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Panama Stories Part 1: Feeling Antsy

With its ever-changing landscape and an expanse of tropical rainforests, the Central American country of Panama offers visitors and residents the opportunity to travel from a cityscape teaming with wildlife to the crystal blue waters of a Caribbean paradise in little to no time at all. Millions of years before the formation of Panama, North and South America were two distinct landmasses separated by vast ocean waters.  A shift in tectonic plates and the eruption of several underwater volcanoes aided in the construction of a slender land bridge called an isthmus, which joined together the two American continents. This change took place over the course of millions of years, and at its constitution, the isthmus rerouted the global ocean currents that once flowed freely between continents. As a result, the world experienced a transformation in marine habitats and oceanic species were divided between the Pacific and the Atlantic sides.

The land barrier known today as the country of Panama has provided the backdrop for one of the most biologically diverse spaces in the world.  Join me over the next few weeks as we journey together through the rainforests, jungles, and cities of Panama to explore their wildlife and learn more about a diverse ecosystem that could one day provide a cure for some of humanities most serious illnesses.

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

 

It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.

While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation.  Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us.  Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain.  Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface.  I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.

Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities.  Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.

Hitchiking leafcutter ant, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.

As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight.  picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant,  I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.

Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.

As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!

 

 

 

Big Fish, Small Beak

A silvery light shimmered in the distance, and as I turned my head towards it, I encountered the arched neck of a slender Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret is a medium-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, and though the morning sky at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands was shrouded in fog, one could easily make out the white-feathered frame of its magnificent body and the brilliance of its yellow feet. Sandor Havasi and I approached the bird quietly, hoping to capture the moment on film and further investigate the origin of the shimmer. Standing just twenty feet from the Snowy Egret, we watched as the light bounced off of the silver scales of a flat-bodied fish (see image below).

Snowy Egret. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Though the Snowy Egret is very similar in form to its larger cousin, the Great Egret, their hunting styles could not be more different. Great Egrets patiently perch on one foot while stalking their prey, preparing to strike with a single fluid movement. The more animated Snowy Egret, who uses its bright yellow feet to stir up surrounding waters and herd tiny aquatic animals, can be seen continuously plunging its head in the water. On this particular occasion, a few shakes of the foot secured a fish larger than our Egret friend could swallow. I observed a frustrated Egret who repeatedly tossed the fish up in the air, like a spinning coin, and strained to force the meal down the length of its narrow beak. In the end, the fish was too great a match for the Egret and the elegant bird stalked bitterly away from the rocky shoreline where his abandoned meal lay.

The Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California are teeming with wildlife, including some of the most spectacular avian species I have ever seen.  In addition to the Snowy Egret mentioned above, we saw Great Blue Herons; who look a lot like small airplanes when their wings are fully extended, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets; who, along with the Snowy Egret, are relatives of the Heron,

and several Caspian Terns who allowed us to photograph them while they were hunting for food.

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret "fishing" with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret “fishing” with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Walking through the neatly-carved paths cut from the bluff’s dense shrubbery, I was amazed by the number of birds, lizards, and small animals that call Bolsa Chica their home. Sandor and I spent close to four hours exploring the wetlands, and as we turned to leave he asked, “How many species do you think you saw today.” My honest response was somewhere near ten, but as he recounted each bird, lizard, squirrel, and rabbit, the number quickly surmounted twenty.  The sheer knowledge that such biodiversity exists in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands has inspired me to look to the skies and the grounds and pay closer attention to what I see.  While some of you may have the chance to see Bolsa Chica in your lifetimes, many of our readers are spread across the world, and will not have the opportunity to get there. The truth is that you do not need to travel to a wetland to connect with nature, because the wild is happening all around us. The connectedness that I experienced when exploring my local watershed, can be shared by everyone, no matter their global location.  We, at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, urge you to get outside and explore the world. Peel your eyes away from the phones, laptops, and tablets that have your attention throughout the day, and instead, open your eyes to the wildlife around you. Pull out those headphones or earbuds and listen to the sounds of the wild- it is, after all, a soundtrack that is 4.54 billion years in the making.

