You know you wanna

"Baby Boa" by CB Photography on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

I haven’t mentioned much about Peru lately, since my Monday Miscellany went on hiatus over the winter months. I’ve been meaning to revisit the region for a little while now, and thought it would be best to do so while we’re “enjoying” a bit of a cold snap here in Ontario. Rain and wind today, the progression of spring put on hold temporarily while Mother Nature gets the last of winter out of her system. In a week or two activity will pick up outside and I’ll have some trouble keeping up with it all.

To refresh your memory, or in case you’re a new reader, I’ve been invited to join Kolibri Expeditions on an 8-day tour of the Manu region of southeastern Peru, and I’d love for you to join me! The trip will act as a fundraiser to help local communities in developing ecotourism into a viable source of income, which will in turn contribute to conservation of the region as the residents will be less dependent on ecologically-destructive income-earners. You can read a little more about the reasons for the tour at my post from November.

"Moths eating minerals from the mud" by Sarah_and_Iain on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Technically the trip is a birding tour. Although Kolibri does make an effort to include other notable regional interests, such as trips to Machu Picchu, or viewing stops at mammal salt-licks, their focus is primarily on birds. Most of their clients come for the birds, and enjoy the scenery along the way. So you’ll be seeing a lot of birds if you come along.

But you’ll also be traveling with me. I have a rather sneaky suspicion that the pace of the trip is going to be somewhat slowed as I pause to check out this bug, or this frog, or this plant, or this flower, or this fungus, or this… well, you get the idea. I’m not going to have a clue what any of them are, of course. But that won’t stop me from appreciating the incredible diversity that the tropics offers.

Like the lepidopterans above. Those are moths. Yup, moths. Pretty amazing, huh? They’re Green-banded Urania, Urania leilus, diurnal species that are often found sipping minerals from mud or dung.

"butterfly" by kaitlyn_rose on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

More fabulous colours. This one is actually a butterfly. Periander Metalmark, Rhetus periander.

"Leafhopper" by cordyceps on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Or what about this leafhopper? One of the commenters on the photo ID’d it as Membracis foliata.

"Ra" by cordyceps on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Or this planthopper. Another commenter suggested family Derbidae.

"Amblypygia" by cordyceps on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Fans of Harry Potter will recognize this guy as the creepy critter used in the fourth movie to demonstrate the Unforgivable Curses. Also called tailless whip scorpion.

"Frosch" by sprain on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

How about this pointy yellow-green frog?

"Frog on a bog - Manu Park Reserve rainforest " by baronvonhorne on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Or this one wearing racing stripes?

"Vorsicht, Zähne!" by sprain on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Maybe fish are more your thing? Yes, that’s a piranha.

"Common Squirrel Monkey" by Jyrki Hokkanen on Picasa; borrowed through Creative Commons

Mammals, and particular monkeys, should be easily seen. Or at least heard. Common Squirrel Monkey.

"bats" by kaitlyn_rose on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Maybe we’ll even have bats roosting in the eaves of our accommodations.

Moth, probably Idalus herois, taken in Columbia by my friend and moth-guide-coauthor, but wide-ranging. Borrowed without permission. Hope he'll forgive me.

You can bet your boots I’ll be doing some nighttime moth-hunting.

"Fleur autour du lodge" by Veronique Debord on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Interesting plants will receive a closer look.

"pretty waterfall" by kaitlyn_rose on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

And don’t forget the gorgeous scenery.

Bottom line: there’ll be something for everyone, and because you’ll be on my trip, you can be pretty sure we’ll be pausing to look at most of it.

(All the photos in this post, by the way, with the exception of the white-and-yellow moth, were taken in the region we’ll be visiting.)

My departure is November 12, 2010 through Nov 19 (originally scheduled for Nov 13 but moved back a day to accommodate another tour that wanted to depart Nov 20). The cost is $1680 per person (or $1580 if you’re a blogger with an active blog); this covers everything but your personal expenses such as souvenirs and airfare from your local international airport to Lima. It’s a pretty incredible deal for a guided tour, with all the organization taken care of for you and somebody who knows a thing or two about the area to help you with ID. And don’t forget you’ll be getting to go with me! You can read more here about what your fee covers.

