I know two things about Costa Rican iguanas: (1) they nod their heads in a bizarre courtship ritual of overenthusiastic agreement , and (2) they run by flailing their legs like windmills.
The head-nodding was easy to observe most days at La Pacifica eco-ranch, where we stayed for several days in August and September 1991. The occasional scritch-scraping of reptilian claws across the tin roof of the cabin told us that an iguana, usually about a metre long, had taken up position for a day of head-bobbing on the sunny roof apex.
A running iguana was altogether a much more uncommon sight. For one thing, the iguanas all seemed to be vying for the best vantage points high up on trees, rocks or buildings, and if they did move it was by a slow belly-dragging motion dictated by their low-slung bodies and splayed legs. But occasionally we startled one sunning itself at the side of the road and it would take off with a start, lurching away from the tarmac and propelling itself along by virtue of its whirring leg action. Needless to say it’s gait was rather ungainly, but it would thrash off into the undergrowth at quite some pace.
We more or less had the run of La Pacifica to ourselves. The eco-ranch was part grazing land, part wilderness regeneration and part hotel. Ordinarily they would be host to various scientific meetings, scout camps, educational school visits and the like, but it was out of season and we were virtually the only guests.
During the day we would wander along the nearby River Corobici or into the surrounding woods, I’d be watching and photographing insects and Catrina would look at birds flying past or listen to the howler monkeys. One day saw us in a hay meadow down by the river. I was wading through the waist-high grass across the middle of the field, occasionally stopping to check out a large beetle or bug sitting atop a flower. Catrina was strolling, parallel, along the mown path that skirted the meadow, beside a narrow woodland.
As usual we had seen a few iguanas on the rocks down by the river and disturbed one, larger and greener than usual, from the narrow tarmacked track down through the ranch’s scattered cabins. The long grass of the meadow seemed an unlikely haunt for these large, ugly, snout-nosed reptiles, but as I adjusted my position leaning over a particularly large stink-bug, readying the camera for a close-up shot, a startled beast took off from close by, and thundered away in a madcap careen. It was heading straight for Catrina, standing quietly on the path.
I can’t quite remember, but I may have shouted something helpful like: “Coming your way”. She didn’t need the warning, she could see the ridge of parting grass, and the wake of trampled stems. Things suddenly went into action movie slow motion. It was heading straight at Catrina, so she moved off, out of the way. But the crazed monster was wildly zigzagging and changed its tack to keep right at her. She moved the other way, but the animal’s trajectory changed with her.
By now Catrina had departed from character and adopted a stereotype scared girlie pose, elbows in, hands on face, knees twisted, like some prim schoolmistress who has seen a mouse. She was probably screaming too. She obviously had visions of the scaly critter emerging and scrambling straight up her, instead of the nearest tree. It seemed to take forever, but could not really have been more than a few seconds. The frantic shape emerged from the edge of the long grass, right at Catrina’s feet and she braced herself for the seemingly inevitable assault.
It’s hard to say who was more startled — Catrina or the small terrified rabbit that bolted out of the greenery and almost crashed into her. At the last second it checked its course one last time and plummeted into the woods. A silence hung in the air. With Catrina’s breathless cries now stopped, I turned my attention back to that stink bug.