In the wake of accelerated environmental changes, nations around the globe are participating in movements that encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Equipped with the knowledge that the safety and conservation of the human environment is a major issue, which affects the welfare of global inhabitants and economic growth throughout the world, the United Nations designated the 5th of June as World Environment Day. To celebrate this day, individuals were invited to get outside, connect with nature, and explore the world around them. This year’s theme for World Environment Day 2017 was “Connecting People to Nature,” and the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is proud to share this message with the world.

This year, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation spent World Environment Day exploring the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California.

 

 

 

Birds of a Feather

On May 25, 2017­, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation had the great pleasure of speaking at the Ventura County Bird Club’s monthly meeting. As we walked through the doors of the Ventura Moose Lodge, we met a friendly Cockatoo who greeted us with quick “Hello.”  A regal looking Blue-and-yellow Macaw, an African Grey Parrot, and another lively black-and-white Cockatoo rounded out the list of birds in attendance. While happy squawks and avian chatter filled the air, attendees signed raffle tickets for a chance to win packaged walnuts, a bird swing, or one of two large wooden ladders that were sprawled out on a table at the front of the room. Some birds clung to their humans and nibbled at their necks, as others paced around the folding tables searching for vegetable scraps and putting on a show for anyone who would watch.

Mr. Havasi took the stage to present on three of Southern California’s prime bird watching spots: Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica.  Audience members and our new bird friends listened attentively as he described his encounters with avian wildlife populations locally and globally.

LOTUSLAND

Located in the hills of Montecito, Lotusland was founded by the renowned Polish opera singer and socialite, Madame Ganna Walska, in 1941.  It took the Walska family over 43 years to turn Lotusland into one of the ten best gardens in the world. Today, the Lotusland estate grounds contain several distinct gardens that incorporate bromeliads, succulents, butterflies, ferns, Japanese flowers and orchards into their landscape design. Lotusland’s diverse landscape makes it an ideal habitat for several astonishing birds, including the Anna’s Hummingbird and the House Finch pictured below.

Anna's Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Anna’s Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

 House Finch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi


House Finch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

 

LAKE CASITAS

Just north of Ventura, Lake Casitas was once a sizeable reservoir that formed following the damming of several branches of the Ventura River. The long-standing California drought has significantly affected water levels and though last years rains were significant, the lake is close to the lowest it has been in decades. In spite of the drought, the riparian habitat where the freshwater marsh and reservoir meet, still supports birds like the Great Egret, the American Wigeon, and the Great Blue Heron (pictured below) as well as a number of other faunae. The land surrounding the reservoir is privately owned and if developed, many of these majestic creatures would find themselves without a home.

American Wigeons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

American Wigeons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

BOLSA CHICA

In Huntington Beach, California, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are known as a central migratory stop and nesting grounds for many avian species. In fact, nearly half of the birds discovered in the U.S. have been seen in the Huntington Beach area over the past decade. This impressive offering of birds could possibly be attributed to the distinctive moisture level of the surrounding wetlands, which are fed by an ocean and a river so that water is abundant all year long. On past trips to Bolsa Chica, we have encountered such majestic birds as the Black-Necked Stilt, the Black Skimmer, the Long-Billed Curlew, and the Surf Scoter (pictured below). As more people buy homes in the area, shrinking habitats force wild animals into smaller areas which allow predators like coyotes, foxes, and hawks, to find the birds easily.

Black-Necked Stilt. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black-Necked Stilt. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Long-Billed Curlew. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Long-Billed Curlew. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Surf Scoter. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Surf Scoter. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

SUMMARY

As an indicator species, birds offer humans insight into the overall health of our planet. Though the number of birds seen at Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica is impressive, the global loss of wild bird populations remains an imperative environmental concern. Human activity and development have driven many bird populations to the brink of extinction. While wildlife protection agencies have been diligently working to rehabilitate these populations, it is still essential to understand how our actions impact ecosystems. By exploring your local marshlands, lakes, and beaches, you not only have the opportunity to discover the amazing birds that call these environments home but also have the power to make sure that their habitats are protected!

