Colourful creatures found in Costa Rica

SANDRA COULSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

On the quiet beach, the field of stars on the cloudless night is spectacular.

But our eyes have little time for the splendours of the sky. The six of us are looking down in the sand, focussed on the beam of an infrared flashlight revealing another natural miracle. A big sea turtle is dropping slippery eggs into a pit she has dug with her hind limbs.

Tourists though we be, it’s our job tonight — under the tutelage of a longtime volunteer — to retrieve eggs from as many pits as possible before the tide rolls in, in a bid to help preserve the sea turtle population.

This is the kind of encounter one can have in Costa Rica, where tourism is widely based on the country’s abundant natural assets.

Our week was filled with sightings of a veritable Noah’s Ark of wildlife and loads of information about plants, birds, mammals and insects.

We made our base in Jaco, a beach resort on the Pacific coast.

Our hotel, Vista Pacifico, is a nine-unit inn up in the hills with a fantastic view of ocean and mountains. It’s owned by relatives of my travelling companion.

My personal connection aside, however, it frequently ranks No. 1 on Trip Advisor for Jaco accommodations. Part of that ranking is due to the owners’ extensive local contacts to help visitors enjoy their stay — which is how we ended up searching for turtle eggs.

Most mornings at the hotel we were greeted by social flycatchers living up to both parts of their name.

On a few days, a flock of scarlet macaws did a flypast.

Seventy kilometres south, we visited Manuel Antonio National Park. I paid a guide $10 US for help finding wildlife. It paid off with sights and glimpses of Capuchin monkeys, sloths way up in trees and several lizards, including the divinely named Jesus Christ lizard — because it can walk on water. My friend and I later lunched in the adjacent town of Quepos at a restaurant overlooking a ravine. There the sightings continued. Two agoutis — big guinea pig-like rodents — rustled about on the ravine floor. And a helpful waiter pointed out a sloth sleeping about five metres off the balcony — co-operatively facing the camera.

Not all wildlife is charming but it is nonetheless fascinating. North of Jaco, the Tarcoles bridge is known as a place to see crocodiles in the river below. We weren’t disappointed with our count of 21. I have yet to grow tired of watching my video of one of the biggest crawling into the water, sinking down and vanishing in 30 seconds.

For a side trip, we went to see Arenal Volcano National Park, a roundabout 200-kilometre drive north. When my friend sent me a list of area accommodations, I noticed the Tree Houses Hotel and insisted on this opportunity. The five units are like cabins on steel stilts — ours 22 steps up. At that height, it’s literally a bird’s- eye view of the forest.

Having an aracari — a pugnacious-looking version of the toucan — land on a branch just off the tree house deck remains one of the highlights of the trip. And sleeping with the windows open meant being awoken at 5:30 a.m. by a troop of howler monkeys passing by.

At the breakfast pavilion our hosts put out plantains on stumps to attract birds. This was an absolutely distracting time when one could not decide where to look next. Helpfully, the hosts were on hand and had bird pamphlets for identification: striking black and red Passerini’s tanager, mot mot with its pendulum-like tail, blue dacnis (whose female is in fact emerald green), black-cheeked woodpecker and the national bird, the yiguirro.

Other guests found leaf frogs and armadillos on the property.

Through this hotel, we arranged a tour of the volcano (which was not active) with a local guide, who had the scoop on medicinal plants growing at the foot of the mountain.

It was in the Arenal area where we first saw marching lines of leafcutter ants stripping a tree — a sight guaranteed to make you itchy just watching it. They take the leaf bits back to their home where the decay creates a fungus that feeds their larvae.

And for a close-up encounter with Costa Rican wildlife, I recommend (or not) stepping on a colony of fire ants.

Sea turtle nest search like CSI scene

The first task as we set off on our nighttime search for sea turtle eggs is to give our eyes a few moments to adjust to darkness.

No flashlights here — except for one sparingly used infrared light.

Raul, our guide, has for five years been a volunteer helping biologists on Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica protect sea turtle eggs. It’s a bid to increase their odds of surviving until they’re old enough to mate — a one in 1,000 long shot.

The six of us walk the beach looking for tracks of turtles coming out of the water to lay the eggs — essentially looking into blackness for something blacker. Eventually we find two sets of tracks.

One set indicates the turtle has come and gone. Raul zeroes in on the exact location of the buried nest, likening the search to a CSI scene. He puts on latex gloves, digs into the cavity and starts retrieving eggs the size of ping-pong balls.

I also don a glove for my job of counting them as I put them in a plastic bag. I’m nervous because the shells are soft and I don’t want to squish them.

I count 97.

We move to another spot where the tracks are only going inland. An olive Ridley turtle is just starting to dig the nest, shifting her body back and forth and flicking sand with her back limbs.

Raul excavates out the back of the cavity she’s dug so we can watch what’s happening by infrared. Eggs start dropping in a messy, mucus-covered miracle. Raul scoops them up and Anne, another member of our group, counts and bags them — 91 in all.

We take the two bags back to the “nursery” at the biologists’ camp. A stringed grid marks places in the sand where the eggs can be reburied and guarded from predators and poachers during their 45-day incubation. Raul digs holes in two unused squares and Anne and I place the eggs one by one.

Raul notices an olive Ridley hatchling stranded in an empty hole. Its flippers are flailing, apparently eager to get to the water.

The six of us take it to the beach like a bunch of proud parents ready to see the little one — there’s no way at this stage to tell whether it’s male or female — off on its next stage of life.

It’s placed 10 metres from the water, giving it time to somehow memorize this beach because, if it’s female, this is where it will return to nest years from now.

It dashes toward the water, but incoming waves keep washing it back. Finally on the third try, it disappears into the ocean.

And so its life begins.

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies to Juan Santamaria International Airport near the capital San Jose in central Costa Rica and to Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia near the “Golden Coast” in the northwest. Juan Santamaria is also served by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, jetBlue, United, US Airways and others.


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