Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Prothonotaries & Panama: Building Conservation Partnerships Across the Americas

This winter, I was fortunate enough to travel to Panama to study the Prothonotary Warbler with a group of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The Prothonotary Warbler is a brilliant yellow bird of the eastern United States, and for those of you that have been to Beidler Forest any time from April through August, you may have caught a glimpse of this bird that has long been called the "canary of the swamp." Like many migratory species, the Prothonotary is absent from our landscape during the winter; instead of hanging around in the cold, these birds fly more than a thousand miles to the balmy tropics of Central and South America. Once there, they prefer to spend their time in coastal mangrove forests ranging from Mexico south to Colombia and Venezuela.

Why Prothonotary Warblers? Other than their beautiful plumage and feisty temperament, this species is a denizen of eastern wetland ecosystems, and even more, is a metaphorical "canary" for the health of these forest types. Prothonotaries prefer to nest over or next to standing water, and subtle changes in water levels (like, for example, altering or withdrawing flow) can affect their success. Equally as important is their food source, which is often the aquatic larvae of many insects, namely mayflies, as well as spiders, caterpillars, and other tasty insects. Put the aspects of its breeding life cycle together, and the Prothonotary emerges as a good indicator of ecosystem health.

Like many birds, though, the Prothonotary is a species of bird causing concern. While their global population is not currently plummeting (like many birds), they have exhibited a slow, long-term decline over the last few decades. This is despite increased funding and protection given in recent years towards wetlands of many kinds in the U.S. A knowledge gap that could (we hope) potentially explain this discrepancy emerges from the fact that we know very little about the migratory and winter habits of this species.

Cue this trip to Panama. Researchers from VCU, Arkansas State, and Ohio State, in conjunction with Audubon efforts here in South Carolina and in Louisiana, have tasked themselves with trying to understand the full life cycle of this bird. Our VCU colleagues have been working with Prothonotaries in Virginia for years (see, and for the past five years have taken a group of students to work in the mangroves of Panama to study this species.

They were gracious enough to invite me along as part of the trip this winter, with the hopes of learning the opportunities and challenges of working in the tropics, as well as get some firsthand experience with this species in the winter. Below is a photographic journey of sorts, which details our work from December 27th - January 9th.

If you're reading this and find yourself wondering "how can I help the Prothonotary Warbler?", feel free to contact me about it ( We are always looking for partners!

Welcome to the mangroves! There were three dominant species of mangrove at both of our study sites. The mangroves pictured above are Black Mangroves - this species was by far the most common at our first field site on the Pacific coast of Panama. This area had very little standing water, but the high water table and recently-finished wet season made for muddy conditions throughout our time there.

How do you catch a small, flying, avian critter? The answer: mist nets. This lightweight netting is hard for birds (and people, believe me) to see, and is strong enough to catch a bird but light enough not to injure it during the process. Birds are extracted from nets and then banded, measured, photographed, and released. Here, some of the students work with a VCU professor to set up nets at our first field site.

There were some Red Mangroves at our first field site, which are easy to identify by their dense tangle of prop roots. In the picture above, you can compare both Black Mangroves (far left and right of photo) and Red Mangroves (middle of photo). Maybe more so than any wetland ecosystem, mangroves are threatened across most their range, oftentimes destroyed or fragmented by coastal development.

On the second day at our first field site, the VCU professors and the Panama Audubon Society arranged for a group of primary school students to join us in the field. This was a real treat for everyone, including the students, who got to learn about our project, watch us band, and even release some birds!

These students are looking at the feathers of a woodcreeper that was captured to learn how we can tell the age and gender of certain species.

This lucky student is taught the proper way to release a banded Prothonotary Warbler.

An important part of the banding process is analyzing a captured bird's feathers. The wear, shape, and color of certain feathers can tell us a bird's age and gender. Other measurements are also taken that offer clues to the health of birds in certain areas and, in turn, allow us to make predictions about the health of their habitat too. It was a great experience to learn from some real Prothonotary experts! 
A male (left) and female Prothonotary Warbler captured at our second field site. Males are always much brighter (especially on the head/crown), and have more extensive white tail spots.

