Jungle All the Way

By Nan Robertson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 18, 2001

Until I went to Costa Rica, I thought the resplendent quetzal was a myth. Then I saw this blue-green and scarlet marvel with my own eyes, magnified seven times in my binoculars. I learned that only Aztec and Mayan nobles were allowed to cloak themselves in its plumage -- and that Costa Rica now is one of the few spots on Earth where this magical bird can be seen.

Having an adventure does not require gasping for breath atop a high mountain or playing footsie with sharks under the sea. No, it can be sighting a turquoise-browed motmot perched on a hibiscus branch. Or the mysterious quetzal in a Costa Rican cloud forest, rippling its two-foot-long tail feathers on an avocado tree.

The Audubon Naturalist Society's trip for birders, two weeks long, was at times hard for me. I am 74, and so high altitudes, jungle heat and steep climbs pose some problems. We traveled 500 miles by bus and lots additionally on foot. But I wanted adventure -- not too rugged, mind -- and I wouldn't have missed the trip for anything.

Costa Rica is roughly the size of West Virginia, yet it contains more species of birds than the United States and Canada combined. The birds, 850 kinds, come in the most improbable colors and shapes. One-fourth of this Central American nation is protected wildlife preserves; the habitats range from steamy tropical forests to upland moors. It looks like the Garden of Eden -- and like the Biblical one, deadly snakes lurk within.

Costa Rica is gorgeous, and so are its birds. But it is no sanitized Jungle World theme park. It is nature real and nature in the raw, where there are eaters and the eaten. Howler monkeys wake you at 4 a.m. with grunts and roars like far-off lions. Squawking scarlet macaws zoom over your hotel. Caimans, cousins of the crocodile, glare at you, only two orbs visible above the dark waters of Caribbean coastal rivers. Ten percent of the world's bats also live here. Spiny-tailed iguanas lumber everywhere, looking like little dinosaurs. There are flowers that reek like carrion to lure flies, and blood-red frogs the size of a man's thumbnail whose toxins tipped Indians' arrows. I expected wolf spiders as big as dinner plates and tarantulas going for my jugular, but all that materialized out of my fevered imagination was one dead tarantula on a mountain trail. Instead we saw vipers.

Eleven of us nature enthusiasts met in San Jose, Costa Rica's capital. All but two, a couple from Indiana, came from the Washington area. We bonded promptly. We were led for two weeks into the wild by Stephanie Mason, our sunny-natured den mother and a senior naturalist at the ANS in Chevy Chase, and Carlos "Charlie" Gomez, a biologist who seems born with the hearing of a barn owl and built-in binoculars for eyes. Dark, handsome and powerful, he has worked for Costa Rica Expeditions out of San Jose for 16 years and speaks fluent accented English.

Charlie is Costa Rica's most legendary nature guide. Even the Spanish-speaking locals know him as Charlie. "When my wife calls me Carlos," he confided, "I know I'm in trouble."

At the wheel of our little white Toyota bus was Marco Antonio "Nino" Morales, an imp with brown ringlets cascading over his head. A rosary swayed at his windshield. We traversed Costa Rica up, down and across, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, from sea level to 11,000 feet, through dry forest, rain forest, cloud forest, marshes, Alpine meadows and beaches. By the time it was over, one of our intrepid band said the "ANS" should stand for "Audubon: Not for Sissies."

The trip was not for slackers or the pampered rich, either. Our digs, mostly ranches or lodges, were modest. We often rose just before dawn. As we finished three or more treks 12 hours later, abrupt tropical night came down like a sword. Costa Rica lies only 10 degrees above the equator, and so there are equal hours of light and dark, with almost no dusk.

About those deadly snakes. Late one afternoon in the jungle's gloom, as we were heading out of the Carara preserve near the Pacific, we stumbled upon a fer-de-lance viper coiled at the side of the trail. It was waiting for something warm to pass by. It is the most feared and dangerous venomous snake in Central America, much more likely to bite than other vipers. The group recoiled. A forest ranger was summoned, who hurled the fer-de-lance off the path with a long stick. It was our first adventure.

The tireless Charlie led off each day, festooned like a war correspondent with his field paraphernalia. He bore a powerful telescope with tripod over his shoulder; a tape recorder on his waist that emitted gurgles, chirps and caws to attract specific birds; a flashlight and water bottle; lotion to repel the fierce sun; and a first-aid kit. We exotically garbed birders sported head gear (from wavy-brimmed safari hats to baseball caps), many-pocketed vests, fanny packs and binoculars slung from our necks like badges of honor.

In 13 days we saw and listed 266 kinds of birds, some many times. The names were enthralling: motmots, black-crowned antshrikes and limpkins, roseate spoonbills, the double-striped thick-knee, whimbrels, the mealy parrot and the bright-rumped attila, the plain xenops. We watched as a tityra gobbled a huge katydid, the bug's legs waving until the last gulp. We learned that the laughing falcon decapitates its snake victim with a scissors-like beak before making a meal of it.

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