A Panamanian Getaway

This past week marked my three-month anniversary for being in Costa Rica and how did I celebrate? Left the country and headed to Panama!

 

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Volcán Baru, Panamá

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.08.20 PMAnd I got to bring my parents, who came down to see what I’m up to down here. Before showing them Saladero, we first headed to Panama for a “vacation” from “work” marking the beginning of the second half of my internship with Saladero. This was their first time to the true neotropics of Central America, a place I’ve loved before I even first came here. Everything since has been icing on the cake. And time I share this love of mine with my parents, who’ve been right there for me through it all. Thanks, you two.

IMG_0540Susan and Harvey were kind enough to gift me their share of a home exchange with a lodge called Cielito Sur B&B which is situated up in the highlands below Volcán Baru National Park. This gave us a chance to check out an entirely different ecosystem and array of bird species quite different from those we have here in Saladero’s Pacific lowland tropical rainforest. And it was a huge delight..lots of hummingbirds, up there in the misty, windy, dramatically clouded, rainbow-punctuated highlands of Panama!

 

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Purple-throated Mountain Gem

 

So after arriving by boat and meeting the parents at Golfito, we together made our way by bus to cross the Costa Rican border into Panama to renew my Visa for another three months to finish out the second half of my internship here at Saladero. I can’t believe we’re already halfway through the high season and what a high season it’s been..we’ve been busy and it’s been an absolute ball, I’m learning constantly and have such respect and awe for this place and all of the people who live and work here and who pursue this love for a land that they’re helping share with others help them realize how precious and important it is.

So. Panama.

Nonwithstanding the eyes at half-mast on the Violet Saberwing, these large hummers were just about constantly on the move, chasing other hummers, chasing each other, and simply rocketing around the beautiful gardens that make up Cielito.

 

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Violet Saberwing

 

We were joined for a half day of birding with an exceptional guide named Ito and within the first hour already had more than ten Resplendent Quetzals around us, practically in the way and demanding our attention between Ito pointing out one endemic bird after another as we wandered up the hazy jungle of a road up into the cloud forest foothills below Volcán Baru.

 

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Male Resplendent Quetzal

 

The birds were very vocal and we had great looks at both males and females. The males look cartoon like, almost too adorably perfect with that cheeky mohawk. And their tails are just a joke. How on earth would you feel trying to fly through a thick, wet rainforest with a big sail attached to your tail feathers? Well these guys have got it down. Whatever you gotta do to attract the ladies! We even saw a young male displaying between the steep, foggy hills..he was merely “respl-” (think length of tail–not totally resplendent..at least not yet!). February marks the quetzal’s nesting season which coincides with the fruiting of a primary food source for these birds, the aguacatillo, a smaller version of our familiar avocado within the same tree family, Lauraceae.

 

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In an Aguacatillo Tree

Quetzals are altitudinal migrants that rely on different elevation forests which they occupy at different times of the year. The birds will ascend into the highland cloud forests in February to breed and forage on the aguacatillos and then descend to lower altitude forests for the rest of the year. The seasonal distribution and migration of these birds is closely tied to the fruiting Lauracea trees as the availability of ripe fruits fluctuate across not just seasons but even between years.

Our guide Ito told us how quetzals are like the farmers of the cloud forest. They eat the small aguacatillos whole and regurgitate the pit, essentially helping disperse the seeds of the tree into other areas of the forest.

The Resplendent Quetzals are a near-threatened species which are suffering population declines likely as a result of deforestation. Quetzals nest in the holes of dead rotting trees with cavities and soft wood that they can easily dig into. Trees that have had enough time to reach such an advanced state of decay to be suitable for excavation is most often in mature, uncut forests and of course lack of such forest and therefore available nest cavities limits the quetzal populations. What also becomes a factor is that these dead standing trees are most susceptible to the elements and thus it’s not uncommon for a nest to be lost in the event of a tree fall.