Our banding station at our second field site along the Caribbean coast. The mangroves at this site were more a mix of all three species (Black, Red, and White), and there was much more standing water. Even in knee-high boots, hardly anyone went through the day with dry feet!

An uncommon capture for us at the second field site was this adult male Golden-winged Warbler. Like the Prothonotary, the Golden-winged Warbler migrates to the U.S. to breed, preferring open habitats in the mountains over wetlands.

Our lodging and meal accommodations were terrific. We stayed in a home owned by Advantage Tours Panama owner Guido Berguido ( that bordered the edge of Soberania National Park in Gamboa, Panama. When we weren't in the field, we had a great spot to lounge and bird-watch. I highly recommend Guido and his staff for any guiding needs in Panama!
From left: our chief guide and Advantage Tours Panama owner Guido Berguido, guide and Panama University student Alex, and guide + birder Ovidio. These guys are amazing!

Pictured here (and below) are just a few of the birds that I was able to photograph at Guido's house. This is a beautiful Blue-gray Tanager.

The very dinosaur-like Gray-headed Chachalaca

The left-hand hummingbird is called a White-necked Jacobin. The smaller hummer on the right is a Violet-bellied Hummingbird. Our "lodge" was a great place to watch and photograph (with the right level of patience) hummingbirds.

One of the popular and numerous non-avian sightings was the Central American Agouti. You can liken this rodent  to a tropical version of our house cats (agoutis are native, however). We saw them often, especially in Gamboa, lounging in the yard and crossing the street.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

The great thing about staying in Gamboa is that we were equidistant from both of our study sites, but were also only a few minutes away from one of the best birding sites in central Panama: Pineline Road in Soberania National Park. Here are a few of the birds we found on an afternoon trip there. This is Broad-billed Motmot.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

A distant, blurry shot of a Chesnut-mandibled Toucan

White-tailed Trogon


Non-bird sightings included monkeys, sloths, Leaf-cutter Ants, anteaters, a few species of squirrel, and more. Here is a Three-toes Sloth that actually moved!
Howler Monkey
Silky Anteater curled up sleeping.

On New Year's Eve, our guides took us into the historic location of Panama City (Panama Viejo) for some sight-seeing and dinner. It gave us a great view of the current heart of Panama City as we overlooked the marsh. The bay formed here on the Pacific side of Panama is one of the most important wintering locations for shorebirds in Central America. The Panama Audubon Society played a key role in the protection of this bay (
Almost forgot to mention...apparently there is canal in Panama. We stayed right next to the Panama Canal while in Gamboa, and were able to watch ships move through it every day. Question: how long does it take a ship to traverse the canal? Answer: about 10 hours.
On our last night in Panama, I was invited by my VCU colleagues and the Panama Audubon Society to give a presentation on our work in South Carolina. It was an honor to be a part of this, and I am deeply grateful to Lesley, Cathy, Rosabel, and everyone else for this invitation.

Overall, it was an amazing trip and I am very happy to have been a part of it. It was inspiring to see the work being done for Prothonotaries outside of South Carolina, and I arrived home even more energized to do continue to do our part. We've done some great work and come a long way, but there's still much to do. I hope this trip is just the beginning for us, as we expand into the tropics to help protect the full life cycle of the Prothonotary Warbler and other important neotropical migrating birds.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Educator's Week at Hog Island (by Matt Johnson)

What happens when you mix together the Maine coast, a 300-acre island owned by Audubon, a dozen expert staff, several dedicated volunteers, and 57 science teachers and informal educators? The answer: one of the most exciting and educational camps for adults held anywhere in the country!

This is the best way that I can think of to describe the Educator’s Week camp at Hog Island. Organized and directed by Pete Salmonsahn, the Education Coordinator for Audubon’s Project Puffin (, this five-day camp focuses on reaching educators from around the country who teach kids and young adults about science and the outdoors. Attendees this year ranged from elementary and middle school teachers, to Girl Scout instructors, nature center educators, and Audubon naturalists.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the attendees this summer, and I loved every minute of it. I've been working as the Education Manager at Francis Beidler Forest for about 14 months, and I am so thankful that my Audubon colleagues agreed to send me to this camp.

Below are some of the photos that I took during my stay at Hog Island. I will caption each with a brief description and some details about my favorite parts of the week.

