Report by Matt Harris,
a member of the Upstate
Upstate Herpetological Association member
Matt Harris, and former UHA President, Ken Barnett, led a group
of 13 UHA members, relatives and NYSDEC biologists on a herping
and birding trip to Costa Rica's famed Corcovado National Park.
Corcovado is situated on the remote Osa Peninsula in the Southeastern
part of the country, only a stone's throw from Panama .
In the following article, you will learn about the abundant
wildlife found there, which has prompted some to call Corcovado the ‘most
biologically intense place on earth'. We encountered many herptiles
and other animals on our trip, including poison dart frogs,
white-lipped peccaries, Baird's tapirs, American crocodiles,
common caimans and deadly fer-de-lances!!
Part I: Arrival; hiking through Corcovado ; snakes and frogs
After getting a taste
of the tropics in 2002, we decided if we really wanted to experience
the remote, untouched Costa Rica , we need to do 2 things on
the 2003 trip: 1) Go during the rainy season and 2) venture
deep into the heart of Corcovado National Park . In 2002, I
mentioned to Kenny that I wanted to go to Costa Rica to hunt
for bushmasters. Within weeks, Kenny and his wife Gaye, decided
they were going as well and we researched several ‘Eco-lodges'
and decided on a little known, no-frills lodge situated near
Carate on the Pacific coast of the Osa Peninsula. This area,
while remote, is still an 11 mile hike from the heart of Corcovado
National Park – 11 rough miles along beach, over jagged, exposed
rocks, through dense jungle and requires crossing 1 major river
teaming with large crocodiles and bull sharks! And that's assuming
you've hit the tides just right!! While we saw an abundance of
wildlife for only being our first time there (and you really
can't complain about trees with a dozen scarlet macaws squawking
in it), we simply wanted to see the areas that were completely
untouched by human encroachment.
Back in October I mentioned to Kenny, that this year, I was
planning on hiking across the Osa Peninsula to get a first hand
view of the more remote parts of Corcovado National Park . This
particular hike follows a river from the Golfo Dulce on the north
side of the Osa Peninsula , up through the lowland tropical wet
forest, and finally up into the mountains on the northeastern
boundary of the park where it enters at the Los Patos Ranger
Station. From Los Patos, it follows a couple of knife-edge ridge
tops and drops down onto the Corcovado plain, where it then follows
the Rio Sirena and then the Rio Pavo on its way to the Sirena
Biological Station and ranger station. The entire distance from
the trailhead near La Palma on the North, to Sirena is approximately
17 miles. Logistically, the hike takes about 2 days if you spend
a night at Los Patos and take time to explore the surrounding
forests for animals, as well as, getting to the trailhead itself!
The first 5 miles of the trail to the Los Patos ranger station
takes you higher up into the hills and you enter the habitat
of the black-headed bushmaster ( Lachesis melanocephala ).
Kenny wasn't keen on hiking and wanted to spend more time around
the Sirena station, taking day hikes to explore the handful of
trails that emanate from there. This was a result of researching
journal accounts of the vast amounts of herpetofauna that have
been catalogued in the area. In the meantime, we had made contacts
with several herp-related researchers in Costa Rica , who further
solidified the notion, that SIRENA IS THE PLACE TO GO!!!!!!
Sirena grass airstrip
After much discussion
(and extreme difficulty contacting the National Park service
in Costa Rica to make reservations), Kenny decided to contact
a gentleman, Mike Boston, whom we learned of through the lodge
owner on last years trip. Mike actually leads treks into Corcovado
National Park and is a connoisseur of fine Guaro. After contacting
him, we decided to hire him to guide our trip. Rather than
have just one plan, we decided to run to options: I would hike
across the peninsula, with our guide Mike, while Kenny and
Gaye would fly directly to Sirena (there is a small grass airstrip
there—more on that later—it deserves
a page all its own!!) Suddenly now, over the course of two months,
the trip was actually becoming a reality.
In the meantime, through casual conversation, several UHA members
expressed an interest in going along as well. Kenny had mentioned
it through casual conversation at the DEC, and suddenly several
biologists in the Endangered Species Unit were eager to go along
as well. What started out as 3 now became 13!!!
On April 22 nd , we departed Newark for San Jose . After arriving
around noon , we all piled into a van for the short ride to our
hotel. Our luggage had only been thrown on the roof rack and
wasn't tide down so Kim Corwin kept a watchful eye out the back
in case a piece fell off. After checking in and getting settled,
we headed to the nearby bank to exchange money. One dollar equals
approximately 350 Colones-the currency of Costa Rica . We leisurely
strolled around San Jose and ate dinner at a local restaurant
off of the pedestrian mall. The restaurant features wood roasted
chicken served with the traditional beans and rice. Most Costa
Rican dishes consist of beans, rice and some small portion of
meat. It may sometimes contain fried plantains (baking bananas)
or wild yams. In comparison to Mexican food, Costa Rican food
is not as spicy, almost bland.
The next morning,
we woke and ate breakfast. At this point I, Jim Chapman and
his daughter Carrie left for our charter flight to the village
of Puerto Jimenez , where we were to meet our guide, Mike.
The rest of the group was to leave a little later for their
direct flight to Sirena. Upon arriving at the airport, Jim,
Carrie and I checked in and waited. Only about 20 minutes later,
Kenny and the group arrived for their flight. Only then did
they realize that their flight would actually occur in two
stages—first a flight to Puerto Jimenez, and then a flight
from PJ to Sirena. In fact, due to weight concerns, some of
their luggage was going on our flight in a twin-prop commuter
aircraft rather than their smaller Cessna. We arrived in Puerto
Jimenez and met our guide. We then waited for the rest of the
group, as Mike had to give Kenny some supplies (such as mosquito
netting) to take to Sirena so we didn't have to carry it on
After taking care
of the gear and supplies, we departed with Mike into town to
grab a bite to eat. It was only around 10:30am . Mike said
we wanted to leave for the trailhead, which was about an hours
ride, around noon and we should be hiking no later than 1PM
in order to make the 3 ½ hr hike to the ranger station
before dark. In the jungle, it tends to get dark much earlier.
Our ride to the trailhead took about an hour to cover only 15
miles. When we got to La Palma , our driver stopped on a dime
to point out the large male green iguana crossing the road. It
was a beautifully impressive green iguana - unlike your typical
pet-store iguanas! We continued on the dirt road that paralleled
the Rio Rincon for about another mile until we could go no further.
This was where the ride ended…..and the ADVENTURE BEGAN!
Late April is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica . The
Rio Rincon at this time of year was only about knee deep in the
rapids and waist deep in the bigger pools - of course, every
big pool probably held a resident spectacled caiman ( Caiman
crocodilus ). They usually hide in underground burrows under
the banks and emerge at night to sit and ambush prey. Our hope
was that the wet season would come early this year. As Mike had
pointed out, the past years dry seasons had been exceptionally
dry as had the previous year's wet-season. We could only hope
the rains would come. As we hiked along the river, we could hear
the calls of Dendrobates granuliferous, the granular
poison-dart frog from the steep, moss-covered slopes along the
deeper pools. It wasn't as hot and humid as we'd expected and
a few brief afternoon showers cooled us off. It also helped wake
up the frogs and bird life in the jungle canopy overhead. Mike
kept pointing out the shrill, echoing call of the Chestnut-billed
toucans high up the trees.
Leaf cutter ants
After an hour and
a half of criss-crossing the stream more than a dozen times,
the trailed made a hard right turn into a tall grove of heliconias.
The trail then ascended a steep mud slope, rising about 400
feet in elevation through a series of switchbacks. Some sections
were lined with circular discs cut from felled logs, but were
not much help being covered with a slick layer of mud. Most
of the Osa has a red-clay substrate. Mike heard the call of
the bi-colored ant bird, and told us that when these birds
are heard it means that there are usually army ants nearby.
These ant birds habitually follow swarming army ants to feed
on the arthropods that they flush from the leaf litter. In fact,
ants dominate the tropical forests - we had to keep watching
our step because the leaf cutter ants usually used the hiking
trail like a super-highway and would stream 20 or 30 meters ahead
before breaking off into the forest……they are an ABSOLUTELY AMAZING
creature to watch! We spotted a small ‘rocket' frog ( Colostethus
flotator ), which is closely related to the Poison-dart
frogs of the genera Dendrobates and Phyllobates .
After another hour
or so, the trail started to go down. At one spot, the trail
meandered back and forth around some trees and Mike pointed
out that a friend of his had seen a bushmaster crossing the
trail here several weeks ago—I could only drool! About 15
minutes later, we entered a clearing and off to the left stood
the lone wooden, single-story building that is the Los Patos
Ranger Station. Mike greeted the rangers warmly and enthusiastically – they
were all his good friends, he explained! We dropped our packs
and removed our shoes to let our feet breathe. Immediately behind
and above us, high up in the canopy, a troop of Howler monkeys
was frolicking in the trees. While staring up at the monkeys,
a pair of toucans soared overhead into the trees. Mike pointed
out some jars on a table that contained snakes preserved in alcohol.
In one jar was the faded head of a black-headed bushmaster that
the rangers had killed not too long ago – supposedly to protect
visitors, but we were the last people who wanted protecting from
awesome snake!!! Another jar contained a baby terciopelo but
was almost white from the alcohol.
After about an hour of rest, during which we ate trail mix,
candy bars, and tins of tuna and mixed vegetables we bought at
the Pulperia in Puerto Jimenez, we were eager to begin exploring.
Jim had bought plain tuna, and I thought I had gotten the same,
but Jim saw my look of dismay when I opened mine up to see a
bunch of mixed vegetables! My depression turned to satisfaction
after I stirred it up and found some tuna underneath. READ ALL
SPANISH LABELS CAREFULLY! It ended up being pretty tasty! We
walked across the field, which serves as the pasture for the
rangers' packhorse, and headed down a trail. Not five minutes
down the trail Mike caught a snake about 28 to 30 inches long.
It turned out to be a juvenile tropical bird-snake ( Pseuetes
It was starting to get dark and the frogs were starting to call
so we kept searching. We kept hearing the shrill, high-pitched “TINK” of
the ‘tink' frog ( Eleutherodactylus diastema ) and homed
in on one sitting on top of a tall fern. Another distinct call
caught our ears, and turned out to be that of a glass frog ( Hyalinobatrachium
colymbiphyllum ), which nearly drove us nuts! We narrowed
the call to be emanating from a heliconia leaf, only to find
a silent female sitting there. The call is so shrill, that when
made close to the ear it seems to hit a resonance and make your
ears ring, like someone struck a triangle right next to your
head! We kept searching almost possessed to find the frog making
this call, when suddenly a light bulb went on in my head. ‘Wait
a second….' I thought. I flipped the heliconia leaf over and
sure enough, sitting on the underside of the leaf, clung the
tiny little male. These are called glass frogs because their
visceral organs can be seen through their transparent abdomens.
