Friday, March 29, 2013

Panama - A Retrospective

A black-and-white owl has been seen regularly near the fire hydrant at the far end of town. Finally, last night we saw it, although only a silhouette. A second one called from the hill behind the Gamboa Country Club. We can still hear the mud-puddle frogs calling from the drains under the road. February 27, 1983, Gamboa, Panama.

I spent five months living in Gamboa, Panama during the dry season from January to May, 1983. I was one of three field assistants hired by Dr. Jim Karr to help him with a study of lowland tropical birds along the Panama Canal. We mist-netted hundreds of birds that represented more than fifty different species. We collected data on humidity, insect and fruit abundance, and vegetation. Jim was interested in the local movements of resident birds in relation to microhabitat conditions.
So what was the conclusion of all those net hours? I never learned if our specific research results were published. I do know that other tropical biologists followed along with more and different studies of birds. Hundreds of researchers continue to study a range of plants and animals and ecological processes in Gamboa, along Pipeline Road, on Barro Colorado Island, and beyond. Noriega is gone from Panama and the 60,000-acre Canal Zone was returned to the Republic of Panama, and they are in the midst of a huge expansion of the Canal. Protection of the canal's watershed and the tropical plants and animals that live there are part of their expansion plan. I like to think that our bit of information on birds and their habitats contributed, even if in a small way, to conserving lands along the canal.
A rosy thrush-tanager
I was 22 years old during this Panama adventure. The experience shaped my views on conservation and culture, well-beyond birds. On a couple occasions we crossed paths with poachers; once we passed two locals with a bag full of dead birds. We saw peasants eking out a living on the edge of cleared tropical forest. We played soccer on Friday afternoons in Gamboa, with other researchers and local Panamanians, followed by refreshments and conversation at the Gamboa Country Club.

I learned about the Kuna people, while living on one of their palm-covered islands and touring their islands in a dug-out canoe. I hiked in the highlands of Chirique, led by a young Panamanian, Jose Fernandez, eager to show us the quetzals and other birds living on his family land. I saw pastured cows on steep slopes, denuded of tropical forest. I watched ships travel through the Panama Canal and was involved inadvertently in a U.S. Army war game.
And then there were all the fantastic birds in brilliant colors, some with enormous bills and long tails and beautiful calls. Plus the army ants, leafcutter ants, lizards, armadillos, anteaters, monkeys, agoutis, coatimundis, sloths, tapir, butterflies, bees, huge trees, and lots and lots of lianas (woody vines). An amazing diversity of life, being edged out in many places by human needs, desires, and sometimes greed or ignorance. We continue, as a species, to search for that elusive ability to live in harmony with nature. In the tropics, that struggle is heightened by the diversity and complexity of species. Perhaps that is why my memories of Panama are so vivid and valuable to me, these thirty years later.

My sister, Amy, standing next to a tropical tree on Barro Colorado Island, 1983
So, here is to the puffbird and the antbirds and the woodcreeper and all the other creatures in the tropics and beyond -- may we leave them more than enough habitat to thrive and just be.
And the birds that I first saw along the Chagres River in Gamboa, those thirty years ago: wattled jacanas with the black body, yellow wings, and long toes; and a great kiskadee (a flycatcher).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Panama - Beyond the Canal Zone

In 1983, I helped mist-net birds in lowland tropical forests in central Panama. The study design involved netting birds for a dozen days or so in a row, followed by some down time. This afforded us days off to explore other parts of Panama, outside the Canal Zone. We took advantage, as the country is small but diverse, and in 1983 seemed just on the edge of a new era of exploitation and over-development. We wanted to see places before they were changed by population pressures and "progress."

Perhaps my favorite excursion was to the San Blas Islands with friend Peter and my sister, Amy. For $50 each we took a 6:00 am bumpy 30-minute flight from Panama City. The plane took off over the Pacific Ocean, circled around, crossed the Continental Divide, and landed at Cartig on the mainland, on the shores of the Caribbean. Only 30 minutes by plane to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic. After a brief stop, we took off from Cartig and flew a short distance to the small island of El Porvenir. 

The San Blas encompasses an archipelago of 378 islands, of which 49 or so are inhabited by the Kuna people. They are an autonomous native people that live on these islands and the nearby mainland as well as several other places in Panama. Back in 1983, the only way to reach the islands was by plane or by boat. Today, from what I read, a jeep road extends from Panama City to the Kuna mainland on the Caribbean and modern pictures show more tourists and less paradise.

