Sloths

Two-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

It’s times like these, when the world is swirling, that I look to my slow-moving wildlife friends to help me slow down, get grounded. Let’s take a look at the world’s slowest mammal: the sloth.

 

Lethargic and sedentary, sloths can be found in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. We had the thrill of seeing a few individuals in Costa Rica.

 

Wild Bromeliads, Costa Rica Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

With a name that means “laziness,” sloths have very slow metabolism and are motionless 90% of the time.

 

About the size of a medium dog, a sloth is difficult to spot in the rainforest because they are deeply hidden in tree canopies, and usually high up.

 

Rainforest. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

They move so slow that algae grows in their fur. The algae helps them blend into the foliage. In addition to the algae, the fur has an ecosystem of arthropods–moths, beetles, mites, and more.

 

Vulnerable in their sluggishness, this arboreal mammal stays hidden in the treetop to avoid predators. With a typical life span of 12 years, some sloths are born, live, and die in the same tree.

 

Equipped with claws for hands and feet, sloths hang upside down in trees. They cannot walk, so they drag themselves along the ground, if necessary. Several locals told us they saw sloths using telephone lines to move about, when there were no trees.

 

With poor vision and poor hearing, sloths rely on smell and touch to find food.

 

There are two extant families of sloths:  the two-toed and three-toed. Both are photographed here. But this title is misleading, because all sloths have three toes, even the ones named two-toed…and they’re not toes, they’re claws.

 

The two-toed sloths eat fruit, leaves, insects and small lizards; three-toed sloths are herbivorous, eat leaves and buds.

 

Wikipedia Sloth

 

When we travelled to Costa Rica, we hoped to see many natural beauties, but the sloth was top on our list. We asked many people where we might see a wild sloth, including the cab driver who met us at the airport.

 

En route to our destination, the cab driver proudly stopped in a park in a very small town and took us directly to The Tree.

 

Because the sloth rarely moves, the cab driver knew exactly the tree and limb on which to find the sloth.

 

It looked liked a hairy wasp nest. It was motionless, and impossible to recognize. Taking a photograph was pointless. But still, it was a thrill.

 

A week later, we were in a Costa Rican rainforest with a guide. He, too, knew exactly where to take us to see the sloths.

 

It was hot, sticky, and buggy, and there was much going on in this active rainforest. Birds were flitting, toucans were squawking, monkeys were shrieking, and butterflies fluttered around us.

 

The sloths were conked out, deep in sleep.

 

Over one hundred feet (30m) up, and hidden in a tangle of leaves and vines, there was one sloth. In a different tree farther away, was another.

 

Binoculars and camera at the ready, we stood there craning our necks for over a half hour, waiting for a moment when the sloth would move. We were ready for a twitch, a wink, an opening eyelid, anything.

 

Eventually the three-toed sloth opened one eye halfway, for a moment. It was marvelous. Athena caught the moment (below).

Three-toed sloth, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Notice the green tint in the arm covering the face…that’s algae.

 

About once a week they make their way down the tree to go to the bathroom. They urinate, defecate, bury it, and climb back up.

 

Crazy as it sounds, I sure would like to see that.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Green Violetear Hummingbird, Costa Rica. Photo: Athena Alexander

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 2 of 2

Brown Basalisk Lizard in Belize

In addition to the abundant bird species found in Belize, as featured last week, there is also an impressive array of reptiles, mammals, and insects. Welcome to Part 2 of the Belize Wildlife series.

 

 Part 1 of Belize Wildlife. 

 

Native to Belize, the brown basilisk lizard is known for its ability to “walk on water.” With large hind feet and web-like toes, they fly so quickly across the water’s surface that it produces the illusion of the lizard running on water.

 

A quiet river boat ride revealed this basilisk lizard basking beside the river. Like most lizards, the basilisks have varying colors.

Basilisk Lizard, Belize, Central America

The green iguana, which is not always green, was prevalent in many parts of the country. They are the largest lizard in Belize. We came upon this one on the outskirts of Belize City, he was about three feet long (.91 m) without the tail.

Green Iguana, Belize

Deeper into the jungle we were greeted by a troop of Gautemalan black howler monkeys. We had been birding in a Maya ruin, Lamanai, when we found the howlers lazily enjoying figs overhead. They were quiet in this scene, but other times we could hear their eerie, formidable howling from miles away.

 

Click to hear the black howler monkey.

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Maya ruin, Lamanai, Mask Temple

An old abandoned sugar mill in this same Maya ruin had been taken over by aggressive vines, supporting numerous varieties of bats, bugs, and birds.

