Birding the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Jim Burns commits to Costa Rica and his friends while birding in the Osa.
WE’RE SIX HOURS out of San Jose; Deva and I are crammed into a small 4×4 driven by an American guide we met six hours and 60 seconds ago, and we don’t speak Spanish although we’re told he does. The little crystals in my inner ear are not happy.
My motion sickness typically rears its head on driving trips any time I’m not in the driver’s seat. Still, there was no way I was going to drive in Costa Rica without Spanish on our first trip outside the US.
But maybe I should have. I passed the first stage of motion sickness [afraid I’m going to be sick] an hour ago when we left Highway 34 and turned off toward the Osa Peninsula. I’m now well into the second stage [afraid I’m going to die], but I’m still hoping to see some of the Osa, described as the world’s most ecologically dense area, before I devolve into stage three [afraid I’m not going to die].
Been there, done that, most recently on a 24-hour pelagic boat trip looking for ocean birds out of Santa Barbara, but most particularly on carnival tilt-a-whirls.
Highway 34, euphemistically wearing that “highway” label, reminds me of the roads in West Virginia — except for the three-dimensional potholes, some a foot deep and extending across both lanes. But we left the highway half an hour ago and we’re now negotiating a one lane road with no apparent number designation. And no apparent pavement.
There are still potholes, but there are also large cobbles and the occasional small boulder, so Stephen — who obviously has driven this road many times (how else to account for our 50mph speed on what in the states would essentially pass for a jeep trail) — is constantly turning the wheel left when the little crystals in my ear want to continue going right, right when they need to go left.
Finally, when I am one more mountain curve from my lunch going north, I ask him to stop. I must have sounded plenty plaintive because he brakes much harder for this than he has for any pothole.
Two Extra Strength Excedrin, a bottle of water, and a slow walk around the car several times seem to calm everything down. Deva tells me I look white. Stephen regales us with the tale of a friend who has seen Harpy Eagles on the Osa. I know what he is thinking. Perhaps watching the rainforest for a glimpse of the world’s most sought after daytime raptor will keep my eyes on the horizon and my lunch in my stomach. We climb back in and I close my eyes and try to sleep.
The Osa is the northern edge of the Harpy’s range. There may be only a handful of pairs in Costa Rica. Dreaming is undoubtedly the only way we’ll see one on this trip.
Around the next curve a gasp from Deva intersects with Stephen’s stomp on the brake pedal. My eyes fly open as I pitch forward against the seat belt. It’s raining.
I’ve felt no deep ruts or high cobbles but, adrenalin surging, I’m expecting to see another vehicle careening toward us head on as its driver and Stephen, both trying to avoid a 4×4 eating washout in the now mud slicked “road,” both zig when one of them should have zagged.
No. No, just a Tamandua — Tamandua mexicana, or Collared Anteater, to be precise — crossing in front of us. I know this is no dream because of the sharp pain where my cheek bone smacked against the dashboard. This is Costa Rica! This is the Osa!
The only anteater I’ve ever seen is the one in the comic strip B.C. Deva is screaming for me to grab the camera. Stephen is giving me his shit-eating “I told you so” grin. The anteater is now browsing through the waist-high grasses along the shoulder of the road, paying us no mind, presumably looking for ants.
Funny how you see an exotic animal for the first time in the wild, and a slight twinge of disappointment precedes the elation of discovery, most likely because you’ve seen it so many times in your mind’s eye that it doesn’t quite seem new. This is a beautiful animal, rich, buffy body with a black saddle and the long snout of your imagination.
You’re glad you’re not an ant, and you want to run to it and give it a big hug. It does, after all, look fluffy and furry. Then Stephen reminds us about the sharp claws for digging and Tammy (sure, we all anthropomorphize without apology, and we’ll give wild animals human names) disappears into the jungle, not spooked, not really interested in us too much at all.
Around the next bend we top a rise and the Golfo Dulce opens up below us, Corcovado National Park, legendary and tropical green This is the Osa! We stop for pictures, distance and early afternoon haze be damned. Turkey Vultures soar in the distance. Wait! What? One of them white! It’s a King Vulture, a life bird! I ask Stephen how long we would have to stand in this spot to see a Harpy Eagle. He asks me how old I am. I conclude it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime.
We drop around the head of the gulf and make a pit stop at the bus stop called Rincon. The jungle, the humidity, the dearth of traffic — we could be on a different planet until we see a small stuffed animal a child has forgotten on the bench where Stephen tells us a bus actually stops on schedule. A Roadside Hawk watches from a roadside tree, another life bird. The Roadside is the size and shape of our Red-tailed Hawk.
It reaches the northern end of its range in Mexico with irregular vagrancy into south Texas where we have looked for it many times to no avail. The fun is often in the common names. Where else would you see a Roadside Hawk, or most of our other hawks, except beside a road, but who knows the inner workings of the professional ornithologists who assign labels. We recognize it immediately by the rufous tones in its plumage and its light iris, field marks which distinguish it from our familiar Red-tails.
