Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Quick Oaxaca Summary

Before I get back to my series of daily blogs from the SE Peru private tour, here’s a quick update from the Oaxaca at Christmastime tour I just finished.

It was a really great group of 8 participants, and the birding, scenery, holiday festivities, and fabulous food made for a wonderful trip. This was my first time leading this particular tour since 2005, up until which time I had led it nine years in a row. It was nice to be back.

We had a very typical count of about 300 species of birds, but the tour was much more than that. We visited some Zapotec and Mixtec ruins, as well as a couple markets, but the main cultural attraction was the Noche de Rábanos (the Night of Radishes) on December 23. Here’s one carved display to give you a hint of what it’s like, but you really have to be there.

Besides birds there were also butterflies. This stunning Glorious Blue-Skipper (Paches loxus) was outside of Tuxtepec.

We were lucky to have a sunny and warm day up at Cerro San Felipe above Oaxaca city to see this Mexican Pine-Satyr (Paramacera xicaque).

Also not far from Tuxtepec was this amazing cycad, one of the largest in the world, Dioon spinulosum. It is endemic to the limestone hills covered in tropical evergreen forest in Veracruz and Oaxaca, with a distribution map essentially identical to that of Sumichrast’s Wren (which we failed to hear or see). The second photo is a close up of the cone releasing the giant seeds.

But this was indeed a birding tour. (If you go to the WINGS website, you'll notice the subtitle "Biding Tours Worldwide," so participants finding this most relaxed of our itineraries to be too intense have little to complain about.) This female Black-crested Coquette was on the Valle Nacional Road, photographed using my iPhone through the spotting scope.

This “Mountain” Northern Pygmy-Owl, tooting at 94 notes/minute was at Cerro San Felipe above Oaxaca.

Red Warbler was a bit elusive our first days, but as we crossed the Sierra Juárez on our way to Tuxtepec they came out in force.

Yesterday, our last day, this Boucard's Wren at Yagul ruins was extremely curious about my playback; I snapped this just before it flew to another cactus for a different perspective.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Day 7 in SE Peru: Farewell Villa Carmen and on to Pantiacolla Lodge

This is the 7th in a series of blogs covering my most recent tour down the Kosñipata Road and the Madre de Dios River in SE Peru from October 25-November 7. For a glimpse into my  more recent activities, check out the blog from the Tucson Valley CBC here:

This Peru blog is a short one, typical of a travel day. I awoke to a major thunderstorm arriving in the wee hours of the morning, but it was a beautiful sound, with close claps and distant rumbling thunder and a steady rain. It lulled me back to sleep as soon as it woke me up. With such a dark and gloomy dawn, there was no hurry to get out in the field, and I enjoyed this view from within my room.

With our boat ride scheduled for the early afternoon, we had time to bird at Villa Carmen for the full morning. The rain ended around breakfast time, and eventually Susanne and I hit the trail, prepared in case it began to rain again. I haven’t uploaded any of my photos to Flickr yet, so this green cicada remains unidentified by my expert contact there. It’s unusual in being entirely green and rather hairy; the broad, very blunt face and very large, wide-spaced eyes are unlike any of the all-green Carineta species I’ve seen.

This is one of those ants you don’t want to sting you; it’s in the subfamily Ponerinae, meaning more or less that it can deliver a powerful sting.

I noticed more prayer plants (family Marantaceae) blooming this trip than usual, so I took the chance to learn them better. I think this one is the genus Calathea.

My one mushroom photo from today is another insect parasite, a Cordyceps or close relative. We dug into the moldering wood and muck but failed to find the dead host, possibly a beetle larva or ant.

Before the rain began again for another few hours we enjoyed one last bird for the morning. Noticing a Razor-billed Curassow dart off the trail just ahead of us, I whistled liked a stranded chick, something that has worked for gallinaceous birds as diverse as Capercaillie and Mountain Quail in the past. This is what happened:

After lunch we had a taxi arranged for us to take us the few kilometers from Villa Carmen to Atalaya, essentially the end of the road and the beginning of the navigable Amazon River via the Upper Madre de Dios (with a minor waterfall or two farther down in Bolivia and Brazil). Our driver knew about the Great Potoo that nested on an open branch right next to the road, probably the same bird and tree as last year.

Then came our three-hour boat ride to Pantiacolla Lodge, above the west bank just on the far side of the bend where the river makes a huge S-curve to go around the imposing Pantiacolla Ridge. We made one quick potty stop on a river island where I picked up a bunch of “beggar ticks.” It is a pea in the genus Desmodium, and the unusual pods break apart into one-seeded segments, each one covered in miniscule hooks like velcro. This time I noticed it in time to grab some of the pretty flowers too – one usually discovers the seeds on the pants and socks much later, never appreciating the whole plant.

