Some ideas are too good to be true, or else too good to fail. This is one of those stories.
Have you ever met someone you liked at first sight? That rare friend, that when you found yourselves together for the first time there was chemistry and you were friends before you really knew who they were? Getting to know each other was a formality, the cement that held the wall together after the bricks were already laid.
ProAves is like that for me, only they are a non-profit conservation organization and not a single individual. ProAves’ mission is saving the most endangered birds in Colombia, South America. They buy land where remnant populations of critically endangered birds are found and turn it into wildlife reserves where tourists – foreign, Colombian, everyone – can go see them. ProAves is famous for saving the Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) from extinction. They built the Nature Reserve Loros Andinos (Andean Parrots), reforested the land with wax palms where the parrots nest, and conducted public outreach to get the local people on the side of the parrot. But one thing was missing: parrots nest in trees and palms, and ProAves needed climber training to get to the nests.
I found ProAves last year in December on a vacation to Colombia. Colombia is the country with the greatest number of birds on the planet; 20% of all bird species in the world are found in one corner of South America. When I met some of the ProAves team in December 2016 in the fabled Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta I said, “I have to find a way to help this group.” After connecting with the Conservation Director Luis Felipe Barrera by email, we hatched an insane plan: we would teach their guardarecursos (park guards) to climb trees and palm trees so they could work with endangered parrots. And we would write grants to pay for all the gear, the travel, and the expense of the training. That, my friends, is a steep hill to climb.
Consider: Felipe and I had never met face to face. He oversees all of ProAves’ more than 30 reserves and has his hands full. We had no money. I have a full time job already. The odds were stacked against us. It would have been far easier for Felipe to say, “Thanks, but I’m busy, ProAves is doing fine, and you are nuts.” But we did it. Because, like I said, some ideas are too good to fail. Master climber Jamz Luce offered to be co-instructor. We got a grant from Rufford Foundation for endangered parrot conservation. The grant was smaller than we needed, but WesSpur Tree Equipment and New Tribe Tree Climbing Gear made up the difference, because good people do that. We purchased the equipment and shipped it, $3,000 worth, only to lose it all in Miami during Hurricane Irma. Yet somehow, everything worked out in the end.
And so I share the results with you. In September eight park guards and Felipe learned advanced tree climbing methods with all the lost-yet-recovered climbing gear. These park guards have little formal education and no prior technical climbing experience, but they climbed like pros. On the fifth day we gave them the ultimate mission – teach your bosses to climb. One of the best ways to learn is to teach, and in Latin American culture when you are telling your boss what to do it is a really big deal. They nailed it. I am proud beyond words.
Sometimes dreams come true. Some missions are too important to be impossible. On the last day of the course José Gregorio said it like this: “This was not only the best training I have ever had, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I feel like it made me not only a better employee, but a better person.”
Please visit the ProAves website and consider making a donation to save endangered birds in Colombia. Trust me, ProAves is worth it.
Good things happen when good people come together. This training succeeded because of the big hearts at WesSpur, a purveyor of tree climbing equipment located in Bellingham, Washington, and thanks to New Tribe, makers of fine tree climbing gear in Grants Pass, Oregon. The Peregrine Fund, a conservation non-profit that conserves birds of prey around the world, sponsored my time for this project. Co-Instructor Jamz Luce is a special friend to me, and to tree climbers everywhere. You are conservation heroes one and all. Thank you.
Epiphytes. In a single word you just can’t grab all the complexity of life above the forest floor in tropical forests. Epiphytes are those plants that grow on the surface of other plants. They include orchids, ferns, cacti, vines, shrubs, and even other trees. Close your eyes and imagine the raucous greenery growing in a tropical forest. An awful lot of that stuff is made up of epiphytes. They are so abundant and so complex that up in the treetops you basically have a whole other forest growing, double decker style. For more on these wonderful plants and how they add to biodiversity in a rain forest, check out an earlier blog on the topic.
Simply stated, epiphytes add life to the forest. One thing that is less clear is how the forest adds life to epiphytes. These plants can grow hundreds of feet up in the forest. Really! How do they do that? I’d like you to meet Sybil Gotsch, because she studies the snot out of these things and she has the answers. Sybil is a professor at Franklin and Marshall College but her “office” is in the treetops in the fabled Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica.
In case you don’t know, Monteverde is a type of “tropical montane cloud forest.” That means the forest grows on the slopes of mountains that are constantly covered in clouds and mist. Epiphyte density is off the charts in cloud forests. There are about 800 species of epiphytes just in Monteverde (!!!), and it is estimated that 100 square meters of Monteverde cloud forest is home to almost TWO TONS of epiphytes. As much as 35% of all the leaves, and 45% of all the nutrients in the forest canopy, are made up of epiphytes. If you want to study the life of epiphytes, Monteverde is a good place to do it.
