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Trip Report: Wildlife of Costa Rica – February 2020
by Ben Blankenship

If any of you have been following my blogs and trip reports, you will know that I make no secret of my fanaticism for Costa Rica. The tiny country of Costa Rica is where I make my part-time home when I am not traveling for work or visiting family in Tennessee. And though my travels have taken me to many other wonderful places throughout the world, Costa Rica is where my heart is, “La tierra de mi corazon.”

There are many reasons why Costa Rica is so special to me, from the country’s vibrant culture and history to the warmth of its people just to name a couple. But, as a wildlife photographer, Costa Rica offers such a range of diversity of subject matter that one could spend a lifetime there and never run out of photographic aspirations. And though I have spent nearly three years photographing the wildlife of Costa Rica, I still have a long list of species and specific shots I am hoping to capture.

And for Backcountry Journeys’ clients who choose to travel with us to the jungles, mountains, and beaches of Costa Rica, they are rewarded with a range of species to photograph and observe unlike almost anywhere else on earth. Over 5% of the world’s biodiversity occurs within the borders of Costa Rica, which translates to a nonstop photographic experience. Whether your passions are birds, mammals, or reptiles and amphibians, you will find a large range of subject matter on any given day.

Our Wildlife of Costa Rica trip has recently been expanded and improved to include some incredible new locations and opportunities, including two extensions. One takes us high into the Talamanca Mountains in search of the elusive and incomparably beautiful Resplendent Quetzal. The other extension takes us into the lowland Caribbean rainforests of Tortuguero National Park.

This year’s BCJ Costa Rica adventure began with our quest to photograph the Resplendent quetzal. With a crimson breast, green iridescent wings and head crest, and tail plumage that can extend over three times the length of the bird’s body, the quetzal is a life-lister bird and of immeasurable beauty. The quetzal inspired pre-Colombian myths by the Aztec, Maya, and Quetzalcoatl peoples. The bird was considered a divine presence and has maintained its reverence for centuries. For the first time, all six clients joining us for the main portion of the trip were also participating in the Quetzal Extension. The quetzal extension takes us to the community of San Gerardo de Dota, perched high in the cloud forests of the Talamanca Mountains. On the first morning of our journey, we packed up and headed out from the Alajuela Marriott hotel via private shuttle, heading south, away from San Jose via the Careterra Pan-Americana (The Pan-American Highway). The curvy two-lane highway took us from Alajuela, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, high into the Talamancas before reaching its pinnacle at just around 10,000 feet. From there we turned off the main highway and onto a narrow one-lane road that took us down into the valley of San Gerardo De Dota. San Gerardo de Dota is nestled into a tight valley thick with lush vegetation and towering trees. The steep mountainsides slide down to the base of the narrow valley where a crystal clear stream runs thick with trout. And every afternoon, clouds come rolling through the valley, shrouding the slopes in a thick misty fog.

It is often surprising to people how cool it is in the Talamancas, but with elevations between 7,000 and 14,000 feet, the altitude keeps the tropical heat at bay. And the result of this cooler climate is a completely different cast of characters in terms of wildlife. Over 300 of the 800 bird species found in Costa Rica reside only in the cloud forests and nowhere else, species like the quetzal and emerald toucanet, two of our primary targets for the trip. We arrived in San Gerardo de Dota around 10:30 that first morning and geared up for our first outing in search of midmorning bird activity. The quetzal is an early morning feeder, usually only visible before the sun reaches its pinnacle and illuminates its iridescent green plumage, which would make it an easy target for birds of prey. But, there are plenty of active birds throughout the day in the cloud forests, including over a dozen species of hummingbird, tanagers, woodpeckers, flycatchers, chlorophonia, and occasionally the emerald toucanet (one of my favorites). Our hotel for the next few days would be La Savegre Hotel, which is a birder’s dream. The hotel’s grounds are covered in gardens that are filled with native bird attracting plants. And the place is buzzing with the beating of little wings.

After doing a quick tutorial on how to capture birds in flight, including exposure settings, continuous focus, focus points, and shooting methods, we set out in search of feathered photographic subjects. Our first walk would yield several hummers, blue-gray tanagers, Sulpher winged parakeets, and some waxy winged long-tailed flycatchers (a mouthful I know).

After a break and lunch at the Savegre Hotel, we headed up for our reservation at Batsu Gardens, a developed bird blind high up on the hillside opposite from the hotel. Filipe, the property’s owner, and curator drove us up to the platforms in his 4×4 truck and set us up with several flower cuttings to attract hummingbirds. Just beyond where we set up the flowers is a natural feeding platform on which several pieces of papaya and mango were left out to attract more birds.

