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 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Big Boa in Gamboa

You never know what you're going to find here, Gamboa is full of surprises.  Being surrounded by Soberania National Park, the Panama Canal and Chagres River, the wildlife here is abundant.  Even right in town, where it is not difficult to find frogs, lizards, birds, interesting insects and more.  

There are many snakes around town, but aren't encountered as frequently as a lot of the other animals, not by me anyways.  However, the other day, I was heading out of town with a friend when we passed a truck pulled over on the side of the road and two men with cameras pointed at the grass.  Then I took a quick glance, and saw a large Boa Constrictor!  So we pulled over and got out to take a look.  
Boa Constrictor
Boa Constrictor 
Boa Constrictors are a well-known snake native to the lowland tropical forests of Central and South America.  They are a large, heavy-bodied snake that can reach up to 4 metres in length and can weigh more than 100 lbs.  As their name suggests, they are "constrictors", killing their prey by wrapping their strong, muscular body around their prey, slowly squeezing them to death.  They hunt just about anything they can catch, such as monkeys, otters, birds and peccaries.  Boa Constrictors are hunted for their ornately-patterned skin and due to other pressures including habitat loss, they are considered an endangered species in many countries.  

This snake looked like it had just eaten a good meal, perhaps an agouti it found in town.  As it sat on the grass, this boa was being pestered by people and dogs, at which it defended itself well.  Eventually, with a rainstorm around mid-day, the snake retreated out of sight, back into the woodlot.  To me and a lot of other people I know, snake sightings are always exciting.  We have to give these graceful, capable reptiles more credit as they play an important role in their environment.  I'm always looking forward to the next snake I see...

~ Jenn 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Boquete: A Breath of Fresh Air

After leaving Coiba Island and Santa Catalina, we decided to make a spontaneous trip up to Boquete, in the highlands of western Panama.  Although it was still a fair ways further west toward Costa Rica, we thought we would take the opportunity to cool ourselves off before heading back to Gamboa.  I had yet to visit Boquete, so I was looking forward to getting to know a new part of Panama.  We arrived late, around 11 pm, and checked into a hostel near the main square in town.  
River through Boquete town
Boquete is situated at an elevation of 1200 metres, and is a popular little tourist town, full of ex-pats who have settled in the bustling town.  Not far from Boquete is Volcan Baru, Panama's highest peak and only volcano.  The town is surrounded by beautiful cloud forest, rivers, Friendship International Park (Parque Internacional La Amistad, shared with Costa Rica) and plenty of opportunities for tourism and exploration.  Tour operators in Boquete offer river rafting and kayaking, volcano excursions, hiking, waterfalls, horseback riding, strawberry tours, hot springs and more.  We just planned to have the day in Boquete, and wanted to make the most of it.  In the morning, we walked around town, took some photos, and arranged a tour to visit the "Lost Waterfalls" in the afternoon.  We were not prepared for cooler weather, so I bought a sweater from a lovely little Ecuadorian shop in town.  

Cloud forest
Cloud forest
Unfortunately, it started to rain just before our tour, on and off, at times heavy.  When David, our guide, arrived, we talked about possibilities for the afternoon - visit the hot springs instead, or postpone the tour until tomorrow morning.  But at that point it wasn't raining, so he suggested we drive to the trail head to see if the weather clears up.  As we headed out of Boquete and up into higher elevation, it did brighten up and the rain stopped, so we started on our walk to see the waterfalls.  We hiked up and up into beautiful cloud forest, draped with epiphytes and moss.  Cloud forest is laden with mist, as its name suggests.  It is a cool, humid environment, and receives a lot of rain throughout the year.  Therefore, it is very lush and green, and supports a great diversity of wildlife.  I find cloud forests incredibly refreshing, and the cool air was such a nice change to the hot, humid, sticky climate of Gamboa.  