One of the riddles that Sybil has answered is just how epiphytes deal with water in the treetops. Think about it for a second. Epiphytes aren’t rooted in the ground and have to get all their water from up in the canopy, where it is windy, sunny, and surviving these near-drought conditions can be a major challenge. One old assumption is that epiphytes absorb water from all the clouds and mist through their leaves. It’s a logical assumption to make for plants that spend half the year immersed in clouds. Well, dang-it, scientists don’t just assume, they ask questions, take names, and kick butt. Sybil has solar-powered weather stations installed in the canopy. She dissects leaves under microscopes. She injects pressurized nitrogen and water into sections of stems to understand the flow of sap. She has an entire crew swinging from ropes, Tarzan style, conducting this research. And Sybil has answers.
Answer #1) All the epiphyte species she studied can and do absorb water directly through their leaves. But some are better at it than others. The old assumption holds true, but the answer is qualified: how well an epiphyte absorbs water depends on the type of plant.
Answer #2) Some epiphytes have special tissues in their leaves that store water. (Can you say hydrenchyma?) Absorbing water through your leaves is one answer to surviving drought, but being able to store water is another strategy.
Answer #3) Epiphytes refill the water in their leaves at night. It’s cooler at night, and often cloudy, and the water that is lost during the sunny, windy days gets replenished during the cool, wet hours. Plants aren’t dumb!
These are just a few of Sybil’s discoveries. You’d fall asleep if I spelled them all out, so here’s what you need to know: First, epiphytes have a bunch of strategies to survive water stress in the canopy. They come in different sizes, some are woodier while others are gentle herbs, leaves can be thick or thin, and so on. It’s the diversity of strategies that allows 2 tons of epiphytes to coexist in a 100-m2 plot. Diversity is the hallmark of tropical forests. Epiphytes have figured out the water problem, and in doing so they contribute to the amazing biodiversity of tropical forests.
Second, because epiphytes capture water out of the air, they in fact add water to the whole forest ecosystem, including the water that reaches the soil and then the streams and rivers. Every human being who lives downstream from a cloud forest depends on epiphytes for the water they drink, cook with, and for watering their crops.
Last, global climate change stands to ruin all that. In Monteverde there are more days in the year without clouds than there used to be, and the base of the cloud layer keeps moving up in altitude. Simply stated, global climate change is depriving epiphytes of water. And when that happens, the forest, wildlife, and humans have less water too.
Gotsch, S. G., N. Nadkarni, A. Darby, A. Glunk, M. Dix, K. Davidson, and T. E. Dawson. 2015. Life in the treetops: ecophysiological strategies of canopy epiphytes in a tropical montane cloud forest. Ecological Monographs 85:393-412.
Once upon a time I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, Central America. That was a different lifetime, back when I knew everything and was poised to save the world. I spent 2 years living in some of the poorest areas of Central America, where many kids had no shoes and only two sets of clothes, one for the week and another for Sunday. For perspective, I lived on $100 a month and was among the wealthy elite in my town. You see a lot of things when you live in places where living is hard. I remember the body of the man who drowned in the river, crumpled on the street outside the police station. Then there was the time that the teenage mother had her baby on the bus. If your eyes are open – and it’s hard for them not to be – you learn a lot of things. Hopefully the lessons include humility and modesty, and that we are all part of the same fabric that is knitted across the surface of this planet.
One of the lessons I learned was that I was a long way off from saving the world. It was hard to deliver a conservation message to parents who were wondering how they would feed their families when the bean crop failed. Plus you can figure in that I was an outsider who was only going to be around for two years. It slowly dawned on me, being the young foreign genius that I was, that to have a lasting impact I had to train others. Somebody was going to have to carry the message after I was gone. Preferably that somebody was a local who knew the community and how to talk with people, and who was invested in seeing their neighbors have a better life.
I carry that lesson today. Recently I was the lucky bastard who got to fly to Costa Rica and train Latin American biologists how to climb trees. These young people are the field soldiers that are saving the world out there, not I. I’m “lucky” because I live in North America where I have access to training and expensive equipment. I’m LUCKY because once when I was younger I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is to pay it forward. So with good friends Jamz, Juni, and Hannah we put on a 1-day clinic amongst the branches of a guayabillo tree. Now I’m trying to piece together the resources to go back and teach an 8-day course, with full-blown certification in climbing essentials and canopy biology methods. Enjoy the pics. Contact me if you would like to donate to young people and the natural environment they serve – I’ll be buying more equipment to donate at the next climbing workshop.
A few good people donated the climbing equipment that you see in the photos. It was all left behind with the biologists we trained. I’d like to thank: WesSpur,TreeStuff; working arborists from the International Society for Arboriculture, Pacific Northwest Chapter; and an anonymous friend with a talent for making Kentucky moonshine – you know who you are. I also thank The Peregrine Fund, where I work. They sponsored my plane ticket and lodging in Costa Rica, and are believers in paying it forward.
Dedicated to Francisco Urbina, my Honduran counterpart from my Peace Corps days.
