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!