Chapter 7B. Costa Rica - Part B
(Shari) In the early light of dawn, San Jose traffic is already becoming congested. Group 1 leaves at 5:30 AM in an attempt to beat the rush hour through the busy city. The road log is good and within an hour we are outside the city and climbing the big mountain. We climb for 39 mi. to a peak of 11,050 feet. Our thermometer reads 42º at 8 AM. Stopping at a restaurant on the top, we all change clothes putting on long pants, socks and jackets. Bert tells me that we will be here for at least 5 hr. I join a few for breakfast before retiring to R-Pup-Tent for a 2 hr. nap. Others bird, of course. When we were here in November of 2006, we stayed at the little cottage on the hill. We forgot to return the keys and as I hand them back, I say in my faulting Spanish “En Novembre de dos cero cero ses, Yo aqui y olvido dar a su llaves.” (In November of two zero zero six, I here and I forget to give your keys). I am rewarded with a big smile, a warm handshake and a “Gracias, mucho gracias”.
After lunch we plunge 30 mi. back down the mountain to San Isidro, parking the group at the gas station in front of the hotel while we make sure we have the correct entrance road and have the gate opened for us to the soccer field. Later, Bert gives a talk on ant swarms, has a bird count and I treat the group to the coffee liquor milk drink we enjoyed on our tour yesterday. Then we join Dorothy, Ralph, Arlene, and Bob for dinner at the hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel has a group playing loud music and R-Pup-Tent resonates to the bass when we return. I fall asleep in spite of the noise, yet am awakened many times, wondering when the music will stop. This is only Thursday night. I wonder what the weekend will bring.
(Bert) Our RV’s are on the move again, this time to the south of Costa Rica and passing over the highest part of the Trans American Highway. The highest point our GPS measures is 10,600 ft. and we stop at 10,200 ft. to bird. Temperatures are measuring in the mid 40s as we drove uphill and now at 8:15 AM it has risen to 56º.
I don’t stay long at the feeders hanging outside the windows of the restaurant, just long enough to notice Green Violet-ear, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird and Volcano Hummingbird. The place I want to visit is a downhill trail through the forest that I noticed when we stayed here in November 2006. I’m surprised at how tall the trees are at this elevation and, in fact, birds in the canopy are hard to see. Much easier are the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes which seem to be everywhere . Like tame lawn robins, a few nightingale-thrushes hop along the trail ahead of us. A thrill to see at first, they later become a distraction from other birds. Joanie finds an Ochraceous Wren hiding in the understory, a drab but prettily singing wren. Quite the contrast is the Flame-throated Warbler high in the canopy. Joyce and I are the first to see its throat, a remarkably bright red that inspires its name.
Next we find a woodcreeper like bird with a much redder rufous back than we otherwise find. We soon recognize it as a Streak-breasted Treehunter and a little later we find a smaller version called Ruddy Treerunner.
While we aren’t finding a lot of birds at this high altitude, almost everyone is a life bird. Several times we’ve seen a yellowish bird we could not identify. So now we look through our checklist of possibilities and find each in the field guide. When we come upon the Yellow-winged Vireo we recognize the mystery bird. Fortunately we see one again to verify our identification. For Clay and Joyce this is their 300th life bird on this trip. They have lead the group in this category; although they have birded throughout the U.S. and part of Canada, they have not been south of the border before.
A bird we have seen several times before but one Judy has not gotten a good look at is the big skulking ground-feeding Large-footed Finch. She particularly wants to see its big feet. I hear one scratching in the leaf litter and point her toward the spot. We circle a fallen log and get a good look at it feeding around the edges. Later in the flower garden at the restaurant I photograph several that are as close as 6 ft. from me. They have found the garbage dump and are pecking through the fruits and vegetables. Another is carrying a dry grass stem, apparently nesting material. In the flowering hedges a Slaty Flowerpiercer feeds. We even get a quick view of its hooked bill.
Shari calls me on the personal radio, suggesting it is time to go. We’ve been at this rest stop almost five hours and still have the downhill highway to drive. Like the uphill it is slow going, owing to the overladen semitrailers that travel at 10 mph and the perpetual curves that make passing nearly impossible. Warmth returns when we reach the bottom of the mountain at San Isidro and park in a soccer field behind a fancy hotel.
(Bert) Birding today is in the Pacific lowlands within view of the Pacific Ocean. We anticipate a warm day and therefore get an early morning start, but even now as we stand in direct sunlight we can feel the high humidity. Nonetheless, we are all intent on watching the Red-crowned Woodpecker that Nelda was the first to point out. Were I in Texas I could easily mistake this bird for a Red-bellied Woodpecker. When we pass along a boardwalk through a marsh we hear a White-throated Crake calling, but do not attempt to seek it out. Later when I review my records I notice that it is a life bird and I wish I had spent more time on it.
A black-hawk flies over us and we are excited because it must be a Mangrove Black-Hawk that appears to us to be identical to the Common Black-Hawk we often see. When we stop near a farmhouse we see its nest in a tall tree. We spend several hours in this yard, as a constant procession of hummingbirds, tanagers, euphonias and others seek out the flowering blooms.
A short walk to the Pacific, the wide sandy beach extends to the horizon in both directions and the blue waters churn white as the waves tumble and roll in to the beach. In the calmer waters beyond the breakers we watch Brown Pelicans and Brown Boobies fishing and see Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring high above. In spite of the heat and humidity the air is cool as it whisks through the palm trees and the scene is inviting enough to wish we could sit here for hours. However, new birds await us so we go again to the farmhouse yard and in the adjacent tall grasses we find Yellow-bellied Seedeaters and Smooth-billed Anis. Walking back toward the restaurant for lunch we encounter a family of capuchins and watch them comically clamber through the trees. I hear Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and record its song just before it flies away. In the U.S. we know many birds with the preface “Northern” and I often wonder if there is a “Southern” equivalent. Here is one.