We got to Pantiacolla Lodge in time only to enjoy the noisy bird life right around the clearing (the Sulphury Flycatchers were especially vocal) and to begin our planning for the next two full days here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Day 6 in SE Peru: Crossing the Piñipiñi River at Hacienda Villa Carmen Biological Station

This is the 6th in a series of blogs covering my most recent tour down the Kosñipata Road and the Madre de Dios River in SE Peru from October 25-November 7. I’ve been really occupied with organizing the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count – scouting, writing blogs for it (, leading a workshop for Arizona Field Ornithologists, leading a field trip for the Tucson Audubon Paton Center celebration, and so on. But Peru is still on my mind, and I deal with the photos bit by bit every day.

This was Susanne’s and my second of two full days at Villa Carmen, and we were looking forward to exploring the primary forest on the other side of the Piñipiñi River. The flat ground and fertile soils on this side were part of a large working farm (hacienda) until recently, much of which is rapidly returning to rain forest, a little of which is still being farmed. But the steep slopes and shallower soils on the other side have only been farmed for the most valuable trees, and the forest is largely intact.

We first took a short, pre-breakfast walk down to the Pilcopata River, but I got out early and was reminded that Kim Garwood’s group of butterfliers were here. Next to the trail was this Sinois Ruby-eye (Talides sinois) on a spit wad lure. It’s well known among butterfly watchers and collectors that many forest understory skippers, especially crepuscular ones like this, will land on bird dropping to get salts and minerals. At some point, someone discovered that a spit wad of tissue paper mimics a bird dropping well enough to fool these skippers, and not just for a moment; laying a trail of spitwads is a great way to boost your species list. I discovered why it works while hunting for scorpions with my little hand held black light – every bit of white paper very brightly reflects ultraviolet light, including little bits of trash, cigarette butts, etc. And I tied that to the research published on how American Kestrels can hone in on active mouse trails because they see ultraviolet light and that the urea in mouse urine reflects it. So these skippers are darting through the forest understory just looking for anything that stands out, brightly reflecting ultraviolet wavelengths. It might be the urea of a bird dropping or it might be a bit of tissue paper, but they can’t tell the difference.

We stopped at the impoundment below the rooms and dining hall where last month I had discovered a huge patch of heliotrope. All members of the family Boraginaceae contain the alkaloids that are so treasured by clearwings and their relatives for chemical defense and the manufacture of pheromones, but heliotrope seems to be much more attractive than others. The problem is that it grows only in full tropical sun, and nearly all Ithomiines dwell only the shady understory of the forest. Very early morning then is when they can safely come out and take a sip. This Ithomiine is Mazaeus Tigerwing (Mechanitis mazaeus; thanks to Jim Brock for the ID).

Down by the river I heard a very distant short drum of Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and then looked up to coincidentally see this one on a Triplaris tree (probably T. americanus). This well-known tree in the buckwheat family has separate sexes (this is a female with the red-winged fruits) and hosts a very pernicious ant that attacks anything landing on the tree and prunes the ground all around the tree, presumably to reduce competition from other plants. I suspect the woodpecker was eating a few ants before they came out of their holes to attack.

Taken later in the day, here is a close-up of the ants, Pseudomyrmex triplarinus (note the similarity in the specific epithet to the host tree’s genus).

The rest of these photos are just a chronologically sorted sample of the day’s highlights, minus birds. We indeed saw lots of great birds today, including a Rufous-capped Nunlet, Spot-backed Antbirds, and Plain Softtails; I just didn’t get any photos of them.

On our way back to breakfast I stopped for this bug in the familiar family Coreidae; it seems to match closely Euagona diana, sometimes called the bull’s horn leaf-footed bug.

Still before breakfast I came across this Black-fronted Prestonian (Tithorea harmonia), another clearwing relative.

As we gathered our packs for a long day hike, I spotted this Duma Silverpatch (Aides duma) on my doorstep. This was one of only two or three species on my doorstep this entire trip; a month ago we saw somewhere around 10 species on our doorstep each day; the changeover in species and abundance was striking. Interestingly, we didn’t see this species of skipper anywhere on our big butterfly tour last month.

I’m pretty sure this black-spotted stinkbug was among the last photos I took before we arrived at the cable car/ bosun’s chair that the quiet, capable and adorable guide Ediberto operated for us to the other side of the river. I’m not sure why I didn’t take a photo him and the contraption.

Almost immediately Susanne began finding exciting mushrooms, with a deeper, darker forest offering a more humid and undisturbed understory. This very Amanita-like mushroom  (note the ring on the stipe and the volva) appears to be in the little-known genus Leucoagaricus.