 

Bats, Lamanai

 

 

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

 

Leafcutter ants, my favorite kind of ant, were also in the rainforest. Columns of ants steadily marched down the trail, each ant carrying a piece of leaf they had chewed and cut.

 

The largest and most complex animal society on earth other than humans, leafcutter ants carry twenty times their body weight, as they dutifully deliver their leaf piece to the communal mound.

 

Leafcutter Ants

 

Where there are ants, there are antbirds.

Dusky Antbird, Belize

 

Life in the rainforest can be brutal. Assassin bugs are known for painful stabbing and lethal saliva.

Assassin bug

 

One dark night after dinner, we found this bad boy on our doorknob. Fortunately it was outside and not inside, and I was wearing a headlamp so I could see not to touch the knob.

 

Belize Scorpion

 

It is the abundance of bugs that attract birds–there were beautiful flycatchers here.

Vermillion Flycatcher, Belize

 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Belize

 

Heading east out of Belize’s rainforests, the traveler eventually finds the dazzling waters of the Caribbean Sea. There’s nothing more calming after jungle mosquitos than a cool sea breeze.

 

Ambergris Caye, Belize

The coast of Belize is comprised of a series of coral reefs, with 450 cayes and seven marine reserves.

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Sea mammals we found snorkeling were southern stingrays and green sea turtles.

Southern Stingray, Belize

Green Sea Turtle, Belize, Ambergris Caye

 

Snorkeling with Southern Stingrays, Belize Barrier Reef

 

While walking the white sand beaches, black spiny-tailed iguanas were a common sight. This frisky pair scuttled up and down a tree trunk.

 

With over 600 species of birds and a plethora of other wildlife, Belize is a tropical menagerie. Thank you for joining me on this two-part adventure.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Northern Jacana

 

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

 

Belize Wildlife, Part 1 of 2

Agami Heron

Situated on the eastern coast of Central America, Belize has many geographical features that culminate in a land rich in fauna and flora. Please join me for a two-part wildlife series, visiting this exotic country.

 

We’ll start with the birds of Belize; and in the second part, next week, we’ll look at all the other wildlife.

 

There are 603 different bird species in Belize…that’s a lot for a small country of 8,800 square miles (22,800 sq. km.). The large country of Canada, for perspective, has 686 bird species.

 

Parrots and toucans say “tropical” right from the start.

 

Mealy Parrot

 

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird

 

Olive-throated Parakeet

 

Positioned between South and North America, Belize is part of a corridor called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This is a natural land bridge between the two continents, crucial for animal migration. It contains 7-10% of the world’s wildlife species.

 

Caribbean Sea from Belize boat

 

In addition, Belize is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, offering a plethora of coastal sea life. The Belize Barrier Reef is approximately 190 miles (300 km) long, and is part of a larger reef system yielding hundreds of species of fish, coral, and invertebrates.

 

Where there are fish, there are fish-hunting birds. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Belize Barrier Reef is a playground for birdwatching and many other water sports and activities.

 

Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and more, Belize

Birds found along coastal Belize include the waders, like herons, as well as pelicans, frigatebirds, shorebirds, and many more.

 

Little Blue Heron

 

Boat-billed Heron

 

Some bird species live in Belize year-round, and others migrate here for the winter. This summer tanager below, for example, spends the winter enjoying Belize’s warm weather and a diet of bees and wasps; then flies north in summer to breed in parts of Central and North America.

 

Summer Tanager, Blue Hole Nat’l Park, Belize

 

The turquoise waters of the Caribbean are not easy to leave behind, but nonetheless we headed westward to the interior of the country, finding a luxuriant terrestrial habitat, well worth the effort.

 

Inland lagoons and rivers attract jabiru, kingfishers, raptors, spoonbills…to name just a few.

 

Jabiru, Belize at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

 

Green Kingfisher, Belize

 

Snail Kite

 

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Thirty-seven percent of Belize’s land territory is protected, more than most small countries.

 

Belize Wikipedia

 

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected wetland, one of my favorite places in Belize. Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is another protected nature reserve on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains.

 

Rufous-tailed jacamar, Belize

 

Yellow-throated Euphonia eating a banana, Belize

 

There are also many Mayan ruins in Belize, an additional source of open space and wildlife in jungle environments. Here we saw many species of trogons and songbirds, and bigger woodland birds like oropendulas and guans.

 

Black-headed Trogon, Belize

 

Montezuma Oropendola, Belize

 

Crested Guan

 

Hummingbirds thrive here. Of the 300-350 hummingbird species in the world, Belize hosts an amazing 26 species (there are about a dozen hummingbird species in the U.S.).

