Category Archives: Exploration

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…

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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Witmer Stone was born 150 years ago today.

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Witmer Stone in his youth. (www.archives.upenn.edu)

If you watch birds in southeast Pennsylvania or New Jersey, chances are you have heard of Witmer Stone (1866–1939), naturalist, historian of science, co-founder of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) and first editor of its journal Cassinia. Among other accomplishments, Stone was also President of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) from 1920–23 and Editor of its journal The Auk from 1912–36. He played a critical role in restoring the bird collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia during the 1890s, after it had been neglected for years following the death of John Cassin (1813–69), and he added to the collection by joining Academy expeditions to Bermuda, Cuba, and Mexico, among other places.

Recently, I was elected to Stone’s old position, Editor of the DVOC and Cassinia, and I have been using data from Stone’s bird collections in my research at the Academy. A few months ago, while rummaging through a box of old items that were going to be discarded, I found and saved a treasure—an autographed reprint of Stone’s 1890 article ‘Birds collected in Yucatan and southern Mexico’, from the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. At the top of the pamphlet reads “Mr Serrill with the compliments of Witmer Stone”. Evidently the reprint was a gift from Stone to William J. Serrill (?–1952), who had joined the DVOC in 1891 and was an active member (and later Fellow) of the club for 61 years.

In early 1890, Stone accompanied malacologist Frank C. Baker (1867–1942) and geologist Angelo Heilprin (1853–1907) on an Academy expedition to the Yucatan, by way of Cuba. Stone was a young man—24 years old—just beginning his scientific career. Incidentally, I was the same age (23-24) when I joined my first field expedition, to study manakins (Manacus spp.) in western Panama with Adam Stein, so I can empathize a bit with Stone at this period of his life. He must have been very excited when this paper came out in the Proceedings. The ornithological community of Philadelphia was in the midst of a Renaissance, largely due to Stone’s prolific energy—the DVOC was founded that same year, and Stone mobilized a crew of birders to monitor the spring and fall migrations at multiple sites around the city. I think that Stone would be proud that today we are continuing his legacy of citizen science, and that the DVOC is still a thriving organization where professional and avocational ornithologists mingle to celebrate and share their mutual passion for birds. Happy birthday Dr. Stone — your legacy continues!

For a lot more about Witmer Stone, check out Scott McConnell’s excellent biography Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature.

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My first encounter with a Newfoundland Veery (Catharus fuscescens fuliginosus)

In 1900, a young ornithologist from Massachusetts named Reginald Heber Howe, Jr., then just 25 years of age, described a new subspecies of the Veery (Catharus fuscescens) from the mountains of southwestern Newfoundland. He named it fuliginosa, meaning “sooty”, which was later gender-corrected to fuliginosus when the species was moved from Hylocichla to Catharus. Howe (1900) wrote:

“Subspecific characters.—Size slightly larger. Upper parts especially on the head, distinctly brownish, much darker and not of the tawny shade of typical fuscescens, and lacking the greenish tinge of salicicola. Throat, lores, and upper breast suffused with buff, though perhaps less so than in fuscescens (in salicicola buff is practically absent), the upper breast and usually also the throat spotted heavily with broad arrow-shaped brown markings suggesting very strongly the throat and breast of H. u. swainsonii. The breast markings of both fuscescens and salicicola are narrow and more penciled and lighter in shade. Bill darker and heavier.”

I encountered the Newfoundland Veery in the Table Mountains of southwest Newfoundland, during a 2015 expedition to study its close relative, the Gray-cheeked Thrush (C. minimus)(see previous posts). We found C. fuscescens singing along the starlight trail, in a mixed deciduous/coniferous habitat that was also utilized by another close relative Swainson’s Thrush (C. ustulatus swainsoni). In the video above, notice the Swainson’s Thrush singing in the background of the video!  We captured both species in our mist nets, including three Newfoundland Veeries. One of the females we captured had an egg developing inside of her, confirming breeding of this species at the site. I also made audio recordings of two males at this site, and uploaded them to xeno-canto (http://www.xeno-canto.org/298771; http://www.xeno-canto.org/325285), where they represent the first recordings of C. fuscescens from Newfoundland in that archive.

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Forest habitat in the Table Mountains where C. ustulatus swainsoni and C. fuscescens fuliginosus breed syntopically. We did not detect C. minimus at this site, but they may have been breeding at slightly higher elevation than our nets (see Marshall 2000).

Remarkably, almost nothing has been published about this race of the Veery since Howe (1900) first described it. All specimens from Newfoundland are typically labeled fuliginosus by collectors, although the characters noted by Howe (e.g., brownish coloration of the dorsal plumage) may be prone to foxing and other post-mortem color change. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether fuliginosus is actually a diagnosable race, since its description more than a century ago was based on largely subjective evaluations of color that would be insufficient to justify a new taxon today. More research will be needed to determine the evolutionary history of this interesting brownish race, including the location and connectivity of its wintering area(s).

Literature Cited

Howe, R. H. 1900. A new subspecies of the genus Hylocichla. Auk 17, 270–271.

Marshall, J. T. 2000. The Gray-Cheeked Thrush, Catharus minimus and its New England Subspecies, Bicknell’s Thrush, Catharus minimus bicknelli. Nuttall Ornithological Club, pp. 136.

