National Park of the Week: Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve, Peru



Containing much of the Peruvian Amazon’s  greatest flora and fauna, Manú National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the world and allows for once-in-a-lifetime sightings of rare and exotic animals.  The park is Peru’s biggest and consists of three parts: the “Cultural or Buffer zone,” where native communities live and tourists can enter unaccompanied, the “Reserved zone,” an area set aside for controlled scientific research and ecotourism, and the “Intangible zone,” the largest section that is strictly for flora and fauna preservation. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Manú offers adventurous travelers lush, untouched Amazon to explore and discover the unmatched beauty of virgin environments and unrestricted wildlife.

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The Most Avid Fans of Flying



Who enjoys flying? I do (on planes, of course) and birds certainly do as well (they better because they do a lot of it)!  According to recent study, frigatebirds can drift in the skies for up to two months without landing (I think this makes them the biggest fans of flying, along with albatrosses, another ocean-faring flier). In order to do this, the seabird seeks out routes with strong and upward-moving currents to save energy on its flights across the ocean. By hitching a ride with favorable winds, frigates can fly more than 400 kilometers a day (which is the equivalent of a daily trip from Boston to Philadelphia) and avoid having to flap their wings as much.

For instance, the birds skirt the edge of the doldrums, windless regions near the equator. For this group of birds, that region was in the Indian Ocean. On either side of the region, the winds blow steadily. The winds come from cumulus clouds (the ones that look like fluffy cotton balls), which frequently form in the region. Riding upward-moving air currents underneath the clouds can help the birds soar to altitudes of 600 meters (about a third of a mile).

The birds don’t just stop there, though. Sometimes they fly higher into the [cumulus] clouds…[and] use the rising air inside the clouds to get an extra elevation boost. It can propel them up to nearly 4,000 meters (2.4 miles).

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Bird Behavior at Xandari III

For the first two installments of this video series, please click here and here.

With footage filmed between late October and early December of this year, the compilation video below features twelve different families of birds, not including the domesticated chickens we have as egg-suppliers on property.

First, a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird scans its territory for trespassers; next, a female Yellow-throated Euphonia eats some tiny fruit from a local tree, and a male of the same species sings his bubbly song, which includes a mimicked phrase from the Rufous-breasted Wren toward the Continue reading

The Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Last month, I was using our most unique room at Xandari, Villa 20, as an office for a while. I say most unique — despite the fact that we have a Star Suite (Villa 27) — because 20 is constructed in a completely different way from all of Xandari’s other buildings. It is a round structure with a natural thatch roof, and it has huge windows affording about 180 degrees of view into the wooded gardens above the orange orchard. It so happens that this vegetated spot, not too far from the river that creates the southern border to Xandari’s property, is one of the stomping grounds for the Gray-necked Wood-Rail, a resident species of bird that is more often seen than heard, not only because it is extremely secretive and suspicious, but also incredibly loud.

As you can see in the final footage of the solitary individual above, they move cautiously while looking all around them for threats, and they move quite quickly when they perceive one. Continue reading

The Blue-and-white Swallow

A Blue-and-white Swallow with a view of Alajuela and the Santa Ana wind turbines

Nearly every day at Xandari you’re quite likely to spot some swallows zooming around anywhere between roughly ten and seventy feet above the ground, foraging for small insects on the wing. Chances are that these aerial insectivores are Blue-and-white Swallows (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca), although Northern Rough-winged Swallows have been seen here before too. The Blue-and-whites are typically in groups of five to twenty, but sometimes they’re solitary or in pairs, and you can also expect to see some swifts mixed in with the flock if there are lots of bugs in the air.

The footage above is from one afternoon last week when the swallows were enjoying Continue reading

The Montezuma Oropendola

A week or so ago, Jocelyn discussed the Montezuma Oropendola’s song as heard on Xandari property in Costa Rica. As you could hear from the linked vocalizations in her post, the bird makes an incredibly strange, gurgling/bubbling sound, recently described by a Xandari guest as “the sound of pouring water from one jug into another.” James and I have put up photos of the oropendola as Bird of the Day posts before, but I realized after reading Jocelyn’s thoughts on the bird that we haven’t featured any video of this common resident species at Xandari in the past. So I went out with my camera this weekend and was lucky enough to capture a minute of behavior footage to share here. The main thing missing is what the male often looks like when he’s vocalizing: perched on a branch, he typically leans forward as he calls, bending down so far that it appears he might suddenly fall off. At the end of his call he swings back up, and starts the process again.

