There are six species of Antshrikes that occur in Costa Rica, some more elusive than others, but all having a common theme: Their songs is heard more often than they are seen. All of them sing using a pattern of repeating notes that build more speed slowly, abruptly ending in a single note that usually is different from all others. The song of the Black-crowned Antshrike is very similar in pitch to the Barred Antshrike’s, so it is easy to confuse them. The Black-crowned is bigger and does not have the bold markings that the Barred has, only displaying small white dots and stripes on the wings, along a black crown which is difficult to see, given that they are usually perched higher than eye level inside the dark forest.
As a bird photographer, I strive for great image quality, but also value unique moments with rare or elusive species. This sighting of the Black-crowned Antshrike is one such encounter, a bird that can be easily identified by the song, but that can be difficult to see as they live in the dense, dark forest. To see them in the trail is priceless.
The Heliomaster genus contains four species, two of which occur in Costa Rica, including the Long-billed Starthroat that can be spotted in the Caribbean and northern lowlands, as well as in the south Pacific. It also includes the Plain-capped Starthroat, which is mostly seen in the north Pacific, central valley and some valleys in the south Pacific. Both Starthroats have longer than average bills which are straight, although both species have similar bills. The main difference between the Long-billed and Plain-capped is that the former displays a colorful blue-green forecrown, while the latter lacks that crown. To aid in identification, it can be noted that the Long-billed has a postocular spot, while the Plain-capped has a postocular strip. Other than those two specific traits, the two species are very similar, with olive upperparts and gray to white underparts, and a magenta throat that is iridescent. The tips of the tail feathers are white, which can be seen the most dramatically during flight.
Purple Gallinules are some of the most brightly colored birds that you can see walking in Costa Rica. Indeed while they can also fly, they more commonly wade in shallow waters and in dense grass plains, looking for prey. I have seen them in Palo Verde in big numbers, and spotted individuals in Rio Frio, where they join chickens and forage in the backyards of houses; indeed I was able to see two adults rearing four young hatchlings, which were still covered in black fluffy hairs, getting along with the chickens just fine. The underside and head is entirely purple with a metallic look, showing a small light blue patch on the forehead. The beak is mostly bright red, with a yellow tip. The upperparts show blue to olive green hues, particularly on the wings. The yellow legs are long, letting them to wade in shallow edges of lagoons without having to swim.
Green Iguanas are the biggest species of lizards in the world, reaching lengths up to 1.5 meters including the tail. They are abundant in Costa Rican lowlands, and can be found in most of America’s continent, either naturally occurring or as established populations of escaped pets, as they are a very frequent target among pet lovers. They can be found in many beaches, around rivers, high in the tree canopy or walking slowly on the grass. Their diet is composed mostly of leaves, flowers and fruits, although some individuals have been observed eating insects and rodents.
Green Iguanas are not necessarily green in color, instead they have a lot of variability in their range. In some areas they are green, others brown or red, even blue in Peru. The back of the male is covered with spines, a defense mechanism to keep predators at bay, and they feature a dewlap, which is a fold of skin that starts at the front of the lower jaw and ends at the junction where the front limbs start. The dewlap is normally hanging, although it can be displayed as a sign of aggression.
The Pug-nosed Anole is a small, slender lizard with a green body and a conspicuous black line that runs from the lower jaw through the eye and to the top of the head. The iris is orange with a black, round pupil. They are active during the day and sleep during the night. One individual below was seen during a night hike in Yorkin near the frontier with Panama, where it stayed motionless for more than half an hour, while we illuminated it with lamps and took pictures from close distances. The other was seen in Yatama Ecolodge, during a day hike in search of birds. My mom who was walking in front, believed that she was seeing a Gecko covered in moss, which I was certain was not the case. Some turtles are known to grow moss, fungi and lichens on their shells given how they stay motionless for a lot of time in a pool of water, but Anoles do not do that as far as my understanding goes. Nevertheless, this little friend was pretty confident on its camouflage, as it just stayed on the edge of the trail, only turning its head slightly in the 20 minutes we observed it.
