Journey into the Heart of Nicaragua: Parque Nacional Saslaya

In northeastern Nicaragua there is a rainforest-clad mountain that has seldom been visited by scientists, or anyone for that matter. It is called Parque Nacional (PN) Saslaya, and it is one of the last places in Central America where the Jaguar is still king, where undisturbed primary rainforest extends along an elevational gradient of over 1000 m, culminating in elfin cloud forest at the mountain’s highest reaches.

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Tropical forests once covered Nicaragua like a blanket, but modern satellite imagery reveals a country that was largely denuded of its forest cover in the last century. Not surprisingly, the highest quality forest tracts that remain are found in the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions (RACN and RACS, respectively), where infrastructure is underdeveloped (relative to the western half of the country) and about 300,000 indigenous people, descendants of the Pre-Colombian Rama, Mayagna, and Miskitu cultures, still persist in rural communities.

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PN Saslaya straddles the border of RACN and Jinotega, and it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb in satellite imagery. Several settlements were created along its boundaries in the years after the Nicaraguan Revolution (1978–79) and subsequent Contra War (1980s), but there are no indigenous people in the park. The people here, and in the nearby town of Siuna, are miners, cattle ranchers, and farmers. A recent wave of monoculture teak and coffee plantations in the area has been rapidly homogenizing the landscape. The only evidence of the extensive humid forests that once grew there, are large epiphytes still clinging to the upper branches of the few (now solitary) old growth trees that were spared the axe on account of their singular beauty or location. The saving grace of PN Saslaya has been its inaccessibility, and for now it remains one of the last strongholds of primeval rainforest in Central America.

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In April 2017, we mounted an expedition to PN Saslaya, to collect the first specimens of birds and their associated parasites from the region. Our team included, representing the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (ANSP), myself and colleague Therese Catanach (right in above pic), a post-doctoral researcher who studies the genomes of bird lice and their hosts; representing the University of Kansas, veteran field ornithologist Mark Robbins (center), collections manager at the University of Kansas (KU) Biodiversity Institute, and KU graduate student Jack Hruska (left), who grew up in Nicaragua and has broad interests in bird systematics, biogeography and behavior. In Nicaragua, we teamed up with ornithologist and tour guide Alexander Acosta Anton, rented a 4×4 pickup truck, and headed off across the country in search of adventure, which we found.

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The only scientific surveys of the park’s avifauna to date, are those of Liliana Chavarria Duriaux and Georges Duriaux, intrepid Nicaraguan ornithologists who made nine (!) expeditions into PN Saslaya over the last decade, literally cutting a trail to the cloud forest at 1400m with machetes! They have produced an impressive checklist of over 300 species known to inhabit the park (L. C. and G. Duriaux, pers. comm.), but to date no physical specimens had been collected for genetic and other analyses. We collected data-rich specimens that include frozen tissues for genetic analysis, blood slides (fixed in ethanol) for studying haemosporidians like avian malaria, ectoparasites like lice, ticks and mites (preserved in ethanol), over 400 audio recordings, and numerous census surveys (available on eBird.org), in addition to the study skins prepared for the museum collections at ANSP and KU. These data will survive for hundreds of years, and enable us to assess the unique value of the biodiversity of PN Saslaya, and in so doing, effectively advocate for its conservation.

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Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni). This species was common around the Río Labú camp from 8–16 April. Several individuals were heard singing, but at much lower volume than during their breeding season in North America.

PN Saslaya is physically and logistically difficult to access, and because there is a history of land-use conflicts (typically involving people illegally removing resources from the park), all visitors are required to have a security escort. It took us several days, and multiple trips to both the Siuna police station and military base (El Batallón Ecológico), to make the necessary arrangements. Our plan was to establish a base camp on the west bank of the Río Labú, about 6 hours hike into the park from the nearest road, where we would work for 10 days (9 nights). In addition to our military escort, we would hire a team of people from the nearby community of Rosa Grande, to porter our equipment to base camp, and arrange for them to return again on the 9th day to assist with our extraction. We stuck to the plan, and it was successful.