They are orangish-green in color with small white dots. They
are only about a half-inch long.
We searched for a little longer and found our second Leptodactylus
bolivianus , a Central American leopard frog, which was
sitting on a log. It was now pitch black out and we were watching
it illuminated with our headlamps. While watching it, Mike
noticed movement behind it, and saw the shadowy outline of
a spiny rat ( Proechmys semispinosa ) sitting at the
entrance of its burrow. This was exciting to me because the
spiny rat is the primary food source of the bushmaster and
terciopelo (even proven to us two days later)! We were definitely
in bushmaster habitat! The jungle was loud with the calls of
anurans everywhere around us…the rainy season had begun and
we were in luck!! On the way back, something caught my eye
the seemed out of place on a branch. I saw sticks coming out
of a branch at right angles - that is odd for a tree. I looked
closer and focused a little, and realized it was a lizard,
a helmeted iguana ( Corytophanes cristatus ) sitting
on the branch with its legs sticking out like Mr. Pretzel.
Around 7:45PM we went out for a second hike around the ranger
station, this time just wandering around the pasture field. We
went down near the rangers' garbage pit and found no less than
two dozen marine toads ( Bufo marinus ) stuck in the
pit. The pit is about 10 feet square and about 5 feet deep preventing
the toads from crawling out, but they all seemed happy. Mike
picked up the eye-shine of a large Leptodactylus pentadactylus ,
the smoky-jungle frog, sitting just off the trail. We found several
toads sitting in the pasture field, including Bufo haematiticus .
Mike remarked that it was the largest one he had ever seen! This
toad has very large parotid glands, but unlike most Bufo toads,
has smooth warts giving it an appearance not like your typical ‘warty'
toad – hence it's common name, the smooth-skinned toad!
We sat at a picnic
table for about ½ hour just listening
to the jungle sounds and wondering if the others arrived at Sirena
all right. Jim, Carrie and I headed back to the station to turn.
Walking by the steps, I noticed a small snake slithering underneath
the porch. “SNAKE”-I had to whisper to Mike so I wouldn't wake
the rangers who were already asleep. Mike hurried up and dove
after it under the porch. The station itself is raised about
3 feet off the ground and the under-story of the structure is
completely exposed. Mike is a true adventurer: He grabs the snake
first, identifies later! This little snake was the most brilliant
shade of crimson I had ever seen—except for the small yellow
ring around its neck. It was a juvenile mussurana ( Clelia
clelia ). The mussurana is a notorious predator of the jungle,
feeding on other snakes including bushmasters and fer-de-lance.
Mike pointed out a peculiar fact about these snakes: they never
bite when caught and handled. Perhaps that is fortunate, as the
mussurana is a venomous, rear-fanged colubrid!! They are very
large, beautiful, gentle snakes that turn a charcoal black after
a couple years. In addition they are unique in being both rear-fanged
(mildly venomous) as well as constrictors!!!! Carrie gave us
her mosquito net to put it in so we could take it to Sirena to
show the others. The temperature this evening at Los Patos was
81.1F at 4:30PM and dropped to 78.6F at 7:45PM .
The next morning we
awoke around 6AM and hoped to depart by 7AM . After a couple
cups of coffee and a pack of blueberry pop tarts, we started
out around 6:40AM , a little ahead of schedule. About a half
mile down the trail, Mike bolted ahead and grabbed a small,
brightly colored snake. At first it appeared to be a coral
snake, but I figured he must know what it is or he wouldn't
have grabbed it that quickly. On closer inspection it turned
out to be a “false-coral snake” ( Erythrolamprus mimus or bizona ).
The snake was absolutely gorgeous and was the closest mimic to
coral snake I have ever seen, even more so than any of the tri-colored
milkshakes of the genus Lampropeltis . Mike tucked
the snake into a sock so it could make the journey to Sirena
as well. We continued on for another 11 miles and around 3:30PM
, we entered a clearing---SIRENA at last!!! Along the way, we
crossed the Rio Sirena and Rio Pavo, both mere creeks this time
of year, and descended from the highlands down onto the Corcovado
plain passing an area where the jungle actually becomes more
of a dry forest in sandy soil before again entering tropical
lowland moist forest. We saw many leaf-litter frogs including Rana
warszewitschii and Eleutherodactylus fitzingeri ,
which Mike pointed out, was quite common.
We relaxed on the
veranda for about an hour after dropping our packs in the last
remaining bunkhouse. Kenny immediately began rattling off all
the various species they had seen. Al, Dave and Mike were recovering
after losing a soccer game to “Team
Holland”. Soccer? In 80-degree heat and 90% humidity? What were
they thinking? Just before dinner we took the two snakes down
the trail a short distance to show everyone. We found a sunny
spot that would be good for photographs and opened up the booty.
After a 10-minute photo-session, we released both snakes and
went back for dinner.
After dinner, Mike led a hike down along the beach. Jim, Carrie
and I decided to sit it out and relax on the porch of the Sirena
Biological Station. I heard many stories of Jim's insatiable
After a few hours the group returned. They found a cat-eyed
snake ( Leptodeira septentrionalis ) but while
walking along the beach, encountered a pair of eyes glowing at
them from the woods. They stood perfectly still not knowing what
it could be, and after a few minutes a large mammal strolled
out: a Baird's Tapir ! It paused only inches
from Al's hand and he could feel its breath as it sniffed his
hand. Absolutely amazing!!!
