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November 9, 2012


Spectacled Owl wood carving by Elena Ay Grupo, Osa Peninsula

Our first trip to Costa Rica in 1999 was with 15 Jupiter High School Environmental Research and Field Studies students. From our Lonely Planet Guide, we had learned that: “Costa Rica is famous for its enlightened approach to conservation.” The field guide, The Birds of Costa Rica, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean says, “Graced with bounteous natural beauty, a stable democratic government, and friendly, peace-loving citizens, Costa Rica has become a popular destination for travelers from all over the world. . . . The shimmering quetzals, gaudy macaws, and comical toucans . . . only begin to hint at the impressive avian diversity found throughout this small country.” (It’s about the size of half of Florida.)

We were headed to the Osa Peninsula – in the southwest part of the country on the Pacific Ocean, about 200 miles from San Jose – with  3,000  species of plants, 8,000 species of insects and 1/2 of the 850 species of birds in Costa Rica. We were looking forward to actually being in the rainforest and seeing some great birds! After a day-long bus ride, we arrived at the Fundacion Neotropica’s “Tropical Youth Center”, unpacked, settled into our cabins alongside an immense rain forest, and enjoyed our first of many delicious,  mostly native-type meals – chicken, beans and rice, salad, and squash. The temperature was in the high 80’s with 100% humidity, so we were all pretty sweaty, and the cold showers before bedtime were a relief. Since we all had come from the tropics of South Florida, we felt very much within our comfort zone – even without air conditioning. The most any of us had to adjust to was not being anywhere near a drug store, a gas station, a mall, or a restaurant. We were in one of my favorite places – the middle of nowhere.

Our first day in the rainforest was unforgettable! Right “out our back door”, the nearby jungle of plants was lush with countless shades of green – huge tall trees, vines, bromeliads, heliconias, orchids, with insect, bird, and mammal noises everywhere. On a bird walk before breakfast, we found 20 kinds of birds, with new ones including Thick-billed Seed-finch, Common Tody Flycatcher, Riverside Wren, Turquoise Cotinga, Buff-throated Saltator, and a Striped Cuckoo.

After breakfast, we all walked down through the gardens of our lodge to the dirt road that passed in front, leading to the left or to the right. Straight ahead were extensive grassy fields with forest in the background. To the left the road went past a few small houses, the ubiquitous soccer field, and the village of Agua Buena. Our guides took us to the right, crossing a small stream, passing a few small houses and ending at a trail that would lead up into the looming rainforest. We were on La Catarata Trail and accompanied by large, iridescent silvery Blue Morpho butterflies. These sky-blue beauties are about 5 to 6 inches across and have a slow, floppy way of flying – meandering their way down the roads and trails. I will always associate them with the rainforest.

We split into two groups, each with a guide, one group taking a side trail, and we would meet at La Catarata – the waterfall. There were many things blooming – reds, yellows, oranges (those were the heliconias), lavender leaves on ground vines, airplants and orchids high in the trees, a visual overload. My idea of heaven is to sit down in such a place, and just stay there for a few days. It would take at least that long to take everything in. And still, you’d never see it all.

We wandered slowly up the trail, meandering like the Blue Morphos, crossing numerous streams, one of which I ungracefully stumbled into. Fortunately, I fall in slow motion and am usually unhurt. It’s just impossible to watch where you’re going, especially on an uneven forest trail, when you’re watching everything else around you – and when everything else around you is so magnificently alluring – tall tropical trees hanging with vines, bromeliads, huge tree ferns. A leaf falling turns into a giant Blue Morpho, a leaf falling turns into a small gnatcatcher – and there are tiny noises on all sides seductively taking your eyes off the trail and back into the darkness of the forest. How could I watch where I was walking? Maybe a guide dog would help – if I were strapped to it. Now I know why some people like to wander around on horseback.

We saw many birds and even identified some of them, such as Lesser Greenlet, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Long-tailed Hermit, White Hawk, Bright-rumped Atilla, Lineated Woodpecker, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Orange-chinned Parakeet. It was hot and humid, and steamy, sweaty bodies stuck uncomfortably to clammy clothes. The students worked on assignments designed to teach them more about the rainforest ecosystem, and  we watched armies of ants carry off sticks and dead bugs, making numerous trails across the forest floor. Tall, buttressed trees reached high out of sight among the lush foliage, with many thin vines hanging down from the tree tops.

The trail started climbing up to the waterfall and began to get narrower – steep and rocky – I had to pay very close attention to where I was going.  The trail followed along the stream up higher and higher in the forest, and by the time we arrived at the cataract we found several students from the other group already cooling off in the pool at the bottom of the misty cataract. A Purple Fairy hummingbird magically played around the edges of the falling water and in the mist rising from the pool. Everyone got drenched in the waterfall and the pool, and the cool water felt wonderful. What an idyllic scene!

The other group reported having seen a family of Spectacled Owls on their way up via the side trail! Our guide, Aider, assured us that we could return by that side trail on the way back, and would probably get to see them. We hoped he was right. They would be a new bird for us – and owls are always hard to find. After everyone cooled off, we headed back down the narrow trail to return to the lodge. As if we weren’t wet enough, it began to rain – softly at first, but eventually pouring down in buckets. We all were wet anyway, so it really didn’t matter – it felt cool and refreshing, regardless of clammy clothes. But trying to keep notebooks, papers, cameras, and binoculars dry was something else! Thank goodness for zip-lock bags in our backpacks. Also, we began to steam! And those of us wearing glasses couldn’t see! Those wet trails could be hazardous, and I finally took my glasses off and could see the trail better.

We got to the side trail that would hopefully lead to the Spectacled Owls. Even though it was pouring down rain, we were hopeful. Aider, our guide, was very interested in improving his skills of bird identification, so we stayed close together. We were going to learn from each other! We discovered that he (as they say) “was one with the forest”, a native Costa Rican, and could hear birds and animals where you would swear there were none.

It was still pouring rain, and we crossed another stream, and arrived at the place where the owl had been seen. We could hardly see anything for the rain. It seemed hopeless. Suddenly, Aider said, “There they are!” as one of the owls flew across the trail behind us! They flew again, and we saw where an other one had landed. I had to take off my glasses again, then look through the binoculars, and there staring at me through the rainy rainforest was one of the most beautiful birds I’d ever seen. They are a good-sized owl, about 19 inches tall. The face was dark, but there were white feathers like spectacles around the eyes. The chest and belly were a soft buffy color. The young, which the other students had seen, are snowy white with a black mask on the face. We were so pleased. Wet, hot, sticky, but happy. With a new owl to show for our efforts. Smiling in the rain.



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  1. George Rogers permalink

    Enjoyed the adventure vicariously, except fo rthe sweathy steamy bodies, Ann. Hey. what’s the overall range of the Spectacled Owl? Do the yrange out into the Caribbean Islands?

  2. Hi, George. The World Checklist of Birds (Monroe & Sibley) shows the broad range of Spectacled Owl to be “Middle America”, which they define as Mid-latitudes of the Americas. Clements Checklist of Birds of the World (the “bible”) goes into more detail – several sub-species ranging from south Mexico to west Panama, Costa Rica and Panama to Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, Venezuela, the Guianas, Brazil, Bolivia, Trinidad, Argentina.
    I also have a birdbook of Trinidad and Tobago, and it shows the owl there, but uncommon.
    My field guide to Mexico (and adjacent areas) shows it as rare in Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador.
    This is probably much more info than you wanted. Have you seen it in the Caribbean?

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