Everyday I watched colonies of ants working hard for their queen never resting, fighting off invaders day and night. One insect that did annoy me was the mosquito, every time I stopped walking they were there sucking our blood. It is only the female that actually feeds on animals and humans, males feed on flower nectar. They can detect us over twenty meters away from the carbon dioxide from our breath and the scent of our skin. In many tropical countries mosquitoes carry a disease called malaria that kills thousands of people every year. The malaria is constantly getting immune to new vaccines which make this disease very hard to conquer. I was fortunate they only made me itch.
Circulating over head gliding through the air with their 6ft wing span Vultures rarely have to flap their wings. The Turkey Vulture was the most commonly found Vulture, we would see them on the side of the road ripping flesh from dead carcasses. The Turkey Vulture is totally black except for its head which has a red fleshy appearance like raw meat. They have a very keen sense of smell, other species who do not have such a keen sense of smell follow the turkey vulture to the next feed. These birds have one partner for life, and take an active part in bringing up their young until the fledglings are twelve weeks old.
Humming Birds were also quite common. The only bird with an ability to hover in mid air by flapping their wings on average fifty times a second, they also have the ability to fly backwards. With their long beaks they can feed on flower nectar while still flying. One species of humming bird is the smallest bird in the world and it is called the bee humming bird, it is not much bigger than a bee and it weighs less than two grams and measures around five centimetres.
Humming birds like bees play a very important role in pollinating plants.
One of my favourite birds, a terrific looking creature with a large colourful beak was the Toucan, I used to own one. I spent a lot of my time looking up trees to see if I could spot one in its natural environment. I could hear them all right as they can be heard for almost a mile away. Probably one of the noisiest creatures in the jungle, they gave me my alarm call at five thirty every morning. Toucans are related to the wood pecker but they do not peck trees instead they live off fruit, eggs, insects, lizards and tree frogs. When I had my own toucan a budgie got through a little gap in the aviary where a staple had given way and into the toucans cage next door. I arrived, only to find a pair of budgie wings sticking out of the corner of the toucan’s beak. They are very social birds and love to play by throwing fruit into each others mouths, jewelling with their beaks is also a very common pastime. Though they can fly, they prefer to hop from branch to branch and are rarely seen alone. I eventually spotted a couple of toucans sitting high in a tree, by the time I got my camera out they had disappeared into the canopy.
On my next trip I will go prepared with binoculars. As my trip ended I was more than happy with my experiences, I enjoyed seeing animals in their own environment. I realised how animals in the wild live and how they spend their whole lives trying to stay alive always on the look out for danger. How one acre of land is home to millions of insects, everything is alive and has evolved to survive in the warm humid jungle. Plants can’t help but grow and anything that dies is quickly devoured. In the mornings everything comes to life and the noise levels are almost deafening at times it seemed as if they are all excited at the prospect of the new day.
During the midday sun everything retreats and the forests seem empty. Then at night a new batch of creatures emerge flying and scurry around their little eyes staring back at you as you catch their eye shine in your flash lamp. Bats seem to barley miss your head as they fly by. I discovered how to find creatures and which trees they preferred and how sometimes you need to be patient and let creatures find you. I got close to snakes and crocodiles within touching distance. I swam with parrot fish, was 1 meter from a large reef shark, I got stung by jelly fish and eaten alive by mosquitoes. But I enjoyed every minute of it and it made me appreciate how fragile these environments are and people are willing to destroy them for financial gain. I now have a greater respect for how delicate nature really is.
After four hours on dirt roads and a four-hour boat ride we arrived in Tortuguero (Turtle beach). Before we depared in the boat a Jesus Christ Lizard jumped off a log and ran across the surface of the water on his hind legs and onto the bank. Also known as a Basilisk they are able to do this by trapping small bubbles of air under their feet, which prevents them from sinking.
Tortuguero is a world famous beach on the edge of a jungle where every year thousands of Turtles lay their eggs in the sand. Then from around August to September the young turtles emerge from their shells and begin the race for survival to the sea trying to avoid predators on the way. Many don’t make it, the lucky ones go on to become adults, the females return to the same beach to lay their eggs. Turtles don’t reach maturity until 25 years of age. Only then do they produce eggs.
Even beside the sea the jungle is a hot and very humid. When you get wet you don’t dry out. It is noisy with the sound of insects, and tiring, there are loads of mosquitoes, but if you have an interest in nature it is heaven. With a new creature, plant or tree every meter it is a complete wonderland, and you soon get distracted from the discomforts.
The first thing you notice in the rainforest at night is that you’re hearing is sharpened and you can hear noises coming from every direction. The rustling of leaves sounds like large mammals moving through the bush.
The loudest sound which is almost piercing is the sound of the Cicada a bug that remains in larvae stage for as many as seventeen years. Then it bursts into adulthood just to mate and then die over a few days.
