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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Introducing Bocas Shorts

Sometimes we capture some pretty cool little clips that we would like to share with you, but we are not ready for a full video.  So, to pass on the cool stuff, we are introducing Bocas Shorts – a video series that is well under a minute yet gives you a quick glimpse into some thing uniquely Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Here is episode 1 where we show you how a Ngabe woman begins processing the leaves she uses to ultimately make a chacara.

The Panama Hat

Panama Hat

Picture of Pijipaja or panama hat (https://www.worldguide.eu/t5/Lifestyle-Events-Articles/All-you-have-to-know-about-Hats/ba-p/15386

Probably some of you know the Panama hat is hand-made in Ecuador, a traditional product that began in the 1600´s and was declared by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012. The fibers of the leaves of the Panama hat plant (Carludovica palmata), are known as iraca, bellota or toquilla in Spanish. The young leaves of this plant are boiled, cut in narrow strips and bleached to get the pale color fibers used to weave the Panama hat.

Panama Plant Story

Leaf of the Panama hat plant (Carludovica palmata)

There are different versions of the story about why this Ecuadorian hat, also known as Jipijapas, took on the name of “Panama hat”, I am going to share just a few.

  • In the 1830`s and Spanish man, Miguel Alfaro, was the person who changed the industry of these hats. He established a plant in the town of Montecristi and organized a “system of production” with the intention of exporting the hats to Panama, and from there to the rest of the world.  By the 1850`s, with the California Gold Rush, the United States was a big buyer of these hats.
  • Another version says that in the 1880s, when the Panama Canal was under construction, with the famous Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, in charge of the revolutionary project, he and many of the workers of the Canal wore this hat.
Panama Hats at Panama Canal

Picture. Members of the technical commission with Ferdinand de Lesseps, in Panama, February 1880. http://www.pancanal.com/esp/photo/historicas/ingenier.jpg

  • Years later, in 1906, when the Panama Canal was under management by the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States at that time, came to inspect the progress of the Panama Canal, he was wearing a black-banded straw hat, and a picture of him was taken and published.
Roosevelt Panama Canal

Picture. President Theodore Roosevelt siting down on the steam shovel, with his Panama hat, during the construction of the Panama Canal, 1906. http://www.czbrats.com/PicWk/picwk008.htm

 

Which one is the real cause of why the Panama hat goes by this name?   I do not know, any of them seem pretty likely to be accurate, but what is important is the history, and how valuable is to preserve it and share it.

If you want to learn more about the very interesting history of the “Panama hat” you can visit:  https://www.brentblack.com/pages/history.html

 

2016 Bird Retrospective

Birding Panama

Jabiru (Jabirumycteria) observed in the Chiriqui Grande area, Bocas del Toro lowlands.

Personally 2016 was a very exciting year. It brought me one of my “dream birds,” the Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), which was another addition ro our Western Caribbean Slope Bird list. We ended 2016 with a total of 514 species, a very impressive number, and hopefully this new year will bring some more species to our list.

Some of you are probably wondering what is included in our Western Caribbean Slope Bird list.  Basically it is a compilation of all the birds we have seen in the province of Bocas del Toro and the neighboring area of the Chiriqui province, near the continental divide. Or more simply, the birds we have seen in the areas where we go with our guests for birding excursions.

The elusive Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), an uncommon species in this part of the country, was also a new addition for our list. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, how exited I got. Not many words would come out of my mouth, but enough to put everybody on the bird and enjoy the beauty of it. Do you remember Jennifer Wolcott? What a great birding day we had!

We also added another species that is very common in other parts of the country, but not in Bocas del Toro. In over a decade of birding in Bocas del Toro, we saw the Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) for the first time.

Panama Birdwatching

Not a good picture, but a very happy moment of my first Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) in Bocas del Toro, next to a Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius).

Here is the updated list of the Western Caribbean Slope which is also available on the website:  TBWCS117

Building a StoryBrand PodCast

StoryBrand is a great group of people who help business clarify their message. Donald Miller began the company some years ago as he learned how to simplify his own message.  I have been interested in his books and other products for some time.  I signed up for his newsletters, emails, etc. and watched as his company grew.

StoryBrand did grow and it offered a live workshop to help other companies clean up the information they offer to prospective clients.  Given our location, heading to Nashville for a live workshop wasn’t in the cards so I hoped they would offer an online workshop as they have done for other products.  They did.  Yet, I still didn’t discuss it directly with Jim and Jay.  I kept absorbing all the information the company put out publicly and incorporated it as best I could.

Fast forward to spring 2016.  It was time to update the website and I knew it really needed an overhaul.  StoryBrand offered the online workshop again so I talked to Jim and Jay about it.  We decided to make the investment.  As soon as I finished the school year with the kids I dug into the class.  Then I edited the website and edited it some more.  It was a challenging process, but absolutely worth every dollar and hour spent.

In December, J.J. Peterson gave me a call and we talked about how StoryBrand had made a difference for Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.  Now, to be fair, the numbers we discussed with regard to growth of our business are so much more so than just changing our messaging.  This has helped immensely, but 12 years in business, trade shows, work with groups, and increasing our available units has also had a significant impact.  The increase in individual travelers rather than groups or people booking through travel professionals is the number that ties most closely to our work with StoryBrand.  And I must say that the investment in the StoryBrand workshop has paid off more so than any of the other marketing related tools (SEO assistance, business listings, etc.) we have used in the past.

The Building a StoryBrand Podcast is live now.  Its feature guest is John Lowry who discusses negotiation skills with Donald Miller.  I learned a few new things to consider that I didn’t learn in law school or years practicing law – always a nice bonus.  The phone call between J.J. and me is at the end of the podcast.  Take a listen.  Look out for a sloth and a little bit of Van Halen.

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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