Join us at the Ventura Moose Lodge, 10269 Telephone Road, Ventura, CA on June 29th at 7:00 PM as Marilyn Fordney and Alex Havasi of the Havasi Wilderness Foundation share stories about the wildlife that they encountered on their journey around the world, a National Geographic trip!

 

Migrating Monarchs

What does a flash of orange and black wings in the sky, a chubby white and black and yellow lump on a leaf, a delicate light green translucent jade container with flecks of iridescent gold trim, and a microscopic light green cone on the underside of leaves have to do with one another? If you have ever seen any one of the three then, you have seen one of the unique life stages of a Monarch Butterfly, an intricate and

Monarch Butterflies taking a rest on their long migration. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

fragile California Native Insect. While the different life stages of a Monarch are fascinating, it is the endurance and incredible distances that this lightweight insect travels that is truly astonishing.

 
Monarchs are a common site in California, and if you’ve ever been outside on a bright spring day in a garden surrounded by flowers, you’ve probably seen one of these taking a sip from a flower, hovering and then gracefully floating on and over the wall aimlessly. But in reality these insects have a greater sense of direction than you would expect. Monarchs have been known to travel from Mexico to Canada! Technically it is not the same individual Monarch butterfly to make the entire trip, but each generation of Monarch picks up where the last generation left off. Talk about a family purpose and vision!
 

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Nature Journal: Ice and Elegant Eagles

This past weekend I was able to see an American icon! It wasn’t at the Superbowl or on the streets of Los Angeles, but at a frozen and snow-covered Big Bear Lake I saw the famous bald eagle.

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

The San Bernadino Mountains were perfect that weekend. I was there for a retreat and the snow had built up perfectly. In the early mornings, you could hear the sounds of the ice cracking on the lake and as the day went on little miniature streams broke open in the ice on the lake and flocks of geese and ducks could be seen far off in the distance paddling around in the frigid water. These birds have amazing insulation and feathers which help to keep them warm and allow the water to roll right off their backs. When I stepped outside to get a closer look, I went downward up to my knees suddenly finding myself in three feet of snow! Continue Reading →

Delicate Definition-Breaking Decomposers

 The mushrooms were covering an old stump in their backyard. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

The mushrooms were covering an old stump in their backyard. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

This past week we received a call from some friends who had a nature story to share with us–they had discovered an entire stump full of mushrooms just outside their home! The mushrooms were crowded together, varying in size and stages of growth. While their tan color wasn’t particularly impressive, their sheer number and clustering was fascinating. Seemingly overnight these brown umbrellas had popped up for the world to see.

While mushrooms appear to pop up out of thin air, they actually have really unique ways of becoming a full grown mushroom. Many mushrooms start out underground and pop to the surface only after the “fleshy-fruiting body” is fully developed from the spore. That sounds like a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, so what exactly is a mushroom and how do they work?

First we will have to break it down a bit, a mushroom is a fungus. That means a mushroom is neither a plant nor an animal–it is it’s own unique creature. Scientists commonly describe mushrooms as being composed of a “fleshy body” that spreads spores. What that essentially means is that the mushroom is capable of making more mushrooms without another mushroom (spores = baby mushrooms or mushroom “seeds” if you will). Continue Reading →

Hummingbird’s Health and Hibernation

We are back! Happy New Year everyone, we hope you have been having many nature adventures in our absence. In the past few weeks I know I certainly have had all kinds of nature adventures: being followed by a coyote, stumbling upon some skunks, being buzzed by some hummingbirds and much more. . . But the joy of nature walks and nature stories truly lies in sharing them! Please feel free to share your nature stories with us. You can submit your stories to facebook at: Havasi Wilderness Foundation.

