On a quiet Sunday afternoon while walking with my dog, the tranquillity was suddenly pierced by a chorus of very loud avian voices. Melba and I ran up an incline to the forest edge by the orchard to see six highly energized birds, communicating in their own enigmatic language and hopping around the treetops. The long-tailed Crested Guan, as big as a hen turkey, is astonishingly arboreal for a bird that can weigh 3 lbs 12 oz (1.7 k) and measure in length up to 35.8 inches (91 cm). Penelope purpurasa are also surprisingly agile on even slender branches, often preferring to eat upside down. At our nature reserve, Finca Cántaros, these fruit-loving birds are common and, at times, raucous visitors. In forest areas of Costa Rica that are unprotected, Crested Guans (colloquially called Pava, Spanish for turkey) are, in fact, hunted by people in Latin America for their meat. Such hunting is now against the law in Costa Rica except in indigenous reserves. Because these birds are so large and vocal and often move through foliage in noisy groups, they would certainly be easy targets for someone hoping for a turkey leg in the slow cooker. They are reportedly even sold in food markets in Darien, Panama.
Every year in December or early January, after all the leaves have fallen, the Corteza trees (Tababuia crysantha) have their “big bang”–full bloom–overnight, signifying to some the end of our winter rains. The flowers remain on the trees for about four days, then quickly fall and cover the ground. The annual golden flower extravaganza attracts a wide range of birds, bees, wasps and butterflies looking for nectar and pollen. Among the many avian visitors are hummingbirds and very reliably, the Crested Guan.
In small groups–usually no more than eight–on the blooming Corteza trees, they gorge for extended periods on the flower petals. If I’m walking under the tree photographing them, they eye me and briefly try to hide behind foliage but otherwise throw caution to the wind as they tear off and swallow the yellow delicacies.
For the rest of the year the Crested Guan feeds on shoots, leaves, seeds, (21% of diet) and fruits (76% of diet) such as berries, ficus (figs), wild papaya, wild nutmeg, Cecropia, Guatteria (locally, Guatteria puntata), Spondias, and much more–up to 36 plant species in Costa Rica. Occasionally Crested Guans come to the ground for insects and fallen fruit.
Not migratory, the Crested Guan are called “sedentary”, keeping to a home range of about 6 km in radius on the Pacific slope. Between March and June–the Guan’s breeding season–I hear several of their vocalizations, but the most arresting are their single or double-note, high-pitched honking calls which can last for at least 15 minutes. Even the wingbeats in flight call attention to the bird with a loud rushing sound, reminding me of the Yellow-throated Toucan’s loud flight pattern.
The conservation status of Crested Guan is “not globally threated” (Least Concern). However, in Costa Rica this species has disappeared from deforested countryside and is becoming rare in unprotected forests: 69% of its original habitat has been lost.
At least in our county of Coto Brus we commonly see the impressive Crested Guan at Las Cruces Biological Research Station and Wilson Botanical Garden, as well as at Finca Cántaros. In the Amistad Biosphere Reserve about 18 miles to the north and east of us, the largest protected area in Central America, I like to imagine that the population of Crested Guan is thriving.
http://www.hbw.com/species/crested-guan-penelope-purpurascens (Handbook of the Birds of the World)
A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, Comstock Publishing Associates, a Division of Cornell University Press, N.Y., 1989, pp. 118-119
Trogons, Laughing Falcons and Other Neotropical Birds, by Alexander F Skutch, Texas A&M University Press: College Station, 1999, pp. 120-122.
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, NY, p. 26.
It has been months since my last post, and I’ve missed the process of researching, writing and illustrating my natural history chronicles. This post is inspired by some chance encounters as well as one of my domestic passions. I hope you’ll enjoy this post as much as I have enjoyed putting it together.
One night while washing my face at bedtime, I perceived a dark movement on the tiles close to the bathroom sink. “A centipede”, I thought at first. “No, it is something else. It looks familiar.” Before I captured the 15-cm creature with toilet paper and carried it carefully to the garden, I took a photo. It wasn’t until after I released it that I recalled the name of this rare predator, the velvet worm—a relict, a living fossil.
