A little safari through an estuary
Last weekend, we took a boat safari through the Tamarindo estuary. In an estuary, fresh water from streams meets salty ocean water, and the resulting mixed water is brackish and murky. A perfect place for crocodiles! And we saw a couple of them along the edge of the estuary as we puttered by.
We also waved hello to kayakers passing our boat. I enjoy kayaking very much, but would be nervous to try it in the estuary because of the cocodrilos. Despite never having capsized before, my mind still turns to the worst case scenario. I do not want to end up in the water, as food for crocodiles or any other species.
(In an effort to convince myself I’m being silly, I Googled crocodile attacks on kayakers. They do happen, but rarely with American crocodiles, the species here in Costa Rica. Seawater and Nile crocodiles are much more aggressive toward humans. Also, I just lost an hour reading about crocodile attacks.)
We’re lucky to be located adjacent to Las Baulas National Park, a nature preserve named after the sea turtles that nest on the beaches—las baulas means ‘the leatherbacks.’ The park was created, in fact, to protect these turtles. Las Baulas is one of the largest leatherback turtle nesting sites in the world, but the guide who took us out, Ivan, said last year only six turtles nested here. Articles from previous years mention “thousands” of nesting turtles, so a drop to single digits would be devastating. I tried to find reports on the 2021 nesting leatherback turtle population but couldn’t, so I don’t know if the decrease Ivan mentioned was for one particular area or the whole nesting beach.
Regardless, it is true that the leatherback turtle population is in trouble. Leatherbacks have existed in their current form since the dinosaur ages, but their time may soon be up. They are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, and according to NOAA, “over the last three generations, nesting in this region [Costa Rica and Mexico] has declined by over 90 percent.” I’d been excited about taking a night tour to observe the nesting turtles when the season starts, but I don’t know that the tours will happen if almost no turtles are showing up any more.
The boat brought us from the river mouth up into the estuary, passing mangrove forests on both sides, their trees looming and draping long tendrils into the water. They look haunting and haunted; not a place I would want to be alone in at night. Many large branches are wrapped by terrifyingly large termite nests, dark brown lumps the size of two to four basketballs stuck together. Each such nest houses several thousand termites. The crooks of thinner branches also hold small termite nests, all the way down to the surface of the water. Unlike leatherback turtles, the termites are not turning up here in the single digits.
At one point in our boat ride, Ivan docked the boat and we went ashore to a jungle area where monkeys regularly hang out. We walked a ways in and, other than the chirp of birds, all was quiet. We didn’t find any monkeys, but we saw many holes in the ground, about two inches in diameter. We asked Ivan what caused these holes. “Mud crabs,” he said.
We noticed that if we looked at holes further away, we could spot small, brightly colored crabs waiting perfectly still right outside the holes, and they in turn appeared to be watching us warily. As we got closer, they would all scuttle into their holes at once, in a swift and uniform motion, like a military exercise. I wanted a video of these precise little critters but they were too fast for me. I did get a few photos though. Isn’t this a beautiful crab? I’ve never seen one with such vibrant colors before (that was uncooked).
By the way, here is another crab, not seen in the estuary but on the beach later, equally fast in movement. It had been sitting on the coral, but when it sensed me approaching, it quickly crab-crawled down under the coral and tried to blend in. It did a pretty good job, right?
Taz had brought back a pair of binoculars from the States recently, and Beanie was excited to use them on our estuary tour. Two years ago, when we went on a snowy owl spotting drive in Canada, she refused to use binoculars despite loving snowy owls. I think she tried looking through them briefly and couldn’t make them work for her, so she decided they weren’t worth another go. She would not try the binoculars again, no matter how much Taz and I coaxed her. Often her stubbornness seems arbitrary, and arguing or persuading doesn’t change her mind. Time sometimes does, and I’ve learned to let time do the heavy lifting. Sure enough, two years on, Beanie took to the binoculars immediately and eagerly, proud to be the first to spot wildlife and point them out to us.
(It is most interesting to see your own personality traits reflected back to you in the form of a smaller human. I’m also stubborn in ways that are probably inexplicable to other people. Sometimes there’s good reason for it, and sometimes there isn’t. In the latter case, and as with Beanie, time usually loosens my pickle jar of stubbornness.)
Through our new binoculars, we saw many iguanas sunning themselves on logs, and a number of water birds—herons, ibises, egrets, even vultures. Here in the estuary, 139 species of birds can be found. We saw a tiny fraction of these 139 species, but we were thrilled nonetheless as we watched these birds gliding above the water, looking for their next meal.
My interest in birds started during the pandemic, which seems to be a not uncommon story. We bought some feeders, including two of the clear plastic kind that suction on to windows. We stuck them on our large front picture window; after a few weeks, the birds told one another about this new food source and we started getting a ton of bird visitors. Most common were the American goldfinches—some pushed other birds away to get to the good stuff, but most would politely queue for their turn, waiting in the bushes or trees nearby until a space freed up. I noticed they had a meal schedule similar to ours, clustering at the feeders around breakfast and dinner time. Especially during the height of the pandemic, when nobody was going anywhere, the birds brought a bit of life and variety to our house. Beanie was mildly interested in them, while I was actively enthusiastic.
Why is birdwatching more appealing as we get older? Despite my growing interest in it, I’m still kind of baffled about what’s changed. I found it joyful and soothing to watch the birds feeding at our window in California, whereas birds were really quite boring to me before. The circumstances of the pandemic peaked my interest in birds, but I’m not alone, and this is not a new pandemic phenomenon. Old people have been going wild about birds for eons.
OK, so I Googled “why do old people like birdwatching” and while the reasons given make sense (it improves memory, connects one with nature, is an activity those with limited mobility can participate in, etc.) none quite apply to me. I don’t know why I like birds now. Maybe it’s simply that watching them gives me a few minutes where I’m not doing anything else—not work, not a chore, not scrolling on my phone—but just sitting and observing. The estuary boat tour was a good experience in that way too: we were lucky to see the wildlife that we did, but actually, much of the fun came from sitting together for two hours and taking in all that was passing us by.
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