While eating lunch at the open-air restaurant, Joanie keeps one eye on the sky and suddenly exclaims “Costa Rican Swift” which gets all of us to rush out of the restaurant to get a better look at the open sky. On an afternoon hike, a real treat is seeing an Olivaceous Piculet with just its head sticking out of a tiny hole in a wooden fence post. The petite woodpecker is only 3-1/2 in. long, a real oddity. I take lots of photos before it gets nervous about our close position and escapes its nest hole. When it flies it is no bigger than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
After leaving the wildlife refuge Hugo stops the bus along the Barú River and he joins us as we spend a few minutes birding along the river and finding shorebirds and egrets. The best is a Whimbrel and Mark makes sure Hugo knows what he is watching through his loaned binoculars. When we return to the bus I see Hugo looking up the bird in the book we got for him and notice that he now has an inserted piece of paper where he is writing down the birds he has seen and the corresponding page number in the book. A birder with a life list!
(Shari) It doesn’t seem as hard to get up at 4:30 anymore. I just adjust the time I go to bed to 8 PM. It does not help, however, to hear loud music again last night. The bass just carries for blocks and blocks. I stuff toilet paper in my ears and that helps a bit. We board the bus and head straight to the Savegre Valley climbing to 11,000 ft. and then plunging down a narrow curving road to 7500 ft. Even though Joanie almost falls out the window trying to bird, we keep pushing to our destination barely even stopping when Ralph sees a quetzal. Arriving at 8 we tell the group to stick close to the bus until we can determine the schedule. Bert gets upset when he finds out our guides will not be able to take us out until 2 PM. It is okay, though. The desk manager suggests we walk about quarter-mile down the road and we will see quetzals among other birds. This is one bird I want to see too, so I go along with the birders. They walk too slowly for my tastes, so Ralph and I continue onward at a faster pace. However, we do not see anything and return to the group. Finally a quetzal is spotted and then another. I get my fill and return to the lodge to read my book in front of the hummingbird feeders until the group returns for lunch.
Lunch is served buffet style and is fantastic with selections of many salads, main dishes and a dessert bar to die for. I think we all eat too much and intend to rest in our wonderful rooms until the next scheduled outing at 2 PM. I for one enjoy the big shower with plenty of hot water. This is my kind of place. I feel pampered, I am cool in the clean crisp mountain air, and I just love the beautiful manicured surroundings. Joining Nelda, Gilford, Arlene and Bob in the lounge I sip a beer while we discuss just what hummingbird we are seeing. I think we agreed that it is a Volcano Hummingbird but the low light of dusk makes the markings difficult to see. Later we enjoy another wonderful dinner. I learn that Dorothy only expected to get 9-10 new birds and she has already gotten 40. After dinner everyone has a different idea on what they want to do tomorrow and what time they want to start. Bert is pestered with questions and there is no consensus among the group. Finally he gets frustrated and says he is not telling any one what tomorrow’s schedule is until breakfast at 6:30. Sometimes this group is like dogs not used to working as a team on the Iditarod. Some pull this way and others that. Some tire easier than others. Some don’t like to walk much. Some want to get just one bird while others are happy with just looking at birds. Some want to start later than others and/or end sooner. Some have no patience to wait until schedules are determined. I myself make my own decisions and decide just when I want to go and when I do not. I am happy. It is so cold by the time we get back to our room that I need to put the little space heater on full blast. It runs all night.
(Bert) “I got a life bird in the ladies’ restroom”, Clay exclaims as he reenters the bus at La Georgina. I wonder, “What was Clay doing in the ladies’ restroom?” Through the windows he and others saw a Sooty Robin, one of many others I notice later from the bus windows as we descend from 10,500 ft. to 7300 ft. along a tortuous single-lane gravel road in what often feels like a vertical drop of hairpin turns. I notice other new birds - Flame-colored Tanager and Yellow-bellied Siskins – during the descent and this morning promises to be another good one for birding. When we stop at Savegre Hotel de Montana we are barely out of the bus when Mark aligns his scope on a flock of Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers at the top of towering trees on the hillside.
We leave our things on the bus and start birding along the road and then follow the rushing mountain stream. Birds are plentiful and easily viewed. Judy reports seeing four Resplendant Quetzals in flight and when we reach her spot we see one female sedately perched in a tree. Mark motions me toward a photo-op and I take close-ups of a Yellowish Flycatcher. Tame behavior, long perching periods at eye level, and overall appearance mark this as a close relative of the more familiar Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but it differs in its much yellower feathering and exaggerated tear-drop eye ring.
The Black-thighed Grosbeak is striking. Why call it black-thighed when its most obvious feature is its bright beach-ball yellow coloring? I guess because Yellow Grosbeak had already been named. What a gorgeous bird!
We find a Black Guan feeding in a palm tree and Dorothy remarks that this is her 40th life bird on the trip, quite remarkable since her expectation was only 6-8 since she has often birded the Central American tropics. In an opening in the forest everyone wants to take a photograph of a lizard. I wonder why until I also see the Green Spiny Lizard. The blue, green and yellow rainbow of tiled scales makes this the most colorful I’ve ever seen, made all the more beautiful because it clings vertically to a tree stump in bright sunlight.
After an enormous buffet lunch for which my eyes were much bigger than my stomach, I take a nap before our 2 PM meeting with two birding guides. Seven of us join Marino, others stay near the lodge and the rest join a second guide. I give Marino a list of 23 local species that are on our wish list. He surveys the list, makes an “Oh, my” comment and suggests we target the high elevation birds tomorrow morning and go after the others this afternoon. He hands the list to Mark who takes it to the other guide. Unbeknownst to me, the other guide decides to go after the high elevation birds now.
Marino knows where to look for three of the birds and on the way we stop to watch a Slaty Flowerpiercer feeding on nectar. A nectar thief, the Flowerpiercer cheats by using its hooked bill to pierce the base of the corolla and extracting the nectar, much to the frustration of the flower - anthropomorphically speaking – since the bird steals the bait but does not transfer the pollen. Tom tells me that earlier he recorded the actions of the flowerpiercer on video. We take a short hike into the forest. Marino hears a Spotted Barbtail and thus begins an hour’s chase in a big dense forest for a small bird that does not wish to be seen. Marino is intent on getting us to see the bird. In spite of his age – Marino came here with his father Efrain and uncle on a hunting party at the age of 20 in the 1950s and they were the first to discover this incredibly beautiful valley – he clambers up the steep slope, through the brambles, and hopes to push the 6-in. bird in our direction. We get a quick look at the dark bird in flight and we often hear its toy-like chirping but only Kay and Lee get a good look at the spotted bird.
