Friday, August 5, 2016

The Damn Snake!

 photo Snake_tounge_zpshkxrsvld.gif

Let me start by saying that I like snakes.  I don't exaggerate size or aggression.  I'm not afraid of them.  In college I had an Eastern Coral snake.  I picked up Copperheads and moved Cottonmouths and big rattlers. Venomous snakes deserve my respect and distance.  I have scolded many people (friends and strangers alike) for killing non venomous snakes on several occasions. I have never purposely killed or wanted to kill any snake...until the day of this encounter.

OK.  It was a Friday afternoon(July 8, 2016).

The camera was finally loaded with batteries, sim chip and memory card.  It was finally working perfectly, sending email images within 2 minutes of taking a picture.  It was in the small backpack heading up the mountain into the forest.  I was going to the camera location called “Quebrada”(ravine).  A creek had caused a small ravine over which a tree had fallen.  The place had recently been a good spot for a camera trap.  The trail was well defined (steep slopes, up and down on each side) caused animals to follow the path or cross the ravine on the tree trunk.
Most of the time animals choose the tree bridge to cross the Quebrada

A male Curassow follows the alternate path.
The above camera(Covert), took some great pictures, but had failed over the previous months. I decided that this was a perfect time to replace the Covert with a new Spartan wireless camera.

The walk had been easy and uneventful. I was in a semi hurry as to get back home in time for a quick rest and a shower. We would head to Banana Bay Marina for the happy hour which is our custom on Friday afternoons at five-ish.  I strapped the camera to the tree and and looked across the ravine.  There were a few plants growing that needed to be chopped so the motion sensor eye would not be tricked and accidentally triggered by rogue breezes.  I also wanted to test the range and orientation of the new camera's placement before I left.
Casual Friday.  Here I am on the way back to clear vegetation and test the orientation of the camera.

I left my knapsack with phone, water etc at the base of the tree which held the camera.  I crossed over the quebrada with a steep uphill on my right and the steep downward slope on my left.  As I got to my destination(the far end of the log), I heard my walkie talkie go off, my wife Kate was asking a question.  I started to fiddle with the walkie then began answer her question.  Suddenly,  behind me, to my right, slightly up the hill I heard a ruckus in the leaves.  As I spun around, I saw a huge Fer-de-lance/Terciopelo, large head raised, mouth agape, fangs prominent twisting and lunging towards me down the slope with full momentum. The snake, from it's elevated position, could easily have struck my leg, thigh, or waist.  My 10 inch boots were of no help to me in my position.
Fascinated by snakes, especially a large individual such as this, after 4-5 quick paces I slowed to watch and observe.  The snake would have none of that.  It reached the level trail and and continued after me…mouth agape body flailing barely touching ground as it advanced towards me. The damn snake was trying to kill me! My desire to observe vanished.  It was fight or flight.   I had a machete, but it would have been no match for a fast twitch beast such as this.  My only hope was to out run it. Running in the jungle in never a good idea especially with a machete.  At home I run on streets, not paths with steep crumbling edges.  I wear light running shoes not awkward rubber boots.  I never run with a 20 inch machete. 

The walkie talkie went off again with Kate asking her question.  I answered bluntly and I sounded panicked, which she picked up on.  I slowed my retreat to realize the predator had stopped somewhere along the trail.  Whew.  I stared at the trail 2 feet from me, then 3 feet, then 5 feet, then 9 feet etc until I saw my orange knapsack waiting for me beside the tree with the camera.  I had to go past that damn snake again.  

Seeing a snake of this size and ferocity is frightful enough, but knowing it is very near and not seeing it was almost paralyzing. 
14 Minutes after the snake encounter, I had almost made it back to the camera.

 I took my rusty dull machete, felled a rainforest sapling, trimmed the tiny branches until I had a 7 foot stick.  I began sweeping it over the uphill on my left the level trail, and the right downward slope.  All the  while I was hoping to alarm my nemesis again and to identify its whereabouts.   14 minutes of ‘sweeping’ passed as I made it to the rocky ravine.  As I hopped over, my walkie-talkie fell from my belt onto the bare rock creek bed. 
Yikes..My Walkie Talkie in a shadowy danger zone.

I had to reach for it near several rocky snake hiding places.  The grab was successful.  Still shaky, I realigned the camera and grabbed my backpack. Of course, then I had to cross the quebrada and go right past the irate serpent again.  Stick in hand, I once more tried to scare it out of hiding.  One step..then two steps then 4 then 8 and more until I had made it past the Terceopelo a fourth time.  It had vanished or became docile to animals bigger than itself as is the norm.  
I checked in on the walkie and had an uneventful 10 minute walk back poking over every log along the way with the machete.  I started to wonder, "Did all this really me?"  Yes, it did.  I felt like a guy who survived a late night knife assault in a silent dark alley: terrified but relieved.