After a short hike, we arrived at a beautiful waterfall, ending in a pool of fresh mountain water.  David said that we could swim here, but we felt that we had spent enough time in the water on the coast and preferred to stay dry; furthermore, the water is very, very cold!  Not for me :)   David showed us into a small cave beside the waterfall which contained a base of clay.  There was also a nest of a species of swift, well-fastened to the wall of the cave, very cool!  When we emerged from the cave, it started to rain.  So we decided to head back.  We took a different trail back, which brought us by another waterfall, taller than the first.  Even though it was raining pretty hard, we still took advantage to eat our lunch, take photos and chat with David.  Despite the rain, we really enjoyed our tour; although still learning, David was knowledgeable about the forest and key wildlife, and he even picked us some mountain blackberries on the way back to the truck. 
Boquete waterfall
It was a short trip to Boquete, but that breath of fresh air we received was exactly what we needed before heading back to the hot lowlands of central Panama.  It is a beautiful place, situated in the shadows of Volcan Baru, and I am already looking forward to going back.  Refreshed and ready to get back home, we boarded a night bus back to Panama City. 

~ Jenn  

More Coiba Island Photos

Coiba National Park: A Nature Lover's Paradise

Isla Rancheria
Isla Rancheria (Isla Coibita)
Well, I think Coiba Island could be considered a paradise for just about anyone.  Located 22 kilometres off the Pacific coast of Panama, Coiba Island is home to a wide diversity of wildlife, including may endemic species and subspecies, as well as endangered species including 4 species of sea turtles and is the only place where Scarlet Macaws can be found in Panama.  The island is surrounded by warm waters, ideal for coral reefs and an abundance of marine wildlife.  On the island, several endemic species of birds and mammals, including the Coiban Agouti, Coiba Island Howler Monkey, Coiba Honeybee and Coiba Spinetail.  

Coiba Island is the 2nd largest island in the Americas, aside from the Caribbean (1st is Vancouver Island).  It was believed to be formed from volcanic origins in the region of the Galapagos Islands, 70 million years ago, which over millions of years, drifted to the Pacific side of Central America.  Approximately 12 000 years ago, Coiba Island was a part of the mainland; eventually, the sea level rose again and Coiba was once again isolated.  This explains why the wildlife on the island is similar to that of mainland Panama.  The entire island and its surrounding waters were designated a national park in 1991 in order to protect the unique flora and fauna that live there and migrate through - including the annual migration of Humpback Whales.  Coiba National Park expands over 270,000 hectares, with only 20% land contained in that area.   

Coiba Island has remained relatively untouched, with very little human settlement over the course of its history.  The island still has the remains of a penal colony that operated from 1919 to 2004, which largely took part in keeping people away.  Since the designation of the national park, Coiba Island now has a ranger station and a few biological stations operated by the Smithsonian Institute on the main island and surrounding islands.  

For years now I had heard so many good things about visiting Coiba Island, yet had not visited in previous trips to Panama.  So, for my 30th birthday, we decided a trip to Coiba would be the best way to celebrate!  Our Coiba adventure started the morning of August 24th, my birthday; we packed our bags for a few days and headed to Panama City.  From there we traveled by bus to Sona, then to Santa Catalina in the province of Veraguas, on the Pacific coast of Panama.  Happy to arrive and starving from the long drive, we settled into Cabanas Rolo, a decent hostel in town.  We were both craving seafood, and found a small restaurant that made us excellent fried corvina (seabass) loaded with a generous side of patacones - the perfect birthday meal!  Then we started asking around for tours to Coiba.  We were told that to stay overnight on the island we would need a group of 6 people.  Luckily, we came across 3 Spanish travelers seeking more people to stay overnight on the island as well, which worked out perfectly.  We arranged our tour for the next 2 days, enjoyed a few cold beers along the beach, and had a good night sleep after a long travel day!

