Variable Seedeater Song Mimicry

Today’s post is by Scott Viola.  Our children, as some of you may know, learned all 200 yard birds we have at Tranquilo Bay for their science class last year.  Scott truly took to the birds and was especially interested in their songs and sounds.  He has learned to identify many of the birds by sound as well as visually.  Here is a report he prepared for me about a strange phenomenon he encountered.

Panama Bird Song Mimicry

I have acknowledged a phenomenon on which I can find almost nothing: the Variable Seedeater mimics other birds’ songs.

For months after learning the Variable Seedeater’s song in Bocas del Toro, Panama, it made me think of rubbing a wet window with rubber. One day around New Years, I was walking in a semi-open area less than a hundred feet above sea level and heard a string of bird songs issued back-to-back from an elevated position. I was mystified, there being nothing that I could see. I considered that someone had put a playback speaker in a tree, but that was unlikely. After a few minutes, I saw a small, black bird exit the tree, and the calls ceased. I knew what it was, a seedeater or seedfinch, but I didn’t consider that it could have been the thing making the noise. A few days later, I heard it again in a nearby location. This time, I had a clear view and identified it as a Variable Seedeater.

I took two recordings of it singing, and later made videos with text on-screen notifying what bird song it was imitating. I have observed it mimicking Red-lored Parrots, Blue-headed Parrots, something that I believe is based on the Groove-billed Ani or the Common Black Hawk, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue-gray or Palm Tanagers, Tropical Gnatcatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenias, Great Kiskadees, Boat-billed Flycatchers (probably), and Roadside Hawk, all of which are common in the area. The seedeater also has a “Brr brr Brrr” sound, and a distinctive, high-pitched “eaw.”

It doesn’t include all the birds every time it sings, but there is a loose order in which it tends to put them: parrots, the Ani or the hawk-like sound, and the rest, often with the Black-cheeked Woodpecker next to the flycatchers. The song lasts around seven to eight seconds, with 3-6 dedicated in the beginning to the parrots, the Ani-like song, and its own add-ons.

The song also changes depending on region, as can be seen on http://xeno-canto.org/explore?query=variable+seedeater. I believe this is caused by the birds it mimics, which are different everywhere. On Xeno Canto, I managed to identify a parrot in the midst of unfamiliar noises. The sounds don’t even make me think of birds; they are higher pitched and from a different place, making it sound like the song I had heard before my epiphany. The seeming randomness is stated in every Variable Seedeater resource I can find, except for one. At “The Sights and Sounds of Costa Rica” (http://www.naturesongs.com/CRsounds.html), the author wrote in the section for the Variable Seedeater that it mimics, and had two recordings that clearly contained mimicking. He was hearing the same thing I did. In them, I can tell that the seedeater mimics bird sounds. In one, I hear a Black-cheeked Woodpecker.

Introduced Species

Today, I am going to talk about a couple of birds that were introduced by humans in Panama (and other countries): House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus).

The definition of an introduced species or non-native species (plant or an animal) is that it (said species) does not naturally belong to a specific area. We, humans, have been moving plants and animals around the globe for a very long time. There are many reasons why introduced species are moved from one place to another.   To mention a few: as a source of food, to control pests or simply because its pretty. Sometimes the introduction of this species goes well, and solves a problem, but the completely opposite can happen, and it turns into a pest that messes up the order the ecosystem.

It is very well documented how the House Sparrow was introduced in to the United States, but not on the rest of the continent. Since 1850 or 1851 the attempts to introduced the species in Brooking, New York began, and in a period of about 50 years, the species was found around the entire country.

Introduced Species Panama

Native to Eurasia, the House Sparrow was brought in to North America, apparently for a few different reasons: 1) to control a pest of canker worms that was affecting the trees of Central Park, 2) to bring birds that were familiar to the immigrants, or 3) just because they are pretty. In Panama, this species is usually found in the lowlands, near humans, often in small flocks.

Escaped and released pet birds are another way that a species makes its place in a country. Now, I am taking about the Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus), a species introduced from Colombia around 1932. It was first documented at the Canal zone after 1928 (one report in 1932 by Deingnan (Wetmore et al. 1984)). Now it’s found in both urban and suburban areas.

Birdwatching Panama

This species it is not common in Bocas del Toro. We have only seen a few individual birds in over 10 years birding the province, but just a few days ago, Scott Viola (Jay’s son), told me about a Tropical Mockingbird he saw on Isla Colon, which might be the first observation on that island for the species.