One of our local Santa Barbara Anna's Hummingbird Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

One of our local Santa Barbara Anna’s Hummingbird Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Recently a friend of Havasi Wilderness Foundation observed that where she lived (up north in Oregon) hummingbirds are spotted all year round, much like in our California climate, however these hummingbirds stay even in the winter. Hummingbirds can be spotted even during the snowy months–buzzing about in spite of the frigid temperatures. Now we know that the postal service runs rain or shine, but apparently even certain types of hummingbirds tough it out. But how do they do it? Hummingbirds have such a high metabolism and are so small it seems impossible that they would be able to survive. They don’t have blubber, they don’t have fur, they don’t have those warm downy feathers that many other bird species use to survive winters. They couldn’t possibly hibernate like bears. . . If we see them they must be awake and active. Continue Reading →

Nature Walk: Predator and Prey at Work and at Play

western-gray

Western Gray Squirrels are able to thrive in human impacted environments. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

From the park bench, I could easily watch the two Eastern gray squirrels fake fighting and playing. These squirrels tend to be more solitary and less playful than ground squirrels but these two squirrels were bouncing around as if they could defy gravity. Eastern gray squirrels are actually quite impressive jumpers, and can easily leap up to fifteen feet horizontally and free-fall twenty feet or more. These squirrels have especially thrived in human environments where they have easy access to food (including many decorative plants) and where people feed them.

It was a pleasant little scene and I looked down to check my phone. When I looked up, the scene had changed. The bouncing squirrels had disappeared. Where did they go? I saw one motionless in the dirt and one had scurried even further away from the tree. What had changed? Had it been a territory battle? Continue Reading →

Moth Eaten

I don’t know about you but the fact that the sun sets so early has been confusing my internal clock. I’ve been taking longer to adjust, so several days ago when I got home from work in the dark and clicked on the light switch in the

Moths come in different shapes and sizes

Moths come in different shapes and sizes. Photo Credit: Makena Crowe

kitchen, it took me several minutes to realize something wasn’t right. There was a fluttering and a movement that I don’t normally see inside my house. . . Moths. The kitchen had moths fluttering around, walking on cabinets and sitting on the walls and fridge. I was horrified. I love animals, insects, moths. . . but I really do not like it when they are in my house. And I especially do not like to be surprised.

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Film Review: Before the Flood

“Before the Flood” is more than just another film on climate change. Leonardo DiCaprio guides the viewers through his own personal experience as UN Ambassador of Peace discovering the science behind climate change and its impact on everyday people across the globe. For me, having studied Environmental Science in college the drama of climate change was so commonly talked about that watching this film did not have the sense of novelty that many of the viewers would feel. However, because of my familiarity with the topic I can say that “Before the Flood” addresses many of the issues with climate change that others have avoided and as a whole it provides the most complete and positive collection of science, policy and personal stories I have seen outside of in-class/in-depth discussions between climate scientists.

Oroville Lake in California Before and After

Oroville Lake in California Before and After

Climate change is complicated, and that is one of the first things we learned as Environmental Scientists. Our world is a huge web of cause and effects that we really don’t fully understand. From food chains that exist in our own backyards to the ocean currents and El Nino, our world is so incredibly beautiful, fragile and complex that scientists are still discovering things! And this is true of climate change, there are many factors that can directly speed up climate change. But just because there are so many factors in this incredibly complex system does not mean that humans have no impact on the environment. It also does not mean that we won’t be able to change anything for better (or worse). “Before the Flood” presents this idea by following Leonardo DiCaprio’s travels through Florida, Sumatra, Greenland, Canada, Paris and many other important areas in the world to climate change. For me as a scientist, it was especially powerful to see him visit Greenland and talk with the scientists who work there about the receding ice sheets. It was so extreme of a difference in just five years and was such a first hand glimpse of the changing climate.

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