2019 Costa Rica Tour Day 6

By Susan Mahr

January 21, 2019

The students were noisy for a while, but by 11:30 they had dispersed to their rooms, and things were quiet outside other than the occasional rustling of foliage in the breeze, and a brief shower in the middle of the night. The kitchen workers started clanking and banging in the kitchen above us around 5:00, and the birds started up soon thereafter. It was comfortably cool with patchy clouds this morning. Most people gathered on the patio near the dining area by 6:30 for coffee and to watch birds coming in to the fruit feeder. Andreas rescued a blue-chested hummingbird that had crashed into the windows of the dining area and brought it out for Margherita to resuscitate. After blowing on it and giving it some sugar water, it had recovered enough to fly off (after the bird paparazzi had its way with the little thing!) Many birds came in to the fruit feeder, including deep turquoise male green honeycreeper and the less flamboyant bright green female; several species of euphonias, little bright yellow and navy blue males and duller yellowish-females of the same size and shape; speckled tanager, silver-throated tanager, palm tanager, scarlet rumped tanager (both deep black males with a brilliant scarlet patch on their rear and the drab-colored females, both with a silvery beak); and a single rufus-winged tanager. After a while a red-tailed squirrel decided to join the party and hopped down on the feeder to gobble up the plantain, then decided it would take the whole fruit away. Susan successfully thwarted the little animal, although on the second try it did manage to drag the cut fruit away but it was a bit too big to manage on the run, and it was retrieved and replaced on the feeder. The few clouds that lingered from overnight dissipated as we watched the birds.

Around 7:15 we went inside to load up our plates with gallo pinto, toast and various toppings, hard fried eggs, local farmer cheese, sliced mango, and sausages, or cereal or granola, along with coffee and mora (blackberry) juice.

We were out on the back patio again at 8:00 to meet Rodo (Rodolfo), the Director of the Gardens for a 3-hour tour in the strong sunshine. He gave a brief history of the location before we headed out. Las Cruces started as the private nursery and experimental farm of Robert and Catherine Wilson in 1962. It was acquired by OTS in 1973, and that organization continued maintaining their plantings as Wilson Botanical Garden, the most famous botanical garden in Central America, and expanded the mission to include tropical research, especially in conservation biology and restoration. The 25 acres of landscaped gardens features a diversity of tropical and subtropical ornamentals from around the world, representatives of unusual plant families, and rare and endangered plants from Costa Rica and elsewhere. The garden has the second largest collection of palms in the world as well as large collections of ferns, aroids, bromeliads, gingers, heliconias, and marantas.

After the introduction we followed Rodo out to see plants in the garden. He in front of the guest cabins to look at the ornamental palm Pinanga kuhlii from Southeast Asia with young inflorescences at the bottom, older ones up further, then green fruits and finally yellowing fruits at the top. He also talked about seed dispersal; because these have the potential to be invasive, they try to remove the fruits before they turn purple or blue-black at maturity when they become attractive to birds that would inadvertently distribute the seeds. Next Rodo pointed out a tree fern from Polynesia that has the longest fronds of all ferns (up to 22 feet long) and a tall Caryota palm that is unusual because it blooms from the top down, only after 30-50 years (and then dies after 20 or so years of flowering), in comparison to most palms that bloom when they are much younger and start blooming from the bottom up. There was a blooming specimen of the orchid Oerstedella pinnifera with a reddish-brown and purple flower, and someone found a freshly dead brown katydid on the road.

We then went down to where there is a memorial plaque commemorating the dedication of the Gardens to the Wilsons (about 3 years before his death) where Rodo pointed out a bird’s nest fern from Australia (Asplenium nidus), and Dan talked about an epiphytic cactus growing in a tree there, and different strategies of succulent plants. We then went past a Calathea colony that stretched all along the walkway for about 50 feet. This mass of foliage was actually just three plants that had spread to fill the space, and can be somewhat invasive, growing from rhizomes. Rodo then pointed out the purple flowers of Brunsfelsia nitida and plucked off a small parasitic mistletoe growing on the scraggly shrub. After looking at a native royal palm and learning about how its flowering and fruit production is very different in different environments, we headed to the Ceiba pentandra, planted in 2005, with a slightly bottle-shaped base and a number of stout thorns on the trunk (presumably to deter megafauna that are now extinct).

Then we stopped to look at a pair of tagua (Phytelephas aequatorialis), a dioecious palm native to Amazonian Ecuador that produce very large, hard fruits. The taller male palm was just starting to flower, while the female had large, old rounded inflorescences at the base of its fronds. These stay on the tree for six years to ripen the big “nuts” – which Rodo showed several examples from his sample bag – and over a decade to germinate, even under ideal conditions.

From there we headed toward the bananas, learning about the male and female flowers, how the fruits develop, and got to look at an opened fruit of the ornamental pink banana filled with large black seeds. We moved along to look at the oldest tree in the garden, a huge Ficus costaricensis, with swirling buttressing roots and a high canopy. This tree was one of a few left in the original cattle pastures that were converted to the garden as a shade tree. We saw little blooming orchids, anthuriums in flower, and many other interesting plants along the way.  When we stopped to examine the nest hole of the Lesson’s motmot (formerly the blue-crowned motmot, a bird related to kingfishers which all nest in holes in open soil banks), Rodo talked about how climate change has affected blooming of plants in the area.

