Sunset at Mt. Totumas, Western Panama

The fight had been going on all day. The Caribbean was not about to give up. It had dominated the Cordillera de Talamanca since last fall. But in early April, the Pacific thought that its turn had come and was pushing hard to bring new weather patterns to these mountains.

The clouds would drift through the forest, bringing on an entirely different feeling to the place.

All morning, the high country to the east had clouds draping over the ridges and peaks, then starting to flow down the Rio Colorado Valley, but the white blanket never entirely made it to the Lodge at Mount Totumas. The Caribbean had lost its oomph. On that day, we had hiked deep into the montane forests, continually watching the changing weather conditions, wondering if the rain would come. First, the sun shone bright, and then clouds would move in. The trees took on a subdued look, soft in color and texture. Then the white blanket would withdraw back up the valley. The shadows grew dark and refined. During those sunny periods, the air had tasted dry, but with that filtered light, it was sweet with moisture. The birds seemed to increase their chorus during those cloudy periods.

In the afternoon, the sky darkened out to the west, rolling clouds moved up the valley but petered out before they reached us. The forest would go from calm, no breeze, to rustling such that we no longer could hear the birds. Then as quickly as it came, things would switch back to tranquil. We never had rain.

Clouds came up the valley from the west, moving as if they would bring rain to the lodge but we mainly had a spectacular dance of white.

Now, the light was fading; the sun had moved far to the west, over the Pacific, beyond our view. But that western body had one final push. Massive cumulonimbus clouds grew to great heights out there. They began to move toward the Rio Colorado but stalled just beyond the ridge in that direction. The thunderheads continued to roll and tower, occasional flashes coming from their interior.

Bird calling diminished except for a three-wattled bellbird that wanted to make sure we hadn’t forgotten him. The night insects tuned up, filling the air with their raspy sounds.  The western sky turned color. Subdued blues became red then pink, fading gradually to black. The definition of the foliage changed, disappearing. The world darkened. The evening howls from the monkeys resonated one last time as they prepared for bed.

I had been standing on the lodge’s deck for more than an hour, mesmerized by the unfolding action. The air was fresh, moist, full of vigor. Life seemed vibrant here. The sounds intense but soft, the light intriguing. This was the tropics in all its glory.

Inside, dinner was coming to the tables, time to leave this world and watch through the large glass panes.

A three-wattled bellbird calls from a high perch as clouds sweep into the area.

On October 23rd 2019 I will be making a presentation on my birding trips to these cloud forests of western Panama. We will meet at the Mountaineers building on Sandpoint Way in Seattle. I will also discuss a new journey I’m planning for April 2020 to this area.  

Additional short essays are available here and here.

An album of bird songs from this forest is available here.

Discovering a Cirque in Mt. Rainer National Park

My Friends disappearing into the fog.

Clouds concealed Sourdough Ridge and filled both valleys. Mark and Karen, two of my hiking companions, became abstract silhouettes though they were only a hundred feet in front of me. Laurie and I caught up with them at the crest where a breeze made it chilly. The four of us stood abreast, …. keep reading in the link.

https://maptia.com/thomasbancroft/stories/feeling-small

Migration of the Rufous Hummingbird

The marsh at Stillwater Wildlife area in Western Washington.

A flash of reddish-orange zipped by and dashed into the bushes at the trail’s edge. A dozen birders had come to Stillwater Wildlife Area on a beautiful early May morning. Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Black-capped Chickadees sang all around, but our concentration was on this flitting glimpse.

“Look, there it’s sitting on top of that branch,” Stewart pointed through a small opening, “a male Rufous Hummingbird.”

The motionless bird stared across the marsh; it then looked one way and the other, totally ignoring our goggling eyes. Quickly, two spotting scopes focused on the male who was searching for possible intruders.

“That’s my first Rufous of the year,” Gordie said. They had only just arrived in the Puget Sound basin, and this one had chosen Stillwater for its breeding territory. He was busy defending this space as well as looking for a prospective mate.

The range of the Rufous Hummingbird determined by modeling eBird data. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Recently, Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology has started to use data collected by birders to understand the distribution and movement patterns of birds throughout the year. The eBird program has been running for more than a decade and now covers the entire globe. Sufficient data have been recorded in North America to allow some fascinating analyses for a few species.

Rufous Hummingbirds take a clockwise migration path on their annual trek. In the spring, they head north from Mexico along the western side of Mexico, through California, and into their breeding range. In the summer and fall, they move south through the Rocky Mountains into Texas and southern Mexico. The distribution map Cornell has produced now provides a finer resolution understanding of this species range.

Also, Cornell created an animation of this hummingbird’s distribution throughout the year. You can watch these little birds begin their northward travels, settle in for breeding, and then head back south. Imagine, a bird whose weight is only a little heavier than a half teaspoon of table salt can do this monumental loop.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/rufhum/abundance-map-weekly

Keep birding and keep entering your sightings into eBird. We have much to learn about the natural world and its fascinating inhabitants.

 

A version of this essay appeared in WOS Newsletter 177: http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews177.pdf

 

Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. eBird Status and Trends. Version: . https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

 

Black Oystercatchers at March Point

Two Black Oystercatchers amble along the shore of Padilla Bay enjoying the last afternoon sun on this winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Two Black Oystercatchers amble along the shore of Padilla Bay enjoying the last afternoon sun on this winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

“Oh, look, two Black Oystercatchers are in the rocks,” Craig said. One bird stood on a seaweed-covered rock a foot above the water. The other waded in the shallows; the gentle swash was only coming an inch up its tarsi. My three buddies and I had been scanning Padilla Bay for 20 minutes, watching the Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneyes, and Buffleheads that were feeding offshore. Our three spotting scopes had been straining to find a loon, murrelet, or grebe while right, almost at our feet, were these two black birds that blended into the rubble in spite of their long red bills.

The Black Oystercatcher rests on one foot along Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Black Oystercatcher rests on one foot along Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Oystercatchers moseyed toward the right. One stopped to bathe in three inches of water, then flew to a small rock where it started to preen. The other ambled around the edge, probing into the debris but without putting much energy into it. They both seemed to be enjoying the late afternoon sun on this 45-degree February day.

Mt. Baker presides over Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt. Baker presides over Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glacier Peak shows among the closer mountains. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glacier Peak shows among the closer mountains. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt. Baker rose in the north above Padilla Bay and had overlooked our journey like a god watching the peasants work. “We should get a picture of the oystercatchers with Mt Baker,” Bruce said. Craig already down on one knee held his phone vertically and was snapping amazing photos. Their red bills glistened while the volcano sparkled in the distance.

“Look, there’s Glacier Peak through the gap,” Craig pointed east across the water. A white pyramid rose above the Douglas firs on the east side of Padilla Bay. “The Peak is way back and only visible in a few places.” We had been discussing all the snow-covered peaks on this cloudless day; my friends knew them while I was working on learning their names.

Our gaze returned to the Oystercatchers who had drifted another dozen yards down the surf’s edge. “Let’s stop at one more place around the point before we head back,” I said. Bruce, Gordie, and I had left Seattle early this morning and birded the Stillaguamish Flats before heading north to meet Craig on Fir Island. Identifying fifty bird species had warmed our souls on this chilly winter day.

 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

(G. Thomas Bancroft)

Water Cascading Through Beverly Creek

The water tumbles down over rocks along Beverly Creek in the Wenatchee National Forest. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The water cascading over rocks along Beverly Creek in the Wenatchee National Forest. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The water cascading down the narrow valley, crashing and tumbling over boulders. Mist hung in the cool air, and the musty smell of fallen leaves and wet conifers filled my nostrils. Beverly Creek, a tributary of the North Fork Teanaway River originates high in the Central Cascades at the edge of Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Light snow covered the high ridges, and recent rain made the forest wet, giving much to fill this little creek. The sounds and smells wrapped around me and I settled to contemplate this watercourse.