The reason for this post is not only to showcase one of Audubon's most prized assets, but also to let YOU know that there are scholarships available for ANY science educator to attend this camp. Several of the attendees received scholarships that covered half or all of the tuition costs for the week. IF YOU ARE A TEACHER OR INFORMAL EDUCATOR, CONSIDER REGISTERING FOR THIS CAMP IN 2015 - you will not regret it! See more information here: 

            Our view from the dock at the Todd Audubon Sanctuary, looking across the water at Hog Island. Access to Hog Island requires a short ferry ride from the mainland.

 Arriving on the dock at Hog Island. The camps made available each summer are among the oldest and longest-running environmental education camps in the country. The island can accommodate about 80 people at a given time.

 Plaque displayed in the "Fish House" auditorium on Hog Island. The Todd family played the most important role in the designation of the island as an Audubon sanctuary.

Our boat for the week: the Snowgoose III. This vessel took us on two harbor tours, one of which featured the bird that everyone was hoping to glimpse: the Atlantic Puffin. In the background of this photo is the mainland.

On board the Snowgoose IIII for our first voyage off of the island and around Muscongus Bay. Wildlife seen on this trip included Harbor Seals, Osprey, Black Guillemots (neat little relatives of puffins), Common Eiders, and Harbor Porpoises. Binoculars and a camera are helpful, so bring em if you've got em, and sunscreen is a must!

The first afternoon on Hog Island we spent in the intertidal area. We seined for marine critters and found quite a bit of neat organisms. The staff that led our little excursions were amazing - all lifelong educators with incredible knowledge and patience!

 Campers checking the seine for intertidal life.

Our haul from the seine net. Critters included Green and Hermit Crabs, shrimp, sculpin (fish), limpets, and much more!

A hiking trail through the spruce-fir forest on Hog Island. There were several miles of hiking trails, and plenty of time in between programs to explore. I thought that the flexibility of our schedule was great - plenty of programming with built-in breaks.

Sunset at Hog Island. Coming from a South Carolina summer, the weather we had at Hog Island was incredible! Highs in the mid-70s and lows in the low-60s with lots of sunshine.

Our second excursion into Muscongus Bay off the Maine coast. This was an all-day trip to Eastern Egg Rock (the island in this photo), one of the few breeding locations for Atlantic Puffins in the United States! This island is a featured location for Project Puffin, a multi-decade effort to reintroduce this species into its historic breeding range. Not only did we get a very interesting history of this project while on this boat tour, we also got to see puffins!!

Puffins in view! I neglected to bring my nice camera (bad mistake), so all of my images are with my smartphone. So...the small dots on the left-middle of this photo are indeed Atlantic Puffins, with the edge of Eastern Egg Rock in the background. We were lucky enough to see at least 50 puffins that day, plus several other rare/unusual seabirds!

While we did spent a significant chunk of time exploring the island and surrounding area, much of our programming on Hog Island was designed to help us better engage our target audience (aka students, visitors, etc.) regarding environmental issues. Pictured here is Trudy, one of the AMAZING educators that led us through several different mini-workshops during the week. These mini-workshops featured such things as: birds and bird-watching, water/watersheds, geology, photography, wetlands, sensory exploration, arts/crafts, and a whole bunch more.

 A simple, fun craft idea that we learned while on a nature hike one afternoon. This is just reversed tape with natural "items" that were collected while on the hike (leaves, sticks, etc.).

On our last night, we were treated to a lobster cookout, and we had Cream Puff-ins for dessert! The food on Hog Island was incredible. Let me repeat that - the FOOD WAS INCREDIBLE! Not only was every meal delicious, but every meal also featured a vegetarian and gluten-free option. I was so impressed by this, and by all of the volunteers who gave up their time to prepare and clean up from meals.

Leaving Hog Island. It was an incredible five days - a trip that leaves you feeling refreshed and ready to take the environmental message back wherever you're going. Like I mentioned earlier, please consider applying when scholarships become available for camp in 2015!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count - February 14-17

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds!

Participants count birds for a minimum of 15 minutes (or longer) during the four-day period. Participants can count birds for a single day or during all four days of the GBBC. They tally the highest number of birds of each species seen together at any one time. For example, if three robins are spotted in the yard, the count for robins would be three. Later, if a single robin is spotted in the yard, the count for robins would remain at three (most seen at one time) and not increase to four. Once you finish counting, simply visit the GBBC website (, create your FREE account, and submit your checklist.

