Archive for the ‘Reptiles’ Category

Newseum, Terra Cotta Warriors, and Food in D.C.

November 20th, 2009 at 1:09 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our time here in Washington D.C. has been flying by quickly. Between museums, shopping, eating, and sleeping we have not had time for much else. Of course, there may not be much else we need time for.

I got a head start on the Newseum (day 2) yesterday morning, and by happy circumstance ended up meeting one of the technicians there who gave me an hour-long behind-the-scenes tour of the Newseum’s amazing electronic infrastructure. The Newseum prides itself on being the most interactive museum in Washington D.C., and the video and computer “farms” I saw attest to that. Thank you Mike! The family joined me after my serendipitous back stage tour, and I took the opportunity to ham it up in a fake newscast (see photo below).

Jake does the news report on the Woodstock presentation at the Newseum

Jake does the news report on the Woodstock presentation at the Newseum

After lunch at The Capital Grille next door and a few more exhibits at the Newseum the girls headed off for some shopping and Bas and I remained until closing time. We all met up at the National Portrait Gallery again, where we explored the Luce Foundation Center’s art archives.

The Luce Foundation Center at the National Portrait Gallery

The Luce Foundation Center archives at the National Portrait Gallery

Dinner was around the corner at Zaytinya, another of José Andrés‘ excellent restaurants. I’ll post more on that on A Foodie Moment in the next few days. We were joined there by old Richter family friends and virtual cousins Nell and Lauren Dennis.

Nell and Lauren at Zaytinya in D.C.

Nell and Lauren at Zaytinya in D.C.

Today was spent at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment as Krystyana’s current self-schooling interest is the field of crime scene investigation (CSI) and the museum has a pretty decent section on that topic as well as criminology in general. If you’re a crime buff or have a morbid interest in what sort of punishment was doled out for various crimes over the last millennium, this museum is for you.

Full Kee in D.C.'s Chinatown

Full Kee in D.C.'s Chinatown

We took time out for lunch in nearby Chinatown, at a Chinese restaurant a local friend had recommended – Full Kee. It offered a very diverse menu selection, including a number of Chinese dishes we had never seen stateside before (e.g. pork intestines and duck blood dishes), and the dishes we ordered were tasty and filling. I will note that I could not convince the rest of the family to try the more exotic dishes.

The highlight of the day, however, started in late afternoon when the real purpose of our trip to D.C. commenced.

We are here in Washington D.C. for something called the National Geographic Grosvenor Council Weekend, as the result of a donation we made to the National Geographic Society last year after spending a week on the National Geographic Polaris in the Galapagos.

The weekend is an event (for extra cost) set up to inform donors about the on-going activities of the National Geographic Society, and includes some additional and special events not available to the public at large.

The fossil skull of BoarCroc - Kaprosuchus saharicus

The fossil skull of BoarCroc - Kaprosuchus saharicus

The first of those events was a presentation by paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno about his recent discovery of three new species of crocodiles from the Cretaceous era at a couple of sites in the African Sahara, plus additional fossils from two more species. That discovery was publicly announced this morning. Paul explained how the fossils were found and how, based both on the fossilized bone structures as well as the physiology of modern day crocodilians, he discovered that these ancient species – dubbed BoarCroc (see skull above), PancakeCroc, DuckCroc, DogCroc, and RatCroc – had distinct capabilities, including rapid movement on land in the form of galloping. He supported his research with his observations of a galloping freshwater crocodile from Australia (the video of this was just too cool – unfortunately it’s not on-line, at least not that I can find).

The BoarCroc skull with with paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno

The BoarCroc skull with with paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno

After an extensive question and answer session, we moved to a reception where we got to say hi to National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle. With the various marine environmental and educational efforts Linda and I have been involved in over the last decade and a half we have met Sylvia several times – she’s a wonderful lady and pioneer in ocean exploration and conservation, and you may want to check out her new book, The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One. It should also be noted that our home island of Bonaire recently honored Sylvia Earle with a lifetime achievement award when she was there this past summer for the Bonaire Dive Into Summer Festival.

