Monteverde: Close Encounters

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We were wandering slowly through the gorgeous cloud forest of Santa Elena’s Hanging Bridges near Monteverde. Today was supposed to be our “relaxing” day. Nothing was scheduled, other than this little trip through Hanging Bridges, and a night hike at 6 PM. Maybe we’d even take a nap this afternoon! So we savored the tangle of greenery, searching for tropical birds, monkeys, and sloths, and rejoicing in the forest’s unbelievable beauty.

The lush cloud forest trail in Santa Elena. How can one see a bird through all that?

Rounding a corner, a long narrow bridge would, unexpectedly and thrillingly, open up before us. We would step onto the bridge as the ground below us plunged away; as we crossed, we would find ourselves suddenly high up in the trees, in the midst of the canopy.

Martin and Dakota cross a hanging bridge, high up in the trees

It was amazing to be up in the canopy, several hundred feet above the ground. All those trees, and us right up there in them! The place would surely be teeming with life from that vantage point, the tree-tops alive and moving with monkeys, sloths, and flocks of colorful birds rising up in a vibrant fluttery cloud. Perfect for close encounters with animals of all kinds, perfect for meeting them eyeball-to-eyeball, right?

Uh, no.

But we did see a lot of leaves.

My high-standing as Champion Bird Spotter, born from spotting the Quetzal yesterday, got another big boost when I caught sight of a large black bird sitting on a branch near the trail, which Martin and Dakota had just blindly blundered past. It turned out to be a Black Guan which garnered much excitement, resulting in camera bags being hastily emptied, and photographic equipment being strewn about the trail, accompanied by lots of whispers and tiptoeing and jockeying for position to get the perfect nostril shot.

Black Guan

Soon after, we were overtaken by a group whose tour guide said they’d just spotted a pygmy owl in a tree. They proffered a camera to us, displaying a blurry silhouetted image. Is that even a bird? But Martin and Dakota were excited, and wanted to retrace our steps to find the pygmy owl.

Suddenly, the pressure was on. “We’re counting on you, Carol!” they told me. “Here’s the ultimate test! Get us that bird!”

So we retraced our steps, vigilantly scanning the trees for the little owl, and my standing as Champion Bird Spotter suffered a pretty big blow when I not only failed to spot the pygmy owl, but walked right back under that Black Guan without seeing it, and had trouble spotting it even as Martin and Dakota incredulously (and somewhat spitefully) pointed it out to me.

One cannot be perfect all the time.

We stumbled out of Hanging Bridges only a few hours before our scheduled 6 PM night hike with Andres, our Naturalist Extraordinaire. So much for an afternoon nap!

We decided to spend the remaining time at a local coffee shop with a courtyard full of hummingbird feeders. Fortified with delicious coffees and gooey cinnamon rolls, we sat on benches watching the hummingbirds veritably swarm over the feeders.

We marveled at all those dazzling birds, flashing emerald green, royal purple, brilliant red, and rich chestnut. They hovered and perched and swooped and zipped. They knocked into each other in a buzzing spiral of wings; they chattered and chipped. Always searching for close encounters with animals, I inched my way under a feeder and stood there quietly, inches from the teeming, tumultuous crowd of hummingbirds who rioted above. The air fairly roared from their wings.

Violet Sabrewing (AKA the Sabertooth)

Martin and Dakota were, of course, in full-on panicky Bird Identification Mode. The different hummers were impossible for me to identify – they were just streaky flashes of brilliant color – but Martin and Dakota excitedly identified the huge purple hummer with the curved bill as the Sabrewing (affectionately known as the Sabertooth to me), as well as the Green Hermit, the Purple-Throated Mountain Gem, the Rufous-Tailed, and. . .  was it the Green Emerald? The Emerald Brilliant? The Green-crowned Brilliant?

The Flashing Jewel-Studded Brilliant Emerald Green Beauty Bird?

Something like that.

Most people clustered around several busy feeders, watching the hummingbirds. I chose a more neglected feeder so as not to disturb the birds or their admiring crowds, and grasped the feeder, extending my finger in front of a feeding site, offering it as a humble perch.

I stood there, stock still, for a long time, feeling a bit like an idiot. I waited optimistically (inanely?), holding an abandoned, birdless feeder and hoping (like a crazy person?) that a bird might alight onto my finger. Hello! You look stupid! I’m sure people were snickering at me behind my back. Yet hummers would occasionally buzz about and land in shrubs nearby, eyeing me and the feeder, while I stood there resolutely, arm aching, finger stubbornly extended.

And then they started to come. They streaked around my head; they hovered nearby, studying me. They inched closer, closer, and finally cautiously drank from the feeder, opposite my finger. I held my breath. They circled around and hovered directly over my finger, drinking the nectar while I felt the strong wind of their delicate wings.

And finally, amazingly, thrillingly, a delicate green bird with white eye streaks settled lightly down onto my outstretched finger, grasping it firmly with her slightly prickly little claws, and drank, and hung out, and looked me right in the eye. My heart was pounding and I was barely breathing as I stood frozen, utterly still, until she flew off.

It is a close encounter of the best kind.

A close encounter of the best kind.

It was time to go meet Andres for our night hike. Armed with flashlights and a sense of adventure, Andres guided a group of us through the growing darkness, calling out, “Friends! Friends! Come take a look!”

Right off the bat, practically in the parking lot, he pointed out a fat agouti (large rodent) prancing across the meadow, as well as three coatis (long-tailed raccoons) at the base of some nearby trees. As we ventured further into the woods, he found various beetles and fireflies and ants. At one point he showed us a walking stick in a shrub. How did he even see that? The walking stick looked just like a twig! It was dark! It’d be difficult to spot in bright daylight!

I began to suspect he had a pocketful of insects that he would surreptitiously release, and then “discover” for us.

“Friends! Friends! Look what I just found!”

Hmmmm….

Over and over, he excitedly called, “Friends, friends! Over there, I just saw a tapir trot by!” or “Friends, quick! An owl flew that direction, can anyone see it?” or “Was that a frog? I’m sure it was, search very carefully!”

And we would all eagerly shine our flashlights, and duck under tree branches and cast silently about, searching for the exotic and shadowy animal Andres had “just seen.”

None of which, I might add, we ever actually saw, other than the agouti and coatis right there in the parking lot. Were those actually someone’s pets, quietly released for an evening stroll so that we might breathlessly “discover” them?

My suspicion grew stronger. Perhaps all these near misses, all these almost-encounters, weren’t anything more than good-natured duplicity on Andres’ part, sheer showmanship to provide fun and entertainment. We were certainly thrilled, even electrified, to be searching for tapirs and owls in the darkness, thinking the next sweep of the flashlight beam might finally reveal the animal, believing we just barely missed a phenomenal sighting. Darn! Next time, surely, we would see it! We were so close to such an amazing encounter!

But Andres could just as easily been calling out, “Friends! Look through those trees, there’s an 800-pound male gorilla!” or “Friends, quick! I just saw a Dodo bird cross the trail, right there!” or “Friends, friends, did you see that? It was a Brontosaurus!!

And in a frenzy of excitement, we search and search for something that isn’t there, that never was there.

Well, it was fun, whether we were being played or not. We paid Andres for a good time, for an exciting nature walk at night, and we certainly got it, even if (in the end), we actually only saw someone’s pet animals, a twiggy walking stick, and a green beetle. But we left feeling happy and satisfied, believing we almost saw – we just barely missed seeing! – tapirs, owls, an enormous gorilla, and a lumbering Brontosaurus.

A day filled with close encounters with animals, from delicate hummingbirds to massive dinosaurs? That’s happiness, right there.

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