This concluded the end of day 3, and we still had 3 days to
II: Baby crocodiles; feisty peccaries; poison-dart frogs!!
The next morning, we woke and ate breakfast, which was usually
served at 6:30AM . Oddly enough, while sleeping in the tropics,
the sounds of the jungle tend to wake you early in the morning
(invariably it was the resident troops of howler monkeys near
Sirena, who begin their howling at around 4:30AM !). On most
days, though I would wake up between 5 and 5:30AM , there were
usually at least one or two people who had risen earlier and
gone out for an early morning hike. We ate breakfast and afterwards,
assembled on the porch of the Sirena station to go for a hike
down to the beach. Mike suggested we take a stroll along the
Guanacaste Trail, which eventually leads down to the beach near
where the Rio Sirena empties into the Pacific Ocean .
Now, this is important! Along the one side of the Sirena station,
between the kitchen and bunk area, there is step where you go
out to the clothesline and spigot to get drinking water. Each
day, we'd stroll out there several times to fill our water bottles.
This morning, while heading out there, Carrie Chapman looked
down and noticed a very large spiny rat ( Proechymys semispinosa )
lying dead next to the step….EEEwwww! Kenny and I looked at it
and prodded it a few times to see how stiff it was….not very.
We showed it to Al Hicks, because he is a mammal specialist.
We roughed up the fur a little to see the coarse guard hairs
(spines) which give it its name, but also noticed two areas where
the fur was kind of moist like it was slobbered on. Kenny said “I
bet this was killed by a snake of some kind”. I agreed, it looked
very much the perfect size of that a large snake, such as a Terciopelo
( B. asper ) would eat and the distance between the
puncture marks coincided as well. We found it odd that the animal
was about 20 yards from the woods, though it was possible the
snake (if that's what it was) killed it and never trailed it.
As we approached the
end of the Guanacaste trail, Mike motioned for us to stop.
In the forest about 20 yds away stood a herd of white-lipped
peccaries. We sat motionless watching them root up the dirt
on the forest floor when all of a sudden they caught wind of
us. “ CLACK-CLACK----CLACK—CLACK—CLACK-----CLACK”- the
silence erupted like someone had lit a string of cherry bombs!
When startled, peccaries crack their teeth together and the sound
of their molars slamming together makes a popping sound like
exploding firecrackers. Mike whispered to us that white-lipped
peccaries have the reputation of being the dangerous mammal in
the Neotropics, and will not hesitate to attack if threatened!!
So we quietly stood our ground, looking as unmenacingly as we
could make ourselves, and let the herd speed off.
We walked a little further, and no one could avoid the putrid
smell of dead fish. Mike explained that after particularly dry
dry-seasons (which the area had just experienced), the first
heavy rains flush the Rio Sirena with nutrients, accumulated
over the dry months on the forest floor and dried up creeks,
which deoxygenates the water, and that this kills the fish. Thousands
of dead fish of all sizes floated down stream and littered the
river banks. The black vultures were happy! And so was a bloated
crocodile we encountered at the mouth of the river. This animal
appeared to be a large male, approximately 8 feet in length.
As we approached closer, the beast inflated its lungs with air
exposing its back in a display to let us know he wasn't happy
we were around.
As we entered the beach area, Kenny approached a large impressive
spiny-tailed iguana ( Ctenosaur similis ), which was
basking on a log, to get some close-up video footage. After getting
within about 6 feet of it, the lizard shot like a rocket toward
the woods and into a hole. These lizards live in burrows right
on the forest edge where it meets the beach. Down the beach about
15 yards, we found 3 other female ctenosaurs basking on the sand.
These animals, though, were not as nervous and we approached
them within about 5 yards while they grazed on various plant
leaves along the bank.
After Lunch, our plan
was for me to take about half of the group back up the trail
to the Rio Pavo (about 3miles) and hike down the Rio Pavo—supposedly a few hundred yards—to
where it empties into the Rio Sirena. Mike would take the other
half of the group, and they would canoe up the Rio Sirena looking
for crocodiles and meet us at the Rio Pavo. Then the two groups
would switch and reverse the routes meeting back at Sirena
around dinner time.
Our group included
me, Kenny, Gaye, Jim, Carrie, Katie and Dave Edwards and we
headed up the trail towards the Rio Pavo. About ½ hr
into the walk, the skies clouded over and it started to rain.
It hadn't rained at Sirena since we had gotten there, and I hadn't
seen rain since day 1 on the Rio Rincon. The shower didn't last
long, maybe 20 minutes or so, and we didn't get wet as most of
the canopy protected us. We approached a small stream with just
a trickle in it when I looked down and something hopping along
caught me eye. “AURATUS” I shouted. A gorgeous, brightly colored
adult Black and Green Poison Frog ( Dendrobates auratus )
was awakened by the morning showers. It was nice find, and apparently
a rare one for the area - Mike later told us that in seven years
of hiking the trails around Sirena he had never come across any.
Without thinking, we caught it and held it to take pictures,
but then made sure we thoroughly washed our hands off.
We came to the Rio
Pavo and started heading down river…..around
one bend and then the next. We walked several hundred yards,
thinking that the Rio Sirena has to be around the next bend.
We kept slogging through the river because the banks were high
and steep in most places and covered in vegetation everywhere
else. It seemed like forever and we stopped several times to
rest and for Jim to catch up. His shoes were not holding up very
well and it was slowing him down. Finally after at least an hour,
we heard voices, and then thrashing through tall grass, Mike
appeared on the bank. “Mike, it's somewhat further than a couple
hundred yards, more like a mile or so”, but we didn't want to
tell the others that. We were really glad we would be riding
in the canoes on the way back. We asked Mike what they had seen,
and he remarked that only a single caiman was spotted, no crocodiles.