 

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

 

Ascending into the mountains, the habitat and weather change, yielding rare falcon species, hawks, and owls.

 

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

 

White Hawk, Belize

 

Mottled Owl, Belize

 

Join me next week in the second half of this two-part series, celebrating all the other delightful wildlife we came across.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, all taken in Belize.

Black-collared Hawk

 

Leafcutter Ants

Leafcutter Ants

Leafcutter Ants

My favorite ant in all the world.  I first saw this phenomenal creature in the Amazon, and have seen it many times in other New World tropical rainforests.  Aside from humans, leafcutters form the largest and most complex animal society on Earth (Wikipedia).  They can be found primarily in South and Central America and Mexico.

 

Upon first sight, they look like green leaves marching on the trail.  There are long lines of them–so long you can’t see where the parade starts or stops.  A closer view reveals that each piece of leaf is being carried by one ant.  The leaf is about three times bigger than the ant.

 

There is so much activity on a rainforest trail, it is easy not to notice them.  Mosquitoes are biting, the mud is slippery, unfamiliar creatures are screaming and squawking, and you’ve just been told to watch out for “monkey splatter.”  But after awhile you get your bearings, and might wonder:  why are so many ants carrying leaf bits down the trail?

 

They have just bitten a leaf morsel off a live tree and are now carrying it to their nest.  Once the ant arrives at its destination, it carries it’s green load down the center hole, and disappears from human sight. From the outside the nest is a nondescript dirt mound with a hole in the center.  But whoa, there is so much bustling activity inside this huge world.  The nests can eventually spread to 6,000 square feet with 8 million individuals in it!

 

The Nest.  It is actually a growing, living fungus.  The ants raise their young here, and need this fungus to feed their larvae.  Equally as dependent, the fungus needs the ants to nourish and tend it.  The fresh-cut leaves provide enzymes for the fungus to flourish.  In addition, the ants provide antibiotic bacteria to keep the fungus healthy.  This process is called ant-fungus mutualism.

 

Once the transporter leafcutters take the leaf pieces down into the hole, another group starts chewing.  They chew the leaves into a paste, breaking it down for the fungus to use.  As ant communities will be, other castes of leafcutters work earnestly to do their specific job.  You can read more about leafcutter ants by clicking here.

 

With all this ant life and enterprise taking place beside my two colossal feet, I figure it’s the least I can do not to step on them.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Ambergris Caye

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Ambergris Caye, Belize

In Central America off the eastern coast of Belize is a small island floating freely in the Caribbean Sea.  Here is where I enjoyed my first trip to the Caribbean last year.  Americans in the central and eastern parts of the U.S. tend to vacation in the Caribbean, while those of us on the west coast frequent Mexico or Hawaii for tropical adventures.  So the Caribbean was new to me.

 

Ambergris-Caye,-village-squOur vacation in Belize was primarily planned for a birding trip with a group, but prior to meeting up with the group we spent a few independent days on this spirited and sparkly island.  Only 25 miles long and a mere one mile wide, the island is surrounded by white sand beaches.   You can read more about the island here (but skip the part about the meaning of the word “ambergris”).

Ambergris-Caye,-street

A pleasant convenience to this small island were the golf carts, the main mode of transport.  You could go anywhere in a rental cart, dressed in casual swimwear and flip-flops.

 

Frigate birds, pelicans and gulls

Frigate birds, pelicans and gulls

But I am a birder and don’t live that way.  We like to load up with pounds and pounds of optical equipment, dress in long-sleeved shirts so we can stay out in the sun until we nearly faint, and wear hiking shoes so we can trudge through the mangrove swamps.

 

snorkeling with rays

snorkeling with rays

 

And although I did do the swimwear thing and enjoyed a great day of snorkeling and beach walking, my favorite day was the day we explored the island on that crazy golf cart.

 

Spiny-tailed Iguana

Spiny-tailed Iguana

We watched mating iguanas, delighted in the frigate bird often cruising overhead, tip-toed through someone’s back yard in pursuit of an Olive-throated Parakeet, and escaped from some irate dogs as our golf cart flew across cobble-stoned roads.

 

The food was fantastic–rice, beans, fresh-caught fish, plantains–with a Caribbean and Mayan flair.

 

When it was time to return the rental cart, a local woman made a map in the sand for me, directing me to the island’s only gas station.  We found it in some back canal area, where a kindly man suggested I not turn my back on the canal in case of alligators.

