Costa Rica Forests and Rivers

When I started to learn landscape photography, I was disappointed that Costa Rica did not have any of the impressive mountains and ridges of North America and Europe. I compared the green forests covering a great portion of the natural environment in Costa Rica, to the Rocky Mountains in Canada and thought that in all the green of the country, there were no landscapes worth shooting. How misleading that thought was! In fact, nowadays I think that Costa Rica is exciting for landscape photography precisely due to all that green. The trees and forests take so many shapes and the rivers that go through them create sinuous lines that can only be found here. I still love the Rockies, but I love Costa Rica the most, and I am always searching for more interesting compositions to showcase its beauty.

Costa Rica Waterfalls

Costa Rica has too many waterfalls to count. Some waterfalls are well known and relatively easy to reach like Rio Celeste and Peace Waterfall Gardens, while others are secluded and take some effort hiking through mountains and forests, like the small waterfall that hides in Yatama Ecolodge. There’s even the Bajo del Toro area, where you find an entrance to a waterfall hike every kilometer or so. The largest might measure 100 meters from head to bottom, while the smallest barely falling from 2 meters high, yet the sight of a waterfall at the end of trail is very rewarding for people. A dip into the water is all people need to forget how sorting obstacles through the rain forest draws away your energy, and fills you with happiness. And the silky water effect is a great addition to any landscape photo.

Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias)

Photographing the Sunbittern has been one of my goals ever since I started birding. This is a majestic bird, with a intriguing pattern on the wings which it flashes when flying from one rock to another. I have seen it plenty of times already, particularly in a small rocky stream 2 kms from home in San Bernardino, where it forages. Other times I have only seen the footprints on a rock, where presumably an individual stood just a few minutes before I arrived. It is very wary of people, flying away to keep at a distance when spotting them or hearing noise.

Drab Streamside Tree Frog (Smilisca sordida)

The Drab Streamside Tree Frog, also known as Veraguan Cross-banded Tree Frog, is a relatively unmarked species, usually colored in grayish tones. It is common throughout the country, except on the Pacific Northwest. As indicated by its name, these frogs’ preferred habitat is water streams, where they breed. Curiously, I met this frog when one individual appeared on our kitchen at midnight in San Bernardino. We let it stay and in the morning it had disappeared, until my mother found it below the fret drainer where it was cool and moist. We placed it in a “Giant bird’s nest” plant (locally known as Tabacón), and there it remained for the entire day. By the evening, I went out and found it in the same place, and snapped the few pictures below.

Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus)

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.

Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)

Caimans are easy to confuse with crocodiles, however both belong to different families in the Taxonomic hierarchy. While each species in both families has its specific characteristics, there are a few physical traits that differentiate species from each family:

  • Jaws: The Crocodile has a V-shape, while the Caiman and Alligator have a U-shape. This can be seen most notably from above or the front, not so easily from the side.
  • Teeth: In Caimans, due to the way the teeth are placed, the lower jaw’s teeth are not visible when the mouth is closed. Crocodiles do show both upper and lower teeth at all times.

The Spectacled Caiman in particular has become established and common in Costa Rica. Like most reptiles, being cold blooded, they bask in the sun during the morning to warm up their bodies, before going for a day’s hunt. During that time, they may lie motionless in almost any place, like fallen trees, beaches and riversides. Adults have a length between 1.4 and 2.5 meters.

Green Basilisk (Basiliscus plumifrons)

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.

Striped Basilisk (Basiliscus vittatus)

The Striped 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 Green Basilisk is (obviously) green, and the male has a big crest that protudes both on the head, back and tail, while the Striped Basilisk only has a crest on the head and a small ridge on the back. It is brown with two yellow lines that run one through the eye, and a thicker one from below the eye, both ending in the upper portions of the back; this color pattern lets it camouflage very easily, particularly during the morning when they bask in the sun to warm up their bodies. 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.

Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)

The Neotropic Cormorant is an aquatic bird, hence it is popularly known is Costa Rica as the “Pato de Agua” or water duck. It dives underwater in search of prey, which is mostly comprise of fish, but also includes amphibians. Once their feathers are soaked, they spread their wings on a rock to dry under the sun. They can be found at the sea and in rivers, sometimes accompanied by Frigatebirds or any type of egret, like the Tricolored Heron. They are mostly dark in coloration with a yellow bill, and their feet are webbed, just like a duck, which is a feature that help them propel themselves while underwater.

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

The Black-necked Stilt is a wader bird, meaning it walks in shallow waters, looking for small prey to snatch. It does not dive and is not usually seen swimming. The stilt has a streamlined body and extremely long pink legs, allowing it to wade in deeper waters than other, smaller waders found in Costa Rica like the Plovers and Sandpipers. It has a contrasting black and white body. When startled, they usually fly away in a wide circle and return to a similar place they were before.