We have quick success with finding a Spangle-cheeked Tanager feeding on Melastroma trees and then begin the search for Dark Pewee in the same area. Marino points out the call to us and we hear two of them, but using a recording and even climbing up a steep horse trail, we don’t see the bird. We continue the search in another area and Marino hears one again. This time he sees the bird high in the tree and I quickly take a series of flash photos. He aligns his scope on the perched bird and I try some digiscoped photos but the tree branches and leaves are swaying too much and I can’t keep the bird in the lens. I turn back to my long lens camera and review the pictures I’ve already taken and am quite surprised when I notice that the last one is a perfect view of the bird in flight with spread wings, a once-in-a-lifetime chance photo.
As darkness closes in we get good views of Collared Redstart and Black-cheeked Warbler before it gets too dark for photography. Arriving back at the hotel just before dinner, I’m surprised the other group hasn’t yet returned. I head to our room, take a shower and return 45 min. later to find the second group has just arrived. It seems they did not have a good birding experience as the hiking was strenuous – especially for Judy who prefers birding from a three-legged stool – the birds were few and difficult to see and they hiked back down the mountain in the dark, now looking exhausted and ready for a shower and bed. One wish list of birds, two guides, two strategies: one for success, one for disappointment. Hopefully we will work out a better strategy for tomorrow.
(Bert) Marino’s Land Rover is built like a tank and has no trouble carrying eight of us up the steep mountain road. We park at a curve widening and continue uphill on foot. Above us tower grand oak trees with shaggy dry bark. Marino tells us that his father used the dry bark to start campfires even when everything else was wet from rain. This was when his father and uncle spent five years living in a cave while they carved farmland out of the virgin forest. One side of the valley still is planted in fruit trees owned by the families that settled here in the 1950s.
Marino hears one of our target birds and repeats its call. Coming in high above us in the canopy are a few unimaginably beautiful Golden-browed Chlorophonias. The book describes them as bright green and intense yellow, hardly an overstatement. We hear a pygmy-owl and get excited since this must be the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, an uncommon species endemic to a narrow high-elevation range of Costa Rica and northern Panama. I record the even call notes that come out in hesitant pulses and as I do so I also pick up the scratchy calls of a Spotted Barbtail and the melodic songs of the Gray-breasted Wood-Wren. The barbtail comes tantalizingly close but remains just out of view. Next, Marino hears a Buffy Tuftedcheek and he tells us to look at the bromeliads that grow in the canopy because the tuftedcheek is a specialist on feeding around these plants. Soon we see one poking in and around the bromeliads, just as he said.
Relating a recent story about a small dog scaring up a Highland Tinamou and then his finding a calling tinamou nearby a few days later, Marino leads us to the spot much farther uphill. He positions us in precise standing spots along the trail and places me in the spot from which he wants me to play the tinamou recording. I play the recording in intervals, pausing to hear for a response. We listen also for the rustling noise of the large bird as it shuffles through the dry leaves on the forest floor. We hear a bird calling and it sounds somewhat like the recording, but Marino tells us it is an Emerald Toucanet. Alone, Marino hikes farther up trail to check out a quetzal nesting hole for activity. Meanwhile, I try the recording a few more times. I switch to the vocalizations of Emerald Toucanet and try four different recordings until I come to one that sounds like the tinamou. To our delight the Emerald Toucanet flies in above us in good viewing position. Marino returns excitedly, telling us he just spotted the Highland Tinamou on the trail ahead. We quickly hike to the spot and again position ourselves along the trail and I play the recording. This time we hear dry leaves crackling and being overturned. Unfortunately, the noises come from a Large-footed Finch instead. We hike to the quetzal nesting hole, now vacant, and I try the recording a few more times. This time the leaf crackling and scratching seems closer and more pronounced. Alas, it is two more Large-footed Finches that have deceived us. No Highland Tinamou shows itself to us today.
On the way downhill we hear a quetzal and I look up to see one perched above me. Just then the male Resplendent Quetzal takes flight and we watch it wing through the forest with its long tail streaming behind. I ask Marino how many are in the Savegre Valley and he tells me 80 pair, a remarkably large number.
I am at the end of the single-file line when Marino turns off on a side trail and he is soon out of my sight with birders in quick succession. I know it is time to return to the Land Rover as the others will soon be waiting for us at the lodge. I have mentioned this to Marino many times, so I am surprised he is not returning to the car. I think I hear someone say that they only are going a short distance and will return so I suggest that Nelda and Gilford wait here. I am distracted by a dull green flycatcher with a white spot behind its eye. I don’t recall seeing this bird before, am not carrying a book and the group has left me. Later I find out it was an Olive-striped Flycatcher. By the time I catch up with the group far downhill on the steep trail, they are intently searching for a Wrenthrush, a.k.a., Zeledonia. Birds seem to be everywhere now, including many we have already seen, plus new ones like Green-fronted Lancebill and Spotted Wood-Quail. I again remind Marino and the group that we need to return, but Marino is intent at getting us a better look at the wood-quail and is now romping through the forest chasing the flock. I say it time to go and begin hiking back, followed quickly by John and Lee and then the others. What I don’t know is that this loop trail is very long and it seems to take forever before we reach the road the Land Rover drove, but meeting at a point below its parking spot. By the time we return to the lodge we are an hour past our designated departure time and I am met with a lot of upset people. We rush to get our things together and the luggage secured atop the bus and head uphill out of Savegre Valley. Our planned stop at a lady’s restaurant where she feeds birds is a no-show as the avocado trees are not fruiting and she is not putting out additional fruits. While disappointing, this change puts us back on schedule and our next stop is La Georgina, atop Cerro de la Muerte.