Screen Shot 2018-02-23 at 1.17.03 PM.jpgClimate change can also have an impact on the moist, fragile montane cloud forest environments that these birds depend upon. Prolonged dry periods can have a severe effect on this environment that supports trees and plants and wildlife of the higher altitudes that rely on year-round moisture to survive. Also, with the changing environment comes changes in the range of different species from lower altitudes as habitats and microclimates shift and cloud forests decrease, some of these species–toucans for instance–compete with the quetzal for resources and win out because they’re more aggressive.

It was phenomenal to see so many birds in one place and it to have a guide who knew exactly where to take us for these fantastic views. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning and to help introduce my parents to the wonders of Central America. In Panama, we had the chance to take full advantage of the opportunity to explore the rich verdent mountain region that is so different from the lowland rainforests, which is where we headed next! They spent a week with me here in Saladero, where I showed them their first macaws and monkeys. They kayaked every day and we snorkeled together and hiked our trails, I took them on our river tour up into the monstrous mangroves of the Rio Esquinas and they saw my guest presentation twice. They even slept in a tent cabin just like mine, under a bug with the wild forest just out their back door (or lack thereof!) without batting an eye.

 

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It was beyond wonderful to share with them this place that’s become so quickly so dear to my heart. I think now they truly understand why.

 

 

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Featured Feathers of Saladero

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Black-throated Trog

I recently got in a brand new camera (Canon Powershot SX 720 HS) which I’ve been putting to good use as it allows me to finally get some descent shots of the plethora of birdlife that abounds here at Saladero Ecolodge.

The Black-throated Trogon is one of four species of trogon we have here on the property (Gartered, Slaty-tailed and Baird’s are all fairly common around the perimeter of the garden along the edge of our primary rainforest. This dapper gent gave our guests a great view during a rainforest tour and seemed perfectly fine to pose for a photo, seeing as how he likely is well aware of how stunning he is.

 

 

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Green Kingfisher

 

This Green Kingfisher is often perched in our small mangrove forest here on the property. It hunts for it’s meals among the Tea Mangroves, which are an important food source for the critically-endangered Mangrove Hummingbird. I took this photo from my “Birding Hammock” yea, I know–rough life! But I’m actually hoping to get a shot of the hummingbird from that comfy position as we’ve seen buzzing around here lately and perhaps some good audio as even Cornell Lab of Ornithology doesn’t have . Not an easy feat..

 

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Gray-capped Flycatcher

 

This is one of a pair of Gray-capped Flycatchers that are nesting beside the workshop near my tent cabin. Also nesting near my cabin are a pair of Scarlet Macaws, one of which I can always recognize by a clipped secondary feather on the right wing and a bent tail.

I watched this pair over the course of some weeks searching for a cavity to nest in here in my corner of the garden. Macaws rely on previously formed holes in dead or dying trees and this pair (or another?) suffered a lost nest a couple years ago when their nest tree fell down. I’ve watched them as they searched in earnest for a new cavity, laughing as one stands above a prospective hole watching carefully while the other attempts relentlessly to shove itself in from every angle (including upside down) despite the fact that there’s hardly enough room inside for even a bird a fraction of its size!

 

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Scarlet Macaw, Yellow-Billed Cotinga, Roadside Hawk

 

Our Glorious Yellow-billed Cotingas have been feeding in the fruiting wild nutmeg trees around the perimeter of the garden lately, I’ve been keeping an eye on them after having first spotted them about three weeks ago or so. They move in quiet groups high at the tops of the trees and it’s been a thrill to have them here, this being the second year they’ve ever been spotted here at Saladero.

To read more in-depth about this critically endangered bird, click here to read my recent blog post about the sighting and this important species.

Our Roadside Hawks certainly don’t have any roads nearby, being that we’re a boat-access-only ecolodge, but they don’t seem to mind! This is one of a pair likes to hang around the middle of the garden searching for lizards, snakes and crabs.

 

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Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

 

This is a little Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, named Rufito, who is ALWAYS in our little butterfly/hummingbird garden out front of the Beach House. You’re pretty well guaranteed a great view of this beautiful little gem if you sit out on the patio outside the dining room for a spell.