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The hike from Rosa Grande was hot and humid, ~3.5 km of fincas, crop fields, and scrubby secondary growth forest, to the park border at 320 m elevation. Already the topography of the trail ahead was evident: a lot of rapid gains and losses in elevation, as the single-file footpath meandered its way through the ravines cut but the myriad tributaries that fed the Río Labú. As we continued into the park, the forest transitioned into primary humid rainforest. Howler monkeys called out in the distance as we paused at the park boundary, and a Lesser Greenlet (Pachysylvia decurtata) sang from the sub-canopy. Therese and I watched a jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi) cross a log about 15 m away, while we paused on the trail for a moment to catch our breath. It clearly knew that we were there, but it did not seem concerned by our presence. So few people venture that far into the park each year, that it is conceivable that it was that individual’s first encounter with a human.

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White-whiskered Puffbird (Malacoptila panamensis)

Our team of eight soldiers were on orders to keep us safe, and probably to make sure that we did not get ourselves into any trouble. They took that charge very seriously, sending scouts out ahead of our group, and leaving one behind to ensure that we weren’t flanked. When we finally arrived at the site of our base camp, as the sun was setting and the forest interior already quite dim, we scrambled to get our tents set up before dark. Beginning that night, the soldiers began a 24/7 patrol of the camp, taking turns on the night shift duty. I occasionally left my tent in the middle of the night (~0200) to relieve myself, and couldn’t resist the urge to joke with the patrol, asking him whether he had heard any funny noises. During the day, the soldiers toiled about camp, building thatch-roof huts to cover their hammocks, and trying to get a radio antenna high enough in the tree tops to establish contact with the base. One of the soldiers captured a baby Central American Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata), and kept it for a pet for a couple days until it escaped.

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To be continued…

A closer look at the wing of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) in First Basic plumage

Like other migratory Catharus species, juvenile Swainson’s Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) molt into a ‘First Basic’ plumage at the end of their first summer, which they wear for one year before attaining their ‘Adult Basic’ plumage. The partial molt that results in First Basic plumage includes some or all of the median coverts (the little olive feathers above the numbered row), and up to five of the (inner) greater coverts, which are numbered 1–9 in the image. In this case, the bird molted only one greater covert: #1, the fresh olive covert without a buffy tip. The retained juvenile coverts (2–9) are paler and more brown, and numbers 2–6 end with a buffy tip. This is called a molt limit, and it helps us to figure out the age of a bird. For all the juicy details of molt limits in North American passerines, check out Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1, 1997.

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This bird died in a window collision in Montgomery Co., PA, in late September 2016. After taking the photo, I prepared the specimen for the Ornithology Collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Legend: primaries (P1–8); secondaries (S1–9). The 9th and reduced 10th primaries are not visible in the photo.

Catching Anacondas

Some things that are done impulsively, and perhaps recklessly when considered afterward, make for the best memories. I don’t know if I would do this again, if given the opportunity, but I am glad that I did it once. The snake was not harmed, and thankfully neither was I, and after the experience I have a much deeper reverence for species and other large snakes, and their incredible constrictive power. Few animals can match the Green Anaconda; I could barely manage to control this one, which was not yet full grown. This encounter happened in the Llanos of Venezuela in 2007, at Hato Masaguaral, Guarico. My video of an anaconda constricting a Spectacled Caiman was presumably of a different individual snake than the one shown in the videos below. All three were filmed within 0.5 km of each other.

 

A ride on the bus with Captain Clearlight (1930–2013), self-proclaimed ‘King of LSD’

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Waldron Vorhees (1930–2013), aka Captain Clearlight. Photo: M. Sterling, 2001.

In late August 2006, having just completed a long field season of bird research in the high desert of Nevada, I boarded a bus to San Francisco, from which point I would depart for a month of adventuring in the jungles of Indonesia. Somewhere in northern California, a man with a long white beard boarded the bus and sat down next to me. He seemed to emit some strange energy, bringing instantly to mind the character of Tom Bombadil from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954). He was giggling about something, and his bushy white eyebrows bounced up and down when he spoke, emphasizing the most humorous points in a cartoonish fashion. It didn’t take us long to slip into easy conversation about a topic now gone from memory, and over the next 3–4 hours, we told each other our life stories, his being much longer than mine, being 52 years my senior.