Scientists recently released “Climate Science: Special Report,” which concluded, “… based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominate cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.” In late fall, as I sat beside the creek, it was actually cold – low forties – and I wondered how long I could sit before I needed to move to stay warm.

Leaves lined the sides of Beverly Creek as snowmelt and rain contributed to the torrent of water crashing over the rocks. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Leaves lined the sides of Beverly Creek as snowmelt and rain contributed to the torrent of water crashing over the rocks. (G. Thomas Bancroft)Winter snowpack is an essential component of keeping these forests healthy as well as downstream areas. The Teanaway River flows into the Yakima River, and this system is already experiencing water shortages during the summer because of the reduced snows this region has experienced over the last few decades. Allocating water between people, agriculture, and nature is difficult when the amount isn’t sufficient. And this challenge is likely to worsen.

The report also concluded:

Annual trends toward earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States and these trends are expected to continue. Under higher scenarios, and assuming no change to current water resources management, chronic, long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible before the end of this century.”

The state recently protected more than 50,000 acres lower in the Teanaway watershed from additional development because of concerns about water supply. The national forest where I sat, as well as the wilderness upstream, protects additional lands critical to maintaining natural water regimes. Fortunately, Washington State is a leader in combating climate change. During the 2018 Legislative session, our representatives will have the chance to pass legislation that could make Washington a model for how to implementing programs to reduce the release of gases causing climate change while also maintaining a healthy and robust economy.

The double note chip of a Pacific wren caught my attention, and I turned to watch the bird move through a tangle of cedar branches before flying back into the woods. I then rose to walk along the edge of the creek, studying the design of the fallen leaves in the water eddies, some still holding a little yellow color. The water felt cold, not much above freezing. Snowmelt from higher elevations was driving the flow. The crystal clear water should make ideal habitat for aquatic insects. Small fish and American dippers should be along this rivulet. The sounds radiating from the creek filled my heart with hope and resolve. Washington can lead us forward to a solvable solution to this dilemma.

The soft sound of water cascading across rocks filled the air with the sweet sound of fall. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The soft sound of water cascading across rocks filled the air with the sweet sound of fall. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

USGCRP, 2017: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp., doi: 10.7930/J0J964J6.

 

Wood Thrushes Sparing at First Light

The eastern deciduous forest in Western Pennsylvania is full of bird songs in the spring.

The morning fog filled the landscape with a sweet damp smell and dawn had only just started. It was late May in Western Pennsylvania. The eastern deciduous forest surrounded me. A few hemlocks grew on some north-facing slopes, but mostly oaks, cherries and maples dominated the landscape. The gurgling sounds of the stream filled the atmosphere and contributed to the sublime feeling.

I had just rounded a corner when I heard the first morning notes of a Wood Thrush. The flute-like whistle resonated through the forest and immediately a second and then a third began to sing. I stopped my walk to listen and imagined this cinnamon bird with a streaked breast sitting a dozen feet up in a tree proclaiming its territory. Since moving to Seattle, I’ve missed hearing this bird in spring and summer. When I lived in Maryland, I looked forward to its return in late May. One would sing from the oaks just up the street from my house, and I’d listen from my backyard.

 

We often call migratory birds like the Wood Thrush that breed in the United States “our birds,” but is that the right characterization when they spend most of the year farther south. Wood Thrushes winter from southern Mexico south through Panama, spending at least as much time there as they do on the breeding grounds.

In 2009, I was invited to do a Christmas Bird Count in Costa Rica and arrived late at night before the count day. The next morning, we met at 4 AM to begin our search. The first bird we detected was the “pit-pit” call of a Wood Thrush. Later when talking with folks, I thanked them for sharing “their bird” with us in the United States and told them about the thrill I had each spring on hearing them sing.