 

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Streaked Flycatcher

 

This Streaked Flycatcher was another Birding Hammock capture, overlooking the small mangrove forest near my cabin. This lovely bird was in the midst of a refreshing bath, plunging into the water below and preening and shaking vigorously on the branch above. When the tide is low, the water is more fresh than saltwater thanks to a small stream that passes through on it’s way to the Golfo Dulce.

For more photos, visit my Facebook page album, Birds of Saladero and if you’re interested to keep track of what I’m seeing out here, I do post regularly to my eBird account, as I’m hoping to make this place an eBird birding hotspot!

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Puro Saladero

What a season it’s been! We’re well into the high season here at Saladero and it’s warm, sunny and the sparkling blue waters of Golfo Dulce are luscious and inviting.

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We’ve had just absolutely delightful guests hailing from all corners of the planet, making for fascinating and lively conversation around the table at meal times. Countries represented thus far include Germany, Ukraine, Scotland, Ireland, Malta, the UK, Canada, South Korea, Holland and plenty of folks from the Pacific Northwest and east coast of the United States. Many new friendships have formed here in this beautiful paradise set here on the edge of Piedras Blancas National Park overlooking the rich Golfo.

Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 10.44.51 AM.pngSome of the fun bird and wildlife sightings we’ve had of late include, of course, the critically endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga (of which there are only between 250 and 1000 birds remaining, see our post here!) as well as many close encounters from the kayak, stand-up paddleboard and even snorkeling with the Pacific Green Sea Turtle as we came into the height of their breeding season.

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 2.17.20 PMWe’ve also sightings of the tamandua (a large species of anteater) walk right by us while sitting out one evening on the Beach House patio and, further, a family of guests staying with us watched in awe as another climbed up a tree in the back corner of the garden. I call 2018 the year of the Tamandua because one visited just under my cabin the early morning hours of new year’s day.

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The Scarlet Macaws, which were reintroduced back to the Piedras Blancas after becoming locally extinct in this area for a time, have provided a welcomingly colorful spectacle along the forest edge.  In previous years, a pair nested in a dead standing tree here in our gardens but the tree has since fallen. I’ve been able to watch the pair from my “bird blind” shower outside my cabin fairly often as they’ve been prospecting for a new nest. They’ve been pretty quiet up there lately, so I’m thinking they’ve finally found a suitable nesting hole. Along with the macaws our guests have also enjoyed lovely views of the iconic Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and some nesting Golden-naped Woodpeckers from the Tree House balcony, high above the Beach House. 

 

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 2.44.23 PM.pngA beautiful and harmless Neotropical Bird Snake gave us some closeup views in the grass behind the kitchen. We’ve had plenty of monkey sightings, the cheeky White-faced Capuchins drinking water from coconuts by the Rancho picnic and camping area, Mantled Howler Monkeys also come through on occasion and are heard roaring from the forest on a fairly regular basis. We’ve even had some special sightings of the much more rarely seen Spider Monkeys which had experienced reductions in populations in Piedras Blancas in previous years so we’re excited to see them here, with tiny babies riding upon the backs of several mothers. What a great sign!

A Tayra, a larger member in the weasel family, was seen walking in the garden above the Glamping Cabins and Collared Peccaries–the wild pigs that are an important food source for the bigger cats–have made their presence known in the back gardens. Speaking of peccaries, we’ve recently retrieved the camera cards from our camera traps and the hogs were well represented on Trail One, the Puma Trail, with video of groups moving across the stream on various occasions, once with even a tiny piglet in tow! Also in the cameras we had many Agoutis and a spotted Paca (similar to groundhogs with long legs, both in the rodent family).

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 1.56.50 PM.pngThe Three-wattled Bellbird has also come to town, making it’s annual latitudinal migratory descent from the upper mountains (perhaps from as far as Panama) here to the lowland primary rainforest to forage on fruiting trees while belting out it’s strange “bonk!” from the treetops. We’ve had good views of singing males, both adult and juvenile (photo). The birds seem to be hanging around the wild nutmeg trees, similar to the cotingas and the chestnut-mandibled toucan. Seems like this tree is an incredibly important food source for a variety of species, even the white-faced capuchin monkeys will happily crack open the tough outer shell with their jaws and eat the brown nutmeg seed inside.

