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 http://www.vcu.edu/rice/research/research-warbler.html), 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). We are always looking for partners!
|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.|
|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.|
|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 (http://advantagepanama.com/) 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.|
|A distant, blurry shot of a Chesnut-mandibled Toucan|
|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!|
|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 (www.audubonpanama.org/).|
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.