Although populations of Wood Thrushes are still strong across the northeast, their numbers have decreased by more than 60% since 1966. They are now listed as a species of “Continental Concern” in the 2016 State of North American Birds’ Watch List.

Other birds, including chickadees, titmouse, cardinals, and Carolina wrens began to join the wood thrushes in morning melody. I closed my eyes to take in the beautiful sounds before continuing my walk.

 

The Yellow-breasted Chat at Umtanum Creek

The quaking aspens glowed in the soft light.

The dawn sky was just starting to lighten as I snuck into the quaking aspen grove, trying not to make a sound, to sit and listen to the day’s first chorus of birds. About a mile up the Umtanum Creek from the Yakima River, the tumbling water in the stream and the wind in the aspens were the only sounds present. The hot, dry air had the smell of fresh hay and reminded me of summers on our Pennsylvania farm. The sun wouldn’t rise for another 50 minutes as I settled, leaning against the smooth bark of a young aspen tree to listen and wait.

About ten minutes later, the first squawk happened, and it came from the far side of the grove, too far for me to record the sound well. A yellow-breasted chat had begun its morning song, a mixture of whistles, cackles, screeches, mews, caw notes, chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops. Expecting a mixture of bird songs including Lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, Bewick’s wrens, spotted towhees and maybe some warblers or vireos in addition to the chat, I patiently waited.

The habitat in Umtanum Creek Valley was a mixture of sagebrush, riparian areas, and aspen groves. The wind rustled the leaves and the air was fresh and dry.

After a quarter hour, a bunting sang far in the distance, but nothing other than the chat was nearby. Maybe at that point in early June, all the birds were incubating eggs or caring for young and not that interested in advertising their presences, so I climbed to my feet to walk around the aspen grove and approach the singing chat.

The yellow-breasted chat was on the backside of a large elderberry bush that sat up against the aspen grove, and he was hidden from my view. His song was loud though, raucous and full of variability. Standing in chest high grass, I listened to hear when he repeated individual songs, but I lacked the experience to recognize so many different notes, whistles, and screeches. A song would radiate out from the bush; then a pause happened before the next one jumped out. He reminded me of a person who liked to hear himself talk non-stop; not listening to what anyone else had to say. An hour later, he was still singing and had not made an appearance above the bush. I left to hike up the valley and look for other things in this wild country.

 

Dr. Donald Kroodsma, an expert on bird songs, once answered a question about how he learned so much about songs by saying he listens with his eyes. Here is sonogram movie of 10 minutes of this yellow-breasted chat’s singing. His calls are shown by intense red, and where the sonogram becomes almost white, it is showing the loudest notes. Individual calls, songs, and screeches range from 1,500 kilohertz to almost 15,000 kilohertz. Note the variability of his calls and how he mixes them up in a random order. This chat may be responding to other chats in the distance, or he may simply be singing what he wants. A lazuli bunting and an American goldfinch can be heard in the background and appear on the sonogram.

A Spring Mourning at Magnuson Park

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond's edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond’s edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A light mist hit the window shield as I turned into Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Thick clouds covered the sky, and a light breeze made it chilly, but the birds were singing on this Monday morning a little after dawn. A musical, high pitch-chipping trill came from the alders just as I entered the trail around the ponds. A male junco sat about 5 feet down from the top on a side branch, right beside the trunk of an alder sapling. He’d leaned his head back, opened his bill slightly, and let lose a rapid tempo song. I imagined him saying “Spring is here and this is my territory!”

 

 

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Buffleheads, green-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and pied-billed grebes floated lazily in the still water, slight movements of their bodies causing concentric ripples to spiral out. The buffleheads dove, surfaced, and dove again, searching for food. Each dive was acrobatic as they almost jump up to plunge head first into the water. Even though it was now 7 AM, one great-blue heron still had not woken up. His head held down by his right side for the entire time I watched.

