Friday, December 19, 2008

The Little Things

Time flies! I can't believe I've been here a month already! Its gone so fast. The past week has been interesting because right now is the transition between the wet and the dry season and I've noticed quite a few changes in Soberania. Different animals are coming out (I've been seeing a lot more spiders lately) and its definitely drier! Lots of leaves are falling onto the ground (it almost looks like autumn at home - no nice fall colours though). The river levels are falling, and the small creeks are drying up. I didn't really expect this in a rainforest! But from what I've heard, I'm not expecting to see a lot of rain for the next couple months. It rained the other night (actually woke me up) and I'm sure I will appreciate any little rainfall we get, it definitely cools down the days. Its really hot here now (above 30C every day), with sun every day.

I sometimes laugh at myself when I walk through the forest... I am still getting my 'forest feet' and there are always obstacles to contend with. Roots, vines, low branches, large palm leaves are all there to trip clumsy people like me. I've also discovered that going downhill is somewhat difficult. I think I'm just afraid of falling (who knows what you will land on - rock, thorn, Fer-de-Lance...) so I go slow. Combine downhills with roots, vines, rocks, low branches and large palm leaves and ME (wearing rubber boots) and its quite the sight... I'm getting use to it though! Good workout for the thighs and calves! I haven't done any really good faceplants though so I think that's a good sign.

Climbing is also fun. Soberania is made up of large ridges that we are constantly climbing to get to high points to check for signals. The other day when we were out we climbed a decent vertical... luckily there were solid roots to grab onto - sometimes I feel like I'm rock-climbing! I also sometimes feel like I could go on American Gladiators!

Regardless, because I am usually looking on the ground for things to avoid stepping on or tripping over, I see lots of little things that I wouldn't have noticed if looking up. I have noticed more spiders running over the dead leaves on the ground, and tons of little forest frogs and toads. The common toad we see here is Rhinella margaritifera (correct me if I'm wrong), and today on my hike I found a nice looking one and was able to get some photos. I see lots of lizards that are too fast for me to take a picture of let alone get a decent look at. The other day I was walking up a streamfall and spotted a Black and Green Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus), definitely one of the coolest things I've seen so far. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos, but I will hopefully see more!

Another nice find over the last couple days has been tarantulas! Again, didn't have my camera, but they are a nice sight regardless. The first one I found was actually on a LONG hike that Rigoberto and I did out to the edge of Soberania (10 km distance round trip, then add the ridges). I found a hole in a shallow bank with a large series of webbing extending from it. Throwing a small piece of stick into the webbing brought the spider out for a second, but once it realized it wasn't food, quickly went back inside its burrow. We tried a few more times, but the tarantula couldn't be fooled again. The next day, we found another (likely the same species) while looking for an eagle on the other side of the Chagres River. This one was out on the forest floor, and we were able to get some nice looks! I believe the species is the Panama Red-rump Tarantula, but I am not sure.

Ants are everywhere. Leafcutter ants seem to be far more common here in Panama than I remember them being in Peru. I try my best not to step on them (because they seem so focused on their jobs of bringing cut leaves, flowers, berries and sticks back to their homes to make food) but sometimes that's hard to avoid because there are so many! Out of all the ants here, they seem like the least threat. Other ants (on the other hand) are not so nice! Red ants, army ants, and they just seem to get bigger and bigger... the larger the ant, the further I stay away from it. I'm sure they can give a powerful sting and bite that would last for a few days. However, I do enjoy finding army ant raids (as weird as that sounds), not for the ants, but for the birds that follow these raids. When thousands of army ants get together they move in a large swarm and disrupt just about anything in their path. Other animals, especially birds, take advantage of this. Antbirds, woodcreepers, tanagers and others follow army ant raids to pick up lizards, insects, and anything else that gets moved during the raids. We come across them quite often. Usually you can hear the Antbirds right away. There's usually a lot of bird activity going on. At raids, I've seen Ocellated Antbirds, Bicoloured Antbirds, Spotted Antbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Plain-brown Woodcreepers, Barred Woodcreepers, Gray-headed Tanagers, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and Song Wrens so far. I usually have to move every once in a while because the ants will cover my boots if I stand in one place for too long, but ant raids are one of my favourite things to come by down here.

