Agami Herons in Costa Rica

Danilo silently motioned for us to stop, pointing to a break in the vegetation on my left. I shifted my eyes from the flooded trail through the forest and gazed across a hidden lagoon. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but obediently scanned Costa Rica’s dense jungle foliage 30 feet away across the water. Then I heard it – a low growling sound. My muscles instinctually tensed, my throat tightened and I scanned more desperately. What was coming my way? We were on the Puma Trail and I had just been hearing about the three jaguars recorded on Pacuare Reserve ’s camera traps.

The growling continued.

While I knew that a middle of the day attack by one of these secretive cats wasn’t going to happen, at this moment I could visualize a lethal pounce. I steadied my breath and squinted at a shadow lurking in the foliage. Definitely too small for a puma or jaguar, maybe a jaguarundi or serval cat? Certainly I could hold my own against one of those!

Danilo moved forward again and for the first time, I glimpsed a tile and bamboo hide on the trail ahead. Suddenly, I understood the growl. I glanced back in the bushes beyond and yes, I could make out a long, heron neck. The neck of an agami heron in fact, and the source of the growling. I extracted my rubber boot from deep in the muddy trail and followed Danilo the remaining distance into the hide. From between the bamboo slats, I could see a dozen or so agami herons on their nests, separated from us by the lagoon. The growling bird I first heard was the only one on our side of the lagoon.

Agami heron with Einstein-style head plumes.

The agami herons were stunning, more brilliant than any of the images I’d seen with their slate gray back, burgundy belly, a matching burgundy stripe down the throat bordered by shaggy silver and black feathers, copper below the wings and long silver plumes above the tail and head. One bird’s head plumes were elegantly sleeked back in the form of a pharoah’s khat headdress while its neighbor resembled Einstein, plumes standing about its head as if a mop had been converted into a punk rocker’s wig and placed upon this unsuspecting bird. Beyond the growling and temporary nest abandonment by the parent whose nest was directly by the trail rather than on the island within the lagoon, the birds seemed unconcerned by our discreeted presence. This was a special opportunity, and that was exactly why we were here.

Exceedingly shy and secretive birds, agami herons spend much of the year as isolated individuals at unknown locations, only reuniting at breeding colonies for the few weeks it takes to pair and raise young. They range across Central America and into northern South America, yet only five breeding colonies are known and of those, the one at the Pacuare Reserve north of Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is the only one truly accessible. The circumstances were right for Jim Kushlan, heron biologist and founder of the IUCN Heron Specialist Group, to finally follow through with his long-term plan to study this elusive species at nest. I was along to help observe and photograph.

Truly accessible proved a relative term. We flew from Miami to San Jose, had a 5-hour ride in a private car (a longer than normal ride given that the main highway was closed for construction, but probably shorter than if I’d taken the equivalent two buses and a taxi required for public transit), was met by a boat, and the next day hiked the additional 2 kilometers to get to this spot. And it was even more complicated than that. This trip had been in the planning for four years, but agami herons are exceptionally shy and affected by disturbance. Two years before, this colony had been abandoned when one spider monkey crossed over and ransacked it. Danilo, now in his tenth year in charge of much of the physical plant of the reserve, had added the task of agami colony guardian to his many responsibilities – cutting the branches that might serve as monkey bridges, constructing this clever hide, moderating human visitation to the colony (kept to a minimum), and monitoring the colony through tri-weekly nest counts carefully conducted from canoe. It was in part due to Danilo’s cautious but constant presence that we were now able to approach this habituated colony for behavioral observations. It was a truly rare opportunity and Jim wasted no time in updating what was known about the species.

A displaying female approaches a male in his chosen nest site.

A young female’s cheeks flushed from pale yellow to crimson red as she stretched upright into her courtship pose. She rocked back and forth from one foot to the other, head turning from side to side to match the tempo. Every few sways she shook her head vigorously, shimmering her head plumes into a dance of their own, then flipped them forward dramatically as she bowed her head down one side of her neck then the other, smoothing feathers with her bill as if to preen but not finishing the action. The male who had just been displaying similarly in the adjacent vegetated cove eyed her warily. The female stopped her posturing and crouched before him, taking a step closer to his chosen nest site. The male snapped his bill at her, fiercely defending the area he’d worked so hard to secure. She stepped back, looked around, then re-commenced her swaying courtship dance. Apparently playing well with others was a skill relearned every time these solitary birds reconvene at a nesting colony. Satellite telemetry research on a large colony (~1,000 nests) in French Guyana (accessible only by helicopter and boat) suggests that these birds converge from large distances, over a thousand kilometers in the case of one bird; so this colony in Pacuare could be drawing birds from all over Central America.