The discovery and description of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)

John James Audubon (1785-1851). Digital source: http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu

In 1834, pioneer naturalists John Kirk Townsend (1809–1851) and Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) accompanied Nathaniel Wyeth‘s second expedition, to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Among the treasures collected by Townsend were two specimens of a bird species, then unknown to science, that is known today as Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus Nuttall). In 1836, the bird collection returned with the expedition party to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP), where it was eagerly awaited by John James Audubon (1785–1851), who wanted to include any new species from the collection in The Birds of America (1827–38) and Ornithological Biography (OB 1831–39). However, at first, Townsend’s friends at the Academy were defiant (Audubon 1838; OB vol. 4: xi):

Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), captured in May 2011 at White Clay Creek State Park, DE.

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), captured in May 2011 in northern Delaware, USA. (Photo: MRH)

“Dr Townsend’s collection was at Philadelphia; my anxiety to examine his specimens was extreme. . .Having obtained access to the collection I turned over and over the new and rare species but he [Townsend] was absent at Fort Vancouver on the shores of the Columbia River, Thomas Nuttall had not yet come from Boston and loud murmurs were uttered by the soidisant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing, these valuable relics of birds, many of which had not yet been introduced into our fauna.”

Nuttall c.1928, during his time at Harvard. Portrait is attributed to J. Whitfield. Digital Source: http://www.harvardmagazine.com

Nuttall eventually agreed, without Townsend’s consent (He was still out west and wouldn’t return until late 1836), to sell duplicate specimens to Audubon upon condition that any new species be first published in Townsend’s name (Audubon 1838; OB vol. 4: xii). The subsequent paper by ‘Townsend’ included the descriptions of twelve new species (1837, Journal of the Academy 7:187–193), but did not include the new thrush, perhaps because Audubon (OB 1839, V:204), who had not observed the species in life, expressed doubt as to whether it was different than Wilson’s Thrush (Turdus Wilsonii; known today as the Veery Catharus fuscescens):

“I have by me a female specimen of a Thrush sent me by Dr Townsend, who procured it on the Columbia River on the 19th June 1838, and which he considered as new, but which I find to differ in no other respect from specimens of Turdus Wilsonii than in having some of the spots on the sides of the neck and the breast of a darker brown. This skin measures seven inches two and a half twelfths in length.” [NOTE: The year 1838 in this quote seems to be an error, since Townsend and Nuttall’s expedition occurred in 1834-35.]

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John Kirk Townsend, discoverer of C. ustulatus

One of Townsend’s types, mis-identified, was apparently sold to Audubon as a duplicate. Years later, Audubon gave this specimen to Spencer Baird (1823-1887), who deposited it with his extensive personal collection in the United States National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), where it resides today (Specimen #2040; Deignan 1961, Smithsonian Bulletin 221:431-432).

The other specimen remained at the Academy. When Nuttall realized his error, he included the new thrush species in the second edition of Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada (1840:400), presumably describing it from the Academy specimen, having sold the other to Audubon—ANSP Specimen #23644, Fig. 1 below; see Stone 1899, Proceedings of the ANSP 51(1):19). On its authority, he (erroneously) named the new species cestulatus, but published an erratum in the preface of the same volume, correcting it to ustulatus (Nuttall 1840:xi):

“. . .The only specimen from which I am now able to describe the species is that of a female procured on the banks of the Columbia on the 10th of June by my friend Mr. Townsend. This neglect arose from the too hasty conclusion that it was no other than the well known Wilson’s Thrush.”

Fig. 1. Side and ventral views of the holotype specimen, which is missing the original label. The replacement label bears this citation on the front,

Fig. 1. Side and ventral views of Townsend’s holotype specimen. The original label is missing. The replacement label bears this citation on the front, “Turdus ustulatus Nutt Man. N. A. Bds I (1840) p.400,” and on the back, presumably copied verbatim from the original label, are written Townsend’s initials in quotes and a female symbol: “♀ J.K.T.” Photos by MRH, with gratitude to members of the ANSP Ornithology Dept.

Keeping up with the foxes.

Foxes

Every now and then, if you spend a lot of time exploring off-trail, you will have a close encounter with a fox. On the first encounter, it will run away quickly to a safe distance, perhaps taking a second look at you from under some vegetative cover. Surely just as you are thinking to yourself, “Cool! A fox!”, something akin to “Crap! A human!” is going through its brain.

While working in northern DE, I have interacted many times with a fox in the north end of White Clay Creek over a two year period. It seemed to me that the encounters were all with the same individual; it had a recognizable dark spot in the fur on its right side. After approximately a month of encountering the fox in this location, once every 3-4 days, between 0600 and 0800, the fox habituated to my presence and no longer ran at my approach. Rather, it kept a calm, inconspicuous profile as it slowly moved past within 10 meters of me.

On two occasions, I sat motionless for an hour, leaning against a log; the fox came trotting down the trail, without detecting me in my secret upwind location. The fox was nearly in my lap by the time that it detected me, and it gave a hilarious jump of surprise!  It quickly scampered about ten meters away, and then as if realizing (remembering?) that I was not a threat, the fox regained its calm composure, lingered in the area a bit while sniffing at a log, then slowly walked away. I never moved an inch.