………in Panama. I’m just back from a pre-season break for some R&R in Panama. My thanks to Alice and Jayne for keeping you up to date in my absence.
An osprey was the first bird I saw. I arrived in Panama City late at night, opened the hotel curtains next morning to overlook the Panama Canal and lo, what should fly past but an osprey – along with brown pelicans and frigatebirds. It was the first of what must have been 30 or more ospreys I was to see over the next three weeks. It was great to see them and heartening to see so many. There were several in the Canal zone, with others seen on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, especially in the mangrove-lined rivers of Darien Province. Somewhat bizarrely, I even saw one way inland, over rainforest canopy miles away from water, beginning its migration perhaps? In Panama, the ospreys are migrants of the Pandion haliaetus carolinensis (North American) race. They are slightly larger, crown is whiter, chest is whiter with at most scattered streaks and the back and wings are a bit darker than ours here.
The purpose of my trip was to explore and see something of the country and primarily see some of its wildlife, birds in particular, and there’s plenty to go at. In Panama an astounding 978 species have been recorded, more than in the US and Canada combined, which is astonishing number for such a small country of only 78,200 sq Km (compared to Uk at 130,395 sq km). I managed to see 375 of them in three weeks.
Many of the birds are just simply spectacular and unbelievably colourful, with names to match, like Resplendent Quetzal for example which must rank amongst the world most beautiful birds and so aptly named. Also, if you're interested, look up Lovely, Blue and Turquoise Contingas, a trio of riotously coloured birds, but be warned, either dim your screen or put your shaded on to look at these! While you’re at it you might like to see if you can find and listen to the mellifluous song of Black-faced Solitaire, the notes of which have a certain tuning-fork quality to them. What it lacks in the looks department – being a dull sooty black bird – it certainly makes up for it with its wonderful song, sung from cover, deep in the rainforest.
Ospreys apart, there were so many highlights, including some that those of you out there, of a certain age, will know what I mean when I call them “tea-card birds”. In the days before all the David Attenborough series, the Discovery Channel and the wonderful plethora of wildlife programming on television these days, as a child, the first, and at the time only insight one got into the wonders of the natural world, were tea cards collected from packets of loose-leaf Brooke Bond tea and assiduously glued into presentation booklets – remember those? It was all we had in those days. They featured birds, butterflies and endangered animals etc. I collected these and can, to this day, in my mind’s eye conjure up many of those early exciting and beguiling images of some of the worlds most iconic species. (I still have the booklets somewhere – might be worth a mint nowadays!). Anyway, they featured birds like Cock-of-the Rock, Kakapo and Kagu and mammals such as Snow Leopard, Blue Whale and Giant Panda. I’ve subsequently been lucky enough to see some of the creatures featured and on seeing them, instantly recalled them being a tea- card species. So it was in Panama. Walking along a trail through rain forest along a stream edge, I stumbled across not one but two Sunbitterns – a tea-card bird and a species that I have wanted to see ever since, as a boy, I pulled the card from the packet of tea. These spectacular birds belong to a single-species bird family and it’s a lifetime’s quest of mine to see at least a representative of all the world’s bird families, of which there are 176 (in the reference I’m using), so finally seeing a Sunbittern was double the excitement.
Another hope of the trip was to see Harpy Eagle – Panama’s national bird. Not a tea- card bird as such but an iconic bird of prey, sadly now quite rare, and again one that I’ve longed to see since childhood on account of it being the most powerful bird of prey in the world. Some of you will think me a heretic to say so, but though we are in awe of the power and rapaciousness of the osprey, equipped as they are with those long, strong talons and flesh-tearing beak, an osprey is but a pussycat compared to a Harpy. Compare some stats. A female osprey has a wing span of between 470-518mm and weighs between 1.21-2.05kg. In comparison, a female Harpy Eagle has a wing span of between 583-626mm and weighs-in between 6kg and a monstrous 9kg! They are immensely powerful raptors with legs “as thick as a man’s wrist and feet the size of man’s hand” with talons of 7cm in length. These formidable weapons can bring to bear a crushing force of 50kg used by the Harpy to catch and kill monkeys and sloths. They are able to carry pieces of prey to their nests weighing 4kg. A bit of a whopper, or what?
Harpy Eagle has disappeared from much of its former range and is “all but extinct” in most Central American countries, but persisting at low densities elsewhere in South America. In Panama, the only likely place to have a chance to see one is in Darien Province, on the Pacific coast towards the Columbian border. It proved a challenge and a bit of an epic, but I was lucky enough to see one. But had I not, it would have been a fantastic adventure anyway. A group of four of us were taken deep into the rainforest, by three guides, amongst them a man from the Embera Indian community, tapping in to his local knowledge to help us find Harpy. We headed up the coast in a motorised wooden boat, into a mangrove-lined river and upstream as far into the jungle as we could reach, to the Embera village. From here we trekked though the rainforest for 3 hours at quite a pace in order to get to where we needed to be, and then trek back for 3 hours, to be out of the forest before dark. It was in the middle of the day, very hot at about 30 degrees and the stifling humidity must have been 80%+. It was trudge, more like a route-march and if I’m honest, a wee bit scary. This sort of habitat is home to some of the world’s most venomous snakes like Fer-de Lance and the evil Bushmaster – the largest, most venomous and aggressive viper in the world, a real nasty piece of work. All this though, added to the tension and excitement, giving added edge to our quest (I must be bonkers!). Anyway, after three hours of trudging, our Indian guide, told us to wait on the trail (we weren’t going to go anywhere without him!), as he headed off to search for the Harpy. After about 10 minutes we heard him call, beckoning us into the forest. We wandered in and found him at the base of a colossal kapok tree and with a broad grin on his face, he pointed upwards and there was a Harpy Eagle high-up on branch looking down at us. WOW! It was mega, a very special moment indeed. It was about 50ft up and once the telescope was set up we had fantastic views of this awesome bird. It was an immature bird, just beginning to develop the characteristic chest band.
How did he find it? With great knowledge and skill of course, but the bird's habits help. Harpy Eagles are slow breeders, breeding only once in two, sometimes three years. It takes 6 months for the young to fledge and then they generally remain within 150m of the nest for another 10 months. The immature bird we saw, had been fledged for over a year, yet our Embera guide knew where to search for it.
It was an altogether completely thrilling experience, never to be forgotten. The trek back out of the forest was less pressured and thankfully more leisurely and just before dark we arrived back at the Embera village. We stayed here overnight, sleeping on a raised wooded deck beneath a canopy of palm fronds. It had been an exhausting day> Never before had I worked so hard to see a bird, but to drift off to sleep to the eerie, haunting wails of potoos and the calls of nightjars all added to the days magic. Next day we awoke to the crowing of the village cockerels and the waft of wood smoke and the dawn chorus of the surrounding rainforest. Once the tide enabled us to depart, we bade farewell to our delightful Embera hosts and headed off.
There are parallels to be drawn from this experience, as to the value of wildlife, if not intrinsic, then economic. Research has shown that visitors to the Loch Garten Osprey Centre contribute £1.4m to the local economy of Strathspey, a significant proportion of the even greater figure that wildlife tourism in general brings to the area. The Harpy Eagle is now helping contribute to the local area in the Darien too, in a similar way, though probably not to anything like the same extent, but it helps and it’s a good example of the benefits of wildlife through careful management of wildlife tourism. In times past, forest peoples used to hunt Harpy Eagles, to eat them and for their feathers, a totem of the bird’s strength and power - but providing only a one-off and unsustainable benefit. With greater understanding of the ecology of Harpy Eagles has come the realisation that with a bird that is a fixture in its nest for 6 months and then reliably found nearby for a further 10 months after fledging, coupled with an increasing desire in people to see this magnificent bird, why eat it and get the one-off benefit when taking people to see virtually all year, can yield sustained benefits? Taking people to see this bird, as we were, helps provide employment and income for guides, and a proportion of the costs involved are contributed to the forest community, the eagles are left to thrive and their habitat conserved. A win-win, how brilliant is that?
Well it’s March now and the osprey season looms. Which ospreys will come back? How will the season unfold? It’s time to strap yourselves in for the journey ahead. It could all go smoothly, it could get a bit bumpy at times or we could hit major turbulence. Whatever the outcome, I'm sure it’ll prove exciting and intriguing.
Preparations have begun, in the run up to opening the Osprey Centre on 1st April. Firstly though, let me introduce you to Osprey Team 2011. Caroline from last year is returning, arriving this weekend ahead of the in-coming new team members Abbi, Charlotte, Stephanie and Stuart. It will be they who’ll be guiding you through the season via the blog or else meeting & greeting you in person if you’re coming to see us this summer – and we hope you do. The Two Julies are returning to work in the shop and we are virtually fully booked with volunteers, with many “old lags” returning, but we also look forward to welcoming some newcomers too, some of you amongst them. We look forward to meeting you.
The next month is a very busy and hectic one for us as we crank-up the season, so please bear with us when awaiting news. I assure you we’ll keep you informed as and when we can. The cameras will be installed towards the end of March, with live images from the nest enabling you to anticipate the osprey’s arrival. In my absence, I gather there have been some problems with the feeder-cam, now resolved though a somewhat blurry image. We'll sort this if we can but we'll be switching the live-streaming feed to the osprey nest camera in a week or two anyway.
Meantime Jayne has checked and up-dated the data for Rothes, she is still on Ilha de Unhocomozinho island. Will she make a move sometime soon? If she is to, it must surely be soon.
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