After lunch we visit the top of the mountain where a series of radio towers stand tall in the montane zone above the treeline: the subalpine paramo. Our elevation is well above 10,000 feet, our GPS display not registering more than four digits, and we walk in intense sunlight through a dry brushlands of bamboo and unusual grasses and shrubs. The still aridness, warm temperatures and low profile gives me the feeling of birding in a desert. At first I see and hear nothing. As I walk along narrower paths, more closed in by the vegetation, I find Volcano Hummingbird, Black-capped Flycatcher, Black-cheeked Warbler and Volcano Junco with Judy and then later with Lee I find Timberline Wren. The wren remains hidden most of the time, but stays in the same area long enough for many others to get a glimpse of it. This place is special and, hopefully, we can come back to it another day when we have more time. Now we need to get back to San Isidro.
(Shari) Everyone has gone by the time I get down to breakfast at 8 AM. I enjoy the pretty day slowly eating, drinking coffee and later relaxing on a lawn chair reading and watching birds when they pass by. The day started cold and I needed my sweatshirt but it is warming quickly. I take pictures of hummingbirds at the feeders before reading some more. I notice it is way past time for the groups to be back and learn that one of the two groups is still out. They are over an hour late and I ask the manager to call the guide on his cell phone. He is just about to do it when Bert comes rushing out of a car. Seems the guide got overly enthused with birding and lost track of time even though he was told repeatedly of our schedule. We get our luggage, pile into the bus and drive up the hill for lunch an hour later. More birding above the treeline before we get home by 5 PM.
(Bert) While this trip has been full of wonderful experiences, today’s has been one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (if I had enemies, that is).
At 1:55 PM I switch on my left turn signal. We have successfully navigated the up-mountain and down-mountain highway over Cerro de la Muerte (the Mountain of the Dead) and negotiated the congested streets of Cartago and the busy expressways of San Jose. Shari is heaving a sigh of relief and I have only to turn into the RV park and we are home for the day.
In the left lane on a two-lane one-way street, left turn signal on, slowed to a near stop, I make the turn with half the RV now into the driveway and the back half still on the street. We hear a loud thug and Shari excitedly asks, “Did you hit a post?” I am sure I did not and I look out my door window and see a motorcycle lying on the ground, its front tire under the RV near the generator and the driver complaining loudly because his left leg is pinned between the motorcycle and the concrete entrance pavement. Shari jumps out immediately and I exit more slowly so as not to step on the motorcycle. When I see gasoline dribbling out of the motorcycle’s tank I reach into R-Pup-Tent to turn off its engine.
Immediately, 15-20 people gather at the scene since they were very close next door while at a busy tire and repair shop. Several bystanders and I partially lift the left side of my RV and others pull the driver from under the motorcycle. The driver is able to move his leg and while he is lying on the pavement he uses his cell phone to call the owner of the motorcycle, who arrives at the scene promptly. Although the driver seems in pain and hit his head on the pavement, he wore a helmet and tough clothing and so minimized personal injury. He also had enough experience or luck to have tipped the motorcycle into a slide to avoid a broadside head-first collision with the side of the RV.
Obviously shaken, but otherwise alright, I am relieved that many witnesses to the accident saw the scenario the same way I did, i.e., the driver was driving far in excess of the 40 kph (25 mph) speed limit, must not have seen my turn indicator and tried to pass me on the left between the left lane and the sidewalk.
An ambulance arrives and takes the motorcycle driver away on a stretcher. A police car arrives, looks at my Costa Rica insurance policy (issued at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border) and makes a telephone call. That police car leaves when a traffic police car arrives.
(Shari) I give a sigh of relief that we make it through congested San Jose but the sigh is premature. Thump! It is 1:55 PM and Bert is making the left turn into the campground when I hear the thump and ask “What did you hit?” He does not know and looks out the window saying “There is a motorcycle.” I rush out to find the motorcycle wedged under R-Pup-Tent and the leg of a young man under the motorcycle. The man is speaking a mile a minute in Spanish to the gathering crowd. I am relieved that he is speaking. Many men lift R-Pup-Tent so they can pull the man out to free his leg. I smell gas and notice the motorcycle is spilling it on the ground. I immediately tell Bert to shut off the engine. I ask if anyone speaks English and no one does. Finally Lester, Wagonmaster for Panama 1, arrives and translates for me. I ask if anyone called an ambulance and yes they had. The man is talking so maybe he is not hurt too bad. The police arrive and I give them our liability insurance policy.
(Bert) While we are waiting for the ambulance, the police and the Costa Rica insurance adjuster to arrive, I take many photos of the scene, showing the street from both directions, the position of the vehicles, the minor damage to the RV (two broken brackets, a bent exhaust pipe for the generator and a broken brace for the running board), the injured motorcycle driver, the complete lack of skid marks for the motorcycle and the speed limit painted repeatedly on the street pavement (40 KPH).
Damage to the motorcycle might be minimal, although hidden damage is hard for me to judge. At the least, the damage includes a bent front fender, a flat front tire, possible damage to the spokes of the front tire, broken plastic trim above or near the tire, a scratched leg shield.
The traffic police arrives, writes down vehicle information, draws a diagram of the street and the position of the vehicles and uses a tape measure to record distances which he adds to his drawing. He does not give me a copy of the drawings. He asks me to sign a form with the heading “Boleta de Citacion”. The form gives vehicle and location information. Under the heading “Observaciones” is written “collision conel M-1184S7” although the carbon copy is very faint and it may say something different than the way I spelled it. In spite of the name of the form I am assured by English-speaking observers that this is not a ticket for a violation, simply an information form.
The officer confiscates the RV’s rear license plate, leaving the front license plate intact. He explains that the plate could be returned in 8 days. Since our intentions are to lead the RV caravan to the Costa Rica border at Nicaragua 6 days from now, i.e., the morning of Sunday, March 9, and cross the border in the morning of Monday, March 10, the 8-day return is a problem. Juan, the son of the Juan who owns the trailer park, helps in discussing the problem with the police officer, since Juan is fluent in Spanish and English. The officer agrees to expedite the issue and said we will get the plate back in 5 days if the issue is resolved.
