15-21 February 2004
Installment #211--Visitor #

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The Carolina Piedmont and the Central American country of Costa Rica have a few things in common. Both are ecologically diverse, both have been heavily fragmented by agriculture, and both are home to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Other than that, the two regions are very, very, very different--as we found out this week by leaving Hilton Pond Center for a four-day whirlwind trip (20-23 February) to Selva Verde Lodge in Costa Rica's lush northeastern lowlands.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Buttressed tree with dark brown termite colony on trunk

Selva Verde is a private 500-acre nature reserve owned by Holbrook Travel, which for 30 years has specialized in education-based excursions, mostly in tropical regions. We were visiting in anticipation of an eight-day field trip we'll be leading with Holbrook's help in December in Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province. After Christmas 2004, teachers and other adults from the U.S. and Canada will team up with Costa Rican educators to study Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as part of Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project and The GLOBE Program.

Since we'd never been to the tropics, we figured a scouting trip was in order. Even without seeing any ruby-throats this time around we were thoroughly entranced and just plain mind-boggled by the vast variety of flora and fauna to be found within Selva Verde Reserve. We did add a hummer species to our life list, however, when we found not only a male Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) but also a nest with two fully grown young (above right) that fledged within hours after we photographed them.

Male Ringed Kingfisher, Ceryle torquata, perched along the Sarapiqui River

Although we actually were at Selva Verde less than 72 hours because of time needed for travel, we feel as if we were there for three weeks--mainly because almost everything we saw was brand-new to us and required a lot of visual and mental processing. And even though we took several hundred digital photos, there's no way we could do the trip justice in the space of this week's installment. Thus, we'll simply make a few observations and let the pictures that follow--like the one of Leptoscelis tricolor on a Heliconia sp. blossom (right)--speak for themselves. Incidentally, in this leaf-footed bug, males use their strong hind legs to squeeze each other in establishing territories on Heliconia host plants where females feed and eventually mate.

We went to Selva Verde--which includes a sizeable tract of primary (virgin) rainforest--already knowing we'd see spectacular birds, colorful butterflies, and exotic flowers. Despite the fact that February is a dry-season month in Costa Rica, we knew the humidity still would be relatively high and that daytime temperatures would hover in the low to mid-80s. We knew there would be great diversity among plants and animals, and that we'd encounter not only unusual species but genera, families, and even orders that were totally new to us. We expected to see a few monkeys and plenty of birds, heavily buttressed tree trunks festooned with orchids and bromeliads, and brightly colored amphibians and reptiles, but were you to ask what surprised us most during the visit it would be that we had NO idea the rainforest contained so many different kinds of PALM trees.

Subcanopy palm growth

It seems we've always associated palms with desert islands and coastal zones, so we were blown away to find that Selva Verde's rainforest tract contained perhaps two dozen species of palms--and that Costa Rica is home to at least twice that many. There were short palms in the shrub layer, 20-footers in understory, and incredibly tall ones that reached all the way into the canopy. Many were in flower, with strange inflorescence configurations we had never seen. Most--like the Walking Palm (at left in the top photo on this page)--showed marvelous growth forms that enabled them to compete effectively with all those palm relatives that occupied slightly different rainforest niches. To be honest, we learned the names of only a few of these amazing palms and will have to defer to a later visit for opportunities to photograph and identify the varieties we saw.

Male Green Iguana, Iguana iguana, sunning (note non-breeding colors)

We were fortunate to have Jimmy Trejos Camacho as the resident expert who accompanied us while we were at Selva Verde. Jimmy (below right)--a native-born "tico" (Costa Rican) and free-lance nature guide--has a marvelous grasp of the various plants and animals of the region. Furthermore, he's a promising young ecologist who understands relationships among and between the living and nonliving components of the rainforest. His knowledge, energy, and sense of humor made our stay all the more enjoyable--as did the incredible meals served in the dining room at Selva Verde Lodge.

Jimmy's keen eyes frequently picked up a slight movement in the dense vegetation, allowing us to observe numerous organisms we otherwise would have missed. He was also keen of ear, and frequently was able to hear and then imitate the sounds of everything from bird calls to the grunts and screams of the Mantled Howler Monkey troop that lives at Selva Verde. We're especially pleased that Jimmy managed to find a Keel-billed Toucan, Ramphastos sulfuratus, hiding against the trunk of a large palm (below left). Since we've always been fond of Fruit Loops--a breakfast cereal for which Toucan Sam is the "spokesbird"--our trip to the tropics simply would not have been complete without having seen at least one of these brilliantly colored cavity nesters.