At the seeps in the drainages were several of these very shy damselflies, which my friend Dennis Paulson thinks are probably Polythore boliviana; the first is a female, the second a strikingly different male.

There were quite a few different butterflies over here, most of which we didn’t see on our 550+ species tour last month. This is a Salacia Firewing (Catonephele salacia).

It was difficult to capture the color and iridescence in the leaves of this unusually lush plant in the understory. My best guess is that it is in the same family as spiderwort and dayflower, Commelinaceae.

This Ziba Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon ziba) inexplicably found my thumb to be more attractive than the leaf I found it on.

This Heart-spotted Heliconian (Heliconius hecale) quickly honed in on the cross-sectioned Xylaria sp. fungus that Susanne had placed on the leaf. A first for science?

These ants were likely mining the wood on this fallen log for their nest; interestingly, a couple hours later they were gone. The spines on their thorax are very similar to those in the genus Aphaenogaster from Arizona.

These mating metalmarks in the genus Mesosemia are perhaps the most difficult of the genus to identify. There are other species whose females look just like this with the males looking quite different and very colorful, but in this one both males and females are very brown. These are perhaps either M. sirenia or M. judicialis.

Yet another difficult genus; I’ve narrowed down this understory skipper to either Staphylus chlora or S. oeta. Jim Brock’s advice is “good luck.”

I was very excited to see this amazing metalmark and am lucky to have even gotten this horrible photo way out of reach of a normal camera. Notice how the spots within the red blocks are metallic like molten silver droplets. I first photographed this Black-bellied Jewelmark (Anteros formosus) in Costa Rica a few years ago. And when my friend Mary Klinkel asked me to submit my favorite butterfly to her, she responded by painting that photo onto a t-shirt in exquisite detail for me.

Surprise: this Castnia sp. is a moth, despite the filamentous, bulb-tipped antennae.

I saw this Orange-striped Pixie (Melanis marathon) with my group a month ago as well, so it must be a relatively common metalmark.

This widespread and very attractive mushroom is Cookeina speciosa.

I don’t think I had ever seen this skipper, a Copper-headed Bolla (Bolla cupreiceps), and we certainly didn’t have one last month.

On the other hand, I remember at least brief views of a stunning Blue-glossed Skipper (Onophas columbaria) on last month’s tour.

These common, dark hairstreaks along the trailside are a bane for people who like to name things. This one seems to be a very good match for (but might very well not be) Malta Groundstreak (Calycopis malta).

If you know the word “puffball” you’re ahead of most of humanity. This one is apparently in the genus Lycoperdon. I’m still on the steep side of the mushroom learning curve. Update: And to prove this point Susanne points out to me that this puffball is actually in the closely related genus Calvatia.

There are a surprisingly large number of confusing, blue-tinted satyrs in the understory here. This one appears to be Cyan Blue-Satyr (Caeruleuptychia cyanites).

Another moth masquerading as a butterfly: Castnia sp.

While Susanne and I kneeled next to a big, very rotten log to photograph a fungus, this damselfly in the genus Philogenia (one of several possible) landed next to us and began laying eggs into the wet, moldering wood.

Near here we found these fungal fruiting bodies emerging from the wet, decaying undergrowth. They are from a fungus in the genus Cordyceps (or a closely related genus) that parasitizes arthropods, though with this one we didn’t find the host, probably a beetle larva well within the wood. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers on a micro level.

We saw a few grasshoppers on this trail, but very few in this region are readily identifiable. This was an obvious monkey grasshopper, family Eumastacidae, and the genus is probably Pseudomastax.

Pure green in butterflies is a rarity, so this widespread Malachite (Siproeta stelenes) didn’t fail to take our breath away.

I had seen this jokingly-named Ritchie Valens' Skipper (Carrhenes bamba) in Brazil, but it appears to be a rarity in these parts.

This metalmark Aqua-banded Scintillant (Chalodeta theodora) seems to be quite frequent in much of the Amazonian basin.

Without Susanne, I probably would have never known that this Camillea sp. (probably C. patouillardii) is merely a fruiting body of yet another fungus.

Grasshoppers are hard to ID here. This is almost certainly in the subfamily Romaleinae.

Based on the general shape and size of the antennae, I’d guess this one is also a romaleine.

My guess is that this beetle larva is a pleasing fungus beetle, family Erotylidae.

These are a mating pair of the Forest Cracker (Hamadryas chloe), the only member of the large genus that occurs in the forest understory.

This unknown flower seems most likely to be in the family Acanthaceae, but I can’t seem to nail it down to genus.