A high call to my left caught my attention and I moved to the opposite side of the blind. There was movement in the single nest just off the trail, barely perceptible but definitely present just above the stick platform the parent had so readily abandoned at our arrival. I stared intently at the spot. There it was again, a tuft of young feathers and the tip of a bill bobbing up in sync with the call’s crescendo. There was a commotion in the top branches as dad, recognizable by his larger body and bill size, returned from across the lagoon. He gazed down at the nest below and watched as his chick wobbled to its feet. There was increased urgency in the chick’s call and it began scrambling from its nest, heading toward the adult. The father cautiously scanned the horizon before dropping down beside his young. The chick spasmed into a new series of calls while stretching its neck to clap its bill around its father’s beak in a request for food. My camera was at the ready as both the young and I hoped for a feeding, but the father sat stoically through the display until the chick finally ceased and the two sat quietly staring off into space.

I returned to the side of the blind where most of the nests were visible. A few of the adults were now standing above their nests, stretching their wings, tidying sticks in their nests and gently turning their two light blue eggs before settling back down. Other nests were being built and I favored a pair on the edge, ten feet above a field of leather ferns growing in the lagoon. The female stayed in her vegetated cove while her partner stalked sticks in the water below. As if hunting he stood on a low stick and scanned the surrounding waters. He slowly stretched his neck out, fixated on a point and just when I expected a rapid strike, instead he stretched to capacity and gently plucked a stick from the water. He strutted a few steps with his prized catch, then helicoptered upright to the branches below his partner as if being lifted by his elongated neck. Equally gently, his partner accepted his stick then went about working it into her growing platform.

Crested aricari by the hole it made in my screen when it flew in.

Collared aricari by the hole it made in my screen when it flew into my room.

I could’ve watched the assorted activities of these elegant birds for longer, much longer, but there was no sense in potentially distressing the colony with our presence. Three hours was enough for now, we had an entire week ahead. Besides, there was clearly other good wildlife in the area to explore. A mother crocodile guarding her nest had greeted us at the boat landing upon arrival, and this morning I’d awoken to howler monkey calls and a collared aricari had broken into my bedroom. It had flown right through the screened window while I was eating breakfast and was desperately trying to escape through the opposite screen, ripping at it with its formidable serrated bill.

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Parrot snake eating a frog.

Not long after we’d extracted the mini-toucan, one of the reserve guards had appeared at the bottom of the steps, frantically motioning for me to grab my camera and follow. Time was clearly of the essence because as I squirmed one foot into its boot, the guard bounded up the steps to squeeze the remaining boot on and practically dragged me down the steps in his excitement. On the beach below, just beyond a screen of trees, was a five foot long parrot snake with its mouth firmly clamped on a frog several times the size of its head. I was grateful for the guard’s insistence.

Strawberry poison-dart frog.

Strawberry poison-dart frog.

When we headed back through the forest to the colony, Danilo pointed out helmeted iguanas and basilsks perched on either side of the trail, strawberry poison-dart frogs of the local color form (red body with black marbling and black legs) singing from the leaf litter, and spider monkeys slipping through the canopy above. The monkeys preferred their privacy and when we stopped to watch, they promptly grabbed sticks that they pummeled at us.

The next morning it was raining. It wasn’t a light rain, it was a heavy downpour with no chance of fleeting sun. From my protected verandah, I watched waves crash against the beach and birds flit about the garden – a pair of black-cheeked woodpeckers fussed about a dead coconut palm, a blue-gray tanager ate cashew fruits, and a kiskadee defended one corner of my patio, regrettably chasing off the hummingbirds. Mid-day there was a lull in the rain and we rushed to the agami colony, rain gear in hand.

A pair of agamis add a new stick to their nest.