Despite my safe return, story of fear and then triumph, the damn snake scared me.  I now wonder what is under the sofa, inside a dark cabinet, around the driver side tires as I step into the car.  These are all places that a Fer-de-lance could be even though I fully know it is quite unlikely. This Friday in the woods changed me, possibly forever.

Snake watch out photo Snake_Watch_Out_zpsxsnkljdr.gif

For the first time in my life, I wanted a snake to be killed.  This felt strange.  Kate and I and others, including our dog walk the trail several times a week.  This was absolutely not the place for a hyper aggressive highly venomous snake to be.

I recounted my tale with permanent area residents over the next few days. None had ever encountered such aggression from an undisturbed snake.  Theories abounded such as mating season, young protection, recent kill of prey animal, shedding time, none of it made any real sense to me.  A snake this aggressive that is living in a healthy forest of large mammals would litter the forest with their bodies or be eaten or killed by one of its predators.  I had written the above narrative a few days after my encounter and initially planned to end it there.

There must be more...

Eventually, I downloaded the images from the camera and began to wonder: Can I see the damn snake?
YES... I could see it!  The picture that was triggered before, shows a thin line up the hill which was my aggressive Terciopelo.  See for yourself:
Snake Present
14 minutes of Hell later, the snake is missing.

Tough to see much...I know.  Fer-de lances are notorious for having excellent camouflage, so I had to zoom in on the following part of the 'before' picture:
 Here is the close up:
See it?
So you see, the head is up the slope and the tail likely extends a ways towards the end of the fallen tree well out of frame.  While the extreme zoom from a long way gives no scale for size.  The apparent length in frame is consistent the the nearly hand sized open mouth the snake showed me as it sprung up from the leaves and vegetation.

Here is what likely happened:
X marks where the snake was probably initially coiled...waiting.
 Initially, I passed over or near the snake near the end of the tree on my way to set up the camera. This is a perfect place for a snake to coil and await prey.  Perhaps I startled it and caused it to ascend the hill.  When I went back to clear the vegetation I got the call on the walkie.  Instead of paying attention to where I stepped, I was pulling the walkie from my belt and attempting to answer.  I may have brushed or perhaps stepped on the back end if the Fer-de-lance as it extended onto the trail to the base of the fallen tree.  At the time, that it became irritated enough to 'attack with mouth open', it doubled over itself and easily came down to the side of the trail.  If I was on it's tail it certainly almost had to come at me.  This apparently can explain the violent aggression.  I still don't know why it continued after me when I was 7-8 feet away or why it followed me down the trail 3 meters or so after I was no longer a threat.  

Furthermore,  I had to pass by the snake two more times after the initial melee.  Both times the snake was invisible or gone, meaning that in the four times we crossed paths, only one was an aggressive encounter, probably initiated on my behalf.  When I understood all of this, I lost my desire for its death.  It was just a natural reaction after all.  
Very true words!
July in Costa Rica is part of the wet season.  Heavy rains and cooler temperatures cause snakes to move around a bit more than in the dry season.  However, this July, on the second day of our trip, this Terceopelo was the only one we encountered for the full 25 days of our visit.  That is unusual!

Coming full circle...I walked past that spot 15 more time at least over the next few weeks.  I kept a wary eye for my friend, but he was gone or never showed himself.  So I'll let him peacefully eat all the rats in the forest and we will agree to keep our distance from each other through our new found mutual understanding.


I made the GIFs in this blog from a Discovery Channel show about some of the snakes in Southern Costa Rica.  It is worth a watch in its entirety.  Only the last part is about the Terciopelo and I used this as it shows the correct size of snake that I encountered.  Start at the 31:13 minute mark to see the Fer-de-lance.

If you would like to read about more snakes in Costa Rica, check out our latest entry at Snakes of Costa Rica update

Friday, February 26, 2016

2016 Update Number One ---> 3 New Animals Recorded UPDATED

Because you never know what will look into the camera.

Now that I have your attention.....

You may disregard that monkey above...yep...easier said than done.  That morning in mid-January when I clicked on what I though was a just another capuchin monkey video, only to discover this guy looking into the camera...  Yikes!  Well it was just one of 6000 images that we had to go through after leaving the camera for 5 plus months.   We were fortunate to see 3 new and rare species along with our usual mammal species.