(Shari) I am advised that we need to get a lawyer but the first thing I need to do is call the office. Using Nancy’s Skype, I reach Tina and she patches me to a man at Medex who takes all the information and also says to get a local lawyer. The police are happy with our story of the event, the insurance company is happy with our story of the event, but the owner of the motorcycle (who was not the driver but who the driver called on his cell phone while waiting for the ambulance) does not believe our story. The driver has a different story. Hours later with much translation going on, the owner agrees to get an estimate of the damages. Apparently most accidents in Central American countries are resolved with money. We do not want to admit fault when we are not guilty but it seems the custom here involves payments to make the problem go away or wait for weeks while it goes through the courts. I still want a lawyer but now it is 5 PM and offices are closed. We will have to wait until tomorrow to further this story.
(Bert) I do not believe I was at fault in any way. I was obeying all traffic laws, including speed limit, indicator signals, and proper turning lane. As I reconstruct the sequence of events and look at the physical evidence, i.e., the position of the vehicles and the lack of tire marks, I surmise that the motorcycle was driving at an excessive speed, far in excess of the 40 kph speed limit, and was attempting to pass my RV on the left side between the RV and the street curb. It seems unlikely that he observed my left hand turn signal. It also seems likely that the right lane was blocked with traffic (a second RV was following me and was in the process of parking on the right hand shoulder of the one-way street). It seems possible that the driver even accelerated in his attempt to get past me.
The Costa Rica insurance adjuster arrives. After a quick survey of the situation, a very lengthy conversation in Spanish ensues between Ronald, Juan, the traffic policeman, Lester (the Wagonmaster for the Panama caravan), and the owner of the motorcycle. Not knowing fluent Spanish myself, I can only report what I heard in English later from Juan and Lester. As I understand it, neither the motorcycle driver nor the motorcycle owner is taking responsibility for causing the accident, the Costa Rican national insurance agent (for the liability insurance I bought at the border) says his company will not pay for any damages to the motorcycle or my RV, the owner of the motorcycle wants me to pay for damages to the motorcycle, whether or not I am responsible. Responsibility can be assigned (by the police, a court or I know not what) and it seems quite likely that the motorcycle driver will be held responsible, in which case I owe nothing to the motorcycle owner. However, to reach a resolution on responsibility in the courts will likely take one to two years at best and certainly much longer than the time I intend to stay in Costa Rica.
The current plan is that the motorcycle owner will take the damaged motorcycle to a repair shop and will call Juan with the estimate for repair. As I was typing this I received word that Juan got the phone call and the estimate is US$400-500. What do I do next?
(Shari) Meanwhile this bad day gets worse. We hear that our Tailgunner has broken down and needs a tow truck. The word is that it involves his transmission. Later I ask Bert if he is alright. He says he is okay. I wonder what “Okay” means in manspeak. Okay that it will all work out. Or, okay that I don’t want to worry you any more than you already are. Or, okay that I really am not okay. I am afraid to ask, so fold up within myself. The group is wonderful: offering me drinks, a bed to lie on, money and just about anything they can think of to ease the stress. Unfortunately, that is a tall order right now. Clay takes over parking the rest of the rigs. Others give hugs and offer support. Later Lee asks if my heart has calmed down. I tell him that a heart does not beat fast when it is depressed. I just want to crawl into a hole until the whole thing disappears and goes away.
(Bert) Today is a free day. I wish it were a “Get-out-of-jail-free day” because I now have to start the process of trying to figure out how to get out of the country in a few days when I don’t have a license plate and a Costa Rican court technically can order me to stay in the country. I begin a long series of e-mails to the manager of our home office in Texas and to the Central American insurance representative in New York. Shari installs Skype on her computer and we use it to make telephone calls to Guatemala and Panama to try to find a Costa Rican contact. That follows with e-mails to Panama and then e-mails in Costa Rica to an agent assigned the case. Attachments accompany e-mails, including passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, insurance policies, accident report forms and photographs.
A gloomy dark cloud of indecision and hesitation hangs in the air as insurance agents gather information but offer no advice. I remind everyone that I am leading a trip and am scheduled to go to Monteverde tomorrow. I am the only one who knows the details of the next two days of transportation, locations, birding, guides, meals and scheduling. Shari knows some of it, such as the hotel accommodations, but has not participated in the dozens of e-mails I exchanged for the other arrangements. Late in the day, Juan asks a friend of his (also named Juan, I’ll call them Juan #2 and Juan #3 since I dealt with Juan #1 yesterday) to come. The two Juans, one in English and one in Spanish, explain how things work – or don’t work – in Costa Rica. At this point it is immaterial who is responsible for the accident. If both parties are Costa Rica residents and neither accepts responsibility, then nothing happens for one to two years, at best, until a court determines responsibility. If one of the parties – in this case, me – is a visitor, the visitor may not leave the country until a settlement is reached. This strikes me as Napoleonic law, i.e., I am guilty until proven innocent. The two Juans advise me to pay off the motorcycle owner so that he will sign a statement releasing any claims against me. It is now past 5 PM and I’ve received no advice from the various insurance agents (New York, Texas, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica) that we’ve contacted. In early evening, Juan #2 calls the Costa Rica adjuster on her personal cell phone. She agrees with Juan’s assessment and says I should make the payoff, but it is unclear if the insurance company will reimburse me. If the insurance only pays liability if I am guilty, then they may not owe anything if I am innocent. Juan #2 calls Juan #3 and they work out the details of a plan. Around 8 PM, I turn over a bunch of documents and $550 in U.S. cash to Juan #2 who will give it to Juan #3 and work on a settlement, as well as contact an attorney to draw up the settlement contract. Mentally fatigued, I take a shower and pack my bags for tomorrow’s trip. I sleep poorly.