For me, the attraction of Batsu is the opportunity to shoot hummingbirds against a distant background. The platform is high up on the steep valley walls, and the closest background is the opposite side of the valley almost a mile out. Photographing small subjects only a few feet from your lens in this setting creates enormous bokeh and isolates the bird against a soft background. Photographing hummers in the bushes down at street level is great, but you don’t get the same effect as when the background is almost a mile out. After a few hours here, the afternoon sun was slipping behind the high valley walls, and we were driven back to our hotel by Filipe in his 4×4 truck.

The following two mornings would begin in the predawn hours, as we chased the resplendent quetzal with our local guides. The utilization of local knowledge in pursuit of the quetzal is elemental for one primary reason. The quetzal eats almost exclusively young avocados, specifically when the fruit is about the size of a walnut. Because of Costa Rica’s proximity to the equator, it does not have seasons as we do in the U.S. The length of day from solstice to solstice only varies by about 40 minutes, and the year-round temperature is fairly constant. And though some trees do flower and fruit in concert (i.e. mangos), avocado trees are different. Each tree is on its own flower and fruiting schedule, meaning that throughout the year, one tree may be covered in ripe fruit, while a different tree just next to it is just beginning to flower. So, it is imperative to know which trees are at the proper phase of fruit to attract the quetzals. This is where the local guides come into play. They spend the entire year searching for the quetzal and know exactly where they are expected to arrive each morning.

We would spend two mornings bouncing from avocado tree to nesting tree in search of the quetzals, encountering several mated pairs of quetzal, as well as young males jockeying and displaying in the hopes of impressing a female. The males display by flying into the air, extending their enormous tail feathers and wings, then emitting a strange kind of gobble while their entire body vibrates, showing off their iridescent plumage.

Shooting conditions in that hour are always challenging, but especially so in the deep valley of San Gerardo de Dota, but we were rewarded with some incredible shows by the quetzals as they fed and displayed each morning. This time of the year, the birds are very concerned with mating, which can make them hard to track as they bustle and move from tree to tree. But, our expert local guide kept us on the birds.

After two nights in the cloud forests, it was time for the main portion of the trip to begin. So, after driving back to San Jose and spending a night at our favorite Marriott there, we were heading to the local terminal of Juan Santamaria Airport to board our flight down to Puerto Jimenez. These flights are always a favorite for guests, soaring over the mountaintops that ring the central valley in a small single-engine plane. We then head south along the pacific coast, pass over the northern shores of the Osa Peninsula before making our approach over top Golfo Dulce, the deepwater gulf that waters are sheltered and kept calm by the westward extending peninsula. With a quick drop over the treetops, we touched down in Puerto Jimenez, the town where I reside for part of the year.

As soon as the plane door opens, the warm tropical air envelopes you and you know you’re in the jungle now! From here, we were picked up by our two favorite drivers, Luis and Gonzo and driven out to our jungle eco-lodge, Bosque Del Cabo. Bosque Del Cabo translates to “The Forest on the Cape,” which once you see it, makes perfect sense. Located on the southernmost point of the Osa Peninsula (the cape), and surrounded by thick jungle, Bosque Del Cabo’s forests are some of the most productive anywhere on the peninsula, which is saying a lot considering that over 2.5% of the world’s animal and plant species reside on this tiny peninsula.

Bosque Del Cabo is far and away one of the best eco-lodges in southern Costa Rica, and for wildlife photographers, it is beyond compare. With monkeys, coati, toucans, and scarlet macaws constantly moving through the trees of the hotel grounds, and with miles of jungle trails to explore, we could’ve spent a week here and not run out of new trails to explore and new animals to photograph.

Each morning at Bosque, we would rise early and walk the trails in search of what was on the move. Without fail, every day we would encounter spider monkeys, White-faced capuchins, and Howler monkeys. For some reason, the fourth species of monkey that resides in Costa Rica, the squirrel monkey, remained out of sight during our three days at Bosque, but we’d encounter them later on.

Two of the highlights during our stay at Bosque were the night walk we did with Bosque’s in-house biologist Phillip, and the afternoon we spent on Matapalo beach photographing Scarlett macaws at their nests. The night walk yielded some incredible species, including tarantulas, green tree anoles, gladiator tree frogs (another favorite of mine), and giant caterpillars. We even interrupted a pair of collared peccary (wild pigs) that were attempting to mate. Sorry piggies.