"Golden Tanager "Tangara arthus"" by dermoidhome on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons

Gunnar, owner and organizer extraordinaire of Kolibri, suggests putting your name down even if you’re not sure if you’ll go or not yet. You’re not locked in to anything until you’ve sent in a deposit, which you don’t have to do right away. However, signing up for the trip now confirms the departure date on their booking system and makes it more attractive to other potential participants who are looking for a trip with Kolibri. And the more people who come, the cheaper it is for each. Which means this has the potential to benefit you.

So if you’re considering going, even in a “well, it would be nice, but I don’t know what my money will be like, and there’s always the dog, and Susan’s due to have her baby about then, but I’ll think about it” kind of way, send me an email (canadianowlet [at] gmail [dot] com) or leave a comment to let me know, just so we can get you down as a potential participant and make sure the trip’s locked in. You can always back out later if you need to.

Meanwhile, you can go back and read my previous posts here, here and here, with more delicious photos to whet your appetite… :)

Won’t you come and bird with me?

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Jatun Sacha Biological Station guest cabin

Waaaay back in 2002, when I was still in university, I had the fabulous opportunity to visit Ecuador. It was a field course that would count as one credit toward my degree. It happened to be Field Entomology, and although by that time I had already established my primary interest in birds, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the tropics – someplace I had longed to visit. My extremely generous parents covered most of the cost of the trip as part of my university expenses (thanks Mom and Dad!) and off I went for two fantastic weeks. Almost as soon as I was back in Canada I began plotting my return to this amazing ecosystem. Unfortunately, being freelance doesn’t earn one much money, Dan and I just squeak by most months, and so I’ve never had the free cash available to go.

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Rainforest canopy view from ridgetop

A couple of days ago I and a number of other prominent nature bloggers were contacted with a rare chance for a trip to Manu, Peru. Gunnar Engblom, of Kolibri Expeditions Birding Tours and A birding blog by Gunnar Engblom, managed to convince his company to invite bloggers on one of their new tours all-expenses paid as a form of promotion for both the company and the particular tour. I can’t tell you how flattered and honoured I was to be chosen alongside the ranks of some very exceptional nature bloggers! From the moment I read the email I was hooked by the idea.

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Flora at the Jatun Sacha parking lot

The catch? The blogger who goes agrees to blog about the trip before, during, and after the trip. I can guarantee I would have no difficulty doing that. My biggest concern would be  whether I’d have enough space on my camera cards to contain all of the photos I would take! On my trip to Ecuador I took 200 photos. That would be a drop in the bucket these days. My photos from Ecuador are very low-quality – it was my very first digital camera, back in the days when digital was still something of a novelty, and was a measly 1.3 megapixels. I would love to have the opportunity to replace them with better photos.

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Huge tree at Jatun Sacha - not sure what the sign says

Also, the trip needs a minimum enrollment to run. This is the main reason for this post. Yes, I’m selfishly asking my readers if they’d pay for a fabulously amazing birding tour of Peru that they’ll never regret doing so that I can take advantage of this opportunity to go for free. Hey, at least I’m honest about it! :)

The dates are currently flexible with one trip running per month from now till Dec 2010, although it’s first-come first-served and particular months may fill up as other bloggers sign up. My preference would probably be for one of the winter months, Nov-Mar, but I suspect they’ll be the first to be snapped up, since who could imagine a better way to beat the winter blahs than visiting a tropical rainforest and watching colourful birds. My other choice would be a May departure in celebration of my 30th birthday that month. Edit: Gotta be quick! Dec/Jan/Feb 2010 are already snapped up, as are Oct 2009 and Oct 2010.

The trip will be 8 days/7 nights. The tour itinerary is posted here. Cost per individual is $1680. This cost would include all lodging, meals, birding guides (a fabulous resource when traveling to the tropics), local transportation, and in-country flights to and from Lima. Perhaps best of all, they take care of all the booking and arrangements for you – all you have to do is show up and enjoy yourself! The cost would not include airfare to Lima from your hometown, personal expenses, souvenirs, extra bottled water/snacks, etc. If you are a blogger you would get a further $100 off (so $1580 total) in exchange for blogging about/promoting the trip in at least one post. Of the amount you pay, $100 goes directly to improving the local infrastructure for ecotourism (promoting conservation of habitat and biodiversity). Also, if you book an additional trip with Kolibri of 5 days or more, you get a further $100 off of this trip.