His name was Waldron Vorhees, and Walt to those who loved him. He was apparently a handy individual, good at working with his hands and with machinery. In 1968, he teamed up with a small group of chemists who had been manufacturing LSD in small quantities in Santa Cruz, and the equipment he built for them enabled production to be ramped up significantly. With Walt’s help, they built and operated a new lab in an office building in North Beach, California, that from 1970–72 apparently produced over 200 million hits of the drug. Their LSD was sold as clear gelatin squares, which became widely known as ‘Clearlight’ acid, and lauded for its high quality. There is no doubt that its use facilitated the counterculture revolution that was occurring in California at that time, a fact that Walt repeated often during his rambling, but otherwise mostly coherent stories. During that time, he apparently took LSD every day for about five years.

As his beloved California countryside passed by in the bus window, Walt’s pride was palpable. However, it was also measured, to some extent, by descriptions of later years spent in prison, and frustration over the loss of his privacy. He and eight associates were arrested by the DEA on LSD manufacturing charges in 1977, and then again in 1979, for which he would serve four years at the United States Penitentiary at Lompoc. When he got out, he (rather stupidly) implicated himself again in an interview for High Frontiers (1987), a counter-culture magazine published in Berkeley, which put the DEA back on his trail. A sting operation took him down again in June 1991 and he admitted guilt, agreeing to return to the Haight Ashbury scene with a hidden microphone (wire), with the goal of gathering incriminating evidence on his former accomplices.

In a piece for SFWeekly, Boulware (1996) wrote: “It’s no surprise Vorhees was targeted [by the DEA] again. He can’t help talking about the old days. Clearlight is his Achilles’ heel. Hubris has made him a natural magnet for narcs. Old acid acquaintances avoid him like the plague, one saying simply, “He’s too hot.” His name is as familiar as a box of doughnuts to the local DEA office, and is increasingly popular in the federal penal system.” Thus, Vorhees proved to be an incredibly ineffective informant. The government kept a close eye on him in later years, but as he got older and eventually suffered from prostate cancer and other health issues, the DEA realized that he was not a threat to anyone. He would live out the rest of his life on his farm in Ukiah.

Walt looked at me with a sparkle, as we shared some snacks and admired the passing hills. I talked about birds, which delighted him, and he reciprocated with wild stories of the San Francisco bay during the 60s and 70s. He wrote his contact information on a scrap of paper for me, and invited me to visit him in Ukiah, which I never did.

Walt ‘Captain Clearlight’ Vorhees was born on September 25, 1930 and died Wednesday, February 6, 2013.

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Smooth-billed Ani — in Philadelphia!

Like most birders, Philadelphians get excited about a rare bird. With over 250 years of bird records from Philadelphia, the birthplace of American ornithology, there are very few species that have been detected in the city only once—the rarest of the rare.

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ANSP 24271. Ornithology Department, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Photo: M. Halley)

One of the most mind-boggling records is actually not well known by birders today—a Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) was collected in the 1850s by John Krider, apparently on an island in the Delaware River near Kensington, Philadelphia. Today, and during Krider’s time as well (Baird 1860), the nearest breeding ground of this Neotropical cuckoo-relative (Cuculidae) is in southern Florida. Otherwise, the species is a widely distributed breeder in the tropical and subtropical savannas of the Caribbean, Central and South America.

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ANSP 24271, label verbatim: “Shot on Peters Is. Delaware Riv. opp. Kensington Pa. J Krider Coll.” (Photo by M. Halley)

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Closeup of Charles Ellet Jr.’s (1843) map of Philadelphia, showing the location of Petty’s Island in the Delaware River.