The dad heron from the nest along the trail was still on parental duty. He growled his disapproval as we snuck past and abandoned his chick for his own safety across the water. Jim had determined by now that this growl was a disturbance call, not the “all-is-well” announcement formerly reported in the literature. The couple above the leather ferns were still adding sticks to their platform. Other couples too gathered sticks and built nests. The female in full breeding plumage was still trying to woo the stubborn male from yesterday. He eyed her sideways from within his cubby as she extended to her full height, puffing out her chest as she turned from side to side and blushed to crimson. The male stood, the female cowered and took a tentative step forward. The male took a step toward her and I became hopeful but then he snapped at her and distracted himself with a branch that suddenly needed removed from his locale. Movement in the nest above caused me to look up, just in to watch the brooding female there pluck a dragonfly from the side of her nest. She wrestled it in the air, and then it was gone down her throat.

I turned to Danilo and inquired in whispered broken Spanish, “Have you seen them eat frogs and lizards? This says they do.” I pointed to the interpretative sign within the blind.

Danilo shook his head adamantly and responded that he’d only seen them eat fish and insects. He confided that he believed the sign was wrong, taken from a book that was probably authored by someone who had never watched the birds nor bothered to ask anyone who had. I nodded and took a mental note to check the literature.

Danilo under a makeshift rain shelter he assembled in the blind during the downpour.

Danilo under a makeshift rain shelter he assembled in the blind during the downpour.

I could see rain drops on the water, but the trees above were so thick that I felt nothing. Would this be another torrential rain? I decided not to risk it and donned my poncho not moments too soon as the drops became sheets that even the jungle couldn’t barricade. I could barely see the nesting colony through the shrouding water. The birds had all hunkered down, shielding their heads with their wings and vegetation when available. The rain kept coming and the birds remained motionless. Nothing more to see here; maybe it was time to head back to the lodge.

All the forest animals seemed to have taken cover. The jungle was silent other than the sound of running water, so I returned to my verandah and pulled out the scientific literature on agami herons that we’d brought. It was all the literature in existence but there wasn’t much, just a handful of papers that verified how little is known about these wary birds. Nothing about the birds eating frogs and lizards. I flipped through a few of the Costa Rica wildlife guides sitting on the lodge’s shelf, guides with colorful drawings and brief accounts designed for no more than tourist identification. Ah, here was the source of the frog and lizard intel. It was boldly stated but lacked supporting references. Danilo would likely be pleased to have his intuition validated. He knew these birds well despite a lack of formal training.

We returned to the colony in the dark, after the rains had eased and the herons had settled in for the night. Other studies had observed herons coming in and out of the colony at night, likely from their solitary feeding grounds that were potentially dozens of miles away. We were here in the darkness to see if this was the case here as well. We turned our lights to red as we approached the colony, then turned them off entirely once settled behind the blind. Blackness. The sky was still overcast and we could see nothing. No stars, no reflections on the water, not even my own hand mere inches from my face. It would seem that there was no way a diurnal heron like these agamis could move about in these conditions! We listened intently for rustling sounds but heard only insects. Danilo excused himself to nap in the nearby canoe while we stood in the blackness for over an hour, listening for movements that never occurred. If the herons here did commute at night, it clearly wasn’t on overcast nights like this. We woke Danilo from his slumber and headed down the trail.

Gaudy leaf frogs.

Gaudy leaf frogs.

We hadn’t gone far when there was a disturbance in the palms above. I glanced up in time for my light to glint upon a flurry of ghostly white bats dispersing into the shadows. I spun around for a better view, but they were already gone. I’d encountered Costa Rican white bats once before on a previous trip but that view too had been fleeting. One of only two species of white bat, they use palm leaves like tents to sleep under. We kept our eyes peeled for other treats and weren’t disappointed – gaudy leaf frogs, red-webbed tree frog, a climbing toad, sleeping basilisks, a long and pencil thin common blunt-headed snake, and a cryptic and venomous eyelash palm pitviper hanging into the trail. The flooded gardens around the lodge were surrounded by sumo wrestler-like smoky jungle frogs and glowing red eyes in the water indicated the location of the resident spectacled caiman.

Eyelash pitviper.

Eyelash palm pitviper.

