You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2012.
Today’s post is by a guest blogger–my husband, Steve (a.k.a. WikiSteve, as I like to call him). He visited Antelope Island a couple of days ago and said the magic words to me: I want to write this week’s blog. (Those are my favorite words behind, “You look so thin!” and “How big did you want that diamond?”) Steve has been birding since age 6 and is the reason why I’m birding today. By trade he’s a petroleum geologist/engineer and uses big words such as halophytic.
Make Blue-green Brine Algae your dietary mainstay – 482 hundred gazillion Brine Flies can’t all be wrong. (Hey, it can’t be any worse than the jucified kale leaves that my wife, the Accidental Birder, makes me drink.)
The Great Salt Lake of Utah has a fascinating halophytic (salt-loving) ecosystem that makes it a renowned birding Mecca. Only a few species can thrive in its hypersaline conditions.
Blue-green brine algae constitutes the basis of the very simple food chain that supports unfathomable numbers of brine flies and brine shrimp, which in turn, support shorebirds and waterfowl by the millions. The Great Salt Lake is a veritable protein-rich food factory.
Starting in Spring and continuing all through Summer and well into the Fall, brine flies emerge from the shallow salty waters in astonishing numbers. The brine flies and the brine shrimp (Artemia franciscana) serve as an essential food source for millions of migratory birds.
It is the first week of Summer and therefore the first week of Fall migration. Already thousands of Wilson Phalaropes, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Willets are converging on the Great Salt Lake as a staging ground where they will double their body weight in preparation for their long migration to South America. Within a few weeks there will be tens of thousands of shorebirds and you can expect millions more on the Great Salt Lake by mid August.
The Wilson’s Phalaropes here are predominantly females that have finished breeding for the year. In a reversal of sexual roles the plainer males are still raising their young on the prairie sloughs of the Great Plains from Alberta and Saskatchewan down to Kansas and Oklahoma. By mid July the male phalaropes will be arriving at the Great Salt Lake in large numbers soon to be followed by this year’s fledgelings. It’s in August where you’ll find over a million Wilson’s Phalaropes (comprising between one third and one half of the world’s total population for the species) feasting on brine flies and brine shrimp of the Great Salt Lake.
So, within a few weeks from now other shorebird species, returning from breeding grounds on the arctic tundra, will soon join the local Avocets, Stilts, and Willets in the tens of thousands along with hundreds of thousands of Eared Grebes, which were just here back in early May as the Accidental Birder reported. Beholding such a sheer abundance of birds is truly spectacular and the Great Salt Lake should be on every birder’s bucket list.
Check out the gallery below for more photos of the convergence on the Great Salt Lake. (Click on any photo to enlarge and it will take you to a spectacular slide show.)
We had just left the Canopy Tower in Panama and were driving down the steep winding road when Steve slowed our car down as we approached a truck that was pulled over to the side. The driver was a worker with the Canopy Tower. Steve stopped the car, Beny Wilson, our guide rolled his window down and after the usual “hola!” exchanges I overheard something about army ants.
Yeah, I thought. We want to stay clear of those.
After thanks and goodbyes Steve drove on until we arrived at a pullout area near the main road and parked the car. There was another group there and everyone seemed excited about the army ants.
Which we heard were just a short walk away.
Down a long path.
Into the jungle.
Started to seem like the beginning of a movie that turns out disastrous in the end.
“Wait a minute,” I whispered to Steve as we climbed out of the car to join the group. “Why are we looking for ants? Aren’t we here to look for birds?”
“Army ants!” he said excitedly. “I’ve never seen army ants before.”
“No, really,” I pressed. “Why are we here looking for ants? Won’t they kill us?”
“You’ll be fine.” (His usual answer.) “The ants attract birds that specialize in ants.”
Specialize. I actually thought that was funny. I imagined meeting a bird and asking, “What’s your specialty?” and the bird would reply with the uppityness of Frasier Crane saying, “I specialize in ants.”
“They eat the ants?” I asked.
No, it turns out. The birds are doing one of two things: They’re either snatching up the bugs that are getting stirred up or they’re stealing the prey from the ants.
Smart birds. And so that’s why I gave in to the peer pressure (or rather, I didn’t want to seem like a wimp and sit in the car) and went on a little hike into the jungle, walking gingerly over hundreds of ant arteries. Usually, when birding you’ve got your head up looking for birds, and there are countless problems with that already–who hasn’t fallen or tripped because they’re not watching where they’re going? But with army ants you’ve got to keep your eye on the ground and watch out where you step–it’s a big game of “don’t step on the crack or you’ll break your momma’s back” that you played as a kid when walking on a sidewalk.
