Yep, it’s true. The migratory birds are on the move, leaving the tropics in droves now. Our prothonotary warblers left immediately, without giving me a chance to say goodbye, the chuckling call of the summer tanagers have faded away, but the northern waterthrushes seem hesitant to leave, their bobbing tails still evident among the garden grasses. And now migrants who spent their winter even farther south are moving through Panama on their northward trajectory.
Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, Bay-breasted Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo are feeding at our fruiting melastoma bushes and trees, Black-and-white and Blackburnian Warblers in their finest spring plumage search for insects nestled in the bark and leaves among the high branches, Baltimore Orioles join our resident Black-cowled Orioles in their search for sustenance and Scarlet Tanagers touting the brilliant feathers that give them their name contrast brightly against the greenery and Eastern Kingbirds fly overhead in droves not unlike the waves of barn swallows sweeping low across the Caribbean waters.
With the spring also comes spring break crowds to Bocas del Toro and that’s when we start to get more families with school-aged kids. The days have been filled with snorkeling excursions, bat caving adventures and mangrove exploration via kayak. Beach days have resulted in grand sand castles and an impressive beach casita made of bamboo and a palm thatch roof built by yours truly and a determined nine year old while her parents walked around the island. We were pretty darn proud of ourselves. It’s been a busy but fantastic season and I can’t begin to believe I’ve already been in Panama for eight months!
And for a quick respite, I recently had the pleasure of a few days off between spring breakers and so made for some higher latitudes. From Bocastown on Isla Colon I took the ferry to the mainland and hopped onto a shuttle that took me up a winding road to the highlands Boquete. I rented an Air BnB and was blown away by my luck, it was a single room with a little patio where I could sit down with my binoculars and journal while enjoying a perfectly magnificent view across a valley on to the facing foothills of Volcan Baru. For $20/night, I was getting a private room and bathroom when a hostel of the same price in town would have been a dorm with multiple bunks (aka roommates) and a shared bathroom. I was very content with my little hidden paradise.
While I was in the mountains, I was able to see a lot of species I’d enjoyed discovering last year when I was visiting the other side of the volcano here in Panama with the parents. I wasn’t out to get new birds, although I was enjoying adding to my ever-so-casual eBird “Big Year” since I hadn’t gotten any of these highland species yet in 2019. Big Year is when an individual “attempt to identify as many species as possible within a single calendar year.” My year is casual because I’m not in any rush nor am trying to get every single species when I’m in a new area, I’m simply adding to my eBird list when I encounter new birds and am looking forward to seeing how many species I end up with. In Boquete I added about 20 new species for a year total of 216. It’s fun!
So as the migrations carries on, I wistfully wave goodbye to my beloved neotropical migrants as they carry on in their hundreds or even thousands of miles journey northward. It’s incredible that these tiny feathered beings rely on those very feathers to transport them massive distances all while hoping that along the way there is enough food to sustain them in their great energy expenditure. That means habitat, termed “stopover sites” where birds can refuel and rest or possibly take shelter in adverse weather conditions before taking wing onward. Not only that, they’re also relying on there to be sufficient area for setting up nesting territory in their breeding grounds in preparation for the next generation of migrants.
Many birds lose their lives along the way and even once they get there and find a mate and a suitable place to build a nest and bear young, life never seems to get any easier. What hearty little sprites, these tiny long-distant flier are. So in farewell, I stand in awe of our neotropical migrants and wish them well on their journey.
And, we have such an important part in the future of these birds and all the other creatures that must struggle through life in the wild, we must respect and honor Mother Earth so she can continue to support all wildlife. It is my hope that we can not just continue to enjoy the multitude of species that inhabits this pale blue dot but also concede to the fact that as we lose species to extinction, that reduction in biodiversity has ripple effects that in turn hurts us. Wildlife is like the canary in the coal mine, what does that mean about the wider environment if that bird dies? Earth Day isn’t just today..let’s look out for her and all the beauty of life that relies on her to be healthy every day.
