The Basilisk Lizard

Basilisk Lizard, Costa Rica

Gliding on a pontoon boat down the Tarcoles River in Costa Rica, we were literally focusing on birds when a unique lizard completely surprised us. I had never seen this phenomenon before, and I have never seen it since.

 

The lizard, the common basilisk, lives in the rainforests of Central and South America near rivers and streams.

Tarcoles River, cattle egret

Earlier, we had been hiking and birding the jungle of Carara National Park. The heat was extreme, humidity was high, and the mosquitoes were thick.

 

By late afternoon the earth had cooled down, wildlife were out, and we were quietly and slowly cruising through the mangrove swamp. The slight breeze produced by the boat was heavenly.

Boat-billed Heron

We came across nesting boat-billed herons, and a bountiful array of birds including macaws eating almonds and toucans hidden in the branches.

Crocodile

Birds and crocodiles continued with their endeavors as we peacefully floated by.

 

Suddenly there was a splashing commotion and in a flash this lizard skittered across the surface of the water.

 

How does a lizard run on top of water?

 

I had previously seen this trick of the “Jesus Lizard” on nature programs. They stand upright in the water on their two hind legs, and streak across the water’s surface.

 

A  small reptile with numerous predators, they turn on their racing legs when threatened. It wasn’t a busy river and our pontoon boat had scared him.

Basilisk lizard, Tarcoles River

Basiliscus basiliscus have wide-webbed feet with scaly fringes that expand when they hit the surface of the water. While the front legs remain upright and motionless, the back legs hit the water, creating a pocket of underwater air that supports the lightweight reptile. Simultaneously, their feet are essentially water-pedaling, pushing outward in a way that  balances the lizard.

 

The one we saw was about 12″ long (30 cm) with an additional 8″ (20 cm) of tail. That’s him in the first photo. Doesn’t look like he can fly across water, does he?

 

How far can they run on top of the water?

 

We were in a shallow river with natural sand bars, logs, and downed trees; he ran a distance of about 15 feet (4.5 m).

Basilisk Lizard in Belize

But they can go further. Wikipedia says the smaller basilisk lizards can run atop the water’s surface for about 32-64 feet (10-20m). It also says they can run up to 7 mph (11 km/h). Wikipedia info.

 

Short science video of running basilisk.

 

I love all lizards, but the basilisk is right there in my top five.

 

All photos:  Athena Alexander

Osprey with fish, Tarcoles River

 

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Tarcoles River

Basalisk lizard in Belize

Location of Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

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Ambergris Caye, Belize

Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ambergris Caye, Belize

A small island in the Caribbean Sea, Ambergris Caye is only 25 miles long (40 km) and one mile wide (1.6 km). The island is ringed with white sand beaches–endless vistas of resplendent blue-green water cover the second largest reef in the world.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Upon arrival, our hotel guide loaded us into a golf cart, and we sped off down a cobblestone road. The narrow alleys were swarming with golf carts, the main mode of transportation.

 

Ambergris Caye, aerial view

The only town is San Pedro, it has a population of 16,500 and caters to tourists.  Most natives speak both Spanish and English fluently, as well as a creole mix. Clad in cotton and flip-flops, locals were friendly and relaxed.

 

Located on the Belize Barrier Reef, Ambergris Caye is among a series of coral reefs along coastal Belize spanning 190 miles (300 km) long. It is part of the 560-mile-long (900 km) Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, starting in the Yucatan (Mexico) and ending in Honduras.

 

Ambergris Caye pier

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reef is a prime source of industry and tourism to Belize. Wikipedia Belize information here.

 

Southern Stingray

One day we snorkeled at the two most popular sites: Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We saw rays, turtles, and many fish on the white sandy sea-floor.

 

Snorkeling with Rays, Belize Barrier Reef

Another day we rented a golf cart and explored the island. Free to gallivant wherever we wanted, we had a picnic and spent the day birding in the mangroves.

 

Ambergris Caye street scene

At first we were in that golf cart jerking down the street, making happy fools of ourselves — but eventually we figured out the cart; found many avian waders and sea birds, iguanas, and mangroves.

 

Each night we walked down the sandy beach to a new restaurant; there were colorful tropical drinks, festive Caribbean music, and most restaurants were open-air, with sea water lapping only a few feet away.

 

San Pedro village square

 

Two wonderful posts by fellow-blogger and friend Indah Susanti on Ambergris Caye:

Restaurants and Shark-Diving

 

It was an entertaining land and sea adventure, always with a refreshing sea breeze…melted our winter bones.

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana

 

Frigate birds, Pelicans and Gulls

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Sea Turtle

 

Ambergris Caye Snorkeling Map

Courtesy tropicalsnorkeling.com

 

Belize’s Blue Hole Nat’l. Park

belize-blue-hole-close-upThe park is named after a sapphire pool in a jungle opening. It is a 500-acre park off Hummingbird Highway, near Belize’s capital of Belmopan; has trails above and below ground.

 

Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Blue Hole is a sinkhole that was formed by the collapse of an underground cave, and filled in by an underground river.

 

Belize, Blue Hole Nat'l. Park

Belize, Blue Hole Nat’l. Park

 

When we initially began the trail down we could not see the water. Each descending step got cooler and quieter, and we were surrounded by seeping walls of rock covered with thick and verdant growth.

 

Then soon the blue water at the base of the trail appeared.

 

Belize, Blue Hole Nat'l. Park

Belize, Blue Hole Nat’l. Park

There was a small standing area for viewing the pool, and for those who climbed onto the rocks there was a sandy area for entering the water.

 

We watched little kids boisterously climb out of the water, hunched and shivering from the icy dip.

 

Summer tanager, Blue Hole Nat'l Park, Belize

Summer tanager, Blue Hole Nat’l Park, Belize

We had been birding in the jungle, and having great luck. But it was hot and humid, and the mosquitoes were especially brutal. So a cold dip looked enticing.

 

But there were birds to see! We had already been thrilled with various hummingbirds, ant birds, and tanagers.

 

Rufous-tailed jacamar, Belize

Rufous-tailed jacamar, Belize

As we stood in this surreal sight serenaded by trickling water, gazing at the blue water and the millions of ferns, our reverie was soon interrupted by a new bird, a jacamar.

 

Energetically flitting among the vines and wild orchids, a rufous-tailed jacamar captured our full attention–we watched, marveled, photographed this new lifer.  A colorful and zippy tropical bird, they only occur in the New World.

 

More jacamar info here.

 

As we were hiking back out, I turned around to get one last look.

 

Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Belize

Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Belize

A clear blue pool nestled below earth’s surface–it was a fairy place. It felt like Peter Pan would be coming along any minute.

 

Or maybe that jacamar was Peter Pan?

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

WordPress blogger Myriam’s drawing of the jacamar.

New release and a fun mystery, makes a great gift.

Golden Gate GraveyardPurchase here.

 

 

Manic Manakins

Manacus candei -La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica -male-8.jpg

White-collared Manakin. Photo Jose Calvo. Courtesy Wikipedia.

One of the craziest birds I have ever watched, the manakin is found in tropical forests.  There are 60 different species, all found only in Central and South America.

 

Small birds, ranging in size from 3-6 inches (7-15 cm), they have short tails and an overall stubby appearance.  Being tropical, the male species are often very brightly-colored.

 

The remarkable features of the manakins are their sound and movement when the male is courting.  Many manakin species engage in lekking.  This is a male courtship behavior when males display and compete for the female.  More about lekking here.

 

Juvenile White-collared Manakin. Photo by Rachel C. Taylor. Courtesy Wikipedia.

I have seen several manakin species but the one I have seen most is the white-collared, so I will share this bird with you here.  Their conservation status is rated “of least concern.”

 

More info here.

 

The white, yellow, and black male has modified wing feathers to make a snapping and buzzing sound.  When we are hiking through a rainforest where it is dark and dank, there are often hundreds of wild whoops and monkey howls and unknown sounds.  But when I hear that snap, I am immediately at attention.  It is unmistakable.

 

Click here for the white-collared manakin’s snapping sound, recorded in the Costa Rican forest where I heard it.

 

And that isn’t all.  There’s more.  The bird shoots around like a ping pong ball.  It is astonishing to witness.

 

Manacus candei use a patch of forest floor (the lek) to pop around while they are snapping their wings.  If you keep watching it long enough, you see there is a pattern to their dance.

 

Click here for Matt Gasner’s You Tube video of the white-collared manakin’s courtship display.  I have never linked to a You Tube video before, but this bird dance is that remarkable.

 

A bird that darts faster than your eye can follow, claps, snaps, and buzzes — an utter and complete joy.