My former husband, the late Luis Diego Gómez, had found such a creature in 1999 at Las Cruces Biological Station here in San Vito and sent it to our friend at the University of Costa Rica, Dr. Julian Monge Nájera, ecologist and evolutionary biologist. He identified it tentatively as Epiperipatus geagi, the white collared species of velvet worm known in Panama but not previously discovered in Costa Rica. So this appeared to be evidence of an extension of its range. It was this same species that I found in my bathroom. Now, after receiving my photo at the left, Julian tells me that the species taxonomy is undergoing revision and is soon to have a new name, so we will call it for now Epiperipatus sp.
While it is not exactly a charismatic creature (although students of zoology would disagree!), the velvet worm has a distinguished history of longevity and remarkable evolutionary adaptations. Dr. Monge Nájera believes they were probably the first animals ever to walk on our planet. According to fossils from Yunnan, China, velvet worms emerged from the shallow pools of Cambrian seas 530 million years ago to walk on land amidst algae and later, soils. The marine species went extinct. Now velvet worms are found only in humid areas of Australasia, southern Africa, and parts of Central and South America. Unusual for such a small invertebrate, they can live up to seven years!
Velvet worms are in the phylum Onychophora (on-ick-OFF-ora): elongated, multi-legged, and soft-bodied worms. Today there are 197 formally described species of Onychophora on earth, and there are likely many more unknown to science. They are nocturnal and frequent humid, dark environments like decaying logs in the rainforest, non-compacted soil crevices, leaf litter and moss-covered tree trunks. When the slow and soft velvet worm encounters a small crustacean, insect, or spider, the worm has a spectacular, Marvel-comic like way of capturing its victim.
From a pair of oral glands, it ejects–in firehose fashion from inches away–adhesive, silk-like threads, whose strands quickly harden while remaining sticky. The strands dry enough to imprison and essentially paralyze the prey. The velvet worm then approaches and injects its digestive saliva, and while the victim dies, the velvet worm eats the sticky strands, recycling its own nutricious proteins. Finally, the content of the prey’s body is eaten using sickle-shaped mandibles. Such a successful strategy explains this animal’s perseverance on earth in largely the same form through the eons.
Because velvet worms are exceedingly rare, to have one appear in the bathroom seems like a felicitous honor. If anyone receiving my post should in the future find a velvet worm, I’m sure Julian and his students would be very pleased to receive a photo and report. Contact me and I will put you in touch, or find Julian in the biology department at UCR.
On the day in early 2017 that I met Rebecca Cole, tropical ecologist and the new director of the Las Cruces Biological Station, an Organization for Tropical Studies site where I worked from 1989 to 1999, we took a walk around the grounds, just 2.5 k from Finca Cántaros where I live today. Suddenly I spotted a fast moving insect running along the edge of the path, a large ant with unusual coloration. Aha! It was the velvet ant which is not actually an ant at all, but rather a large female wingless wasp in a family of Hymenoptera called Mutillidae. I had seen one years before. It is quite rare to find a female, and even more unusual to observe a velvet ant in daytime–they are generally nocturnal.
The velvet ant has about 3000 described species, and is so named because of dense body hair. The hair may be scarlet, orange, gold, silver, black or white. Body parts of some species are very brightly colored.
I’m glad I didn’t try to pick up the velvet ant to photograph it better, as I’m apt to do with certain other insects. Females of these wasps have impressive stingers (males are harmless), and some species are known as “cow killers”. The pain their sting delivers for up to thirty minutes to humans is described as a “pray for death” kind of pain; so while the velvet ant really can’t kill a cow, the epithet is understandable!
Velvet ants feed on larvae and adult insects such as bees, beetles, flies and other wasps, as well as nectar. The Mutillidae are known for their Müllerian mimicry*, a form of protective imitation in which the mimicking animal is as inedible or disagreeable to predators as the animal it mimics.
A red velvet cupcake won’t walk, run or slither across your plate, but does slide pretty easily down your gullet. I found a recipe for naturally colored and naturally sweetened velvet cupcakes. It is easy to use beets for the coloring. You might like to try these when that urge for sweetness calls. And there are many Red Velvet Cake recipes out there if cupcakes aren’t your thing.
Until next time, keep your eyes open for the unexpected…!
* The zoological term is named after Fritz Müller, 1801-1897, a German naturalist.
Onychophoran online by Julian Monge-Nájera.
White-collared Stickers, by Julian Monge-Nájera, Amigos Newsletter, Wilson Botanical Garden, April, 2000.
The Smaller Majority by Piotr Naskrecki, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 2005, p. 37.
Velvet Ant in Wikipedia.
Even a bird that weighs only about half an ounce (11 g) and stands 3.5 inches (9 cm) is not to be taken lightly. The Olivaceous Piculet may be small in stature, but it has proven to be quite robust in its success, extending its population from Guatemala in Central America to northwestern Venezuela and western Ecuador in South America. In Costa Rica the Piculet is the smallest woodpecker, found fairly commonly in the southern Pacific lowlands, slopes and valleys up to 1400 m, but not found in the more humid Golfo Dulce area. It’s described as uncommon in a region called Caño Negro in north-central Costa Rica, near the Nicaragua border. Currently there are six subspecies of Picumnus olivaceous recognized from Guatemala to Ecuador. I suspect from my readings that there may be a name change in this little woodpecker’s future as it pertains to Costa Rica, Panama, and extreme NW Colombia.
The Olivaceous Piculet was first described in 1845 by a French aristocrat, Baron Nöel Frédéric Armand André de Lafresnaye in Bogotá, Colombia. In his early life Lafresnaye took an interest in natural history, especially entomology, but upon acquiring a collection of European bird skins, he decided to turn his whole attention to ornithology. His explorations and eventual collection of nearly 9000 specimens eventually found its way to the ornithology department of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. And that is where you could visit that first Olivaceous Piculet from Bogotá, the type specimen.
The Olivaceous Piculet is fairly common at Finca Cántaros, and shortly after I decided to choose the Piculet as the subject of this post, two Tico photographers who work at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Costa Rica’s northern highlands visited our property and proclaimed, upon leaving, that the sighting and photos they were most happy with were those of the Piculet.
Able to find its foods of ants and termites, larvae and pupae, beetles and cockroach eggs at both lower and middle elevations, even up to 1400 meters, the Piculet has adapted to a wide variety of habitat. It prefers secondary forest, garden edges, borders of humid rainforest and cloud forests (but not Monteverde), usually foraging at lower and medium levels. In one of my encounters with this charismatic bird, I was able to stand barely six feet away as it went about its business seemingly unaware of my presence as I shot this video.
What is the smallest extant species of woodpecker? It is the Bar-breasted Piculet of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Happily, Harry and I will be visiting Peru in the future, and should I be lucky enough to photograph it, you will see it here. The smallest woodpecker outside the Americas is one I was able to see in Borneo last year– the Rufous Piculet, found in Myanmar, Thailand, Borneo, Sumatra and Java. Though the fuzzy image below right is far from perfect, the moment of seeing the bird, even at a distance, was sublime. Only the sound of beak penetrating wood made it possible.
A poem by Pablo Neruda:
The woodpecker toco toc:
under the sun the forests distill
water, resin, night, honey,
the hazelnut trees don
galloons of scarlet pomp:
the burned logs bleed on,
the foxes of Boroa are asleep,
the leaves grow silently
while the roots’ language
circulates beneath the ground:
suddenly in the green silence
the woodpecker toco toc.
The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, A Zona Tropical Publication from Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, NY, 2014
A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch, Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, NY, 2014
Art of Birds, Pablo Neruda, University of Texas Press, Austin, Copyright 1985 by Herderos de Pablo Neruda.
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