2019–a year of kaleidoscopic passages reflecting life upended–is fully upon me, and I have mostly not blinked. Nor has Harry, my husband, with whom the past twenty years this October has been congruous and felicitous, in short, a dream.
Dear readers who have not heard the news: we sold Finca Cántaros, our property in San Vito, Costa Rica, late January of this year and moved in March to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The new owner of Finca Cantaros–Lilly Briggs, Canadian, with a PhD from the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University–is the ideal new custodian of its 17-acre nature reserve.Lilly doubled the size of the reserve by also buying one of the contiguous properties and intends to reforest its current pastureland. Lilly has already harnessed the spirit of environmentalism that’s been steadily growing in Coto Brus Cantón (County) by involving local school children, their teachers and parents, friends and neighbors in the tree planting.
Lilly’s passion for environmental education and citizen science also inspire her research interests. She helped create the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdSleuth International curriculum and is in charge of establishing the Spanish version of the curriculum in Latin America. The resulting Detectives de Aves program, under the auspices of the San Vito Bird Club, has been successfully introduced to many Coto Brus schools as well as elsewhere in Central and South America. Great things are happening at Finca Cántaros where Lilly now lives full time. I hope that you will follow the Finca Cántaros website and that your interest in what goes on there will only soar.
Why are Harry and I now living in the high Chihuhuan Desert? Credit my mother!
Just four months shy of 99 years, my mother–Georgette (“Georgie”) Hewson– has travelled a long road since 1921. Most of her life was spent on the North Shore of Massachusetts, but it unexpectedly swerved to New Mexico in 2015 when she realized she could no longer live independently. My sister, previously an East Coaster, and her Texas-born husband–who had retired in Santa Fe 25 years ago–took Georgie to their hearth. (Strangely, my brother lived for a time near Taos, and then died in this state; his grave is less than a mile away in the Veterans’ Cemetery.) Georgie now lives with Harry and me, just minutes from my sister, and we will all be with her on her journey–narrowing, but with joyful sparks–to the end.
New Mexico. Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and war correspondent, said about New Mexico:
“We like it because the sky is so bright and you can see so much of it. And because out here you actually see the clouds and the stars and the storms, instead of just reading about them in the newspapers. They become a genuine part of your daily life, and half the horizon is yours in one glance for the looking, and the distance sort of gets into your soul and makes you feel that you too are big inside.”
Well, that about says it all about the spell of the vistas. I like the wide, open spaces, too, at 7,200’ elevation.
I also like the slow-growing, deep-rooting desert flora, and my interest in it has rapidly grown with help from my sister and local plant guidebooks. Birds and plants are not as richly varied and abundant as they are in Costa Rica, of course, but they are just as interesting in their strategies for eking out a living.
So I started digging out a garden in April with xeric (needing little water after established) plants whose names I’ve never before encountered. Sixty or so native plants are now waving in the almost constant breezes; seed-eaters and insectivorous birds, nectar-loving hummingbirds, butterflies, lizards, ants and beetles are already frequent visitors to the backyard. We have heard coyotes yipping in the wee hours outside our window.
As was my custom at Finca Cántaros, I walk early in the morning on nearby trails or dirt roads within an hour’s range of our apartment/condo complex, carrying my camera and binoculars. Though we are renting, we are fortunate to have land to till and views of the adjacent arroyo and hills beyond. The photos you see here were taken on my daily walks since March. September 17 was a red-letter day, when I saw my first coyote. The handsome animal stopped, turned its head and gave me a good look. I thrilled to having truly arrived in this Land of Enchantment.
Below is a slide show of some recent photos. The slide show should start automatically. If you want to stop/pause, click on the II icon in the lower middle of the current photo; click on the ► symbol to go the next photo, on ◀︎ to go back the previous one. If can’t see the slide show in your email of this post, click here to open the post in your browser.
Quote from Ernie Pyle from Seasons of the Desert, A Naturalist’s Notebook, by Susan J. Tweit, 1998. Chronicle Books.
Do birds mate with species other than their own? It seems the answer is a resounding quack in the affirmative! Writing for Science in the NY Times, C. Claiborne Ray cited findings by Irby J. Lovette, director of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that 10% of the ten thousand known bird species have mated with other species, and that dabbling waterfowl, the Anatidae Family in the Order Anseriformes–that is, ducks, geese and swans–are particularly prone to having affairs with different species. Who knew?!
In early December, our Finca Cántaros groundsman, Yeimiry Badilla, a passionate birder, spotted a rare bird on Laguna Zoncho, our lake here, and mentioned it to me. Within a day or two after that, local Costa Rican naturalist guide and superb bird photographer, Pepe Castiblanco, also noticed and got a good shot of an odd bird among the Blue-winged Teal on Laguna Zoncho. It appeared to be closer to a male Green-winged Teal, but not exactly.
