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.

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