The next day was counting day. Danilo launched his canoe and we made our rounds of the island. As we progressed through the water and vegetation, proximal birds scrambled from their nests and roosts, fleeing to what they deemed a safe distance while watching us warily. As we rounded the corner away from the birds accustomed to our presence behind the blind, the birds not used to us fled more readily and to further away, tucking themselves deep into the bushes. Compared to other herons, their escape was gentle with none of the eggs in the nests destroyed. Nonetheless, they were prompt to leave their nests in response to disturbance. Fortunately, the birds returned to their former locations after we’d moved beyond. Once we’d returned to our blind and stowed the canoe, the birds in front of us returned to preening, stick hunting, brooding and displaying. The neighboring chick’s father settled back on the nest, tolerating more begging and trying to regurgitate something but ultimately offering no food. The flashy female from front and center returned to her posing. The male took a step forward this time. She ventured in his direction and crouched down. For the first time that I saw, the male didn’t attack. They pranced about as if in dance, then he jumped on her back flashing the copper below his wings as he struggled for balance. They repeated this behavior another round and just like that they’d shifted from courting to paired. The female set about collecting sticks, dramatically presenting them to the male and patiently watching while he awkwardly tried arranging them in the cove he’d so adamantly been defending. He grappled unsuccessfully with each stick, eventually enlisting the female’s help. Gradually they shifted jobs and he gathered sticks while she tried arranging them into a nest. As for us, we’d been successful in our count – 73 nests total and none fatally disrupted by our count.

On our way back, Danilo informed me in his rapid Spanish that two different student groups were arriving at Pacuare for the weekend. We’d be near capacity with 60 people on site. He explained that they were Costa Rican high school groups learning about the native coastal ecosystem. I asked if they would be visiting the agami nesting colony and Danilo nodded. Wanting to see how they handled groups in this sensitive colony and what information they would convey, we asked to participate. Danilo asked what time. I said whatever time the teachers scheduled it for. Danilo confirmed for 3pm.

The next day was another wet one, but somehow rain ceased at almost exactly 3pm. Danilo guided us to the student housing area where the teachers were still gathering their 20 children. As we waited, I reminded Danilo that we just wanted to watch and see how this was done. His eyes got big and he laughed nervously, calling me a joker and letting me know that he wouldn’t speak.

“Who normally speaks?” I tried to convey in Spanish, “The teachers?”

“No es tipico!” he stated as simply as possible.

“It’s not typical” I translated in my head.

It donned on me that we must’ve miscommunicated the day before. I should’ve known that Danilo would never invite a group this large to the precious colony he’d been working so hard to protect.

The students and their teachers arrived at this point and my fears were confirmed by the effusive thanks the teachers gave us in perfectly clear English for providing their class with such a unique opportunity. My heart sank. This wasn’t something we would’ve necessarily condoned given the shyness of these birds and the potential unruliness of high school students, but it was too late to change the plan now. Jim and I thought about the options as we sloshed down the trail. What was a reasonable number of students to bring to the blind at a time? Where would the rest of the students wait? What if this were too much disturbance for the colony? We certainly didn’t want to be responsible for disrupting their nesting season, or worse, causing the permanent abandonment of this special protected site.

I thought about the chick and the dad by the trail awaiting mom’s return with food, the couple that had finally progressed beyond courtship and all those birds so carefully tending their eggs. I felt personally responsible for their success at this point.

Danilo stopped the students ~100 feet before the turn to the blind and looked hopefully at Jim and I. Relief spread across his face when Jim stepped to the front to explain what a special situation it was to have access to a colony like this and how imperative it was that everyone remain silent so as not to disturb these very shy and secretive birds. Everyone nodded but I wasn’t convinced.

“Only six at a time,” Jim announced.

As we waded down the last section of flooded trail, I could hear the girls at the back giggling loudly. Not a good sign. I turned and put one finger to my lips. There was snickering and jostling in response but then it stopped. Group after group respectfully entered the blind, silently passed along binoculars, asked a few hushed questions and genuinely seemed appreciative of the experience. Only the teacher herself violated the code of silence, squealing with delight as two larger chicks tumbled into view.

A pair of agami herons on their nest.

We carefully observed the herons long after the group left, Danilo silently at our side. The handful of parents that had abandoned their nests were almost all back in place; the newly formed couple was once again attempting nest construction, and the dad was still waiting patiently with his hungry chick. The two larger chicks that had emerged were disciplined by a neighboring adult who’d tolerated enough of their teen antics and chased them back into the bushes and away from her nest. All seemed well in the colony and Danilo assured us that the students had enjoyed their visit.