I've somewhat adopted a cat while I'm here, too. One of the graduate students down here with STRI has left and she asked me if I would feed the cat she adopted. "Cora" is a cute, little female cat who's been living with us now for about 3 days. She seems to wander off during the day but comes when her name is called (or when I bang her food dish against the side of the house) and LOVES food. She's a little pudgy, but if I were a stray found starving in Gamboa then I would take advantage of every bit of food possible too! She's a nice addition to the house.

I almost forget that Christmas is just around the corner. Gamboa is not very 'christmasy' at all - a couple houses have put up some christmas lights but other than that, it looks the same as it does the rest of the year. My housemates and I are putting together a dinner for christmas eve and we're each making a course of the meal. I'm looking forward to that.

Here's another photo of LT, the female Harpy I enjoy looking for :) Enjoy!

Oh, and I know quite a few of you are interested in my bird, mammal, and other sightings, so I will try to get that organized and up here too within the next week or so.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Predator and Prey

Today, as most days go, we went out looking for a specific eagle. Generally, we want to visually observe the eagles as often as we can (likely at least once a week) to make sure they are hunting and doing well. Despite the fact that they are huge, even with radio telemetry equipment on them they are very hard to find! The one we found today was on food, but she flew from her dinner, sat in a tree about 30 feet away and we still couldn't see her! But its still valuable data to collect, as today she was dining on a tamandua.

On our way to find signals for eagles, we came to a screeching halt along the road to take a look at a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth that was hanging out in the open on a bare tree near the entrance of Pipeline Road. He was quite funny to watch - scratching his throat, his belly, and moving about on the narrow branches. One of the past volunteers told me that we rarely see sloths alive (since they are the main prey for Harpies), but this is my 4th or 5th sloth so far, alive, in a few weeks... maybe I'm just lucky!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pipeline Road, and a Jungle Spa Treatment?

Well, I am way overdue to add to this blog that I set up a couple weeks ago. I have done so much and am usually "muy cansada" by the end of the day, but I really don't have any excuse to let this go any longer. Unfortunately my laptop is toast, so I currently do not have any photos to add to here quite yet, but they will be coming soon!

The last couple weeks have been great... I have been out in Soberania National Park just about every day looking for the harpies. It is quite enjoyable, and every day brings new experiences, new things to see, and new 'challenges' so to say. I have developed a love-hate relationship with our ATVs. I enjoy driving them, and they are definitely necessary, but they've been through a lot and I don't think there has been one day that we've taken them out and didn't have some sort of problem with them. Faulty batteries, faulty electrical to the starter (we had to be towed back to town one day by a nice man who works at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre), missing bolt that held the front wheel to the frame (we managed to get back to town by holding it together with a drawstring) and today the bolts holding the frame in place of the one we were driving came loose and the chain fell off! Took a while to get it working again, and thankfully my co-volunteer Rigoberto is an "ATV-fixer extraordinare" and we were able to continue along with the day.

We are now into the dry season but for about a week and a half we had rain every day... heavy rain (more than usual for the wet season apparently), for hours on end, and yes, we still go looking for the birds in it. Along with the rain comes a very muddy Pipeline Road, and when sitting on the back of the ATV most of the splash from the muddy puddles ends up on me! I consider it good for my skin, and I'm sure there are people who pay large sums of money to get that sort of treatment done at a spa. In addition to that, and I hope this isn't too much information but I'm sure you can imagine what its like, sweating all day, I'm hoping, is good for my skin too! With all the rain, sweat and mud, I don't think its quite the spa experience most people are going for, but I'll take it. To go a step further, my co-volunteer and I were stopped to look at a White Hawk that landed in a tree over the road. The next thing it did was lifted its tail and let out a big poop that unfortunately landed right on Mark's leg... lovely! Not the experience he was hoping for but we had a good laugh. And, speaking of nice treatment, I'm starting to take advantage of the pool at the resort, very refreshing after a hot day in the jungle.