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Heliconia along Jatun Sacha trail

Sound tempting? C’mon, you know it does… just think how much fun you would have tromping through the rainforest with me, looking at Purple Honeycreepers, Paradise Tanagers, Band-tailed Manakins, Curl-crested Aracaris, Emperor Tamarins and Giant Otters, a macaw lick, ocelets, tapirs, toucans, parrots, barbets, tanagers, antpittas, and hundreds of other species of birds and mammals and insects and plants you can only imagine. :) I know I don’t have quite the same star power as someone like Kenn Kaufman would on a tour he goes on (let’s be honest: I have none at all) but I’m still a really nice person, and you’d have a great time. Ooo, how’s this for a gimmick – I’ll give you a free signed copy of our moth field guide when it comes out if you sign up! :)

To try to whet your appetite, here are a few additional photos from my trip to Ecuador…

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Rain every day at noon, like clockwork - didn't dampen our enthusiasm

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Fabulous buttressed roots

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An actual cacao pod! The locals harvested these and dried a batch while we were there. The beverege of choice there was hot cocoa.

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A heliconia in the Jatun Sacha parking lot

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The view from Jatun Sacha's canopy tower. That iron railing is only a foot high. We remained secured by safety harness and carabiner at all times.

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Traveling by river boat to a nearby wildlife rescue operation.

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White-throated Toucan at wildlife rescue centre

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Lowland (I think) Tapir at wildlife rescue centre

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Heliconia in Jatun Sacha parking lot

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Blue-and-gold Macaw at wildlife rescue centre

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Free-roaming semi-tame coatimundi at wildlife rescue centre

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Lodge at SierrAzul Cloud Forest Reserve, with beautiful gardens (hosting many hummingbirds) and really nice, comfortable accomodations

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SierrAzul crew bringing in our luggage by pack donkey

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Bromiliads growing on tree trunks - they were everywhere!

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Unknown flowers in cloud forest at SierrAzul

Peering in the pond, part 2: Signs of life

Bubbles

I picked my way across the little patches of grass and stone, the few areas that aren’t submerged, till I reached the point where the water began to deepen. I squatted down on my heels, peered into the water and saw……

….nothing.

At least, not at first. The water looked still and quiet and empty. I can’t say this surprised me a whole lot; if I lived in a pond year-round, I certainly wouldn’t come out of wherever I was spending the winter until the water was a civilized temperature. Some bubbles floating on the surface cast some interesting star-shaped light patterns on the pond bottom, but that was about all I saw.

And then…

Water mite

…a bright red water mite zipped across a little depression in the mud. It was the only one, and it didn’t stay out in the open long enough for me to study it or get a good photo. But it did tell me that things were actually awake in the icy water.

So I carefully studied the pond bottom with a bit more scrutiny than the casual scan I’d given it initially. The first thing I noticed were tiny little organisms moving about suspended in the water column (the short amount of it there was). I couldn’t make out a whole lot of detail on them. As I was considering these, a larger movement caught my eye. I also couldn’t make out enough to say what this was, but it was brown and seemed to have a shiny silver eye.

Sideswimmer aka scud

I tried taking some photos of the creatures in the pond, but it was hard to get a good clear shot while they were swimming around, over and under vegetation and detritus. So I ended up getting a bucket and tall yogurt container from the house and scooping out a few containers’ worth of water and pond muck. I couldn’t tell if I’d gotten the creatures of interest or not, but there was really only one way to find out.

The water was very cloudy for the first little while. Gradually as the evening progressed the silt settled out to the bottom of the bucket, but it was still difficult to see the bottom even by the time I went to bed. I could see the little creatures swimming about in the water column, but not the silver-eyed things. I wondered if maybe I hadn’t scooped any up.

When I got up this morning I was delighted to see that the silt had all cleared and I had in fact caught a number of the silver-eyes. The challenge was then how to get them somewhere where I could study them, since I had six inches of water sitting atop the muddy bottom. I ended up using a turkey baster, which was large enough that I could aim the end over the creature and suck it and a bit of water up and deposit it in a little white measuring cup that would allow me to see more details. I set the cup under a bright lamp and poised my camera, firmly attached to a tripod, directly above so I could get some macro shots.

