Friday, September 26, 2014

A Harpy Eagle Story

Every so often a moment comes along that makes past efforts feel so rewarding.  I was just getting settled in at work at the Canopy Tower the other day, and all of a sudden I hear my wonderful coworkers shouting "JENN! JENN!".  It broke all tranquility of the morning and caught me off guard.  I ran outside and looked up at the third floor, where Jorge and Aura were standing in the window yelling "HARPY EAGLE!!"  We ran to grab binoculars, spotting scope, camera, phones etc and within moments we had the sight of a beautiful adult Harpy Eagle perched in the crown of an emergent tree beside the Tower.    

Harpy Eagle Panama
Harpy Eagle at the Canopy Tower
It was one of those moments, to see a Harpy Eagle in the wild, it doesn't get much better than that.  However, for me, it did.  The immense eagle perched comfortably with her back to us; once I saw her in the scope, I could see that this bird had an antenna on its back, extending from a radio transmitter.  I immediately knew she was a bird released by the Harpy Eagle Conservation and Research project operated by the Peregrine Fund.  I first came to Panama in November of 2008 to volunteer on this project, a very rewarding experience for me, and had the privilege to track several Harpy Eagles in Soberania National Park and learn about their behaviour and conservation.  The question was, who was it??

Trying my best not to startle the bird, I slowly found a good spot to hopefully see her identification band.  Persistence paid off and from a narrow angle looking up, I could see a faint "LV" on the blue band around its leg.  It was LV!  I couldn't believe it.  LV is a very special bird.  Here is her story.  

In 2008, a young Harpy Eagle was shot in Darien.  Likely still in her nest tree, and being tended to by devoted parents who had spent over a year and a half devotedly feeding and nurturing the eaglet.  Luckily, in her injured state, she was reported to officials in Panama and was rescued and brought to Panama City.  In the excellent hands of Peregrine Fund biologists and veterinarians, she had a surgery to repair her right wing, which sustained the injury.  When she gained enough strength, it was determined that she was a possible candidate for release.  To ensure her well-being, she was fitted with a VHF radio transmitter and PTT satellite transmitter, so the staff and volunteers could keep a close eye on her.  They also placed a sturdy metal band around her right leg, with the initials "LV".  She was released into Soberania National Park on March 9, 2009.  She was an estimated 2 years of age at her time of release.
Harpy Eagle Panama
LV being released along Pipeline Road
I was volunteering on the project at the time and was there for her release.  Her release was surreal for me, she was the only bird I saw released during my 7 months on the project, and I had the pure joy of following her and tracking her progress for 4 months of my time here.  When she was released, she had a rather shaky first flight to a low branch along Pipeline Road.  But she grew stronger and stronger every day.  Unsure if she had even started catching her own prey in the wild at her estimated age, we fed her every week, week after week.  We affectionately called her "Love".  And then on April 26, 2009, another milestone happened with LV.  We found her, along a beautiful ravine deep in the national park, with a freshly-killed Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth strung over a branch.  I will never forget the excitement and accomplishment I felt for her (and us!) that day.  
Harpy Eagle Panama
LV on April 18, 2009
When I left Panama in June 2009 after my time volunteering on the project, I said goodbye to LV for what I thought was the last time.  But on September 24, 2014, beyond all expectations,  there she was standing in front of me, 5½ years after her release, now in full adult plumage, incredibly beautiful, with every feather in perfect condition and no indication of ever having a wing injury.  

Harpy Eagle Panama
LV, as beautiful as ever in 2014
During the two hours she perched beside the Canopy Tower, we watched her movements--her floppy crest bouncing around with every head movement, brief preening sessions, and she was well aware of our presence as she looked down at us on occasion.  Then, she shifted her weight and opened her broad wings and flew down into the valley, out of sight.  We were amazed at her immense size when she flew.  We continued to hear her occasionally throughout the morning, she let us know that she wasn't far.  

I like to think that she came back for a visit, to let us know she is doing well in the lowland forests of Soberania National Park.  It is a great testament to the forest here, to be able to sustain a large forest eagle.  We hope the very best for her.  

~ Jenn 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's been a while...

It has been a busy year in Panama to say the least.  I haven't had much time to write, but have so much inspiration over the past several months to do so.  Where do I start??  Now that its the low season I am determined, kind of as a "mid-year resolution" to post more here.  For the time being, I invite you to visit my Flickr page, where have posted my best nature photo over the past several months.  Here are a few of my favourites from July.  Enjoy!