I’m already a klutz and so I was probably a little freaked out. But the one thing that birding has taught me is that it has taken me to a myriad of places I never would have gone to otherwise. Four years ago I would have never considered a trip to Panama. Four months ago I would have never considered walking down a trail into the jungle to search out army ants. I could have sat in the car and missed the whole thing. In fact, I could have not gone to Panama at all. I could have had a vacation where all I did was sit on a beach and do nothing but read a book and listen to my iPod. Now, I’m not saying that’s a horrible thing to do. I work long hours in Corporate America and I need a day or two to unplug from the world and fall into blissful nothingness. Yet, I can’t imagine what kind of story I’d have to tell and not sure exactly what I would have learned that I didn’t know before.
Without the pursuit of army ants I wouldn’t have learned this (all brought to us by my husband, WikiSteve):
- Apparently the queen is an egg-laying machine and all the army ants are female except for a few drones who are male and their sole purpose is to mate with the few young female ants which have wings who fly away and create their own ant colonies.
- An army colony is called a super organism because it acts and behaves as though it were one entity composed of several million subunits.
Native indians when they would get a cut, would suture the wound by getting a bunch of army ants and having the ant bite down on the wound to close it (bring the two sides together). And then they would twist off the body and leave the head in place. (I think that last part is my husband’s favorite part of the story.)
- Army ants build bridges with their bodies and climb all over each other
- There are several million army ants in one swarm and they send out hunting parties that capture and kill anything they can (spiders, insects, scorpions), and they take them back to the bivouac (temporary nest site) for the larvae and the queen.
- Their bite hurts like hell (so I’ve heard)
We saw more antbirds than you see posted here, but I didn’t get great shots of all of them. I think I was a little freaked out by the arteries around me and worried I was going to be eaten alive or carried off by the ants.
Seen on our trip in Panama but not with the ant swarm–this cute pair of White-bellied Antbirds–we saw the following day. It’s not a great shot at all, I know.
I’m into my fourth year of true “birding” and it’s taken awhile for me to really understand what a “rare bird” is, aside from someone just saying, “this is a rare bird.” I always got the whole concept, but until you know the significance of some of these rarities you don’t really understand. And the more I go birding the more I understand that.
As my geologist husband always says: “Every rock tells a story.” And so does every bird.
In the Chiriqui Highlands of Panama, specifically in Cerro Punta, our first day of birding there produced this bird, the Golden-browed Chlorophonia:
While the Golden-browed Chlorophonia isn’t technically rare it’s considered uncommon even though it’s a Panamanian endemic. Well, all of that (uncommon, endemic, bird, Panama) is enough to get me excited about seeing it and it certainly was enough for our quiet and gentle guide, Ito, to become animated about it. However, if Ito hadn’t pointed it out to us with his excitement, I would have just said, “Hey, look at that cute bird!”
(sigh) I’ve got a long ways to go. I know.
Green Shrike Vireo
As Steve and I were atop the tower at Pipeline Road (Part of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center) our already-animated guide Beny Wilson became very excited when he spotted the Green Shrike Vireo who popped in quite close to us. Not a rarity, exactly, but due to his coloring is often difficult to spot, making him the Where’s Waldo? of the jungle.
To give you a little perspective on how rare the Ochraceous Pewee is, this is what The Birds of Panama field guide shows:
Only those two small purple dots in the western Chiriqui region. Doesn’t give you much hope if you’re trying to chase this guy down, does it? We were in the Cerro Punta area when this guy flew in just in front of us. (Now, why can’t all birds do this for me?) Here’s my shot of the guy:
Our guide, Ito, was so excited about seeing this bird that I knew we had something. I was just thrilled that I got a nice shot of it.
You know my feelings about hiring local guides–I love them and I’m thrilled to be putting my dollars into their economy rather than into international guides’ pockets. But mostly, I know that when my local guides are over the moon at the site of a particular bird, especially since they hike these areas on a daily basis, I not only know that I’ve stumbled onto something wonderful, but that I come back home with a better appreciation for looking for the rarity, the uncommon or even the bird who tries to hide from me in my own back yard.
By the way, Ito called in this bird to the Panama Rare Bird Alert and he was really excited to tell us the next morning before our next adventure and that everyone seemed to be buzzing about it. That put a huge smile on my face–our guide, Ito, was a local hero.