 

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In the Golfo, our snorkelers have enjoyed watching a managerie of fish species including parrotfish, rays, triggerfish, moray eels, butterfly fish, angelfish. We Rob, a scuba diver-and-fisherman-extraordinaire here, Rob, who has been coming to Saladero on a fairly annual basis since the lodge first opened. Rob and his brother-in-law Kurt kept us endlessly well-fed on a variety of species of fish throughout their time with us, which we were happy to cook up into a variety of dishes! Rob taught our Ukranian guest Leon some great skills in the ways of fishing here and we enjoyed Leon’s haul of a big ol’ blue triggerfish in a fresh ceviche appetizer for his last memorable evening here!

IMG_1659.jpgJust this morning we said goodbye to a group from The Birding Club of Costa Rica that came with us to stay for several days. It was a huge pleasure to get to know these folk, many of which hail from the UK and the United States and have either semi- or completely moved here to the beautiful country Costa Rica. To join these keen birders on their exploration of our garden and trails was an enormous treat and, over the course of the past two day, the group saw and heard more than one hundred species, including our coatings and the three-wattled bellbird! With the help of the experts, including the fantastically talented illustrator of the Birds of Costa Rica guidebook, Robert Dean, we were excited to add a species or two to my own bird list! It was sad to see them go, but we’re looking forward to another group from the club which will be joining us next month. 

 

 

The fresh sea breeze off the Golfo in the afternoons has become a perfect way to wind down the day and the sunsets over the Osa Peninsula have been just phenomenal and aptly timed for a gorgeous and tranquil happy hour vista.

Pure Vida!

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Pure Life, indeed

 

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La Niña’s Ever-So-Rainy Dry Season

 

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Simply Soaked Spotted Sandpiper

What a WET dry season we’ve been having this year, with just massive amounts of rain nearly every day lately! Our head cocinera (Saladero’s cook of 10+ years) Paulina, who’s grown up here on the remote east side of the Golfo Dulce, said she’s never seen a dry season like this in all her years.

While we are in winter up in the states and other temperate zones, here in the tropics it is actually summer. The summer here is known as the Dry Season, which means very little rain, and much warmer temperatures for the months of mid-November through early May.

But this year, according to Costa Rica’s National Meterological Institute (IMN), we’re finding ourselves well into a strong La Niña cycle, which means cooler, wetter weather as opposed to the more commonly known El Niño cycle which is just the opposite with hotter, drier climes than is the norm. This year’s La Niña cycle is projected to last through March or April of this year.

So La Niña has brought with her LOTS of rain. It seems to mostly occur in the early afternoon and has led to some very substantial downpours with even a few impressive thunderstorms, right overhead!

Costa Rica’s summer, or Dry Season, is also the high season–when tourism is at it’s max– during the months of April through mid-November. Perhaps when people planning to visit the tropics hear the words “Wet Season” they think that it actually rains all the time those months (can you blame them?). Rather, it actually is sunny and pleasant during the day and usually starts to rain in the late afternoon. Not to mention it’s the LOW season in terms of tourism, take that as you will.. 😉 But really, the Wet Season is much moreso the GREEN season, because when is the rainforest the happiest? When it rains, of course!

IMG_0066.JPGWith all this unusual rain of late thanks to La Niña, we’ve had a couple of large trees come down. This can often be due to oversaturated soil or just so many bromeliads (air plants which grow on tree trunks and branches) full with rainwater adding extra weight to our towering giants. Especially in the rainy season, it’s not unusual to hear a tree fall in the rainforest. We had an enormous balsa come down over on the beach the other night and, thanks to intel from our assistant grounds manager Oscar, we learned it already had a rotted out trunk so it was just a matter of time. But as a result of this consistent over saturation we’ve had here in the Golfo, water certainly had something to do with this tree’s final gasp. On its way, our giant easily took out a grown palm, snapping it off with gusto, midway up the trunk!

