Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Costa Rica Part 3: Zoo Ave Wildlife Conservation Park

An iguana strikes a pose. I found this extraordinary creature perched atop a wooden box along one of the trails in the Zoo Ave Wildlife Conservation Park. We stopped at the Zoo Ave facility after visiting Volcán Poás (see Part 2 of this series). Iguanas tend to remain very still, even when closely approached, making them easy to photograph. Zoo Ave (Spanish for "Bird Zoo") is owned and operated by the Nature Restoration Foundation (NSF). The NSF is a non-profit organization that also operates two other wildlife projects in Costa Rica. The Zoo Ave facility draws 60,000 visitors per year, 95% of which are Costa Ricans. Carole and I and our Caravan Tours group were part of the 5% who are foreigners. The proportion of Costa Rican visitors demonstrates the country's high level of environmental consciousness. In addition to the three wildlife centers run by the NSF, there are at least 13 other rescue centers, animal sanctuaries, and zoos doing similar work in Costa Rica. Zoo Ave is located in La Garita, Alajuela Province. The hours are 9 AM - 5 PM daily and entrance fees are $15 (USD) for adults, $13 for students, and $4 for children. For a Google map to locate Zoo Ave, click here.

The Park

Thick jungle covers most of the property, replicating the animals' natural habitat. Because many of the animals prefer to hide in the foliage, photography can be difficult. As a result, the animals you see in this posting are a small fraction of the ones we encountered. Since the 1980s, Zoo Ave has been accepting orphaned, injured, or former pet animals. Others were delivered to the facility after they were confiscated because of illegal possession. The sanctuary does not purchase animals and every creature here has been donated by the government or private individuals. Of the animals accepted, 77% are birds, mostly parrot and owl species. Another 20% are reptiles such as iguanas and boa constrictors. Generally, the reptiles are turned over after they are captured in someone's house or barn. About 4% are monkeys, sloths and squirrels. Many of these are babies who survived after their mothers were hit by cars. The goal of Zoo Ave is to release them back into the wild when they are ready. However, some animals are so injured or have become so completely socialized to human beings that they could not survive in the wild. These become Zoo Ave's permanent residents.

The facility also hosts some unusual plant species, such as this Giant Bamboo. The origin of Giant Bamboo is believed to be either Thailand or the southern part of Sri Lanka. How it got to Costa Rica is not clear to me. This is the largest of all bamboo species in the world. For scale, see Carole in the lower right corner of the photo. The Giant Bamboo can reach a height of 30 m (98.5 ft). The buds can grow at the astonishing rate of 53.3 cm (21 in) per day! The bamboo shafts are used to provide bamboo pipes, masts for boats, and paper. They can also be cooked into a creamy porridge.


The brilliant plumage of a Scarlet macaw makes it stand out against the green foliage. This one was leaning over to examine its food bowl. Macaws I have encountered in Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica seem relatively unconcerned by human visitors. There are two subspecies of Scarlet macaws, one with a range in South America (Macao macao), and another in Central America (Macao cyanoptera). In Costa Rica, wild Scarlet Macaws can only be found in two small areas along the Pacific Coast. Because of its stunning appearance, the macaw has long been valued as a pet as well as for its bright feathers. In pre-hispanic times, macaw feathers were traded all the way up to the Anasazi country of the US Southwest. When Carole and I visited the ancient ruin of Cacaxtla, north of Puebla, Mexico, we saw the remains of pens where parrots were kept for breeding. Similar pre-hispanic pens have been found in Paquime, southwest of Juarez, Mexico.

The Australian emu is the world's second tallest bird, after the African ostrich. I was unable to determine how this emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) came to be in Costa Rica. Most likely, it was a pet or was exhibited commercially. In any case, it has found a safe, comfortable home. It probably couldn't be released because it would be unlikely to survive and, lacking any opportunity to mate, couldn't propagate. Emus are quite curious. This one walked over and looked directly into my camera lens as I took a shot. Unfortunately, because of its movement, the photo came out blurred and I couldn't use it.

A rare Grey-bellied Hawk stared back imperiously as I took its picture. The very first Grey-bellied Hawk (Accipiter poliogaster) ever recorded in Costa Rica was spotted only recently. On June 26, 2008, a Costa Rican guide named Octavio Ruiz found one at La Selva Biological Station. It had apparently migrated from South America, either intentionally or by overshooting its normal range. Previous to that sighting, Grey-bellied Hawks had not been seen north of Colombia. The species is not well-understood and is rare even in South America. In addition to the thick foliage, the chain-link fences at Zoo Ave form another photographic obstacle. Many of my shots were spoiled when my camera automatically focused on the fence in the foreground instead of the animal in back. Ordinarily I can overcome this problem by placing my lens between the links. However, at Zoo Ave, barriers prevent visitors from approaching the fences, probably to keep them from feeding or otherwise disturbing the animals. This photo was one of the few "through the fence" shots that were good enough to use.

A Brown Pelican preens while floating in a small pond. Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) are common along the Pacific Coast from Canada's British Colombia to southern Chile. Although this one was swimming in a freshwater pond, Brown Pelicans are normally found along the seashore or in river estuaries. This pelican most likely ended up here because of an injury. The Brown Pelican was severely impacted by the use of DDT from the 1940s into the 1970s. The chemical thinned the birds' egg shells, causing breakage before normal hatching. Although DDT was banned in the US as of January 1, 1973, it continued to be used around the world until 2011 when it was banned by the Stockholm Treaty. Since then, Brown Pelican populations have begun to recover.