Flying over one of the San Blas Islands in 1983
Luis, the owner of Hotel San Blas, met us at the landing on Porvenir. From there he motored us in a wooden dugout canoe, or cayuko, to the nearby island of Nula Nega.

Approaching the island of Nula Nega, our home for a few days in April 1983.
The San Blas Islands are covered in palm trees and edged by sandy beaches. A breeze blows constantly, the water is warm and blue, the air clear and sunny. It is paradise -- at least when we were there in 1983. At Hotel San Blas we each had our own thatched roof hut with a bed, shelves, kerosene lamp, and dirt floor. No electricity, no phone, no crowds. 

Hotel San Blas on Nula Nega
The Kuna welcomed us to their island and their community. The women seemed happy and fun-loving, laughing a lot, probably mostly at us. They are known for their molas: hand-stitched layers of colorful fabrics with designs of birds, crabs, fish and other geometric designs formed by cutting away parts of each layer. Women make these as part of their traditional clothing and many are made to sell to tourists. We bought a few. The traditional dress of a Kuna woman includes a colorful skirt, a blouse with a mola panel on the front and back, a red and yellow head scarf, and a gold nose ring.

A Kuna woman on the San Blas Islands
A Kuna girl with her pet keel-billed toucan
During our two-day stay, Luis took us by cayuko to Cartig on the mainland. We loafed in the hammock  at our "hotel," walked around the island in our bare feet, and snorkeled in the coral reefs. Back then the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute had a marine research site on one of the tiny islands nearby. We met up with them to snorkel since they knew the reefs well. We saw starfish, sea cucumbers, flounder, colorful fishes, sea fans and sea hairs, and a sting ray. We got sunburned. For lunch the first day they served us a huge spiny lobster caught in the off-shore waters.

Nula Nega Island views, San Blas Islands, 1983
Sunrise and sunset were beautiful -- I suppose day after day you'd tire of this simple paradise. But for two days it was wonderful, except for the food poisoning that we got the last day. It was a rough flight back. But that did not dampen our enthusiasm for the San Blas and the Kunas. From what I've read recently they are struggling with regulating tourism and protecting coral reefs, adjusting to sea level rise,  and addressing drug smuggling--even when we were there the waters around the San Blas were known as a passageway for Columbian drug smugglers. I wish the Kuna well as they were kind and welcoming to us.
We had a completely different but equally enjoyable experience spending six days in the highlands of western Panama, in the Chiriqui region. At that time, the Panama Audubon Society owned a cabin just below the town of Cerro Punta, which we rented for $20 a night. At 6,500 feet above sea level, Cerro Punta was refreshingly cool. We wore long-sleeved shirts in the evening and enjoyed an evening fire in the fireplace. We took a bus from Panama City to David--a 6 hour ride--and then another bus up to Cerro Punta. 

It was here--at the Audubon cabin--that we had the encounter with the sloth.
Cerro Punta is known for producing vegetables for sale elsewhere in Panama, for race horse farms, and to birders, for hosting a population of the extraordinarily beautiful quetzal. We hiked up to Cerro Punta from our cabin, in search of the resplendent quetzal. Along the way we stopped to see pastured animals and crop fields.
We arranged for a local Panamanian to take us up the hillside into wooded pastures and second growth forests, where he knew the location of a nesting pair of quetzals. And we saw the resplendent quetzal. It was here too, that we heard a three-wattled bellbird, which makes a unique, loud call. Check out this video of the bellbird.

A not so great picture of the quetzal that we saw in 1983;
you can just make out its long tail feathers and red belly
Quetzal habitat above Cerro Punta
We hiked even farther up into the highlands
with great views into the valley below and up the ridge line.
Our local guide, Jose Fernandez, and his younger brother,
hiking effortlessly at 7,000+ feet.
While in Panama, we made several other one-day excursions around the Canal Zone and twice we drove by car east into hill country that was being de-forested and burned and pastured. The roads were just beginning to penetrate the forests here in the communities of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe. It was my first experience with slash and burn agriculture. These pictures were taken thirty years ago. It makes my heart ache to think how much forest has been cleared since then, how much habitat lost, how many animals displaced.
Everywhere we went in Panama people were friendly. There was no hint of political unrest. Just people going about their daily lives, expanding into new areas of cleared forest, as local populations grew and grew. I wondered then and now, if this trend would ever end--here in Panama or elsewhere in the world as humans expand into and exploit more and more wild places.

