Sunday, March 24, 2013

Panama -- Limbo Hunt Club

In March 1983, ten Earthwatch volunteers spent two weeks with us in Panama, helping to mist net birds. For part of that time we were headquartered out of the Limbo Hunt Club (LHC), the staging area for our four main study plots along Pipeline Road. The LHC consisted of the concrete remains of the clubhouse--a floor and partial walls--in a small clearing at the end of a dirt road. The hunt club was no more but the name for the site endured.

Limbo Hunt Club, off Pipeline Road in central Panama, 1983
The volunteers and project staff took turns living at the LHC and at the apartment in Gamboa in five day stretches. We slept on air mattresses under mosquito netting and listened to the sounds of the jungle.

Sleeping quarters at the Limbo Hunt Club
Our kitchen at the Limbo Hunt Club
During my five-month stint in Panama we would return to the Limbo Hunt Club many times to net birds. We caught dozens of species new to me: manakins, quail doves, woodcreepers, leaftossers, foliagegleaners, xenops, antbirds, flatbills, spadebills, among others. Some hummingbirds were too small to be caught, zipping through the gaps in the mesh. Many of the hawks got tangled in the net as they flew low through the forest in pursuit of smaller birds that were caught or about to be caught in the net.

A pair of diminutive blue-crowned manakins.
Manakins have an elaborate courtship display;
males gather to display in groups, called leks,
where they zoom around making snapping and
buzzing noises with their wings
A slaty-backed forest-falcon,
caught as it pursued a small bird through the forest understory
Two of my favorite birds captured in the nets were the white-whiskered puffbird and the tody flycatcher. Puffbirds are very quiet in the hand and are naturally passive in the wild. Think of them as the equivalent of a trap-happy chipmunk; we caught them often.
The tropics are a draw for researchers -- graduate students and their professors -- interested in evolution, ecology, and general natural history of animals and plants. We met several other research teams including Greg Butler and Peter Wimberger who stayed in Gamboa for two months to mist net and study birds in second growth habitats: clearings, shrubby areas, and gardens. This was in contrast to our mature forest study and as such they netted some different species. One of those was the tody flycatcher-- a small cute and calm bird in the hand, but quite active as it forages in shrubs.

The very small, common tody-flycathcher

Several more species captured in second growth habitats by Peter and Greg:
great antshrike, fasciated antshrike, rosy thrush-tanager.
We also spent a day with Jill Trainer, who was studying the chestnut-headed oropendula, a relative of orioles and blackbirds. This species of oropendula is gregarious, much like some of our blackbirds, and their hanging, pendulous nests resemble the nest of the Baltimore oriole. Jill's birds nested in clearings, gardens, and other second growth habitats and were easily located by their colonial nesting habits.

Jill Trainer's oropendulas
Many studies in the tropics involve relationships between species -- such as monkeys and their food sources or plants and their pollinators. One fascinating relationship that we observed several times while mist netting birds was the connection between army ant swarms and a group of birds.

During one of our first wanderings into the forest around Limbo Hunt Club, just days after arriving in Panama, we heard a rustling in the distance, a noise that grew louder and closer. Soon a huge swarm of fast-moving army ants (thousands and thousands) moved through the forest understory. They scooped up insects, spiders, and even small lizards that were crawling in their path. Some birds are keyed into these raids and follow along above the army ant swarm scooping up the crickets, grasshoppers, other bigger and faster insects that can out-manuever the ants, but not the birds. A few species--such as the ocellated antbird that we caught in our nets--are considered professional ant-following birds, as that is how they forage almost exclusively.

Ocellated antbird, a professional ant-following bird
Our crew was focused on birds and we spent much of our free time with other bird researchers. Each habitat type offered up new colorful and unique birds; after all there are more than 900 species in the country. By spending time with researchers, rather than just out birding for fun, we learned so much more about the ecology of the birds, their habitats, and complexity of the relationships among plants and animals.

Tomorrow I will highlight some of the other plants and animals--other than birds--that we saw in our jungle wanderings.

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