We should mention that we also learned a lot on our trip from Paulo Valerio, another guide and tropical ecologist extraordinaire who has his own company--Best Adventures Travel--and works closely with Holbrook in Costa Rica.

When we return to Costa Rica in December 2004 we'll not be going back to the Selva Verde Lodge. Instead we'll be staying near Rincon De La Vieja National Park at the 2,000-acre Buena Vista Lodge & Adventure Center, a locale not far from the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua to the north. Although Ruby-throated Hummingbirds get as far south as northern Panama, they probably reach their last real abundance in northwestern Costa Rica, so it's there we'll spend a week teaching teachers and other participants how to make, record, and submit observations about the behavior of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their tropical wintering grounds. We'll also spend time observing other hummingbird species in the region, perhaps including some of those aggressive Rufous-taileds (below right).

The December trip, organized through Holbrook Travel, will be devoted to familiarizing folks with the hummingbird protocols we designed for The GLOBE Program--particularly so U.S. and Costa Rican teachers within the group can involve their students in Operation RubyThroat. We're putting together the final itinerary and within the next few weeks will post on these pages more information about how folks can sign up for the trip. Right now we expect program costs to be under $1,100 for the entire eight-day excursion, plus air fare to Costa Rica's Liberia International Airport, currently about $600 from Miami.

If you want to be sure to receive trip info, send an e-mail to trip coordinator Debbie Sturdivant. Remember, the trip is open to educators and non-educators alike, and if there is sufficient interest we may add a second eight-day workshop for the first full week in January.

Stay tuned for more details about this exciting Operation RubyThroat/GLOBE field excursion to Costa Rica on 26 December 2004 through 2 January 2005. (NOTE: Details are now available at Costa Rica Trip.) In the meantime please allow us to share the following photos of Selva Verde plants and animals that delighted us during our recent and all-too-short trip away from Hilton Pond Center.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon, Trogon massena

Strawberry Poison Frog, Dendrobates pumilio--one of the less-toxic species of Poison Dart Frogs (note that the diminutive amphibian is smaller than the knuckle on which it is perched)

Tiny Proboscis Bats, Rhynchonycteris naso, clustered beneath a tree trunk overhanging the Sarapiqui River

Montezuma Oropendula, Psarocolius montezuma, a REALLY big blackbird

One of many species of native Heliconia, which have been replaced in parts of Costa Rica by banana plantations

Double-toothed Kite, Harpagus bidentatus, which follows monkeys around and snatches insects they disturb

Brightly-colored nymphs awaiting the day when they grow up into large grasshoppers

The white, angular seeds of Monkey Guava, which have been removed by some creature that only wanted the fruit's tasty pulp

The Mealy Parrot, Amazona farinosa, a large mostly green bird with yellow-tipped tail and red wing edgings

Adventitious roots of the Walking Palm

A male Mantled Howler Money (above), Alouatta palliata, slurking around in the subcanopy while one of his several females and offspring (below) eat and lounge nearby


A double-crested Green Basilisk lizard, Basiliscus plumifrons, known for its ability to run across the water

One of several green-leafed vines whose peculiar growth habit is to stay plastered against the vertical trunk of a large tree

A well-camouflaged Smooth-skinned Toad, Bufo haematiticus, with large oval-shaped parotid glands that carry a toxin capable of killing small predators

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

15-21 February 2004

American Goldfinch--11
Purple Finch--70
House Finch--2

* = New species for 2004

3 species
83 individuals

13 species
828 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
44,131 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)

Purple Finch (2)
03/24/98--after 7th year female
03/13/00--6th year female

--The 11 American Goldfinches banded on 15 Feb made up the biggest flock of the winter at Hilton Pond Center but was a far cry from much higher numbers seen in past years.

None this week.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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In 2004, informative and entertaining hummingbird banding presentations are already scheduled for North Carolina, Virginia, Michigan & Kentucky/Tennessee.
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If your group would like to host Hummingbird Mornings anywhere in the U.S. or Canada in 2004 or later, contact
Bill Hilton Jr.

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.