Birding enthusiasts began to hear about this unusual sighting, and soon a group of birders with the Asociación Ornithológico de Costa Rica showed up and declared the bird a hybrid. But a hybrid of what? Early speculation was a cross between the Blue-wing and Green-wing Teal. Before long, many visitors with spotting scopes and long camera lenses appeared at our nature reserve to observe the rare male bird. Some were fortunate and had sightings; others saw only one or more of the aquatic regulars of December through March: Blue-winged Teal and Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron and Green Kingfisher. (For many years Laguna Zoncho hosted seasonal visits of Masked Ducks, but in 2018, alas, not.)
On January 15, I was finally able to get decent photographs of the individual in question, swimming and behaving in the same way–dabbling for surface aquatic plants–and fully accepted by, his mates, the Blue-winged Teal.
On January 16, 2019, Finca Cántaros received birders with the tour group WINGS, led by Jon L. Dunn, co-author of various editions of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, including the most recent 7th edition. Accompanying him were Bob Steele, Nat Geo photographer, and Mario Cordoba, the group’s Costa Rican guide and photographer extraordinaire in his own right. Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the group had good fortune and saw the hybrid fowl. Bob Steele got a fine shot, and we may be seeing it soon in Nat Geo!
The interesting bit to me, conversing with the group at the end of their visit, was that Jon Dunn speculated that the bird is not a cross between the Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, but instead might be a hybrid of the Northern Pintail and the Green-winged Teal. He particularly noted what seemed to him an unusually long bill, similar to the Pintail’s, but said he won’t be sure until he studies the photos he and Bob Steele took. The Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) is a rare winter resident of Costa Rica, a non-breeding migrant now occasionally seen in the northwest of the country–Palo Verde National Park and Cano Negro–and south to the Central Valley. The Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) is called a “casual winter resident” also mostly seen in the northern Pacific lowlands, and never before in our environs of San Vito, Coto Brus.
Now I understand why so many people are coming to see this interesting hybrid waterfowl. Its parentage is a lively subject of debate, but no one will really know, unless one day it is captured and its DNA analyzed. Sorry, but that that won’t happen here where Mr. Mystery is a welcomed winter resident on Laguna Zoncho.
Below is an actual hybrid of a Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, according to photographer Tom H. Ellis. This bird was photographed by him at Brazos Bend State Park in Needville, TX.
The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, a Zona Tropical Publication from Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2013.
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, National Audubon Society, illustrated by David Allen Sibley, Alfred A Knopf, New York, copyright 2001 by Chanticleer Press.
Recommended by many friends for years, Caño Negro, near the Nicaraguan border of Costa Rica, finally became a destination for Harry and me along with a few close friends in April, 2018. We were also accompanied by a superb naturalist Tico guide named Federico (“Fico”) Chacon. The attraction of this area of the Guatuso plains–lowlands that are seasonally flooded–is the 325 species of birds both migratory and non-migratory that visit the Caño Negro lagoon and its associated marshes and holillo (palm) groves. The wetlands are fed by the Frio River, which flows north from the Arenal Lake Basin.
Heavy rains occur in the area between May and January (up to 120 inches annually), so we chose to go in April, and there was no precipitation whatsoever. Much of the birding is accomplished on the water in flat bottomed, tarp-covered boats, and the boatman are highly experienced and knowledgable about bird habitat preferences.
Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1984. Almost 25,000 acres in size (9,969 ha), it was declared a wildlife area of international importance in 1991. The Refuge’s grasslands, forests and marshes provide habitat for jaguars, cougars, ocelots, tapirs, and sloths, among many other mammals. Our boatman recounted a recent jaguar sighting on the bank of the same river we were exploring. A European photographer had come to the area with the expressed intent of seeing a jaguar; a large male obliged by emerging from vegetation on the fellow’s first morning on the river! This news was heartening, until it wasn’t! We never did see any cats or tapirs, but we did see cavorting Spider monkeys and languid Howler monkeys.
Birding among good friends is a collaborative interaction, everyone helping to spot and usually the guide pinpointing the exact location, so that everyone succeeds in seeing the bird–even for a brief instant. Being “in the zone”, far from the normal sounds of civilization except for the putt-putt of the boat’s motor (quickly extinguished when we wanted to drift), is almost a form of meditation. We are alert, but we are also very relaxed, in respite from all our usual preoccupations and routines. Glorious nature, unfamiliar landscapes, dawn awakenings and dappled sunrises, foggy mist and azure clarity, always the possibility of something never before seen right around the next bend in the river. Each day someone usually asks, “How lucky are WE?” And frequently, any one of us is recognizing the joy of the hunt with a cheery: “Well spotted!”
If you decide to visit Caño Negro, we can recommend the simple, very reasonable and comfortable cabins known as Hotel de Campo, right on the lagoon with 13 protected acres (5 hectares reforested). The owners arrange boat trips. Their lodgings have a very attractive pool, and a restaurant with full bar provides creature comforts. A recommendation: the light in April is stunning.
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