Saturday, February 14, 2015

Of Sinaloa Wrens and Neotropic Cormorants

A short visit from one of my oldest friends from Oregon, Alan Contreras, was a perfect excuse to go birding. We planned to go birding a bit Thursday morning, followed by a small homemade pizza and wine party with a few friends of mine, but a howling gale kicked up, as forecasted, Wednesday night and continued all day Thursday. So we postponed birding until yesterday. Here's Alan on the right, with friends DuWane (you can see his hands), Jack, Manabu, Andrew, and Hal enjoying the pizzas they each made.

Without too much difficulty we found our primary target, this Sinaloa Wren, along the Anza Trail south of the town of Tubac.

This bird is one of only two individuals of this species known to be in the United States at this moment, and the species first occurred in this country just six and a half years ago. Up until then it was known strictly from Mexico, but breeding was known to occur as close as 30 miles from Arizona, and several people suspected it would eventually show up here. The scenario explaining its arrival – as well as its rarity here – is rather easy to surmise, and very closely matches that of Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Rufous-capped Warbler. Each species has its own precise habitat requirements, but all three are common, non-migratory residents in western Mexico well up into northern Sonora where their habitat is continuous but comes to an abrupt stop not far south of the US border. North of there one is met with higher, drier elevations as well as the increasing influence of temperate weather systems. But bits and pieces of their preferred habitats do occur to the north, once you get over that last ridge and drop into the uppermost stretches of the Santa Cruz-Gila River drainage on our side of the border and find yourself in the most protected and well-watered canyons and riparian areas. So when individual birds at that bleeding northern edge of the continuous, appropriate habitat are forced out of their natal territories to go set one up of their own, only to the south will they find more habitat. But they don't know in which direction to disperse, and any that try to wander north will find themselves in uncomfortably open, exposed situations, probably unable to find food or hide from predators. So they probably just have to keep moving. Many of these dispersing birds probably die, but some, perhaps those with just a bit more wanderlust than the average, get lucky and find those pockets of habitat in Arizona.

The first Sinaloa wren was found along Sonoita Creek in Patagonia on August 25, 2008 by Matt Brown and Robin Baxter, and that bird stuck to that territory for at least 15 months. The bird that Alan and I saw yesterday was found by David Stejskal on September 11, 2013, and theoretically could be the same bird that gave up on finding a mate in Patagonia and wandered about 30 miles downstream to its current location. But unless it's singing, most birders would overlook this bird, and it's even possible that four or five are living in obscurity up and down Sonoita Creek and the upper Santa Cruz River.

The second bird known from the United States was found on April 14, 2009 by Diane Touret in Huachuca Canyon, near Sierra Vista. Many birders reported not being able to find it after April 18 that year, and with the Patagonia bird being easier to find, few birders ever returned to Huachuca Canyon. But Ron Beck and friends found one in the same general area on September 2, 2013 – just 9 days before Dave found the one by Tubac. And it should be mentioned that both of these birds were discovered because they were singing. Each could have been there for months (and it only seems obvious that the Huachuca Canyon bird had actually been there, undetected, for the previous 3 years and 4 ½ months), but perhaps the species has a quiet period during the mid-summer months, with an upsurge in singing activity in September.

Bird activity was actually pretty high along the 50-yard stretch of the Santa Cruz River while Alan and I walked back and forth hoping to get good views of the wren. I had birded this spot last April with my friend Anthony Collerton (but missed the wren then), and on the very same power poles then was probably this very same Common Raven who seemed to be uttering what I would refer to as a “song.” Here's my recording of it:

As Alan and I drove back north to Tucson to bird some other areas, I mulled around in my mind what spots might be interesting, and almost at the last minute decided on Sam Lena Park, also known as the Keno Environmental Restoration Project (KERP). It used to be merely an unmarked, unfenced, and untended catchment basin for runoff, and in the late 1990's was a fabulous place for birding. Then the city decided to “improve” it, and while there has been some recovery, access is limited, with fences and warning signs, and it just isn't as attractive as it used to be (plus, it's a 9.5-mile bike ride from home, and back then I owned a car). Nevertheless, there is a lake that is largely visible, and any body of water in the desert has potential. The first surprise as we arrived was the largest group of Neotropic Cormorants I have ever seen in southern Arizona. I counted 70, amongst which was one Double-crested. This appears to be a recent influx, with other eBird reports from the past few weeks mostly being fewer than 30 birds. This is a recent phenomenon that is only three years old – the arrival of dozens of Neotropic Cormorants into the Tucson area during January and February, when they now far outnumber Double-crested Cormorants. A quick check of eBird data for the months of January and February show a few were here in 2010, but in 2009 and 2011 none were reported.

We birded along the edge of the reservoir and the inlet arm, first coming across this pair of Greater Roadrunners. The male seemed to be trying to impress the female with his blue, white, and red postocular skin exposed and engorged with pigments.

We pished and tooted a few times, bringing in Orange-crowned Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Anna's Hummingbirds, a scarce Tucson city-limit Hermit Thrush, and this colorful Cassin's Vireo.

When we returned to the car, the cormorant flock had been joined by this Snowy Egret, a very scarce bird here in the winter, with only three having been spotted on the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Day 14 in SE Peru: Farewell Travel Day

November 7, 2014:

Both of us sorry to leave so soon, Susanne and I are ready for a 6:30 a.m. departure by boat for our day-long ride to Cusco, from where we have a flight to Lima. Once in Lima, I will have a layover plenty long enough for us to have a farewell dinner at the very nice restaurant in the hotel across the street. The only thing we're really looking forward to today is the amazing food there.

This is the dawn view from the overlook right in front of our cabins, looking westward over a large bend in the Madre de Dios River, to a setting full moon.

Our trip takes us back upstream to Boca Colorado, but we're leaving 23 minutes late because they discovered that our boat had a leak and they have to move the motor, hundreds of pounds, to another boat. It's 3 hours and 15 minutes for what took us just over 2 hours going downstream a few days ago. From there we load into a taxi, drive for an hour to another river, get on a boat taxi to the opposite side, and then meet our car and driver from Cusco, who drove six hours overnight to get here this morning on time.

Six hours, no problem (and we've been told it takes that long as well) – we'll have nearly two hours to kill at the Cusco airport. We stop for a half-hour lunch in the town of Quince Mil (Five Thousand, but 5000 what, I wonder). Our only other stop is for a quick potty break and photos of some amazing scenery. I had no idea we'd be passing over a pass at 4750 meters (14,385 feet), or that we'd be going right past the Cordillera de Vilcanota and its peak Ausangate (6,384 meters, 20,945 feet).

But we did have to stop for multiple road construction projects, a turned over bus that was being pulled out of the way by a wrecking crew, and were slowed down by having a Toyota Hiace that traveled uphill like the Engine that Could. Then almost panicking as we drove into the knot of congestion that is Cusco at rush hour, our drivers got lost for about 5 minutes trying to navigate a huge construction zone. We finally pulled up to the airport less than 15 minutes before departure, too late to check our luggage at the counter. We had to race all of our luggage upstairs and through the security zone, which meant giving up our pocket knives (but somehow everything else we had carefully packed away in our checked luggage was ignored), check it in at the departure gate, and we were actually sitting quietly in our seats, heart rates slowly lowering to normal, for nearly ten minutes before the plane pulled away from the gate. There's some more I could go into about our physiological reactions to having been brought from near sea level to such an altitude in just a few hours, but I'll leave it with the sad note that we did not feel so much like enjoying that farewell dinner that we had been looking forward to since breakfast. We forced ourselves to eat something, downed a pisco sour (because we're in Peru), and started thinking about the next adventure.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Day 13 in SE Peru: Parasitic Fungi Everywhere, or Invasion of the Arthropod Body Snatchers

This is my blog from the 13th day from a private tour I led down the Kosñipata Road and the Madre de Dios River in SE Peru from October 25-November 7. We're at Los Amigos Biological Station for our last full day, and this morning a low, heavy overcast seems to be stratified remnants of yesterday's huge storm.

While the theme every day of this trip is natural history – today is somehow the day for Cordyceps and related parasitic/pathogenic fungi. It's something that Susanne is especially interested in, and up until now we've seen very few. But at breakfast Nito shares with us an amazing one he found the previous day. We had talked about it with him, and one of his strong interests is ants. On the leaf he brought in are two tiny ants infected with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, each one having climbed up a tree and grasped on with their jaws so the fungus has an elevated vantage to disperse its spores once the animal has died. They're so small, we're amazed he discovered this, and I have a hard time getting an in-focus photo.

Notice how the fruiting stalk emerges from behind the ant's head.

We're off after breakfast and head down the same trail we took on our first morning; see the blog from two days ago for the full map. This time we complete the loop I had contemplated our doing the first time (in red), but after making some progress, we ended up spending most of the morning along about only 300 meters of the trail, then having to walk fast to get back for lunch. The blue loop is our afternoon hike.

Part of this morning loop isn't really an official trail, and here we had to cross a small dam.

I had fun with melastomes on the first part of the trail. This small tree with odd fruits falling to the forest floor had me confused at first, but then I noticed the leaf venation that always tells you Melastomataceae. This turns out to be Bellucia pentamera, which I had seen in bloom in northern Peru a couple years ago.

This melastome (see the veins?) is Tococa gonoptera, in the same genus as one I saw at Pantiacolla Lodge. Both have the swollen junction of the blade and petiole used by ants as a home (domatia).