He had hoped to see some along some sandy areas where they nest
as this was hatching season in Costa Rica .
After a half-hour
rest, we loaded up the canoes: Kenny, Gaye, Katie and Dave
in one and Jim, Carrie and I in the other. Not 50 yards down
the trail, I spotted the ventral scales of a snake on a branch
overhanging the river, about 20 feet up. ‘WHOA, there's
a snake up there' I said. It took several minutes to point it
out to Jim and Carrie as the pure white ventrals were tough to
see and the snake was a blue color. We managed to get Kenny to
turn his canoe around and we paddled over to where the tree trunk
and exposed roots clung to the side of the muddy bank. The roots
made somewhat of a natural ladder and I climbed out of the canoe
while Jim and Carrie steadied the vessel. As I tried to climb
up the tree, I realized, a trail of army ants was streaming down
the trunk, and they began to bite me on the arms. As I re-thought
my strategy, Kenny and the others kept an eye on the serpent
trying to force it back in toward me. I finally just bore the
brunt of the ants and was able to go maybe 8 feet up into the
tree. Kenny grabbed one of the over hanging branches and shook
it trying to deter the snake, but as he did, 3 bats flew out
of the foliage and zoomed right across the water landing on the
tree trunk mere inches from Carries head. They clung there for
a few seconds. The snake, meanwhile crawled back toward me, and
I got a somewhat decent look at its blue body noting it was around
5 feet long….have to ID that one later.
I descended out of
the tree and back into the boat. Already we weren't 5 minutes
into the paddle and we found a snake….and
a tough one to spot at that. Too cool! We proceeded down river,
Kenny and Co. moving faster than our boat. We lost sight of them
and we're just going at our own relaxing pace, taking advantage
of the silence, when I noticed a juvenile basilisk ( Basiliscus
basiliscus ) right along the bank on a branch. On the water
surface I saw two little bumps moving toward the lizard and tried
to convince myself that there were moving and I wasn't seeing
an illusion. All of a sudden the bumps started rising out of
the water…..then a couple tiny teeth…..then a snout…..HOLY SHNYKIES
.A HATCHLING CROCODILE!!! “Oh My gosh….Jim stop…..A BABY CROCODILE!!!!
LOOK!!!”…..we stopped the canoe but we drifted too close and
the basilisk jumped into a bush. NUTS! We chased away the crocodiles
meal…it would've been neat to see the croc grab the lizard. I
scanned the shore to the left and Jim pointed out another one
basking on a log to the left….a cute little foot-long baby sprawled
on a log. HOW DID THE OTHER GROUP MISS THEM??? You gotta go slow
and scan everything! I scanned to the right and suddenly could
make out the pattern of little scales against a muddy bank…”Hey
there's anther one….an another…..and another……HOLY CROW….THERE
ARE DOZENS OF THEM!!!”…They were everywhere! We started counting:
Two, Four, Six,….Eight…..Too many to count and they were piled
on top of one another.
“We gotta go get the others and show them!” …..so
we tried to back the canoe out, but we were stuck. We tried
not to splash, and almost started the babies but suddenly the
canoe got loose as the babies appeared to be making a dash
into the river. Don't wanna spook them because we don't know
where Mama is!
We headed down stream
at a fast clip…..hoping to find the others.
They were about 200 yards ahead and we tried yelling to them
about 100 yards away…..of course, they couldn't hear us. Finally
we caught up and told them we gotta go back, we found a gaggle
of crocodiles (not the right term, but—hey, they're close to
birds!). We turned around and headed back upstream. We paddeled
upstream, above the nest, and floated back down into place, allowing
Kenny's canoe to get closer for pictures. Gaye counted the babies
and came up with 28 in number. There were probably more! I scanned
the bank for signs of Mama, but found none. I spotted some turned
up sand behind the tall saw grass on the bank and the sand was
littered with broken egg-shells!!! THESE CROCS WERE MERELY A
FEW DAYS OLD!!! WHOA!!!!!!!!!
We spent about 15 minutes watching the crocs and headed back
down stream. We made it to the river mouth (where the big adult
crocs live) around 4PM and tied up the canoes. The other group
was running longer, and it wasn't much before dinner when they
arrived. Mike was exhilarated to hear of our discovery of a croc
nest since they hadn't seen them on the way up the river. He
did bring back a neat find though, a Golfo Dulce Poison frog
( Phyllobates vittatus ). We had now seen all 3 species
of poison dart frog endemic to the Osa Peninsula !
III: Large fer-de-lances; radio tracking tapirs; and the
night- hike out!
dinner, we decided to lounge around and take it easy. We
had been hiking hard for the past 3 days and we all figured
a relaxing evening would be nice to “recharge our batteries”.
Talking to the two girls at Sirena, who do research on Central
American spider monkeys, revealed that behind their cabin there
was a water well around which was home to several Red-Eyed Tree
Frogs ( Agalychnis callidryas ). This was only 50-75
yards from the lodge, so we figured that would be an easy hike
to do tonight, and wouldn't be too physically demanding. Around
dusk (a little after 7 PM ) a group assembled and was starting
to head back toward the well. We stopped along the forest and
tried to home in on the call of a male red-eye tree frog which
we heard calling from about 6-7 feet off the ground. Mike Adams
found it right away, and it was a really neat site (being the
first one I actually saw). It was much neater seeing a bright
green frog perched on a leaf, with those huge red-eyes glowing
back at you, rather than the dozens of emaciated frogs cooped
up in screen cages at local herp shows.
