Friday, May 31, 2013

Coiba Island

Welcome to Coiba Island!!! I hope you enjoy today's trip to one of the wilder places on this planet.  So get your mud boots on and let's trudge our way around the island.  Keep an eye out for crocs!
Lance-tailed Manakin-my Spark bird
As I write this post, I am planning for my Guatemala trip. I'll be leaving in several days for a month and look forward to the many new discoveries! Today's post is about birder safety in Panama and how it changed the course of our trip.....which led us to Coiba Island National Park!  If you've missed the past two posts on birding in Panama City or Gamboa, just click on their names to catch up.
Non-breeding Lance-tailed Manakin
Panama is truly a remarkable country in that a birder can go almost anywhere without too many safety concerns.  But I am one for a little adventure and wanted to try out the Darien Gap along the Colombian and Panama border.  It is here that you will find the Panamerican Highway abruptly stops.
Bare-throated Tiger Heron
It is also in the Darien Gap that you will find the incredible Harpy Eagle!  The Gap is 100 square miles of unexplored rain forest protected by swampy lands. Now add that with the drug traffic, Indian tribes fighting against military troops, and several other things like tropical diseases(malaria, etc) and you'll understand why this area is off limits in many parts. It is highly recommended that if you are interested in birding several areas towards the northern part of the Gap that you go with a group to the science outposts within patrolled ranger areas.  DO NOT go alone. Many adventurous people have been kidnapped or killed because they refused to listen to the government's warnings.  But it's also for that reason, this area has remained largely intact for wildlife. In this particular case, the wildlife benefits from humanity's thirst for violence keeping this zone safe....for now.  I believe for this reason alone, the Harpy Eagle has not gone extinct entirely from the Central American region.   Although as many of us know, the threat of poaching is ever present. However, with the fear of getting shot or killed, the Darien Gap has been largely left alone.  There are actually several sites that are safe to visit in the northern areas, but because of the rainy season, we would be trapped for most of it in a cabin. There are costs with these kinds of trips and as a team, we felt that it was too expensive for this confined area. So we had to make an alternative plan that would get us the most "bang for our buck"......which lead us to the incredible island of Coiba! Surprisingly, this once dangerous island had a similar history not so long ago.
Juvenile Yellow-headed Caracara
We searched other National Parks around Panama.  Coiba Island sounded like a tropical paradise! In fact it was man who indirectly kept the wildlife and forest safe.  A penal colony was placed on the island for many years in the early 20th century.  Only the worst prisoners were sent here on a tiny patch of land watched over by the Panamanian guard. Of course, the island wasn't exclusive to just the worst criminals.  If one disagreed with the government during this time period, he found himself on Coiba as well. Around the early part of 2006, the last of the prisoners were moved elsewhere and the prison shut down.  Consider it to be America's version of Alcatraz.  Unfortunately many prisoners "disappeared" on the island.  We were told stories by one former prisoner(who still remains- don't worry, he's safe:) that guards would make prisoners climb up the palm trees and shoot them.
American Oystercatcher
And occasionally people with yachts or sailboats would find themselves dead if they navigated too close to the island. Prisoners tried to escape all the time. Most never succeeded. If they escaped the small jail area into the forest, the critters would eat them alive. With Coiba island's reputation, people stayed away.  As a result, the island has maintained its primary rain forest with all of its endemic species intact!  This includes one of Panama's last wild flocks of Scarlet Macaws.  It also has the beautiful Coiba Spinetail!  A bird found nowhere else in the world! 18 sub-species of birds live on this island alone!
Black Vulture
We had a fantastic guide by the name of Javier who really got us into the birding fun. Coiba Island is not a place of comfort.  It is humid and muddy during the summer months.  Javier would tell us stories about several birders who had a terrible experience because they weren't physically prepared for the trip.  Most of them came to see the last colony of Scarlet Macaws that fly here. One particular birder, an older gentleman, had a hard time getting in and out of the boat.  While trying to get out, he dropped his expensive camera into the water!!!  And then he went in!!!  Javier pulled him up out of the water, but the camera.....well that was another story.  If you go, protect your gear with a waterproof bag.  The boat ride alone is bumpy and full of splashes. Keep your eyes open for migrating whales and the always present dolphins.  Once you arrive at the island, you'll need to be able to get out of the boat and walk/swim to shore.  Wear swim trunks and water shoes.  Once I arrived on shore, I was astounded by all the crazy birds flying around. Kingfishers, Vultures, Gulls, Tanagers, Herons..........