Sideswimmer aka scud

The silver-eyed creatures resembled tiny shrimp, once I got them out of the muck and against a clean background. Less than 2mm wide and no more than a centimetre long for the largest, they had long antennae and many long legs, and curled their tails under their bodies. They scooted about quickly, on their sides just as often as on their “feet”.

This locomotive habit gives them one of their two common names, “sideswimmers”. Their other name is “scud”, which comes from the Norwegian “skudda”, meaning to push. They’re a type of crustacean, belonging to the same family as crabs, lobsters and shrimp, and in fact are sometimes called “freshwater shrimp”, even though they belong to a different group than the shrimp you eat.

Sideswimmers aka scuds

They come in all sorts of colours: orange, brown, green, and even silver. These individuals are all likely of the same species, despite the colour differences. There are a few different species of sideswimmer around here, representing a range of different aquatic habitats. I suspect these to belong to the genus Hyalella, which are one of the most common groups. They are so common, in fact, that their conspicuous absence is sometimes used as an easy indicator of lake acidification below pH 6.5 (their tolerance limit). In some streams with ample cover and food it’s possible to record up to 10,000 of these little guys in just one square metre. They eat primarly detritus and help to tidy up pond bottoms. They’re also mostly nocturnal, hiding in the mud during the day, which explains why I didn’t see any while I had the bright light suspended over the water to warm it yesterday evening.

Copepod

This is the other creature I saw in the pond. If the scuds are tiny, then it’s itsy-bitsy. Only 2mm long, it’s hard to distinguish much detail without a microscope, which I don’t have. The macro lens on my camera allowed me to get a bit closer, but you still can’t make out much detail.

This is a copepod, another type of crustacean. The name means “oar-foot”, and reflects their use of their long antennae as a means of propulsion. This one belongs to the suborder Cyclopoida, the “cyclops” part of the name referencing their “eyespot” (actually two close together when looked at under high magnification), which is used for detecting light. You can just see the small dark dot at the front of the head. The above individual is a female, identified by the two prominent egg-sacs on either side of the body. When she lays the eggs they drop to the bottom of the pool. Some may hatch right away, but depending on conditions, others may settle into the mud and wait. They can survive long periods of drought, and scientists have even discovered and successfully hatched 300-year-old eggs.

Copepod

I believe this is a male of the same species (although it could be a different species altogether). Males don’t carry the egg sacs and so can look fairly different, particularly when you can’t get a good sense of the whole body shape without a microscope. I’m not sure why the dark upper body; it may be food that it’s ingested recently (the organisms are somewhat transparent and their inner contents can usually be seen fairly easily; for instance, the dark-coloured eggs the female is carrying can clearly be seen through the sacs).

Different species can be either predators of smaller plankton in the water column, or grazers of algae on vegetation or other surfaces. Copepods in general will undertake daily vertical migrations, usually coming to the surface for the night and returning to the bottom during the day.

Flatworm (Turbellaria, genus Hymanella?)

As I was poking around with the turkey baster sucking up little creatures to put in the cup and examine, I spotted something else moving slowly, worm-like, along the top of the mud. I stuck it in the cup with all the rest to have a closer look.

I recognized it right away from my Invertebrate Zoology classes as a member of the group Platyhelminthes, and observed that it was a flatworm, but I couldn’t get much further than that without additional reference. There’s a number of different types of flatworms, many of which have triangular heads. This one didn’t, which helped narrow down the options. I think it may be a member of the genus Hymanella or Phagocata, but who knows, really; my Invert Zoo text is packed away somewhere at the moment, and the other guides I have on hand don’t give enough detail.

Flatworm (Turbellaria, genus Hymanella?)