 

 

Trogons

Elegant Trogon, Mexico

Elegant Trogon, Mexico

One of the most beautiful bird species we have on this planet, trogons range in size and color, and are usually sexually dimorphic (males and females differ in appearance).

 

They live in tropical forests in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  Here I will focus on the Neotropical species, where Trogonidae are most prevalent (24 species).

 

Violaceous Trogon, Costa Rica

Violaceous Trogon, Costa Rica

Found in Mexico, Central and South America, trogons are a favorite for birdwatchers due to their colorful nature.

 

There is also one trogon species in the U.S., the elegant trogon, that lives in the Arizona mountains.  More trogon info here.

 

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

Although trogons vary in size, they are generally what you see photographed here, in the approximate range of 12 inches long (30 cm), weighing about 2.4 ounces (67 g).

 

The resplendent quetzal, also in the trogon family, is a similar size too, excluding his 26″ (65 cm) tail, (separate quetzal post here.)

 

Arboreal in nature, trogons feed on insects and fruit found in the forest. They fly fast, but do not migrate, even have to use their wings to turn around on a branch.  With broad bills and weak legs, they live and stay in dense tree foliage.

 

Citreoline Trogon, Mexico

Citreoline Trogon, Mexico

The word “trogon” is Greek for “nibbling,” referring to their behavior of gnawing holes in trees to build nests.

 

Trogons have confounded taxonomists for centuries due to the birds’ unusual toe arrangement.  They are the only creature in the world with digits 1 and 2 pointing backward, and digits 3 and 4 pointing forward; defining them as heterdactyly.

 

Mtn Trogon, Mexico

Mtn Trogon, Mexico

Quiet and reclusive, and tucked deep into forest foliage, trogons are not easy to spot.

 

With the help of a guide, I had my first challenging glimpse of a trogon two decades ago in Arizona, and they have been a favorite of mine ever since.

 

I have had the fortune of spotting many trogons since then, and earnestly search for them.

 

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

Even while touring a Mayan site in Belize, when I learned trogons lived in the surrounding trees, I spent more time visiting trogons than burial sites.

 

Quiet and elegant, trogons reign majestically over the forest, usually dazzling anyone who is fortunate enough to spot one.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Liking Lichen

Rocks with moss and lichen, January, California

Rocks with moss and lichen, January, California

After several years of drought in northern California, this winter has been especially exciting for observing lichen and moss, due to recent rains.

 

Moss is a flowerless, living plant — very different than lichen.

 

Lichen are actually a union of two separate organisms:  fungi and algae.  It is a  symbiotic relationship in which a fungus pairs up with algae. Algae produce food by photosynthesis, for the fungus; and the fungus in turn gives the algae a place to live.

 

moss and lichen, California

moss and lichen, California

Lichen grows on almost any surface:  bark, moss, leaves, other lichen, walls, gravestones, roofs.  It grows in forests, arctic tundra, deserts, and cities; it can even survive unprotected in space.   For more info about lichen click here.

lichen, California

Lichen species vary depending on the host environment.  For instance, we have a lot of oakmoss lichen, Evernia prunastri, where I live.

 

It grows on the trunks and branches of oak trees.  It is found in many temperate mountain forests throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including other parts of North America, as well as France, Portugal, Spain, and much of Central Europe.

 

On my morning walks, especially after a windy night, I often find many small branches that have broken off the oak trees and blown to the ground.  They’re loaded with oakmoss lichen.  One year I found a hummingbird nest, made of this lichen, in an oak tree directly above a lot of these branches.

 

lichen, California

oakmoss lichen, California

About 6% of earth’s land surface is covered by lichen.  They are a pioneer species, meaning they are one of the first organisms to begin growing in an area that has been denuded by disaster.

 

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Lace lichen, Courtesy inaturalist.org

Last month California became the first state with an official state lichen:  Ramalina menziesii, also known as lace lichen.  It ranges from Alaska to Baja California.

 

Lichen is eaten by some animals, used for nesting, contributes nitrogen to soils, and was once used as a form of dye.  In the past humans used it for food, but it is generally indigestible and mildly toxic.  It also serves as a sort of litmus for testing levels of air pollution.

 

Moss mustache, Costa Rica

Marino Chacon, bird guide, Savegre, Costa Rica with moss mustache

And for those of us who like to get silly in the woods, forest growth is an excellent source of entertainment.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted