Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Jun 13 2017

The Rarest Warbler in North America

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Kirtland's warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland’s warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is one of the rarest songbirds in North America.  I have never seen one.  Today’s the day.

This morning nine friends and I are embarking on a Michigan Audubon Kirtland’s Warbler Tour to visit its breeding grounds near Grayling, Michigan.

The Kirtland’s warbler is a habitat specialist, breeding only in young jack pine forests and almost exclusively in this area of Michigan.  When the forest became fragmented and no longer burned to regenerate, the warblers’ population crashed in the 1960’s and early 70’s.  Listed as endangered, it recovered from a low of 400 individuals to an estimated 5,000 birds thanks to careful forest management and control of the brown-headed cowbird, a nest parasite.

Without human help the Kirtland’s warbler would be extinct by now.  The people of north central Michigan are understandably proud of their work to save the bird and happy to share their rare gem with visitors.  There’s a Kirtland’s roadside marker in Grayling and a monument to the warbler in Mio.  Read more about local efforts in this article from Michigan Live.

When not in Michigan, Kirtland’s warblers winter in the Bahamas, then migrate north through Florida and Ohio.  During migration solo birds are sometimes found in Ohio in early May.  This one, photographed by Brian Wulker, was in Stubbs Park near Dayton on 6 May 2016.

Kirtland's warbler (photo by Brian Wulker via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland’s warbler (photo by Brian Wulker via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Kirtland's warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker), Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Kirtland’s warbler, Montgomery County, Ohio, 6 May 2016 (photo by Brian Wulker), Creative Commons license on Flickr)

I can tell you there are plenty of insects for birds to eat in north central Michigan’s woods.  The mosquitoes are frightful!!

UPDATE: yes we saw the Kirtland’s warbler. It’s amazing how loud his voice is, even when he sings with his back to us.

 

(all photos by Brian Wulker on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the images to see the original)

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Mar 07 2017

Not A Squirrel

Published by under Mammals,Travel

Central American agouti, in Panama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Central American agouti, in Panama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What rodent is as big as a groundhog, looks like a squirrel, and has long legs like a small dog?

The agouti (pronounced “a GOO tee”) lives in forests, nests in burrows, and eats fallen fruit and nuts.  Eleven species in the genus Dasyprocta range from Mexico to South America and in the Caribbean.  Four are endangered because of habitat loss and over hunting but the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata), the species I saw in Costa Rica, seems to be doing fine.

Agoutis look like very large squirrels but their bony legs and extremely short hairless tails set them apart.

Central American agouti, walking in Gamboa, Panama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Central American agouti in Gamboa, Panama (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like squirrels, they are diurnal but avoid humans because we hunt them.  Where they feel safe, though, they’re almost tame. At Las Cruces Biological Station they’re protected so they stroll around the Wilson Botanical Garden and stop by the bird feeders every morning to glean the fruit knocked off the feeders.

This agouti was wary when I followed him at the garden to take his picture.  I was amazed when he raised the greenish fur on his rump when I got too close. He lowered it when I stopped following him.

Agouti at Las Cruces Biological Station, February 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Agouti at Las Cruces Biological Station, February 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite their physical resemblance, agoutis aren’t even related to squirrels.  Their nearest relatives are guinea pigs.

 

(top two photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Last photo by Kate St. John)

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Feb 28 2017

Tanagers True And False

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Silver-throated tanager, Cherrie's tanager, yellow-crowned euphonia, Feb 2017 at Las Cruces (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Silver-throated tanager, Cherrie’s tanager, yellow-crowned euphonia, Las Cruces, Feb 2017 (photo by Jon Goodwill)

When I visited Costa Rica this month I saw more tanagers than I’d ever seen before … but some of them weren’t really tanagers.

Tanagers (Thraupidae) are the second largest family of birds on earth but their membership is constantly in flux as DNA tests move birds in and out of the family every year. In the photo above, all three birds used to be Thraupidae but one of them moved out in 2012.

Thanks to photos from fellow travelers Bert Dudley and Jon Goodwill, and from our guide Roger Melendez, here are tanagers we saw in Costa Rica, both true and false.

True Tanagers whose names include the word tanager:

Blue gray tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Blue gray tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

  • Cherrie’s tanagers (Ramphocelus costaricensis) were plentiful at Las Cruces Biological Station.  Here’s a male, in velvet black and orange with a blue-gray beak, perching next to a female.
Cherrie's tanager, male and female (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Cherrie’s tanager, male and female (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Palm tanagers with red-legged honeycreeper in the background (photo by Roger Melendez)

Palm tanagers with red-legged honeycreeper in the background (photo by Roger Melendez)

  • Speckled tanagers (Tangara guttata) are subtly gorgeous birds. These were at Las Cruces.
Speckled tanagers (photo by Bert Dudley)

Speckled tanagers (photo by Bert Dudley)

Silver-throated tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Silver-throated tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

 

True Tanagers whose names don’t say “tanager”.  These species are in the Tanager family but you’d never know it by their names.