Terra Cotta Warriors presentation at the National Geographic Society

Terra Cotta Warriors presentation at the National Geographic Society

Following the reception was a presentation on the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit which opened here at the National Geographic Society’s museum today. We were told that advance ticket sales to the exhibit as of early morning today were close to 106,000 – completely exceeding expectations, but a real delight to anyone supporting the noble goals of the National Geographic Society.

The Terra Cotta Warriors are part of a three and half decade excavation near the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China. They were created in clay by command of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to protect him in death, over 2,000 years ago, and only rediscovered in 1974 by local farmers. The terra cotta statues include archers, chariot drivers, soldiers, performers, armor, horses, and a variety of animal forms as well. And we have wanted to see the Terra Cotta Warriors ever since we had first read about them in National Geographic Magazine decades ago.

So naturally we were delighted when our evening ended with a private tour of the Terra Cotta Warrior exhibit for our group of about 50 people. We were guided by a pair of doctoral candidates from George Washington University specializing in Chinese history. Alas, we were not permitted to take any photos, so there are none to share in this blog entry. That small disappointment aside, we’re pretty certain that all those people with advance tickets, as well as the thousands of others planning to attend will enjoy the exhibition, which contains the largest number of Terra Cotta Warriors to be seen anywhere outside of China. It also includes a variety of supporting artifacts, models, and explanations to help attendees get a better grasp of life during the Qin dynasty more than 2,000 years ago.

For us, if anything, the exhibit created an even greater yearning to visit Xi’an in person to see the huge excavations and the many thousands of warriors that have been painstakingly reassembled from a multitude of broken pieces. A visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at the National Geographic Society is something we would highly recommend if you’re in Washington, D.C. in the coming months.

 

Visiting Tortuguero on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

October 24th, 2008 at 2:11 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I have been promising some more travelogues from prior trips. Below is one from my and Krystyana’s trip to Costa Rica last month.

For our second weekend in Costa Rica, on September 13th, Krystyana and I decided to take a two-night, three-day trip to the Tortuguero area of the country. Our tour provider was, once again, Costa Rica Expeditions.

Tortuguero is the location of a national park, and is situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, in the north easterly part of the country. The park is a protected area for all sorts of animals, fish, plants, and especially for sea turtles. Thousands of turtles use the beaches of the Tortuguero area for nesting every year. And inland are magnificent jungles.

Bright and early, at 6:30pm, a Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van was waiting to pick us up at our hotel. The folks who picked this up were kind enough to offer actually take all of our baggage and store it in a secure facility for the three days that we were going to be away but I had prepaid the hotel, so we just left every thing in our rooms.

Travel to Tortuguero via the tour typically involved ground and boat transport in one direction, and a charter plane flight in the other.

Our plane to Tortuguero - a Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan - smooth ride, but tight quarters for a big guy like Jake

One of the interesting things that we discovered when we originally booked this trip was that there was a 25 pound per person limit on baggage for the flight segment, and that the flight typically occurred on the return from Tortuguero, but Douglas, our great agent at Costa Rica Expeditions was able to rearrange the flight schedule for us in a way that guaranteed we could have more luggage with us by flying on the outbound on an empty plane. That was very helpful as my camera bag alone was about 25 pounds, and of course we had our clothing and shoes as well.

Tortuguero's canals and rivers and jungles start getting closer as we prepare to land

We were brought to a small private airport on the north side of the San Jose near the high-rent district where the president of Costa Rica lives. From there we boarded the small eight-seat plane for Tortuguero. The flight was about 35 minutes and took us to the small hamlet of Barro del Colorado on the northeast coast of Costa Rica, above the Tortuguero National Park.

The sign welcoming us to the airfield at Barra del Colorado - no problems with livestock on the runway, this time

Upon arriving in Barro del Colorado we were met by one of the people from Tortuga Lodge – our home for the next three days. His name was Riccardo, and as it would turn out, we would be spending a lot of our time with him. In a ride which took almost an hour, Riccardo took us by riverboat to Tortuga Lodge, which is just outside of Tortuguero Town. Tortuga Lodge is owned by Costa Rica Expeditions, incidentally.

As aside, it is interesting to note that there actually are no real roads and therefore no cars or other large four-wheeled vehicles in the Tortuguero Town area. Instead, all traffic – including all shipping of goods and transportation of people – is handled by very long and narrow river barges on the Tortuguero River and the surrounding canals and inlets.

