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The Mixed Feeding Flock

HEADer, Army ants attacking a large wasp

By Jack Ewing

Pair of Yellow Crowned Euphonias

Yellow Crowned Euphonias

My obsession with tropical nature began with my first monkey sighting. I had seen them in the zoo, but there is no comparison between zoo monkeys and wild ones. My first toucan was another special moment. “How can it even fly with that huge beak?” My first sloth, boa constrictor, kinkajou, king vulture, and terciopelo viper were others. But it wasn’t until more than 15 years later that I was to witness one of the most complex and intriguing phenomenon the rainforest has to offer, the mixed feeding flock, a congregation of many different species of birds in a small area each busy consuming its own special food in its own special way at its own level of the forest.

Though the rainforest as a whole had already captivated my soul a number of years earlier, and I lived in a bird watcher’s paradise, it wasn’t until 1987 that I got interested enough in our feathered friends to start actively looking for them, identifying them, and making a list. In those days there were no field guides to the birds of Costa Rica. Birds of Mexico and Birds of Panama were as close as we could get. My bird list grew rapidly at first and then gradually slowed. Then on one special day I added 11 new species in less than an hour. It was about six months into my birding career when I was to wander into a bird watcher’s dream, a mixed feeding flock. It is a phenomenon that every birder and every bird watching guide prays for. For the aficionado it will assure new species for the list, and for the guide it is sure to result in a group of very happy visitors.

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Sighting Felines in the Wild

Cool Cats header

Experiencing the sight of a wild feline is about the most exciting thing that can happen to a nature enthusiast in Costa Rica. Most humans share a fascination with cats, whether it be the tiny Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) the smallest cat in Costa Rica at 2 kilos, or the enormous Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), at 240 kg, the largest cat in the world. As they are naturally secretive and wary of humans, seeing a wild feline is not an everyday occurrence. We have five feline species at Hacienda Barú.

Jaguarundi

Jaguarundi

I have lived here for 47 years and have only seen one, the Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), which I have seen on multiple occasions. One of those sightings was particularly memorable. A neighbor who lived close to the lodge bought some young chicks to fatten for meat for the dinner table. They grew quickly and soon the roosters among them began to crow. I know of no sound more irritating than the crowing of an adolescent rooster. It seemed like there was a competition among them, and each day they started a little earlier and crowed a little louder. Soon the racket began shortly after midnight. Of course our guests complained about it, but the neighbor, Ricardo, was uncooperative. One day I saw two jaguarundis cross the driveway heading toward his chicken coop. Word soon got out that they had killed a couple of chickens. Knowing that Ricardo would try to kill the cats, I called the wildlife department and asked if a game warden could come and have a talk with him. One happened to be in the area and stopped by that same afternoon. He told Ricardo that if anything happened to the pair of beautiful black cats they would know it was him, and that the fine would be enormous. Ricardo killed all the young roosters that same day, and put them in the freezer. I don’t think that these beautiful black cats are seen more frequently than other felines because they are more numerous, rather it is because they are diurnal, less wary of humans, and spend most of their time on the ground. At 5 kg the jaguarundi is the third largest of the five Hacienda Barú species.

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Extinction in Costa Rica

Never to be seen again header with a Harpy Eagle

I love Costa Rica and its wildlife, and I sometimes envy the pioneers who lived here in the early 1900s and were able to know and appreciate some of the wildlife that are no longer with us. I am thinking of one mammal and one bird in particular, the Giant Anteater and the Harpy Eagle. Both of these truly magnificent species once lived in Costa Rica. Today the former is almost certainly gone forever, and there still may be a few of the latter in several remote locations in the country. Though it is not yet extinct, I will also mention the Jabiru Stork. Let’s have a closer look.

Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

Giant anteater showing its long tongueThis large mammal is similar in many respects to the anteater many of us know today as the Tamandua (Tamandua mexicana): long curved nose, long curved claws that tuck completely under like a fist and obliges them to walk on their knuckles, and both eat ants and termites. The biggest difference is the size. A large tamandua can weigh up to 5 kilos and is about 60 cm long, and the giant anteater, sometimes called the “ant bear”, weighs eight times as much, and is more than double the length. In Costa Rica they are called Oso Caballo in Spanish, which literally translates to “Bear Horse”, presumably because of its large size and big, round, furry appearance. I had the good fortune to see two giant anteaters on my once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Pantanal in Brazil. Both were at night, and neither would let me get close enough to take a photo. Our guide told us that they eat mostly ants, first digging an opening into the ant hill, inserting the long narrow snout as far as possible, and then inserting the sticky, snake-like tongue, which is as long as a man’s arm, deep into the nest to retrieve the ants. He said that the anteater can flick its tongue in and out at the awesome rate of about twice per second. After a very short time it moves on to another nest. This may be because the soldier ants that guard the nest from intruders quickly come out in force. With their long powerful pinchers they may be able to penetrate the thick hairy hide that protects the animal from ordinary ants.

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How Old Are The Rainforest Giants?

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When I was in junior high school, now called middle school, I was fortunate to have an exceptional science teacher who’s lectures were so interesting that I still remember much of what I learned in that class. I still remember the day we learned about determining the age of trees by counting the growth rings. In a temperate climate, metabolic activity is dormant during the cold winter months, and the tree doesn’t grow. Then when summer comes along the trunk will increase in girth by adding another ring. Since there is a new ring each year, counting the rings will tell us how old the tree was. Today this can be done on a living tree without cutting it down. A small core is cut from the trunk and the rings counted on the core.

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Killer Monkeys

Killer Monkeys header
Monkeys in the zoo are fun to watch, but observing them in the wild is almost like watching an entirely different species in a similar body. My first wild monkey sighting was a very emotional experience, and each subsequent encounter with white-throated capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) nudged my curiosity a bit farther. Even today, 47 years after that first glimpse of a black and white primate scampering up a tree, they still fascinate me. Capuchins are always coming up with surprises and exhibiting never before seen behavior. Later I was to learn that they are the most intelligent of Costa Rica’s four monkey species.

In the 1970s and 80s written information about wildlife was almost non-existent. There were no bird or mammal books to be found, no internet, and not even any laminated information sheets with photos. For the next 18 years, until the first field guide, Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, was published, personal observation, as well as listening to campesino friends, neighbors, and workers provided the knowledge I so sought after.

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Long Hot Summer

Long Hot Summer headerDealing with the Dry Season

It wasn’t supposed to rain, but we all know that the weather bureau doesn’t necessarily get it right. At the sound of the first drops on the roof I went outside and stood there, my shoulders thrown back and my face to the heavens. The cool water washed over me, and soaked my clothes, but I didn’t care. It had been a long time, and it felt wonderful. The last rain had been on December 16, and it was now April 4. We had endured 109 days of drought. It was so bad that many places in Costa Rica had to ration water. I know of several nearby communities where the water flowed through the pipes to people’s homes only two hours each day. During the other 22 hours the sparse stream of water from the local spring flowed into reserve tanks from which the two hours of daily water were supplied. Most people used that two hours to fill buckets, jugs, pots, pans, and other recipients, and if any was left, they bathed quickly hoping it wouldn’t stop flowing just after soaping up. Hopefully by the time you read this, it be raining regularly and the crisis will be over.

This year the flow of the Barú River diminished to the point that the wave action on the beach was able to create a sand dam across the river mouth. The small amount of water coming downstream, unable to flow out into the ocean, has backed up more than a kilometer and converted the Barú River into a lake. Fresh water from that lake flows into the mangrove estuary flooding the dry, cracked bottom. Fish, caimans, crocodiles, and loads of amphibians are happy with this new found water, but animals that live farther from the river are not so lucky. In fact we have found dead sloths whose deaths are presumably related to the drought. The leaves they feed on are so dry that the water they contain isn’t enough to sustain the sloths.