Flatworms are incredible contortionists. This one went from being stretched out, perhaps nearly a centimetre long but only a millimetre wide, to short and squat, nearly round and almost 3mm across. They don’t actually swim, but rather move on hair-like cilia on their underside. They’re typically predators or scavengers of microorganisms or other protein sources. They don’t have teeth, but instead use an extendable mouthpart that acts as a suction tube to suck fluids from their prey, or ingest small ones whole. One of the neat things about these guys, that you can actually see in the first picture, is their “crossed eyes”. Like with the copepods, these spots are actually simply photo-sensors, used for detecting light. Another cool factoid: they’re regenerative, and if you cut one into multiple pieces, nearly every piece will regenerate into a new complete flatworm.

That seemed to be about it for my haul, and after I’d taken a few pictures I returned everything to the bucket and then took the bucket back out to the pond where I’d gotten it. I’ll go back in a little bit, once the spring peepers start to peep, to see if the fairy shrimp are out yet, and perhaps to look for vertebrate life.

Make a list, check it twice

Making a list

For Christmas, I got a number of books, one of which was Julie Zickefoose‘s new book, Letters From Eden. I read it in just a couple of sittings, and enjoyed every page (some day I wanna be just like Julie!). Another one I got was Good Birders Don’t Wear White. It’s a collection of “essays” by some of the country’s best-known and leading birders and naturalists. There are some good stories and advice in it, but one of them that I thought was a particularly good suggestion was submitted by Julie as well. It’s titled, “Write it down: making a calendar”.

Spring bunny
A bunny in my mom’s garden – photo credit my mom

Many naturalists, and birders especially, are great at keeping track of what they see. Usually, however, it’s in the form of lists. Here I have my backyard list. There is my year list. This one’s my life list. Lists are great because it’s a record of what’s been seen. The more specific the list, the more useful it can be later (for instance, a list for your backyard is more useful than a list for a state or province because it’s more specific to a certain spot; not everything on your state list will be encountered in a given spot in the state). The best lists are those that are accompanied by extra information. Rather than simply being a list of names, more details are attached to each name. For instance, recording the date you first saw a particular species in your backyard, or the location that you saw a certain species in your state.

Green and Leopard frogs

This is the basis to Julie’s suggestion. Keep a calendar of your observations. When you see the first robin of spring, write it down. When the first green frog starts to trill in the swamp, make a note. Record notable observations you have, such as a bluebird feeding babies, or a fox trotting across your backyard. If you do this over the course of a few years you start to get a very precise picture of the timing of nature. You have a great reference to refer to when you want to know when something happens, or where, or even if. There are some great online tools for tracking bird observations, the best perhaps being eBird.com (or eBird.ca for Canadians).

The Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, which I currently volunteer for, has essentially created such a calendar through careful records of observations every day for five years. It’s really interesting to compare arrival dates for species to previous earliest (or latest) dates, or to look at frequency (you actually have numbers to back yourself up when you make the statement, “this is the most bluebirds I’ve ever seen in a spring!”)

Red-winged Blackbird

My mom has lamented recently that she wishes she’d kept a journal or record of her observations. My parents have lived at the same home in the southern Ontario countryside for nearly 30 years. By now my mom has a pretty good idea of when the Red-winged Blackbirds arrive, or when the spring peepers start to sing. But it’s still a general idea when, and there’s no record of whether it’s the same as it was 30 years ago. My parents are planning on moving and were thinking to leave some nature notes, including a species list, for the new owners. Such a calendar would have been a great introduction to the home.

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Look at that great bill! And those out-of-this-world eyes!

I myself have kept a very casual personal journal on some of my birding observations over recent years, going back to 2004. It’s been helpful to refer to for some things, when I saw a certain bird, or took a particular trip. This week, I looked back through it for the date the American Woodcock arrive here. I had been thinking that they should be showing up soon. I had the notion in my head that they start their dusk display flights at the end of February.

Well, I browsed through all my late-February entries, and saw no mention of it. I tried early March in case I’d written it down late. Still nothing. Finally, it twigged that I was a month early, they won’t return till late March. Sure enough, there were the entries, at the end of March.

How disappointing. But at least it saves me from trudging out through the snow at dusk this week looking for birds that aren’t there yet.

(For those who were curious, that leading photo is from a point count survey I did one spring for the bird research station. I had forgotten my pen and notepad, but handily found a bit of charred wood to make notes with; the list washed away in the next rain. Hopefully you’ll have paper available when making your lists.)