We were all transfixed
by the frog when suddenly we heard Carrie yell “SNAAAKKKKEEE….Get Matt there's a snake under the porch”.
Carrie had walked out to fill her water bottle and when she was
coming back to the steps she saw the body of a very large snake
crawling right next to the steps!! She immediately called Jim
over and told him there's a snake under the steps. Jim walked
over, thinking it's probably some tropical rat snake and at first
glance, he couldn't really tell with the poor lighting. He bent
down to get a better look and upon seeing the large triangular
spear-shaped head with black eye-stripe, knew right away….”Holy
Cow, It's a fer-de-lance!” Amazingly, this snake had followed
the scent trail of the spiny rat that was laying there earlier
in the day. We were right! It was a snake that had killed the
rat and some 12-18 hours later, was able to follow the scent
trail looking for the rat. It followed it at least 20 yards-the
approximate distance from the forest edge to the steps!
Well, now everyone
was running over to the station! Several of us asked where
it was and I grabbed my hook, a small 24” cage
hook-the only one I took on the trip. At this point, it was chaos.
I jumped over the railing into the courtyard area and lay on
my stomach to get a better view under the bunks. All we could
hear were people yelling “It's over here!”, “It's going that
way”, “and Everyone stay back!”…..you would have expected to
see this snake flying around at Mach 2 with the way everyone
was shouting, but when I finally saw the snake, it was very calmly
coiling up next to a concrete support pedestal under the station
floor. Someone asked “Are you gonna catch it?” to which I replied ‘Well,
not with this hook!”. Mike and I deliberated what to do. We had
no hooks (or catch bags for that matter) and at first I said “it's
probably best to just leave it there” as it was so far under
the bunk area, no one could safely get it out. Mike said if we
do that, the rangers will most certainly kill it for reasons
By now, a large crowd had gathered, including the monkey researchers,
Jen and Sabrina, and Charlie Foerster, who studies the Baird's
Tapir ( Tapirus bairdii ) in Corcovado . Charlie
said he had a butterfly net and a large pole we could use if
we really wanted to capture the snake, but he too though we were
nuts—this coming from a fellow who has survived a puma attack
in 1996 while tracking tapirs! Mike went to ask the head ranger
for permission to capture and relocate the snake, as even though,
they are considered a nuisance, as with all Costa Rican wildlife
within the park, it is illegal to capture it.
Martin, the ranger,
and Mike returned. Mike showed him the snake and explained
what we planned to do. Martin gave us permission, but requested
we take the snake about 1 ½ km away on the
other side of the Rio Sirena away from any hiking trails to release
it. Charlie returned with a butterfly net and a coconut picker—a
7' pole with 2 metal prongs on the end. Right away I figured
it'd be difficult getting the snake out because the pole was
so long, that as soon as I touched the snake, it would move like
quicksilver and I would have no leverage lying on my stomach.
It was exactly what happened. As soon as I touched the snake
it shot down to the other end of the bunk house. I couldn't drag
it out because of all of the concrete supports pedestals supporting
the station. We ran down to other end and found where the snake
coiled. Fortunately with all the headlamps focused under the
bunkhouse, the snake stayed there. By now the ladies who cook
meals at Sirena, had gathered in the foray as well. They kept
yelling “MUCHO LOCO, MUCHO LOCO!”---yeah we were nuts, but this
is what we paid for!
A big terciopelo
We chased the snake
back and forth a few times, and finally, the snake had enough,
it decided to come out from under the building and (apparently)
try to make a dash for the woods. Kenny was yelling “everyone get back and let it come out!” This way once
it came out, I could deal with it in open ground. I ran around
the corner of the building and saw the snakes head emerge….man
this snake was gorgeous! And big, longer than either of my captive
females, but not nearly as heavy—but still very healthy! I stood
back until the snake completely emerged, but didn't approach
too close so I didn't spook her (how exactly do you spook a 6'
terciopelo?). I snuck up from behind her and positioned the net
in front of her head about 12 inches. When I had it in place,
I gently tapped her tail, which usually is enough to make them
explode like a coil spring! As soon as I tapped her, she lunged
like a rocket straight forward into the net and as soon as I
saw her tail disappear, I started twisting the net. I fully expected
her head to come shooting back out of the bag and then I'd have
to pin her with the pole and bag her by hand, but fortunately
I got the net off the ground removing any leverage she had and
got it twisted several times so she couldn't come out. I laid
the net on the ground and put my foot on the twisted section,
and asked Mike to go get my laundry bag. We would slide that
over it the net and “Double-bag” her. I asked Jim for a piece
of parachute cord and first tied the net off, then Mike and I
slid the laundry bag carefully over the net. Using another piece
of para-cord, we tied off the laundry bag. My first Wild-caught
Terciopelo! AWESOME! My heart was pounding, and the adrenalin
was racing through my veins! Why watch Animal Planet, when you
can do it yourself??? Mike was grinning from ear-to-ear! “Man,
I love this!” he said in his Irish accent! “You guys are like
a dream group for me!” So much for hunting red-eyed tree frogs!
I placed the snake and bag next to my bunk and checked it several
times before I went to bed to make sure the knots were secure.