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Frog Trip

Poision Dart Frog Tranquilo Bay

Not long ago we had some guests that wanted to look for frogs. They were specifically looking to find some other variations of the very famous Poison Red Frog (Oophaga pumilio). So, we went to Popa, a nearby island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago

At the Tranquilo Bay we have two morphs, that are quite similar, the bright orange, almost red with light blue toes and fingers and the bright red with tiny dots on the back.

Frog Photo

One of the morphs of the Poisonous Red Frog (Oophaga pumilio) found on Popa Island.

During this trip to Popa Island we got to see some nice variations in color of the Oophaga pumilio, and we also got great looks and pictures of some other species.

Poison Dart Frog Bocas del Toro

Another coloration of the Poisonous Red Frog (Oophaga pumilio) found in Popa Island.

I have to admit that I never get tired of watching the incredible variation in color of O. Pumilio. It isn’t every day that we get a photographic opportunity to capture a photo of the elusive, and very fast amphibian, the Lovely Poison Frog (Phyllobatrs lugubris).

Frog Morphs Panama

Lovely Poison Frog (Phyllobatrs lugubris)

And if the morning could not get any better, we also found another small inhabitant of the rainforest, a Talamanca Rocket Frog (Allobates talamancae), that showed up and stayed calm for us to photograph him as well.

Frog Photo Safari Panama

Talamanca Rocket Frog (Allobates talamancae)

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Birding Isla Colon

Birding Bocas del ToroSome days ago, Natalia and I were visiting some friends on the neighboring island of Isla Colon (known also as Bocas Isla or, simply, Bocas). We got there after a bus trip from Panama City (and a short water taxi ride), so after 12 hours in a close quarters and some more hours performing as the walking dead, we knew there was an antidote to our situation, as always, go birding.  So we went! Nothing fancy, just on a road around the Y (la Y griega), and some short entrances to farms and pastures. The weather did not look very cooperative but, as we went out, everything started waking up, and so did the sun.

Hiking PanamaAs soon as we stepped out of the house, parrot couples and some small groups of parakeets started flying over.  Calls and sounds were everywhere:  a singing green and yellow “Red frog” (Oophaga pumilio), howling Howler Monkeys, a posing Roadside Hawk model.  We started to feel that this was not going to be a usual birding morning for us.  A group of five Masked Tityras with a Black-crowned Tityra couple, Bronze Hermit feeding four feet away from us, a female White-winged Becard and many migrants that were joining us like Blue and the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Prothonotary, Yellow, Mourning, Chesnut-sided Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Gray Catbird, Baltimore Oriol, kept showing up in our binoculars.

Reptiles & Amphibians Bocas del ToroWe experienced sustained bird activity through the whole time we were birding without much variation. Different species of Flycatchers were calling and flirting around. We even had a coconut water drinker, a Black-cheeked Woodpecker.  A friendly Dusky Antbird couple entertained us with their sporadic appearances outside “their” thick clump of leaves.

BIrdwatching PanamaAll this and more we saw during one of the most intense mornings we ever experienced in that area. It is just another example of one of the beauties of birding, you have to be there to catch these good days because you never know when or where it is going to happen.

If you are interested in any more detail of our morning you can access : http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32557965

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Panama Wildlife – Episode 7

Panama Wildlife Video

Wasps are insects that can bring mixed feelings, but having a close look at them, proves they are very interesting creatures. This video shows the way they take care of their offspring. By flapping their wings to reduce the temperature inside the nest, they protect the young inside the nest. Animals are not as dangerous as we night think. Respect and distance are the key to living in harmony with all the Earth’s creatures.

Birding Panama – Episode 10 – Berries

tanagerphotoDaniel collected a number of birds from Ramon & Natalia’s video collection that enjoy eating one specific berry.  Six species – one tree all within less than a minute.  We have planted many of these trees around Tranquilo Bay because the birds love them.  Enjoy.

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Women in Science

Gender bias?  Here in Panama, at Tranquilo Bay, not so much, but in many other parts of the world, yes.  When many people think of women in science they do not think of the same people who my daughter brings to her mind.  Why, well, we are blessed to live on a spot on this earth that brings many scientists to us.  And believe it or not, the majority of the scientists that we have met working here in Bocas del Toro, are women.

We welcome scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute out to our place to study whatever it is they are studying.  We figure it helps science, we learn something and our kids have an opportunity to meet new scientists on a regular basis.