Humpback Whales
Humpback Whales
The next morning we were up early and met our guide, Victor, and the rest of our group.  There are no restaurants on Coiba and you cook for yourself at the ranger station, so we bought food for the trip and headed out to sea shortly after 8 am.  Dark stormy sky didn't keep us from enjoying the boat trip; not far from the mainland, we spotted a trio of Humpback Whales - which is what I really wanted to see this trip, I had never seen whales before.  It is whale migration season right now, and the waters surrounding Coiba are one of the best places to see these gigantic beauties.  Carrying on to Coiba Island, the weather improved and we saw dolphins and flying fish as we approached the island.  The boat trip to Coiba from Santa Catalina is approximately 1.5 hours.  
Coiba Island Ranger Station
Ranger station on Coiba Island
We arrived at the ranger station in good time and got settled into our cabin.  Situated right along the water's edge, with a beautiful white sand beach and palm trees, this is truly a paradise!  Compared to other ANAM ranger stations I have stayed at in Panama, this one was by far the best.  It is a decent size, comfortable beds, sheets provided and has private bathrooms in the cabins. 
Hermit crabs
An invasion of hermit crabs
The main activity we did for the 2 days was snorkeling - Coiba is a wonderful location for scuba diving and snorkeling.  After dropping off our bags at the ranger station, we eagerly headed to Isla Granito del Oro.  This tiny island is surrounded by tropical coral reefs and was a great start to our snorkeling adventure.  Here we saw an abundance of tropical fish - parrot fish, trigger fish, puffers and blennies, and dozens of different species, big and small - I wish I had an underwater camera to remember them all.  The most memorable moment on Isla Granito del Oro, however, were the hermit crabs.  We found a coconut and opened it up.  Moments later, dozens of hermit crabs emerged, seemingly from nowhere yet from every which direction!  Worse, we decided to eat our sandwiches here.  As it turns out, hermit crabs are very fond of coconut, and ham sandwiches.  Within minutes we were encroached upon by hundreds of hermit crabs, all wanting a bite of our lunch!  Our two days at Coiba offered us plenty of snorkeling, a little bit of hiking, and time to relax and enjoy the beaches.  Further underwater sightings included White-tipped Reef Sharks, Green Sea Turtle, Southern Ray, Reef Manta Ray, coronetfish, moray eels, prawns, 15-point starfish, clams, and much more.  

Isla Rancheria
Isla Rancheria
The next morning, Victor took us over to Isla Rancheria (also called Isla Coibita), not far from Coiba Island.  The beach, with beautiful white sand and layered with palm trees, surrounded by pristine crystal blue waters and reef, seemed as if it's out of a travel magazine.  While eating fresh coconut, we spoke to the island ranger, who gave us permission to visit the Smithsonian Institute biological station located on the island and we spoke to a staff member about the work they do in the islands.

After our two days exploring the northern part of Coiba Island, we headed back to Santa Catalina.  Just before reaching the mainland, Victor stopped us on a tiny island, surrounded by black sand beach.  We had a small lunch here, and explored the island, looking at beautiful shells and (more) hermit crabs.  There was no other boat or person in sight.  It seemed to good to be true.  Our Coiba adventure had come to a close, but memories will stay strong for years, as this is truly one of the most incredible environments I have visited.  

~ Jenn         

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cool Caterpillars and their Defenses

Next to birds, insects are a very fascinating group of animals to me.  Especially lepidopterans - butterflies and moths.  I don't know what it is I like about them so much - their beauty, diversity, adaptations, an interest to follow their classification, and I really enjoy the challenges of identification.  Furthermore, they have changes in their life cycle that make it all the more fun to identify.  They undergo complete metamorphosis and their larvae, better known to us as caterpillars, are physically diverse with a wide variety of adaptations and defenses themselves.  So needless to say, wherever I am, coming across caterpillars is always entertaining for me.  

