Summing Up Summer: Week 5

So, as many of you well know, I spent the summer working as an Ornithologist in the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park on the Guatamalan border of Honduras.  During the first half of the season I was based in and out of base camp and thus had access to internet.  For the latter half of the season, I was predominantly based at satellite camps on the eastern side of the camp. Camps on the west being more distant which I did not have a chance to visit.

Week 5, I returned to Base Camp to continue to work with students as we introduce them to the basics of field ornithology.

July 9 – Day  33 – Moved mist-netting to a new location.  Operated 3 nets, but quickly dropped to 2 when a local pup helped itself to some all natural puppy chow from the net.  Or so we suspect.  Upon a net check there was a sizable hole and three fairly happy hounds.   Began net repairs.

July 10 – Day 34 – Point counts along Transect 3.  Four students accompanied us.  The transect climbed up at a reasonable incline and then dropped dramatically as the mosquito swarm density picked up.  They invented tropical sledding and tropical bowling.  Tropical sledding being when you use the slope, mud and gravity to assist you on the way down while tropical bowling is where you use your trailmates to stop your descent.  Then we got to climb back up, but before that we had awesome views of Emerald Toucanets. Continued net repairs.

July 11- Day 35 – Mist-netting along the river. Repaired net not so repaired.

July 12 – Day 36 –   Another day of point counting.  We returned to our training transect.  So much easier this time around.  In fact, we were back for the end of breakfast.  Continued working with students afterwards discussing the science protocol and the objectives as well as giving some hands on experience in working with nets.  Yet another day of net repairs!

July 13 – Day 37 –  Mist-netting with students in a different site, yet again.  This one with fewer dogs.

July 14 – Day 38 – Mist-netting.  No dogs, but also no birds.  First day of absolutely no birds, but great views of the Resplendent Quetzal.  And then off to Guanales again!

Rarely caught Strong-billed Woodcreeper. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 9, 2015.

Rarely caught Strong-billed Woodcreeper. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 9, 2015.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper demonstrates how it got its name. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 9, 2015.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper demonstrates how it got its name. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 9, 2015.

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Summing Up Summer: Week 4

So, as many of you well know, I spent the summer working as an Ornithologist in the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park on the Guatamalan border of Honduras.  During the first half of the season I was based in and out of base camp and thus had access to internet.  For the latter half of the season, I was predominantly based at satellite camps on the eastern side of the camp. Camps on the west being more distant which I did not have a chance to visit.

Week 4*, I traveled to Guanales to spend a week mist-netting and conducting point counts.

July 1 – Day  26 – Traveled to Guanales. Arrived just before dinner. After dinner had my first experience with putting up mist nets along a mountainside in the dark with a fading torch.  While out in the field. we heard a peculiar sound.  A guide informed us it was a mammal. We were quite surprised.

July 2 – Day  27 – First day of mist netting in Guanales.  Caught Red-capped Manakins! Check out this video which explains why this is the one species students knew of before arriving in Honduras.

July 3 – Day  28 – Tackled Transect 1 in Guanales: one of the hardest trails in the park with Jack and Jeff. 2,650 meters up a mountain.  It was grueling!  Had some spectacular falls which Jack was considerate enough to rate.   For some reason the guide continued to increase the distance between us as he shot down the trail…. Spent the night investigating owls.

July 4 – Day  29 – Day 2 of mist-netting. Mosquitoes were less bad than previous day or I was better prepared.

July 5 – Day  30 – Strategy paid off. Did the easier transect today to extend recovery time.  Today’s transect was was only 600m with two points instead of the eight of two days ago.  Back in time for breakfast with great views of a Violet Sabrewing that buzzed us and a Keel-billed Toucan which did not. More owling.

July 6 – Day 31  – Day 3 of banding in Guanales.  Best bird of the day: Golden-crowned Warbler through the Ruddy Woodcreeper was also quite nice.

July 7 – Day 32 – Extra birding with students back on Transect 3.   And then it’s back to Base Camp for another week!

Scrawny looking Golden-crowned Warbler in the hand. Look at that stare down. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 6, 2015.

Scrawny looking Golden-crowned Warbler in the hand. Look at that stare down. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 6, 2015.

* Counting has never been my strong suit. Especially when tired.

The One Whooo Gets Away

Field Report #6
Location: Guanales

Did three days of ringing at satellite camp the previous week. It was very mosquito-plagued! When students weren’t around we buried ourselves under every extra bit of clothing available.

However, the camp had some very nice birds! This is one of our common captures (We had at least three of them!) and it was a lifer! However, if you didn’t immediately run for it when you spotted it in the nets, it was about to power its way out of the pocket with sufficient adrenaline rush. We were quick to instruct students on the safe way to pin a large bird in the net after a few got away.