For a quick border run, I had the opportunity to spend a few days on my beloved Osa Peninsula to see some great friends made during my time guiding in Costa Rica last year. At the end of last guiding season, I lived in Puerto Jimenez for several months and its I again felt at home in this remote location that holds such an alluring density of biodiversity that it is only compared to the wilds of the Amazon.
In two seasons of officially living in the tropics, I’ve had the “pleasure” of dealing with a variety of electronic fails. Humidity, heat, sun and salt have all found a way to make for one, followed quickly by another, disintegrating timex sports watch, I’m on my third headlamp (never believe the word “waterproof” when you see it) and now I’m writing this blog post from my phone because my MacBook finally bit the big one. I admit I was living last year in a tent cabin that sported only a roof, screens on two sides and doors-be-damned so obviously things got moist on a regular basis. But in my defense I did put it in a sealed cooler with a desiccation bag at night. Such is electronics in the tropics.
Other fun byproducts of life in the tropics is mold. It’s always out to weasel it’s way into the depths of any fabric, clothing, backpack, pillow, even snorkel gear. When I guided in Costa Rica last year, I started to use it as a fashion statement..nothing of my clothes ever wanted to dry and so while speckled black stains of this invasive fungus made some of my clothing unwearable, other pieces I could get actually away with!
And sportswear, as expensive as it is and durable as it claims to be, never seems to be tropics-grade. Waterproof Merrill’s are really just Merrill’s, the soles of a fairly new pair of Keens came completely apart after only the fourth muddy bat cave tour or so (granted the mud is like soggy peanut butter), my Columbia rain jacket seems to be permanently permeable, zippers are corroding on various packs, and funky smells are emitting from my daypack shoulder-strap and binoculars straps (I take no responsibility).
Ah, but living in the tropics is nevertheless a complete dream, despite any drawback..
As you may have noticed, my “About Me” page needs some updates. Since I started this blog in 2016, “About Me” has naturally changed a couple of times and, as someone who sometimes just can’t press the dang delete button, I simply added on to what was already there when there were new things to tell about myself. What that made for was an exhaustingly long page about a girl who likes to write all about herself.
So, in order to not have to say goodbye to my precious ramblings, I decided to throw it all into a blog post because I know you’re all just dying to read something that’s been available to you all along. Well, here it is and stay tuned because I’m working on an exciting new updated version of About Me, so once you’re finished reading about me here, read about me in my About Me! Oh dear..
About Me (2016):
It only just occurred to me, eleven years later, that all this time the island was calling me back.
Seal Island, located 23 miles off the coast of Maine is where I am spending another summer, in the company of four other seabird researchers. We’re here to study the fascinating lives of puffins, terns, razorbills and black guillemots, while living among them.
I’m returning after an 11-year hiatus, having the ultimate pleasure of first visiting the islands managed by Audubon’s Project Puffin in 2003 and again in 2005. The project was started in the early 70’s by an enterprising young ornithologist named Steve Kress. The near extirpation (local extinction) of puffins from coastal Maine islands due to the hunting and the feather trade led him to devise a way to harbor their return. By transplanting puffin chicks from an abundant colony in Newfoundland to Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock and raising them with vitamin fortified fish in artificial sod burrows, he watched them fly out to sea where they spent the next handful of years before some precious individuals, miraculously, returned to their “natal” island to breed.
Project Puffin now manages seven Maine islands to preserve and protect these ideal breeding habitats for puffins and, consequentially, terns and various other alcids as well as seaducks, known as common eiders, which also nest on the islands. In order to protect these seabird colonies it is, unfortunately, important for our human presence to remain throughout the breeding season to deter gulls and other predators that feed on chicks and ducklings. Without us, the more prolific gull species (Black-backed, Herring and Laughing gull) would take over these islands. These species are generalists and their populations have skyrocket thanks to human-provided food sources like landfills, lobster bait and french fries. Terns and puffins suffer since they’re very specific as to where they will nest and generally don’t exist near human populations. Therefore, protected islands like these provide these sensitive, less abundant birds a chance to persist.
Fast forward several decades and here we are! Puffineers or “island stewards” like me have been managing and monitoring the birds on these islands ever since.
