife Adventure to Costa Rica will be online soon. In part II I will take you to Los Quetzales National Park, Cahuita National Park, and the Guayacan Rainforest Reserve.

Photographing, editing my photos, and writing a report costs a lot of time and energy. I love doing it (it is my passion), but it would be great if you ‘like’ or ‘share’ this report. Also writing a reply feels very rewarding. Also feel free to ask me for information when you are planning your trip.

If you want to stay up to date about my reports and adventures feel free to follow me on different social media. You can find the buttons on top of this page.

Species

This list consists of the amphibians and reptiles mentioned in this report, but also the ones I had encountered but decided not to include in this report. In this report I just included the photos I really like. For some species that means that the photo was not good enough, or that I did not photograph the species.

Frogs
  • Granular Poison Frog (Oophaga granulifera)
  • Green & Black Poison Frog (Dendrobates auratus)
  • Marine Toad (Rhinella marina)
  • Masked Tree Frog (Smilisca phaeota)
  • Reticulated Glass Frog (Hyalinobatrachium valerioi)
  • Red-eyed Leaf Frog (Agalychnis callidryas)
  • Savage’s Bull Frog (Leptodactylus savageii)
  • Speckled Glass Frog (Taratohyla pulverata)
Lizards
  • American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutes)
  • Anolis charlesmyersi
  • Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus)
  • Common House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus)
  • Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)
  • Green Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus)
  • Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus)
  • Jumping Anole (Anolis polylepis)
  • Lesser Ctenosaur (Ctenosaura quinquecarinata)
  • Slender Brown Anole (Anolis limifrons)
  • Spinytail Iguana (Ctenosaura similis)
  • Tropical Ameiva (Ameiva ameiva)
  • Yellow-headed Gecko (Gonatodes albogularis)
Snakes
  • Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii)
  • Northern Cat-eyed Snake (Leptodeira septentrionalis)
  • Salmon-bellied Racer (Dryadophis melanolomus)
  • Side-striped Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis lateralis)
  • Tiger Rat Snake (Spilotes pullatus)

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© 2017 Nature & Wildlife Photography by Ronald Zimmerman

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