We have naturalist guides who are on site to work with our guests who have both studied different sciences and who teach us about biology, nature and many different types of science on a daily basis.

We have group leaders who are scientists or naturalists of some form that visit us on a regular basis.

We have a family member who studied ecology and is working with TIDE so that she might become a marine biologist one day.

Why this conversation?  Well, one of the scientists we met in October 2015 is also a National Geographic Photographer.  Clare Fiesler contacted us to see about working with us on a kayak circumnavigation of Isla Bastimentos while she was studying at STRI.  She and her buddy, Becca Skinner, used two portable Orukayaks to complete this expedition.  They stayed the first night with us.  Both of them have shared some details about their adventure on Nat Geo’s blog and Instagram account.

Since then, Clare suggested that a group of students from UNC Chapel Hill spend some time documenting Bocas del Toro and she kindly gave them our name.  The result is this award-winning multimedia website created by the students under the supervision of a great group of professors and coaches.  Clare was one of the coaches.

Bocas del Toro Documentary

Several years ago, Clare worked on a  project:  “Outnumbered:  Portraits of Women Scientists.”  She explains a bit about the project in this video.  You can also get more information here:  http://college.unc.edu/2014/11/12/outnumbered/.

Most recently Clare used words to explain in An Ecologist’s Guide to Writing Obituaries about the “death” of the Great Barrier Reef as well as obituaries as a genre.  We take writing very seriously around here as part of our school curriculum so when we find people who are skilled with this craft, we learn whatever we can from them.

My children have met a number of female scientists and a number of people named Clare, but only one female scientist named Clare.  So when I tell them that Clare is in Bocas del Toro working on another research project they immediately know to ask, “Mom, are you talking about the Clare that did the kayak project?”  They do this because to them, Clare isn’t the only female scientist they know so they have learned to identify her in a different way.  I wish that more people had the same perspective on life – we can work towards whatever interests us and it doesn’t need to fit a specific mold.  We can make it into what works for us.  Clare’s camera and her words are some of the tools she uses to expand people’s horizons and help tell people’s stories.  Many of those stories touch science in one way or another.

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Three-wattled Bellbird Species Overview

Birding Panama

Let me introduce you to one of the most interesting birds of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

It´s name … Three- wattled Bellbird or, as we call it here, Campanero o Pájaro Campana (Procnias tricarunculata). This species is within the suboscine passerine family of Cotingas (Cotingidae). The English name comes from the three black skin wattles that the adult male has, one in the base of the upper mandible, the other two find on the corner of the gape. I guess the Spanish name is because the male Procnias produces one of the loudest of all animal vocalizations. Its main sound is a thunderous, electronic bell or gong-like note … so … “campanero” is a great name.

Three-wattled Bellbirds are only found from Southeastern Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to Western Panamá. It has one of the most complex migration patterns registered for tropical species, including altitudinal movements. In Panama, from March to Mid-August, breeding season, it is found in the upper levels of the forest in the western foothills and highlands (from 3000 to 7000 feet). In nonbreeding season, September to February, it descends to the lowlands and foothills on the Western Caribbean Slope, which means you can enjoy them here at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.

Bocas del Toro Birding

It is one of the biggest fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds in Central America. It feeds on stone fruits that all contain a relatively high percentage of protein and fat and not much water within the fruit’s flesh. A big percentage of them are Lauracea and Rutacea, but it also eats other fruits.

Unlike other birds of the suboscine division, the Three-wattled Bellbird is capable of vocal learning. Vocal learning was supposed to have evolved in three clades of birds: parrots, hummingbirds and oscine passerines; and three clades of mammals: whales, bats and primates. However, behavioral data indicates that the Three-wattled Bellbird is capable of vocal learning, This data, in the form of a genetic study carried out in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, shows that the weak genetic variation shown between the four populations is not congruent with variation in vocal behavior of the four.

Panama Birdwatching

Three-wattled Bellbirds have a very particular display practice. They always choose an exposed perch above the canopy or a special broken-off branch, or visiting perch, beneath the canopy. The special branch has to have particular aspects to qualify as a “visiting perch”. The ideal specifications for the branch are:

  • 10 to 22 meters above the ground
  • 25-50 mm in diameter
  • 45 to 60 cm of the broken-off branch must be uncluttered by side branches
  • grows upward at an angle of 10 to 15 degrees above horizontal

As you can see, it is a very particular animal. It is very special in it´s perch requirements which makes it a natural wonder. This makes us feel very lucky to enjoy it´s presence in this little corner of the Earth.

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