Green honeycreeper (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Green honeycreeper (photo by Jon Goodwill)

  • The scarlet-thighed dacnis (Dacnis venusta) has beautiful scarlet thighs. Too bad the leaves are hiding them.
Scarlet-thighed dacnis (photo by Bert Dudley)

Scarlet-thighed dacnis (photo by Bert Dudley)

Streaked saltator (photo by Roger Melendez)

Streaked saltator (photo by Roger Melendez)

Slaty flowerpiercer (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Slaty flowerpiercer (photo by Jon Goodwill)

 

False Tanagers that are still called “tanagers.”  These birds in the Piranga genus were moved to the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae).

Flame-colored tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Flame-colored tanager (photo by Bert Dudley)

Summer tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

Summer tanager (photo by Jon Goodwill)

 

“False” Tanagers that used to be in the Tanager family, though “tanager” is not in their name.

  • The yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla), pictured at the top with two true tanagers, was in the Tanager family (Thraupidae) until 2012 when he became a Finch (Fringillidae).  This didn’t affect the euphonia’s life but it scrambled our field guides.
Yellow-crowned euphonia (photo by Roger Melendez)

Yellow-crowned euphonia (photo by Roger Melendez)

 

As you can see, the Tanager family can change in a flash!

 

(photos by Bert Dudley, Jon Goodwill and Roger Melendez)

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Feb 11 2017

In The Subduction Zone

Published by under Travel

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on a trip to Costa Rica, Jan 27-Feb 6, 2017:

One of the unusual features of Costa Rica’s landscape is the bumpy-looking surface in the subduction zone.  Pennsylvania has nothing like it.

Near Costa Rica’s Pacific shore the Cocos tectonic plate dives under the Carribean plate.  This slow but relentless movement causes ripples in the landscape with small stand-alone hills and pockets where the surface was dragged under. (Here’s a diagram of tectonic subduction.)

The photo above was taken in the subduction area on Route 34 near Quepos.  Below, I’ve marked light pink circles for each small hill and dark pink for the visible subsidence pockets among the grass.

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

This isn’t a stable place to build anything.  Even the road has dips and ripples.

We don’t have a subduction zone in southwestern Pennsylvania but we know something about subsidence.  In Washington and Greene Counties, longwall mining machines remove the coal seam and then back out of the mine causing the roof and surface to collapse.  You can see its effect in the roller coaster appearance of Interstate 79 in Washington County.  Click here for DEP photos of longwall subsidence problems on Interstate 70 and here for a map of locations where longwall mining has undermined both I-70 and I-79.

Pennsylvania’s man-made subsidence has a cost.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 06 2017

Magnificent Butterflies

Mariposa morpho, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue morpho butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

While looking for birds in Costa Rica it’s impossible to ignore the magnificent butterflies.  Though February is a slow time for them there are many wonders to see.  Here are just three of Costa Rica’s 1,500 species.

The common blue morpho (Morpho peleides), pictured above, is one of 29 species in the Morpho genus.  Huge and beautiful with a wingspan of 5 to 8 inches, its color comes not from pigment but from the blue light reflected by its dorsal scales.  It hides from predators by closing its wings to show off its spotted brown ventral side (click here to see).  In the rainforest it flashes blue — on and off — as it flaps its wings.

The glasswinged butterfly (Greta oto) has no problem hiding since most of its 2.2 – 2.4 inch wingspan is transparent.  But does it need to hide?  Perhaps not.  Its caterpillar host plant is Cestrum, a member of the toxic nightshade family that probably makes these butterflies poisonous.

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

With an 8 inch wingspan the owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) is the largest in Costa Rica.  It earned its name from the large ventral spot that looks like an owl’s eye, perhaps reinforced by its crepuscular habits.   Its caterpillars feed on Heliconia and bananas, so this butterfly is sometimes considered an agricultural pest.  Alas!

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Butterflies are most plentiful in Costa Rica during the rainy season, June to November, so I’ll have to come back later if I want to see more.

Goodbye, butterflies.  I’m flying home today.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Day 10: Fly home

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Feb 05 2017

It Started With Volcanoes

Published by under Travel

Turrialba Volcano erupting, 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Turrialba Volcano, erupting in 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

100 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs, North and South America were far apart and Costa Rica didn’t exist.  Instead the oceans were connected by the Central American Seaway that flowed from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

North and South America approach each other. Water flows from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Central American Seaway (image linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

North and South America approach each other. Water flows from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Central American Seaway (image linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

 

The earth’s crust kept moving, as it still does today.  The North American Plate drifted close to South America and two smaller tectonic plates smashed into each other at the site of Costa Rica (center of the diagram below).  The Caribbean Plate still remains on top and the Cocos Plate continues to dive into the subduction zone.