We recently went for a walk in Gamboa on a nice breezy afternoon after a rain.  As I now always try to have my camera with me, we stopped to photograph a sedge, of all things!  There is a species of sedge here, superficially resembling a grass, that appears to have been spray-painted the tops, which spread out in 3-6 blades, with the colour white.  Plants are not my strong point, so if anyone can help me with its identification, it would be much appreciated!  They are particularly pretty, so worth a stop to snap a few photos.  
After I got some photos, we noticed something hanging off a small papaya tree planted in the boulevard.  Upon closer investigation, it was a caterpillar, hanging off one of the papaya leaves.  At the base of the tree, there were two more.  These caterpillars were large, up to 10 cm long, and had a "horn" protruding from the back of its abdomen, a characteristic of "hornworms" or Sphinx moth caterpillars, in the family Sphingidae.  This is the larva of Alope Sphinx, Erinnyis alope.  This widespread species ranges from extreme southern United States through the tropical regions of Central and South America and the Caribbean, and even has a subspecies endemic to the Galapagos Islands!  The caterpillars feed on papaya, which was a nice confirmation of its species.  When in its dark phase, it is similar in appearance to Errynis ello, which rather feeds on pointsettia. 
Alope Sphinx Caterpillar (Errinyis alope)
Alope Sphinx caterpillar, Errinyis alope
Alope Sphinx Caterpillar (Errinyis alope)
Alope Sphinx caterpillar, Errinyis alope
Furthermore, to get a closer look at these larvae, we moved the leaf around and the caterpillar, alarmed, widened its thorax, which was a darker color than the rest of its body, and had a unique, white "starburst" marking, perhaps even resembling an eye.  It protruded its thorax, and reminded me of a caterpillar I saw posted on Facebook a few months ago of an Elephant Hawk-moth Caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor) from Europe & Asia that, when startled, can change its thorax to resemble the head of a pit-viper.  Its head is actually tucked under its body when it is in this defense position.  
Alope Sphinx Caterpillar (Errinyis alope)
Alope Sphinx caterpillar, Errinyis alope
While watching the caterpillars on the small papaya tree, we couldn't help but worry about their conspicuous appearance (being so big they were not difficult to see), and that they would be particularly appetizing to a passing thrush or antshrike.  Caterpillars evade predation in a number of ways, and depending on the species, have a variey of effective defenses, from resembling snakes and bird poop, to either exposed or concealed stinging spines containing potent toxins, toxic urticating hairs, aposematic (warning) coloration to announce to any potential predator that it would not be a tasty snack.  Check out this article for more examples of caterpillar defenses (and good photos).  By rearing up and showing off that large 'eye', perhaps this is how Errinyis alope avoids being eaten.  

A Caterpillar Warning: 

When growing up, I remember playing with caterpillars in my backyard.  Down here in Tropical America, I think twice about every caterpillar I see, and as a general rule, do not touch!  On more than one occasion, I have suffered stings from tropical caterpillars (however, stinging caterpillars are not restricted to the tropics, and can be found in temperate regions as well), and it is not a pleasant experience.  Caterpillars that sting and have urticating hairs can be quite toxic, and reported cases of human deaths due to caterpillar stings are not unheard of.  Just a word of advice and worth keeping in mind if traveling to the tropics, its a wild world down here, and creatures like caterpillars may not always be as friendly as they seem.  That being said, they are still cool to come across! 

~ Jenn 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Up close with Fiery-billed Aracaris

Prior to arriving in Costa Rica, I looked over the bird list for the San Vito area, to see what I should be pursuing in the area that I had not yet seen.  Among a few others, the bird I really wanted to see was the Fiery-billed Aracari, a medium-sized relative of a toucan that has a very limited range in western Panama and southern Costa Rica.  Upon arriving in San Vito, Monique and Alison told me that they see them regularly and I should be able to see them on my visit.  
Fiery-billed Aracari
Fiery-billed Aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) at Wilson Botanical Garden
On my first afternoon at Wilson Botanical Garden/Las Cruces Biological Station, I went for a walk to a small mirador overlooking the valley.  Not much was moving around, and it was pretty quiet.  Just before I turned around to walk back, movement in the bushes below caught my eye, and I saw a large flash of red - the bill of a Fiery-billed Aracari!  This young bird sat in a little clearing in the shrubby vegetation, and I watched it for a while.  Not far away, 3 more aracaris were hopping through the trees, not far from me and easily visible.  As I continued on my walk, I saw a few more aracaris on the property that day as well.  