The Emerald Toucancet is the smallest and shortest billed of the Costa Rican toucans. Emerald Toucancets (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) normally dwell in the tops of cloud forests. Unlike some species, where the male wears the bright plumage and the female is drab, both toucancet genders are clothed in beautiful green feathers. A male's larger beak distinguishes it from a female toucancet. Since I only saw this one bird, I couldn't tell its gender. The birds' range includes Costa Rica and Panamá. They are popular pets because they are affectionate and love to play and interact with their owners. The toucancets' diet is primarily forest fruit, but they also eat insects, lizards and small birds.


A monkey relaxes in its enclosure. The creature sat quietly while I took its photo. Like the iguana, this monkey almost seemed to pose. I am a bit baffled about its species. Costa Rica's monkey population contains four species: the howler, the spider, the squirrel, and the capuchin. The primate above does not resemble any of those. In searching through Google Images, the closest I could find is the Vervet Monkey, an African species most common in Ethiopia and Somalia. It is possible that someone illegally imported a Vervet and it was confiscated. If anyone can come up with a definite species for this animal, please let me know in the Comments section.

A baby marmoset peeks around the side of its mother. Common marmosets (Callithrix jaccus) are  a species of monkey native to the northeastern coast of Brazil. This may be another case of illegal importation. Marmosets are quite small, with an average height of 188 mm (7.4 in). They are characterized by bright ear tufts, a white blaze on the forehead, and a long, banded tail. Unlike most primates, whose claws have evolved into nails, marmosets still have claws on all their digits except for the big toe. Marmosets in the wild live in family groups of about 15 individuals. The entire group helps with raising the young.

A puma snoozes on a platform built high in a tree. I had to use my maximum zoom to get this shot. The Central American puma (Puma concolor costaricensis) is a subspecies of puma whose range extends from the center of Nicaragua through Costa Rica and into Panamá. Its range was originally much larger but it was wiped out in most of its previous habitat. The big cat is very adaptable and can be found in cloud forests, humid forests and gallery forests but it prefers mountains, rocky ravines and dense forests. The puma is solitary, silent and territorial and can travel long distances in search of food. Their diet consists mainly of mammals such as deer, opossum, monkey, porcupine, agouti, iguana and other forest creatures. Occasionally they take a human, especially children. The puma population in Costa Rica is considered to be "threatened".

A Three-toed sloth engaged in its favorite activity: hanging out in a tree. When photographing a sloth, it is difficult to determine what you are viewing. Because of its coloring, the animal is very hard to see from a distance. When finally spotted, you often only see an undifferentiated mass of rather unkempt fur. Which end is which? After carefully reviewing a number of sloth photos, both my own and on Google, I realized that the head of this Three-toed sloth (Bradypus tridactylus) is in the upper left of the photo. The short snout can be seen between the animal's forelegs. In the lower right of the photo, you can see a foot with three toes clinging onto the branch. Sloths move at an extremely leisurely pace of 0.24 km/h (0.15 mph). This is probably due to their leafy diet which is not terribly nutritious and results in a very slow metabolism. They live most of their lives snoozing in a tree fork or hanging upside down from a branch. About once a week, they descend to the forest floor to urinate and defecate. Why sloths don't accomplish this from high above mystifies scientists. While on the ground, their slow pace makes them extremely vulnerable to predators.


Green Iguanas are considered a "threatened" species in Costa Rica. This Green iguana ((Iguana iguana) sat very quietly in the weeds as I moved around looking for the best angle to shoot. Despite its name, this species comes in a variety of colors, including red and bright orange. Green Iguanas are arboreal, herbivorous, and can be found in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The Green Iguana grows to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) from nose to tail and can weigh as much as 9.1 kg (20 lbs). Many people keep them as pets because of their calm disposition. However, their care can be very demanding because of their size and their special requirements for light and heat. The Green Iguana is a threatened species in Costa Rica because of a long tradition of hunting them. Locally, they are called "chicken of the trees".

Iguanas like to perch above the ground. Most of the iguanas we saw while touring Costa Rica were in trees, often on limbs extending out over the water. This position is one of the creature's best defenses since larger animals often can't get out on the limb. If a predator does, the iguana can just dive into the water and swim away. While swimming, the iguana folds its legs close to its body and uses its long, powerful tail to drive it through the water. Although is has a fearsome appearance, the animal is not aggressive except among males during mating season. However, if cornered, the iguana can lash out with its tail and will sometimes use its sharp teeth.

Black River Turtles line up as if at a bus stop. Black River Turtles (Rhinoclemmys funerea) are sometimes called Black Wood Turtles or Black Terrapin. They inhabit freshwater marshes, swamps, ponds and streams. In this case, these reptiles shared the pond with the Brown Pelican seen previously. In addition to Costa Rica, they can be found in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panamá.

Red-eared slider turtles laze in the sun along a stream. As reptiles, they cannot regulate their own body temperature. That is why they are so often seen basking in the sun near the water. Their name comes from their habit of sliding off of rocks and logs into the water when they feel threatened. The semi-aquatic red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is native to the US and Mexico. They are extremely popular as pets. However, their lifespan of 20-30 years (some can live to 40) may explain why they have invaded so many non-native habitats. Many pet owners are not inclined to take such long-term responsibility and release them into the wild in non-native places like Costa Rica. In fact, these colorful little guys are on the list of the world's 100 most invasive species.

This Golden Silk Orbweaver is not an official resident of Zoo Ave, it just lives here. The spider, whose official name is Nephila clavipes, has a huge brain in relation to its body size. The brain fills most of its body cavity and may extend part way down its legs. I found this spider busily wrapping up a victim caught in its web, creating a tasty snack for later.

This completes Part 3 of my Costa Rica series. If you have enjoyed it, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. However, it you do leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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