A Guided Boat Tour in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica
Our plan, when staying in La Fortuna, was to make a couple of road trips to further our exploration of the area. On our third day in Costa Rica, we were up at 5 a.m., wakened by bird song, but pouring rain had us holding off until 9 o’clock before setting off for Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. It is considered by many to be the third most important wetland in the world.
The 2-hour drive north to Caño Negro Village was over mostly paved roads, and near La Fortuna, traffic was heavy. In the countryside, there were long stretches rife with pot-holes requiring diligence at the wheel. Driving a 4×4 made the roads manageable.
As we passed through one built-up area, Bob and I noticed a huge toad in the middle of the roadway. After stopping to move it to safety, we realized that local children had been throwing the toad onto the road, hoping to see it crushed by a passing vehicle.
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is a wetlands that provides vital habitat for a variety of wildlife, and we were eager to see what was in store for us. Our arrival there was delayed when we stopped to observe this roadside waterhole that was brimming with birds.
We had the place to ourselves, and from the shoulder of the road, exemplary views of the birds were possible. The flock of Great Egrets, Wood Storks, Snowy Egrets and Northern Jacana was so dense that it was difficult to take in all the action.
The Wood Storks were having great success. They caught one fish after another,
and each flew off with its prize.
Upon arriving at Caño Negro village, a sign confirmed that we were in the right location to book a boat tour on the Frio River.
Bob parked the car near a cavernous open-air pavilion that provided shade for several tour operators, but we did some exploring before committing to hire one of the local guides. A beautiful treed pathway intrigued us since it appeared to lead to the river.
What a pleasant surprise to find a covered deck and substantial docks from which to set sail.
A flotilla of boats was moored nearby just waiting to be employed.
As we strolled back to the building, Bob and I were delayed because the backwater next to the trail held lots of surprises like this Northern Jacana…
and its fledgling.
After much deliberation, we booked Ernesto for a 3-hour river tour starting at 2:30 p.m. We had a bit of time to kill so retreated back to riverside to eat our picnic lunch. Rio Frio (River Frio) stretched out before us. Our boat tour would take us down the river toward Lake Cano Negro.
You can imagine our delight when a Nicaraguan Grackle decided to hang out in the trees above our heads as we munched our snacks. This is the only Costa Rican habitat where these rare birds dwell.
Upon boarding, Bob and I were pleased to see that we had the tour boat to ourselves except for 2 other passengers, Ernesto’s wife and son, both of whom he dropped off on the riverbank a short ways from our point of departure. School was out for the day, and the pair were headed home.
Ernesto was an amiable fellow who was adept at maneuvering the boat and spotting wildlife. He exhibited endless patience when waiting for us to photograph the different creatures, and provided English names for most of them.
River Frio is a slow-moving river “through canyons”, as one brochure said, but it was referring to the border of dense vegetation on both riverbanks. Within the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, there are both rainforest and river habitats. It is without doubt one of the most ecologically diverse sites in the country.
It took no time at all before our cameras were clicking. While I photographed a female Amazon Kingfisher on one side of the boat,
Bob busied himself photographing another where it hovered in the air before diving for a fish.
Anhingas were quite a common sight perched on low-hanging branches as they are wont to do. Some were preening…
while others tried to regain some semblance of decorum after trying for a fish.
At home in Ontario, we struggle to photograph Belted Kingfishers, but there along the Frio River, the different species seemed to relish our attention. We had excellent views of this male Ringed Kingfisher.
Although the flow of River Frio is languid during the dry season, as when we visited, evidence of its mighty flow during the wet season could be seen in the erosion taking place along its banks. That is when the whole wildlife preserve turns into a lake. All that remained in March was the main channel of the river and the somewhat diminished Cano Negro Lagoons.
Sometimes, lurking in the shadows on exposed mud, a Spectacled Caiman would catch our eye. Chills ran up my spine just thinking about the turmoil should someone fall into the river! Yikes!
Further down the river where the receding water levels provided mudflats, the threat was never more clear. On a sunlit point, a dozen Spectacled Caiman either cooled themselves in the river or basked in the sun among the thin weeds. They were plentiful!
We thought it risky that boaters were paddling a shallow skiff down the river. Their hands were so close to the water that it made my skin crawl. I was grateful to be in a motorboat high above the water and with a canopy to shade us from the sun. It was beating down on us, and we had a long way to go.
It was soon after that we espied a couple of fisherpeople sharing the riverbank. They were quite pleased with their catch, a Freshwater Drum Fish, one of the native species of fish found in River Frio. We learned from Ernesto that fishing is allowed in the reserve from July 1 – March 31 with a license.