And this lovely, common melastome is Miconia nervosa, clearly one that is dispersed by birds if you note the small, juicy fruits. Understory birds that might feed on it include manakins and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers. In the closeup of the flower you sort can see the other characteristic of the family, the jointed anthers.

This may look like a palm from the leaves, but it's not. It's in the genus Asplundia and is in the family Cyclanthaceae. Cyclanths are only very distantly related to palms (both are monocots), but no palm has flowers or fruit anything like this.

Insects are actually not all that abundant in the tropical rain forest, contrary to popular belief. Diversity, on the other hand, is astronomically high. So it's always surprising that I can find a name for anything here. This assassin bug (or corsair, according to Bugguide names) is Rasahus arcuiger.

I don't think there's any hope of getting a name for these tiny gnats dancing above a single leaf next to the trail about head-high, but they were fascinating, constantly bouncing up and down, probably in some kind of mating display.

The diversity and abundance of fungi in the forest here is reflected in so many members of the pleasing fungus beetle family. This is an Erotylus sp.

This jumping spider was on my tripod.

One of my Flickr contacts is studying owlflies (or owl flies, take your pick); he isn't sure of the species of this member of the genus Amoea, but it may be A. iniqua. Owl flies are closely related to antlions. Or is it ant lions?

I've seen this grasshopper, Copiocera sp., only once before.

We found this grasshopper, an Episomacris sp., not too long after Susanne spotted one of the best finds of the day.

As I was getting down and dirty for closeups of a mushroom, I nearly bumped into this same species of grasshopper, but this one was dead and had been long infected with a fungus. It may be Cordyceps acridophila (which means “grasshoppper-loving”), but I don't know yet if we can confirm the species.

So with the introduction from Nito this morning, we had our search image set on these amazing (but probably terrifying from an insect's point of view) mushrooms. This one looks like the fruiting body is coming out of the belly of a beetle larva. Funny thing, though – I don't think we recognized the larva in the field, thinking that the whole thing, so uniform in color, was the mushroom that had broken off the host, still stuck inside the rotting wood. In this photo, the abdominal segments (tergites) of the perpendicular section are pretty obvious, as are the jaws on the head at the top. The white blob is a completely unrelated fungus that happens to be fruiting next to the larva, and the black may be yet another fungus, or perhaps a slime mold.

Then I spotted this coming out of some rotting wood, and Susanne thought it might also be a cordycipitaceous fungus.

Indeed, after carefully breaking apart the wood, I pulled out the entire beetle larva. This one is apparently in the genus Ophiocordyceps. And like the previous one, it emerges from the larva's belly.

Later in the day, we found this Ophiocordyceps australis sticking out of the leaf litter. Careful digging unearthed its victim, a large ant.

Again, like the one Nito found, notice how the stalk emerges from behind the ant's head.

There were lots of “normal” mushrooms too, but my favorites are the delicate-yet-tough members of the huge genus Marasmius. I especially like the pink ones.

Marasmius sp. 1

Marasmius sp. 2

Marasmius sp. 3

This funky mushroom is a Xylaria species.

The “gills” on this Schizophyllum commune are lovely. Susanne tells me this world-wide mushroom typically grows in rotting wood, but it has been found also as a respiratory pathogen in humans.

This is a Cymatoderma species.

A Favolus species.

Finally, we did see some animalia. This female leafwing has a brilliant blue upper side. Phantes Leafwing, Memphis phantes.

This Black-spotted Skink, Mabuya nigropuncata, was sunning on the deck by the dining hall.

I've spent a fair amount of time trying to identify this robber frog (genus Pristimantis), but it's a very tough group. I think the photo shows the flank color and dorsolateral folds that point to P. toftae. But to be sure, relative toe length, belly color, and pattern and color of the rear surface of the thigh should be noted.

The overcast sky gradually cleared over the course of the day, and our afternoon walk past the open skies of the old, overgrown airstrip coincided with good soaring weather. And that's where I barely got this photo of a migrating (or perhaps already arrived, locally wintering) Broad-winged Hawk.

This Red-necked Woodpecker is my only decent bird photo from the day; we spent some time watching a pair at very close range, and it's always a very impressive bird.

A loose group of Brown Titis was foraging and whooping it up right by our cabins.

A mother with her baby.

This is a slime mold, not an animal, but also not even a fungus; it is more closely related to amoebas. In fact, fungi are more closely related to animals. The only similarity to fungi is that it has a phase in its life cycle where it forms spore-bearing fruiting bodies, and this is probably transitioning to that stage from its usual single-cellular life. But if you consider that the Platypus and garter snakes both lay eggs, and that humans and rattlesnakes both bear live young, you'll understand that similarities in reproductive strategies are often only coincidental.

My final find for the day was this Southern Turnip-tailed Gecko, Thecadactylus solimoensis, in my room.