We had a full reception committee waiting for us at Tortuga Lodge - made us feel very special

As we arrived at Tortuga Lodge we found a number of the members of the staff waiting for us on their pier, including the manager of the property, Duane. We felt quite honored by the turnout. They gave us welcome drinks, took our bags from us, and guided us to breakfast, as it was only about 9am. Breakfast was wonderful. We sat next to the swimming pool, overlooking the water of the nearby river, and had great granola and fresh fruit.

By the way, I should mention that pineapples are the number one export of Costa Rica, and everywhere we ate, fresh pineapple was readily available, and it was incredibly delicious – a nice golden color, juicy, and sweet.

We were also offered our choice of eggs and breakfast meats and as much extra food as we wanted. It turned out that all the meals at Tortuga Lodge were a fixed set of courses, different for every meal and from day to day. And all were excellently prepared. The service was very good too. The only things not included in our package were beverages other than water and juice, and those were inexpensive.

After breakfast we were taken to our room, which was at the very end of the property, on the north side near some tall trees. In those trees were some howler monkeys. We were warned not to go close to them because they were rather spiteful and were known to throw feces at people that came too close to their trees.

Fisheye view of our spacious two-bed room at Tortuga Lodge - no air conditioning, but fans and screen windows took care of that

Our room had two large beds in it, a nice bathroom, but the only air conditioning we had was in the form of heavy-duty screens on the all windows so there be a constant airflow through the room. There were also a couple of ceiling fans – one above each bed. We were concerned about the lack of cooling equipment, as it was quite hot and muggy (the humidity in Tortuguero is quite high during much of the year, we’ve been told), but it turned out to be a non-issue, because we actually managed to sleep quite well due both to exhaustion as well as cooler temperatures at night.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed out and explored the lands and vegetation of the Tortuga Lodge with a couple of our cameras. We came across iguanas, spiders – there were lot of spiders… big spiders… colorful spiders… lots of spiders – and all beautiful in a macabre sort of way. They are kind of frightening but very cool looking all at the same time.

Another shot of the big grasshopper

We also encountered our first basilisk lizards, which are a rather prehistoric looking type of lizard which runs on its rear legs. I think Ray Harryhausen used them in the movie The Lost World back in the 1920s. When they are young and smaller (and thus weigh less), basilisk lizards can actually run across water.

Another basilisk lizard at Tortuga Lodge

We also found some very large grasshoppers, a couple of strawberry poison-dart frogs and we were also shown a “ting” frog. It is a little brown frog, and its name “ting” is derived from the noise it makes at night, which is kind of sounds like someone clinking nice wine glasses together.

Our first local creature was a Ting Frog, so called because of the sound they make at night

We also took the exploration as an opportunity to go to the reception area and sign up for an afternoon guided walk through the protected Tortuguero National Park.

And strawberry poison dart frogs were not uncommon as long as you didn't mind going into the shrubs to find them

Lunch featured marinated grilled veal pierced with skewers of sugarcane and finished with a chocolate torte drizzled with a natural fruit syrup.

Veal skewered with sugar cane - it was delicious - great food at Tortuga Lodge

In preparation for our walk in the jungle of the Tortuguero National Park, we were advised to wear rubber boots because of the mud we would like find in the rainforest. There was quite an assortment of boots behind the reception building, and I even found a pair that almost fit my rather large feet.

We were then taken by Riccardo, our boat driver from earlier that day, to the national park and spent about an hour and hour and a half with him, wandering along a lush jungle trail through the park to look at the variety of plant and animal life that existed there.

A bird related to the cormorant, drying its wings in Tortuguero

Among the things that we saw along the trail were several species of monkeys – spider monkeys, what they call white faced monkeys or capuchins, and also howler monkeys.

A clearer shot of a different species of toucan in Tortuguero

We also saw a variety of birds, but the most special find was a toucan, as we were not aware that toucans existed in this part of Costa Rica. We thought they were only on the Pacific side of the country. We also found numerous leaf cutter ants and yet more spiders and even some beetles too.