It was a gloriously hot day when we floated along the River Frio, and soaring trees along the river’s course provided no shade. Rio Frio means “cold river”, and though a dip in the water would be refreshing, it would be downright risqué given the slew of Caimans lurking below the surface.
Bob and I were so busy scanning the water’s surface that Ernesto had to draw our attention to the Howler Monkeys in the top of one large tree.
From a distance, I thought they were Anhingas, and there was one of those birds perched in the same tree, but this was a family of three Red Howler Monkeys, a male, female and baby.
Bob and I were mesmerized and observed the monkeys at length. They moved about the tree easily using their prehensile tails to swing from branch to branch. The baby was well tended by one adult that appeared to be teaching the young one different skills.
A limb of a different tree was host to four Green Iguanas. These reptiles are prone to bask in the sun where trees overhang the water. We were beginning to understand why the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge was deemed to be a Wetland of International Importance in 1991.
It was so peaceful motoring along River Frio. There was a constant parade of avian species like these White Ibises. I made good use of my phone to document each species that we saw, and there were many.
a Crested Caracara,
a Boat-billed Heron,
and Green Herons, to name a few.
Ernesto was very pleased to spot an American Pygmy Kingfisher and was able to sidle the boat up very close to where it perched just above the flowing water.
As the afternoon wore on, we were approaching the midway point of our boat tour. Cano Negro Lagoons were just a little further along the river. We had no idea what to expect.
As we motored around yet another bend in the river, a huge body of water was revealed. The perimeter of mudflats was dotted with scores of birds come here to spend the winter.
The birds were predominantly Great Egrets, but a few American White Pelicans could be seen in the mix, and the rosy-red glow of Roseate Spoonbills stood out from the rest of the group.
A sweet water lagoon, Caño Negro Lake is over 800 hectares in size. It is a type of everglades surrounded by wetlands and mudflats. Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge is located between the Pacific Lowland’s monsoonal climate and the Caribbean Coastal area’s humid climate. It is Costa Rica’s only region of true zonal precipitation.
Migration plays a big role in the population of birds at Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary, once flooded by winter rains, expands the summertime lagoons into a full-fledged lake that covers the whole area.
Lying smack dab in the middle of the flyway for birds migrating south from North America or going north from South America, Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge sees millions of birds wintering in the rich wetlands starting in December each year.
Already, Ernesto had been generous with his time. While we patrolled the perimeter of the mudflats, shadows grew deeper, yet Ernesto was not deterred.
The sun not only cast its golden glow over the landscape, but also gave a bronze luster to any creatures in the path of its dwindling rays. This Spectacled Caiman lurked in the shallows near our launch.
Looking skyward, we spotted a Roseate Spoonbill approaching.
We were situated perfectly to see it land, and Ernesto turned off the outboard motor.
Bob and I are quite enamoured with Roseate Spoonbills so we were excited to have unparalleled views of this wading bird.
Roaming the mudflats nearby were Snowy Egrets, White Ibises, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Northern Jacanas and even some Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers.
Feeling like we were being sized up as prey, Bob and I remarked about one Spectacled Caiman that had slid up beside our boat.
When Ernesto fired up the outboard motor, the Caiman gave a mighty splash that had me squealing in surprise.
There was much to appreciate in that idyllic setting.
Long shadows now engulfed us as Ernesto turned the boat back towards Cano Negro Village. We were glad to have the sun at our backs.
The river was still busy with people heading home from work,
their boats loaded with produce destined for the next day’s market.
On the ride back to the dock, we took more time to appreciate the vegetation.
Still, Ernesto peered into the shadows searching for birds and animals. A Prothonotary Warbler put on a lengthy show at riverside.
The dense shrubbery and underbrush provided great habitat for insects, and the warbler came up with one mouthful.
Positioned to catch a fish on a sunlit point, a Green Heron was using the last light to assist with one more catch.
A lone female Sungrebe dallied in the protected shallows at one bend in the river.
We had seen Tri-coloured Herons and Gray Herons, but it was this Little Blue Heron that stood out sharply against the dun-coloured soil.
And greeting us at the dock upon our return was a Bare-throated Tiger Heron.
Our species tally was not the highest that day, only 45, but the relaxing and peaceful cruise on Rio Frio, sharing time with Ernesto and his family, observing life on the river, and seeing the wildlife made it all very special.
As darkness engulfed the land, Bob and I returned to our car and braced ourselves for the drive back to La Fortuna. Visiting Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge had made for a great day trip!
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