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The Bush Dog

Bush Dog header

By Jack Ewing

3 bush dogs in jungleRarely is a new mammal discovered anywhere on the planet. Insects, yes. In fact so many new insect species are being discovered every day that it is not even newsworthy. Species of reptiles and amphibians new to Costa Rica are found at least once a year, birds occasionally, but 2016 was the first time a new mammal species has been confirmed in Costa Rica during the 48 years that I have lived here. I am referring to the Bush Dog (Speothos venaticus), a member of the canidae family sometimes called the Savannah Dog or the Vinegar Dog. A video of a pair of them was captured on a trail camera by biologist Jan Shipper in the Talamanca region at 1493 meters (4900 feet) above sea level. Prior to that time there had been several unconfirmed sightings in the Osa Peninsula, but no photos. It was believed that Shipper’s video was taken at the highest elevation where bush dog presence had been detected anywhere throughout its range. A couple of years later Dr. Mike Mooring, of the Talamanca Large Mammal Survey, captured photos of several groups of these canids at an elevation of 2086 mt (6844 feet). Prior to Jan Shipper’s video the species was not known to exist north of Panama.

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A Passel of Jacks, Jills, and Joeys

Opossum header

I have seen lots of Jacks and Jills and even a few Jills with bunches of Joeys, but I have never seen a passel. In fact I just recently learned what one was. I know you have heard of a pride of lions, a herd of elk, and a troop of monkeys, but how about a passel of opossums. Since these mammals are solitary by nature and don’t hang out in groups, I doubt if the word sees much use. Jacks, of course, are the males, Jills the females, and Joeys the babies. I don’t know if a Jill with a bunch of Joeys on her back is considered to be a passel or not. If so then I guess I have seen a passel.

The common opossum (Didelphis marsupialis) is a nocturnal, marsupial mammal found throughout this part of Costa Rica. They are not the least bit charismatic, and certainly won’t win any beauty contests. Being stinky when up close doesn’t win them any fans either. The Bribri Indians even consider them to be messengers of death. Not being picky about their food often gets them into trouble with urban dwelling humans for invading garbage cans. Rural families despise them for raiding chicken coops, killing chickens, and eating eggs. They will eat almost anything from fruit and grass to birds, insects, small reptiles and even carrion. With a diet as diverse as that they need lots of teeth of many different kinds. Opossums have more teeth than any other mammal. There are 50 in total including incisors, premolars, molars, and canines.

In spite of their bad reputation opossums are really pretty interesting. Let’s take, for example, the fact that they are immune to snake bite. Scientists have been searching for the source of this immunity for some time and have recently discovered a chain of amino acids in their blood serum that appears to neutralize snake venom. The really good news is that they have been able to pass this form of immunity on to mice in a laboratory, and there is hope that someday soon it will be available for snake bite treatment in humans.

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Are Insect Populations Really Decreasing?

Bugs Bugs Bugs header

By Jack Ewing

Cockroach

Cockroach

We didn’t have cockroaches in Colorado where I grew up. At least I never saw any. The first time I heard of them was on television. For those of you who are old enough to remember it was on the Jackie Gleason Show. Every week there was a skit called “The Honeymooners” in which a couple named Ralph and Alice lived in a rundown apartment somewhere in New York City, One day Alice was complaining that she had seen a cockroach in the apartment. I asked my mom what a cockroach is and was told that they are horrible bugs that are only found in slums. Later in life I found out that in the tropics they live everywhere.

In the 1970s Diane and I and our kids, Natalie and Chris, all moved to Hacienda Barú to live. Our lighting was from kerosene lanterns and was pretty dim. Cockroaches love dim light and would come out at night and climb all over the walls. We played a lot of different card and board games for evening entertainment, but our favorite game was cockroach hunting. We had a fly swatter that consisted of a plastic pistol with a spring that shot a plastic disk at the flies. Once a month we would roll the dice to see who got to go first. If you killed a cockroach you got to shoot again. If you missed, the pistol passed on the next person. We kept going until there were no more cockroaches to be found. Each game wiped out the entire population, and we would have to wait a month for them to replenish their numbers before we could have another hunt. We didn’t worry about controlling the roaches with insecticide or anything else, because it was so much fun hunting them.

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THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF THOMAS J. BROWER

The First Gringo in Dominical

by Jack Ewing

Thomas beside old tractor

My swamper, cat & I on the road to Dominical

When Thomas J. Brower first came to Costa Rica World War II was raging, and the US was worried about the Panama Canal. If it were to fall into enemy hands allied naval capacity would be severely crippled, and in the late 1930’s a land route, imperative for the defense of the canal, did not exist. Building one became top priority, and the Pan-American highway was the result. The US government contracted with the Charles E. Mills Construction Company to build the 300 km stretch of road from Cartago to the Panamanian border.

Tommy Brower landed in Dominicalito with the construction company in 1940. A crude dock was built and heavy machinery unloaded. Part of the crew, with the help of local labor, built a camp for the company workers, and the rest started building a road to San Isidro. Once the trocha, as the rough cut road was called, reached San Isidro the workers split into two groups with one working toward Palmar Norte and the other toward Cartago where they would eventually meet up with other crews working from those locations toward San Isidro. It was a major operation, the magnitude of which had never been seen in Costa Rica.

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WHAT ON EARTH IS A FLITTERMOUSE?

Amazing Diversity of Our Flying Mammals

By Jack Ewing

Bat flyingWhat looks like a mouse with wings and flitters around the house? Of course it’s a bat. The name for “bat” in old English was “flittermouse”, I imagine because they somewhat resemble a mouse, and their wings flutter or flitter. In middle English it was “bakke” which evolved into “bat” in modern English in the late 1500’s.

What comes to mind when someone mentions bats? Probably nothing good. They have been associated with everything from witchcraft, darkness and Halloween to vampires and death. Terms like dingbat and batty have been use to describe people who are foolish or silly or you might hear it said that a person who acts goofy has bats in their belfry. If there are any terms or sayings that show bats in a positive light I have never heard them. These sayings and ideas all come from a time when superstition ruled people’s lives and science was in its infancy. Today we have a wealth of scientific knowledge about bats, much of which is truly fascinating, yet it is virtually unknown to the general public. For example bats comprise over 20% of all mammal species on our planet, and are the only flying mammal. According to Wikipedia there are 5416 mammalian species on earth and over 1200 of them are bats. In Costa Rica, and I suspect in most tropical countries, over 50% of mammalian species are bats. The smallest mammal in the world is a bat, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, also known as the bumblebee bat, which weighs a mere two grams (.07 oz.), about the same as two paper clips. The fastest mammal in the world is also a bat, the Mexican long-tailed bat, which has been clocked at 160 kph (99 mph), much faster than a cheetah which has a top speed of 120 kph (74.5 mph).
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Land of the Fat Cats

But There Aren’t Any Sloths

By Jack Ewing

I have always wanted to see a jaguar in its natural habitat, but had resigned myself to the reality that it wasn’t going to happen in Costa Rica. From the moment I heard of the Pantanal, the best jaguar viewing location in the world, it became number one on my bucket list, and it finally came to be.

jaguar

With an area of 355,000 square kilometers, a little over seven times the land area of Costa Rica, the Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world. Parts of it are found in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and the largest portion in Brazil. In August of 2018 my daughter Natalie, and I spent eight days in the Pantanal National Park. It was definitely the most incredible eight days of my entire life. Our main reason for going was to see jaguars, but we also had giant anteaters, giant river otters, tapirs, and capybaras on our wish list. We saw more than we had ever imagined: fifteen jaguars, two giant anteaters, nine families of giant river otters, five tapirs, approximately 200 capybaras, 3000 to 5000 black caimans, and 128 species of birds including about 200 jabiru storks.
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King of the Jungle