Although the Montezuma Oropendola is a species commonly seen (or at least heard) from Xandari on most days, they don’t appear to have any nests on property. And you’d notice Continue reading

Notes from a Natural History Museum

Harvard Natural History Museum

I recently had the chance to visit the Harvard Natural History Museum. Despite having lived in Cambridge for nearly a year, and having often thought about visiting the museum when I passed by going to and from my apartment, I had not stopped in until now. What a treat! The collections are full, diverse, and well curated. On this occasion, I spent most of my time in the animal wing, but I plan to return soon to take in the flora and minerals, and spend much more time in choice display rooms (e.g. the absolutely gorgeous Mammals/Birds of the World permanent exhibit: see below for pictures).

A ground sloth skeleton. It is hard to get an idea of the size of this creature from this photo, but it probably weighed several tons while alive!

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Waterfalls and “Destiny”

It’s a good thing to be a morning person in Xandari, and luckily I fall in the “early bird” category. Be forewarned that unless you are awake by 7am, there is a chance that you will be woken up by the crazy gurgle-trumpet song of the Montezuma Oropendola in the mornings. I wake up early enough everyday (or at least I have so far) that I do not object to the Oropendola’s song. I’ve grown accustomed to its strange call and consider it a natural addition to my morning alarm clock; the Oropendola is like a cheery, rambunctious neighbor and he is my new morning companion.

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The Grouse’s Greater Role

The sage grouse are iconic in a series of western states, and now the subject of one of the largest federal conservation efforts in history. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The sage grouse are iconic in a series of western states, and now the subject of one of the largest federal conservation efforts in history. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

During mating season, the greater sage-grouse gather in “leks” where the males perform an extraordinary strutting ritual. Standing in the brush, they spread out their long, spiky tail feathers and puff out their chests to reveal strange yellow air sacks. “I’m here, I’m here, pick me,” they seem to be saying to the females, though it sounds more like “swish-swish-coo-oopoink.” The sage grouse are iconic in a series of western states, and now the subject of one of the largest federal conservation efforts in history. From this September, millions of acres of mating grounds are set to be protected under plans drawn up by the U.S. Interior Department and a host of state agencies.

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Should Animal Deaths Worry You?

Dead starfish line the shore of the German island of Sylt. Mass wildlife die-offs have been interpreted as omens of an impending environmental collapse. PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL FRIEDERICHS

Dead starfish line the shore of the German island of Sylt. Mass wildlife die-offs have been interpreted as omens of an impending environmental collapse. PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL FRIEDERICHS

Mass-mortality events are sudden, unusual crashes in a population. If you think that you are hearing about them more often these days, you’re probably right. (Elizabeth Kolbert described frog and bat die-offs in a 2009 article; her subsequent book won a Pulitzer Prize recently.) Even mass-mortality experts struggle to parse whether we’re witnessing a genuine epidemic (more properly, an epizootic) of these events. They have also raised another possibility: that we are in the throes of what one researcher called an “epidemic of awareness” of spooky wildlife deaths.

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When Nature is the Weatherman

Its monsoon delayed and weakened by a cyclonic  storm and the El Nino, India is bracing for tough days ahead. PHOTO: Madhyamam

Its monsoon delayed and weakened by a cyclonic storm and the El Nino, India is bracing for tough days ahead. PHOTO: Madhyamam

All through the last weeks of May and the first days of June, most Indians have been looking to the skies. For answers and signs of the monsoon rains. With India being a predominantly agrarian country, the rains decide whether the country grows enough to feed its 1.25 billion people or relies on imports to satiate hunger and demand. And last evening, we saw the first signs of a healthy monsoon, amid fears of the rains being a poor show this year.

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Bird Behavior at Xandari II

I recently accrued enough videos of birds doing interesting things at Xandari to make a new video to share here. By chance, all the footage I’ve gotten over the last few months has followed a common theme: pecking and pulling. In the video above, you’ll notice that all five species of bird — Rufous-naped Wren, Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers, Lesser Greenlet, and Rufous-capped Warbler — were either pecking or pulling at something in an effort to get some food.  Continue reading

Tacacorí Rocks Birds

A sixth-grade creation

Starting last week, I began the next art project at the elementary school in Tacacorí. After learning that over time the papier-mâché creations succumbed to the Central Valley’s relative humidity and became difficult to preserve, I decided to find a more solid medium. I liked the idea of recycled plastic bottles from the hotel but I worried about the extensive use of scissors they’d require and all the sharp plastic edges that would be created in the process. Instead, I went with the option that, although not exactly recycled, at least doesn’t require industrially-created materials and is fairly abundant: rocks. And the best part is that stone is impervious to humidity (on the scale of time that we’re thinking about).

