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!