One night I was out and I came across a spider that I had read about called the Whip Scorpion. It was shedding its exoskeleton under a branch and I decided to give it a little help. It was soft and white, but would eventually turn black. It’s front legs (palps) like combs are strong enough perhaps to scratch the skin but otherwise harmless. According to local legend the only cure for a Whip Scorpion’s bite is to eat your own excrement, I think I would rather suffer the bite. I was beside a little river that ran into the Pacific Ocean. That night I caught, from about ten feet away, the eye shine of a Salt Water Crocodile. It was a fairly young one, about 2.5 metres long, but still extremely aggressive and dangerous. They can lunge seventeen feet in one second. It can grow to lengths of seven to nine meters. Their bite is stronger than that of the Great White Shark. Luckily for me I didn’t trip over a sleeping one on the river bank! The next day Joe (my travelling companion) and I decided to get up early and go in search of Crocs. We found them catching the early morning rays along the edge of the river and lagoon.
One fascinating spider I found was what’s known as the Gladiator Spider which catches his food by casting a web at its prey in the same way as a fisherman throws a net to catch fish. They have excellent eyesight and are one of the few members of the Animal Kingdom (including humans and dolphins) which can recognise images on television. This has been proven by showing another Gladiator doing a mating ritual and the female responding to the image.
On my first night out the only mammal I spotted was a Rabbit, just a brown rabbit, I was hoping for a Jaguar or at least to see a foot print of one, but they are rare, as there are only about one hundred left in the wild in Costa Rica. Ten years ago there were only twenty, so they are on the increase, which is good news for the Jaguar.
At 6am we were paddling down a narrow channel looking for Crocs in our canoe. We saw nothing but the occasional Egret and Heron on the river banks standing still, waiting for an unlucky fish to pass by. In the mangroves Crocs were very hard to spot but eventually when we thought we would have to turn back, as the river was becoming impassable, there, about five feet from the boat, on the muddy bank, were two American Alligators lying on the bank staring back at us. I managed to get a few feet away from them when they got spooked and took to the water. As we were only expecting to see Caiman Crocodiles, this was an exciting surprise. Lucky for us we didn’t meet an eighteen foot one as they can be quite aggressive and we were in a dug out canoe! Alligators don’t chew their food but rip and tear it up. They then swallow huge chunks which they break down in their stomachs with very strong stomach acids. A short while later on the way back we found a pair of Adult Caimans sitting on a bank. I got close enough to nearly touch them, but l like my arms, and decided against that. I got some great photos before they too got spooked!
Later down the river we noticed what appeared to be a large nest in a tree, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a 3 toed sloth. They are about the size of a good sized dog covered in hair with a small head, no visible ears, a cute face with a little smile, long arms and dangerous looking claws. They move at the crazy speed of around 1 mile every four hours. They are often the cause of traffic jams in Central America as they cross roads at such neck breaking speeds. These creatures have a low metabolism and because of this they are very slow moving, spending much of their time hanging out of trees. Because of their low energy diet they spend about 18 hours a day asleep and it may take a week for them to pass solids. Going to the toilet for sloth’s is an ordeal they have climb down the tree and crawl on all fours, which is quite difficult for them, till they reach the ground to defecate at the base of their favourite tree, it is believed that this is to fertilize it. As we paddled along scanning every log and tree it was amazing what you can find.
Being close to dangerous snakes is a very exhilarating experience but can also be frightening as snakes are so quick and can inject a lethal dose almost instantly. I was bitten on a glove once before by a copper- head this experience thought me never to get too confident with venomous snakes. So in the rain forest at night you keep your wits about you especially when you are off the beaten track. You have to be careful when jumping over fallen trees, grabbing branches or walking through leaf litter. Walking with heavy steps warns snakes you are coming and a stick to poke around when in doubt is also a good idea. On a branch I noticed a medium size spider with large fangs it was the legendary Wondering Spider, one of the most aggressive and poisonous spiders in the world. To experience its aggression I tapped a stick in front of him and following this it nabbed the stick with his fangs leaving two small holes and droplets of venom. The Wondering Spiders venom is powerful enough to kill insects, small snakes and lizards. These spiders are found in banana plantations along with many of the venomous snakes (as if the badly paid plantation workers don’t have a hard enough life without having to deal with these also). The rainforest is teaming with life, most of all insects. I think it is a terrible shame that people fear them and so much want to destroy them. They may not have cute puppy dog eyes or any human characteristics but when you understand them they are fascinating beautiful creatures. They do us a great service breaking down our waste, consuming dead matter, pollinating plants, recycling and controlling other insect’s populations. If they were to disappear within a few years there would be very little life on land, plants would die and the whole cycle of life would breakdown. From the humble wood louse which evolved from the shrimp to ants, bee’s and cockroaches that evolved from the first flying insect the dragon fly. They live in a small world and have no idea what we are .