(Shari) After a fitful night with differing scenarios of getting out of Costa Rica legally or illegally, I decide to purchase Skype. Skype is an Internet-based telephone service and with a WI-FI connection I can make calls all over the world pretty cheaply. I purchase $10 worth of time and am using the service within 15 min. I call the office in Texas and they advise me to call the insurance company in Pharr, Texas. I call Pharr and then tell me to call Philadelphia. I call Philadelphia and they say call Panama. I call Panama and they say call an adjuster in Costa Rica. We call the adjuster in Costa Rica but by now she is out to lunch. The owner of the motorcycle is holding to his guns and wants the full $500 payment to release Bert from any possible liability. We are told this could take months or even years. No one seems to know if either of our two insurance policies covers this type of thing. Possibly, if we admit fault (hard to do when you are innocent) the insurance would have to take over. Meanwhile we wait for the local adjuster’s advice. In early evening Juan calls her and tells us to settle. By now it is too late to do so today and tomorrow we leave on a 3-day 2-night side trip. When we return it will be late Friday afternoon after the courts are closed and our free day is Saturday when courts are also closed. The only option is to give money to Juan, the owner of the RV park, so he can give it to his friend so he can give it to a lawyer who will draw up the papers. Bert will have to take an early bus back to San José on Friday to get there by 11 AM to wait in line for a court appearance to retrieve our license plate. What a mess! Thankfully the young man on the motorcycle only was taken to a clinic and later released with minor bruises and abrasions. Right now Bert is getting the minor damage to our RV fixed next door and I am sharing a bottle of wine with Pat, Bob and Arleen. Bert does not want to eat dinner, so I join a group for Chinese, taking half my meal home in a box.
(Shari) Even at 5:45 AM, exiting the RV park is treacherous. Cars and motorcycles just whiz past. I notice, Hugo making the sign of the cross as he exits. I think that is a good idea. We ride for about 2 hr. and end up at a shrimp farm to bird. I get out of the bus for awhile and look at a Whimbrel, a hawk with orange legs and banded tail and a bar on his wings before I get too hot and bored. I join seven others on the air-conditioned bus to read until the rest of the group returns. We stop for lunch at a great place that serves milkshakes among other things. We could have just ordered milk, as the road to Monteverde does the shake part for us. The scenery is fantastic but I hear a big unified sigh of relief when we hit the smooth payment of Santa Elena. When the group sees their accommodations, they are impressed. John says it looks like the Taj Mahal with its multistoried two-sided glass rooms and manicured hillside lawns complete with stone statues and a working fountain. Everyone is outside their rooms within minutes, looking through binoculars and picking up more life birds. Bert arranges the schedule for the next two days before we take the bus a few miles back for pizza. About ten birders join a guide for a night walk, while the rest of us retiring to our wonderful rooms to watch TV or read or immediately fall asleep. This room is about three times the size of R-Pup-Tent and has a TV with English CNN and FOX news. The news has not changed much since January but I watch it anyway hearing Warren Buffet is now richest man in the world, Hillary won Texas but still trails Obama in delegates and President Bush endorses John McCain. I think I am caught up now for the next two months. I fall asleep before Bert even comes back from his night walk.
(Bert) Hugo drives west of San Jose on the Central American Highway and after passing the turnoff for Puntarenas we continue until a small sign suggests a narrow dirt road in the direction of Golfo de Nicoya, an inlet from the Pacific Ocean, at the village of Chomes. I’d read about birding in this area, but it was Randall and Julio that suggested the shrimp farm and Hugo that called for permission to enter. After the attendant opens the locked gate he sprays insecticide on the underside of the bus carriage. Shari surprises us when she calls the first bird – a Whimbrel – and is correct. She only pretends not to be a birder, I think. It seems so long since we have studied shorebirds that lots of opinions are expressed before we converge on agreement that we are watching Semipalmated Plover, Least, Western and Spotted sandpipers and Greater Yellowlegs. A hawk flies overhead and our minds dwell on Mangrove Black-Hawk, but when we see a Crane Hawk shortly thereafter we think we may have misidentified the first sighting. Fortunately I took a series of photos and when I review them on the camera the white arcs on the underside of the black wings are obvious and we can even see the red legs, perfect evidence for Crane Hawk. Zone-tailed Hawk is another nice addition to the list. The best birds come when we walk along the dike bordering a mangrove swamp. Joanie spots a bird she thinks is Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, a fairly uncommon bird local to this small area at the edge of the Gulf of Nicoya. Many of us see glimpses of the bird as it bounces through the dense mass of interleaving mangrove branches. We continue around the edges of the swamp and Lee and I get separated from the others. We find Mangrove Warbler and an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and then get a quick look at a different flycatcher, longer and slimmer than other Myiarchus and very plain gray from head to tail on its back side: a Panama Flycatcher. It has flown by the time the others catch up with us.
On the Trans American Highway again, we stop for an excellent lunch at Monteverde Restaurant, featuring Monteverde cheese, and then head up the tortuous mountain road to Monteverde for the next hour and a half, usually climbing between 8-10 mph. We pass through Santa Elena and stop at our first-class lodge with a downhill view toward the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Nicoya visible as a bright sliver of reflected light as the sun lowers in the west. After settling into our rooms and birding around the spacious hotel grounds for Mountain Elaenia, White-naped Brush-Finch and White-eared Ground-Sparrow, we go out for pizza at a local restaurant and return just in time to drive to Monteverde for a guided night walk.
Our target bird is Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, but our guide, Ricardo, tells us that he has not heard the owl yet this season, although it is just starting its breeding season now. A Black Guan trying to get some rest in a tree overhanging the parking lot seems unsettled by all the commotion of us and others getting out of the bus and talking. Quietly, we start walking a narrow path with tall trees on both sides, using flashlights to explore the nearly pitch black forest. Ricardo points out a hummingbird nest and we can only see the black bill and white feathers of the tail end of the roosting bird, but it is enough to identify as a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. He finds a fluff of feathers wedged in between leaves and twigs and we have not idea what it is or even if it is alive. Ricardo knows from visiting this roost in better light that it is a sleeping Common Bush-Tanager. Then we hear an owl and Ricardo tells us it is the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl. We hear it a few more times and either it silently changes locations or a second one calls. We search with flashlights but do not see the owl. Other creatures of the night are revealed during our walk: a wolf spider, spittle bugs with baseball-sized globular nests for protection, tiny Rain Frogs, a leaf-shaped insect that is a dead ringer for a leaf and twig even showing veins and damaged holes and frayed edges, an incredible mimic. We finish our 2-hr. walk at the hummingbird feeders and back against a wall, pointing dim flashlights at three feeders and wait in the dark. Within a minute the bat show begins. Dozens of nectar-eating bats swarm in front of us, making flapping passes at the feeders. It looks like they are only playing around the feeders, yet Ricardo tells us they have long tongues and quickly extract sugar water from the feeders as they fly by.
