Puntarenas Jungle River Safari

Birds on the Shore
The black-necked stilt, similar to the American Avocet, is a wetlands species and feed on aquatic invertebrates, tiny fish and tadpoles. The cattle egret is so named because they have adapted to hunting insects, spiders and flies that are disturbed by cattle and other livestock.

Near Puntarenas, Costa Rica

If we had known that the Rio Grande de Tárcoles, (Tárcoles River), is arguably the most polluted river in Costa Rica, we might have chosen another excursion on our day trip in Costa Rica. Ironically, we would have missed the best excursion on our Panama Canal Cruise. This day was to be filled to the brim with wildlife, mostly birds.

The Tárcoles River, almost 70 miles (about 110 km) in length flows southwest from central Costa Rica to its outlet in the Pacific Ocean. The river is home to 50 species of bird and the American crocodile, as well as many other types of wildlife. Our trip, only a couple of miles up and down river, provided so many opportunities for photographs, that I had a very difficult time narrowing them down to the few that I could include in this photo essay.

Carara Park
Carara National Park was established as a biological preserve and was upgraded to the status of national park in the late 90’s due to a large increase in the number of visitors during the decade.

The river trip, in a boat that holds twenty or so passengers, provided beautiful views of Carara National Park. The northern border of the park meanders along the river. The park is a national treasure containing rain forests, dry tropical forests, and many species of wildlife including the rare scarlet macaw.

Though the American crocodile looks ungainly, especially on land, it can move surprisingly fast. They are excellent swimmers, well adapted to the water. Their nostrils, eyes and ears are at the top of their head allowing them to lay low on the surface of the water while approaching their prey.
Though the American crocodile looks ungainly, especially on land, it can move surprisingly fast. They are excellent swimmers, well adapted to the water. Their nostrils, eyes and ears are at the top of their head allowing them to lay low on the surface of the water while approaching their prey.

The park and river are home to over 2000 American Crocodiles. On our short boat excursion, we probably saw a dozen crocs either swimming in the river or sunning themselves on the shore. At one point, the boat captain pulled up alongside two swimming crocs and exited the boat with a handful of raw chicken. Two hungry crocodiles knew the routine and readily swam up to him, opened their massive jaws and patiently waited to be fed.

Feeding The Croc
Don’t try this at home, or even in Costa Rica.
Green Iguana
The green iguana can grow to longer than seven feet (about two meters) in length, though this individual was less than half that length from tip to tail.

After feeding the crocs, the driver hopped back onto the boat and we continued up river. Along the shore we saw many reptiles; the most prevalent being the gecko. There were also a couple of iguanas and a basilisk lizard. The latter is popularly known as the Jesus Christ Lizard for his ability to walk, or more correctly, run on the surface of the water.

Jesus Christ Lizard
The basilisk lizard is a member of the iguana family, is active during daylight hours, loves water, and spends much of his time on warm rocks near the river shore simply soaking up the sun.

A native of Costa Rica, unfortunately, this basilisk male did not show off his amazing aquatic ability, instead choosing to sit quietly on the bank apparently eyeing some tasty insect morsel for lunch. Since I was unable to provide a photo of the basilisk lizard in action, here’s a link to a YouTube video that shows this amazing predator lizard in action.

The highlight of the river trip was the bird life we observed. Birders, take note, Costa Rica is a birder’s paradise. According to our tour guide, this tiny central American country, only about the size of South Carolina in area, is home to over 890 different species of bird and fifty of them are commonly found along the Tárcoles River. Here is but a couple examples of the variety of birdlife we observed on our trip along the river.

Cattle Egret
This egret’s diet consists mainly of insects, spiders and moths. Found throughout much of Central America, this species is one of the more prolific, and has been classed as an invasive species in some areas.
Crested Carcara
The crested caracara is a raptor in the falcon family, and is the National Bird of Mexico. It eats small mammals, carrion, lizards and insects.

After our trip, we re-boarded our tour bus for the next part of the day’s excursion. Before we got back on the highway, while traveling on the road from the river, one of the passengers spotted a couple of birds in a tree some distance from the bus. Believing them to be scarlet macaw and knowing that sightings of them in the wild are relatively rare, the tour guide immediately asked the driver to stop the bus and we backed up several hundred yards on the road. These rare and endangered birds, maybe only 450 living in the Carara Park, were quite a distance from the bus in a relatively dense forested area. It took the guide about 15 minutes to point out and make sure that everyone on the bus could see the birds that appeared to be preparing to nest. My camera, only equipped with a 200mm zoom lens, and hindered by the tinted bus window, did the best it could to capture the two beautiful birds. I apologize for the quality of the photo, but given the circumstances, it was the best I could do.

Scarlet Macaws
The largest of the parrot family, the scarlet macaw is a fast flier, upwards of 35 mph (56 kph), and adults are usually observed with their life-mate.

I am very thankful that there was a sharp-eyed birder who knew what she was looking for, and just happened to spot the pair even as the bus was driving by at probably 20 miles per hour down the gravel road.

John Steiner


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