Fiery-billed AracariA few days later, while the nets were open at Finca Cantaros and we had a group of students visiting from the biological station.  Chespi and I, birds in hand, had our attention focused on processing birds, while the students asked questions and took photos.  Then Alison popped around the corner, with a Fiery-billed Aracari in her hands!  She had just gone on a net run and managed to grab this bird as it was running through a tramel of one of the nets (they are too big to get tangled in the gauge of the nets used).  Everyone grabbed cameras for photos, and Chespi carefully processed the bird.  Even though their bill is hollow, they can do a lot of damage, so Alison and Chespi took good care to keep its beak in control.  

The Fiery-billed Aracari, Pteroglossus frantzii, is a medium-sized member of the Toucan family, Ramphastidae.  They are similar to the widespread Collared Aracari, but have a red-orange upper mandible and a red band across their belly, not black as in the Collared Aracari. Even though that bill looks big and heavy, it is actually hollow, and is used for reaching fruits and berries, their main diet.  It is also believed to be used in temperature regulation.  It is found only in southern Costa Rica (on the Pacific side) and in extreme western Panama.  

~ Jenn 

Bird Banding Bonanza in Costa Rica

A week on the avian monitoring project with the San Vito Bird Club was fantastic!  We caught hundreds of of birds in 6 days, at 3 different sites, and here are some of the highlights.  
White-ruffed Manakin
White-ruffed Manakin (Corapipo altera)
Tropical Parula
Tropical Parula (Setophaga pitioyumi)
The first day of mist-netting at Finca Sofia was our busiest day - we caught 72 individuals of 25 species - half of them were hummingbirds, mainly Green Hermits and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.  Other highlights from the heavily reforested Finca Sofia for the first two days were Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Slaty Antwren, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Orange-collared, White-ruffed and Blue-crowned Manakins, White-breasted Wood-Wrens, Clay-colored and White-throated Thrushes, a stunning Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, Rufous-capped Warbler, Cherrie's, Silver-throated and Bay-headed Tanagers, an Orange-billed Sparrow, 4 beautiful Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches and 2 less-common Costa Rican (Stripe-headed) Brush-Finches!
Orange-billed Sparrow
Orange-billed Sparrow (Arremon aurantiirostris)
Saltators proved to be the most challenging because of a horrible bite, and we caught both Streaked and Buff-throated Saltators.  Other hummingbirds included the tiny White-tailed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird and Long-billed Starthroat.  Over the 2 days we caught 3 Blue-crowned Motmots, which despite an intimidating serrated bill, are incredibly calm!  Another highlight was a subtly beautiful Scaly-breasted Wren, a new capture for the San Vito Bird Club!
Blue-crowned Motmot
Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota)
For the next two days, we moved the nets over to Finca Cantaros, a private property open daily to the public, who can come to walk the trails, see the gardens, enjoy picnic lunches and a lovely gift shop.  Here, there is a variety of habitats, including roadside, open areas, woodland, and a small lake.  In addition to a number of the forest birds we caught at Finca Sofia, we caught Violet Sabrewing, the tiny Stripe-throated Hermit, Olivaceous Piculet, Black-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, Gray-capped Flycatcher (4 in 1 net!), a pair of White-winged Becards nesting on the property, Rufous-breasted Wren, Buff-rumped Warblers, Gray-headed, Blue-gray and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Bananaquits, Variable Seedeaters, a stunning male Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Yellow-faced Grassquits, and a few Spot-crowned Euphonias!  The highlight of the day though, was a Fiery-billed Aracari that Alison grabbed as it ran through the tramels of the net (more to come on the aracari)!!
Olivaceous Piculet
Olivaceous Piculet (Picumnus olivaceus)
As Alison and I were opening the nets on the first day at Finca Cantaros, I looked across the pond and saw a white animal, which first struck me as a heron perched on an exposed log.  Then it moved its body and we could see a tail and a head, and it dove into the water, bobbed up and down a couple times and disappeared.  As it turns out, a leucistic Neotropical Otter has been infrequently seen in this pond, and we were lucky to see it!  