King Vulture flying

Riding along the edge of the forest on horseback I caught a whiff of something rotten, and a moment later a big, beautiful, black and white bird with a multicolored head came into view. It was pecking away at the stinking carcass of a dead opossum. There was a bunch of black vultures hopping around nearby mostly just watching, but occasionally darting forward and snatching a morsel of the decomposing flesh and quickly withdrawing. All kept their distance from the magnificent creature which calmly ate its fill paying little attention to the others.

King Vulture on a branch“What is that beautiful white bird?” I asked Orlando. “The zopilotes sure give it plenty of space.”

“Of course they do,” replied Orlando, a slight smile on his face. “He’s the king. We call him El Rey de Zopilotes (King of the Vultures).”

“I never knew a vulture could be so beautiful?” I blurted out in amazement. “I can see why you call him the king.”

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The Return of the Scarlet Macaws

Macaw pair header

Once upon a time there was a Bribri Indian chief named Pabru Presberi who was master of some big, exceptionally beautiful birds called “Pa”. Everywhere the chief went large groups of Pa flocked around him. Some were red and others green, and all were covered with stunning, bright colored plumage. One day some strange men with beards from a far-away place called Spain arrived on the shores of Costa Rica. Awed by the beauty of the Pa the Spaniards killed them for their feathers which they took to their homeland as gifts for the royalty. The word “la” in Spanish means “the” in English, so they referred to the birds as “la pa” which was later shortened to “lapa”. As time went on there were less and less lapas. The Spaniards had killed all but the large flock that followed chief Pabru everywhere he went. Eventually the chief led a revolution against the Spaniards, so they captured him and took him to Cartago where he was imprisoned. The lapas followed. Eventually the Spaniards executed the chief and the red lapas flew away to the Pacific coast and the green lapas to the Caribbean coast. To this day that is where they reside.

Of course, in English, the lapa roja (Ara macao) is the scarlet macaw, and the lapa verde (Ara ambigua) is the great green macaw. Their numbers have diminished drastically over the years to the point that the great green macaw is now listed on the IUCN red list as endangered. The scarlet macaws, which were once seen in large colorful flocks up and down the entire Pacific coast, have also diminished, but not to the extent of their green cousins. It is estimated that today there are about 600 scarlet macaws in the Osa Peninsula and 400 in Carara National Park. They disappeared from the area between Manuel Antonio and Uvita in the 1960s.

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TAPIRS ARE SO COOL

And Costa Rica Is Their Last Best Hope for Survival

By Jack Ewing

Baird's TpirBiologist and tapir specialist, Charlie Foerster, once told me about an experience he had while standing on a high spot looking down over an embankment into a river when a tapir walked across a shallow area and continued into a deep pool until its head was submerged. Its elongated nose stuck out of the water like a snorkel until the animal reached the deepest part of the pool, and it too went under the surface. The water was clear and Charlie could see hordes of small fish surround the tapir and peck away at all of the ticks, lice and other external parasites attached to its hide, while the tapir blew bubbles. After a while the large mammal surfaced, took several deep breaths and sunk back to the bottom repeating the process a couple more times. Finally it walked out of the pool free of all its unwelcome hitchhikers. Now that’s what I call cool.

The Central American Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) sometimes called Baird’s Tapir, is the largest land mammal in Central and South America. They are about the size of a small cow—an adult will weigh up to 350 kg—but are shaped more like a pig. A long, prehensile snout, that has also been called a short trunk, is used to grasp vegetation and pull it into the tapir’s mouth. The front feet have three large toes and a fourth smaller toe located a little bit higher on the foot. The back feet have only three toes. This puts them in the same family as the horse and rhinoceros, the odd-toed ungulates. They love water and are seldom found far from it.

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