Saving endangered birds of prey is tough business, but someone has to do it. The work is a swamp of complicating factors, and you wonder if a person has to be insane to do this for a living.
First there is the location. Endangered species know no boundaries and wildlife aren’t interested in the comforts of a salon. If you are working with the Ridgway’s Hawk for example, you find yourself in the Dominican Republic, hiking the rainforest-covered rolling hills of karst limestone. Think 90º F, 85% humidity, jagged limestone that will slice your boot soles, and mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus. Or how about Madagascar. It can take days to drive from the nearest city to the field site, crossing rivers with a 4-wheel drive truck equipped with a snorkel for river crossings (I kid you not), carrying all your equipment and food with you. You have to be hardy in the extreme, and never mind the mosquitoes bearing malaria and sand flies that carry leishmaniasis. Never heard of leishmaniasis? It is one of the worst tropical diseases, and symptoms range from open wounds in your skin, the dissolving of cartilage in your face until your nose is lost, and permanent or lethal damage to your liver or spleen. I dare you to do an Internet search for images of leishmaniasis
Then there is the work itself. Depending on your location, you may have to work around crocodiles in Australia, grizzly bears in Alaska, tigers in India, lions in Africa, or worse, elephant poachers and guerilla rebels carrying automatic rifles and trained to shoot first and forget the questions.
To find a raptor nest you might hike for four hours, and that after a ride on a snow mobile, ATV, or dugout canoe. To enter a raptor nest might require rappelling cliffs, or scaling trees. And then there are the parents. Adult raptors don’t take kindly to people who want to scramble around with their eggs or chicks. Some raptors are harmless and will leave you alone. Some have a grip that will crush your hand and talons that can inflict serious damage. Climb into the nest of a Harpy Eagle and you are on their turf, and don’t expect mercy. Try and forget that you are two days from a hospital – it will make climbing 150 feet up the nest tree a bit easier.
By now you get the picture. Raptor biologists are badass, or insane, or both. Saving endangered birds of prey is serious business and takes the right kind of person. But who saves the person who saves the birds of prey? To answer that question I turn to the art, and the brotherhood, of arboriculture.
Arborists, like raptor biologists, do the hard work that no sane person would attempt. They are the men and women who care for trees. They climb trees to remove limbs with chainsaws, remove entire trees hundreds of feet tall from the tallest leaf down to the ground, and generally care for the well-being of trees and people living together.
What I love about arboriculture is that arborists have a brotherhood. They have to. When you are limbwalking with a chainsaw, one wrong move could mean death.
To do this work you have to trust the guy, or girl, who has got your back. On a different day you watch theirs. This connection creates a bond, one that, like raptor biology, knows no boundaries. When it comes to the art and science of tree climbing, Arborists are the Rembrandts and Edisons of the tree universe. If you want to learn to climb trees properly, go to a tree climbing instructor. That’s what I did. And when you know enough about tree climbing, pay it forward – teach others.
A few weeks from now in October a climbing biologist (yours truly) and some arborists and climbing instructors from the Pacific Northwest of the Unites States – where proper trees grow – are heading to a conference in Costa Rica to teach raptor biologists from Latin America how to safely access raptors nests in trees. There is a wrinkle to this plan, though. Latin American biologists coming to the workshop can’t afford and don’t have access to true tree climbing gear. Teaching is one thing, providing thousands of dollars of equipment needed to keep tree climbers safe is another. WesSpur and TreeStuff generously donated a pile of fantastic gear, but it wasn’t enough. At the 11th hour I turned to climbing arborists at a conference of the International Society of Arboriculture. These are the men and women who do the work of arboriculture. Back-breaking work. Life-on-the-line work. And they know about the brotherhood. When I made a call for donated equipment to keep their brothers and sisters in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina safe, nearly $1000 of equipment flowed in, personal gear paid for in blood and sweat. Check it out.
I’m talking like this: 33 carabiners, 13 slings and split-tails, 6 pulleys, 4 ascenders, 1 throw cube with throw bags and line, 3 rings, 1 harness, 3 Andrew Jacksons, 1 Alexander Hamilton, and 1 Benjamin Franklin.
Saving species. Saving lives. Brothers in arms.
This blog is donated with open arms to a brother named Bill in his hour of need.
Thanks to the hard working arborists of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of ISA for caring. You blew me away.
I have worked in the conservation of nature in tropical countries for about 20 years now. I started as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995 in Central America, where my job was to tell local people how to manage natural resources like forests and rivers. I was uniquely suited to the job, because as the only person in the sector of my host country – Honduras – with a college degree, I thought I knew just about everything. Thankfully, I have learned a lot about the world and myself since then. One lesson remains unchanged, though: we are destroying the natural world at a far quicker pace than we are allowing it to heal.
The truly impressive thing about some developing countries is the amount of untouched land out there. In many places you can still walk into an old-growth rain forest that nobody owns and look up at monkeys and macaws, and amidst the raw humidity and shrieking insects and birds, it is easy to imagine yourself into a nature documentary. Wild places are still out there, all over. And that is a part of the problem. When you have an overwhelming abundance of something you can fall into the trap of thinking that there is no limit to the supply. We can use it as much as we want, and never run out. This lesson has been learned and forgotten a thousand times in North America. Passenger Pigeons blackened the sky, until they were gone. The buffalo were endless. The coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest would supply lumber forever. And the great forests of Indiana could never be exhausted.
Screeeeech. What?! The great forests of Indiana? Who are you kidding? Have you been to Indiana lately? The typical mental image is land flat as a pancake, and nothing taller than a corn stalk as far as the eye can see. It didn’t used to be that way. Barely 150 years ago Indiana contained some of the lushest forest and most massive trees on the continent. I kid you not. The photos below, from Gordon Whitney’s 1994 history of forests in America, tell you the story.
I want you to hear the voice of Robert Ridgway, preeminent naturalist of the late 1800’s, who took many of these photos.
“The [Wabash] River flows for the greater part between dense walls of forest . . . If the forest is viewed from a high bluff, it presents the appearance of a compact, level sea of green, apparently almost endless . . . the tree-tops swaying with the passing breeze, and the general level broken by occasional giant trees which rear their massive heads so as to overlook the surrounding miles of forest.” Ridgway described forest monarchs that “attain an altitude of more than one hundred eighty feet.”
“Going into these primitive woods, we find symmetrical, solid trunks of six feet and upwards in diameter, and fifty feet, or more, long to be not uncommon, in half a dozen or more species; while now and then we happen on one of those old sycamores, for which the rich alluvial bottoms of the western rivers are so famous, with a trunk thirty or even forty, possibly fifty or sixty, feet in circumference, while perhaps a hundred feed overhead stretch out its great white arms, each as large as the biggest trunks themselves of most eastern forests, and whose massive head is one of those which lifts itself so high above the surrounding tree-tops.”
This was Indiana, people. The endless forests are replaced with farms and cities. And THAT is my worst waking nightmare for the vast forests of the Neotropics: seemingly endless cathedrals of trees and beasts will be turned into corn fields and cattle pastures. Unless we can remember history, and teach the lessons of history better than I did as a Peace Corps volunteer, the ghosts of forests past will become the ghosts of forest present. All that will be left for us will be blurred photos and the writings of long-dead naturalists.
Gordon G. Whitney. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. Cambridge University Press.
Back in the fall of 2012, I was wrapping up my last of four field seasons in the Central Amazon – Manaus, Brazil. My study site, the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, was set up for its remoteness: “MOTFA” is what we replied when asked where we worked: Middle Of The F&%*ing Amazon.
I spent the early part of my career very much focused on those rainforest birds of the Central Amazon – the antbirds and ovenbirds and woodcreepers and all the rest. I had previously worked in Costa Rica as well as Peru, so in Manaus I had some idea of what I was getting myself into bird-wise. In other words, within the Neotropics (tropics of the Americas), the families, and often the genera of birds that frequent rainforests are pretty consistent. Despite the diversity of Manaus, my experiences elsewhere in the Neotropics had prepared me somewhat for what to expect from the birds – which bird families were where, which would be sensitive to rainforest degradation, and which families and genera held which niches.
Fast forward a couple of years and my research has moved from the new to the old world tropics. When starting this transition, I was curious to see if the patterns that I understood from the Neotropics would hold in the Afrotropics – Equatorial Guinea in particular. Why Equatorial Guinea you say?! Well, this Massachusetts-sized country nestled squarely in western central Africa has the full complement of African rainforest fauna: elephants, chimps, gorillas and a dizzying array of colorful birds. But the wildlife is under intense threat from development: Equatorial Guinea discovered oil in the 1990’s and has since been pumping oil, laying down asphalt and putting up buildings as quickly as they can. Several parks were also set aside, but it’s not clear what the sensitive bird species even are or how good of a job those parks actually do at protecting those sensitive species. To fill the gaps of knowledge in this rapidly-developing country, colleagues and I started the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative – an NGO dedicated to exploration, education and ecology in the country. We’ve since expanded to mammals as well and changed the name to Biodiversity Initiative.
When I set off for my new project in Equatorial Guinea, the birds were entirely different and I pretty much had to start from scratch on understanding the community. You see, the African and South American continents split off such a long time ago that the bird communities have diverged to a tremendous agree, so much so that most of the families in the Neotropics don’t even exist in the Afrotropics. Fortunately for me, in most cases, there are very close yet unrelated analogs holding the same ecological niches—the role that an animal plays in the rainforest community.