But for me, the best shots during our stay at Bosque came from our trip down to a section of Matapalo Beach known as Backwash. One of the primary reasons so many wildlife photographers (especially those with an affinity for big beautiful birds) obsess over the Osa is its incredible population of Scarlet Macaws. Nowhere else in the world can these birds be seen in such numbers as on the Osa. And they are everywhere. But, to catch that perfect in-flight shot, as the bird fans out its technicolor plumage, can be a challenge. Knowing the right spot where the birds will be seen moving from tree to tree in regularity is paramount. And that is why our spot at Backwash is so special. There are two nests in dead trees right at the beach’s edge, and the birds are always around and very active. Plus, with limited foliage to contend with, this spot can yield some incredible shots of macaws in flight. There’s also an added bonus of being at Backwash; its the best swimming beach in the area. The water is calm and refreshing, and several of us took the occasional break from photographing the macaws to take a dip in the tropical waters.

After three very productive days at Bosque Del Cabo, we were moving our base of operations to the north side of the Osa Peninsula, to the community of Drake Bay. The addition of Drake Bay to the Backcountry Journeys Costa Rica itinerary yields two opportunities that are not available on the south side of the Osa. The first of which is a boat tour up Rio Sierpe of the mangrove forests that line the river and its many channels. And the other is access to Corcovado National Park by boat, as opposed to the 2.5-mile walk that is required to enter the park from Carate.

But, before heading to Drake, we would be taking a few hours in Puerto Jimenez for a photo session at Osa Interactive Gardens (OIG). Colleen and Rayner, the owner/operators of OIG, are good friends of mine and run an incredible property that they have personally overseen reforesting. Years ago, the land they now occupy was owned by cacao farmers who cleared the land for cultivation. Now though, the cacao industry is all but disappeared from the Osa, and through a labor of love, Rayner and Colleen have restored the property to its natural state. Now, they run educational programs there, training the naturalists and guides of the next generation, as well as running photography sessions for groups such as ours. During the night before sessions, Rayner and his assistant Emmanuel search for frogs, spiders, lizards, snakes, and whatever else they can find, which they capture and keep in natural environments for the duration of the night. These animals can then be photographed in the light of the following day.

Admittedly, this does sound disruptive to the animals, but the truth is that it is far less disruptive than using flash photography at night. Frogs and small snakes are already vulnerable to predation, and blinding them at night with strobes can leave them helpless to lurking predators. By photographing them in the daylight, we can use the natural light, as well as low powered strobes, which does not leave them in danger.

This is always a real favorite for BCJ clients, as it allows us to get up close and personal with a range of incredible species. There are always Red-eyed tree frogs and Gladiator tree frogs, and a few surprises. This time, they had a beautiful and enormous wolf spider, a one-year-old caiman, and a mouse possum, as well as several other species.

After our session at OIG, we were driven to Drake Bay, about an hour and a half from Puerto Jimenez. Drake Bay is a picturesque town on a bay with several premium eco-lodges. Ours would be La Paloma. Without roads leading to the lodge, access is only possible by foot or boat. So, we were picked up on the beach and taken to the lodge by boat where we would be taking the evening off in preparation for the following morning’s trek into Corcovado National Park.

Corcovado National Park takes up almost two-thirds of the entire Osa Peninsula and is world-renowned for its biodiversity. Its the only national park in Costa Rica large enough to support large populations of megafauna like tapir and jaguar. And with our Drake Bay base of operations, we were able to take a boat ride to one of the park’s entrances at Sirena Station. There are no roads into the park, and visitors are limited to entering either by boat or on foot.

In the past, our BCJ groups went in by foot, but with the expansion of boat operations out of Drake, the option to cut out several miles of walking just to get to the entrance of the park was a no brainer.

The trip into Corcovado yielded dozens of photographic opportunities, including monkeys, three species of trogan (the same bird family as the resplendent quetzal), a Three-toed sloth, and more. But, the highlight was surely what happened at the very end of our tour when we encountered a female Baird’s tapir with a calf. They were eating in the comfort of a thicket when we encountered them. We were able to approach within ten yards and sit and quietly watch them feed. They were unperturbed by our presence and ignored us completely. Such intimate wildlife sightings are what make Corcovado, and by extension Costa Rica, such special places.

That following night, after our Corcovado adventure, we would do a night tour with Tracie The Bug Lady, an Alabama-born biologist who has called Drake Bay home for the last 20 years. Her expertise is unrivaled. With her, we photographed several frogs, spiders, and one of my favorite snakes ever, the Mussurana. Because Costa Rica is home to several venomous snakes, locals have been known to kill all snakes indiscriminately just to be safe, all but the Mussurana. That is because the Mussurana is a hunter of venomous snakes. With immunity to the venom of pit vipers, the Mussurana stalks and eats snakes like the infamous Fer de lance (Bothrop’s asper). For this reason, locals know it as a friend and allow it to go on its way unmolested.