So follow my adventures as we follow the birds for yet another glorious season!
Above, you can read my first “about me” post for this page, explaining who I was and what I was up to at the time, which happened to be the start of my 3rds stint with Project Puffin, which why I started this blog, to share what I was seeing and learning through writing and photography. Well, now that that’s been a little under two years ago and, as you can see throughout my posts here on feathersawry, that yes, a lot has happened and I’m really excited to share it with everyone. I love taking what I’m learning and putting it on the table, what do we think about what we’re seeing and what is it telling us? By combining my writings (aka ponderings) with photography, I’m able to better illustrate what I’m talking about and what it means. Like this check this facey (upper left) I took of myself up in Maine when I worked a stint on Seal Island this fall (2017). Just about the entire island can be seen stretching and squiggling northeast-ish behind me. It’s about an hour’s slow walk to the cabin and I’m on the southwest-ish tip. The very far tip (seen basically next to my ear in the photo) is near the puffins and terns nests, which you see on the explore.org puffin cameras (we call ’em the cams). I’m sitting on the bottom tip of the island where the Double-crested and Great Cormorants have a big ol’ nesting colony. I couldn’t be there on that part of the island earlier in the season while the young cormorants were still growing and dependent on their parents because those parents would abandon their young if their colony was invaded by someone like me. At this point, all the young had fledged and groups were leaving the island to find prey in other areas. Anyways. My point is that my pictures can tell stories and so can my words but together they can not just tell you the story but give it to you, let you gain from it whatever you gain.
So as you may have noticed, this about page needs some updates. So here I am to do just that. Below you can read my first “about me” post for this page, explaining who I was and what I was up to at the time, which happened to be the start of my 3rds stint with Project Puffin, which why I started this blog, to share what I was seeing and learning through writing and photography. Well, now that that’s been a little under two years ago and, as you can see throughout my posts here on feathersawry, that yes, a lot has happened and I’m really excited to share it with everyone. I love taking what I’m learning and putting it on the table, what do we think about what we’re seeing and what is it telling us? By combining my writings (aka ponderings) with photography, I’m able to better illustrate what I’m talking about and what it means. Like this check this facey (upper left) I took of myself up in Maine when I worked a stint on Seal Island this fall (2017). Just about the entire island can be seen stretching and squiggling northeast-ish behind me. It’s about an hour’s slow walk to the cabin and I’m on the southwest-ish tip. The very far tip (seen basically next to my ear in the photo) is near the puffins and terns nests, which you see on the explore.org puffin cameras (we call ’em the cams). I’m sitting on the bottom tip of the island where the Double-crested and Great Cormorants have a big ol’ nesting colony. I couldn’t be there on that part of the island earlier in the season while the young cormorants were still growing and dependent on their parents because those parents would abandon their young if their colony was invaded by someone like me. At this point, all the young had fledged and groups were leaving the island to find prey in other areas. Anyways. My point is that my pictures can tell stories and so can my words but together they can not just tell you the story but give it to you, let you gain from it whatever you gain.
So anyways, I’m a nature-watcher. It all started with birds when I was nearly too young to remember. I was always taken by them, They’re beautiful, make any spot you’re in more interesting, and can tell you a lot about the environment you’re living in. So after an undergraduate degree in Biology from Warren Wilson College, I put boots to the dirt and went full into field jobs, working with wild birds, monitoring, measuring, banding them, learning about the resources they rely on, the habitats they utilize, their interactions with other creatures as both predator and prey, how their young are born first naked, then fluffy and expected to completely rely on their parents and the awful luck of getting snapped up in the beak of a gull or the paw of a raccoon or the maw of a snake, jaws of a raccoon or the pincers of a hoard of ants. So my interest expanded outward to encompass more than just the birds, they’re always my first and foremost, but you can’t watch just a bird without being influenced by how it’s spending its life and how it’s being impacted by what’s happening to this planet just as much as you are, they’re just less resistant to it and the first to succumb. Think canary in the coal mine.