So here you have a lovely example of the cycles of nature. While one can’t yet say about the long term effects, trends and whether El Niño and La Niña cycles are changing or becoming more common as a result of climate change (as these events occur irregularly and can be spaced out by years), one might wonder how various species are being affected by these changes.

One example is our beloved sloth, who’s local population has seemed to have declined following the 2012 El Niño event of abnormally hot weather. We only started seeing sloths again in our garden cecropia about six weeks ago but haven’t seen them lately and wonder if this abnormal amount rain during the season might have any impact on these sensitive creatures. Another example of these events is how the sea temperatures during the 2012 cycle became so hot that a great deal of the coral here in the upper Golfo were killed off and is only just starting to rebound. Isn’t it interesting to think about how important a stable climate is for our fellow life here on this planet we’re for so fortunate to share it with?

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Davíd 

Another interesting example is what’s going on in the Golfo Dulce. All of this rain is cooling off the warm, protected gulf and we’ve seen (and grounds manager and boat capitan Davíd has even caught!) Dorado, or Mahi Mahi, a species of dolphin fish, here in the golf. Something that is wildly rare to see as this is a pelagic, cold-water species. We were lucky enough to have one for dinner, the day Davíd pulled in his monster Dorado by handline, grabbing it by the tail at the last minute to lift swiftly into the boat.

It’s interesting to watch this natural phenomenon, the La Niña cycle from our own “back porch”. Life is certainly being affected by this wildly abnormal weather and while we’re included, that life certainly isn’t just us. Stay along for the ride for future updates about what else we might be witnessing as a result!

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The Glorious Yellow-billed Cotinga

It was just a flash that caught my eye, high in a fruiting nutmeg tree.

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9 Jan. 2018: I was out behind my cabina, doing my morning peruse of the primary rainforest that borders the garden when I noticed some fluttering high above me, in a tree mostly devoid of leaves. When I trained my binoculars on the form, the familiar shape of it made my heart leap, but I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions. Kind of white, but not THAT white.

But then one flew into the adjacent, fruiting wild nutmeg tree and that’s when I let my heart soar..

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It was what I believed to be a juvenile or female of the exceedingly rare, endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga.

Yellow-billed Cotinga is categorized as Endangered, due to a presumed rapidly declining population estimated to be between 250-999 and a tiny range of 1,700 km2 within the 38,000 km2 South Central American Pacific slope Endemic Bird Area (Stattersfield et al. 1998, BirdLife International 2013). Exact population figures are lacking, but decline is inferred from known deforestation, and the disappearance or decline in abundance of the species at known localities (Jones et al. 2014).

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Neotropical Birds

While it wasn’t the brilliant white male, I knew this species had only ever been spotted in this specific area for the very first time only just last year, in February of 2017. I remember being told they’d been seen congregated that time in another fruiting nutmeg on the property and that they seemed to travel in loose groups and kept pretty quiet overall.

Well.

It was about 0700 hours and I  knew I was supposed to be at breakfast, being that I’m the intern resident bird guide and naturalist who’s supposed to be on duty. And I was running late. Except there was no way I was turning around and heading to breakfast right then far below these exceptionally rare creatures. I voice-messaged Saladero’s co-owner Susan via WhatsApp, telling her the phenomenal news. Before I knew it, I was joined by not just our guests but three lovely visitors we’ve been so fortunate to have come for a short stay, Andy Whitworth, Science Director of Osa Conservation and husband and wife powerhouse team from Nueva Tierra de Osa, Terri Peterson and Gary Strehlow.

And just about that moment was when a gleaming-white male came out from behind the leaves and landed out in the open for our viewing pleasure and my extreme excitement and satisfaction. The proof flew right out of the a lush green pudding (jajaja..)..

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And let me emphasize again, these birds are highly endangered.

While their population is suspected to range between 250 and 999 individuals remaining in the world, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Neotropical Birds website, the nomadic nature of these birds and the fact that their habitat is declining–there’s really no telling what their total remaining population count is for certain.