Tomorrow I complete my retrospective of Panama, based on my five month stint there in 1983. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Panama Canal

When I lived in Gamboa, Panama for five months in 1983, I saw the Panama Canal every day. The road to Gamboa crossed the Chagres River via a one-lane bridge at the confluence of the river with the canal. It still does, 30 years later.

A ship passes Gamboa on its way to Panama City;
the one-lane bridge into Gamboa is in the foreground - Gamboa 1983
The Dredging Division for the Panama Canal is located in Gamboa--they work day and night to keep the canal open.
In Panama at that time, the National Guard and Police were all intertwined. We were stopped once by the police in Panama City for no reason that we could determine; to get underway though we had to bribe the policeman.
In 1983, the United States still had more than a dozen bases as well as control of the Panama Canal Zone. This became more clear to us by mid-February when the army started their war games. Gamboa--with the one lane bridge next to the canal--was one of the "strategic" locations to be defended. For ten days the army "occupied" Gamboa and they were quite serious. The good guys were protecting the canal and the bad guys were trying to take it over. Two years before the bad guys had won. There were many soldiers in Gamboa, plus a tank and jeeps and boats under the bridge. In years past they had done all kinds of strange things on Pipeline Road, but were asked by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute not to go out there.

During the 1983 games, when I was there, soldiers stopped us to ask if we had seen any jeeps up ahead. It was sometimes hard to keep a straight face, as we did not take it as seriously as they did. But since the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, perhaps I should have taken it more seriously. Helicopters and planes and boats zipped up and down the canal for ten days. Some of the BCI researchers who were in boats in Gatun Lake said they were harassed during the games. Peter, a fellow researcher in Gamboa, was harassed by a couple army guys while he was watching orioles near the bridge. They thought he was an enemy spy. We were glad when they left. I'm not sure who won that year.

The Panama Canal was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1904 to 1914. The French had started the effort in the late 1880s, but gave up after thousands of workers died of yellow fever and landslides kept hampering their progress. The U.S. took over the effort; President Teddy Roosevelt helped move the project along in the early 1900s. The canal passes over the Continental Divide and is 85 feet higher in Gatun Lake than at sea level--at each end of the canal. This required the construction of three locks and dams to lift up boats and then lower them back down as they moved through the canal. No wonder civil engineers call this one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

The Continental Divide is located just south of Gamboa. The excavation of this ridge, which is called the Culebra Cut, is the narrowest part of the canal, such that only one ship can pass through at a time. Where the canal is wider, ships can easily pass each other.

The Culebra Cut along the Panama Canal, 1983
In addition to excavating vast amounts of material and building the locks and dams to create the canal, the Chagres River was dammed near the Caribbean side in 1910. This flooded a vast area that was named Gatun Lake. This was when Barro Colorado became an island and no longer an interconnected high point along a ridge-line.

Two ships pass each other in Gatun Lake,
as seen from Barro Colorado Island in 1983
Panama is currently in the midst of a massive project to widen the Culebra Cut and to add another lock and dam at each end of the canal. Wikipedia has a nice map of the Panama Canal showing the existing route, the locations of the existing locks and dams, and the new locks that are under construction. This map also shows Gamboa (the small town where I lived in 1983) and Barro Colorado Island, one of our study sites.

Map of Panama Canal from Wikipedia
(attributed to Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data)
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter negotiated the return of the Panama Canal Zone to the Republic of Panama on December 31, 1999. President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in 1989 to remove General Noriega. Through all that time and up to present day, ships moved through the canal, researchers visited BCI and Pipeline Road, and the slow pace of life in Gamboa continued.

The pace of progress though is encroaching on the lowland tropical forests that harbor all those wonderful creatures that we witnessed in 1983. In 1952, 80% of the canal watershed was forested, by the late 1980s it was only 47% forested. Each ship through the canal requires 50 million gallons of water--to raise it up and lower it down as it moves through the lock systems. People began to realize that maintaining a forested, undeveloped watershed was critical to replenishing the vast amounts of water needed to run the canal system. Mature tropical trees take up, store, and slowly release hundreds of gallons of water--water that would otherwise runoff and cause erosion, if the trees were removed. So protecting the lowland forests is important for the diversity of life and for the viability of the canal, which is a huge economic engine for Panama.