White-throated Spadebill
White-throated Spadebill (Platyrinchus mystaceus)
Our final station was at Alison's finca, Finca Cortesa.  Here the habitat hasn't been touched and this small property supports a lot of bird life!  The first morning here kept us busy with a constant stream of birds, including a family of Thick-billed Euphonias in the nets which provided a great identification challenge as we dealt with all ages and sexes!  This finca was also full of juvenile thrushes, both Clay-colored and White-throated.  On our last day, we recaptured a previously banded White-throated Spadebill, a wonderful little bird to see up close!  

Thick-billed Euphonia
One of 8 Thick-billed Euphonias (Euphonia laniirostris)
caught at Finca Cortesa
Overall it was a very successful session, everyone was very happy with the finds and we had a lot of fun!  I'm already looking forward to visiting the San Vito Bird Club again and hope to join another mist-netting session in the near future.  

~ Jenn 

Avian Monitoring with the San Vito Bird Club in Costa Rica

I feel fortunate to have had some great field experience in Latin America.  From tracking Harpy Eagles and Orange-breasted Falcons in Central America, to conducting various surveys for birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and more in Ecuador, I have gained a wide range of experience dealing with a variety of taxa, and I feel it leaves doors open for more opportunities.

In February, I was on the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center tower, and I met Alison Olivieri, the president of the San Vito Bird Club in southern Costa Rica.  We chatted for a while on the tower, and she asked me if I had any experience in mist-netting and bird banding, because they were in need of volunteers for their control monitoring session in July.  We swapped contact information and were in touch immediately.  She contacted me in May with the set dates for the session, and I accepted.  It worked out perfectly, since it was to the date of when I needed to exit Panama for my visa purposes as well.  So on July 11, I boarded the night bus to David, en route to Costa Rica.  

Yellow-headed Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracaras (Milvago chimachima) in San Vito
Four buses and a border crossing later, I arrived in San Vito, a small town set in a picturesque valley in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range in southern Costa Rica, not far from the Panama border.  The fresh air was a welcomed break from the heat and humidity of Gamboa, and I got settled in for my week in Costa Rica.  I was met by Monique and Marcel Girard, a Canadian couple from Quebec who moved to San Vito 19 years ago.  Since I arrived a day before the project was to start, they offered me one of their beautiful cabins for my first night there for a very reasonable rate.  They were so lovely - they made me feel like family, offered me lunch (and breakfast the following day), took me on a driving tour of scenic San Vito and the surrounding area, and showed me their beautiful property, where I immediately started birding!  An Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wrens, Cherrie's, Silver-throated Tanagers, and Gray-capped Flycatchers foraged in the trees and shrubs, while Swallow-tailed Kites and Yellow-headed Caracaras soared overhead.    

The next day, I met Alison to help set up the mist nets at the first site.  With a good crew, we set up 15 nets in an hour, and we were ready for the next day.  Alison dropped me off at Wilson Botanical Garden and Las Cruces Biological Station in time for lunch, where I stayed during the session days.  The combination of a botanical garden and biological station makes for the most beautiful biological station I have ever seen.  Manicured gardens full of native and international flora, and beautiful trails through primary and secondary forest, attracts a great diversity of wildlife.  That evening, our banding expert - Pablo "Chespi" Elizondo and intern Isabel Martin arrived for the session as well.  We got acquainted and prepared for the next several days of bird banding.

The San Vito Avian Monitoring Project is a 10-year long-term monitoring project that focuses on resident and migrant species.  They run 4 sessions a year, at 3 locations near San Vito.  This session is the control session, in July/August, when there are no migrants present.  What we did expect was young birds hatched this year, and some breeding birds, which take advantage of a high food supply to raise their young when no migrants are there to compete.  The project is in its 9th year.  

San Vito
View of San Vito from Finca Cantaros
Our first morning at Finca Sofia was fantastic, our best of the 6 mornings and 3 locations - we netted 72 individuals of 25 species, and 35 individuals of those were hummingbirds, mainly Green Hermits and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (stay tuned for more highlights).  The other mornings followed with a constant stream of birds as well, and the last morning was the quietest, where we were actually able to stop in between net rounds and eat some breakfast.  We banded 2 mornings at each of the 3 locations (Finca Sofia, Finca Cantaros and Finca Cortesa), and lucked out with the weather, thankfully for the "San Juan Veranillo" we managed to avoid rain every morning.  At Finca Cantaros, a public-use garden, we welcomed a 5th-grade class of "Detectivos de Pajaros" for an up-close experience with the mist-netting project, which challenged our small team in terms of continuing with the bird banding in the morning, as we ran the hour-long program for the kids.  It was a big hurdle for me, as it was the first time I had conducted an education program in Spanish!  I can now check that one off the list and I look forward to more! 