A small eye-lash viper our guide Riccardo found for us - quite poisonous, but very pretty

But by far the coolest find was the eyelash viper, a rather poisonous but very small snake. The eyelash viper we found was bright yellow and all curled up and tucked in under a fallen piece of old timber. It was the size of a small tea plate, but we were told stretched out it would be about two feet long. If the snake had not been bright yellow we would never noticed that it was there, and even then we only found it because Riccardo spent quite some time trying to find a snake for us.

Back at the Tortuga Lodge we had ourselves a wonderful dinner and set forth with another guide, Fernando, to see turtles nesting on the protected beach in Tortuguero National Park. We encountered a light drizzle, and ending up wearing ponchos that the staff at Tortuga Lodge had thoughtfully provided us with.

There are actually two viewing times each night that have been set up by the park rangers – 8pm and 10pm – and each resort is put in a lottery every night to see during which of two those slots their guests can go to observe the turtle nesting. In our case we were lucky enough to get the 8pm slot.

I should note that one disappointment that we faced before going on the turtle nesting trip was learning that we could not take cameras with us – even those that basically only shot in infrared, such as Krystyana’s Sony Cybershot, as there were concerns that any sort of unnatural lights could upset the nesting turtles and prevent them from making a nesting attempt.

Fernando took us by boat to Tortuguero Town, and from there we walked about a mile to our appointed meeting spot a few hundred meters inland from the beach. We did not wait on the beach itself because the rangers did not want us frightening the turtles away while they were trying to nest just by our mere presence.

We waited at the meeting spot for about half hour with a growing group of other people from other hotels and tours. Ultimately we had about 40 people in our section. We finally got a call from rangers indicating that they found nesting turtles at a particular place on the beach. Fernando led us there and in the light of the full moon we could actually see a couple of turtles coming up on the shore from the ocean, the moonlight reflecting off their damp shells.

We had to be careful to stay a fair distance away in order to avoid spooking the turtles, but as we found out during the course of the two hours that we were on the beach, a couple of turtles did indeed abort their nesting attempts because they came out of the water in spots near our group and were too unnerved to crawl much further onto the beach. They turned back into the ocean to try to make their nesting attempt later.

The way the rangers and our guides managed to avoid spooking the turtles too much while observing them was by using flashlights that had red filters on the lenses because turtles, as with many marine organisms, don’t actually see light in the red color spectrum. I use the same type of red light when night diving in order to not frighten fish and other creatures and thus be able to observe them in a more natural state.

The turtle nesting beach on which groups are guided and shepherded at night in the Tortuguero National Park are about five kilometers long. During the peak season, which occurs during July and August, there were as many as 700 people a night participating in watching the turtles nest.

The turtle species spotted nesting are primarily green turtles, although occasionally leatherback and loggerhead turtles are seen too.

Throughout our two hours together, Fernando explained a variety of aspects of turtle behavior, including how turtles mate and nest, how the temperature of an egg in the nest will determine the sex of the newborn turtle, the low survival rates of baby turtles, and much more. He also told us that on some busy nights during the peak of the nesting season there have been as many as 2000 nesting attempts recorded during a single night on the 30 kilometers of beach in and surrounding Tortuguero. That is just phenomenal. Back on Bonaire it’s noteworthy if we get even a few recorded nesting attempts a night, but 2000 in one night? Wow. Then again Bonaire does not have the same sorts of beach length or composition that Tortuguero has.

Another interesting thing Fernando explained is that each turtle makes numerous attempts over the course of couple of months period to nest and to lay eggs – typically laying a handful of nests over a two month period. The female turtles crawl all the way into the bushes at the top of the beach to dig their nest, as that is likely to be the most protected area for the two months it takes for the eggs to mature and hatch. However, with some many turtles nesting multiple times, a turtle may in fact dig into another turtle’s preexisting nest and destroy some of the turtle eggs that are in there. And, in fact, we witnessed just that situation occur the night that we were on the beach. The turtle we watched laying eggs had actually exposed another turtle’s nest and ejected a number of those older eggs onto the beach with her forceful digging attempts, using her flippers.

We actually found egg fragments, and even a couple of whole eggs, sitting on top of the sand near the new nest. We had an opportunity to actually hold one of the ejected eggs and found it to be quite heavy. It probably weighed about two thirds of a pound, which surprised us – it looked like a ping pong ball, and we therefore expected it to weigh less. We gently placed the egg back on the beach but Fernando told us that there was no chance that the egg would survive without being in a nest, protected from the sun and predators, and that just by having been flung out of the nest would have killed the baby turtle forming inside. That was rather sad and unfortunate, but that is also a normal product of nature.