From there we returned up to the road and after a short break went throuugh the bromeliad garden to get to the cycads. We stopped to admire the yuccas blooming at the wrong time of year and the large plants of purple-flowering Queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis) on the way.

Once at the cycad collection we learned about some of these primitive, cone-bearing plants that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. By then it was already 11:00 and Rodo had to go, so Susan took people off to see the gregarious white-striped red caterpillars of Eumaeus godartii (white-tipped cycadian) which feed only on the tender young foliage of specific cycads, and then pupate in groups on the undersides of the leaves. We found many pupae in different stages, many large larvae, and a few batches of eggs. The adult lycaenid butterfly is mostly black with three rows of white dots along the outer edge of the hindwing and a red patch at the bottom of the hindwing, but we didn’t see any of them. After that people dispersed to visit the gift shop, relax in their rooms or continue wandering the grounds until lunch at noon.

Everyone queued up for the food line to select from salad, rice, red beans, cooked squash and chunks of pork chops, with a coconut bread pudding and fresh cantaloupe for dessert and a mixed fruit juice or tamarind juice. Most people sat outside on the covered verandah at long tables overlooking the cabins and vegetation beyond. After the meal was done, people drifted off to check out the gift shop, nap, relax in their rooms or wander about the grounds, keeping to the shaded areas in the bright midday sun – although some puffy white clouds were starting to build up. The wind rustled the foliage, a few cicadas buzzed, and the kitchen workers chatted as dishes and glasses clanked in the dining area above.

At 3:00 we met near the dining area to head off on our afternoon hike to the bird viewing platform.  We slowly made our way along the road past reception, stopping several times to look at a variety of birds, including chestnut sided warbler, a vireo, and flycatchers, then went down the stone steps to the wide pathway past the giant bamboo creaking in the wind. We were walking past the first of the gingers when a brown vine snake slithered between two clumps of plants, hard to see in the shade among the fallen leaves. There were several types of ferns, including the big the huge specimens of Angiopteris evecta, native to Polynesia, with its graceful arching fronds with drooping leaflets. Margherita told us about the walking palm, Socratea sp., with its stilt roots and large sickle-shaped flower bud way up high on the tall stem just underneath the crown of foliage. There were other palms in flower or fruit as well. We slowly made our way down the hill, stopping to look at an epiphytic shrub, Clusia sp., with large paddle-shaped leaves and roots dripping down on its host tree trunk.

From there we headed along the shady Forest Trail toward the Observation Tower, scaring off the agouti that was foraging on the path. We stopped to look at various plants or try to see birds along the way, eventually getting to the 5-story metal tower. Many people hiked the 74 steps to the top for a nice view of the surrounding forest, with a few trees in bloom, but no birds to be seen, other than four swallow-tailed kites soaring over the trees in the distance. Eventually, after everyone had had their photo taken up on top, we descended, then returned along the path we’d come in on. Margherita found another type of walking palm, with smaller stilt roots and talked about that and other subjects as we made our way back to the clearing at the beginning of the forest trail. We were hoping to see some of the parakeets and parrots in the area that would be moving to roosting spots for the night soon. A collared trogon was calling and came in to Marherita’s whistling. We got a decent look at the colorful male bird with dark green head, bright red breast and black and white striped tail as it sat high up in a tree, before it flew off to another nearby tree. It moved from branch to branch several times before swooping down to perch on a low branch right in front of Richard. The trogon was so close he couldn’t even fit in all of the bird with his large telephoto lens! The bird sat there for probably a minute and a half, then it swooped off again.

After that fantastic experience we moved up the hill a little further where we heard an immature bellbird calling. Margherita played a recording of the loud, distinctive, bell-like call of the adult bird (the youngster was trying hard, but falling quite short), but we never saw the secretive bird. There were white-fronted parakeets squawking in the area, so we headed up the hill to look at them, but they had all flown away by the time the last of the group got up there. Things were getting active by then as the sun was getting ready to drop beyond the horizon, with Margherita pointing out an all-red summer tanager, silver-throated tanager, several euphonias, and many other little birds in the trees around us. There was also a blooming Cavendishia (a vine in the Ericaceae), with a rufus-tailed hummingbird visiting the red and white waxy tubular flowers up in the top of a small tree. By then it was nearly 5:15, so everyone headed off to their rooms – except for Dan who went off to turn on the light on the insect trap down in the forest below the cabins.

We assembled in the dining hall at 6:00 for our meal of salad, mashed potatoes, sweet winter squash and chunks of beef and pork in gravy, plus cassava chips and guacamole, with starfruit juice and fresh pineapple chunks for dessert. After we were done eating, Dan went back to the light setup to see if it had attracted enough insects to make a night walk there worthwhile. He returned to report that the bug turnout wasn’t very good, so everyone dispersed to their rooms. Susan and Dan, however, did make the trek back there (someone had to turn the light off, after all) and checked out the meager assembly of moths, beetles, wasps and other critters that had landed on the white sheet stretched out in a large frame under the attractant light. There were a few interesting specimens, but they soon turned off the light and returned to the cabins to listen to the nightime insect symphony from inside.

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