The first place I looked was to the canopy—for an analog of those loud, colorful, Neotropical fruit-eaters with enormous bills: toucans. And immediately I was satisfied in finding that hornbills – the ecological equivalent of toucans – are both abundant and species rich in Equatorial Guinea. This represented a beautiful example of convergent evolution: when two unrelated species converge to fill a similar niche and body plan; dolphins and sharks are a classic example. Unfortunately, because of their large body size, the largest hornbills are often shot by hunters seeking bushmeat. As Africa continues to develop, fewer and fewer of these charismatic hornbills will remain.
Next I looked to the understory, where in the Neotropics, ovenbirds and antthrushes accounted for much of the diversity. In the Afrotropics this primarily niche is filled by an unrelated family: the (Old World) thrushes (Turdidae). The American Robin (in the US) and European Robin are well known members of this family. These birds are stocky with a prominent chest, and strong legs and feet built for hopping and walking along on the forest floor – just like their Neotropical counterparts.
But what about mixed species flocks? In the Neotropics, these multi-species groups of insectivorous species are dominated by the antbirds (Thamnophilidae) with Thamnomanes antshrikes leading the charge with their whip-crack calls. African mixed species flocks are dominated by the greenbuls (Pycnonotidae), a cryptic group of often greenish-colored birds that are ubiquotous in the mid story. Though far less is known about these Afrotropical assemblages of mixed-species flocks, in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania, The Square-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus ludwigii) has recently been found to be the flock leader. Although not a greenbul, this drongo (family Dicruridae) does make a whip-crack rallying call like its Neotropical flock-leading counterpart.
And what about the Neotropical warblers (Parulidae) – those nimble insect-gleaning gems? In Afrotropical rainforests, these are matched by the Old World Warblers (Sylvidae), a drabber but ecologically equivalent family that are also common tropical-temperate migrants – with many of these breeding in Europe. And the ultra-diverse aerially acrobatic Neotropical Flycatchers (Tyranidae)?
If you’ve spent enough time in Neotropical forests (or you had a great guide on your bird tour), you’ve eventually stumbled on the Old Man of the Forest – the trogon. Most are in the genus Trogon and all are frugivorous and strikingly bright, beautiful canopy birds. Much to my delight, I found that this family exists in the Afrotropics and is no less spectacular. Equatorial Guinea has two species in the genus Apaloderma, one of which was caught by my field crew just last week. I’ve since learned that the Asian tropics (my next frontier?) have a few species of trogons as well – most in the genus Harpactes.
And last but certainly not least, my favorite Neotropical bird family (or subfamily, depending on your taxonomy) is the curiously-moving woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptidae). These ovenbird relatives have modified claws and stiffened tails that they use to hitch themselves vertically up trunks and branches gleaning insects from the bark as they go – not unlike creepers and nuthatches of temperate forests. In Manaus there are 13 species of woodcreeper, each of which has its own unique and curious niche. Strangely enough, this group seems to have no ecological equivalents in Afrotropical rainforests! There certainly a few woodpecker species in Equatorial Guinea, but none are particularly common aside from perhaps the Buff-spotted Woodpecker (Campethera nivosa). Why this niche is essentially empty is a mystery to me, but it sure seems there’s a big haul of Afrotropical insects on tree trunks that are not well exploited.
So I’ve found that there are tons of cool birds in the Afrotropics – most with ecological niches similar to that of an analogous family in the Neotropics, and at least one group (the woodcreepers) without. What is a clear difference between Neotropical and Afrotropical communities is how much more poorly the Afrotropical species are understood. With development booming in Africa and human population on the continent projected to quadruple by 2100 – much faster than any other continent – there is a great need to understand and protect these African birds. For me, Equatorial Guinea is a microcosm of the situation in the rest of Africa, which is one of the reasons I am now focused there. What are the keystone species such as flock leaders (drongos?) and seed dispersers (hornbills)? Which species and ecological groups are most vulnerable to disturbance such as logging and agriculture (terrestrial insectivores? large, hunted species?). How many cryptic species exist – those that look alike but are unique species only differentiable by song? Are the birds of isolated islands such as Bioko, Equatorial Guinea, subspecies, or are they actually full (and endemic) species worthy of protection as such? With more work, we can understand the ecology, evolutionary history and habitat requirements of many of these poorly known Afrotropical gems, which will help us to protect them in this time of intense change in Sub-saharan Africa.
Suspended on taught 1-inch straps, a treeboat is much more than a mere “hammock”: it is an out of body experience. Lie on a treeboat in the forest canopy and you float amongst the branches and birds. There is no sensation of gravity, or ground, or down, only of out, up, and air. You are weightless, and in a treeboat high in the canopy it is easy to feel as though you are in a dream.
I have been dreaming for 20 years of sleeping in the largest tropical tree I could find. Sometimes dreams are meant to come true, and sometimes they are not. Other times the dream takes on a life of its own. This is one of those stories.
The largest tree in the New World Tropics? Look up to the ceiba (Ceiba pendantra) and ask no more. Ceibas are so enormous that the Maya Indians believed them the pathway that souls take to reach heaven. Only a fool would dare to climb where angles tread, so call me a fool.