Krystyana and I spent many minutes actually watching a large green turtle lay her eggs and then cover her nest. It should be noted that once turtles actually start laying eggs, they go into a trance of sort and kind of ignore the outside world, which is why it was safe for us to observe the egg laying and not disrupt the process merely by being nearby. All in all it was a pretty fascinating experience.

Ultimately we saw about 10 turtles come ashore and most of those continue to actually make making their nesting attempts in or near the bushes. Turtle nesting is a time consuming process because it takes the turtles in order about 15-20 minutes to make it 150-200 feet from the water’s edge into the bushes at the top of the beach and then probably another half hour to dig the nest where she is going to lay her eggs.

It’s a lot of work and we felt kind of sorry for these turtles, watching them struggle along on land, a place where they really were never designed to exist for very long. Their bodies are designed to be sleek and elegant in the water, but natural history dictates that nesting must occur above the water line, as that’s where the eggs have to hatch, in the sand. The cycle starts afresh with the next generation when the baby turtles have to crawl out of their nest, across a huge stretch of sand (relative to their tiny size) and finally end up in the ocean to continue a mostly aquatic life, until it’s time for mature female turtles to nest, on the same beach on which they were born.

One other lesson we learned that night was “bring bug spray”. There were a fair number of mosquitoes and biting insects on the beach, and without bug repellant we would have been very itchy and covered in bites. In fact, bug repellant is kind of a must when venturing anywhere near large growth in the Tortuguero area, since mosquitoes are very common. We did find, however, that while traveling on the bigger rivers, as well as while near the buildings and at meals at Tortuga Lodge, we did not have any mosquito problems.

We slept well that night and the following morning, after another very nice breakfast, we headed out again with Riccardo. This time it was to go and do a canal tour by boat in the Tortuguero National Park. This involved us being on a boat that could hold probably about 10 people. However, because we were there during low season, the tour consisted of just two of us, Krystyana and myself, along with Riccardo as our guide. That was perfect as it allowed us to stop for prolonged periods in places with good photo opportunities.

A crocodile lurks, waiting for prey, in the waters near Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero

We spent probably around three hours in the canals looking at and looking for all sorts of interesting creatures. We saw several species of herons, a number of other bird species, some bats, a couple of green basilisk lizards, and several caiman (which are a species of crocodile. We also saw a crocodile too. We also observed all three local species of monkeys in the jungles along the canals – spider monkeys, white faced capuchins and howler monkeys. And, of course, there was the lush green jungle itself, which was simply beautiful.

A very cute capuchin monkey ignored us while foraging in the trees above the canal-6

Another set of unusual creatures that we saw on our canal tour were other tourists who were taking similar canal tours with various other tour companies. Amusingly one of the people on the other boats was Laura, a fellow student from the ELISA Language School back in San Jose who had told us that she was going to be out in Tortuguero the same weekend we were.

We headed back to Tortuga Lodge and had another wonderful lunch, took a little bit of rest and then headed off in the afternoon with Riccardo again, this time to go kayaking in the canals. Krystyana and I each had our own kayak, and Riccardo had his and guided us through the canals – a different set of canals from those we had explored earlier that day by boat.

A heron species we don't know found along the canals of Tortuguero-2

We saw even more different kinds of birds during our kayaking, and being by ourselves with no other people around, I decided to try and “speak” howler monkey, ultimately establishing a sort of bellowing rapport with a couple of male howler monkeys. They sound a bit like sea lions. My conversation caused Krystyana much consternation because she was afraid that they might actually come down and try to attack us. I was more concerned about having things whipped at us, so I tried to ensure we were outside feces hurling range.

Another cool thing we saw were juvenile basilisk lizards actually running across the water on their rear legs – another thing we had not expected to see during our time in Tortuguero.

A spider monkey eats while suspended upside down in Tortuguero

One of the nice things about kayaking is that is very serene and peaceful (other than the howler monkey conversation, of course), in part becaue we did not have to deal with the sound of a boat’s motor. We were out for over two hours and then returned back to Tortuga Lodge to enjoy their wonderful warm swimming pool. We stayed in the pool until after sunset and then had another great dinner.

After dinner we opted for a tour of our own – exploring the Tortuga Lodge grounds at night, in the dark, using our flashlights for navigation, with the intent of taking pictures of whatever interesting things we could find with our cameras and strobes.

As we shined our flashlights around on the grass and trees we noticed these little tiny spots of white light reflecting back at us. When we went closer to these reflecting spots, we found they were the eyes of spiders. Fortunately there were not huge spiders, but we just had never realized that spider eyes reflect light, might in the same way that the eyes of shrimp and other crustaceans reflect light underwater at night.

This whole glowing spider eye thing freaked Krystyana out a bit, so we ended up staying out of the more densely vegetated areas in the back of Tortuga Lodge that night. After the initial discovery, I didn’t disclose to her all the additional glittering eyes I ended up seeing as I was looking through the bushes and through the grass for good camera subjects. I will say that there were a lot of spiders in sizes ranging from just an inch centimeters across (leg end to leg end) to as big as five or six inches. None of these was particularly threatening, and some were downright beautiful, but it was a bit creepy nonetheless – I was very glad to have long pants, hiking shoes, and a long sleeved shirt on, just in case.

Another big spider waiting to pounce at night

Among our non-arachnid finds were a sleeping basilisk lizard, some poison dart frogs, many big frogs and toads, as well as a number of interesting bugs and plants. We did not find any ting frogs, although we could definitely hear them all around.

Upon retiring to our room, exhaustion from the day’s activities brought deep slumber that night – fortunately with no spider dreams. The following morning after breakfast we joined another nine departing guests for an hour-long river boat ride to our bus pickup point at Cano Blanco. That was the closest point where the road actually kind of got to Tortuguero.

Along the way to Cano Blanco we actually almost got stuck in the canal because at one point the water level was so low relative to the muddy bottom in the canal that we had only about one or two inches of clearance. Fernando (our boat captain that morning) got us through, but only with a lot of churning through the mud. We observed some other boats coming the other way that actually did get stuck, and the crew had to get out and push the 50 foot long boat through the shallowest part.

As we neared Cano Blanco we also ended up seeing a flock of black headed vultures, as well as roseate spoonbills, another bird species which we found to be a real treat. On Bonaire we have large flocks of Caribbean flamingos, which are just as pink as the roseate spoonbills, but seeing wild spoonbills was cool.

The real bonus was seeing roseate spoonbills in the water

During our three and a half hour bus ride back to San Jose we saw some interesting sights, including banana fields, the relative poverty of some of the smaller villages along the dirt road we were on for the first hour, and truck pulling a horse behind it (instead of the other way around).

A man rides his motorcycle home, laden with groceries such as bananas, in Costa Rica
We arrived at our hotel late on Monday afternoon, tired but happy. Our trip to Tortuguero was more than we had hoped for, both in terms of experiencing the jungles of Caribbean Costa Rica, and with respect to the service we received all along the way. Extra kudos go to all the folks at Costa Rica Expeditions and Tortuga Lodge. We were pleasantly surprised to find a small property in the middle of the jungle which provided such excellent service, facilities, activities, and not at all least, great dining. And the wildlife we had a chance to observe close up and even interact with (in case of the howler monkeys) was incredible.

Definitely put a multi-day visit to Tortuguero on your expedition list if you visit Costa Rica, and don’t let the fact that September is rainy season scare you away from visiting. Just minimize your time in the bigger cities and spend your time out near the wilds.

 

Costa Rica – Day 1

October 3rd, 2008 at 3:46 pm (AST) by Krystyana Richter

My dad’s and my first whole day in Costa Rica started with waking up at 6:00am; thirty minutes after my alarm went off. And the person who woke me up was my dad, who would later use this as an annoying nag. We walked down to the hotel’s restaurant and ate from the breakfast buffet that was included with our room package. The buffet included Gallo Pinto (traditional beans and rice in Costa Rica) and cheese platter that had a cheese like the Mexican Queso Blanco (translation: white cheese). The buffet had all the other regular continental breakfast components, but the tea, coffee, and water had to be ordered through a waiter.