Magnificent Frigatebird
And yet.....the birds!!!  I sat on the island and counted birds while my friends went scuba diving.  There were hermit crabs everywhere!  They crawled all over the beaches.  So I carefully watched where I stepped and filmed sea birds.
Some of my shots used in this post will be published in a book this summer on UNESCO sites from around the world.  Coiba island just happens to be one of these places.  It's quickly becoming a popular tourist stop.
There is an endemic howler monkey that lives here and an algae that grows around the island that may be a cure to cancer!  The Smithsonian has a research station on Coibita island(a smaller island nearby).  Scientists from all over the world come here to study birds, plants, marine life and many other things.
For once in my life, I discovered monkey footprints on the beach instead of human ones.  It was refreshing!  The island is known for its gnarly vine coverage  over the canopy top.  It's a good sign that you're in primary rain forest.  Pristine.  There's nothing quite like hiking through this foliage.
The animals are not frightened of man.  Javier used his magic bird talk and called them onto branches. It was amazing.
Brown Iguana
I apologize for a post with so many pics, but the place dazzles the mind.  And on difficult days, I need only transport myself here to calm the mind.
The twisty vines of the Coiba jungle
We sweat.  And sweat some more!  I brought my water pack with me and would quickly empty it on the way back down the trails.  Oh and I slipped so many times!!!  The mud was terrible!  Good camera, lots of birds, and super tricky trails led to some frustration on my part:)  I wouldn't mind falling down if it were not for the expensive camera in my hands.  As a result, many of our clothes would be cleaned in the ocean water and let to "dry". There was mud EVERYWHERE!  Many times our clothes wouldn't dry by the time the monsoon rains hit.
While chasing after a Tanager, I almost stepped onto this croc.  Not cool.  Not Tucson.  Not the desert where I live now.   I was so wrapped up in the bird that I forgot to look behind me.  A member from my party called my name and I turned around quickly.  Some choice words came out of my mouth.  Tip to people who encounter an attacking croc on land.  Run zig zag and never in a straight line.  It has to do with the crocs line of sight.  I don't know which is worse....stepping on a rattlesnake or a Saltwater Croc by the name of Tito?
"Tito"-the Saltwater Croc
This birding trek isn't for everyone, but it's the reason why I got into birding.  This is going to be my life now. It's not everyday I get to say that while looking for a Crimson-backed Tanager, I almost stepped on a croc. Or it's not everyday I'm woken up by a Capuchin monkey throwing mangoes at our roof.
As birders, we can all truly appreciate these magical places on our planet.  It's why birding is so much fun.  It's why we do the things we do. We don't know if one day will take us to a garbage dump, a random person's bird feeder, or national park.  It's rather exciting.  Of course it's all for the birds, but I have to admit, it's also about the human experiences that come with the birds.   Many people believe in holidays like Christmas or Easter.  They are often saddened when it all comes to an end.  But what if everyday were like Christmas or Easter?  That's what my life is like now.  The best part is that I don't have to wait for these holidays to arrive because each day is special to me.
Sandwich Terns
Did you know that Sandwich Terns dip their beaks in mustard?  A little bird told me that one;)
All that remains of the Penal Colony today are the cement posts that held up a pier.
I hate humidity.  I don't think I slept one night comfortably on this island.  They had an a/c generator that would turn on at around 9 PM.  It would last until 2 in the morning and then shut off.  Guess who woke up when the humidity returned?:)  And while there were showers, I found the ocean a good way to cool off:)  Afterwards, I'd sit and watch the Bare-throated Tiger Heron dance around on the beach.  It was AWESOME!!!
The now defunct Coiba Penal Colony and the last of her remains
The island is too rough for most of human kind but perfect for all other life. Look at the vast array of blues and greens below. No Starbucks.  No McDonalds.  No cars!  Perfection.
My friends went scuba diving (above) around the gorgeous coral reefs in the area.  What does a birder do?  Why he stayed on the island to count birds of course!!!  They came back to pick me up from a smaller island near the main one.
Have you been to a truly wild place like this?  What was it like? And what was your favorite memory?

Here's another video below.  Over the next several months, I'll be taking Birding is Fun! to the Boquete and Bocas del Toro regions in Panama. If you want to see more from around the state of Arizona and beyond, check out my blog Las Aventuras Until next time!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

1,000,000 &1,500

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Upside Down Vireo

Birding can often have its ups and downs but for the most part birds tend to prefer an upright position.

Some notable exceptions are nuthatches and the Black-and-White Warbler.

On the Spring Bird Count I spotted this acrobatic Yellow-throated Vireo who was eagerly hunting insects. He ended up posing upside down for several seconds, which is something I've never witnessed before.

Yellow-throated Vireo Perched Upside Down

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Birds Attacking Cars

Sometimes birding involves watching rare or unusual birds that we don't get to see all the time.  At other times, it is fun to watch common birds do interesting things.  During the spring male cardinals and robins are very territorial, and so they try to attack and drive off other males—including those they see reflected in car mirrors or windows.  

I've spent a couple hours lately watching a cardinal attacking cars and trucks at a gravel lot in a wooded area that is used mostly in the evenings.  The lot is in the middle of a cardinal territory, so when the cars show up, the male bird spends a lot of time looking for and finding potential rivals in the reflections of the mirrors, windows, and even well-waxed car exteriors.

Here's a slow-mo video of what a cardinal car attack can look like:

It's a lot of fun to watch.  But not perhaps if it is your car and the bird is attacking it every day, and even pooping all over the doors or windows.  What do you do then?

  • Car Cover--The best solution is to buy a car cover and throw it over the entire car so the bird can't find and attack any reflective surfaces.  
  • Move the Car--If you don't want to be bothered with the expense or trouble of putting on a car cover, perhaps you can park elsewhere?  Watch the bird to see how far it is traveling to defend its territory and perhaps you can park farther away where it won't be bothered by the car.  If your car is parked within sight of trees and bushes where it is singing all day, you will be a sure target for car attacks.
  • Cover the windows or mirrors--Watch the bird and see if it is attacking its reflection in the mirror or in the window.  That will tell you which reflective surface you need to make non-reflective.    You can cover side mirrors with plastic grocery bags or windows with a tarp or anything else.  Some folks just rub the mirror (or the window) with a bar of soap--though then you would need to wash off the soap with a rag every time you use the car.  You can also fold the mirrors in towards the car so he can’t see it, that should get him to move along as well.  

If you are lucky, the hormones only make birds do this for a month or two during the breeding season, so it won’t be something you will have to live with forever…just when the weather gets nice, and the birds get busy!  But some birds will have two or even three nests over the breeding season, so it could go on for a several months.

Three Forks of the Owyhee River

Guest post by Jason Talbot, from his recent hiking and birding adventures in eastern Oregon...

What a magical place! The area is named Three Forks because the north fork and middle forks of the Owyhee come together and flow into the main fork of the Owyhee River. It is used mostly as an access point for floaters but also sees a few fishermen. It is also known for one of the best hot springs in the northwest. The hike to the hot springs on the Owyhee River the first evening combined with the hike along the middle fork and through its slot canyon the next day is one of my favorites. The scenery is spectacular!

Three Forks is well known to desert rats but the middle fork seems to be more of a secret. I've never read about it in any hiking guide and I just happened to stumble across it while researching the area. This might be due to the fact that most of the area is private with parcels of BLM scattered throughout. The hot springs are on unposted private property and within the Wild and Scenic River corridor. The middle fork is also on private property and I saw one “no trespassing” sign on a gate three miles from the entrance to the slot but nowhere else so I'd check before you go.
Three Forks Hot Springs
Three Forks is about 30 miles south of Jordan Valley, Oregon. I traveled south from Jordan Valley on the Owyhee Backcountry Byway until I came to Fenwick Ranch Road. The last 14 miles on this decent road is fine as long as it’s dry. The last 1.5 miles into the canyon is steep and would have to be dry for me to attempt coming back up out of the canyon. BLM recommends four-wheel drive but I was comfortable in my two-wheel drive truck. I would not take a car.

There are several places to camp near three forks even though there are no designated campsites. There is a pit toilet but bring your own drinking water. Notice the old road coming down the opposite side of the canyon. It is amazing what our forefathers accomplished. Can you imagine taking a team of horses down that thing?

On the drive out I saw a Loggerhead Shrike which is always a treat. It is known as the “Butcher Bird” because it impales its prey such as lizards and insects on thorns or barbed wire before eating it. It doesn't have talons of the larger birds of prey. I also saw Sage Thrashers,Willet, Lark Sparrows, and a Swainson’s Hawk which I don't see very often along with a Coyote.
Loggerhead Shrike – I took this photo with my camera through a pair of binoculars
The view of Three Forks launch site from the rim before descending into the canyon (above)
The view of the north fork (foreground) and middle fork from the rim – notice the beginning of the middle fork slot.
I left my office in Boise, ID around 2:00pm and arrived close to 6:00pm. It’s about a three hour drive but I took my time checking out the new country. My plan that evening was to check out the hot springs. There is a jeep trail from Three Forks to the hot spring which is 3 miles but I drove a portion of that and parked just before crossing the middle fork because I like my truck. There is a bridge over the north fork but not the middle fork which rarely needs one.

I followed the jeep trail over to the hot springs to find a delightful setting. Several hot springs on both sides of the river but one really stood out. I was amazed by how awesome it was. You first have to cross the river when the river is low enough. This is a low water year so I was able to cross in May in waist deep slow moving water. You are then greeted by a rope to help you climb up to two very nice clear, clean flowing pools. One of the pools is three feet deep and about 95 degrees. It is a quaint setting overlooking the Owyhee river canyon and its waterfalls. There is an old road that comes down to the spring lined by stacked boulders in the steep sections - another masterful feat of architecture that added to the experience. I had the company of an American Dipper that took a dip in the hot spring not ten feet away.

A view of the Owyhee River on my hike to the hot springs.
Three Forks Hot Springs
Views from the hot spring including this American Dipper that kept me company while diving for aquatic insects.
I hiked back to the truck on a beautiful evening and decided to hike 100 yards down the road to the north fork with the remaining half hour of light that I had. I hiked up as far as I could without getting my feet wet. I sat on a cliff above the water and soaked it all in.

Speaking of being soaked, while I was sitting there I noticed some ripples in the water below me. I looked up stream and soon found the source. A Beaver made its way downstream just below me not having the faintest idea that I was ten feet above it. If it would have smacked its tail like they do as a distress signal, I’d be soaked. I continued on the rock until it got dark wondering what creatures were making many of the sounds in the canyon. I recognized the swallows, bats and a very large toad but many sounds escaped me.

The north fork Owyhee River as seen from the bridge.
I rolled out my sleeping bag on the mattress when I got back to the truck. As it got dark, and I mean real dark away from any city lights, I gazed into the heavens seeing ten times the amount of stars I see from my backyard. The Milky Way showed bright as I fell asleep to the loud chorus of frogs and the hoot of a Long-eared Owl in the thicket next to the stream.