This fool’s journey takes place in the Dominican Republic. Deep into Los Haitises National Park, next to a muddy watering hole called Poso Ventura, rises a ceiba that all the locals in the little town of Los Limones know. Even before I climbed the tree I was somehow famous, everyone on the street asking if I was really planning on sleeping in the giant tree. Geez, no pressure, folks.
And so it began. Two hours of hiking across the rolling limestone trails, sweat dripping from my chin in the near total humidity. One hour to shoot ropes over limbs and climb past a vertical cascade of leaves, vines, and roots shooting out of the tree’s trunk. Another hour scrambling up and down limbs, hanging the treeboat in five different positions until one finally worked. By that time I was so filthy that my own smell was, honestly, revolting. I dined on crackers, sardines, and peanuts, enough to leave me positively starving after a day of so much work. I was rationing my water too, and the lack of real food and enough water left me dizzy. Not the best frame of mind when you are 120 feet off the ground. When dusk turned to night the mosquito swarm went rabid and with no place to go the hour of truth finally arrived. I climbed in, more than ready to rest and hoping for the treeboat to take me away to dreamland. One thing you need to know, friends: treeboat don’t disappoint.
What a trip! It’s hard to know where “up” is when the frogs are chirping, croaking, and burping from 20 feet above your head, outward in every direction, and down 120 feet. Bats would burst into my airspace on fluttery wings, crackling over my stomach, then swooping under my back. I heard a buzz and gazed out into blackness to see pairs of tiny green headlights swerving on unseen roads until one landed on my arm and I ID’d the driver as a 2-inch beetle. After too many hours in socks, my naked toes throbbed with every heartbeat, providing the rhythm for it all. And the insects? Godalmighty – how could I hear anything over the whining cicadas and all their chorus?
All in all it was way too weird. If sleeping in a “normal” forest is an out of body experience, then sleeping in a tropical ceiba took me out of my mind. Did I sleep? In fits. The mosquitoes, held at bay by an improvised netting, shreaked for blood only a finger length from my face and did a decent job of keeping me unnerved. I remember a moment when I felt like rolling over and, unaware of my surroundings, stuck my left leg out into space. I put it right back in bed and clinched tight, determined to stay in the treeboat and live a little while longer. After nearly 11 hours of mind tripping, the dawn chorus of vireos and bananaquits announced it was time for a bathroom break. That’s right. Insufficient food and water combined with a lot of nerves is a good recipe for some “movement” and desperate measures demand desperate means. The ferns will thank me. When Chivero arrived to walk me back to Los Limones, and after a breakfast of sardines and crackers for my parched tongue, I packed my bags and rappelled down the rope to plant my feet once again in the land of sane and normal folk.
Would I do it again? Tomorrow!!
And you should too. But first some advice. The best way to install a treeboat in a ceiba is to stand on the shoulders of giants. Thomas Hayes got me to, and into, the ceiba. Will Koomjian and Jamz Luce taught me the basics of rope wrenching and treeboating. Amanda Sills sewed the rain canopy and mosquito netting for my treeboat. Treeboats were invented and are sold by the good folks at New Tribe – required gear for tree nuts of all ages.
¡Viene! ¡Viene! (“Here she comes!”) As the ground crew shouts a warning the climber waves his arm rapidly over his head. Sometimes it wards off the attacking Ridgway’s Hawk, and sometimes a rusty streak lands a two-fisted strike on a climbing helmet, reminding everyone who is in charge here. The climber works his way slowly up the side of a 35-foot royal palm, approaching a nest containing one to two downy nestlings. At three days old each is a mere ball of puff that fits into the palm of your hand. It’s hard to fathom that such a fragile piece of life could in two years comet out of the sky and clock a climber on the head. It’s also essential to understand how such a life could be critically endangered on a tropical island like Hispaniola, so full of emerald vitality.
Critically endangered is only one label we can pin on the Ridgway’s Hawk. Their population numbers in the mere 100’s. Once distributed across the island nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, their last stronghold is in Los Haitises National Park, far northeastern sector of the “DR,” where an estimated 250 to 300 pairs hangs on in a mosaic of lowland rain forest and farm fields.
Another label for the Ridgway’s: generalist. Pairs can breed in the interior of forest or in a farm plot of manioc, squash, and root vegetables. They aren’t picky eaters either. Peer into a nest and feast your eyes on a melee of snakes, lizards, rats, mice, small birds, giant centipedes, and the occasional chicken. They nest in forest trees and also in the tops of royal palms.