It’s too large for any of our bands. It’s legs are large, red, and rubbery and the face hardly looks white. I’m certain it could have been named more aptly.

White-faced Quail-Dove in the hand.  Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 4, 2015.

White-faced Quail-Dove in the hand. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken July 4, 2015.

Note: While in the field I will have limited access to social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

Coffee vs. Conservation

Field Report #5
Location: Buenos Aires

Conservation zones are often in regions that are difficult to access and have been so for a very long time. If they were more accessible, people would already have been there, leaving their footprints, and there would be less worth conserving. So it is with Cusuco. Cusuco is challenging terrain both by foot and by vehicle.

Buenos Aires is the closest town to Cusuco. It’s the lowest “camp”. By camp I mean we eat three meals a day in a restaurant and stay with local families. But we still do science, though it’s a longer trek to the reseaarch areas than from the other camps. The area immediately around the town is a mix of fragmented forests, small holdings comprised predominately of coffee plantations with occasional plantain, yucca, or corn, but mostly coffee.

As a result of Opwall’s presence, I suspect the economy has grown. It seems people typically make $1-2/day growing coffee, but working for Opwall brings in significantly more. Muchulados (sherpas) make $8/day, cooks make about $10/day, guides can make up to $15/day. This year as well, any locally employed people receive healthcare as well.

The other day, Chip and I finished up our birding with a trip to the school. It was highly productive visit for Chip who has been working here for a number of years. He’d like to see more conservation efforts and was investigating the possibility of using the school as a cafe with hummingbird and oriole feeders to increase tourism in the park. While there we also learned of a NGO that was working on reforestation with a number of species being started on the school grounds. Unfortunately, the school and its students aren’t involved, but it’s a promising enterprise.

As I mentioned previously, initially the local people were eager to bring specimens to the camp. While that practice has been stopped, people have changed their behaviors due to Opwall. Since Opwall arrived 11 years ago, there has been a local movement to grow shade grown coffee. Many of the science staff (non-Honduran) here are outright skeptical about it, but from digging a little further, it seems that shade-grown is a recent phenomenon. People in town have gone as far as forming a cooperative. I am not entirely sure whether people are attempting to reintroduce cloud forest trees into their fields or if they are continuing to expand the plantations into the forest. I suspect it is a bit of both. Regardless, there is a wide range of shade in the shade grown coffee fields.

Every day, there is coffee served twice a day. Locally sourced coffee, which means for better or for worse Opwall is supporting some level of deforestation as they fight to conserve the forests.

Some of the most foundational work is done by the Habitat team. They use the same sites year after year where they measure changes to the forest. Louis and I helped out with the Habitat surveys our last day in BA. We did the bird work on the way out and habitat work on the way in. We were responsible for measuring the girth of all the trees within the plots with a dbh greater than 15cm. Rick did some other measurements including vegetation density, canopy coverage, and tree height. Some of these sites fall in coffee plantations. Some years the scientists return to find the sites have been replaced by coffee plantations. It’s a measurement of the human impact on this remote forest.

Fields and forest surrounding Buenos Airess. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 25, 2015.

Fields and forest surrounding Buenos Airess. Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 25, 2015.

Bird Work at Base Camp and Buenos Aires

Field Report #4
Location: Buenos Aires

June 18 – Day 13 – Did first point count on my own. Well, with two of the three new birders and four uni students. Went really well. Positive feedback all around and I could identify most birds.

June 19-21 – Did demo banding near camp while Kate conducted the point counts. Owled at night.

June 23 – Day 18 – Departed Base Camp for the first time since arrival. Headed to Buenos Aires (closest town) to work there for the week.

June 24 – Day 19 – Walked around town looking for a place to do mist-netting. Very limited options. Town is very steep.

June 27-29 – Days 22-24 – Power is out for the entire town due to a blown transformer. Radios are running off a car battery. Limited availability to do work outside of town.

June 29 – Day 24 – Very productive day. Attempted to find a missed subsite for a transect (fail), but we made it work. Realized our earlier discovered mystery bird nest had nestlings. Birded around town with Chip. Spent the afternoon observing the nest of the Bright-rumped Antilla. Photos once my camera isn’t packed away. Did more investigations. Found two more probable sites for nocturnal surveying, but a severe thunderstorm prevented that from happening.

June 30 – Day 25 – Finished our work in BA this morning with a final point count along Transect 1. Then pitched in with Habitat surveying. Stopped around 11 at an amazing lilac tree. We ended up sending Habitat and the guide back when they got bored at staring at all the hummingbirds. We opted for hummingbirds over lunch, but recognized not everyone would share our stance. We got 11 identifiable species of hummingbird and one more we need to work out the identification for. All in one tree.

July 1 – Day 26 – Data entry in the morning, then heading off to satellite camp, Guanales, today after lunch. Apparently there are lekking Red-capped Manakins there!