I came down the stairs at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast where Steve and I were staying in Gamboa, Panama and found Steve and a stranger looking through binoculars at a bird in one of the trees on the property. “You must be Beny!” I exclaimed as I reached out my hand to shake his. He flashed me a big broad smile and at that moment I knew we were in for a fun adventure for the next three days.
I learned of Beny through the managers of the Canopy Bed and Breakfast, who gave me his contact information a couple of months before we arrived in Panama. Steve and I love to hire local bird guides when we travel and while good field guide books and even bird-finding guide books are a must we knew we would miss so much if we didn’t hire a guide–in particular, a local who knew where to spot the birds. Besides, I always love sitting down and having lunch with local guides and learning more about the culture and their lives. And to be honest, they always know the best places to stop for lunch.
Whether it was Beny’s big smile, hearty laugh or his David Attenborough impersonation as we watched for birds atop the observation tower on Pipeline Road, I will forever remember the wonderful time we had with Beny and know in my heart that he will be a lifelong friend. (He even brought me a Coke Lite one morning after he learned I was addicted to the stuff.) But I can’t keep Beny all to myself, so I decided to interview him so you all can learn more about this fascinating bird guide from Panama.
Accidental Birder (AB): When did you first become interested in birds?
Beny Wilson (BW): When I was young my father would point out birds during Sunday train rides and I still remember seeing my first woodpecker in a train station when I was 7 years old –a male Chestnut-colored Woodpecker. Then when I was about 16 years old a friend and neighbor attended a presentation of the book, Guide to Birds of Panama, which was newly translated in Spanish. During the presentation our friend had some drinks to the point where he couldn’t manage to get to his house so he decided to spend the night on our couch. The next morning I awoke to find that he had left the house without some of his belongings, including the new book. I opened the book and started reading the prologue and other information, but when I got to the plates my mind was just blown away by all the drawings, shapes and colors of so many birds! I asked our neighbor if I could use his book for awhile and during the first week I managed to ID a little over 50 species of birds just in my backyard. I had no idea that we had so many bird species around our house. The tipping point for me happened when after reading and looking at every single plate I was able to ID a Southern Lapwing, which was very uncommon back then. I was so excited that I decided to keep going on with birding. Later on I had two mentors: Loyda Sanchez from Panama Audubon Society who taught me how to properly use my binoculars and books, and my master Wilberto Martinez, Panama’s greatest birdwatcher, who took me around the country on his tours and showed me the art of guiding birders in the wilderness.
AB: How long have you been a bird guide?
BW: I have been guiding since age 19. That is already 16 years of career. I began by guiding environmental education programs with Grupo Ecologista VIDA, an environmental education group I helped to create while in college. I have also led many other tours, including frog photography, wildlife filming, cruise ship nature expeditions, family adventures, cultural journeys and native art appreciation tours.
AB: What gear do you usually take with you when you take a group out birding?
BW: I carry a Kowa NTS-77 telescope, two Leica Ultravid 8×42 binoculars, a laser pointer, and a little speaker to plug into my cellphone to playback species of bird calls.
AB: Everyone seems to have a favorite bird. Mine is the Melodious Black Bird. What is your favorite?
BW: This is a complex question, though hummingbirds are my favorite group. I enjoy watching them in feeders and they are an easy target for beginner birders so they have a special spot in my outings. However the Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher are my favorite birds. They are both tiny, shiny and they are not too glamorous. My two grannies were very religious women so I learned the appreciation of modest beauty.
BW: I love it when the people I’m guiding are surprised and express their delight, such as, “Whoa! I didn’t know that about this bird!” I also love to explain a bird’s natural history. People create better connections to the birds and natural spaces once they get a history to carry home.
AB: You probably meet a lot of very interesting people. What type of person or people make it fun for you when you’re guiding?
BW: I have my very own classification of birders: WABIES (wealthy amateur birders), contemplational birders, listers, go-getters, and lazy birders. I love them all but listers are the ones that I can survive without. My general rule of thumb is that if they have a good sense of humor we can go birding!
AB: Panama has a rich diversity of geographical regions. Do you have a favorite place in Panama to go birding?
BW: I love the Chiriqui Highlands and Darien lowlands. There is so much contrast from the cool and misty cloud forest of the highlands to the vast and remote flat lowlands. Each area has completely different avifaunas, climates, people and surprises.
AB: Do you have a favorite experience when taking a group or a person birding?