Well, birds are telling us things, as we spend decades studying them, they’re telling us through trends: through population changes, range changes, reaction to changes in environmental cycles, drought, sea-level rise, and of course the ability to rebound (or rather, decline) in the face of the never-ending onslaught of human impact and development.
Anyways, so all that made me want to share what I’m seeing out in the field with the wider world, especially because I think people don’t have a clue what I mean when I tell them I work with birds and I want them to. And so it took coming out of the field to share what I’ve seen living within it. Pulling a Jane Goodall, is what I like to call it. Except I keep going back. But what makes it possible for me to keep returning to the field is the advance of technology, plain and simple. I can now write to the masses from a computer on Seal Island, whereas when I worked there in 2003 and 2005, I’m not sure we even knew what WiFi was.
So after about 5 years of hopping around from one field job to another, I shifted gears and headed to University of Oregon for a grad degree in Journalism. There I learned a lot of what I’m applying on my website, this blog and my youtube channel. So I took that experience, combined with some awesome opportunities writing for Eugene Weekly, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Wild Lens Inc and was able to somewhat keep up with my own blog.
But the field is always calling. So that’s where this blog started out (once again, see below, if you’re actually still reading this at all).
And I found myself in Florida, which has been great as I’ve gotten to spend so much time with my grandmother, a spectacular, sweet, awe-inspiring woman whom I adore. I’ve come and gone a few times, even just having gotten another moment on the island this fall. But now a new leaf turns and I’m headed to Costa Rica in a few weeks where I’ll be started on a whole different experience. I’m going to be able to incorporate learning, teaching, writing, photography and conservation all into one adventure. So stay tuned!
While I may be many hundreds of miles away from family during these past two years of tropical guiding, I can’t say I’ve been lonely, thanks to new friends, young and old. Passing the winter holidays in Central America makes for a confused state of mind, being that I’ve grown up accustomed to the changing leaves followed by an ever-growing chill in the air. For me, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years are associated with cold days hiking in forests barren of leaves except for the crunching underfoot. Layer upon thick layer of coverage never seems to be enough to keep the frigid air at bay and yet that doesn’t dissuade us from taking to the trails with puppies frolicking ahead or sniffing and rolling in the unknown behind. Glimpses of foxes melting into the underbrush, red-shouldered hawks stark and stern against the crisp blue sky, bluebirds playing keepaway and chickadees, titmice and kinglets like little ornaments flurrying in the branches overhead, this is what I equate with the holidays.
Here, rather, my closest connection to home is the neotropical migratory birds such as the northern waterthrush and chestnut-sided warbler which whisper hints of a long lost northern summer. Tropical holidays are warm and humid, Christmas trees look out of place, and Tranquilo Bay is brimming with guests in their escape from the frosty north while bringing the jolly right along with them. Happiness and love were a constant as families gathered and reunited. Generations joined together, sharing high spirits which were nothing but contagious as I guided jovial and obliging families along kayak jaunts through mangroves searching out upsidown jellyfish, snorkeling explorations overtop impressive reef awash in fire coral, brain coral and blade coral, even bat-caving adventures through dripping stalactites in water up to our chests on Christmas day. No moment was left unfilled, even the evenings were alight with games and stories. It was an absolute blast. Exhausting, but satisfying.
As we emerge from holiday festivities to greet the new year and things have slowed down for a moment, I’m re-energizing for what 2019 has to send my way. Health and happiness are of the utmost importance and I’m still learning something (or many things) new every day, be it about nature or about humanity, relationships, struggles and forgiveness. I am every day more and more impressed with this team I’ve joined and their endless hard work that makes Tranquilo the phenomenal lodge that it is.
iNaturalist is a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe.
With eBird, you can catch all the birds, but with iNaturalist, you can go after any and all natural life, from mammals to insects to plants to amphibians, even fungal life! So, while the birds tend to always be the first to grab my eye, there’s so much more to in this biodiverse wonderland to discover, identify and learn about and iNaturalist is a great way to take it all on.