The big mystery is this: how can a generalist species that lives everywhere and eats everything go from being common to almost gone? We can’t blame deforestation directly, that would be too easy. Many rain forest specialists like Harpy Eagles suffer from habitat loss; as the forest shrinks so do their populations. For generalists like the Ridgway’s, deforestation creates habitat in the form of forest edges, complete with palms for nesting and abundant prey to feed their nestlings. Instead, biologists working for The Peregrine Fund have discovered that a parasitic fly is killing hawk nestlings. Before the nestlings can grow and leave the nest, fly larvae burrow under their skin and eat them from the inside out. Why this happens is part of the mystery. Both the fly (Philornis pici, a type of botfly) and the Ridgway’s Hawk are native to Hispaniola. They have coexisted and coevolved for as long as either has been on Earth. What has happened to this island system that a parasite is driving a hawk over the cliff of extinction?
In a long complex loop of interrelated events, deforestation may ultimately be to blame after all. It goes like this. Ridgway’s Hawks like to build their nests on top of the stick nests of Palmcats. Palmchats build their nests most often in royal palms. Like the fly and the hawk, the royal palm is a native to Hispaniola, but it is a colonizing species: when forests are cut down, royal palms invade the new clearings. Palmchats are also a host to the Philornis pici botfly, but from what we know so far Palmchats don’t die from the parasite. Instead, they may serve as a reservoir, a vast and spreading warehouse of Philornis botflies that then parasitize hawks. In the ecological equivalent of a conspiracy novel, deforestation spreads royal palms, palms spread Palmchats, Palmchats spread Philornis botflies, and Ridgway’s Hawks takes it in the tank. What we have is a forest out of balance.
The Peregrine Fund is working to break this curse. First, biologists and Dominican technicians climb Ridgway’s Hawk nests every week to treat the chicks with fipronil, an insecticide that causes no harm to chicks but which makes the fly disappear. This solution is expensive and labor intensive, and that makes it unsustainable. Meanwhile, the search is on to find ways for flies and hawks to coexist. Can repellants be placed in nests to keep flies at bay? Are there places on the island yet suitable for hawks but not so much for the fly? This is a tough spot to be in. Without the efforts from The Peregrine Fund over the last 10 years the Ridgway’s may already have been lost. Humans most likely created this problem, and humans will have to fix it.
To read more about The Peregrine Fund’s excellent work to save the Ridway’s Hawk from extinction – click here.
Conventional wisdom holds that predators sit at the top of the food chain. In a series of who-eats-who, plants feed herbivores feed predators feed other predators. If you are a jaguar in the Venezuelan jungle, you are pretty safe in nature because there isn’t a thing that can eat you. Insects on the other hand are just about rock bottom in the food chain. Everybody eats insects, from other insects, to frogs, birds, spiders, monkeys, you name it. Insects are the fuel that runs the machine we call nature.
It turns out that all is not milk and honey for top predators. Because of their position at the top of the ecosystem, predators can actually be quite vulnerable to environmental change. If anything goes wrong at one level in that food chain, the pyramid crumbles. Predators therefore have an important role as biological indicators. They are the symptom of sickness happening somewhere in the system.
Nowhere is this more true than the tropical island of Hispaniola. On tropical gems like this one there are no mega-predators like big cats so hawks are it, king of the jungle. Ridgway’s Hawks are critically endangered, with only around 300-400 left, and until recently nobody knew why their population was crashing. As often happens when humans get in the way, nature on Hispaniola has been turned upside down. The thing that is killing Ridgway’s Hawks is maggots. You heard me right. Squiggly, gross, glossy white maggots. Ridgway’s Hawks are being consumed by Philornis pici, a type of botfly the maggots of which live under the skin, eating tissue and drinking fluids from the host. The problem has gotten so severe that hawk nestlings are dying from myiasis (parasitism by flies) before they live long enough to leave the nest. Biologists from The Peregrine Fund are racing the clock to save the Ridgway’s Hawk from extinction and find out what is wrong with this forest system.
Canopy Watch will be in the Dominican Republic next week working with Ridgway’s Hawks along with U.S. and Dominican biologists. Hawks nest in trees, and we climb trees.
I’m not sure if that is the opening act or the main stage. There will be treeboating, wildlife photography, and all around tropical magic. Come back for more from the Dominican Republic.
bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu! bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu! From inside a dense thicket too tangled for me to walk into comes the rising, flutelike hooting of some unseen bird. I have no idea what it is, and have been trying for four months to find out. I’m in the tropical rain forest of northeast Honduras, the famed Miskito Coast, an area that is so unexplored and so high in biodiversity that the bird singing that song could be just about anything. I’m bursting to see it, but the bird remains hidden.
bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu! I walk around the wall of vegetation and the singer just moves away, so that I never get a look. I circle back, and the wary singer dances away, singing, out of sight. Suddenly it dawns on me: just because I can’t walk in doesn’t mean that I can’t get in at all. I lie down on the moist ground and belly crawl through the leaves, eyes peeled for the mystery singer and also the feared fer-de-lance, a deadly snake whose bite on my face or arms would probably be fatal.