The next day, Danilo stopped us as we started down the trail toward the colony. Yesterday’s students had been so enthusiastic about their visit that now the other school wanted to come.

“Cuando?” I asked.

We could go ahead and Danilo would bring them shortly was the answer. As far as we could tell, there had been no ill effects the day before and it seemed only fair that the other group have a chance too. We agreed, then rushed down the trail to have time to observe the colony both before and after the student visit.

Dad was still tending the chick by the trail and the newly weds were still battling sticks. The nest above the leather ferns was now finished, and a nest below seemed to have a newly hatched baby. There was one nest sitting untended though. This mother had been the first to abandon during yesterday’s visit, and the last to return. Had she even come back yet before we’d left yesterday? As if in response to my pondering, a female suddenly landed on the nest. She fluffed her feathers a bit then tapped the edges of the nest. Seemingly pleased with its arrangement, she shifted her focus to the eggs. She nuzzled first one egg, then the other, rolling them about with her bill. Glad to know mom had returned, I shifted my gaze to an immature bird that had just landed on the leather ferns nearby. A few moments later I glanced back. Mom had rolled an egg a bit far from the center and it seemed stuck between twigs along the nest’s edge. She fought to release the egg, and finally it was free. With one mighty shove, she pushed it up over the nest’s edge. I watched in horror as the egg fell from the nest and disappeared into the water below. It was then that I noticed that the other egg was already missing. As the birds cheeks flushed from yellow to red, I realized that this wasn’t mom. She stretched up into a courtship display and flaunted her newly acquired nest site, already furnished with a fully constructed nest.

Female in courtship display after claiming another’s nest by pushing out the eggs.

The apparent real mom finally returned, and vigorously chased off the trespasser but her bravado dissipated as she explored her nest. She seemed to crumple when she noted her missing eggs. She sat motionless for quite some time, then simply flew away. She probably wouldn’t try nesting again this year and I felt bad. Her nest was likely usurped because she’d spent too much time away from the eggs in response to yesterday’s disturbance. And here we were about to do it again. I tried to console myself with the fact that it was only one nest out of the 16 in this area. It certainly could have been worse.

I heard a noise down the trail and tip toed out to greet the students. To my surprise, there were no students; a waist high brown bird strutted down the trail before me. The female curassow slipped off into the vegetation as soon as it was aware of my presence. I searched the area futilely, baffled at how such a large bird could disappear so quickly and completely. Shortly after I abandoned my quest, the group arrived. Once again the only disruptor wasn’t a student but one of the adults, a chaperone appalled by the ankle-high water along the trail. Again, the students were appreciative and the colony seemed to re-settle unharmed, though I was now aware that there might be some delayed repercussion. It was clear that the birds could tolerate some disturbance but there were limits and smaller, more spaced out events were probably best.

My last full day in Pacuare I awoke to the strange sensation of unimpeded rays of golden sun spilling into my room. There was no rain. Light sparkled off the sea, the waves had calmed and there was blue in the sky. It wasn’t even 6am yet, but I jumped out of bed and grabbed my bag – I wasn’t going to miss what was likely my only chance to see the colony in sunlight.

The herons seemed to blossom in the sun. Birds that had been tightly folded on their nest for days on end unfurled their wings. The Einstein bird stood to reveal a newly hatched chick, eyes still unopened. The teen chicks across the way were ever more entertaining in their antics, scampering about the branches and jostling one another. A relatively young chick emerged from a nest that I wasn’t even aware had hatched yet. Its dad perched beside the nest and shielded his young from the sun by spreading his wing above the baby like a parasol. The young couple who’d struggled through courtship and the initial stages of nest building finally had a platform of sticks that looked like a reasonable foundation. I still hadn’t seen the chick in the nest by the trail get fed, but dad was patiently in attendance and I was confident that mom would come back soon, maybe today. Even after the clouds began creeping back in, it was hard to tear away. I now knew individual birds. I was caught up in the tales of their lives, and it’s always hard to bid farewell to good friends.

An agami heron on its nest.

Read more about this trip and see more of my Agami Heron photos on the National Audubon blog.

