14 days with the astonishing wildlife of Costa Rica

A Red webbed Tree Frog photographed during the NaturesLens Costa Rican Wildlife Photography Holiday 1

This blog post about the astonishing wildlife of Costa Rica has been challenging to write … principally because of a case of what to leave out rather than what to include. Without having visited the country, it’s easy to think of Costa Rica as ‘just another Central American country’ … ‘I don’t know much about it, but it’ll be just like the others, won’t it?’ … Well, I haven’t visited the others but having visited Costa Rica, I have to say it, & it’s wildlife are genuinely like nothing else!

A few facts first & some of them are surprising. Costa Rica is about twice the size of Wales in area & population. It has no Armed Forces. It has a 97% literacy rate. In 2016, renewable energy supplied about 98% of the electricity demand. Its geography has created several microclimates from the mountains to tropical rainforest. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that there is incredible bio-diversity, which brings us to photography & potential sensory overload!

We departed on New Year’s Day, flying into San Jose via Toronto. We hired a car & drove on roads of variable quality, heading north to a purpose-built eco-resort in the rain forest. The gardens were a riot of brightly coloured birdlife with the first sighting of a classic species, the Toucan. It was difficult to know where to point the lens! The facilities were excellent with the viewing verandas sheltering you from the sun/rain, with feeding stations attracting the birds, & also placing you very close to the dining area & coffee dispenser! Almost paradise.
The people of the country take immense pride in the wildlife of Costa Rica & realise what an asset it is to the country. So before long, we were being taken to the gardens of the staff’s houses to view hummingbirds, other birds, & a variety of frogs – both by day & night. Hummingbirds – cue frustration getting the right camera settings & technique. Back at the lodge, there was a selection of snakes to photograph. There was also a specially-built hide to view the King Vultures close-up without disturbing their behaviour.
Our next port of call was in the Sarapiqui Valley, further south but still north of San Jose. The climate there is less humid & the wildlife of the region has a different character. Imagine if you will, a small nature reserve. Walk into the garden, look up & there’s a three-toed sloth & baby, two steps further, there’s a basilisk, six further steps & there’s a small pond & the air is thick with birdlife. Incredibly, this is someone’s back garden only 500m from the main highway! This prolific spread is the nature of the wildlife of Costa Rica, & the contacts that we met throughout the trip!
Next day, we frogged out. Our host, his colleagues & family, have taken a family farm & turned it into a haven for amphibians, & other wildlife too. Purpose-built habitats & considerate handling meant we were able to take our time with each species. Red-Eyed Tree Frog, Spiny Glass Frog, Strawberry Poison Dart Frog … & did I mention the three-toed sloth that climbed down from a tree to take a look at us!
The frog images were captured using a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens but the Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L also worked very well!
For a bit of variety, we pushed a couple of hours west towards the Arenal region, much to the excitement of our resident volcanologist, who was hard-pressed to decide whether to point her lens at the volcano or the snakes. In a well-organised, controlled (thankfully) environment, the two handlers got us closer to some famous names than I’ve ever been before or ever want to be again – feu de lance, eyelash pit viper, rattlesnake, & 3 types of a boa constrictor, to name but a few. That said, they’re fascinating creatures & very photogenic.
Moving on, we went south-west & up into the central mountains to another nature reserve but on a grander scale. The owner has created tracks through several areas of different character & wildlife; but this was hummingbird country, albeit different species from our first encounter. The colours were just flamboyant & we were beginning to get our eye in, confident enough to experiment with shutter speeds despite the birds being free to move around at will. An interesting counterpoint was a party of photographers who had bought with them multiple flashguns, triggers, & manufactured backgrounds, against which to capture the hummingbirds. I have to think that we had more fun, success & more original images of this one of the smaller & certainly faster aspects of the wildlife of Costa Rica.
The next day a long journey to the high mountains to the south-east of San Jose started the quest for the Resplendent Quetzal. This iconic bird was high on the list of everyone’s ‘must-haves’. With the best of guides, in the early morning, we were on it, albeit fleetingly. What a strange-looking but utterly compelling bird & it was reassuring to see the efforts that the locals had made to conserve the bird & provide it with every opportunity to breed.
From then on, it was just hummingbird overload, with the whole morning spent on the balcony of our lodge with so many hummers & so many epic images captured. We would never have thought it possible, but the passing idea of ‘too many hummingbirds’ did cross our minds!
The next day we found a real gem of a location. It’s an embryonic enterprise, still under development as a side-activity by a hotel worker, but just wow! I hope this is on a future itinerary.
On then to our final hotel & back to the Sarapiqui Valley but this time, to a discrete location to capture a rarer hummingbird – the black-crested coquette.
This time, experience & environment left us shooting hand-held; oh how we had changed!
We also took a cruise along the Sarapiqui River, taking photographic opportunities with Howler Monkeys, Green Iguana, Amazon & Green Kingfisher, Sungrebe & Anhinga.
Costa Rica is such a beautiful country. The bio-diversity is immense & the local people are so friendly & welcoming. Furthermore, Costa Ricans take so much pride in their country & it’s wildlife. We had but scratched the surface & there is so much more to see or to see again. I can’t recommend Costa Rica enough as a place to visit, the contacts that NaturesLens established will ensure that anyone visiting Costa Rica with them will have the best opportunities to capture fantastic images.
If you want to visit Costa Rica, & photograph the amazing wildlife, then just book it up, you will not be disappointed, I know that the pair of trips for late 2019 filled almost immediately, but those for 2020, both in November & December have spaces … & an early booking discount attached at time of this blog post being published!

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