(Bert) After eating a huge breakfast from a 30-ft. buffet line, we board the bus for the short distance to the Monteverde entrance. Exiting the bus is fast, as a five Resplendent Quetzals are parading in the low tree branches above the parking lot and a small crowd of onlookers has binoculars up and cameras clicking. While we have seen quetzals on a number of occasions this trip, this is the first time they have been close enough for excellent photos. I doubt there is a more grandiose bird in Central America than the quetzal and even non-birders thrill to the sight of one.
The group divides into those that want an easier hike with Maria and those that will take a more difficult hike at twice the distance with Ricardo. Joining Ricardo’s group, we start on Sendero Bosque Nubosco, which runs along the Pacific side of the Continental Divide and later will return on Sendero Camino, running along the Caribbean side. We aren’t long on the trail when I hear a car alarm coming from the direction of the parking lot. I hear it again a bit later and this time it is closer. Ricardo surprises us when he says it is the call of the Prong-billed Barbet. In fact, if we listen closely we can hear it is a duet between two birds. The guy that invented the car alarm sound must have had these in his backyard.
We reach a narrow ridge on the Continental Divide where the two trails meet. A sign marks the altitude as 1550 m. (4700 ft.) and reminds us that the Continental Divide runs from Canada to Argentina. To our right is an observation platform with a view toward the Pacific, which would be visible if not blocked by clouds. A few paces on the opposite side take us to a lookout point to the Caribbean. Only a tumultuous series of forested mountains are visible and an uplifting breeze makes this side feel cooler. On a clearer day from this point we could see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Back on the forest trail we stop for an Orange-bellied Trogon and then come upon an ant swarm crossing the wide trail ahead of us. We stop and wait to see what happens. Several Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes jump from the bushes into the path and quickly exit again, repeating the dance many times. Here’s a bird that could use a better name, for its most striking features are its bright orange bill and legs and its white iris surrounded by a thin orange ring. Even in subdued lighting these marks glow against a black bird in a dark forest. Azure-hooded Jays join the scene, noisy and quick. The most elusive bird is one Ricardo hears and soon we recognize the call of the Immaculate Antbird also. It flies across the path and all I notice is its dark body. Others catch it in their binoculars and see the light blue orbital skin at its eye, a key to identifying antbirds and this one especially. It makes the birds look like they are wearing white swimming goggles.
I head to the hummingbird feeders and take dozens of photos of the action. Most interesting and new to me is the Magenta-throated Woodstar, by far the smallest attendant at the feeders. Not recognizing what it is, I photograph it from the tail end which is lifted high in flight as it laps sugar water. Another birder, a beginner I ascertain by his frequent misidentifications, asks me which hummingbird it is. Focusing through my camera lens I notice white patches on each side of the raised tail, at the rump, and thinking the white extends across the rump I say it looks like a coquette, and knowing the only expected coquette here is Black-crested Coquette I suggest the same. A few hours later, when the rest of our group arrives at the feeders, he is studying his field guide and telling them he saw a White-crested Coquette. They look at him in puzzlement since the White-crested should not be within a couple hundred miles of here and at much lower elevation. Meanwhile, I’ve had side views of the small hummer and now know it is the Woodstar. Nonetheless, I am sure he adds White-crested Coquette to his life list along with the erroneous Green Shrike-Vireo he thought he saw earlier (it must have been a Golden-browed Chlorophonia). I guess I was that way too 40 years ago until I had seen birds enough times to cross out earlier misidentifications from my lists.
In the afternoon we hike Sendero Tosi to the waterfalls. We have been hearing Black-faced Solitaires all day, but they have always remained out of sight. Now we see a pair chasing each other like two teenagers in love for the first time. Looking a lot like Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes, although lacking the white eyes, they cavort playfully from branch to branch, moving too quickly for me to get photos.
The last find of the day is a Gray-throated Leaftosser doing – you guessed it! – leaf tossing. At El Copal I recorded the leaftosser’s song, but could not get a photo in the dark forest and the birds always are surrounded by a tangle of vines and branches making auto focusing most difficult. Even though the leaftosser is only 10 ft. away, I am unsuccessful using my long-lens camera with flash and only capture blurred soup. I switch to my small Sony with the 3-in. view screen and extend my arm into the tangle, taking a dozen blind photos. Remarkably, when I look at the photos later I can see the dark bird with white flashbulb eyes.
(Shari) Pat and I eat a leisurely breakfast in the dining room. I am surprised at the breakfast buffet, complete with made to-order omelets. We sit at a table near the long window and watch as birds and squirrels eat food at the feeder. After breakfast I check e-mail, read, sit outside, walk the grounds, do some embroidery while sitting outside and just plain enjoy my day. The group comes back and we head to the dining room for dinner by candlelight in front of a burning fire. I have filet mignon that is done just right and is extremely tender. I think I could get spoiled here.
(Shari) “I love you”, I tell Bert as he walks out the door to catch his van back to San Jose. I hear, “I love you too” before he closes the door and his footsteps retreat into the darkness. I can’t sleep anymore so I get up and shower in the early morning darkness. I have a bit of diarrhea and my skin has broken out. I feel queasy more from nerves than anything else. Pat and I eat an earlier breakfast than yesterday and we both return to our rooms. She is coming down with a cold and does not want to overdo it. I pack my belongings, pay our group bill and finish reading my book. At 11:45 the group comes back from birding and we gather our luggage, load the bus and drive to Santa Elena for lunch. I am not very hungry but think a bowl of chicken soup may settle my stomach. It seems to help. The bumpy road down the mountain is more tedious than it was coming up. The 90 min. it takes to go 25 km feels like all day. On every turn I look to see if I see pavement yet, but I do not. Finally we make it though and all clap and sigh relief. One stop for a potty break and then we have the tedious slow traffic up the mountain to the central valley. That too takes forever and we only traverse 60 mi. in 2-1/2 hr.