Pipeline Road itself is a bit of a thrill. On various levels... for the wildlife that you can see there, the random weather you can experience, and once you get further down the road where it is less 'maintained', the road turns into a rugged, crushed stone, partially washed out in places, with weather-worn bridges that look like they could give out if a coati walked over it. On a good day, it takes about 2 hours on the ATVs to get to the end (provided no ATV malfunctions or trees in the way), or what the end is now, as far as you can go (about 16 or 17 km). Everytime we head out to the end (one of the eagles we are tracking hangs out at the very end of the road) its like a thrill ride at an amusement park - simulator or track ride, whichever you prefer - extremely bumpy, ups and downs, big hills, narrow roads, worn bridges, weird sounds (howler monkeys like to scream when the ATVs go by), and add rain, heat and bugs to the equation and you can imagine what it may be like!

One night last week I was invited out by some STRI biologists to do a creek walk along one of the rivers that crosses Pipeline Road. Just for fun, to look for frogs and night creatures. We found a decent assortment of Glass Frogs and their clutches, various species of toads and other tree frogs, Basilisks, night fish, spiders, and heard a Crested Owl and Great Potoos.

Lately I've been heading into Panama City, for various reasons, which is also an interesting experience! Panama City is fairly easy to get around, but takes a bit of planning and figuring out where to go, and being prepared to ask, in Spanish, how to get to places. The bus into Panama City runs fairly regularly from Gamboa, costs 65 cents and takes you to the Albrook Mall terminal, a large, extremely busy (especially now that its christmas time) mall that you can find just about everything in (I've been going there to see movies, too). From the mall terminal, you can get buses to just about anywhere in Panama, and to Costa Rica as well. I find the buses themselves quite amusing... the whole fleet is called the "Diablo Rojo" or "Red Devil", and they are all refurbished and repainted old school buses. Some of them have elaborate exhaust pipes and paint jobs, and they are ALL different. I will get pictures of them soon because they are quite the sight. Taxis are cheap as well and a good way to get around the city if you don't know the bus system (which is what I am still trying to figure out!). I don't think I would attempt to drive in Panama City, especially since most of the cars you see have big dents and broken headlights.

Last weekend I went (with my roommates) to an older area of the city called Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo has some nice squares and little shops, decent food (the ice cream shop is great) and it is right on the Pacific Ocean (though not a good spot to go swimming at). On weekends there are vendors along the "Plaza de Francia" that sell their handmade jewellry and other crafts. So far I've just touched the surface of Panama City, and there are many other places to explore not too far away from Gamboa. I'm looking forward to it!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Little Introduction...

To kick off my blog and give you a recap of why and what I am doing down here, here's my email that I sent out a couple days ago... just copied and pasted...

Well I have been here just over a week now and I think you are all due for an email to fill you in on what I have been up to here in Gamboa, Panama. As most of you know, I am down here for 6 months (till the end of May 2009) working with the Fondo Peregrino-Panama, or the Panama Peregrine Fund, volunteering for their Harpy Eagle Reintroduction Program. Currently, all the harpies have been released into Soberania National Park, so my main duties are to work with the other volunteers here and using radio telemetry, locate and if possible, observe the 8 or so eagles we have tracking equipment on. So far I have seen one harpy... her name is LT and she is an adult female that was released this past summer. Seeing her has definitely been one of the highlights so far. She's gorgeous and apparently is the easiest harpy to get good looks at once yo
u find her, she's quite curious.