However, the island opposite Kensington is called Petty Island today (not Peters Island, which is actually in the Schuylkill River near Montgomery Dr.), and during Krider’s time it was called Petty’s Island — so something here is amiss. To confuse things further, in Krider’s (1879:16–17) published account there is no mention of the island, and it actually implies that the bird was collected in the expansive meadows of South Philadelphia (i.e., Passyunk, Moyamensing), a habitat that would later be consumed by urban development: “The Ani is a southern bird. I shot one specimen in the month of September, in the meadows below the built-up part of the City of Philadelphia. It was flying in company with a flock of rusty Gracles [probably Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscala, or perhaps Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus]; the specimen is now in the Academy of Natural Sciences.”

So the precise locality where the bird was collected is uncertain, because Krider’s (1879) account disagrees with the information on the (not original) specimen label. Nevertheless, it was evidently collected in one of the marshes along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Spencer Baird (1860:73) wrote: “A Crotophaga, killed near Philadelphia, and now in the collection of the Philadelphia Academy, appears to be a typical C. ani (as described by Burmeister) in the smoothness of the bill and other peculiarities. It is decidedly smaller than rugirostris, the culmen straight at its highest point, the anterior extremities of this nearly straight portion anterior to the nostril. The colors are, however, almost precisely the same with those of rugirostris. Length, 12 inches: wing, 6.10; tail, 7.75; tarsus, 1.25; chord of culmen, 1.15.”

References
Baird, S. F. 1860. The birds of North America: the descriptions of species based chiefly on the collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Krider, J. 1879. Forty years notes of a field ornithologist. Philadelphia: Joseph H. Weston.

1831: The Academy gets tax-exempt status!

The first 20 years of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia were an uncertain time, and had it not been for the generosity of William Maclure (1763–1840), known in perpetuity as the ‘Father of American Geology’, the persistence of the now storied institution through that period would be doubtful. But others too, including corresponding secretary Reuben Haines III, about whom I have written much, had the long-term scientific mission of the Academy in mind, and made steps to secure its finances for that reason. In 1831, a major step toward that goal was achieved — the Academy received tax exempt status by the PA state legislature.

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In the Academy Library & Archives (Collection 396), there is a facsimile of a letter (above) dated February 22, 1831, written by Haines to his state representative, Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis, that chronicles the event:

Hall of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Philadelphia, February 22nd 1831.

Sir,
I am instructed by the Academy to return you the sincere thanks of the Members for your zealous and successful exertions in obtaining for our institution an exemption from taxes. The Academy will be at all times particularly flattered by your cooperation in promoting its views; and any of the natural productions of Pennsylvania, or of the other states in the Union which may come under your notice, will be gratefully acknowledged.

I am sir, with great respect,
your obediant servant.
R Haines
Corresponding Secty

The Academy apparently acquired the letter over 100 years after it was written; presumably it was initially been passed down through the family of Colonel Davis. It was donated to the Academy by William C. Meek, as documented in a 1962 letter from Academy librarian Venia T. Phillips to Mr. Meek, thanking him for the gift:

January 11, 1962

Dear Mr. Zeek,

I was very happy to have an opportunity to look at the letter pertaining to the Academy of Natural Sciences. This Reuben Haines, who signed it, was Corresponding Secretary between February 15, 1814 and October 16, 1831 in which year he died in office, so you see the letter written by him on February 22, 1831 would have been one of his very late letters. I understand from Miss Dicken that we were priveleged to have a copy of this made for our files, which I have done.

Please accept our sincere thanks for the courtesy in regard to the matter.

Sincerely yours,
(Mrs.) Venia T. Phillips
Manuscript Librarian

Audubon and the Academy of Natural Sciences: It’s complicated.

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Oil portrait of Audubon by John Syme, 1826. Source: Wikipedia.

In the halls of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University you will occasionally hear it mentioned, in a slightly boastful way, that the Academy was an “original subscriber” to John James Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds of America. This statement is technically true, because the Academy became a subscriber shortly after the work was published, probably around 1831, but it is also disingenuous. In 1824, when Audubon came to the Academy in search of an engraver and/or publisher, he was turned away and later rejected for membership. As the story is told, Audubon drummed up some animosity with George Ord and engraver Alexander Lawson, who had worked with the late Alexander Wilson and were at the time financially invested in publishing a second edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology. It may be that Audubon’s extraordinary talent was perceived as threatening to the success of that venture, or perhaps his paintings were simply too difficult to engrave but Lawson was too proud to admit it—either way, Audubon met significant resistance to his plan.