If you plan a trip to Panama, I recommend a visit to Gamboa. Birding along Pipeline Road is some of the best in the world. A new resort--the Gamboa Rainforest Resort--has been built in Gamboa with some guidance from tropical researchers to attract ecotourists. It is much more plush than our apartment or our camp at Limbo Hunt Club, but might be worth the extra expense to see a cool part of the Panama Canal and its environs.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Panama - Sloths and Other Cool Creatures

One of our mist netting sites was on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), a world famous tropical research site in the middle of the Panama Canal. The nearly 4,000-acre island is managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and hosts hundreds of researchers each year. The island is reached by boat. In 1983, a train ran from Panama City to Gamboa and then to Frijoles, an abandoned village. The train station at Frijoles was the launch site to BCI. Years later the train stopped running to Gamboa and Frijoles, so the boat launch to BCI is now from Gamboa.

The Panama City-Gamboa-Frijoles train
The Frijoles train station, 1983
What is now Barro Colorado Island was once part of a high ridgeline and a large connected intact tropical forest. The creation of the Panama Canal flooded a large area, creating Gatun Lake, a large water body that now surrounds BCI. As such, it became an important area to study the birds, plants, mammals, insects, and other diverse taxa in a relatively undisturbed area. And the diversity is extraordinary: 381 species of birds; 135 species of mammals including five monkeys and 70 bat species; 32 types of frogs and toads and 58 reptiles; 100 species of ants; 150+ species of vines; and so much more.

One of our favorite sightings on BCI was Alice the tapir. She visited the laboratory on BCI in search of kitchen scraps. This happened mostly during years of food shortages. Tapirs look like a cross between a pig and a rhinoceros with a long, flexible nose and a short, stubby tail.

Alice the tapir on Barro Colorado Island
Another wonderfully interesting mammal is the three-toed sloth. We saw these on BCI, on the mainland, and on a trip to the highlands of western Panama. On this latter trip a sloth climbed down from a tree and walked across the lawn of the cabin where we were staying.

A three-toed sloth in Cerro Punta, Chiriqui Highlands, Panama, 1983
Sloths move very, very slowly on the ground. They spend most of their time in trees, where they also move slowly, blending in with the leafy canopy, the source of their food. Blue-green algae grows in their fur, adding a greenish tinge to their coat, which further camouflages them from their main predators--jaguars and harpy eagles. Several species of insects live in sloth fur, feeding on the algae. Sloths climb down from their tree once a week to relieve themselves. On BCI alone, their are several thousand sloths. Nice to know that these extraordinary creatures are faring well.

Our apartment in Gamboa was clean and airy. But the first morning, when we flipped on the kitchen light and watched cockroaches scurry into dark corners, I realized I was in a different ecosystem than my native New England. Our apartment cockroach was just one of more than 100 species of cockroaches found in central Panama. Not only are there many more species of each taxa in Panama, most animals and plants are bigger than comparable species here in our northern climes. Take the foot-long stick insect that was stuck in one of our mist nets. At first glance it looked just like a stick, until we saw it move ever so slowly.

 A big stick insect (commonly called a walking stick) in Panama, 1983
Ants were never so interesting until I spent time in the tropics. I mentioned army ants yesterday. Another fascinating group are the leafcutter ants. These colonies can contain millions of ants, divided into castes based on the work they perform. Leading to the colony are small, hard-packed paths traveled by the larger worker ants that carry fragments of plants back to the colony.

A leafcutter ant with flower fragment (Photo by Larry Kolczak)
The large ants turn their plant cargo over to mid-sized ants that carry the material into the ant mound to the fungal garden. Leaf-cutter ants feed the plant fragments to the fungus. Smaller ants inside the colony tend to the garden by removing mold and weeding it of other pests. Any debris--leftover plant fragments and dead ants--are carried outside and taken to a dump site at the edge of the mound. Young ants feed on the fungus. We watched in awe as a steady stream of ants carried leaf and flower parts into the colony and an equally steady stream of ants carried debris out to their "landfill." Some ants--the soldiers--defend the ant colony and others ride on the backs of the leaf carriers to fend off parasitic flies. It was a marvel.

The trees, vines, flowers, and fruits were equally diverse and uniquely adapted to their tropical habitats. There was not the time to learn the thousands of species, but time enough just to enjoy their shapes and colors and beauty.

A rich diversity of plants in Panama
While mist-netting birds we listened to the booming calls of howler monkeys and watched troops of white-faced and spider monkeys. One troop of white-faced monkeys was overhead on one of netting plots. They looked down at us, breaking branches, bringing them up over their head and bringing them down hard on another branch. It seemed like aggressive behavior aimed at us, but we were after-all another primate in their territory. We saw agoutis (a rodent), coatimundis (raccoon-like), lizards, beautiful butterflies, crocodiles (in Gatun Lake).

Tomorrow -- the Panama Canal before, during, and after 1983.

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.

First Walks of 2024

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