Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Hummingbirds of Monteverde

In Costa Rica along the crest of the Cordillera of Tilarán, is a world of mist and greenery: the cloud forest of Monteverde. Trade winds from the Atlantic bring a steady flow of clouds across the mountain ridges, nourishing an astonishing forest, draped in ferns, moss and orchids. Resplendent Quetzals spend part of each year in this misty realm.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, within the Bosque Eterno
 (Photos by Narca)

The original Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve has been augmented by the Bosque Eterno de los Niños – the Children's Eternal Rainforest. The Bosque Eterno was conceived by schoolchildren in Sweden; when I used to go regularly to Costa Rica, fund-raising for the Bosque Eterno was just getting off the ground. It succeeded, and now a magnificent reserve is the result.

Years ago at the entrance to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a hummingbird gallery, complete with feeders, was established by local folks, including Patricia and Michael Fogden. Today that gallery teems with a truly dazzling array of hummingbirds. When we were there a week or two ago, many, many hummers of eight species were buzzing around the feeders, enchanting everyone who ventured onto the gallery grounds. Here are a few photos for your enjoyment!

The big Green Hermits come only infrequently to feeders. Most of the time they are deep in the forest, pollinating plants like Heliconia.

Green Hermit

Tiny Coppery-headed Emeralds used to be scarce at the Monteverde feeders, so I was surprised to see several of them the day we were there. Males blend darkly into the shadows, until they catch the light just right... then, a glorious flash of intense green! This emerald is a Costa Rican endemic, mostly on the Caribbean slope, although it spills over onto the Pacific slope in this region. Like many other tropical hummingbirds, the males gather in small breeding leks and call to attract receptive females.

A male Coppery-headed Emerald goes from subtle...

... to sublime!

 The female emeralds are much more modestly dressed.

A female Coppery-headed Emerald shows her pink-based lower bill.

Another of Monteverde's smaller hummingbirds is the Magenta-throated Woodstar, endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama. These buzz around, tails often raised, creating a distinctive wing-whir that lets you know they're in the neighborhood. Here's a challenge for you: the nest of this species has not yet been found and described... go for it!

A male Magenta-throated Woodstar

Rather larger is the Green-crowned Brilliant, here sporting the spotlights he uses to dazzle females. This brilliant is a creature of the high, wet mountains, and it ranges as far south as Ecuador (another country that boasts fabulous hummingbirds!)

 Male Green-crowned Brilliant...

...and a lovely female brilliant!

Purple-throated Mountaingems are perhaps the most abundant species at Monteverde's feeders. The female is a bright buffy-rufous below and sports a strong mask. Like other hummers, these are VIPs: Very Important Pollinators.

Female Purple-throated Mountaingem

And just in case you're thinking that the species is misnamed...

...the gorgeous male mountaingem is a show-stealer!

Another beauty which seems to me more frequent now at the hummingbird gallery's feeders is the Green Violetear. This violetear occupies highlands from Mexico, all the way down into the Andes of Bolivia. Although its range overlaps that of the other two violetears (Sparkling and Brown), the Green prefers wetter, higher forests, and so is right at home in Monteverde.

Two views of a Green Violetear

Another hummer with a fairly large range (from southern Mexico to Panama) is the little Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Those bright rufous wing patches are a good field mark. They are quite regular at the Monteverde feeders and in the cloud forest.

Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

One of the most impressive hummers in Costa Rica is the enormous Violet Sabrewing––at 6" long, the biggest hummingbird away from South America. For comparison, our Magnificents are 5.25". Just look at that scintillating deep blue-violet! The sabrewing's range is similar to the Stripe-tailed's: southern Mexico to western Panama. This hummer also feeds often at Heliconia, and the males, like the tiny Coppery-headed Emerald males and the Green Hermits, also gather in leks to "sing" for the females.

 Violet Sabrewing

A sudden dazzle announces the arrival of a stunning Violet Sabrewing!

Hummingbirds live only in the Americas. What a treasure they are!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bartram's Painted Vulture

OK, I've been lax about posting! Painting can dominate everything––I even forget to eat. Here is a recent project, an acrylic painting of Bartram's Painted Vulture.

I hadn't heard of it either.

Bartram's Painted Vulture, a bird that formerly inhabited Florida
(Acrylic painting by Narca)

Noel Snyder investigated the mystery surrounding this vanished bird, and with Joel Fry, has published an on-line paper in the journal Zootaxa which proposes, at long last, the acceptance of this now-extinct species – or subspecies – into the roster of North American avifauna. (An excellent review of this paper was written by Rick Wright for the American Birding Association's blog.)

William Bartram was the first naturalist ever to visit Florida, about the time of the Revolutionary War. He left a detailed description of this spectacular bird, whose existence is not recognized by the American Ornithologists' Union, although several ornithologists have independently acknowledged it. Very similar to the King Vulture of the American tropics from Mexico south, the Painted Vulture was likely either a closely related species or a subspecies of King Vulture.

The bird apparently vanished shortly after Bartram's encounter with it, for it was never seen by Audubon or other early ornithologists who visited Florida.

William Bartram and his father John Bartram left an impressive legacy.  John was North America's first botanist, called "the greatest natural botanist in the world" by Linnaeus. John was named the Royal Botanist in America by King George III, and the Bartram homestead is considered to be the birthplace of American botany and the first botanical garden in the US. You can visit their home in Philadelphia, now the Bartram Garden and Museum. (I've not yet visited this National Historic Landmark and garden, but certainly hope to see it soon – perhaps as soon as this summer! The museum would like to have this painting of Bartram's Painted Vulture in its permanent collection, and that strikes me as its perfect home.)

The Bartrams knew Benjamin Franklin and named a tree after their statesman friend––Franklinia alatamatha. The tree is feared to be extinct in the wild but still survives in cultivation, descended from the original plants collected by the Bartrams.

William carried on his father's natural history endeavors, traveling for several years through the eight southern colonies, observing the flora and fauna, and executing exquisite drawings. He built a reputation as an adept and perceptive observer of nature. Thomas Jefferson asked Bartram to accompany Lewis and Clark on their exploration of Louisiana Territory, but his health didn't permit it.

Today the Bartram Trail follows William's footsteps through North and South Carolina and Georgia. In Alabama, the Bartram Canoe Trail meanders along waterways in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.

William's travels through a truly wild America and his interest in the Native peoples he met are detailed in a marvelous book. If reading the firsthand accounts of early explorers appeals to you, track down the Travels of William Bartram, edited by Mark Van Doren. What a treasure! I also plan to track down another: Judith Magee's 2007 volume, Art and Science of William Bartram, for the pleasure of seeing more of his marvelous botanical illustrations.