 

The reason these birds are in decline is attributed to illegal deforestation of rainforest and mangrove ecosystems, the both of which this species of cotinga critically rely upon. The yellow-billeds depend upon on healthy and intact mangrove forests for nesting, foraging and roosting. Unfortunately, this uniquely evolved, saline ecosystem happens to be in worldwide decline. Illegal cutting of native trees in lowland rainforests–which harbor fruit that these frugivorous birds forage upon–combined with declining mangrove ecosystems spell an uncertain future for the yellow-billed cotinga.

 

 

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Furthermore, because of how rare it is to see these birds,Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 5.50.59 PM there is still a great deal about this cotinga that is yet unknown, which is why it is so exciting to not just have seen them, but also to officially report these sightings along with photos to eBird.

A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

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eBird is accessible to the public through an app available through Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (to which you can download and submit your own bird sightings, rare or otherwise!). By adding information about the number of yellow-billed cotingas we saw, their location, the trees they were in and photographic evidence, we’re acting as true citizen scientist here, contributing data about a very rare species that is not very well known. With every new sighting we are able to learn more about a bird that is vastly in need of further information in order to possibly help in future protection of the species itself.

Of the three “white” cotingas species, the yellow-billed is endemic (specifically occurring only in limited, localized geographic areas) only to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica–including tucked right here into our beautiful corner of the rich Golfo Dulce– and they only range slightly into the extreme western corner of Panama. All of this, in total, amounts a truly tiny area. So here we are, a dot on the map of the world, and we can say, “Yes, this inestimable bird is here and, with our help and yours in protecting our precious-yet-diminishing rainforest and mangrove ecosystems, perhaps it could continue to be for all time.

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 8.22.58 PMWe here at Saladero Ecolodge are proud that this vastly important, protected location–Saladero’s property includes 450 acres of protected primary rainforest–where the two habitats that these birds dearly depend upon converge, is once again able to announce the presence of this exceptional and highly rare species.

And their very presence speaks highly of the health and functionality of these intact local ecosystems that we help protect. And to be able to share these beautiful, natural spaces and rare sightings with our guests while informing them of the importance of maintaining and protecting these natural habitats is in keeping with our education-based system that coincides with being true to our name: Ecolodge. So to be able to share with others a never-to-be-forgotten experience, the sight of this incredibly rare, beautiful, snow-white bird, was beyond magical as we reveled in the sight of that proud, brilliantly gleaming male Yellow-billed Cotinga, as he faced the rising morning sun.

What a memory, one for the ages.

 

UPDATE: I’m thrilled to announce that our “resident” Yellow-billed Cotingas appear to be multiplying! But seriously, the gift just keeps on giving..and then some:

26782071_676468202005_71168560_oThis morning I checked the same spot (they’d left yesterday after breakfast, both our breakfast and theirs, I guess!) and there were not just four, but very possibly more than EIGHT individuals!!

Many more males this time..I think the word has spread about this lovely fruiting nutmeg tree. Since the sighting, I’ve been in contact with Karen Leavelle, Director of Osa Birds: Research and Conservation and the woman responsible for creating a protected reserve for the yellow-billed cotinga.

Osa Conservation partnered with the Gulf Coast Bird ObservatoryAmerican Bird ConservancyThe Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, and Osa Sounds to establish a reserve to protect one of the last strongholds on earth for the Yellow-billed Cotinga.

Osa Conservation

Karen informed me, “The cotingas are feeding on the aril of the nutmeg fruit, the outside coating only. The fruit is too hard for them to manipulate, but yes it is a favorite dish for them!” So inside the outer, orange seed casing, the brown nutmeg nut is covered by the aril, which is actually yet another of our kitchen spices, known as mace. The aril is a bright reddish-pink and looks like an octopus hugging the nutmeg nut. While the White-faced Capuchins monkeys will crack open the seed, discard the spicy mace and eat the nutmeg nut the cotingas, which aren’t bothered at all by the spice, enjoy it tremendously!

 

How can you help?

Support conservation organizations:

Osa Birds: Research & Conservation

Osa Conservation

..and visit and support true ecolodges that participate in sustainable ecotourism, education research and conservation like we do here at Saladero Ecolodge. 

