Monday, 14 October 2019

Untamed Central America...

I've just returned from another filming trip to central America for Nigel Marven Productions, my third this year - I am truly fortunate. The first 10 days were spent in Costa Rica finishing scenes there (see previous  posts), followed by 18 days filming in Guatemala - a completely new country for me! Both will form independent stand alone programmes on their respective countries (Wild Costa Rica and Wild Guatemala) as well as a combined 'Untamed Central America' programme for National Geographic. I’ll try and cover both over the coming series of posts.

Costa Rica 

7-17 September, 2019

Tapirus Lodge 7-9 Sep
We visited Tapirus back in June and I was more than happy to return here to finish filming around the Lodge. It's definitely one of my favourite places in the country, everyone is so friendly, you feel like you're coming home. Prior to our arrival heavy rain had swept through the area that day and produced perfect conditions for herping. So-much-so that the first evening (when I should have been resting) turned out to be one of the busiest nights of the trip for reptiles and amphibians and I didn't get to bed as early as I'd planned.

My accommodation for the first few days
in Costa Rica, the beautiful Tapirus Lodge
Velvet Ant sp. They can have a very painful sting!

We arrived late in the day and after dinner immediately found this beautiful Ringed Glasstail Pliocercus euryzonus. This fascinating and attractive snake is part of a small family that can shed their tails (like most lizards). The discarded tail continues to wriggle to distract predators and allow the animal to escape. This individual was just over 2 ft long.

Ringed Glasstail, Pliocercus euryzonus, Tapirus Lodge.

Ringed Glasstail, Pliocercus euryzonus, Tapirus Lodge.

Red-eyed Treefrog, Agalychnis callidryas, Tapirus Lodge.

Red-eyed Treefrog, Agalychnis callidryas, Tapirus Lodge.

Masked Treefrog, Smilisca phaeota, Tapirus Lodge.

These pretty little Brilliant Forest Frogs, Rana warszewitschii were very common around the lodge. Easily identified by their metallic green (or blue) spotting on the dorsal surface.

Brilliant Forest Frog, Rana warszewitschii, Tapirus Lodge
Once we'd had our fill of frogs and the Glasstail, Mike headed back to the accommodations only to almost tread on a juvenile Terciopelo, Bothrops asper, which was curled up in the middle of the path in the dark!  Terciopelo (often called Fer-de-lance) are the most venomous and dangerous snakes in Central America. Their bite can be (and often is) fatal if left untreated and the hemotoxic venom has terrible necrotic and hemorrhagic effects (Google victim photos if you dare!).  Like most snakes, they are just waiting for a meal to come along. Juveniles will often use their tails (caudal luring) to attract lizards, frogs and small mammals withing range of a strike. This one was in a very dangerous position for anyone walking unaware in the dark so I carefully moved it off into the undergrowth. We ended up seeing two more on this evening, including a larger 1.5 m individual by the restaurant.

Terciopelo, Bothrops asper
Next to be found was this smart little Lichen-coloured (or Mottled) Snaileater, Sibon longefrenis - one of two similar species found at Tapirus. This common snake has dark eyes whilst the very similar Costa Rican Snaileater (limari) has clay-coloured eyes.

Sibon longefrenis, Tapirus Lodge

Sibon longefrenis, Tapirus Lodge

Sibon longefrenis, Tapirus Lodge

With the excitement dying down we finally all went off to our rooms. Next morning I got up early to get a little birding in with our guide, Marvin, before breakfast but no sooner had I stepped outside my room, than I found a 1 m long male Terciopelo right by the path - this is partly why this species is so dangerous.  Not only do they have extremely potent venom but they are abundant, stay close to human habitation and don't move off easily when disturbed (relying their camouflage). Danger aside, they are beautiful snakes and I signalled for Marvin to come and have a look - just look at those markings and chestnut brown colour.

Marvin, eyeing up the problem. If someone drifted
off the path, they could be in BIG trouble.

Terciopelo, Bothrops asper, Tapirus Lodge

A foot from the path, too dangerous to leave here.

Terciopelo, male, Tapirus Lodge

Females are longer, fatter and have darker sides to the head - this
is definitely a slimmer male.

This photo clearly shows why the family
are called 'lance heads'. The wider rear to the
head are the venom glands.

Again, I took a stick and gently moved it off the path and away from potential problems. It was quite feisty though and turned to stand its ground before eventually moving away into the undergrowth.

The day had only just begun and already looked set to be a good one.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Egg Eater...

We’ve had our pet Honduran Milksnake, Lampropeltis hondurensis (Copan ) for six months now and she’s settled in very well, feeding and shedding regularly. I say ‘we’ but Copan is very much Jake’s, he had her for his 13th birthday. Feeling a little left out, I decided it was time for me to get something and having seen an ad for Common Egg Eaters, Dasypeltis scabra last week (the nearest thing you’ll get to a vegetarian snake), I bought one. Well, two actually - Nigel Marven wanted one too so I ordered a couple of well marked females for us.

Dasypeltis scabra, beautifully marked!
The smaller, browner individual. 

The slightly larger, greyer of the two. 

Dasypeltis scabra,  Common Egg Eater

The only genus of snakes to feed
entirely on eggs.

Dasypeltis scabra 

Dasypeltis scabra 

I’ve wanted a Dasypeltis for a long time but you don’t often see them for sale so this was a rare opportunity. They are stunning little snakes with heavily keeled scales which they rub together when agitated and a black mouth lining to frighten potential predators. They do (as their name suggests) eat bird and reptile eggs by swallowing the egg whole and then using muscles in the upper body to puncture and crush the egg releasing the contents before regurgitating the egg shell. They are completely harmless to humans and this particular species hails from Southern and Western Africa where they are as likely to be found in tree branches as they are on the ground.

I can't wait to see this beauty feed and grow!

Monday, 29 July 2019

Tapirus Lodge...

Tapirus Lodge is situated on the very edge of Braulio Carrillo National Park about 30 km Northeast of San Jose. It's a little lower down and as the temperature climbed once more, so did the humidity. We were going to be here for three nights and had a list of things that we wanted to film before we left. Though not a five star lodge I think this was perhaps my favourite. The guides here were superb and we saw some great animals.

On leaving the restaurant on the very first night I was pleased to find this lovely Clouded Snail-eater Sibon nebulatus.

Clouded Snail-eater Sibon nebulatus

Clouded Snail-eater Sibon nebulatus

 Our target on the first full day was to get some natural history footage of the Baird's tapirs that frequent the jungle around the lodge and within 10 minutes of starting we had found a resident female that frequently strides along the paths. She was magnificent, nearly 7ft long...and pregnant! The rain was so heavy though, it was all we could do to get some footage over the course of the morning and I would have to wait another day before getting some snaps of this wonderful animal.

Sloths overhead - not a sign you see too often.

A giant long-horn beetle with
a body over 2 inches long.

Masked Tree Frog

And finally...the Baird's tapir!

Baird's Tapir, female

Taken on my phone - she was
incredibly curious.

Baird's Tapir, Tapirus Lodge

I also found this small Red-bellied Litter Snake Rhadinaea decorata whilst heading back to my room. They have so many different English names - Orange-bellied Litter Snake, Pink-bellied Litter Snake and of course (the most recent) Red-bellied Litter Snake. Whatever you want to call it, it's a pretty dull snake until you turn it over, at which point its bright orange/red ventral side can be seen.

Red-bellied Litter Snake Rhadinaea decorata

Red-bellied Litter Snake Rhadinaea decorata
Helmeted Iguana (Basalisk) Corytophanes cristatus
Later that morning we paid a visit to a local legend, a guy named Copé who everyone seems to know and suggest we go and see. The guy's certainly a very talented naturalist, photographer and artist who has made his humble garden into a haven for birds and other wildlife.

Nigel and Copé

Copé's birding sketchbook - he's a very talented artist!

We saw some great birds and a couple of surprise beetles too - what a place!

An Elephant Beetle - HUGE!

Hercules Beetle - always wanted to see one of these!
Hercules Beetle, a real beast!

Black-cheeked Woodpecker, male

Blue-gray Tanager

Clay-coloured Thrush

Gray-cowled Wood Rail

Orange-chinned Parakeet

Violet-crowned Fairy - stonking bill!

White-necked Jacobin, male
Great Kiskadee
Three-toed Sloth
A 20 minute drive up the road from Copé's house was this Great Potoo and chick. They are much larger birds than I ever imagined.

Great Potoo

...and a view of the chick

Whilst watching the Great Potoo we were amazed when a large adult Green Parrot Snake crossed the road right between us all!  We gave chase as it reached the verge and Nigel managed to leap and secure it, though it wasn't too pleased to be caught.

Typical gaping action to try and deter
potential predators...didn't fool us though

A stunning rear-fanged (opisthoglyphous) snake,
harmless to us but deadly to frogs and lizards.

After a fantastic morning we bid farewell to Copé and went to see two very special snakes.

The Eyelash Palm Pitviper Bothriechis schlegelii comes in a variety of patterns and colour forms (see previous post). On the Caribbean coast in particular it's not uncommon to come across this stunning golden yellow form known locally as the Oropel. Local myth dictates that the eyelash viper winks at its victim after having bitten them - of course not true at all as snakes don't have eyelids, so certainly can't wink! Like all pitvipers they have solenoglyphous dentition (fangs that swing forward from the front of the upper jaw to inject their prey) and carry a fairly potent heamotoxic/cytotoxic venom, which can cause fatalities in some circumstances. Loss of a finger or hand (the places most commonly bitten) is more likely though. They also have a prehensile tail to aid climbing and anchoring to a branch.

Oropel, Bothriechis schlegelii

Our next snake is somewhat more feared and potentially deadly. This is a huge Terciopelo Bothrops asper more commonly known as a Fer-de-lance. These large pitvipers are responsible for more fatalities and life-changing injuries in humans than any other species of snake in central America. Mostly because they are a very common species that comes close to human settlement as well as being extremely venomous. Although you see these quite regularly, this was easily the largest any of us had ever seen, undoubtedly a female and possibly full of young and about to give birth at any time. She was just shy of 6 ft long and had a head as big as my entire hand. 

Terciopelo, Bothrops asper

You would absolutely not want to get tagged by this one!

You can clearly see the heat sensing 'pit' in front of the eye
allowing them to effectively 'see' in the dark.

We also saw this juvenile heron at the riverside. The feathers on the throat rule out Bare-throated Tiger Heron and although our guide thought it might be Rufescent Tiger Heron on closer examination the bill looks too short and I would favour Fasciated Tiger Heron, which is also found in the same area.

Fasciated Tiger Heron, juvenile

Fasciated Tiger Heron, juvenile
Fasciated Tiger Heron, juvenile - note
the feathered throat and short bill.
Back at the lodge one of the guides, Stanley, had come across this little Southern Scorpion-eater, Stenorrhina degenhardtii. They have enlarged, fixed rear fangs but are extremely docile. This one just settled in my hand. They get their name from eating scorpions (to who's venom they are immune) but also eat tarantulas.

Southern Scorpion-eater

Southern Scorpion-eater

Southern Scorpion-eater
Southern Scorpion-eater
Stanley also studies the Crowned Tree Frogs, Anotheca spinosa, an unusual species that has a crown-like spines on top of its head. He introduced a artificial breeding pond scheme to boost numbers and it has been a huge success. 

Crowned Tree Frog on artificial
'tree nest'. All stages of development
can be found within one of these.

Beautiful frogs with a fringe of
projections along the back of the head.

Stunning pattern, they are very docile and stay put too.
It had been a great day but there were still a few surprises to be seen. Walking back to the accommodation I found this superb little White-headed Snake, Enuliophis sclateri. They have a scattered distribution in Costa Rica and are uncommon to see as they lead a fossorial or semi-fossorial existence among the leaf litter where they feed on the eggs of other reptiles. They are completely harmless and (like our own Slow Worm) have a tail that can break off and keep wiggling to distract predators while it makes its escape.

White-headed Snake
At exactly the same location, I flipped a large dead palm leaf and found this Yellow-spotted Tropical Night Lizard. They are very secretive and not often seen so this was another bonus.

Yellow-spotted Tropical Night Lizard
Despite seeing dozens of amazing butterflies during our time in Costa Rica, there was only one that I truly wanted to catch up with - the Blue Morpho. This butterfly is very large, about 5 inches across and never seems to stop flying. I did get this slightly tatty one though.

Blue Morpho
Also this Merops Daggerwing. 

Merops Daggerwing

Merops Daggerwing

A farewell photo.
What a great place and what a great trip. I hope to return again before too long - there's so much more still to see.