Prowls for Owls

Last week, seven of us took a free afternoon to walk to town. It was an hour down and two hours up. So we didn’t actually have much time in town. It was enough to spot a few birds and buy a few cool drinks. While we were outside one shop, children came out to show us their newest pet.

Turns out it was a baby owl! They communicated to us that it had fallen out a tree far, far away. We instantly cooed and ooohed. Everyone wanted to hold the baby owl and pose with it. Someone has a photo of me with it, don’t recall who – perhaps Charlotte or Jordan has it. The interesting thing about the community vibe is that we’re all freely asking people to take photos of various spectacles, including scientific documentation with their own cameras…. I can’t imagine how hundreds of people are going to redistribute the photos at the end of all this.

Some of the party wanted to take the owl with us on our return up the mountain, but I vetoed that idea. I didn’t want to explain to children we were about to deprive them of their pet. Also, I was pretty certain Opwall would have a policy regarding bringing back orphaned wildlife. Nevertheless it was cute.

We believe the owlet to be a Mottled Owl, which is one of the two common types here, the other being the Crested Owl. At least those are the two we’ve identified on our Owl Prowls.

We found out later that during Opwall’s first year in Honduras, the locals were very eager to bring unusual specimens to the camp to show the scientists. But that’s not what Opwall is about.

While in Base Camp this week, (hence access to internet) Kate and I were assigned to complete each transect (4) once and to complete opportunistic surveys at will. We split on the first day because we had eight students and 3 new staff with us. Then she did the remaining two transects on her own and I did the teaching with demo netting. (We have 2-3 very worn nets, but no banding equipment). It’s still enough to show students birds up close and teach them how to work with nets.

The first excursion for the new birders (Andrew, Daniel, and Monte) was owling. 5 of us and 1 pre-med tag-along sitting on a ridge in silence straining to hear hoots and whoos. (We heard 2 mottled owls on our second ridge and then called it a night because they were jet lagged). Much more exciting than the previous week where 7 birders went out and heard no owls. This time we used ipods for playing calls and strategically visited ridges for better acoustics.

Kate, Daniel, and I went out the next time with another bird enthusiast, Chip, but poor weather conditions prevented us from staying out long or hearing owls.

The following night, Kate and I had our best luck. We had two owls, of two species both unknown at the first point. At the second point, we could still hear one from the first point, picked up two more of the same species as well as recording 1 Mottled and 1 Crested Owl in the distance as well. Total of 6 owls across four species. Best owling ever. Especially since it doesn’t require wearing two winter coats just to feel numb.

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Note: While in the field I will have no access to most social media, including facebook, twitter, and google+.

Learning Feather by Feather

Field Report #2: Base Camp

If you’re looking for the frontiers of birding, try the tropics. Limited knowledge exists and the ability for mistakes abound. Last week during a training session we noticed a number of presumably juvenile Barred Forest-falcons clustering in pines along a ridge (2-3, with a possibility of some of those being adults). The following day we were treated Barred Forest-falcon consuming a passerine. It was quite exciting to watch the predator consume the prey. As the act proceeded,feathers rained down and the ornithologists scurried about collecting the feathers. One of the projects here is to sample isotopes across the various communities to construct food webs.

We’ve since used our assortment of feathers to identify the deceased as a Blue-crowned Chlorophonia. Go science!

A day or so later towards the end of a low-key banding day, we captured one of these fine, fierce predators. As we were reading the description in detail, something wasn’t quite adding up. Turns out, we weren’t working with Barred Forest-falcons after all, but the much rarer, endemic White-breasted Hawk. Whee and whoops!

How we mistook a hawk for a forest-falcon I’m not entirely sure, particularly as the forest-falcon in question has great Elvis sideburns of feathers. It wasn’t until we were examining the hawk feather by feather that we realized our error. (To be fair, there was some question of where the bars were in the earlier encounters!)

This was a much more exciting discovery. The Americans on the team (Rob and I) received a bit of grief over the misidentification initially as the White-breasted Hawk is a subspecies of Sharp-shinned Hawk. However, unlike the Sharpie, White-breasted Hawks have….. white chests. I did however note as I arrived to the net that it was very much Sharpie sized, so I feel I’m off the hook on that one. (There’s a bit of bantering and division between American and British procedures and customs. It’s mostly in good fun unless you say anything less than stellar regarding David Attenborough*.).

The White-breasted Hawk was a ringing first for the park. I can’t share all my photos due to limited bandwidth, but from just this one I hope you can get the sense of what a fine bird it is!

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

Hawk in the hand. White-breasted Hawk, a ringing first in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. Photo taken June 15, 2015.

*They’re probably just as displeased if you misspell Attenborough. Alas.

Note: While I am in the field I will have no access to most social media including facebook, twitter, and google+.