 

 

 

 

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The Salt Life: A Mangrove Ecosystem

Version 3This post all about mangroves will be up soon on Saladero Ecolodge’s new blog which I just started a couple weeks ago, feel free to check out my first post over there all about the laziest icon of the, tropics, the Sloth >

 

 

And now on to the mangroves..

“Mangroves are among the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on Earth.”

Smithsonian Ocean Portal

 

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You might recognize mangroves as those bushy trees that grow in the saltwater tidal zones of warmer climes, standing on root systems that form a complex, intertwining network that appears as if no living thing could navigate its way through. But rather, mangrove ecosystems are responsible for supporting a glorious abundance of life, much more than is apparent at first, second, even third glance!

In fact, mangroves provide an enormous multitude of environmental contributions and ecosystem services which benefit a plethora of species (including us!) as well as contributing to the health of the environment itself.

 

The Salt Life: How Do They Survive?

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 10.58.53 AM.pngMangroves occur worldwide within the salty and brackish waters of tropical & subtropical latitudes and withstand the twice-daily rise and fall of the tides. Rather than denoting one particular species, the word “mangrove” in fact makes up more than 80 tree or shrub species known as “halophytes” meaning able to survive in saltwater conditions. Red mangroves achieve this by using salt-filtering taproots to filter out freshwater from the salty environment in which they exist. Other species, such as our white, black and tea mangroves, excrete salt through glands on their leaves, leaving a surface of dried salt crystals.

 

The Submerged Life: How Do They Breathe?

Mangroves truly live in conditions that are nearly intolerable. Not only do they have to constantly extract or exude salt from their system, but also there’s that pesky universal dependence on oxygen that all life shares, leaving these trees with the complicated job of obtaining enough with which to grow and thrive despite twice-daily inundation and roots sunk into oxygen-deprived mud. But mangroves have evolved unique adaptations to survive against all these odds and colonize an otherwise unoccupied and ultimately harsh environment. Special arial roots in some mangroves reach slowly downward from taller branches and take in air, as do specialized underground roots in other species that send up “pneumatophores”, or upward facing roots, which gather oxygen at low tide. The prop roots of the red mangrove have tiny holes called “lenticels” which close when submerged at high tide and open as the waters recede to gather the essential oxygen.

 

A Forest of Roots & How it all Begins:

IMG_0984Some species, like the red mangrove, grow upon prop roots, meaning the base of the tree is supported aerially by a multitude of bowed roots that plant into the mud and provide a wide support system allowing the tree to withstand constant tidal and wave action including storms, hurricanes and even tsunamis by dissipating wave energy. This provides essential protection to coastal  communities and can mean devastation in strong storm surges for regions where mangrove forests have been removed.

Mangroves are actually able to grow their own, unique ecosystems, practically from nothing more than a bit of sand! Near us here at Saladero, Balto (husband of Paulina, our lovely and talented cook), remembers as a boy a shallow sandbar near the mouth of nearby Rio Esquinas that now, sixty years later, is a completely established mangrove island.

IMG_0998 2Mangroves seeds are known as propagules, meaning they are actually living seedlings before they even fall from the parent tree. Red mangrove seeds are elongated and as they float in the shallows they’ll slowly turn vertical when ready to root so as to more easily lodge into the mud. If unable to root, the  seedling will alter its density to float horizontally again until it senses more favorable conditions. In effect, the seed is actually “looking” for calm, shallow waters appropriate for a young mangrove to begin to grow and thrive..and more are always sure to soon follow. As soon as a root network is formed, fine silt and sediments floating through the slow moving water collect and the resulting substrate is better able to support even more mangrove seedlings, eventually forming a forest. 

 

A Thriving Ecosystem Results:

And so begins the construction of an ecosystem that will not only support a fantastic diversity of species, including some that are endemic (found nowhere else) to mangrove forests, but the intricate tangle of roots also provides a nursery for young fish that will grow into many of our reef and commercially harvested species. But not just fish benefit from the shelter and protection from larger prey and food offered by a healthy functioning mangrove system and its thick network of prop roots. In fact, mangrove roots themselves are literally coated with life—crabs, snails, barnacles, oysters (which are commercially harvested), sponges, algae, anemones, shrimp and a great deal more.

