A seedling of Coryanthes macrantha recently flowered in my collection for the first time, and it is easy to see why these plants fascinate orchid growers. The genus Coryanthes is a group of about 65 species (per the Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families) from Mexico, Central America, and South America. The plants have large pseudobulbs and broad, plicate leaves which are deciduous after several years. They grow epiphytically, generally rooting into arboreal ant nests, and their inflorescences hang down below the pseudobulbs. Due to the lax inflorescence, they are generally best grown in baskets–in a pot, the inflorescence may become lost in the potting mix, its mummified remains only found when the plant is repotted.
The flowers of Coryanthes orchids are truly bizarre, and at first glance can be difficult to interpret in terms of typical orchid anatomy. The flower is dominated by the labellum, the distal end (epichile) of which is thick and waxy and modified into a bucket structure. The proximal end (hypochile), which connects to the base of the column, is fleshy, bulbous, and often rather phallic in appearance. The other two petals are small, strap-like, and generally held parallel to the column. The sepals are like crumpled tissue paper and are held above the rest of the flower in a messy clump. Two nectar glands at the sides of the column drip watery liquid into the bucket.
All of this baroque anatomy is in aid of pollination. The hypochile secretes aromatic compounds which are collected by male euglossine bees. The male bees use the fragrances to attract females, so the Coryanthes flower is reponsible for reproduction of both plant and insect. While scratching around to collect the fragrance, some of the bees slip and fall into the bucket. With wet wings, the bees cannot fly out, so they are forced to climb to the end of the bucket where they can squeeze out through a small opening formed by the bucket walls and the end of the column. While pushing past the column, the bees pick up or deposit pollen packets.
Over the years, I have owned four Coryanthes species, and I find them easy to grow and flower–for a while. With adequate fertilization and an acidic, moisture retaining substrate like long-fiber sphagnum, the plants grow very fast; my C. thivii seedling bloomed less than a year out of flask and C. elegantium in about two years. Eventually, though, growth slows down and the plants stop producing new pseudobulbs. They hang on for months or years, but eventually the old pseudobulbs die back and that’s the end. I’m not sure whether the plants are naturally short-lived (perhaps their ant-nest habitat is precarious and there’s no selective advantage to long lifespan), or perhaps my plants are missing some critical micronutrient. I’m currently growing C. macrantha and C. leucocorys (not yet flowered), so it remains to be seen if they follow the same trajectory as C. thivii and C. elegantium.
While western Europe has been experiencing historically high temperatures, and the western US is in extreme drought, we have had a more-or-less normal summer. Much of June and early July was dry and hot and humid, but not unusually so; the high temperature recorded on our screened porch this summer was 95.5 F (35.3 C), in-range for the region and time of the year. The dry spell was broken by a brief storm this week which dropped three inches of rain in about half an hour. The garden is currently at its most lush and overgrown point in its annual cycle, and with 80 F (26.7 C) and 94% relative humidity this morning, it feels like we are in the tropics. In keeping with that impression, today’s six plants have a subtropical feeling to them.
1. Platanthera ciliaris (yellow fringed orchid)
Platanthera ciliaris is an orchid that looks as though it should grow in the tropics, but it actually has a native range extending from Florida north to Michigan and New England. In North Carolina, it grows in the mountains, piedmont, and coastal plain. Its distribution in the piedmont seems to be spotty, and although I have seen it growing wild along country roads near the coast, I have never seen it here in central NC. This one is growing in one of my mini-bog planters, a large pot filled with peat, sand, and perlite which sits in a shallow tray of water. P. ciliaris seems relatively easy to grow in costantly damp, acidic soil as long as it is not over-fertilized.
2. Lychnis senno ‘Once in a Vermillion’
I wasn’t sure if this Japanese species would thrive in my garden, but in its second year it has more than doubled in size. It is growing on a dry, sandy slope made drier by the roots of a rapidly growing fig tree.
3. Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’
This classic Crinum hybrid is looking particularly good with six inflorescences this year.
4. Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap)
Another plant that looks as though it should be tropical, D. muscipula is actually native to a small region of coastal North and South Carolina centered around Wilmington, NC. These seed-grown plants in my mini-bogs are doing their best to increase their numbers by dropping seeds all over the place.
5. Eucomis ‘Glow Sticks’
Eucomis ‘Glow Sticks’ is noted for its foliage which emerges golden yellow and matures to bright green. Its pale flowers attract our local bees.
6. Chlosyne necteis (silvery checkerspot) on Iris domestica
I haven’t seen many butterflies this year. Even our usual crop of pipevine swallowtail caterpillars is absent from the Aristolochia fimbriata, and there aren’t any black swallowtail caterpillars on the fennel. I hope it doesn’t have anything to do with our neighbors’ habit of outdoor spraying against mosquitoes.
Perhaps this little checkerspot is a sign of better things to come. In a few weeks the big clump of Silphium perfoliatum (photo 6) will be flowering, and it usually attracts large numbers of tiger swallowtails whose caterpillars feed on the surrounding trees.
The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday. Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.
I kept my eyes open, and five years later, I have seen both of those species on our property. Last week, we found a dead redbelly snake, which may or may not have been living in our garden (perhaps it was dropped by a bird carrying a big “worm” back to the nest, but it probably came from somewhere nearby). This week, I found a live ringneck snake underneath one of our cover boards. I was more than a little surprised to find a new species, given that I have been actively looking for snakes on this land since 2007, but I guess the cover boards are serving their purpose: giving us a chance to see secretive little animals that are rarely found in the open.
So, with this specimen, I have now found ten snake species on our two acres of North Carolina piedmont (eleven if I count the redbelly snake). That seems like a lot for one smallish area, but we have done our best to create a wildlife-friendly garden. It’s also important to note that those two acres don’t exist in isolation. We’re embedded in more than 1000 acres of more-or-less contiguous woodland which includes a large private property and the Eno River State Park. Wildlife moves around, and the health and diversity of nature on our property depends on its surroundings.
At length we came to the gloomy olive grove, and I led Theodore to the bank and pointed to the mysterious trapdoor.
He peered down at it, his eyes narrowed.
“Ah ha,” he said, “yes…um…yes.”
He produced from his waistcoat pocket a tiny penknife, opened it, inserted the point of the blade delicatedly under the little door and flipped it back.
“Um, yes,” he repeated; “Cteniza.”
He peered down the tunnel, blew down it, and then let the trapdoor fall into place again.
“Yes, they are the burrows of the trapdoor spiders,” he said, “but this one does not seem to be inhabited.”
–Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
Gerald Durrell was my childhood hero, and I read all of his books many times…and hoped to someday see the animals he described. The passage above is from the autobiographical account of his childhood in Corfu and describes his first meeting with his mentor, the polymath Dr. Theodore Stephanides. To nine-year-old me, trapdoor spiders seemed like magical creatures, and even now, at…lets say several multiples of nine-years-old, I’m still pretty excited to have ended up in a place that has them.
I found this spider crossing our driveway on Wednesday morning as I left for work. It must be the time of year for the spiders to leave their burrows and go walkabout, because eldest offspring found one the next day at the camp where he is working as a counselor for the summer. Then, multiple pictures and requests for identification showed up on the Carolinas Wildlife Appreciation facebook page.
Trapdoor spiders in North Carolina are unmistakable; in their overall appearance and slow methodical movement, they look like little black tarantulas. Our native species has (or have, I’m not actually sure how many species are native to the Carolinas) gray edging to the carapace and at the joints. There’s nothing else quite like them around here.
Even before we returned home from our trip to Quepos/Manuel Antonio National Park in December 2018 (here and here), we knew that we wanted to return to Costa Rica. After some research, we settled on the Osa Peninsula as a location that was more remote and likely to be far less crowded than Manuel Antonio. We further decided to visit during the rainy season, reasoning that there would be fewer visitors, and the wildlife, especially amphibians, might be more active. For a home base, we chose Bosque Del Cabo Rainforest Lodge, a small eco lodge on Cabo Matopolo, the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula where the Pacific Ocean meets the sheltered water of the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf). The lodge sits in lowland rainforest (both primary and secondary forest), about 20 km from Corcovado National Park, so we expected that it would be a great place to see wildlife.
Our original plans were canceled due to the pandemic, but last month we were finally able to make the trip. Bosque and the Osa lived up to all our expectations. Here’s an incomplete list of what we saw during our week-long vacation (photos below): howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, white-nosed coatis, collared peccaries, neotropical river otters, northern tamandua (anteater), kinkajou, three-toed sloth, agoutis, chestnut-mandibled toucans, fiery-billed aracaris, scarlet macaws, red lored amazon parrots, brown-hooded parrots, gray-headed tanager, great curassows, crested guan, yellow-headed caracaras, crested caracaras, black hawks, roadside hawks, magnificent frigate bird, various hummingbirds, pale-billed woodpeckers, cat-eyed snakes, common basilisks, four-lined ameivas, turniptail gecko, house geckoes, miscellaneous Anolis, giant toads, red-eyed treefrogs, hourglass treefrogs, green-and-black poison dart frogs, various rain frogs (Craugaster species), Smoky jungle frogs, more Leptodactylus frogs, tarantulas, wandering spiders, halloween land crabs, blue morpho butterflies, rhinoceros katydid, dead-leaf-mimic katydid.
Having learned the hard way not to depend on connecting flights on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. during the summer, we drove two hours to Charlotte, NC so that we could get a direct flight to San José. After an overnight stay in San José, we caught an early morning flight to Puerto Jiménez on Costa Rica’s domestic airline SANSA. The SANSA flight was when I felt like our vacation really began; it was the most fun I have ever had on a commercial flight. We had been warned that our checked backage was restricted to 35 lbs and carry-on to 10 lbs. However, at check-in the SANSA staff first weighed our checked bags and then had each of us stand on the luggage scales while holding our hand luggage. Apparently, the combined weight was within acceptable limits, because we were waved on to Security.
The Cessna Grand Caravans flown by SANSA carry up to 14 passengers, but on our flight to Puerto Jiménez there was only one other passenger apart from our family of four. We flew west across low mountains and then followed the Pacific coast south, crossing the neck of the Osa Peninsula before landing at the tiny airstrip in Puerto Jiménez. As we descended across the Golfo Dulce, my wife spotted several dolphins in the calm waters–a good omen of more wildlife sightings to come!
Bosque is about 45 minutes in a 4-wheel-drive from Puerto Jimenez, but the trip took a little longer because we stopped to watch neotropical river otters playing in a creek.
We also saw our first howler monkeys and fiery-billed aracari before we had even arrived at the lodge! The aracaris are perhaps the most fantastic of all the birds we saw during our trip. With their garish color scheme, beady eyes and enormous beaks, I think they look more like muppets than real birds.
At Bosque Del Cabo
I cannot say enough good things about the employees at Bosque del Cabo and will refrain from mentioning specific names only because I am afraid of leaving someone out. In all of our interactions, every member of the staff without exception was enthusiastic, helpful, kind, and knowledgeable. We also very much enjoyed meeting the owners, Phil and Kim Spier, and I especially appreciated Phil’s enthusiastic description of the palms and other exotic plants that he has collected at Bosque over the past 30 years.
The main lodge building serves as the restaurant, library, and auditorium for educational lectures (such as a fascinating talk on reforestation by a representative from Osa Conservation that we attended one rainy evening). Like most of the buildings, it is open on the sides, and interesting animals are often seen at mealtimes. At dinner one evening, a gecko literally dropped in to visit. Some may disagree, but in my opinion the presence of house geckoes, even when they fall from the ceiling, is a sure sign of gracious living (similarly, the presence of lizards outside defines a pleasant climate).
The food (a la carte breakfast and lunch, buffet dinner) was delicious, and the grounds of the lodge are lovely. The lodge is small, and since we were there during the rainy season was not operating at full capacity. The total number of guests during our week ranged from a low of fourteen to a high of about thirty. Although we enjoyed meeting other guests at mealtimes and nightly happy hour at the lodge bar, I don’t think we encountered even one other person on the forest trails. If you like solitude in nature, this is the place and the time of year to visit.
We stayed in Casa Blanca, a two-bedroom house a short walk from the main lodge. The house was built at the edge of the steep slope down to the Pacific, so its deep covered porch catches cool breezes rising from the water. On the land-side is a garden with palms and fruiting trees that attract monkeys and birds, and we saw three of the four species of Costa Rican monkeys without leaving the front porch.
The windows and shuttered doors of Casa Blanca have screen instead of glass, and there is no air-conditioning to separate you from nature. We fell asleep to the combined sounds of Pacific surf, rain, tink frogs, and chattering house geckoes and woke to the not-so-dulcet tones of scarlet macaws and howler monkeys. It was paradise.
The open garden areas around the Bosque lodge are planted with a variety of fruiting palms, and a large mango grove is situated beside the driveway. The fruit attracts monkeys and coatis, and peccaries and agoutis follow to pick up what the climbing animals drop. Consequently, almost all of our mammal sightings occurred as we walked from Casa Blanca to the lodge for meals. In the trees right around Casa Blanca we saw Geoffroy’s spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi), white-faced capuchins (Cebus imitator), and mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata). Only the black-crowned squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii) did not approach the lodge. We saw them in secondary forest, where they forage for insects that make up much of their diet. (Incidentally, the squirrel monkeys around Manuel Antonio were gray-crowned, Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus, so now we can boast of having seen both subspecies of central American squirrel monkey).
White-nosed coatis (Nasua narica) are omnipresent at Bosque Del Cabo (hence the luggage strap that secures the refrigerator in Casa Blanca). Large groups of adults and babies eat mangoes dropped by the monkeys and climb palm trees to get at the fruit. They also dig in the lawns, presumably for worms and grubs, and we saw one enterprising coati down on the beach raiding a sea turtle nest. We learned to latch all the doors of Casa Blanca after we were raided by a coati while we were out on a night walk. There was no food in the house, but the coati, guided by its sensitive nose, dumped out a suitcase to find some fruit-flavored Tums calcium pills.
Agoutis are nervous little creatures that resemble a short-eared, long-legged rabbit or, perhaps, a miniature capybara. We saw them most often around the mango grove, but they also frequented other open areas where they searched for fallen fruit and seeds.
Small herds of collared peccaries favored the mango grove, but we also saw them in most other areas around the lodge and occasionally, beside the forest trails. When we went outside with headlamps at night, eye-shine revealed peccaries bedded down beside Casa Blanca.
Perhaps the most exciting mammal that we saw at Bosque was a northern tamandua, a species of anteater. The tamandua was first spotted by a Bosque staff member at breakfast time, and when everyone trooped out of the restaurant to have a look, it beat a hasty retreat up a mango tree. Later, as the four of us walked to lunch, I noticed it at the base of a different mango. It strolled nonchalantly past us, crossing the driveway, before disappearing into a huge clump of Pandanus.
Birds are very difficult to spot in the canopy of primary rainforest, so like the mammals we saw most birds in the open areas around the lodge, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon. The Tropical Garden, a short walk through the rainforest from the main lodge, was also an excellent site for birding.
The scarlet macaws, red-lored parrots, and toucans were the easiest to spot, not just because of their bright plumage, but also because of their obnoxiously loud voices! We also saw several flocks of brown hooded parrots (Pyrilia haematotis), but they did not settle on perches anywhere I could photograph them.
I especially enjoyed watching mated pairs of macaws–they fly so close together that their wings almost brush, seem to enjoy frequent mutual preening, and squabble loudly like old married couples as they push and shove each other on a perch.
Birds of prey were frequently to be seen perched on dead trees, roaming around the gardens, or down on the beach.
Various other birds caught my eye, but most were too small or too quick to photograph.
Reptiles and amphibians
I suspect I would have found more reptiles and amphibians if I had raked through the leaf litter or some of the intriguing piles of palm fronds and other garden waste that were deposited in out-of-the-way corners to quietly compost. However, that sort of behavior is strongly discouraged, by lodge staff and most particularly by my wife. No one wants to rush an idiot tourist to the clinic in Puerto Jimenez because he has been bitten by a Fer-de-Lance.
Despite that limitation, we did see a variety of interesting species, including one of my bucket list animals: I finally got to see a poison dart frog in the wild.
We saw Dendrobates auratus in various places–deep in the forest, hopping around on the lawn, and most memorably, climbing the steps to the restaurant–always during the day. Other diurnal species included various lizards and a few small frogs, perhaps recently metamorphosed Craugaster species, that hopped across our path in the forest.
As I expected, night walks with headlamps proved to be the best way to see herpetofauna. Not far from Casa Blanca was a small ornamental pond, mostly hidden by water hyacinths and surrounded by huge clumps of Pandanus species, which attracted several species of tree frogs and their predators. Other species could be spotted in the undergrowth by their eye-shine, particularly after rain.
The most conspicuous invertebrates around Bosque Del Cabo are the halloween land crabs (Gecarcinus quadratus). Their burrows riddle the clay soil from sea level to deep in the rain forest. We also found a second species of rainforest crab which climbed up onto the deck of Casa Blanca and was trying to get under the door. I think it might be Armases angustum which is known to shelter in bromeliads.
Although the crabs were active during the day, we saw spiders mostly at night. We saw a tarantula during a guided night walk, but many other spiders were in evidence when we explored on our own. We brought a UV flashlight to look for scorpions but sadly did not locate any on this trip.
The most interesting invertebrate that we saw was a leaf-mimic katydid with incredibly long antennae that my son and I found near the suspension bridge at night. It almost perfectly mimicked a dead leaf in behavior as well as appearance. When I gently touched the katydid, it did not jump away. Instead, it slowly stretched out its hind legs to look like dry, dead twigs.
Plants and fungi
Lowland rainforest isn’t the best place to look for orchids, especially at ground level where there is very little light. During our week, I found perhaps half a dozen native orchid species, but only one, Brassavola nodosa, was in bloom. The rainforest floor was a good place to find fungi, however, and the grounds of Bosque del Cabo have been beautifully landscaped with flowering plants, mostly gingers and heliconias which attract hummingbirds.
We rate our experience on the Osa as one of the best vacations of our lives, and we were very sorry to leave Bosque at the end of the week. There were a few minor disappointments: in two trips to Costa Rica, I still have not found a fer-de-lance, and I likewise failed to find the endemic Golfo Dulce poison dart frog. Although a young male puma had been spotted at Bosque a few weeks before our trip, we were not lucky enough to see him. And I would still love to see a tapir.
I guess that just means we will need to return to the Osa.