Collared Forest-Falcon
Immature Collared Forest-Falcon (Micrastur semitorquatus), Metropolitan Natural Park
Tropical Checkered-Skipper
Tropical Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus oileus), Metropolitan Natural Park 
Gold-bordered Hairstreak
Gold-bordered Hairstreak (Rekoa palegon), Punta Culebra 
Black Spiny-tailed Iguana
Black Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura similis), Gatun

~ Jenn 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nature's Freak Show

Following my ever-freaky blog entry about killer fungi (Cordyceps), I recently had the opportunity to see a fully-developed larvae of a Botfly, another one of nature's freaky creatures that will creep out just about anyone!  So of course, I have to write about it (if you think about it, it’s fascinating as well).  

What’s so freaky about this fly? 

The botfly (family Oestridae) is a parasitic fly in which its larvae require a soft, protective “home” in order to develop.  Botflies, however, choose the skin of animal hosts, including humans, as the perfect place to for their maggots to develop.  Female bot flies lay their eggs on their vector, most often mosquitos but also other species of flies and a species of tick.  When the vector bites the host, the egg or hatched larvae is transferred onto the skin of the host, which then attaches and buries itself into the skin.  There it creates a home for the next several weeks as it grows.  Botfly maggots anchor themselves in their “home” with rows of hooks around its body, and two fang-like mandibles.  They feed on the blood and tissue of their hosts.  They require air through a breathing hole in the skin, and their chamber is maintained and cleaned by an antiseptic secretion.  Botflies do not kill their hosts, and after the larval development, the maggot will drop from the skin of its animal host and pupate in the ground.  Botflies are particularly common in mammalian hosts in warm, tropical regions, but temperate regions are not out of the question either, as deer, caribou and livestock are often used as hosts.

Wait, it gets freakier… there is a human botfly!  Dermatobia hominis is a species that will seek out human hosts.  I have a number of friends that have had botflies during their field seasons here in the Neotropics.  Most people try to remove them early on in their development stages, as they can cause significant pain with those hooks and mouthparts as they get larger.  Generally, only hard core entomologists are willing to try to let a larval botfly grow to full term. 
Craig's botfly
This week, I met a man with a human botfly in his scalp.  When he told me that it had been there for over 70 days, I was surprised, this creature must have been huge and getting ready to pupate.  I had to see it!  By this point in its development, they can cause extreme pain to the host, and Craig could attest to that. 

So the night before, we treated it with an herbal compound paste, which essentially blocks its breathing hole and causes it to relax its muscles.  The next morning, they squeezed the maggot out.  It was huge, about the size of a peanut.  It must have been just days away from leaving its human “home”.  The intact maggot was placed in a jar of alcohol—a rather interesting souvenir to take home from the tropics!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sloth Rescue

It's been a busy month!  During my little hiatus from posting to my blog (and believe me, I have a lot to catch up on), I have had a great visit from my Dad (his first time in Panama), moved houses, and picked up the pace at work.. including spending much more time in the field!  Which means, more natural encounters!  I have so much to say, had a lot of great sightings in the last month, but I'll start with this one.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Three-toed Sloth crossing the road
Yesterday we were on our way back to the Canopy Tower from Gamboa after a morning of birding along Pipeline Road, and saw a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth crossing the highway.  We pulled over to get a closer look and help her across the road.  Traffic flies down this highway, and unfortunately a lot of animalsfrom snakes to anteaters to vultures, and everything in betweenget hit regularly.  

As we took a closer look at her, we could see a small arm wrapped around her side—this mama had a baby holding on tight to her chest!  We slowed traffic to ensure they made it to the other side, and to make sure she didn't try crossing back again, Alexis picked her up and placed her and her baby on the trunk of a tree.  
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Mama and baby Three-toed Sloth
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Mama sloth on tree
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths are one of six species of sloths, classified into two families, Megalonychidae (two-toed sloths) and Bradypodidae (three-toed sloths).  They are slow-moving, arboreal mammals; they spend almost all their time in the treetops.  They come down to the ground only once a week, to go to the bathroom!  Sloths have long, coarse fur, which is often home to a variety of other organisms, including moths, beetles and fungi.  They often appear greenish, due to the presence of algae in their fur.  They eat leaves, shoots and buds, and are particularly fond of Cecropia trees, making them easy to spot.  Due to their folivorous diet, they receive very little energy from their food, and have lower metabolic rates and body temperatures than other mammals.  They are generally very slow moving, and spend a lot of time sleeping.  In fact, the Spanish name for sloth is "perezoso", meaning lazy!  In central Panama, two species of sloth—Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth—are common, and once you get your sloth-spotting eyes attuned, you may see them on a regular basis in Soberania National Park and other forested areas.  They are truly a unique animal.        