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And all of this life provides a massive food supply to support even more life. Wading birds nest and feed in mangrove forests, various mammals (even monkeys!) hunt among the prop roots, taking fish and crustaceans, green sea turtles pick algae off the underwater roots during high tide, even snakes, lizards and frogs can use the mangroves as their hunting grounds. And then there’s the managerie of ants, spiders, moths, termites, and scorpions that feed among the branches and nest in hollowed twigs above the water. Here in the Golfo Dulce, we have the critically  endangered Mangrove Hummingbird that relies on the nectar of the Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 7.20.36 PMflowering Tea Mangrove. This is a species that originally evolved on the Osa Peninsula which originally was an island and over time evolved this completely unique, endemic species. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, a geological uplift created a land bridge connecting the Osa to mainland Costa Rica and the hummingbird was able to widen its range and is now found here as well, but is still very rare and endemic only to the Osa area. 

 

Life Has Leaf Litter to Thank:

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So among all of these species, how is all this life supported by a “simple” collection of salt-loving trees? Where does this food web begin, you might wonder? Well, the growing mangroves drop leaves throughout the year, directly adding nutrients to the water and sediment below. When you see yellow leaves on the trees, they’re not just dead leaves, they’re a special  means of extracting the salt that they are taking in, actually directing it all into specific individual leaves (known as the “sacrificial leaf”) which turnScreen Shot 2017-12-31 at 10.28.15 AM yellow and die, falling into the water beneath. All this “detritis” (dead organic matter) creates a rich leaf litter layer that is full of nutrients that supply food to microorganisms below the water, including bacteria  and fungi. These organisms are key species that assist in the decomposition process. Microbes and aquatic invertebrates feed on the decay and the young nursery fish and crustaceans in turn feed upon them. And on up the food web a multitude of species is sated, resulting in a plethora of thriving, well-fed life.

 

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When Mangroves Are Around, Everyone Benefits:

IMG_0245.jpgAnd as if all this weren’t enough, mangroves are also crucially important in their role in cycling and storing carbon, even more so than primary rainforests, throughout tropical ecosystem, helping to reduce this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Mangroves also prevent coastal erosion and filter rainwater runoff. 

Yet despite how essential mangrove ecosystems are to so many species, it is sadly true that, despite protection and restoration efforts, over half of the world’s mangroves have been removed for development (including for tourism, agriculture expansion, shrimp farming, marinas and roadways) in recent times. According to the Mangrove Action Project, “We have already lost over half of the world’s original mangrove forest area, estimated at 32 million hectares (app. 80 million acres). In 2007, less than 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of mangroves remain. The current rate of mangrove loss is approximately 1% per annum (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization), or roughly 150,000 hectares (370,050 acres) of mangrove wetlands lost each year.”

 

The Towering Mangrove Forest of Rio Esquinas:

IMG_0246Here at Saladero we invite our guests to explore these wonderfully rich and diverse ecosystems and we offer tours where we are able to help explain the vast importance of these diminishing ecosystems. The mangroves along the river just north of us, Rio Esquinas, contain some of the largest mangroves on earth, rising as high as 110 feet, more than 33 meters. I can attest to the reverent awe one feels when entering the channels between these giants, it’s as if you’re floating through a cathedral, the sounds of birds and occasional pop of the pistol shrimp in place of organ music. The feeling can only be described as pure and utter peace.

 

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New Blog! Rainforest life at Saladero Ecolodge

So I’ve started up a new blog on Saladero’s website all about the life and tropical ecology that surrounds us here at the edge of the rich Golfo Dulce, nestled in the primary rainforest of Piedras Blancas National Park. In addition to my introductory post, I’ve already delved into the wonderful world of one beloved icon of the tropics, the three-toed sloth.

Click the photo to read all about this fascinating animal and the rich ecosystem it harbors within its very own fur:

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See this photo and many more on Saladero Ecolodge’s Facebook page, where I post daily!

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