Who doesn’t need a shot of color during the mid-winter blah outdoor landscape of white, brown, and gray? After a monotonous week of fog and gray weather, it was time for a visit to the indoor tropical room of Como Conservatory in St. Paul, MN. Each time I go I find a few new species that have taken up residence there.
A rhetorical question to ask on this — National Bird Day. They are colorful, sing some pretty (if repetitive) songs, perform amazing aerial tricks, are delicate, fierce, strong, bold, and relatively easy to find and see. Plus there is an amazing diversity of them. They are all around us and we take them for granted, but the world would be a sad place without them. This day was created to raise awareness of the difficulties many avian species face because of loss of habitat, climate changes that put them out of sync with their food supply, lethal chemical added to their environment, etc. The list of perturbations to their normal existence is long and is taking its toll on their numbers. So to honor the Birds, I showcase some of them taken from this year’s photos (some of which were sadly lost in the masses of photos that I took!).
This year was an amazing time of one adventure after another…as we made up for the Covid isolation period and two years of postponed trips. So many beautiful places, beautiful animals, beautiful landscapes, and amazing people that we met. Here’s a snapshot of the year in review.
(Note: if you’re interested in seeing more and perhaps better photos of any of the activities mentioned below, go to the main page of the blog: https://bybio.wordpress.com and there should be a pull-down menu for the Archives with months and years of the blog listed near the top right of the main page. Just click on the month of interest, and scroll down through the days to see more of what I have summarized here. IPhone and iPad users may have to scroll to the bottom of the main page to see the dialog boxes with the months listed.)
What a pleasant surprise to find an aviary full of colorful, tropical birds just a half-mile walk from the ship in Cartagena in a pleasant oasis under some leafy trees.
Toucans are spectacular birds, primarily because of the huge bill and brightly colored feathers. The extremely light-weight bill makes up 30-50% of the total surface area of the bird, so it plays a significant role in the thermoregulation of the bird — able to dissipate the bird’s body heat in the hot, humid tropical weather.
When we sat down to check our email at the tourist oasis, a pair of Colombian Red Howler Monkeys came down from a roof top to check us out. Their agility in moving through vegetation (or buildings) is enhanced by a long, prehensile tail.
The video below showcases the howling behavior in a territorial male. Look at the quick respiratory movements (especially at the beginning of the video) in his rib cage, as he forces air through the vocal sacs in his throat. (If you are viewing this post in email, you won’t be able to see the video unless you click on the title of the post highlighted in blue).
Imagine hearing a whole troop of these monkeys howling at dawn — it’s LOUD!
The last stop before sailing back to the U.S. — Cartagena, Colombia, a new country to add to my list. Cartagena, the destination of Kathleen Turner’s character in the movie “Romancing the Stone”! As a former Spanish colony dating from the 1500s, its coastal location on the Caribbean Sea made it attractive for traders from Europe en route to the West Indies. But people had been living in the area since about 4000 BC.
And the bird life in this city….nada. Pigeons rule here, nothing else. See the next post for some exotic animal life near the port.
After 10 days of ship travel, at last we reached the entrance to the Panama Canal and our passage to the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. It took almost 12 hours to transit the 50 miles of the canal, through three sets of locks on the Pacific side, into huge Lake Gatun, and then through three sets of locks on the Atlantic side.
I was particularly interested in getting a look at the islands in Lake Gatun, which was formed by damming the Chagras River at a narrow point near its mouth on the Atlantic side (see map below near Gatun locks) back in 1913. When dammed, the river then flooded a once wide valley forming a large lake with just the mountain tops projecting up forming a series of small and large islands in the lake.
This area of Panama receives about 100 inches (i.e., 8 feet!) of rain annually, but almost all comes during the rainy season. During the dry season between December and April, less than 3 inches of rain falls and many of the island streams dry up. The soil becomes so dry, large cracks develop in it. Flowers and insects disappear, trees stop producing fruit, and animals on the island become food limited.
As a result of changes in the forest structure with limited island land surface and the size of the islands themselves, species diversity of animals, and especially birds, is markedly lower than that of intact rainforest on the hillsides of the canal — as you would expect. Researchers have found smaller numbers of under-story bird and mammal species, and there are no large mammalian carnivores to control the herbivore populations. But food is a limiting factor here.
National Geographic produced an interesting video featuring some of the work that has been done on Barro Colorado Island in 2007: Panama Wild — Rainforest of Life. If you like nature videos and want to know more about this area of the world — click on the video below.
Fruit-loving Tanagers, the second largest bird family with almost 400 species, live in the neotropics of the Americas, especially the tropical forests of Costa Rica. On the day we visited our Costa Rican port city, we bussed for a couple of hours from the port to an eco-adventure park featuring canopy walks, trails, waterfalls, zip lines, etc. and were treated to a dazzling display of bird life at the papaya fruit station. The brilliant plumage of these birds is a delight to color-starved North Americans still suffering through “the winter blues”.
Most Tanagers are omnivorous and may eat fruit, seeds, flower parts, nectar, or act like flycatchers hawking insects. Often the bill is specialized for a particular food resource, but in the Costa Rican cloud forest, all of these birds eagerly devoured the papaya.
Bird classification underwent a huge revision with the advent of molecular analysis of bird DNA in the 1990s. As a consequence there are North American birds with Tanager in their name, like the Scarlet Tanager and Western Tanager, which are now placed in the Cardinal family rather than with the other neotropical Tanagers.
Way down on southern Mexico’s Pacific coast is a beautiful little port city of Huatulco (population about 50,000) with huge patches of dry forest on undeveloped hillsides where tropical resident birds and North American migrants congregate in the winter. I would definitely spend more time here too, but our hours off the ship were very limited on this trip (4.5 hours). Just enough time to find our bird guide, Cornelio Ramos Gabriel, and take a quick trip into the dry forest to his own acreage where he is growing plants to reforest a burned area and has a watering hole that attracts the local birds.
Since we couldn’t get into the estuary for a boat tour, we got on the hop-on-hop-off bus to see the sights of Puerto Vallarta. This is a city designed for tourists, with lots of high-rise condos and hotels overlooking premium beachfront. The Malecon (beach boardwalk) is just one of many sites in this city displaying beautiful artwork. This is the “welcome to Puerto Vallarta” sign along the Malecon beachfront.
It takes a while to get out of the city proper on a big bus, but eventually we made it out to the coast road, where there were still more condos and hilltop resorts overlooking beautiful beaches. This particular one featured a flock of Brown Pelicans doing a lot of diving for fish in the shallows. Actually “pelican plopping” would be a more accurate description of their “dives” for the fish.
Once again we tried to visit the estuary located just a mile from where our ship was docked, but weren’t sure they were even open for business if the pandemic had severely impacted tourism at this port. But we did see a few interesting critters while waiting to see if the gates at Estero El Salado would open.
By 10 am. the estuary gates still hadn’t opened so we abandoned those plans and walked on up the street to find some other entertainment. See the next post for what we found instead.