The only way out of Rincon is a rickety, one-lane suspension bridge over the Rio Rincon. Though metal, not wood, it reminds me of the bridge in Sorcerer, the 1977 thriller by William Friedkin which should be required viewing for anyone going to the rainforest for the first time. The bridge sways, creeks, rattles.
I glance at Deva. Her eyes are closed, her knuckles white.
Probably noisier than wood. Stephen points out the actual tree where the Harpy Eagle was allegedly seen. I figure, for a Harpy sighting, I could stop worrying about the bridge. Stephen, sensing our dis-ease, takes the second half faster. I glance at Deva. Her eyes are closed, her knuckles white.
Our destination on the Osa is Bosque del Rio Tigre, an ecolodge built by hand from local materials by owners Liz Jones, an American, and her husband Abraham Gallo, a Costa Rican who goes by Abram. Their lodge, unlike many Costa Rican tourist destinations, actually deserves the “eco” prefix because they are heavily involved in conservation education on the Osa.
It all sounds well and good until Stephen mentions it is “comfortably nestled” on the opposite bank of the Rio Tigre, a sometimes raging mountain outflow that requires a small boat ride if the river is too high to ford in his vehicle.
As he relates this, I’m watching his face. This time he breaks into that now familiar grin before I remind him about my stomach and boats. It’s been drier on the Osa this year, so he thinks we’ll be fine. The jeep trace we’re on parallels Rio Tigre for the last quarter mile to the lodge. Rio Tigre doesn’t look too fine to me, though I guess “raging” is all relative.
As Stephen drops the 4×4 down onto the gravel bar and water swirls up around the tires, he recounts past difficulties feeling just where the drop offs and holes in the boulder strewn river bed are, unseen, of course, because of the fine gravel powder which turns the water a milky white, reminiscent of glacial rivers in our Pacific Northwest.
The crossing is over in about two hair raising but uneventful minutes, and we are greeted on dry land and shown around the grounds by Liz and Abram. The lodge is two stories; four corner rooms above, with mosquito net-covered beds, open to the forest; an open air kitchen and dining are room below; there are shared bathrooms and an out building with showers.
Although we are feeling the humidity in the mid-afternoon heat, it’s somehow reassuring to hear that the showers are hot. The lodge runs on generators, electricity available only a few hours a day, and it has tankless gas water heaters. The Bosque Rio Tigre is green like the rain forest which comes right to the doorstep.
We will leave Bosque Rio Tigre with 25 life birds, most of them spectacular and right outside the dining room — the endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, Scarlet Macaw, Fiery-billed Aracari, Orange-collared Manakin, and Blue-throated Goldentail — but the biggest surprise is the gourmet dinners presented by Abram, world class chef, chief naturalist, master carpenter — a true Renaissance Tico. Bosque Rio Tigre should appear next to “roughing it in luxury” in the Book of Phrases.
The lights go out before I head to the showers. Stephen has recommended a flashlight to avoid stepping on a Fer de Lance. He says if we step on a Fer de Lance it will negatively impact the remainder of our trip. Really Stephen, you think? Venomous, deadly. We saw a caged one near San Jose that was six feet long and thicker than my ankle. I take a flashlight.
As I finish my shower I hear someone fumbling with the door. We are the only guests here tonight, though a family of Americans is expected tomorrow. It could be Stephen, it could be a curious Howler Monkey, it could be…I make an educated guess and throw open the door. It is Deva, wondering how a warm shower feels in the humidity of a rain forest and speculating on whether we’d be the first to make love in this shower. I answer these questions in sequence — jump in, it’s about to feel a lot better and, probably not.
When we leave two days later, the river ford seems trivial — shallower, quicker, and much less daunting. Funny how that works. We lurch up out of the water and begin to parallel the Rio Tigre on the jeep trail. We see a raptor ahead on the gravel bar. As it flushes we see the dark helmet and the pointed falcon wings and recognize it as a Peregrine. Common enough now in the States after its successful and ongoing recovery from the DDT thing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it seems exotic here in Costa Rica until we remember it is a world wide species expected, especially in winter, as much in the tropics as on the tundra.
Peregrine means “wanderer” and it seems only fitting that we should encounter one in this far flung (for us) location. We have missed some much sought-after birds here on the Osa — White-tipped Sicklebill, the coquettes, the cotingas, the Harpy Eagle — but birders always just smile and say it gives a reason to return.
We seldom return to places we’ve been to because there are so many places we haven’t, but another trip down the Osa to Bosque Rio Tigre is bound to happen. All I need is Deva, Stephen, and a bottle of Excedrin. And learning Spanish is my New Year’s resolution.