Songs sparrows alternated between their “maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” and “Madge; Madge; Madge pick beetles off; the water’s hot” songs. Several sang simultaneously, not letting the other hog the morning airtime. Numerous red-winged blackbirds perched high in trees or on cattails giving their harsh gurgling trill.

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

 

 

Spring had arrived at last. Migrating yellow-rumped warblers darted everywhere, and even a few frogs croaked from the pond’s edge. Smelling deep, the damp air was fresh and alive, invigorating my soul. New leaves popped out on the tips of branching casting a green glow to the landscape. Time for breakfast and heading to work.

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree Swallows at Wylie Slough

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tree swallows have blue-green back plumage and a black eye mask. Their undersides are white. Note how long the primaries are on this bird, extending to beyond the tail when folded. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A clear sweet high pitch whistle came through the air. It sounded a little like a whine that moved into a gurgle and then to a chirp. The soft sound began again after a short pause. The sun was out and the air cool as I walked along the dike at Wylie Slough in Skagit County. It was only the third week of March, and I was surprised to hear the song of a Tree Swallow at this time in Washington. I scanned the branches for this small insectivores bird. They call from a perch near a possible nesting cavity.

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The white underside of the Tree Swallow shows clearly as this bird grips to a small twig. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An iridescent green streak shot from a branch, its long pointed wings propelling the bird forward. The swallow began to do acrobatic twists and turns as it attempted to catch insects on the wing. The bird flew out over the marsh, only a few feet above the brown vegetation, looped around a dead tree that rose out of the shallow water, twisting to the right and out of sight.

Wylie Slough is near the outlet of a Skagit River branch. A few years ago, this area was restored to tidal wetlands, removing dikes that had allowed part of it to be farmed, reestablishing tidal flow, and creating habitat for salmon and wetland birds. The dike runs several miles through this wetland and provides excellent viewing of the restoring wetlands.

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow giving its high pitch song near a nest box along Wylie Slough in Skagit County, Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The tree swallow flew in past my head, only a dozen feet away, and landed on a dead branch, looking away from me. The bird began to preen its feathers, twisting its head to grab individual feathers with its delicate bill and pull them through, straightening the barbules, making sure the feather functioned properly. The swallow crunched its neck in contortions to preen feathers along its back.

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow peers down from a perch on a dead snag at Wylie Slough along the Skagit River. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A second bird alighted just inches from the first and began to sing softly, a mated pair. A small wooden bird box was attached to the trunk of a red alder 10 feet off the ground. The pair had appropriated this location for a future nest. Several woodpecker holes were in the dead trees, and this pair could choose to use one of them. I left the pair resting on the branch and continued down the dike.

A nesting box hung from another tree at eye level, and I stopped to watch if this one had a prospecting pair. Two minutes later, a swallow swooped low over the open water beyond the tree, twisting a few times, before flying onto a knot above the box. It sat, staring down at me, bending its head to the side as if it wasn’t sure what I was. The bird stayed only a second before dashing off in the opposite direction, but in less than a minute it returned, quickly followed by a second one. One bird flew down from the perch to hang on the side of the box, sticking its head in and out of the hole, but never fully entering the cavity, before it flew out on a foraging trip.

Over the next week or so, many more tree swallows will return to this wetland. The abundant dead trees in the recently flooded fields should be full of woodpecker holes and would provide many places for swallows to nest. If sites are available, tree swallows will nest in dense numbers, just defending the cavity and a small space around it. I stopped to listen to a bird give its high pitch song, thinking that spring is rapidly progressing in Washington. In two days, it will be the spring equinox.

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A tree swallow sits crosswise on a dead branch. The blue-green feathers of its head glisten in the sun and its white breast feathers so their shoft texture. These insectivorous birds use keen eye-sight to catch flying insects. often foraging over wetlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)