Please read more for bird and other wildlife highlights, and photos!

~ Jenn 

Lesson Learned - Always Bring a Camera!

I enjoy bird-watching, wildlife-watching and finding fascinating creatures and plants.  Furthermore, I enjoy documenting what I find through taking pictures.  I don't have a big, fancy, high-quality camera, but my compact Nikon Coolpix S9100 with 18x zoom does a pretty good job sometimes, and I try to have it with me at all times in case I come across something of interest, which often happens here.  

Two weeks ago, I went for a walk on a gloomy Sunday morning in Gamboa before heading to work.  It's the rainy season, and the sky was heavy with dark clouds and mist.  I didn't want to risk damaging my camera with imminent rain, so I left it at home this time - big mistake!  As I was walking behind the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a large white bird flushed up out of the marsh into a Cecropia tree.  It was a beautiful adult Capped Heron, a rare species that occasionally presents itself in central Panama.  The clouds had started to lift, and this shy bird sat in good view, in good light, for approximately 5 minutes.  I considered running back home to grab my camera to grab some photos of this stunning heron, but I realized that even better, I could spend valuable time enjoying watching the bird.  Although I really enjoyed watching this bird, my favourite heron, of which I have not seen in years since volunteering in Amazonia Peru in 2007, I still wished I could have gotten some photos!

Yesterday, while out for another short walk on a gloomy rainy day, I decided to leave my camera at home, again.  The bird life was surprising quiet after the heavy rain, but I continued to enjoy the walk.  As I passed a streetlight along the road, I looked up on the lamp and a leaf-like shape caught my attention on the other side.  I took a second look, and it wasn't a leaf stuck there after the rain but a beautiful Rothschild's Moth (Rothschilidia sp.), one of the largest silk moths in the Americas, and resembles the Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) of southeast Asia.  I was mad at myself for not having my camera, again!  Figuring it would be resting there for a while, I walked home, grabbed my camera and went back to grab some photos.  
Rothschild's Moth

Rothschild's Moth
Rothschild's Moth (Rothschilidia sp.)
Maybe I tend to find the coolest things when I do not have my camera with me; regardless, I do not want to miss future opportunities, as here, you never know what will show up!  I have learned my lesson, and even in the wet season, I will always try to have my camera with me (and some plastic bags to keep it dry if it rains!). 

More to come on my week of bird banding in Costa Rica!

~ Jenn

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Guests for lunch

Yesterday I spent some time at the Canopy Tower, to do some work and some birding along Old Gamboa Road in the afternoon with my friends from Cheepers! Birding on a Budget.  Everyone is enjoying their time on their tour in Panama, and have seen some exciting birds and animals so far.  While sitting down for a delicious lunch at the tower, this Collared Aracari perched outside the window of the dining room, looking rather interested in what was on the menu!  Of course, a majority of the group abandoned their food at points to take advantage of the photo op, including myself! 

Collared Aracari
Collared Aracari, Pteroglossus torquatus, at the Canopy Tower
Collared Aracari
Collared Aracari, Pteroglossus torquatus, at the Canopy Tower
Old Gamboa Road extends through scrub and dry forest, and is a great place to find wrens, raptors, Lance-tailed Manakins (which we heard) and roosting Spectacled Owls right along the road!  Our quiet presence did not disturb this one and everyone in the group got fantastic views and photos (I have yet to get a good Spectacled Owl photo but this one will suffice for now).    
Spectacled Owl
Spectacled Owl, Pulsatrix perspicillata, roosting along Old Gamboa Road
Happy Birding! 

~ Jenn