Gotta catch ’em all!
iNaturalist is a “crowdsourcing scientific observation platform” that is super in assisting you in identification of whatever life-form you’re aiming at, all it requires is a decent photo which you upload to the iNaturalist app and sometimes, from just the photo and the magic of technology, it can identify the flora or fauna for you! Or at least narrow it down to family. From there, you can find help from the iNaturalists social community, including citizen scientists and biologists who can help identify your species in question or verify your proposed identification helping raise your sighting to “Research Grade”, meaning that the the species ID has been agreed upon and confirmed.
By contributing your sightings and photos to iNaturalist, you’re adding to a constantly growing database of flora and fauna that can actually contribute to scientific and biological studies not to mention help map out the current range and distribution of species as more and more iNaturalist users contribute their observations.
What’s neat about the mapping function is checking out what’s nearby, what other people have seen and you might find yourself searching out a fungus or a tiny flower in a place you’ve always visited that you never took into account until you saw someone’s photo of it on iNaturalist. It really is going to open your world, if you let it!
To date, more than 15 million observations have been uploaded worldwide, making for an ever-more complete documentation of the biodiversity that makes up Planet Earth. As more and more people join and (like me) become addicted, we’re achieving something beautiful and probably more important than we yet can determine.
So join me and together let’s take on the challenge and see if we can..cause ya gotta catch ’em all!
So it’s just been a short bit that I’ve been here at Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge where I’m into my second week as the third resident naturalist guide. My first week was a rainy one, but the forest is lush and bubbling with both local and migratory birds. While we’re heading to the end of migration at this point (I managed to miss a good deal of it while thoroughly enjoying myself spending time with family and friends), I still ended up getting in some good ones both before and after my trip. I think the most plentiful were the bay-breasted warblers, which filled our melastoma bushes, eating their berries with abandon. The melastoma is a wildly important food source for the birds on their lengthy migration. This bush in particular is fantastic because it fruits multiple times throughout the season, providing enough food to satisfy both the early, mid and late migrants.
We’ve also had plenty of Prothonotary Warblers, Summer Tanagers, Northern Waterthrushes, some Red-breasted Grosbeak and a few Catbirds. The prothonotaries seem a dime a dozen lately and we’ll be enjoying them for the duration of the northern winter as well as the waterthrushes and summer tanagers (one of which I can hear chuckling from the forest right now as I write on the wrap-around deck of the main lodge!).
In addition to enjoying the throngs of migrants, I’ve enjoyed settling comfortably into my new home, getting to know the employees who are the local indigenous N’gobe Bugle from nearby Isla Popa. Everyone is so kind, they all have great sense of humors and laugh a lot. They’re also patient with my bad grammar and slow Spanish and they’re teaching me words in their indigenous language (they’re all bilingual!) and it’s fun to learn from Jesenia and Ofelina at the bar and then go speak to Luis, Omeira, Yolanda or Faustina in the kitchen (or vice versa) in their own language and see their surprise! I’m also helping them with English and plan to work further on that with them in the future.
A sea biscuit on the Zapatillas
We’ve had a birding group and now a big family and I’ve gone along on a few of the excursions thusfar, from the chocolate farm to the nearby Zapatillas islands and out and about snorkeling in various locations. The family was here for Thanksgiving and we all gathered in the dining room to enjoy a fantastic feast cooked up by jefa Renee along with decadent pies by her daughter Boty. It certainly doesn’t feel like the holidays, but it sure did taste like ’em!
As we enjoy a quick couple of guest-free days before the high season kicks into high gear, we took advantage of the beautiful day yesterday and Ramon y yo, along with Scott, Patrick, Boty and Tres joined some neighbor friends for an day-long caving excursion. The cave is replete with stalactites, stalagmites, shrimp, spiders, whip scorpions, and oh the bats! Hanging in every nook and cranny above, you can hear their sonar squeaks and feel the wind off their wingbeats as they narrowly miss your face. While most of the hike through the winding tunnel is through ankle or knee deep water, there are occasions where you have to full-out swim, dog-paddling your way along with your headlamp shining through the deepest depths of darkness. We had a ball!
Tomorrow we get our next birding group..the high season is on the horizon!