After breakfast, my dad and I hurried to our room to pack our day bags and cameras. We rushed to the lobby in haste due to being five minutes late! The Costa Rica Expeditions mini-van (the tour company we used in the entire trip in Costa Rica) was waiting for us and my dad was quick to use the Yana-waking-up-late-by-30-minutes nag as our “excuse” for being late. Our guide’s name was Jonathan and our driver’s name was Mauricio.

Nice vistas at 11,000 feet atop Cerro de la MuerteWe started our drive to our high altitude destination atop Cerro de la Muerte while Jonathan talked about the history and the area that we were passing through. I slowly started nodding off and finally sleep came.

When we reached our destination, Jonathan got out of the minivan and walked to the back of the vehicle to get a large telescope on a tripod. There appeared to be a few buildings of the government on top of the mountain we were on.

Jonathan pointed out a bird after dad and I put on sweatshirts and got out of the van. There were several birds, and many flowers and plants. After having some birds come up close and taking many photos of our new feathered friends, Jonathan led us across a dirt road to the side of the mountain we were on. I was the first to see an emerald colored skink skitter through the bushes. We followed the little skink for photos for as long as it kept our interest and then headed to higher grounds to look for more creatures. We found more than just animals. The view of the mountains against the morning sun was breathtaking but my dad had his eyes on the weird fungi, lichen, and mold.

Well camouflaged spiny lizard atop Cerro de la MuerteA really cool lizard type creature that took a few moments for us to see it, due to its amazing camouflage, was pointed out to us by Jonathan. Many other skinks and lizards were also pointed out to us – some of them had a rocky look while others blended well into the green grass and plants. We saw a very few animals and the only mammals I saw were humans (my dad, the guide, and driver). And so, came the time to leave for a lower altitude destination known as “the cloud forest”.

Birds could easily be heard as we zigzagged down through the cloud forest into a valley, we could occasionally see a lizard trying to avoid the van. The minivan passed small lodges that all seemed to be in this one valley. Our search was for the rare quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala (not Costa Rica), and in order to find a quetzal, you usually had look for their food source, a fruit tree.

The rare quetzal - found in a tree hundreds of meters away in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-3Our driver spotted one, but it was at least a kilometer away and behind a few trees. It took me a good fifteen minutes to even see the back of the bird without the help of the telescope. It was hard to take photos of the quetzal from where we were and so I wandered off to look at the other animals and trees nearby. My dad was trying to take a picture of the quetzal through the telescope but we had to leave with a photo that was not quite what we wanted, and so Jonathan was nice enough to give us photo of a quetzal he saw last time. The front of the quetzal was red and green, while the back was a few different shades of green, including emerald. The tail was two to three time his body length. We were told that the quetzal we saw and the quetzal in the photo were both males.

Hummingbirds enjoy the feeder at the Savegre Mountain Hotel in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-4It was lunch time and that was just down the road at a lodge that grew their own fruit and had a trout farm. The restaurant had many choices but I ordered the steamed trout, which my dad and I both agreed was pretty good. After lunch we went out onto the porch of the restaurant to see hummingbirds of every shape and color fighting their way to a hummingbird feeder. Many photos were taken but Jonathan thought we might like to see the smallest hummingbird in the area and so we walked up hill to where the grounds were the lodge grew its fruit. We passed a few birds of interest but they flew off and so we continued up the hill to see a view of the part of the valley we were in.

A very chubby but pretty bird in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota-2We passed a few trees with epiphytes (plants that attach themselves to trees in the high branches and even the trunks). The apples grown in the area were a species not native to Costa Rica and had been an attempt at growing them. The people of Costa Rica that we had talked to about this, called them slightly sour but my dad and I did not think they were that sour. There were a few guavas on the ground, which gave “fruit” to the idea of buying some fruit for our hotel room.

After looking through the apple trees, we walked back down and came across the smallest hummingbird near the minivan. The bird claimed our attention for a while until rain started coming down on us. Even though it was raining cats and dogs we walked on to see more birds and squirrels.

Jonathan and Krystyana use umbrellas to keep the rain off them in the valley of San Gerardo de Dota

Jonathan was going to take us on a trail which had a terrifying bridge that looked as if could collapse any second and additionally, mud had already started forming from only thirty minutes of rain! After crossing the bridge we found our way blocked by construction of some sort. We soon had to leave to get back to our hotel and so we took a few more photos of the hummingbirds at the feeder and returned to the minivan.