~ Jenn 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cordyceps: killer fungi

Most of the time, we see what's beautiful, enticing and admirable in the natural world.  However, we are all well aware that there are many challenges to the struggle for live of any living organism—predators, climate change, natural disasters, human activity—as we tend to see more and more of in the media, documentaries, and witness in person in our daily lives.  

Cordyceps wasp
Wasp killed by Cordyceps fungus in Panama
A few weeks ago during a visit to the Canopy Lodge in El Valle, I was walking around the gardens and spotted this unusual creature on a low palm frond.  Upon closer examination, I saw that it was a wasp - but something wasn't right.  This wasp had two large, white projections emerging out of its thorax, and white spines over its legs and other parts of its body.  It was motionless.  I knew exactly what had happened.

In tropical regions, there are some rather unlikely predators, and they kill in rather gruesome ways.  Aside from large cats, raptors, and many other predators out there, there exists the strange and ruthless world of Cordyceps—an endoparasitoid fungi that attacks insect and arthropod hosts.  When this fungus attacks a host, it releases mycelium, which replaces the host tissues.  It also causes a change in behaviour of the host, perhaps an ant or wasp, causing it (if a social insect) to leave its colony and climb up a branch or shrub and attach there before they die.  This change in behaviour ensures that the spores of the fungus will be released in the optimal surroundings to maximize distribution.   Once the host is in position, the mycelium then forms a fruiting body—usually a cylindrical, branched or complex projectionwhich emerges through the exoskeleton of the host.  Spores are released through this fruiting body.  Cordyceps means "club head", referring to the shape of the fruiting bodies.  The spores are very potent, and this killer fungus can wipe out entire colonies of insects.  Check out this video from Planet Earth.  
Cordyceps moth
Moth showing small Cordyceps fruiting bodies in Ecuador, 2010
Cordyceps cricket
Cricket killed by Cordyceps fungus in Ecuador, 2010
Cordyceps Bullet Ant
Bullet Ant - note the elongated fruiting body extending from back of head.  Ecuador, 2010
It sounds (and looks!) like something out of a grotesque sci-fi movie, but this is real.  In the time I have spent living and working in tropical humid environments, I have come across this several times.  I have seen moths, crickets, bullet ants, and other insects parasitized by these unusual killers.  Here are a few photos I have taken in recent years of various Cordyceps attacks. The fruiting bodies take on different forms and colours, depending on the species of Cordyceps (there are approximately 400 described species and many more remain undescribed), and I have never seen two alike. 

So its not just some mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals, even plants that have mastered their roles as predators, but an entire world of predatory and parasitic fungi, which continues to show us the complexity and diversity of the world we live in.  Incredible!

~ Jenn 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Curassows on Pipeline Road

It had been a little while since I had been to Pipeline Road and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, but when a friend called me up to go for a walk I was more than happy to head out to one of my favourite places on this planet.  We left early on the morning of October 11, and arrived at the entrance of Pipeline Road around 6:30 am, and the bird activity had just started.  We watched the hummingbirds at the Visitors Center, walked a short trail and spent some time on the tower before the rains started before mid-morning.  Highlights included a Great Black-Hawk and over 100 migrating Common Nighthawks seen from the tower.  Here is an e-bird checklist of the morning.  

Great Curassows
We didn't have a lot of time in the morning, but managed to get out before the heavy rains started and continued through the rest of the day.  As we were driving out on Pipeline Road, we spotted three large birds walking down the road ahead.  I quickly picked up my binoculars and saw that they were Great Curassows, the largest member of the Cracidae family in Central America.  Great Curassows are rare on Pipeline Road, due to years of over-hunting in the area.  In 2009, I had two sightings of Great Curassows on Pipeline Road, but far in, well past 15 km from the entrance.  Recently, there have been occasional sightings closer to the entrance, and this trio was less than a kilometre from the gate.  They were all in female plumage, but it was not determined whether one or more were young males.  We watched the trio for 10-15 minutes, until they moved off the road into the forest when a car came along, and were seen feeding on fruits under a Ficus tree not far from the road.  

