Costa Rica's Billy Blue Light


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Published: April 17th 2014
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After my first decent night's sleep of the trip so far I wake refreshed and ready to go on an early morning canoe trip around the lagoon and rivers, or canals as they call them here. We meet Bill our octogenarian canoe guide and set off in our 15 seater canoe towards the 'entrance' to the national park where we have to pay to get in. The government uses money collected in this way for the upkeep of all the national parks.

It turns out Bill is a bit of a character and an excellent spotter of wildlife, with information to match. He tells us he was born in 1928 which is the same year my mum was born. There's lots of banter thrown back and forth between the other canoe guys and Bill. He's obviously a bit of a celeb amongst the Tortuguera boating fraternity.

As we reach the other side of the wide, main lagoon we see an Anhinga Cormorant drying off its wings while standing on a log. For a bird that dives under the water to catch fish the cormorant hasn't evolved very usefully. Waterproofing would seem the next logical evolutionary selection trate for this bird.

I will have to check properly all the names of the birds, as a combination of Spanish accents and not always being able to hear very well may have resulted in a few mistakes..

Overhead 'yellow tails' are flying past. 'Yellow tail whats?' I ask. Just Yellow Tails comes back the response. They are carrying twigs in their beaks. This is the nesting season, which I found out from Eric is yum yum time for toucans who steal and eat other birds' eggs. We also see a small black and orange male Seed Eater.

As we glide along the water's edge I notice it is actually a dense floating mat of aquatic plants that undulates with the movement of the water. We spot a pair of beautiful and magestic Tiger Herons on the branch of a tree. One is puffing out its neck making a distinctive call. Overhead flies a Common Black Hawk and more Yellow Tails. We also see a Snowy Egret flying off as we approach.

Amongst the lush jungly trees and vegetation we see the odd spectacular flower, large and flamboyant, its creams and reds standing out against the green background of foliage. This, Bill tells us, is the Atura flower. He points out the numerous fruits of this plant, mango-sized and with kind of husk looking exteriors. He goes on to explain that nothing eats these fruits, not humans, birds, animals or insects hence the reason they appear so abundant.

We see high up in the trees a flash of red and train our binoculars on the beautiful Lattice Tailed Trogon. I'm really pleased my new little camera is able to zoom well enough to get a shot of these beauties high up in the tree canopy. Quite close to him is a much harder to spot bird. When I tell you it is the ALL GREEN Mealy Parrot you'll understand why. Trying to pick out a green bird in green foliage when it isn't moving, just through someone else's description of where it is, is difficult to say the least. 'See that big tree with the darker leaves, look at the tree behind it with the white bark with less dense foliage. Yes? Well follow the trunk up until you get to this main branch going off to the right. It's not that one but the second smaller branch off to the left. That's where it is!'

We head off into a smaller river and this is where being in a canoe starts to pay dividends as we are able to get in between fallen trees and close to the banks. We see another of the pretty Small Blue Herons hiding in the bankside vegetation. He is fast becoming a bit of a favourite of mine. Suddenly we see a River Otter popping its head out of the water and we follow it along the bank trying to get another glimpse. Every so often someone will shout 'There it is!' much to the frustration of everyone else as it disappears under the water again. But we are in luck as it climbs out onto some branches and we manage to get in really close for a better view. Sadly it's at this point that my camera battery dies and I realise I've left my spare, fully charged, in the charger back in my room. What an idiot!

And of course straight away we get a stunning view of a Caiman swimming along the river, coaxed away from the bank it was heading for by a strategically placed canoe. This was quickly followed by a beautiful female Basilisk sunning itself on a branch, a Black Vulture circling the thermals overhead and a Green Heron flying by. Wow what an amazing place. I love it here so much.

James grabs a large, flat, heart-shaped seed pod out of the water where it's floating and Bill tells us it's from a tree they used to cut for plywood. It was also used to make paint used in traditional Costa Rican art. Of course children have a better use for this seed - skimming - and a passable attempt is made by James who's obviously had practice on our Norfolk beaches!

Bill is a mine of information and we make full use of this asking him loads of questions. Someone asks what's the name of a tree we pass and Bill shouts out 'Bloody tree!'. We are beginning to think this is a bit of an impatient answer to a reasonable question when he explains that when cut, the inside of the tree is blood red! And later we see a log floating by that really is dark red in colour. Bloody tree!!

We see a tiny little duck swim by doing neck thrusts as it goes, I think Bill says it's a Sun Scrip, but never got to check this as wildlife spots were coming thick and fast at this point. I was fascinated watching a Northern Jocanna, a delicate little dark russet bird with a yellow bill, making its way over the floating aquatic plants with its long spread out feet, very moor hen like. At the top of a large tree stump leaning towards the water we see a massive male Iguana, motionless apart from his eyes checking what we're up to. He's a magnificent beast with a spiny crest running along part of his head and down his back. He has an elegant, long tail tapering down to a point and has one leg hoiked up resting on a branch. What a cool dude!

We crane our necks up to watch spider monkeys crashing about in the tops of the trees occasionally making, what seem to us, death defying leaps to an accompanying, 'Whooooahh!' from the watching humanoids below.

We hear a bittern-like booming coming from the forest. Perhaps another type of heron. I didn't get a chance to ask as next we see White Faced Capuchin monkeys scrambling around in the branches overhead. I'm beginning to think that 'neck brace' should have been on my list of things to bring!

Wow what an awesome trip and what a great guy Bill is. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to experience this amazing place and have to pinch myself to believe I am really here in Costa Rica. I get my hands on a spare paddle on the way back and give Bill a helping hand. The Norfolk contingent on the right hand side of the boat in perfect paddling sync with each other getting up a good speed. We are surprised to find it is only 9.30am when we get back as it feels like we've been out all day we've seen so much.


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