My dad asked for a possible stop at a grocery store for fruit when we came close to San Jose. We stopped at a store where we bought a papaya that was cut in half but still quite big and some limes to go with it. The store had a reasonable selection of items but it felt a little unclean and uncomfortable, though nothing like the grocery stores of Tahiti or Fiji.

Back at the hotel, my dad and I thanked Jonathan and Mauricio for our day of exploration of the wild life of Costa Rica, and hoped that our remaining tours with Costa Rica Expeditions would be as pleasant and educational as the one we just went on.


 

Costa Rica, Here We Come…

September 5th, 2008 at 12:03 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

I’m presently sitting in the American Airlines Admirals club San Juan, Puerto Rico with Krystyana, awaiting a flight to Miami and then on to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As I had previously noted, we’ll be spending just over two weeks in Costa Rica taking intensive Spanish language classes in an immersion format. We booked our classes via Bridge Abroad, and Krystyana and I each have separate private instruction so that we can each progress at our own pace. Should be interesting.

But perhaps even more interesting is that while the Spanish language work occurs weekdays, we have the weekends to explore a bit of Costa Rica’s amazing nature. Granted – Costa Rica is in the midst of its long rain season, but even then there is supposed to be sun for as least part of the day. So, tomorrow morning, bright and early, we head off in search of quetzal (colorful, long tailed birds) and explore the paramo (grasslands and shrublands) to find exotic critters and plants. We will spend Sunday white-water rafting – one of the best times of the year for that because of the heavier rains.

And the following weekend we do a three day/two night trip to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica to visit the Tortuguero National Park to try and see if we can find turtles nesting and then spend one of our days in the lagoons and waterways looking for a variety of monkeys, birds, reptiles, and perhaps even tapirs and jaguars. Should be a pleasant, and different, diversion from the language classrooms, as well as an opportunity to practice whatever Spanish we’ve retained by then.

I will try and post pictures during the trip if I can, but probably no travelogues until after our departure so as to not interfere with the immersion process.

We have a couple of days in Miami for rest and pampering and practicing our Spanish after that, before heading home to Bonaire for an 11 day stay before our next journey – this time to the Canadian Maritimes and New England.

But, since today is being spent traveling – mostly waiting in airport clubs, actually – I plan on writing several more posts about specific things we did in New York City, so if you’re subscribed to get notices about new posts, be forwarned that you’ll be getting a number of e-mails from this blog today.

 

Bonaire’s Only Snake Species – Leptotyphlops albifrons

July 31st, 2008 at 12:37 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

It’s fun when one doesn’t even have to leave one’s house to find adventure. Last night Bas spotted a very small critter on the floor in the hallway to our bedrooms. At first blush it appeared to be a millipede, but with magnification we discovered that in fact it was Bonaire’s extremely elusive Silver Snake, the only species of snake known to exist natively on the island. We captured the snake on a piece of paper and found a plastic Hefty plate to put him on to keep him from getting loose (and to provide good contrast) while I took photos.

Bonaire Silver Snake next to a pen cap

As you can see from the above photo, the snake is tiny – we put a regular pen cap near him to show the relative size. The Silver Snake (Latin name is “Leptotyphlops albifrons”) apparently can get up to 10 centimeters (four inches) in length, although we estimate this one at about 2/3rd that stretched out.

Bonaire Silver Snake Close Up

Above is a close-up with macro lens. You can make out the snake’s eyes. After the photo shoot, we released him into the front yard for his (or her) safety.

The book “Nos Bestianan / Our Animals – Curacao | Bonaire | Aruba” by Dr. Bart A. de Boer says these tiny snakes are very hard to find. We’d agree with that as this is the first one we’ve ever seen in our 11 years on Bonaire. They only hunt for a brief time at dusk (which is when we found this one), and are otherwise hunting under rocks. They apparently eat very small insects, including ants, termites, and insect larvae.

Anyhow, a very cool experience – a lot more fun and less hazardous than the scorpions we find with regularity (the scorpions sting with the same pain as a bee sting, annoying but not otherwise dangerous).