Our final activity in Drake Bay was our boat tour up Rip Sierpe. The venerable water world of Rio Sierpe is a maze of mangrove forest and small channels that feed into the main river. And it is home to a staggering array of wildlife, much of which occurs just at the river’s edge, perfect for viewing from the boat. The Rio Sierpe portion of our trip is always a favorite of mine and the guests for the beauty of the river, the abundant wildlife, and the joy of cruising through the narrow mangrove channels in the comfort of a powerful boat.

We always encounter a large number of aquatic birds in Sierpe, like Snowy egrets, Boat-billed Herons, and Purple guillemots. But, we also see crocodiles, monkeys, macaws, and early that morning, we encountered two sloths chilling in a tree just over the water’s edge. After sliding the boat around to the best angle, we got our best sloth shots of the trip of the sloth’s “smiling” face as it sleepily clung to a branch.

This would mark the end of the main Costa Rica trip, and from Drake Bay, we flew back to San Jose to say sayonara to all but two lucky clients who would be joining me on an adventure into Tortuguero National Park.

Tortuguero National Park was Costa Rica’s first national park, created by then-president Daniel Oduber. The creation of Tortuguero initiated a wave of green legislation that resulted in making Costa Rica what it is today, a haven for its native wildlife and a destination for nature enthusiasts from around the world. For this, Daniel Oduber is credited as being the father of the eco-tourism industry in Costa Rica, and much of the country’s prosperity can be traced back to his pivotal decisions.

Tortuguero is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and can be accessed via a 30-minute flight from San Jose. Its beaches are famous nesting grounds for sea turtles, including endangered green turtles and leatherback sea turtles. But we were there during the off-season for turtle nesting, and would be instead of taking boat tours up the thick jungle canals of the park’s river system in search of birds, crocs, monkeys, and a species that has long been on my life-list; the endangered great green macaw.

Upon arrival at Tortuga Lodge, we were assigned our boat captain whom we would be working with for our entire stay, the mild-mannered Francisco. He didn’t speak much English, but I was able to interpret for him and the clients. Over the course of our few days on the water with Francisco, the clients and I developed a strong affinity for this man, and I surely hope we get him as our captain on the next trip.

Over the course of four days, Francisco expertly captained our boat up the lush canals of the park, pointing out countless animals along the way. There were daily highlights during our stay in Tortuguero, but that list of favorites is easily topped by the mother sloth and her baby we encountered on the first day. She was low in the tree, and we were able to get our boat very close for some incredibly intimate shots.

After two days of boat tours, we shifted our afternoon focus to searching for the Great Green macaw. This large parrot is one of the most beautiful in the world, with striking green plumage, but is also very endangered. Every afternoon, we would hear them across the river, feeding in the wild almond trees. But sightings were fleeting and far away. But Francisco was determined to put us on those birds. On our third afternoon with him, he told me he knew where they were. He drove the boat across the river and landed on the opposite shore where we disembarked and walked a short trail through a grove of wild almond trees. We heard them before we saw them, their raucous calling load and easy to identify. About 100 yards down the trail, we found them, a group of three green macaws feeding on almonds. And though the photographs aren’t going to win any awards (the birds were in the thick canopy and high in the trees), to be able to see these beautiful endangered birds was a real highlight for the trip and a great reason to keep going back to Tortuguero.

After twelve days in the field with some of the best clients I’ve had the pleasure of working with, it was finally time to call this trip over. And what a success it was! We encountered several life-list species, including the green macaws, Baird’s tapir, and mussurana, as well as finding some of the best photo setups for sloths I’ve yet encountered. And with our new and improved itinerary, this trip gives our clients an opportunity to get a real dose of what Costa Rica wildlife and travel are all about, ranging through four distinct ecosystems. If anything, my love for Costa Rica has only grown after such a great trip, and it was a real privilege to share it with a group of wonderful clients who shared my passion for the beauty and wildness of Costa Rica.

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Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
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"Backcountry Journeys offers guests the unique opportunity to explore our natural world from behind their own lens. We run a selection of hand-crafted Photo Tours, Workshops & Safaris connecting passionate people to exceptional experiences. Locations include Yosemite, Alaska, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, Utah as well as Botswana & Costa Rica."
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