The Green Basilisk, also known as the Jesus Christ Basilisk due to its incredible feat to run on water, is one of the four species of the Basiliscus genus and of three species to occur in Costa Rica. The similar Striped Basilisk is brown with two yellow lines that run one through they, and a thicker one from below the eye, both ending in the upper portions of the back.
The male has a big crest that protudes both on the head, back and tail, which can be raised to signal that it is angry or defending its territory. Most of its body is green with light blue spots around the back, a color pattern that lets it camouflage very easily in foliage and vegetation, particularly during the morning when they bask in the sun to warm up their bodies. The female shows a lighter shade of green than the male. Their eyes are bright yellow. Both their fingers and toes are very large, with scales that can be extended, increasing the effective surface area of their feet and enabling them to run over water for short distances, up to 20 meters.
Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds are distinguished from other hummingbirds by its rufous wing patch, although that characteristic is shared with the Blue-tailed (rare in Costa Rica) and Black-bellied Hummingbirds. It has a white vent and tail underside, along with the outer two feathers of the tail being white on the upperside. The male shows a dark blue patch on the throat which continues until the chest. During flight, the wings look almost entirely rufous, with only a lining of green feathers on the shoulders. The female has a white throat and chest. Both sexes resemble the Coppery-headed Emerald, although the latter is smaller.
The Smooth-skinned Toad (or Leaf-Litter Toad as it is called sometimes) is a species of true toad that bears a dead-leaf pattern on its skin, concealing it from most predators when they lie motionless in tree bark or the ground. Furthermore, their lifestyle is nocturnal, so during the day they don’t move much, unless spooked. They rely on that camouflage to be safe, even around streams, where their dull colors can match the colors of some rocks. They are small, around the size of a female Green and Black Poison Dart Frog, but their overall coloration is a dull brown with orange and dark blue patches, making them incospicuous against the brown layer of leaf litter.
The Red-eyed Tree Frog is easily one of the best recognized frogs in Costa Rica. It is featured in most ads promoting eco-tourism activities to both nationals and foreigners. Its colors are very bright and varied, ranging from the white belly and throat, green dorsum and sides of the arms and legs, blue on the inside part of the arms and legs, orange hands and feet, and the reddish eyes with conspicuously vertical black pupils; such a cocktail of colors is sure to attract predators.
With so much separation between both eyes, these frogs can almost look in two opposite directions at the same time, an incredible adaptation that enables them to spot potential predators and prey. They also have what’s called a nictitating membrane, which is transparent skin below the lid that helps protect the eye and keep moisture when the eye lid is open. The iris is all covered in veins and the eye is large in comparison with the body, helping this species see very well in the dark forest
Rain can be easily simulated during a night photoshoot using a spray bottle, as the flash will illuminate the drops as they fall and freeze the action. If one would want longer looking drops, then the use of a continuous source of light can help. This makes for more natural looking images, as most tree frogs are nocturnal in nature and become more active during or after rainy evenings. It is common to hear them calling from ponds and branches, most normally males trying to attract females to mate.
The Masked Tree Frog is a nocturnal, arboreal species that can be found on the lowlands and foothills of both the pacific and caribbean sides of Costa Rica, although it does not occur on the dry plains of Guanacaste. Its color is variable, however the dark brown patch behind the eye is unmistakable. Their color ranges from entirely tan to entirely green, with intermediate, contrasty patterns in between. When most of their body is tan, it can look very similar to the Cross-banded Tree Frog, however the Cross-banded never has a mask. Their vocal sacs are bilobed, which essentially means that it looks like two vocal sacs, one at each side of the throat.
I have an story of a time I visited Mirador El Pizote, in Boca Tapada, San Carlos. One of these frogs had entered the cabin where I stayed, possibly during the night. I was going for a bath and found the frog resting on the bathroom. After trying a few pictures (that did not work out very well), I tried to grab it to put it outside, but it jumped rapidly and dissappeared. Since I could not follow its movement, I was never sure whether it went outside or stayed inside.