Wednesday, May 30, 2012


My Costa Rican friend Yamil says crocodiles are "the closest you'll ever get to a Tyrannosaurus rex" – and I have to agree with him. There's something so primitive, so powerful, so just plain scary about these creatures, it's hard to describe the chill you feel the first time you see one up close. Or the second time. Or the third ... We saw dozens of crocodiles in our four days on the Tarcoles River; no matter how many there were, each of them felt as surprising as the first one.

To get this low-angle, croc's eye view, Yamil and I had to lie on our bellies in the mud at the water's edge, while at the same time keeping a watchful eye out for any hungry crocs that might be headed our way.

Yeah, like that would have helped.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My first tropical frog

Blue-sided treefrog, Agalychnis annae

The Hotel Bougainvillea is known for its ten acres of gardens, which attract a wide variety of birds, butterflies, and photographers. Only twenty minutes by taxi from Juan Santamaria International Airport, it's a popular stopover for ecotourists on their way to the various wilderness lodges that contribute so much to Costa Rica's economy. The gardens also include three small ponds that were designed especially as habitat for Agalychnis annae, an endangered species known locally as the coffee frog. You can guess where my priorities were.

Exploring one of the ponds around mid-day, I photographed several Forrer's leopard frogs (also called grass frogs) hiding in the leaves that covered most of the water's surface. Seeing and photographing a new species is always good news, but I have to admit I was disappointed with this one. I mean, it was my first Costa Rican frog – but it was a leopard frog, almost identical to one of the most common frogs in the United States. (It was a bit like discovering that Costa Rica's national bird is a robin.) In spite of the fact that I had never seen this species before – and never mind that I was in a foreign country and a whole new ecosystem, 3,000 miles and almost 30 degrees of latitude from home – everything about this frog looked familiar. It was unmistakably a member of the genus Rana (or Lithobates, if you're keeping up with the latest in herpetology). I wanted something new.

Coffee frogs are nocturnal; I returned to the pond just before sunset so I'd be ready. But ready for what? I carefully scanned all parts of the pond and its abundant plant life. As dusk turned to dark, though, I realized I had no idea what I was looking for. How big are these frogs? Are they likely to be in the water? At the pond's edge? In the trees? I was beginning to doubt whether I'd find anything at all when suddenly I heard a new call, higher-pitched, shorter, and simpler than the weird grunting and moaning of the leopard frogs. I didn't really know what it was, but at least it wasn't a leopard frog, so I concentrated my search around where the new sound seemed to originate.

Shining my headlamp into the leaves of a huge bromeliad, I finally saw what I'd been looking for. It was a few feet in front of me, and bigger than I expected – its body was a little over 2 inches long. Now this was a tropical frog, not an old familiar Rana. Nothing about this guy looked familiar: It was a brilliant shade of green, with blue along the sides of its belly and legs, and huge eyes with vertical pupils. It could turn its head left and right, independent of its elongated body. Its movements were slow and deliberate, almost chameleon-like. Everything about this frog said I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Or California. Whatever.

Naturally, I had the wrong lens on the camera, and the frog was moving away from me. While changing lenses in the dark, I made my way around to the other side of the bromeliad and tried to get to where I thought the frog was heading. As I stepped deeper into the foliage, I was pretty sure I'd end up falling into the pond while trying to avoid one of the spiders that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Eventually, though, I found the right spot and the frog stepped into view right in front of my camera.

I had photographed my first tropical frog. With its improbable colors, bulging eyes, and thoughtful gaze, it seemed to be welcoming me to Costa Rica.