I think I woke twice in the night too, just to make sure she
was still in the bag. The next morning after breakfast, Martin
accompanied a group of us along the beach and across the Rio
Sirena to release the snake. Even though it's a terciopelo, he
wanted to be sure that the snake was released (and we weren't
gonna try to take it home with us) and that it was released far
enough away from Sirena. The hike along the beach took about
2 hours to go release and get back to the Rio Sirena. The snake
was very relaxed when it crawled out of the bag, not stressed
at all and not aggressive like the stereotypical stories you
hear about fer-de-lance (though, there are other times where
they deserve this reputation, but most often they are quite placid
animals). On the way back we stopped at a lagoon that was formed
by what was once the course of the Rio Sirena. The river is constantly
changing course, and this lagoon had a couple small crocodiles
Mike planned to take
the canoes back up the Rio Sirena to give the others who didn't
see the baby crocodiles a chance to see them and get some close-up
pictures. The rest of us took a hike along the Espavales trail,
a short trail, that we thought would be easy, to go see an
enormous Ficus tree. This hike turned out to be one of the
best of the trip. Hiking up the trail, Laura and I were in
the back. Shortly up the trail, the others stopped. Now what?
Gaye turned around and whispered “Peccaries”. Moving
parallel to the trail came a wagon-train of white-lipped peccaries.
Oh Boy! Now what are we gonna do? I immediately started looking
for a tree to climb in, because these “pigs” were only about
10 yards away. I could hear Jim talking pretty loud and I thought…”what's
he doing? If we startle them, they may charge us!” On the other
hand, Jim was thinking “If they know we're here, we won't surprise
them, and they'll turn around and run the other way”---which
eventually worked. In the meantime though, Gaye was obviously
concerned, because she would ask Jim what he thought, then turn
around and in a whisper ask me what I thought, and be the messenger
between two people who really had no idea what was gonna happen,
but yet were trying to make the best out of a delicate situation.
Fortunately, the pigs moved on, and we continued along the trail.
We came upon huge
swarm of army ants spread out across the trail, so I stopped
to observe them making little ant-bridges so the other ants
had a short-cut over small ditches, saving valuable ant-time.
As I stared down at two trails, I noticed how they oddly separated
like a divided highway…that was odd. As I looked
closer, coiled in this tiny island within a sea of ants, lay
a baby female Terciopelo! Wow, and really cute too. I couldn't
leave it there or the army ants may attack and kill it. I found
small stick, and used it to gently pin the snakes head to the
ground so I could get a grip behind the mandibles. Using the
3-finger approach, I pinned the snakes head, grasping it with
my index finger between the supraocular scales and my thumb and
middle-finger behind the mandibles. I picked it up to show everyone
then carried it up the trail about 100yds and release it. Boy,
what a cute little snake.
We stumbled upon a troop of squirrel monkeys making all kinds
of racket in the canopy. We soon realized why: Two white hawks
were perched above the troop and watching the monkeys feeding.
All of a sudden with a flash of white, the canopy erupted with
monkey-chatter and limbs shaking and one of the hawks dropped
down and grabbed a baby squirrel monkey! Monkeys were screaming,
limbs were shaking and the whole forest was alive!!! And as quickly
as it came alive, it was quiet again, almost as if the monkeys
accept that they'll lose a baby every now and then to the winged
predators. Such is the equilibrium of life that still exists
in ecosystems that are undisturbed by people.
After Lunch, we took a hike up the Rio Claro to search for dart
frogs. After the long hike and canoe trip the previous day and
the excitement of the night before, Mike suggested an easy hike
up the river and the chance to take a swim to cool off. Up this
river, Mike has found Dendrobates granuliferous , the
granular poison frog, high up in some stream beds that empty
into the Rio Claro . We figured it would be a nice hike since
we could take a dip in the river on the way back. After slogging
through the river upstream for about a mile, we came to a tiny
stream cascading down a moss covered ravine. Mike located a tiny ‘ granuliferous' calling
from a moss covered cliff. The hike up this little ravine was
very slippery and it was tricky climbing up without slipping
on the wet rocks. After taking pictures and fruitfully scouring
the leaf litter for what we thought was another granuliferous (it
turned out to be a leaf-litter frog…possibly Rana warszewitschii )
we head back to the Rio Claro . We found a nice long pool for
a swim with a rock ledge on the far bank that made a nice under-water
bench. We swam for a half-hour and headed back to the lodge.
We arrived in time to change into dry clothes and shower before
After dinner, we took a short hike along the stream next to
the ranger station to look for spectacled caiman ( Caiman
crocodylus ). The streams are low still, and generally only
the larger pools hold deep water. Each deep pool is home to a
resident large caiman, anywhere from 4 to 6 feet in length.
Next morning (it was
now Sunday, the 27 th ), we took a leisurely hike to the beach
to go swimming. In the afternoon, Mike decided to take a hike
higher up into the hills behind Sirena. Since it had some steep
climbs and we were pretty tired from the past week, several
of us decided to skip this hike. Jim, Carrie and I declined
because we knew we'd need our energy for the 11-mile hike to
Carate that night. Mike asked Charlie if he would take those
of us, who hadn't seen a tapir, out to try to find a tapir.
Charlie agreed and said we could find one only a short distance
away, and it would be an easy walk. We went up the Los Patos
trail only a couple hundred yards and turned onto a ‘research
trail' marked only with plastic ribbons. In the middle of a of
some vines between two small streams we found “Big Mama”, a 600lb
tapir with her 6-month old baby, “Nepal”. They allowed us to
watch them for several minutes and then waded into a stream before
disappearing into the jungle. What a sight! How many people ever
get the chance to observe a wild-tapir from merely 30 feet away?
