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The Riches of Costa Rica


© St. Petersburg Times

Marvelous, I thought, that the ecosystems and elevations of the mountainous cloud forest and sea-level rain forest were so different though, in Costa Rica, just a short plane ride apart.

At Tortuguero, on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Marjorie and I had seen the forest from the water. It was the macro world of mammals, birds and reptiles. At Monteverde, in the inland mountains, I entered the micro world of insects, arachnids and the smallest of amphibians.

My expectations about the tropical forest at night had been set by a night boat trip at Tortuguero. We had shared the small flat-bottomed outboard motor boat with a young couple from New York City and our Caribbean guide, Yogi.

Boats are the principal means of transportation at Tortuguero, where the main canal intersects a maze of creeks and lagoons.

On our journey into the tropical night, Yogi had guided the boat barely 30 feet when he aimed the basketball-size spotlight at the top of a utility pole on the edge of the dock. From atop the pole, a small owl with a black face and alternating white and black bands on its abdomen stared at us.

Then Yogi began darting the light over the water. "Fish-eating bats," he said matter-of-factly, as we began seeing the dark forms cutting through the light beam near the surface.

Yogi gave us our first ecology lesson of the night, pointing out that the black-and-white owl has a fondness for fish-eating bats -- getting its seafood second-hand.

Yogi's spotlight probed the water and the lush forest canopy. Here and there the light picked up the pink-eye relections of crocodiles in the distance. Abruptly, our guide would cut the speed of the motor and ease over to the edge of the forest toward something only his experienced eye had seen.

Sometimes, it would be the huddled form of a bird attempting to sleep. Once it was a gray-neck wood rail, a secretive bird of the forest that is difficult to find in daylight. Another time it was a pygmy kingfisher, the smallest of its family in Costa Rica.

In the daylight, the forest canopy is the domain of the monkeys -- capuchins, howlers and spider monkeys. At night the canopy becomes the domain of kinkajous and olingos.

Our adventure took on the flavor of a Tarzan film when Yogi edged the boat toward two vines. One vine reached from unseen heights down to the water. The second vine also reached down but extended only to about eye level. The end of the vine curved gracefully back up and swayed slowly in the beam of the spotlight.

The triangular head suggested that the vine was actually a member of the viper family, which Yogi confirmed.

At Monteverde the image of the viper was still in my mind as we began a different kind of night trip -- walking the Sendero Bosque Eterno (the Eternal Forest Trail) with flashlights and head lamps.

I was torn between watching the path and watching the foliage at eye level, not knowing where the viper would appear. Our guide, however, was relentlessly attempting to direct our attention to other things. There was, for example, the cicada emerging from a chrysalis hanging from a twig, and a variety of stick creatures -- stick worms, walking sticks of respectable length, and even a stick moth.

Occasionally, in a hole in the bank of the forested ravine, we would see the legs and abdomen of an orange-kneed tarantula. The spiders were a respectable size.

On high ground, we would find ourselves surrounded by the high-pitched notes of "dink" frogs.

At one point, our guide pointed out clusters of small white flowers giving off a strong, pungent almond odor -- another of the numerous ecology lessons. Odorless in the daytime, these flowers give off a strong scent at night to attract bats -- their pollinators.

Once we recognized the odor, we discovered that it carries a long way, providing an easy scent trail for bats to follow.

Capping off this walk was one of the most incredible finds of the night, a katydid that had carried camouflage to the extreme: Although most katydids mimic green leaves, this variety mimics a green leaf with brown decay spots.

We had walked the same trail that most of us had already walked in daylight, yet we had seen an entirely different world. In daylight, our guide explained, these small creatures we encountered remain motionless and hidden by their camouflage, to avoid predators. At night, they pursue their livelihood. C.A. Hundertmark is a freelance writer living in Albuquerque.

Originally published January 26, 1997

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