Reuben Haines III, corresponding secretary of the Academy, took a liking to Audubon and invited him to his country estate called Wyck, which is now engulfed by urban development in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Audubon stayed at Wyck on July 25th, and the next day traveled to his teenage home Mill Grove, in Haines’s carriage. That evening they dined with the famous clockmaker Isaiah Lukens at Mill Grove, which was at that time under the ownership of Mr. Wetherill, who had bought the property from the Audubons many years prior.

At the next meeting of the Academy, on the evening of July 27, Audubon was nominated for corresponding membership by Haines, Lukens, and the French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. But his nomination was “black-balled” (rejected) in a vote on August 31. In a recent facebook post, Academy archivist Jennifer Vess described the balloting procedure that was used:

“After the founders’ meeting, it was decreed that every new member must be nominated by two active members, his name read before the group and voted on at the next business meeting. A single black marble in the voting box meant the nominee had been rejected. It was presumed that the prospective member knew nothing of his nomination, so that the insult of being rejected would not be known by him. If black-balled, the nomination blank was destroyed to remove any record of the outcome of the election.”

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Original record of nomination of “J. J. Audubon, Natchez Correspondent,” on July 27, 1824, by C. A. Lesueur, R. Haines, and I. Lukens. Notably, Audubon was the only nominee rejected by vote (“X”) on August 31. Courtesy of the Library and Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

It is curious that Audubon’s rejection was not destroyed as was the custom, and there is no evidence of any reason why—so cue the speculations. Two relevant facts are that Audubon was no longer in Philadelphia when the vote was cast, and that he was stressed about his failure to find support in America. In a recently discovered letter from Audubon to Haines dated December 25, 1825, the desperate ornithologist pleaded for help one last time:

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A wooden ballot box like those used in the 1824 vote – perhaps the same one. (Image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, coll. 115)

“Now my dear Mr Haines I must change my subject.—I must touch the only thing that ever vibrated sorrow to my heart.—I must leave America.—And you, and a few more friends.—I must go and seek far from my few connections, a […] purse for my long labours with as little hope to obtain this abroad as I am sure never to possess it in this my beloved country.—I assure you I count every day that are to [elapse] between this and the awfull moment when the sails will be spread that will waft off the vessel bearing my hopes, much like he who consigned to unmerited punishment hopes and yet dreads that another world will not be better to him than the one he is about to leave for ever.—With an allmost despairing heart I shall leave America early this ensuing spring, and now bid you my farewell.—Yes it is my farewell indeed for unless a success scarce expected should take place, I never will review this happy continent, will have to abandon my long acquired habits of watching nature at work and will droop moreso amongst the dreg of the world as it is called.” (Halley 2015, ‘The Heart of Audubon‘)

Audubon later published a more subdued synopsis of the events, practically bereft of emotion, in Ornithological Biography (1831: xiv; bracketed names mine):

“America being my country, and the principal pleasures of my life having been obtained there, I prepared to leave it with deep sorrow, after in vain trying to publish my Illustrations in the United States. In Philadelphia, Wilson’s principal engraver [Lawson], amongst others [Ord], gave it as his opinion to my friends [Bonaparte, Haines, Lesueur], that my drawings could never be engraved. In New York, other difficulties presented themselves, which determined me to carry my collections to Europe.”

Years later, after The Birds of America was a sensational hit, on September 27, 1831, Audubon’s name was again moved to nomination for Academy membership, and this time the vote passed despite Ord’s continuing enmity. He became a corresponding member on October 25th, 1831, but sadly, his friend and confidante Reuben Haines missed the vote, having died of a laudanum overdose six days earlier…but that is another story.

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Original record of Audubon’s second (and successful) nomination, on Sept 27, 1831, the numerous signatories, and the election on October 25th, 1831. Courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

Thanks to Jennifer Vess and the staff of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Bert Filemyr of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club for insightful comments that improved historical accuracy.