Day 2 – Middle Fork of the Owyhee River

Today is the day that I stepped inside a different world seldom visited or known by man. A place that I found while researching a photo I had seen on the internet. A place so beautiful, that it even caught me off-guard even after seeing a couple of my favorite photos that I found to be from this area. This is a section of river that is so spectacular that it will rival the best in any national park plus you get the solitude. Welcome to the Middle Fork of the Owyhee River – the Owyhee Canyonlands at their best!
I began my journey by hiking on the same jeep trail I took to the hot springs. When I got to the saddle I hiked cross-country to the top of the plateau and then upriver three miles to the start of the canyon. The next mile of canyon from the mouth to just past Pole Creek is one of the most breathtaking areas I’ve been. The Rhyolite hoodoos lined the canyon forever. Flowers were blooming, the desert was greening and Violet-green Swallows were everywhere, including a Golden Eagle that lit nearby. A lone Antelope watched as I made my way along the rim as I peered down into the chasm trying to see the river. The pictures speak for themselves.

The confluence of Pole Creek with the Middle Fork Owyhee River
Near the location where I plummeted into the canyon (below)
As I made my way to the first major side canyon I found a way to penetrate the river below. You'll find a grassy steep side hill hat will take you all the way to the bottom through the spires. You'll notice a path at the bottom of the canyon that will take ou to the middle fork and the first place I entered the underworld.
Words cannot express how it feels to be alone in such a remote pristine canyon wading through water and looking up at the spires. The water was very cold but my body soon adapted as I made my way down through the canyon. American Dippers flew up and down the canyon whizzing by my head echoing their loud calls at this rare intruder. I hoped to get to Pole Creek but I knew that was a longshot because I wasn't going to wade through anything over my waist and I knew there were deep pools that I could not get by without swimming. It was just too risky being alone. I soon came to one of those deep pools a few hundred yards in so I turned around for the long journey back to the truck. The canyon really left an impression I will never forget.
By the time I made it back to the truck around 2pm I was worn out and I had an ankle that didn’t feel so well. I had brushed off 3 ticks along my journey including one I found back home. I took off my shoes, ate lunch and packed up with the expectation of driving out a different way to see the Owyhee River Overlook and Pillars of Rome near Rome, OR.

I found one of the photos I was looking for that inspired me to make the trip but the other photo still eluded me - but I knew where it was. It was the entrance into the canyon, three miles away. There were no shortcuts to get into the canyon on the return trip back to the truck like I had hoped. The thought kept crossing my mind that I didn’t finish what I set out to do. Six miles seemed like a long way under my current condition but that thought kept repeating itself that I wasn’t finished. It would make a twenty mile weekend if I decided to pursue the last leg.

I soon found myself lacing up my boots and shaking my head at what a fool I was. The hard work paid off and I was rewarded with the best photo of the trip. I entered through what I called the “guardian pillars” – a dramatic entrance into the canyon and photo I sought. The best photo of all, however, lie just upriver around the corner. All I can say is hard work pays off!

The “Guardian Pillars” as I called them and dramatic entrance into the slot canyon.
My favorite photo of the trip just past the entrance.
The pool that ended my journey!
It was a great end to an awesome trip! Maybe someday I'll return with somebody in the fall and try to make it to the Pole Creek confluence.

Here is a list of birds: May 2-3, 2013 (from Owyhee Backcountry byway to/around Three Forks):

Sage Thrasher Bushtit Say’s Phoebe Golden Eagle Kestrel Swainson’s Hawk Canyon Wren American Dipper Willet (reservoir) Western Kingbird Lark Sparrow Chipping Sparrow Savannah Sparrow Song Sparrow Cassin’s Vireo Black-billed Magpie Lazuli Bunting Yellow- Rumped Warbler Nashville Warbler Meadow Lark Horned Lark Mourning Dove Violet-green Swallows Belted Kingfisher Chukar Long-eared Owl Loggerhead Shrike Violet-green Swallows