Up the creek

The Gaea camera has been always been placed above the waterfall to capture animals that visited the creek.  The previous location, looking at the giant log, was replaced as the old log had decayed and washed away.  We see more strangers in this area than another, and this cache of images was no exception.  
Fortunately the guys with rifles only spent 4-5 minutes in this area before leaving empty handed.
Moments before these hunter passed by we had seen a paca go by, and an hour after the hunter left, the paca came by again.  So we were glad it was safe. 
We don't see many armadillos on the property, but we got a picture of these two enjoying the stream.

I by passed the next photo several times and considered deleting it since I saw no animal.  However, I did see something in the picture.
Several close up looks later, we determined that it was a very rare mammal that is seldom seen in camera traps.  It is a Greater Grison.  They are members of the weasel family and are very much like badgers.  They have a black mask beginning at their eyes which throws your perception off if you have never seen one before--and I had not.  Our friends over in the Osa peninsula got this handsome pair of Grisons last fall on his camera trap.
Grisons wandering in the jungle.--Osa Conservation image
  Here is the close up of our Grison:
We have since placed a second camera up in this area to see if we can spot anymore Grison activity during the next few months.


We don't see much of it, but when we do it is pretty exciting.  In the nearly 100,000 images we have had over the last two and half years, we have only seen a handful of animals with prey: ocelot with a rice rat, the tayra with iguana, and many agoutis with nuts.  We were very interested when this image came via email from one of the wireless cameras and into the Instant Wild webpage in London.  It appeared to be a large raptor having a face off with a normally arboreal woolly possum.

The wireless camera records two pictures, but sends only the second image.  Here is what the first shot revealed:

It was a battle between the opossum and this raptor with yellow legs.  There were no more images of this from the wireless camera or the companion cameras nearby.  We do know that woolly opossums are very fierce when cornered.


One of the things that we have learned is that many animals like to use fallen trees a pathways through the forest.  
Curassow hen crosses a small ravine.

Tamandua or ant eater on the prowl.
This observation has led us to aim more cameras towards fallen trees and vines to hopefully target animals more accurately.

Collateral Benefit


The above image is a collared peccary.  They have not seen peccaries above Golfito in many many years.  Even though the above image is not from our cameras, our project inspired this land owner/friend to place a camera trap in the forest behind their home.  This site is only 3.5 miles from our property.  There are not many corridors for peccaries to travel, but with Costa Rican ban on sport hunting, there is a chance the peccaries can cross the highway and continue to repopulate forested lands.

Mouse Opossum

The  second new species(for us) that we believe that we have caught on camera is another one of the arboreal opossums.  In addition to the woolly opossum there is a tiny Mouse opossum that we have had glimpses of coming down from trees. We hope to have some images up soon.

Long Tailed Cat

Finally, we can add another cat species to our list.  The Margay is more of a tree dweller than is the ocelot.  It is also a bit smaller and has a longer tail in respect to body size.  They do not adapt to habitat loss as well as the ocelot and need undisturbed forest.  We only have one clip from mid January and we have incorporated it into this short video on the cats we have seen the past 6 months.  The Margay shows up in the intro and again at the very end of the clip.  There are plenty of close ups of ocelots and you can really see how short their tails are compared to the tail of the Margay.
Maximize the screen size to see the video better.


The excitement of realizing that we do have a margay on the property, led me  to quickly look over some other ocelot pictures and videos.  I am often so consumed and focused on plowing through 4-5 months of images that I often pay little attention to what we actually record during our time in Costa Rica.  This was exactly the case with the video below:

Back in July during our visit, I downloaded this quick cat video and discounted it as a young ocelot.  The slight body and head, long tail and 'closed' rosettes actually make this a relatively easy ID.

Current Challenge

Operating a camera trap project this size alone is rewarding but challenging.  The countless hours spent looking through images, placing cameras amid mosquito and ant bites in sweltering heat, is certainly a labor of love.  What is most difficult is the financial challenge.  So far we have been fortunate in that camera failures have been mostly covered by warranty but our 2 year grace period on the original cameras is running out.  The cost of AA lithium batteries has continued to increase.  With the rare advantage of real time images sent from the wireless cameras, we now have data plan costs. Vamos Rental Cars in Costa Rica and HCO-Outdoors Cameras have been instrumental in helping to defray some ongoing costs of batteries and cameras.  Friends and family members help us a great deal as well in keeping our U.S. pets safe and well fed. Thanks to all of them.

If you would like to offer support to our project you can do so in several ways.  The easiest is by clicking on this paypal link:
You can also contact us via email at to receive mailing instructions for a personal check/supplies.

Finally,you can go to one of the online websites, Amazon or eBay to purchase AA Lithium batteries  directly from them and have them sent to our home in Charleston, SC. Contact us for the address.

Our images have become favorites across the globe via the Zoological Society of London's Instant Wild app and webpage!


Our next update will feature BIRDS in the camera traps!