 

snorkeling find

snorkeling find

 

Although I very much enjoy being with a guide and seeing far more birds in a day than I would on my own, I treasure days without a guide too.  Free-flying days give me big smiles and great memories.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Our airport chauffeur

Our airport chauffeur

Aerial view of Belizean coast

Aerial view of Belizean coast

 

 

Orange-Breasted Falcon

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

Orange-breasted Falcon, Belize

The fog was dense and wet, and viewing anything more than ten feet ahead was impossible.  Our guide said we just needed to wait for the fog to clear, to see the very rare falcon.  He had grown up nearby and spoke of it as a fact.  It was very early in the morning at Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize.

 

A rare bird in western Belize and Guatemala, Falco deiroleucus have been declining for decades, in spite of a captive-release program and the dedication of many scientists and ornithologists.  How rare?  Sadly, less than 40 pair.  (There are more elsewhere in Mesoamerica, primarily Panama, but the numbers are low, and reports vary.)  This falcon is listed as near threatened, primarily due to loss of habitat.  They nest in steep cliffs in tropical mature forests, a habitat that is quickly disappearing.

 

Belize, Mountain Pine Ridge

For 3 hrs. we only heard this waterfall, until the fog cleared

Three hours later, we had become very familiar with the top of this mountain…but still no falcon.  Hiking was not possible on this granite plateau in the forest, for the limestone and granite cliffs were sharp precipices.  So we photographed drenched cobwebs, pondered bushes and ground cover, shared favorite birding stories.  There was also a humble little craft stand.  A Mayan couple, the caretakers, lived here and she showed us all of her family’s craft work, each piece lovingly described and displayed.  (See earlier post, Magical Mayan Moments.)  But we were still waiting for the fog to clear, still waiting for the falcon.  Eventually it was time to leave.

 

Our van in Belize on the way to the forest

Our van in Belize on the way to the forest

 

Seven of us filed back into the van, bid adieu to the caretakers, started our drive down the isolated tree-lined lane.  The guide knew we should be moving on to our next destination, but still, he hesitated.  When he confessed, “I have never been here without seeing them” is when we all voted for Plan B.

 

As he slowly drove down the lane, we scanned each and every tree.  Being up on the ridge now, we had a different perspective.  And then he said, “I just heard it.”  We spastically tumbled out of the van, and at last we heard the falcon’s “kak-kak-kak.” The falcon landed on a limb several hundred feet away.  Cameras and binoculars were raised in a flurry, and the majestic falcon posed for several minutes, then disappeared over the ridge.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Wildflowers of the Rainforest

Bromeliads, Costa Rica Rainforest

Bromeliads, Costa Rica Rainforest

When you first walk the moldy-leaf paths of a rainforest, it is a chaotic wonder of tall trees, thick vines, dense growth, wet air, and a tempest of frenzied creature sounds.  Trying to find flowers in this is not easy.  But once you become accustomed to it, your senses relax.

 

One of the most versatile flowers on this planet, bromeliads are the natural jewels of the rainforest. In a family of over 3,100 species, this flower includes the pineapple, spanish moss, and the more typical flowering plants shown here.

 

Athena photographing the bromeliads

Athena photographing the bromeliads

This species of bromeliad is an epiphyte, meaning it attaches its roots to another tree rather than into the earth.  They catch rain and nourishment within a whorl of their leaves, where other organisms like tree frogs also flourish.  Bromeliaceae are primarily found in the rainforests of Central and South America.  They commonly develop one flower that emerges on a stalk and lives for several months.

 

Outside the rainforest bromeliads can easily be found, oddly enough, in large grocery stores.  These are grown in greenhouses and hybridized a hundred different ways, and sold to customers as a maintenance-free flowering plant.  When I walk by the floral department with my shopping cart in front of me, I give a wink to them and smile at this big beautiful world.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander, Jet Eliot

 

Yellow-headed Caracara

Yellow-headed Caracara, Costa Rica

Yellow-headed Caracara, Costa Rica

A very impressive bird of prey in the falcon family, the Yellow-headed Caracara can be found in South and Central America.  We saw this beauty while visiting Costa Rica.

 

Unlike most falcons, Milvago chimachimas do not hunt in the air but prefer to scavenge.   They eat amphibians and reptiles, as well as carrion and some invertebrates.  Sometimes called “tickbirds,” they have been known to eat ticks off of cattle.

 

Refreshingly, this bird is not being crowded off the earth by humans.  Commonly seen in Latin American cities, it has adjusted to urban territories and even hunts off rooftops.  The variable diet is a key to survival too.  Measuring about 17 inches in length, we have a good chance of enjoying this adaptable warrior for generations to come.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander