Night in the tropics brings out a host of interesting animals that are rarely, if ever, seen during the day. Hoping to see some of this nocturnal wildlife, I took a headlamp with me on our recent trip to Costa Rica and went out late at night to wander around an area of old secondary forest on the grounds of our resort. With other family members, I also participated in two organized night walks, one at the resort, and a second offered by Manuel’s tours on a wooded lot near Quepos.
To celebrate my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, the entire family (my parents, my sister, our spouses and children) all went to Costa Rica for a few days between Christmas and New Year. It was my first trip to that beautiful country, and I was totally blown away by…well, everything: the friendly people, the great food, the beautiful scenery, the tropical flora, and the amazing wildlife.
We stayed at Arenas del Mar, a small resort in the lowland rain forest between Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific coast town of Quepos. Several people told me that the dry season came early this year, so I didn’t see many orchids in bloom (sad face). However, the wildlife exceeded all my expectations. I expected sloths and frogs, but not crocodiles…
After flying into San José, we rode down to Manuel Antonio (about 170 kilometers) in a van provided by Arenas del Mar. Just before we reached the Pacific coast, our driver stopped beside a bridge over the Tárcoles River so that we could stretch our legs and ogle the monsters on the banks of the river below. Somehow they seemed much more menacing than American alligators, and I was glad that we were viewing them from the bridge.
Arriving at the resort after dark, we got our first real look at the area the next morning, when we took a guided tour of Villa Vanilla, a spice plantation located a few kilometers inland from Quepos. At Villa Vanilla, they grow vanilla (of course), cacao, true cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), black pepper, allspice, and turmeric. The tour was fascinating and delicious–we tasted the spices in their raw forms and incorporated into various treats–and the location of the plantation in the foothills is unutterably beautiful.
The Vanilla orchid is a heavy epiphytic vine which requires support. Although some of the plants were growing on rough posts, many were trained onto shrubby trees whose flowers added to the beauty of the plantation.
The paths were also lined with Heliconia plants, ornamental gingers, and wooden frames supporting native epiphytes.
While wandering the grounds of Villa Vanilla, we saw our first toucan…
…and a troop of squirrel monkeys
We also saw squirrel monkeys on the grounds of the resort and at Manuel Antonio National Park, which we visited the next day. If you plan to visit Manuel Antonio, you will probably see recommendations to hire a guide. I concur. If we had wandered around by ourselves, we certainly would have seen monkeys and perhaps a few sloths, but we would have missed many of the smaller animals. Our guide (from Manuel’s Tours) was enthusiastic and knowledgeable–he was happy to discuss taxonomy of sloths or cannibalistic behavior of basilisks–and he carried a large spotting scope with excellent depth of field which served equally well to enlarge a howler monkey fifty feet up a tree or a tiny bat tucked into a Heliconia just off the path.
After a day or two, we got better at spotting animals, and it became clear that many of the species in the national park also lived on the grounds of our resort. Here’s a small sampling of what I saw and photographed:
Perhaps the most unexpected and exciting wildlife sighting occurred while we were eating lunch at the beach on our third day. A clutch of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) emerged from the sand and began to make their way down to the sea. It was something I never expected to see outside of books and television programs.
After four days in paradise, we piled back into the van for the drive back to San José, but Costa Rica had one more treat in store. When we stopped again near the Tárcoles River, I finally got a photograph of a wild scarlet macaw.
This week, I traveled to San Diego, California for a scientific conference. It was my first trip to San Diego–my first trip to anywhere in California, actually–so it was exciting to see a new part of the country. Even the flower beds around my hotel and the convention center were full of new and interesting things.
The meeting didn’t leave much time for sightseeing, but I managed to slip away one morning and take a bus up to Balboa Park, which houses the San Diego Zoo and a variety of gardens. I considered just wandering around the free areas of the park but eventually decided that I couldn’t miss the world famous zoo. That turned out to be the correct choice. In addition to being an amazing collection of endangered species (the zoo is famous for its captive breeding successes), the grounds are also a very fine botanical garden. The weather was cool, so the animals were active, and there were hardly any visitors. I had a good long visit with the pandas (red and giant), koalas, Tasmanian devils, komodo dragon, giant tortoises, okapis, elephants, jaguars, and many other animals, but I took more pictures of the plants.
Today being Saturday, here are six things that caught my eye in San Diego–garden related, of course.
1. Flowering trees.
November is clearly not the best time of year for blooming trees, but nevertheless, I saw some beautiful tropical and subtropical flowers.
2. Bird of Paradise flowers
Strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise) and Strelitzia nicolai (white bird of paradise) were growing (and blooming) all over town. S. reginae is my wife’s favorite flower, so when we were first married I tried growing some from seed. After fifteen years, I managed to get a only single flower from an enormous clump that took up a lot of real estate in the greenhouse, so I gave up. Clearly, flowering is not a problem when they are grown outside in San Diego.