Great Curassow
The Great Curassow (Crax rubra) is a large, turkey-like bird of the lowland humid forests of Central America and northwestern South America.  Males are stark black with a yellow knob at the base of its beak and white undertail coverts.  Females generally have a reddish-brown body and dark grey neck and head, sometimes with barring in the wings, and have a heavily barred tail.  Both sexes have a curled crest.  Their diet consists mostly of fruit, but they will also feed on small invertebrates and sometimes vertebrates as well.  They are often found feeding on the ground, and also spend time feeding and roosting in the mid-story and even the upper levels of the forest.  Due to over-hunting and habitat loss in many parts of its range, the Great Curassow is considered vulnerable by IUCN, and their populations are decreasing.  Hopefully with the extent of protected areas in Panama and throughout the Neotropics, their populations will stabilize and we will begin to enjoy regular sightings of these beautiful birds.  

We were going to carry on for a walk at Metropolitan Park in Panama City, but the heavy rain forced us to reschedule, that will be saved for drier day.  

~ Jenn 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Little-known Manatees of Panama

Finding Neotropical mammals is always a rewarding challenge.  There is a great diversity of mammals in Panama, over 230 species are found in this small country, in a wide variety of habitats.  It is the best place I know to see sloths, two species, in all of the Americas.  In certain places, common forest mammals such as Central American Agoutis and White-nosed Coatis are common.  Lesser Capybaras live along the banks of the mighty Chagres River, which feeds into the Panama Canal.  Panama is a wonderful place to search for mammals, but it is not as easy as it may seem.  Many Neotropical mammals by nature are nocturnal, which means spending time in the deep darkness of the forests to find them.  Certain species, like cats, are incredibly elusive.  Finding these animals requires patience and at times, may seem like a near-impossible task.  

I had heard rumors of a population of West Indian Manatees, one of Panama's rarest mammals, living in Lake Gatun.  Odd reports show up here and there, many of them are unfortunately of carcasses that float to the surface.  Manatees are fully aquatic, and live in tranquil, dark waters of shallow lakes, thus are rarely encountered.  Aerial surveys may be the best way to see these large mammals in quiet bays from above, other than that, a sighting of a manatee in Panama is a very rare occasion. 

On September 12, I guided a jungle boat tour along the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun.  We had perfect weather, and as we cruised around the waters and scanned the banks, we came across an abundance of animals - Snail Kites, American Crocodiles, Iguanas, White-headed Capuchins, Mantled Howlers, Limpkins, Proboscis Bats, and so much more.  About halfway through the tour (around 4:00 pm), as we glided in our little motor boat through the calm waters along the edges of Lake Gatun, I started to think about manatees, remembering that there are occasional sightings.  Not even two minutes later, we saw the large, rounded back emerge above the water surface, followed by the unique, round tail of a manatee.  We couldn't believe our eyes... a manatee!  Only metres from our boat!  We all saw it in great view.  Its true, they do exist in the dark waters of Lake Gatun.  Among many great wildlife sighting moments I have had, this is one of the most memorable.
Lake Gatun
The calm waters of Lake Gatun
So, what are manatees doing in the Panama Canal?  Information about the populations of manatees in Panama is not well-known, and there have been very little studies done to learn about their existence here.  In 1964, nine West Indian Manatees from Bocas del Toro and one Amazonian Manatee from Peru were introduced into Lake Gatun by the former Panama Canal Commission as a part of an aquatic vegetation control program.  The program was abandoned a few years later, and the manatees were left to live in the lake.  It is difficult to say how many manatees are here, but its not many; a study in 1980 estimated approximately 25 individuals, and a more recent study in 2008 resulted in 16 individuals seen in an aerial survey, this being the highest number ever recorded in Lake Gatun.  However, calves were seen so this population, although small, seems to be sustaining itself.  Hopefully the manatees of Panama will continue to live and reproduce in the waters of Lake Gatun. 

~ Jenn