BW: Many years ago while helping Wilberto Martinez with a group of birdwatchers, he sent me with the oldest member of the group to look for Resplendent Quetzals. The rest of the group was in good shape to go further up the the trail so they kept going with Wilberto while I stayed at the head of the trail with the 81-year-old guy who had tried three different times to get the Quetzals in Costa Rica, but was never lucky enough to find them. The temperature was only 49°F–cold for a Panamanian–so my hands were numb. Wilberto told us to stand under a gigantic bambito tree that was a good fruit producer for the Quetzals. After some five minutes a female Resplendent Quetzal showed near the top of the tree and we both began staring at this magnificent bird. Five minutes later a male with an almost two-foot long tail flew in and sat right next to the female. I turned to my guest and saw that he was in tears and in complete awe, watching the superb couple of birds. Next thing I noticed is that I got wet eyes too since these were my first pair of Quetzals ever.
AB: What advice would you give people who are looking for a bird guide?
BW: Look for other birdwatchers’ references. Sometimes an excellent guide may not speak full English but is most likely an amazing spotter, so do not limit your search to only a bilingual guide. Make sure they have a telescope or bring yours along. I will always prefer that people hire local guides instead of the well-known international trip leaders. Helping local guides also helps the conservation of the local avifauna, as most birdwatching guides are involved in bird conservation, which make it a big plus.
AB: How do you promote your business as a bird guide?
BW: I used to work through tour operators but I am now starting to promote myself via my own webpage (www.benywilson.com) Still under construction and will include all my social media connections. But a simple email or phone call is the best way. firstname.lastname@example.org or 011-507-6112-2082 is my cellphone.
I’m not ready to let go of Panama just yet. What that means is that it seems as though my reporting about our two-week birding adventure in Panama just may go on forever. I promise I won’t drag this on, but there are still loads of photos and stories to share. (Someone will let me know when I’ve jumped the shark, right?)
Let me begin by sharing that over the weekend Steve and I were talking about our long-term plans to retire in Panama, discussing where we’d like to live–on the beach? In the cloud forest? Both? (Why not?) It’s all still in the dreaming phase right now, but it’s exciting to think that one day we just might call Panama our home. And wouldn’t it be great to see this fella every day:
I fell in love with the Blue-crowned Motmot when I first saw him in Belize a couple of years ago. In Belize he seemed more shy, but in Panama there were Motmots aplenty and they didn’t seemed alarmed by us humans. Here’s another flavor–the Broad-billed Motmot. This was a new Motmot species for me.
You know, the more I tell people about birds and birding–particularly when I share photos of the birds we saw I get the same reaction from everyone: “I didn’t know there were so many birds!”
Nor did I before I met Steve.
So for this week’s post I’d like to share some of the other birds we encountered during our Panamanian adventure. This should give you a sense of the variety of species we saw. (Not included in this post are all the tanagers and hummingbirds. Those were reported in previous posts.)
Here we go. First off, most people think we’re going to be chasing exotics like the Toucan. I admit it, I like to see exotic birds. In fact, I spent the whole two weeks rather disappointed that I didn’t get a spectacular shot of a Toucan. I kept hearing stories like, “Yesterday the toucan was just perched right in front of us in full view!”
I hate those people.
But one afternoon while Steve, our guide Ito and I were going up the hill looking for (can’t believe I’m saying this) “some bird,” I heard the toucan and was determined to snap a photo of it. I turned around and went in the opposite direction, down the hill, following the croaks of the toucan where I soon met up with a young girl from one of the local tribes who was just standing there with her face pointed up to the tops of the trees. She clearly was also looking for the toucan.
The young girl seemed like she was 10 or 11 and didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak her language but we both were helping each other with hand signals as we tried to find it. She found it before me and pointed way up through the thick leaves and I leaped over to her to find Mr. Toucan not in full view, but sitting on a branch among the leaves and vines, allowing me to get just a partial view. I snapped away and then showed the girl the picture on the LED screen on the back of my camera, wondering if she’d ever seen a digital camera before.
Satisfied with finding the bird, the young girl went on her way and I went back up the hill, hoping that at least one shot was going to turn out okay. I wanted her to stay. I would have liked to have asked her questions about where she lives and what life is like for her, but we didn’t have much luck conversing and besides, I’m sure she’s been taught “Stranger Danger” tips from her tribe just like any child would be taught. I don’t think I look alarming, but you never know. It was very humid and my hair was quite frizzy. It would scare most adults, let alone children.
But here’s my toucan. Not so bad.
Now, as far as composition goes, for some reason I’m in love with this next photo. And you know what? I didn’t even take it–Steve did!
Here are the rest of the group for this post. Enjoy and just know–when we move to Panama you’ll have to come visit us and we can show you where to find these birds. (To view the gallery click on one photo and it will enlarge and take you to a slideshow.)