(For more info on the Baird's Tapir, see the link at the end
of the article).
The others returned from their hike around 5 o'clock , and exclaimed
that they found a large female terciopelo even bigger than the
one we released! This one was coiled in the forest with a litter
of newborn babies! They had only found her because they went
off trail following what sounded like screams of a monkey in
distress: That usually means a jaguar nearby!!
That evening, we lounged around the lodge and prepared our gear
for the next day's departure. The four of us hiking out, prepared
our day packs, as Mike suggested we send our gear on the planes,
to save weight for the hike. We took only enough snacks and water
plus our headlamps and first-aid kit with us on the hike. This
would allow us to cover the 11 miles quicker and we could leave
later getting an extra hour of sleep.
THE HIKE OUT
We woke around midnight
. It didn't take long to pack up and be ready to go. I drank
lots of water the evening before, so I was well hydrated. I
checked the battery in my headlamp and had a spare…Let's go!
We waited for Mike
Adams, as he decided he wanted to hike out for the adventure,
rather than fly out. We started down the airstrip around 1
AM and turned into the forest where the trail to Carate begins.
This trail must be followed at the right time of day, or A)
you will become overcome with heat stress while hiking along
the beach or B) You'll be stuck waiting at certain points where
you cross rocky promontories which can only be crossed at low-tide.
In either case, day or night, you have to wade through two
rivers (the Rio Claro and Rio Madrigal), and the first one
is inhabited by large crocodiles, and on occasions bull sharks!
The bull shark is the only requiem shark which can tolerate both
salt and fresh water, and frequents rivers and estuaries. It
is also the shark responsible for the most attacks on people!
So understandably, we waded across the Rio Claro with some trepidation!
With the red glow of a few crocodile eyes to remind us of their
presence, and ensure an ample infusion of adrenalin in our veins,
we crossed without incident. We lost no hikers, but we lost the
trail on the other side! Recent storms had knocked down trees
and the trail, at 1 in the morning, was impossible to find. Mike
started to slash a trail through the jungle using his machete.
Fortunately, the trail follows the beach most of the way, so
as long as we heard waves crashing, we wouldn't get lost. The
problem was, it was going to take us 6-7 hrs to get to Carate
with no delays, and if we had to bushwhack that could easily
double the time!! Mike hacked his way out to the beach and we
walked the beach a ways until we found the trail again. We stopped
at a point where the beach entered a grove of coconut palms when
Jim noticed he lost his glasses. He was having trouble with an
eye infection, and stepped on a coconut, nearly twisting his
ankle. He knew right away where he lost his spectacles, so he
and Carrie backtracked and after about 20 minutes, returned,
having found the glasses. We now had to navigate a promontory,
called Salsipuedes, which means “pass if you can”. It is a barrier
at high tide, and its black volcanic rocks are sharp and slippery
at low tide!
We navigated it with few difficulties and made our way along
the beach, sometimes, going inland. We stayed close to the surf.
We were lucky that the tide was ebbing as the wet sand near the
is harder and easier to walk on compared to the dry soft sand
further up the beach. At the halfway point we had another rocky
promontory to cross, called La Chancha. This too presented us
with a formidable barrier of sharp rocks, and also poses a problem
at high tide. We were thankfully that Mike had hiked this trail
many times and knew the ropes!
Normally, if you hiked this trail, you'd be asking for trouble
to do it in the daytime because of the exposure to the sun. At
night, though, it's cool and we took full advantage of the ebbing
tide to make good time. The sunrise was truly spectacular. Mike
pointed out a sea-turtle floating out in the surf. We passed
the hull of an old shipwreck shortly before approaching the Rio
Madrigal. We had one more area of wet rocks to cross and after
getting over them, we stopped at a stream that was spring fed,
in case we need to refill our water bottles. Jim wasn't doing
well. For the past several hours, he was running a fever and
had vision problems with his eye-infection. We decided at this
point, that we would all make it to the Rio Madrigal together
(merely another 1km), and then Mike and I would go ahead to the
Pulperia (store) in Carate to wait for the taxi. If Jim, Carrie
and Mike A. didn't make in time, we'd have the taxi wait for
them. It was now 6AM .
Just an hour later,
Mike and I arrived at the Pulperia, covering the last three
and a half miles at a brisk pace – the prospect
of a cold beer hastened this pace towards the end!! Amazingly,
the others were only a half-hour behind us, arriving at 7:30AM
. Jim was feeling better by then, being able to move at his own
pace, rather than the grueling sprint we were setting. In the
meantime, we relaxed, slaking our thirsts with a few more beers
and sodas, compared notes on our many aches and pains, and waited
for the colectivo taxi to arrive.
During the last six days, we had hiked over 35 miles through
steamy jungle, waded across croc and shark infested rivers, and
along deserted beaches. We had bagged a 6' Fer-de-lance, canoed
with crocodiles, and confronted white-lipped peccaries, and survived
un-scathed! It was time for a rest. We all slept on the near
2-hr collectivo ride around the peninsula back to Puerto Jimenez.
We weren't there long when Kenny and Dave Adams strolled into
Carolina 's Restaurant in Puerto Jimenez. We were starved and
chowed down on burgers and Coca-colas, which we were craving!
For more info
on the Bairds Tapir Project, Proyecto Danta , or to adopt
a Tapir, such as ‘Big Mama', you check
out Charlie's website at: http://members.aol.com/crfoerster/index.html