As the count progresses, anyone with Internet access can explore what is being reported from their own towns or anywhere in the United States and Canada. They can also see how this year's numbers compare with those from previous years. Participants may also send in photographs of the birds they see. This is a tremendous opportunity for teachers to address science, social studies and math standards while helping scientists learn about birds in our hemisphere!

Pileated Woodpeckers - David Youngblood
By knowing where the birds are, scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn much regarding the current state of birds. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

Barred Owls - David Youngblood
The GBBC is a citizen-science project where everybody’s help, no matter how small, is valuable. Help make sure the birds from our community are well-represented in the count. It does not matter whether a report is for five species on a backyard feeder or for 25 species spotted during a day's outing to the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

There are plenty of ways to participate!  You do NOT need to be an expert on birds.

You can find tips here for counting birds, especially large flocks.

There is a poster of some common backyard birds here.


Twitter using #GBBC

If you’re looking for a fun way to get involved, consider joining Audubon staff during our FREE public bird-watching walk on the Sawmill Branch Trail in Summerville, SC on Saturday, February 15th. We will meet in the parking lot for the Sawmill Branch Trail at 8 a.m. and count birds for the GBBC for about two hours. This is a free and easy way to learn more about the birds in your area AND contribute important information for the GBBC!

More details about our public bird-watching walks can be found here:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Longleaf Pine Restoration

On January 14, 2014, staff and volunteers from the the Audubon Center at the Francis Beidler Forest planted longleaf pine seedlings on approximately five acres of land previously growing loblolly pine.  This small planting was a part of a larger project funded by a grant from the Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Global ReLeaf Partnership for Trees, in which approximately 65 acres was converted from loblolly pine to longleaf pine.  Currently, nearly 200 acres of the Francis Beidler Forest is longleaf pine.

In previous blog entries, we have described why we wish to restore the native longleaf pine forest ecosystem and how we manage those longleaf pine stands.

The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem is unique. The longleaf pine is a hardy species resistant to wind, insects, disease and fire, which can subdue its frequently-seen cousins the Loblolly and Slash Pines. The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem developed with fire and it remains healthy as long as it periodically burns. Historically, these fires would have been caused naturally by lightning and allowed to burn slowly through the forest. The result would have been the near elimination of leaf litter and debris and the competition from hardwood tree species. Additionally, longleaf pine seeds fare better on exposed mineral soil, so the next generation of longleaf pines gets its start after a fire clears the forest floor.

The longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem is greatly diminished throughout the Southeast and the total acreage continues to decline. Previously, over 90 million acres supported the unique longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem, while only two million acres remain today. Some reasons for this decline include the suppression of fires, intense logging, a switch to faster growing pines, and the clearing of land for agriculture and development. Not only is the total longleaf pine/wiregrass acreage declining, over 30 species of plant and animals that are associated with that ecosystem are currently listed as threatened or endangered, including the Red-cockaded Woodpecker!

After the logging of the loblolly pines, the site had some remaining debris and emergent hardwood trees killed with herbicide.
Site before burning - Mark Musselman
The site was burned in December to remove debris and competition prior to planting the longleaf pine seedlings.
Site after burning - Mark Musselman
The longleaf pine seedlings, grown in containers at a nursery, arrived packed in moisture-conserving boxes.
Collis Boyd, longleaf and equipment - Mark Musselman

Buckets were used to carry the longleaf pine seedlings into the site.

Dibbles, orange metal tool, were used to open a wedge-shaped cavity in the soil in which to place the seedling. Once the seedling was in the ground, the dibble was placed in the soil behind the seedling and the soil between the dibble and seedling was compressed to seal the seedling in the soil.
Planting seedling - Mark Musselman
Planting seedling - Mark Musselman
 Occasionally, an extra step on the soil was needed to ensure a complete seal within the soil.
Planting seedling - Mark Musselman
 Only the western portion of the site remained to be planted...
Planting seedlings - Mark Musselman
 ...and the light rain made the day more interesting.
Planting seedlings - Mark Musselman
Planting seedlings - Mark Musselman