Fifth-grade creations — some kids pasted paper versions of their bird on the rock.

In the slideshow below, you can see some of the fifth- and sixth-graders’ works of art Continue reading

Reflecting on the Summer at Xandari

The familiar sight of a path between villas snaking through Xandari’s gardened grounds

My internship in Costa Rica has officially come to an end. I was incredibly fortunate to spend eight weeks at Xandari, an environmentally-focused resort in Costa Rica’s Valle Central. As I sit back at home in the US, a world away (or a short 3 1/2 hours on an airplane, take your pick…), and try to assimilate the different experiences at Xandari, I am struck by some thoughts. Without being too verbose, I’d like to offer a few reflections on my time there this summer.

When I arrived June 10th, I’m not sure what I was expecting. As is probably the case for many tourists visiting Costa Rica, spectacular images of wildlife populated my imagination: monkeys, sloths, toucans, and macaws, meandering trails of army and leaf-cutter ants, poison dart frogs, and the infamous Fer-de-lance pit viper, to name a few. Never having visited a subtropical country or walked through a rainforest, the teeming jungles of Costa Rica stood for me as a kind of fabled land-before-time, a place where Continue reading

Bird Fun (…and Aristotle?) around Tacacorí

Papier-mâché penguins and other birds from the fourth grade class

In his recent post on our work at the local school in Tacacorí, Seth outlined our papier-mâché and painting ambitions with the third and fourth grades there. The second half of the week, Seth and I were split up because of the kids’ conflicting class schedules. I took fourth grade on the last few days, and he worked with third grade.

In his Poetics, Aristotle elaborates an aesthetic theory partly on the basis of μίμησις (mimēsis), or “imitation.” According to Aristotle, humans are “mimetic” beings, that is, disposed to imitate nature and other human beings. Art’s basis is precisely in Continue reading

Bamboo Wind Chimes for Birds

One of the finished chimes

The picture above shows one of a couple bamboo wind chimes that Seth and I built to put up around Xandari. The sound is, err, rather wooden–but definitely mild and pleasant! You may be asking why we took it upon ourselves to demonstrate our mighty artistic prowess. Well, we really had the birds of Xandari in mind with this project. Specifically, a poor Buff-throated Saltator who had thrown himself against the spa window so many times that he had Continue reading

Skimming the Globe

Stemming from a spontaneous fascination while living in India, I have photographed and written extensively about dragonflies in the past, and as an untrained naturalist, my interest has been mainly focused on dragonflies’ aesthetics rather than their physiology or ecological significance. However, as my interest in holistic ecology and the natural world grows, my thoughts have wandered from dragonflies and mushrooms to a bigger-picture ideology focusing on the connectedness and relationships between organisms within an ecosystem. Those relationships are present across the globe, year-round – regardless of how lifeless a place may seem. Being used to tropical climates unfortunately gives me a predisposition to fear the painful cold of Colorado mountain winters, and I retreat to a less hands-on approach to my research.

While seeking food for thought online, I stumbled upon a TED Talk given in 2009 on dragonflies – which in itself would interest me. But this talk concerns an exceptionally interesting species of dragonfly (though I didn’t realize it when I noticed its swarms in Gavi) – and one that aligns more with my current biological interests than those I held in the past few years (skimming the surface, some might say). Continue reading

Snowy Owl Migrations

Image Courtesy:

Climate change has had a significant impact on a multitude of global issues ranging from the environment to even politics; the Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, is another organism that is feeling the effects of warming temperatures impede on its natural habitat in the northern circumpolar region. Varying degrees of climate change have significant impacts on the apex predator’s prey, which subsequently relocate, thus forcing Snowy Owls to migrate as well.

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The Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis)

The heaviest of the 54 species in the family, the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is one of the main attractions in Periyar, among  the most fascinating birding destinations in the entire Western Ghats. Towering old-growth forests are a must for their breeding. Ficus fruits are the main diet for the growing chicks. Continue reading