Plate tectonics near Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Plate tectonics near Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Subduction zones are geologically active places with earthquakes and volcanoes.  They often create archipelagos like Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  Costa Rica began as a group of volcanic islands but the plates kept approaching and accrued land around them.  Eventually a bridge formed at Panama 3 to 15 million years ago (the timing is disputed).

And then, three million years ago, mammals of all kinds began walking across the bridge from one continent to the other.  Llamas walked out of North America into South America where they live today.  Porcupines and armadillos walked north. The armadillos are still walking.

Today Costa Rica and Panama are narrow mountainous countries with enormous biodiversity for their size, not just because they’re in the tropics (where biodiversity is naturally high) but because they are the bridge, the mixing zone, where north meets south and both cross over.

Panama’s volcanoes are dormant but not so in Costa Rica.  Recent ash eruptions from Turrialba Volcano, pictured above, closed San José’s airport in January.

Costa Rica started with volcanoes.

 

(image credits:  Turrialba volcano and Central American plate tectonics from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.  Map of North and South America approaching each other is linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte, return to San José

 

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Feb 04 2017

Silky Bird

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Long-tailed silky flycatcher, at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

This bird with unusually silky feathers is only found in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama.

The long-tailed silky-flycatcher (Ptiliogonys caudatus) is one of four birds that used to be in the Waxwings’ family.   Like their former relatives, long-tailed silky-flycatchers eat fruit, flycatch for insects, and flock together in the non-breeding season.  They also have a fondness for mistletoe berries just like North America’s only Silky-flycatcher, the phainopepla.

This blurry photo from Wikimedia Commons gives you an idea of how easy it is to find a long-tailed silky-flycatcher if you’re in the right habitat.

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think I’ll see one today.  We’re birding at Cerro de la Muerte where these photos were taken.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte

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Feb 03 2017

Tomorrow Should Be Resplendent

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’re traveling up-mountain to 7,000 feet above sea level to San Gerardo de Dota, the cloud forest home of the resplendent quetzal.  This legendary trogon is the national bird of Guatemala and a must-see species for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Resplendent quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno) live in moist, cool, mountain rainforests from southern Mexico to Panama where they eat fruits in the avocado family.  Both sexes have iridescent green bodies but the male has a deep red breast, a helmet-like green crest, and a magnificent long green tail.

Their genus name, Pharomachrus, means long cloak and refers to the male’s “tail” which is actually four long upper tail covert feathers.  At 30+ inches, they can be three times the length of the male’s body — so long that when he enters the nest hole his tail remains outside.  In the photo above, a male is leaving the nest while his tail is still going in!

Legends of the resplendent quetzal date back to Mayan and Aztec cultures where he was considered the “god of the air” and a symbol of goodness and light.  In Guatemalan legend the quetzal guided Tecún Umán in his fight against the Spanish conquistadors.  When Tecún Umán died, the quetzal’s breast became red from his blood.  The quetzal is also a symbol of freedom because he could not be kept in captivity, dying so quickly in a cage.

And so tomorrow I will have my fingers crossed, hoping to see this resplendent bird.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 8: Traveling to San Gerardo de Dota

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Feb 02 2017

Be A Bird Sleuth

Published by under Quiz,Travel

Rufous-tailed jacamar, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Quiz: What bird is this? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Back in 2011 I made a bird identification quiz that featured this bird because it looks cool and I’d never seen it before.

Today I’m in Costa Rica within this bird’s home range.

Follow the link below to figure out what bird this is.

Quiz: Be a Bird Sleuth

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

(*) p.s. As I mentioned on Jan 27, I wrote this article before I left home so I couldn’t know if I’d see this bird.  I’ll let you know when I get back.

Day 7: Las Cruces Field Station

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Feb 01 2017

I’m A Woodpecker

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Smaller than a golden-crowned kinglet this bird is actually a woodpecker!

His common name, piculet, is a double diminutive of the Latin word for woodpecker, picus.  He’s distinguished from 27 other “little-little-woodpeckers” by his olive color so he’s “olivaceous.”

The olivaceous piculet (Picumnus olivaceus) moves among the trees like a nuthatch, using his tiny bill to dig out and eat ants, termites, beetles, and cockroach eggs.

He lives in a wide variety of habitats from Guatemala to northwestern Peru and is a specialty at the Esquinas Rainforest Reserve where we spent the day yesterday.

Like the golden-crowned kinglet, his name is longer than his body.

 

(photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Day 6: San Vito, Las Cruces Biological Station

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