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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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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

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.

Alexander Wilson the ornithologist was born 250 years ago today.

Leaning up against the wall next to my office door at the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP), is an extremely heavy stone tablet bearing a dedication to Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the Scottish-born poet and so-called “Father of American Ornithology”. The tablet was donated to ANSP in 1923, on behalf of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia, an organization promoting Scottish heritage, and dedicated in a ceremony attended by Witmer Stone and other local ornithologists, only later to have an embarrassing error revealed: the date of Wilson’s death (1813) had been accidentally inscribed 1833!

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Stone tablet donated to the ANSP for display, and dedicated in 1923, but bearing the incorrect date of death. It now resides in the hallway of the Ornithology Department.

Wilson was born on this day exactly 250 years ago—July 6, 1766—in Paisley, Scotland. He left that country on May 23, 1794, to seek his fortune in America, and celebrated his 28th birthday at sea, bound for Philadelphia, where he would make a meager living as a schoolmaster, poet, and eventual ornithologist. His life was forever altered in 1803, when he moved to the Kingsessing neighborhood in what is now West Philadelphia, and made the acquaintance of William Bartram (1739–1823) and thereafter became obsessed with the study of American birds. Fun fact: I live in this neighborhood today, just a block from the now-closed Alexander Wilson Public School, and Bartram’s Garden is still a local birding hotspot (eBird).

It was auspicious timing for both men. Bartram was actually the first ornithologist born on American soil, having sent bird specimens and behavioral notes to the English naturalist George Edwards (1694–1773) as early as the 1750s, and his famous Travels… (1792) was chock full of valuable ornithological information. But something changed in 1802, about a year before he met Wilson. Apparently for the first time, Bartram began to keep a (mostly) daily journal documenting the natural history of his family estate Bartram’s Garden. It would become the first multi-year record of arrival dates of migratory birds in the New World, and its entries overlapped Wilson’s entire ornithological career. (Side note: There is no mention of Wilson in the journal, which contains nothing but dated natural history observations.) With Bartram as his tutor, and with access to the library of rare books at Bartram’s Garden, Wilson was able to produce the first scientific work with color plates dedicated to American birds and set a new standard for scientific ornithology: the epic American Ornithology in 8 volumes (and a 9th posthumous volume). Yes, the tale has a sad ending. Wilson died in August 1813, having literally worked himself to death—his last written words were a list of birds he had yet to draw.

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Closeup of the head of the American Robin, in the original copper plate engraved by Alexander Lawson, which begat Wilson’s American Ornithology, Vol. 1, Pl. 2. (Photo by MRH, courtesy of the Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University).

To celebrate Wilson’s 250th birthday (6/6/2016), I visited the ANSP Archives to see for myself, the first two copper plates from American Ornithology Volume 1 (1808), engraved by Alexander Lawson (1772–1846) from Wilson’s original drawings. On the surface the plates appear old and tarnished, but the engravings are in excellent condition. Lawson’s work was masterful, with incredible detail shown in each feather barb. I had to angle my head to fully appreciate the closely spaced strokes in the face of the American Robin (see pictured). And to think that it was the reverse image that Lawson produced, engraving the opposite of Wilson’s sketch into a copper plate with such precision! For example, look at the number “2” engraved in reverse. But so much of the detail was masked when the color was applied to the final image, especially in the black feathers of the robin’s head. Here, the intricacies of Wilson’s artwork go unnoticed, as does Lawson’s skill with the engraving tool.

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I appreciate Wilson most for the knowledge he gave us. For example, he was the first person to understand that the Veery (Catharus fuscescens) and Hermit Thrush (C. guttatus) were actually two different species! They were lumped as Turdus minor before Wilson corrected things in 1812. My own research on American birds was fundamentally shaped by Wilson—more reason to celebrate this anniversary.

Wilson himself most likely handled these plates, inspecting them for flaws before the first printing of American Ornithology. He must have marveled at Lawson’s handiwork. It is fun to think that he would also have tilted his head in the very same way, trying to catch the light at just the right angle, to reveal just a little more of what birds are.

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One of the original copper plates engraved by Alexander Lawson for Wilson’s American Ornithology. Hand-colored prints made from this plate (#2) were first published in 1808. (Photo by MRH, courtesy of the Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University)

Many thanks to archivist Jennifer Vess for assisting me with the Lawson plates. Also thanks to Scott McConnell, who discussed the origins of the stone tablet in his excellent book Witmer Stone: Fascination of Nature, solving a mystery for me.