We finally pull into the park. I have some administrative things to do with our driver but wish Bert would come out to greet us. It is 6 PM and where is Bert? I give a little speech in Spanish with Kay’s help, telling our driver Hugo how much we appreciated him. He lifted our suitcases upon the roof and then took them down. He kept the bus clean. He was always on time or even early. He took us wherever we wanted to go and he never looked grumpy nor complained. He had gotten into birding and Joanie and Mark had lent him their extra pair of binoculars. They decided to give them to him and most of the group chipped in to help with the cost. I presented those binoculars, a company jacket and the postcard that the group signed before we got off the bus. I waited until our luggage was brought down from the roof and I gave Hugo a check for the final payment of the bus. Still no Bert!
Finally Bert arrives and tells us that the situation is not completely resolved. I will let him tell you the rest. We also get good news about Tailgunner Bob. His part came in early and his rig should be ready to join us tomorrow. More good news: Chris and May are flying into San Jose and will rejoin the caravan in the morning too. We all gather under the light by Mark and Joanie and enjoy basking in the rays of all the good news and don’t go inside until late.
(Bert) While I am waiting for a private van to pick me up at 5:30 I listen to the dawn chorus, hearing the gruffly calling Mantled Howlers, the short hoot of a Mottled Owl, the raucous complaints of the Brown Jays and the quick bark of a Barred Forest-Falcon. Alex arrives promptly and I am the only passenger to San Jose. I very much hate to miss the day’s birding at Santa Elena Cloud Forest, but must get back to the city because this is the last day for a court appearance to settle the motorcycle accident issue and get back my license plate. I arrive at Belén by 10:30 but Juan #2 and Juan #3 do not get there until noon. They tell me the motorcycle owner accepted my payment and signed the settlement document. Now they need my signature and more copies of documents. Juan #3 takes everything to the court and to my surprise I do not have to go to court myself. They just needed my signature on the document prepared by the attorney. Lester and Nancy, Panama #1 Wagonmasters, are still in the campground, having waited now for over two weeks for their truck to be repaired, each day being told another part was needed or the part they ordered did not solve the problem. At 3:30 I see them leave with the truck and trailer, so it must have been fixed today and they waste not time to try to catch up with their group now in Honduras. On the way into San Jose we crossed paths with Panama #2 and their Wagonmaster must have gotten his RV repaired, a leaking radiator that had to be patched, while in Panama. I heard he caught up with his group in southern Costa Rica.
At 5 PM the two Juans come to R-Pup-Tent and tell me they could not get my license plate back. The judge looked at the document and said it was all fine, but he would not accept our carbon copy of the police report. He wanted to see the original. The traffic police had the original and had not yet filed the document with the court system. Juan #3 called the traffic police and they tell him they intend to file 60 documents on Monday morning and mine might be among them. So, on a technicality the issue is not yet settled. I tell the two Juans I will leave on Sunday anyway and cross the border Monday morning. I will move my other license plate from the front to the rear of R-Pup-Tent and drive back to the U.S. with only one plate. Juan #2 will air freight my other plate to Texas whenever they get it back. I pay the other fees for the attorney and Juan #3. My total payments come to $754.
When the birders return on the bus I hear the good news that Bob and Arlene’s RV is fixed and they will be able to join us when we leave San Jose. Shari had a dream that the RV was fixed and when the bus reaches the Cummins dealership they learn the part came in early and they were able to repair the diesel engine today instead of Monday.
So, we end the day with three Wagonmaster teams and one Tailgunner team back on the road again after dealing with their various problems.
(Bert) At 4 PM Lee leads us across the street from the RV park and down a side street to a polluted creek. He has visited this small unadorned park during the free days on our schedule when others are catching up on errands and he made an exciting discovery. Now he leads me and a few others to the spot to see Prevost’s Ground-sparrow, a relatively difficult bird to find because of its narrow range. As soon as we arrive he sees the birds and tells us where there are feeding on the hillside and at the brush pile with Rufous-collared Sparrows and Blue-black Grassquits. Easily spooked, the mixed flock doesn’t let us get close and eventually I sneak along a row of Australian pine trees to get close enough to the ground-sparrow for a photo.
(Shari) I say a little prayer and think of Hugo making the sign of the cross as he left the trailer park. It is Sunday morning and only 6 AM, but still there is some traffic. However, the drive down the mountain has very few slow trucks to pass and we make good time arriving at our breakfast stop in time for breakfast but not lunch. We get to Santa Rosa National Park by noon and after the huge breakfast we ate, I decide to skip lunch. I find a shady spot and start to read, but am interrupted by two types of monkeys parading through the campground. First the howler monkeys make their presence known and as Bert tries to take a picture two try to poop on him and throw things. I guess they are not happy that we took over their home. Next come the friendly White-faced Capuchins. Mark turns on the water faucet for them and they hang around quite a long time, scampering on the ground and on the trees around our lawn chairs. Tonight we are having a taco party and everyone is to bring something that goes with tacos. I made the meat yesterday and all I have to do is heat it up along with the tortillas. Bob convinces me that I need to make margaritas too. We have lots of good food but I think Pat takes the prize with her chocolate cake made in her electric skillet. Mark and Joanie bring ice cream to go along with the cake and we sing Happy Birthday to our March babies, Joyce, Carol and John. It is dark before we get everything cleaned up and put away. While Bert does the dishes, I sit outside watching the stars. They seem brighter than usual and we surmise it is because of the clean air and lack of city lights. In any case they are gorgeous as they twinkle thought the trees. The breeze keeps up most of the night and sleeping is comfortable.
(Bert) Leaving early on a Sunday morning, we avoid the heavy San Jose traffic along the Pan American Highway. We arrive at Santa Rosa National Park by noon. Many elect to sit in the shade of the fig trees and idle away the afternoon heat; a few of us walk slowly, enjoying the light breeze below the trees as we look for birds. Walking alone, I photograph White-lored Gnatcatchers, Stripe-headed Sparrow and a pair of Crested Guans, but mostly I find a surprising number of mammals in close enough range to photograph: White-faced Capuchin, a troop of about 20 Mantled Howlers including a mother with an infant clinging to her underside as she climbs through the trees, White-tailed Deer, an agouti carrying an apple like fruit. The best is the White-nosed Coatis. At first I photograph six climbing in the trees and then I notice the whole troop amble across the dirt path one by one. As I photograph them I mentally count each one and reach 47 before the parade ends.
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