Travel Tips:

  • For anyone truly interested in connecting with nature in Costa Rica, the Pacuare Nature Reserve, nestled on 1,000+ hectares of protected tropical rainforest and Caribbean coastline, is hard to beat. Agami herons nest on a forested islet, crocodiles nest in the entry lagoon, leatherback and green sea turtles nest on the beach, birds nest off the verandah, tree frogs lay their eggs in temporary garden ponds and there is no lack of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects throughout the property. A testament to the pristine habitats encompassed in the Reserve, several jaguars have been documented there. Just sitting on the verandah provides plenty of wildlife observations, but there are also ample trails and waterways, knowledgeable guides and meaningful volunteer opportunities (sea turtle nest monitoring, for example) for those looking for greater involvement. Potential guests should be aware that this is not a starred resort; it is a field station far from power lines and roads. In keeping, it certainly lacks a resort quality reservations system; I found that communication with the San Jose office left much to be desired. Do not be deterred though! Once at the reserve itself, the level of attention and service from the naturalists and local staff exceeded what one might expect from even the finest 5-star resort. Casa Grande, where non-volunteers may book vacation stays, is a simple but comfortable raised building with spectacular views of both the ocean and surrounding forest. There are three tastefully decorated rooms (two that share a bathroom on one side of the building), a communal kitchen with sitting area, and a spacious verandah with hammocks, tables and chairs for lounging. All meals are provided. The food is good, including lots of fresh fruit and local dishes, tending toward vegetarian. There is no electricity at the Reserve, though solar power does provide warm showers, and limited options for charging devices and connecting to wifi at the research office. For those accepting of a rustic experience, Casa Grande at the Pacuare Reserve is an excellent choice. It’s comfortable, charming, the hospitality of the local staff and volunteers is unmatched and there is no lack of wildlife enjoyment.

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    Casa Grande room with a queen and a twin bed, bathroom ensuite.

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    Communal kitchen and sitting room in Casa Grande.

    Casa Grande room with one queen and shared bathroom.

    Casa Grande room with one queen and shared bathroom.

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    Casa Grande room with twin beds and shared bathroom.

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    Casa Grande verandah facing the garden view.

  • Pacuare can only be accessed by boat, which the Reserve arranges to and from Alcantrilla, a 20-minute ride from the property. Alcantrilla can most easily be reached by private car, either self-driven and left at the pick-up point or hired. It can also be reached by taking a bus (from San Jose or Limon) to the small town of Matina, and hiring a taxi from there to Alcantrilla. The Reserve can help you make arrangements, though dealing with the San Jose office can be a bit slow and frustrating.
  • There are plenty of chain hotels to stay at near the San Jose airport but for something with a bit more character, Hotel Grano de Oro in the city is a nice choice. The surrounding neighborhood holds little of interest, but the hotel itself is a beautiful renovation and expansion of a 1910 Victorian-style home originally associated with a coffee plantation. The rooms tend toward small, but are nicely arranged around a series of pleasant courtyards and gardens. The restaurant and its courtyard have a particularly appealing ambience, and the food is excellent though not cheap.
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    View past the Hotel Grano de Oro landscaping to the surrounding neighborhood.

    Restaurant courtyard at the Hotel Grano de Oro.

    Restaurant courtyard at the Hotel Grano de Oro.

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4 Responses to Agami Herons in Costa Rica

  1. Pingback: Las baulas y las hormigas | NotDunRoamin

  2. Danila says:

    Hi Kirsten, loved this piece! My husband and I stayed at Pacuare volunteering for 2 weeks in March this year. I’ve added a link to your post, in my post about Pacuare 🙂 http://www.notdunroamin.com/2015/03/18/las-baulas-y-las-hormigas/

    I have a question/suggestion for you: do you have or could you add a subscribe function to your blog? I’d love to get updates when you post new pieces.
    Thanks, Danila

    • Kirsten says:

      Danila,
      Thanks for connecting our posts. It looks like you were at Pacuare at an exciting time given the turtle festival and jaguar sighting! And how cool that you’re on a conservation trek around the world!

      I appreciate your suggestion to add a subscribe function. I’ll look into how to do that. In the interim, I’ve been announcing new posts on my Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/KirstenNatureTravel). I believe you already “liked” my page (Thank you!), so you should get that notification.

      Safe Travels!
      Kirsten

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