3. The Botanical Building
The Botanical Building is a Balboa Park landmark that was originally built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. Before seeing it, I had assumed it was some sort of greenhouse or conservatory, but there is no glass involved. Instead, the Botanical Building is a giant lathe house, built of wooden strips that provide the perfect amount of shade and wind protection for palms, tree ferns, and other tropical/subtropical understory plants.
4. Australian plants
Callistemon ‘Woodlanders Hardy’ and one or two eucalyptus are the only Australian plants I know of that can be grown in North Carolina, and even those are marginal outside of the coastal plain. The climate of southern California is more similar to parts of Australia, so I wasn’t surprised to see a wider variety of plants from Down Under.
5. African and Malagasy plants
The zoo has a really impressive collection of succulents from Madagascar and southern Africa.
6. Hawaiian plants
I suppose the climate of Hawaii, particularly on the drier leeward side of the islands, must be not entirely unlike that of coastal San Diego County.
For more Six on Saturday, click over to The Propagator, where you will find his Six and links to other participants.
One of the reasons why posting has been sparse here recently is that we took our annual beat-the-heat trip to Maine a couple of weeks early this year. For the most part, not much was different between late July and early August. The friendly snowshoe hare who lives in the garden of the little house we rent was still there…
…and the local eagle stopped by to say hello again:
As in previous years, we spent our time fishing for mackerel, jigging for squid, cooking the mackerel and squid, and hiking along the intensely picturesque eastern Maine shoreline.
What was different, if only subtly so, was the array of flowering plants.
In August, I have seen a few Campanula rotundifolia (harebells) flowering on cliffs and headlands. In July, there were many more plants in bloom.
At Quoddy Head State Park, I saw a single white specimen:
Also at Quoddy Head, the last flowers of Kalmia angustifolia (sheep laurel) could be seen in the bog. In previous years, there have been only seed capsules.
In the woods, I found another member of the Ericaceae. Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipes) lacks both leaves and chlorophyll and is parasitic on the mycorrhizal fungi of various tree species.
Like the sheep laurel, I have seen Silene vulgaris (bladder campion) in previous years, but always in seed. This year, plants were still blooming.
I finally was able to identify some of the Iris plants that grow near the sea. On the headlands near the splash zone, I find very small irises that I assume are Iris hookeri (beach head iris). A little further back, at the edge of the trees, I often find much taller irises growing where little streamlets are blocked by rocks or sand and form miniature bogs. I wasn’t sure if the taller plants were the same species, growing larger due to the local environment, or a completely different species. This year a few of the larger plants were still in bloom, and I could see that they are Iris versicolor (northern blue flag).
And I never get tired of photographing Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed), one of my favorite wildflowers.
Mercer Botanical Gardens are located north of downtown Houston, very close to George Bush Intercontinental Airport. I had visited the gardens once before, about seventeen years ago, but remembered very little, so during our recent trip to Houston, I took the opportunity to renew my acquaintance.
I had forgotten about Hurricane Harvey. During the flooding last year, the gardens were submerged under eight feet of muddy, polluted water. Clearly the floods did a lot of damage, and just as clearly the gardens employees and volunteers have been working very hard to repair the damage. This article from the Houston Chronicle describes the devastation, and a google image search will show you what the gardens once were. These six pictures will give you a little taste of what the gardens are now, and a hint of what they will be again.
1. Dead palm tree
Some of the garden grounds were still closed off, and in the open areas damaged plants were still visible. After the flooding, last winter included an unusually prolonged cold spell in the Houston area, which probably did not help the tender palms. Virtually all of those that were still alive had damaged fronds, but that damage is temporary. I’m not sure if this palm tree was left in the ground because the staff had been overwhelmed, or if they were waiting to see if it might resprout.
2. Zephyranthes (rain lilies)
Many of the plants that seemed to be in the best conditions were tropical bulbs and rhizomes, particularly those that tolerate wet soil (crinum, gingers, etc). Presumably, these plants resisted being washed away by the flood, and any top damage was easily replaced. I saw an enormous clump of Hymenocallis caribaea, unfortunately not blooming, that was in prime condition, but the best flowers were on these unlabeled Zephyranthes. They were blooming all by themselves in a rock garden area that appeared to have been recently renovated but not yet replanted.
3-5. Tropical shrubs and trees
Although many of the beds are thus far, still fairly barren, splashes of color from vigrous perennials and fast growing tropical trees and shrubs hint at how spectacular the gardens will be again in a few years.
6. Anolis sagrei (brown anole)
The gardens were swarming with little brown anoles. A. sagrei is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and it is an invasive species in the southeastern U.S. where it often replaces the native Anolis carolinensis (green anole). My parents’ garden south of Houston still has green anoles, but I didn’t see a single native lizard at Mercer.
So, that’s Six on Saturday and a very brief look at Mercer as it is now. For more Six on Saturday, head over to the blog of The Propagator, who started this weekly exercise and collects links from other participants.