Crawl, listen, wait, repeat. I crawl toward the middle of the thicket, slower than a snake, pausing more often than I move, until finally a sudden flicker catches my eye. A small bird with a grayish back, buffy belly, streaked sides, and ridiculously long legs lifts it head and sings – bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu! – I have him! Now, what the heck is it? After I crawl out (in reverse, no less), walk back to my cabin, and open several field guides I finally ID the mystery bird: Thicket Anpitta (Hylopezus dives). I look at the range maps and I’m ecstatic; this species isn’t supposed to be any closer than Costa Rica, two countries away. Tack on another discovery for the Miskito Coast!
Antpittas are one of those crazy birds that are only found in lowland tropical rain forests, where the diversity of plants, animals, bugs, and birds is through the roof. Every species has to have a niche, meaning the sum of the little habits, shapes, and diet that makes them so unique that they fit into the giant web of wildness with all their neighbors. Antpittas are shaped like miniature footballs with wings. One look is enough to tell a stark raving bird amateur that this is a species whose niche is on the ground.
If the Thicket Antpitta is the quintessential ground bird, what makes a canopy bird? That’s a harder question, and a really important one if you want to understand forest ecology. I have written about why canopy birds are important in other blogs. Without canopy birds the forest would pretty much shrivel up and die, literally. But who are the canopy birds? Lots of birds fly up and down through the forest. Are there some that belong to the canopy and not the lower layers? Fortunately, science has an answer.
If we divide a rain forest into layers – the ground, understory, midstory, and canopy (look here) research has shown that some birds are found way more often in the top of the forest than could ever happen by random chance. It comes down to numbers. If you flip a coin 100 times and 80 times it lands on heads, you are either really lucky or the coin is fixed. If you observe a particular bird species 100 times and it is in the canopy 80 times, that is no accident either. That bird is wired for the canopy. Take the Long-tailed Tyrant, for example. If you come to me and say you saw one near the ground, I will say that you have been smoking too many banana leaves. Some birds are so specialized for life in the canopy that they rarely, if ever, descend to the heights inhabited by mortal birds.
Here is another one. Green Shrike-Vireo. They are loud and bright, and you can spend days on the ground trying to see one and all you will get is a sore neck. Know what else? No scientist has ever seen the nest of this bird. Too high off the ground. Now that is a canopy bird!
Now here is where we get into evolution and ecology. Bear with me, because this is tricky. The Green Shrike-Vireo can’t be in all forests at the same time any more than you can, so let’s explain this from a human perspective. Let’s say you are perfectly adapted to living on a farm. You love the long hours, the machinery, the soil, and the crops, and your farm is in Iowa (my sympathies). You can’t run a farm in North Dakota at the same time. But you have cousins perfectly adapted to farming, they have the same name as you do (because they are related), and they have farms in North Dakota, Nebraska, California, and Washington. You and your cousins got farms covered.
The Green Shrike-Vireo has the canopy in Mexico covered. The Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo has Brazil, and the Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo has Colombia. They belong to the same family (Vireonidae, in bird terms) and they have the same name (Vireolanius is the genus). We say that the different Shrike-Vireo species replace each other in different parts of the world.
What’s more, lots of bird species replace each other like this, so much so that we can predictably describe the canopy bird community almost anywhere in the lowlands of the Neotropics by the group of birds you will find there, that are related, that play similar roles (eat small fruits vs. eat large fruits vs. drink nectar, etc.), but are different species. Whether you are looking at a forest canopy in Nicaragua, Brazil, or Surinam, you will have a largish pigeon in the genus Patagioenas, a large toucan (Ramphastos), a small toucan (Pteroglossus), an electrically colored tanager (Tangara), and so on.
The birds that replace each other are close evolutionary relatives. The forest needs a suite of bird species to fill certain ecological roles, say, to pollinate canopy plants or disperse canopy fruits and their seeds. There is a predictable suite of birds that get these jobs done. The forest is a large puzzle and all the pieces fit together. Until humans get in the way, and then some pieces get lost, and the puzzle stops looking like it should, and the game is over.
Below are two photo panels that tell the above story better than I just did. In the top panel are 6 bird species you could see in the forest canopy in Nicaragua. In the bottom panel are their closely related replacements in Brazil. Note the scientific names.
What you can do
Study some canopy birds on your own. Visit the website Neotropical Birds by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the Search box type in one of the terms listed below. You will get a photo library, sound recording, range map, and a bio. Neotropical birding from your desktop. I hope that is enough to tempt you to go for the real deal.
Ramphastos – or toucan
Vireolanius – or shrike-vireo
Tangara – or tanager
Thalurania – or woodnymph
Patagioenas – or pigeon
Piaya – or cuckoo
Or just explore on your own and see what you find.
Anderson, D. L. & Naka, L. N. 2011. Comparative structure and organization of canopy bird assemblages in Honduras and Brazil. Condor 113: 7-23.
Naka, L. N. 2004. Structure and organization of canopy bird assemblages in central Amazonia. Auk 121: 88-102.