Osa Peninsula, 2017

Just the photos: Osa Peninsula 2017 Gallery

In September 2017, we traveled to Costa Rica to spend a week on the Osa Peninsula, an incredibly diverse remote rainforest region containing at least half of all species living in the country. I had been lucky enough to visit Corcovado National Park before as a teenager, and was excited to revisit with a slightly better trained shutter finger.

The plane to Puerto Jimenez from San Jose is a very small puddle jumper. I failed to inform Matt of this beforehand, with predictably unpleasant results. Unfortunately, there are very few public trash cans in town. We also didn’t realize how far out of town our accommodations actually were, and how few taxis there would be. By this absurd convergence of events, we found ourselves walking a mile and a half from the airport to our hotel along a quiet country road, our luggage slung over our shoulders, and Matt carried his doubled up airsick bag the whole way.

I was extremely excited upon arriving at our hotel, set back a bit into the surrounding jungle, to immediately spot a Spectacled Caiman floating in a pool below the bridge. The problem of where exactly to put the airsick bag immediately fled my mind, and I quite cheerfully (and unhelpfully) left Matt to deal with that particular problem and enjoyed my first photography subject instead.

Our first outing was a night hike into the fringes of the local jungle, which is by far one of best experiences for macro wildlife enthusiasts. Flashlights whipped across the canopy reveal countless glowing pinpoints: the eyes of spiders, frogs, small reptiles, and nocturnal mammals. Most frogs are more active at night. I used a faint flashlight to focus, and a diffuse flash to illuminate them in the darkness. A 100mm macro lens gives adequate distance to not alter their behavior.

Frog species spotted include the classically charismatic red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas), small-headed tree frog (Dendropsophus microcephalus), harlequin tree frog (Dendropsophus ebraccatus), Rosenberg’s gladiator treefrog (Hypsiboas rosenbergi), Savage’s thin-toed frog (Leptodactylus savagei), several robber frogs that I believe were Craugastor fitzingeri or C. crassidigitus, green iguanas, anoles, and some extremely beautiful large spiders that I think were members of the highly venomous genus Phoneutria (but these are frequently misindentified and I am not sure of that ID).

Our second day, we chartered a small boat into Golfo Dulce, in hopes of seeing humpback whales that use the warm, clear waters as a nursery. We were lucky to not see just a mother and calf, but also the female’s entourage of two raucous males displaying for her attention. Also, some brown pelicans and ruddy turnstones. On our way back down the long road back to our rented room, a friendly dog caught the scent of some delightful pan dulce we bought from a bakery in town and followed us almost all the way back.

On our third day in Costa Rica, we made the trip into Corcovado National Park, called “the most biologically intense place on Earth” by National Geographic. Our ride in by boat was jarringly rough, but some of the bruises were forgotten once we made landfall and I was immediately preoccupied with the variety of shorebirds hunting the sandy beaches. Among them were the bare-throated tiger heron, little blue heron, American white ibis, spotted sandpiper, piping plover, and (not a shorebird) countless hermit crabs.

A juvenile Geoffroy’s spider monkey peers down at us through the vegetation.

We stayed two nights in the park, and hiked from Sirena ranger station back to Puerto Jimenez on our last day in the park. The biodiversity is truly astounding. For every target species we didn’t see, it seems we saw two or three unexpected ones, and each sighting challenged me to keep up with my camera in the dark, dark forest.

Red-backed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii) were above and around us nearly every step we hiked. Clever white-faced capuchins (Cebus imitator) harassed the squirrel monkeys and seemingly knew a purpose for every fruit in the forest, breaking into coconuts with ease and using the juice of green citrus fruits as a pesticide. Mantled howlers (Alouatta palliata) often went unseen, but never unheard.

Geoffroy’s spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) were my favorite of the four monkey species. Their long arms and prehensile tails predispose them to amazing feats of athleticism, and they seemed deeply curious about us as we walked through their forest. This teenage male, flush with bravado, hung from his tail above us and challenged Matt to a face-making competition. Unsurprisingly, Matt held his own. The teenager bellowed in frustration and shook some branches at him to let him know he was thoroughly disliked. We often ask each other which animal was our favorite from each day, but we don’t often stop to think which human was the animals’ least favorite of the day.

Other sightings included (but were far from limited to): Common Black Hawks, Great Currasow, some bold White-nosed Coati, Great Kiskadee, plenty of White-lipped Peccary, a single solitary view of a sleeping Baird’s Tapir, the beautifully iridescent Black-throated Trogon, the incredible turkey-like Crested Guan, enterprising leafcutter ants, Scarlet Macaws, a beautiful Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-lored parakeets, and a number of White-lined Bats clinging to the immense buttress roots of some of the huge forest giants.

A northern tamandua, an arboreal anteater, was my favorite non-amphibian sighting of the entire trip. We actually encountered two: the other was already in an advanced state of repose (see above), but we were lucky to spot this one still enroute to a good nap spot, dexterously climbing a tree with the use of its incredible prehensile tail and enormous claws.

An anole (likely the species Anolis osa, which is nearly identical to its close relative Anolis polylepis except in a very specific morphological feature not visible here) displaying its brilliant orange dewlap.

The day after we hiked out of Corcovado, we were back in the rainforest, this time in the Drake Bay area with the hopes of seeing some creatures that are extremely interesting to me: dart frogs. All species of dart frogs endemic to the Osa Peninsula can be found there. We found two, but two of the most interesting.

The endangered Golfodulcean poison frog (Phyllobates vittatus) is found nowhere else, and has a reputation for shyness, often heard but not seen. We found a small group of them that day, including a male, pictured here, with tadpoles on his back. As in many dart frog species, the father is the primary caregiver. As the eggs develop, he visits them periodically, keeping them moist. When they hatch into tadpoles, they climb onto his back and he transports them to suitable pools of water to complete their development.

The other species we spotted is the Green-and-black (Dendrobates auratus), a beautifully brightly colored species. This species is somewhat variable in coloration, ranging from deeper green to teal blue, and is the largest dart frog species in Costa Rica. (An odd bit of trivia: a study on counting ability in dart frogs was performed on this species. The finding was that they can discriminate between small quantities, but show no ability or motivation to discriminate between large quantities. Researchers hypothesize that this is therefore an adaptation for parental care, i.e., keeping track of tadpoles, rather than an adaptation for finding food.)

In the evening, we kayaked out into the mangroves, and got absolutely soaked by an evening downpour.

Our last day was again spent on the water in a small motor boat, where I finally managed to destroy my main camera, a Canon 7D MkII, thanks to a particularly violent wave that swept overboard and soaked into my negligently managed drybag. Seawater and electronics don’t mix: the camera was declared unsalvageable by several technicians after we returned home. Luckily, I was able to finish out the day with my old 60D that had previously only been along for a sightseeing tour.

We spotted another female humpback with her calf, and were treated to an extraordinary up-close experience with some rowdy bottlenose dolphins who enjoyed reminding us of their far superior mastery of the water as they pushed our kayaks around and leapt and splashed around us. Also spotted on that final day: immature Blue-footed Boobies, a Brown Pelican perched in a tree ornamented with bromeliads, Orange-chinned Parakeets, what appears to be a female Variable Seedeater, an urban Red-tailed Squirrel, and a Yellow-headed Caracara.

We returned home to the dubious approval of our dog, Rory, and the soft, opaque haze of wildfire smoke blanketing the region. On a hike up a river valley in the western Cascades, I remarked on how incredibly, strangely quiet our northwestern forests really are. It took me a few weeks to readjust to falling asleep without the constant noise of the rainforest.

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