Costa Rica: The Hummingbird Affairs

Hanging bridge in the rainforest canopy, one of the best vantage points for seeing hummingbirds in Costa Rica

The middle days of January have been an emotional time for me in recent years. I celebrate my birthday, but it’s also the anniversary of my Dad’s death the day prior and his birthday the day before that. This year, the week in question happened to be good timing for both my friend Leanne and I to take a sunny holiday. We decided to follow the path of the ruby-throated hummingbird, migrating hundreds of kilometres south to the jungles of Costa Rica.

It was only a few hours after arriving in Arenal that I had my first encounter with one of those very birds. He flashed into view just as I sat down on the patio. He zipped among some nearby flowers, extracting his fill of nectar, entrancing me. Just before darting away, he backed up and hovered in place, a magical ability unique to his kind. Was he looking at me?

Bridges over bubbling waters

There are many different ways to experience the rainforest in Costa Rica. I couldn’t convince Leanne to brave it, but I decided to test my fortitude for heights of the swingy kind on a Hanging Bridges Canopy Tour. I was the only one registered, so I had the naturalist guide, Reynaldo, all to myself.

We trekked through lush greenery on mossy paths from one swaying bridge to another. The elevated walkways were a breathtaking way to experience the rainforest from a unique perspective – top down. At times the canopy was so close I could reach out and touch the tops of swaying palms. I felt their quiet authority.

Rainforest canopy in Arenal Costa Rica, viewed on a canopy tour

The shorter bridges were a breeze, but the longest ones were unsettling as they swayed enough to make keeping my balance challenging. The sides and “floors” of the bridges were made of metallic mesh, so I could see what was below and all around me – awesome and frightening at the same time. One of the longest and highest was suspended over a rushing river far below. It was mostly eyes ahead as I cautiously inched my way to the far side.

I was touched by Reynaldo’s passion for the rainforest and all of its creatures. He pointed out snakes, tarantulas, toads, finches, “walking trees” and symbiotic insect/plant living arrangements. He could hardly contain his excitement when we came across a rare species of caterpillar on a tree trunk, and later a group of tiny frogs mating near a waterfall. Both are rare sights. He snapped photos and consulted his field guide to confirm and record the sightings. I felt like a naturalist in training.

Feathered followers

Shortly after the third bridge, I felt a slight rush of air and a silky swipe against my cheek. There was a whirring sound, but whatever it was disappeared in a flash, before I could see it.

“It was a hummingbird!” said Reynaldo.

My heart skipped a beat.

Throughout our walk, I spotted two more of the diminutive aerialists dashing across our path. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought it might be the same feisty fellow following us along the trail the entire way.

It was then I remembered the special affection my Dad had for birds, and for hummingbirds in particular. They were a rare sight in our town, appearing only occasionally during the warmest months of summer. Each spring Dad would set out two or three feeders filled with red-dyed sugar water, in hopes we’d get a visit or two. We did receive the occasional swift-winged yard guest, much to our family’s collective delight.

Costa Rica hummingbird, toad and waterfall

Messages

On our final day in Costa Rica, we were having breakfast at the lodge’s treehouse-like restaurant when yet another hummingbird came to visit. He drank his fill at the feeder near the open window, and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of him before he flew away.

I began to think the encounters might be more than a coincidence. Perhaps they were meant to comfort and uplift me; to create an association of lightness and joy with my memories of Dad. Some Latin and American tribes believe the tiny birds carry messages from the afterlife, offering connections to those we have lost.

I remembered the dream my Aunt had recently shared, in which a hummingbird flew in through her window and allowed her to catch him. She fed him some sugar water, which he lapped up eagerly. Before flying off, he tilted his head and looked at her, seemingly in thanks. She believed it was a visit from Dad, down from heaven to say hello in response to her thoughts of him, the brother she missed so dearly.

And then I realized: it was my birthday, and I was happy.

As they say in Costa Rica: Pura Vida (pure life)!

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hummingbird photo credit: Steve Ryan, flickr

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