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Great Birds, and the Perfect Flan

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


So many and varied were the birds at Bosque de Paz that it's hard to believe we were there for only half a day. Everyone wanted to stay in the lodge, enjoying the gardens and the cloud forest all around.

Not to mention the flan, best of the trip. I do love a good flan, swimming in caramel sauce. Mmm. Eggily delicious.

The purple-throated mountaingem female, with a male green-crowned brilliant. 

There was a lot of sparring. A green-crowned brilliant strafes a violet saberwing. These are not small, shy, retiring hummingbirds. They're F-16's.

The saberwing retires to a shrub, glowing like a candle, incandescent violet.

We found the orange-bellied trogon hen deep in the forest by following her soft whoop. Can you see her long eyelashes?

The gallery forest along the trail was beautiful and quite birdy, wreaths of mist swinging in and out of the leaves.

I got a smile out of Mario.

Back at the lodge we gathered and did a little more birding before departing. I was drawn to a black phoebe who was perched in front of a satellite dish. In the US, we try to make them blend in, so they're generally a dull gray color. In Costa Rica, they must be a status symbol, because they're fire-engine red, sprouting from every roof. Hey! We have satellite TV!

I loved this shot, this staunch little bird taking in the world from a jungle of wires and steel.

So enthralled was I with the phoebe and his scarlet backdrop that I nearly missed a male scintillant hummingbird. Mario yelled to me to come right now!!

I hustled over and grabbed a shot.

I believe in dragons and winsome little fairies too, and I know where to find them. Bosque de Paz, in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica.

Strangler Fig and Solitaire

Sunday, April 20, 2014


It's so thrilling to me to walk in a forest with which I'm completely unfamiliar. To know not what birds, animals, insects and plants I'll encounter. To look for the familiar things in an exotic place. In Costa Rica, many of the plants I saw were old friends from horticulture. This dainty little begonia growing in a chink in a strangler fig looks a lot like some of the beefsteak begonias I used to grow. 

Certainly an arum of some kind. Wouldn't want to chew that leaf! Oh, the gorgeous interplay of yellow and green in its veins!

A little phalanx of women fell behind the rest of the group and into the patterns and textures of leaves. We oohed and aahed and shot photos and forgot all about birds and hiking. This is one thing I loved about our group. We were mostly generalists, able to appreciate anything and everything. Well-matched.

A passionflower tendril. Oh, the tensile strength in that coil.

Kim got us all looking up into the rainy sky through a tree fern. That is a fern the size of a tree, growing unchanged since the days of the dinosaur. A wondrous thing. 

But it got better. For Bosque de Paz has a stunning collection of miniature orchids under cultivation in a small grove near the lodge. This photo is life-size. I think its a Masdevallia. 

I thought that, were I the size of a cricket, I could much better appreciate their minuscule yet perfect blossoms. I was enchanted to see familiar orchid bloom shapes, shrunk down beyond belief. Had to turn my binoculars around to see the structure and hazard a guess at the genus. I wondered what pollinates such tiny wonders. Ants? Gnats? 

We came upon a strangler fig, a vine which sprouts from a bird-dropped seed on a limb of the host tree. It sends down aerial roots, and sends out vines in every direction, which meet and fuse and eventually envelop the host tree entirely. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was an honest tree. But it got there by supporting itself on another tree, which has now long died, shaded out, and rotted out from under the strangler fig. Yeesh.

Jim sends his camera in to have a look. I followed, and actually crawled inside the cavity to see if anything was left of the host tree.

Nada. Clean as a whistle it was, not a speck of sawdust or punky wood to say what the host tree had even been. Kind of eerie, looking up the hollow trunk of the strangler, to a point of daylight high high above. It was like being inside the digestive tract of a large plant monster, Jonah in the strangler fig.

We stopped to listen to the haunting song of the black-faced solitaire, a thrush that sings like a rusty gate swinging and squeaking, pure notes sliding up and down the scale, the perfect adagio when punctuated by the patter of rain.

I kept my lens on the bird and was delighted to see it land on a palm inflorescence, gone to fruit. The aril perfectly matched its bill and legs. I don't think that's an accident, somehow.

Here I am, it said, and here is my larder, and here is my song. Listen and see. Stay with me.

Listen to the spine-tingling "rusty swingset" song of the solitaire here. 

Birdy Joy at Bosque de Paz

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It was a cool and overcast day when we arrived at the cloud forest called Bosque de Paz (Peace Forest).  The rustic lodge nestled quietly against a mountainside

 Hummingbird feeders buzzed with activity.
I don't like photographing hummingbirds on plastic feeders, vastly preferring natural perches, but I made an exception for this huge violet saberwing, who took my breath away. This is a hummingbird the size of a junco, a hefty mountain beast who rules the air. Its wings make a low thrum. You know a bird of substance is in the area when you hear that. And when you catch the violet, well, just try to remember to breathe. Many, many more violet saberwings to come. I celebrate the violet saberwing.

A little tip for eco-lodges, Bosque de Paz in particular: Putting up a few low dead snags against a green forest background, or planting shrubs up near the feeders where hummingbirds can perch and stage as they battle for eating rights goes miles toward making photographers happier. Just one shrub or snag can make the difference between a documentary photo like this one, and an aesthetically pleasing composition. Many more of those to follow.

I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the green-crowned brilliant (male shown here). Yes, it is tiny, but is it not a flying, jewel-armored dragon? A myth come to life, sipping sugar water at a faded feeder.

I watched the feeders, and watched the hummingbirds as they dispersed into the vegetation just off the pavilion where the feeders hung. Moved quietly there and sat down for awhile to look. And found this little female green-crowned brilliant at rest.

The male repaired there, too. 

I loved seeing them perching on twigs, in proper, plastic-free context.

This would be why it's called a green-crowned BRILLIANT. These little creatures turn their heads to face you and bang! you're smacked with a psychedelic neon vision. Who knew he sported an acid-green gladiator's helmet? An electric blue bow tie?

Don't miss the little female he's displaying for just below...

Speaking of myths, I was thrilled to see my first 88 butterfly. For decades, I've looked at photos of this bug, wondering if I'd ever be blessed to see it in real life. Glad it happened before I turned 88.

There were some pretty spiffy songbirds in a fruiting tree a little ways off. We set up the scope and my iPhone to capture a distant but still breathtaking golden-browed chlorophonia (a sort of tanagery/finchy affair), who looks like he was assembled by committee. How about a sky-blue collar? Yes, that would be nice!

At the feeders nearby, a white-tipped dove stepped daintily up to some scattered grain.

The brilliant David Sibley describes white-tipped doves as having a "bemused expression." I love finding lyrical gems like that in a field guide. The more, the better, I say.

Hope he kept it in the stunning revision just published. 

A yellow-thighed finch took my breath away with his snazzy pantalones.

And chestnut-capped brush finches were everywhere. What a gorgeous variation on the towhee theme.

My favorite non-hummingbird photo of the day, though, was of a dipper who zipped downstream and paused just long enough to dazzle us before flying on. The composition with that delta of skylit water behind the bird was perfect. Though this is the same species (Cinclus mexicanus) as inhabits the western U.S., it was quite distinct in appearance, being much paler and seemingly more slender. This, however, could have something to do with the fact that it's diving in warm tropical watercourses rather than the freezing cold tumbling trout streams of  Wyoming. No need to keep yourself puffed out to the max here!

and oh, did I love that delicious warmth.
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