All of our work is done in Soberania National Park (more or less), which is surrounding the town of Gamboa (where I am living). Soberania National Park is gorgeous; it is all dense rainforest that is suitable habitat for the eagles. Our main access rout to find the harpies is along the 'famous' Pipeline Road, which is claimed to be one of the best areas in the world for bird-watching and wildlife watching in general. The road is 24 km long, winding and lots of up and down hills as it traverses through the park. Everyday there are tours along the road from the nearby Canopy Tower Lodge and Gamboa Rainforest Resort, as well as other private tours being conducted for visitors to Gamboa. So most days we are out along Pipeline Road and taking side trails to various high points (100-200m or more) to check radio signals on the individual birds. Lately the birds have been difficult to find, they are starting to disperse more now and are harder to get signals from. However, in a few mon
ths I have been told we will be recapturing some of the birds in order to relocate them to larger tracts of forest, likely in Belize.

Being out in Soberania everyday is challenging though! We are hiking sometimes 10 km or more per day, through dense understory, with biting insects, spiky palm trees, and massive inclines and declines, sometimes on a trail, sometimes not! I've been told this placement should be called the "Fondo Peregrino's Weight-Loss/Get-Into-Shape Program" because of the terrain we are working in and the physical demands of us. I am thoroughly enjoying it though!

Right now it is the tail end of the wet season, and for the past week it feels like it has been raining non-stop. Every day we get heavy rains, but in the next couple weeks or so we should be starting to see more of the sun and less of the rain as the dry season starts in December.
I am looking forward to the dry season, although I have already been warned about the abundance of ticks that emerge during the next 6 months or so.

I am living in a small town called Gamboa. It is about 30 km north of Panama City, with daily buses into the city that costs only 65 cents. I have yet to try out the bus system but will need to soon as I am running out of groceries! Just about everything we need we have to get in Panama City. Gamboa is right along the Canal which is pretty neat, and the canal can be seen well from the end of my street. My house is just a few kms from the entrance to Pipeline Road. We have ATVs (only one is working right now but the other 2 will be fixed soon!) to use for getting around when we are working, but everything otherwise is walking distance in town. There is not much here though! Mainly just houses, a small (very small) convenience store, and a massive luxury resort called the Gamboa Rainforest Resort only a few minutes walk from my place. The house I am living in is actually the office for the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre, and they rent out a couple of the rooms for us to live in. Currently, I am living with 2 other Peregrine Fund volunteers (Rigoberto and Yeray) and a volunteer for the nearby zoo down the road (Arun). Mostly everyone speaks Spanish (so my Spanish is undoubtedly going to improve!). I have recently been introduced to a lot of the other biologists living in Gamboa that are affiliated with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (which is just right across the street from me, that's where I go to do my laundry). In fact, there was a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by some STRI folks just down my street last night. Big turkey, lots of side dishes, lots of new people to meet, it was great. Unfortunately most of the people I have met so far in Gamboa are leaving in the next few weeks because the wet season is coming to a close (most are frog researchers), but a new group of biologists will be moving in soon for the dry season!

Gamboa Rainforest Resort has some nice facilities, and I am going to inquire about getting a membership, since I'll be here for a while. That way I can use the pool, spa, gym and other facilities they have any time.

The wildlife here is amazing. Since Gamboa is engulfed by Soberania NP, I've seen lots of cool creatures right in my own backyard. I have toucans, aracaris, trogons, chachalacas, amazons, parakeets, tanagers, finches, tamarins, caracaras, kites, flycatchers, hummingbirds, agoutis and lots more visible right outside my door. Then once you head into the park there is much much more to see as well. I've seen quite a few howler monkeys already (and can hear them sometimes from my house) and saw white-throated capuchins for the first time today. Motmots, antbirds, and manakins are all quite common along Pipeline Road.

Well I hope I've given you some insight into my life for the next 6 months, I will keep you updated and will likely be starting a blog when I have the chance that you all can check regularly. I'll email the link when I get that set up. Feel free to email, my internet access is pretty good here in the house and I try to get on as often as possible. I hope everything is well back in Ontario! Keep me updated on your lives as well, I'd love to hear what everyone is up to.

~ Jenn

OK, I understand that this was more than a 'little' introduction, but there's a lot to say! Future posts will be less lengthly (unless something happens that I just can't keep the little details out)!