Friday, July 20, 2018

Worm-eating Warbler 
(Helmitheros vermivorum)

I recently wrote the following column for the Connecticut Audubon Society's Birdfinder series, which is distributed to the Society's membership.

I was first introduced to the wood warblers while banding birds with Noble Proctor at East Rock Park back in the mid 1970’s.  One of my earliest (recognizable) bird photos was of Noble holding a Worm-eating Warbler and since then, like most of us, I’ve been smitten by the songs, colors, habits, and variety exhibited by this family of birds. 

Worm-eating Warblers (“WEWA”) are not the fanciest of warblers: their colors are drab brown (“caramel” according to David Sibley) to blend in with their habitat and their song is a simple trill.  Perhaps their main attraction is their affiliation with the dark and deep woods of our State and the challenge they pose in trying to get a good look at one.  They are known for their feeding habits of hopping through the understory and picking insects from hanging dead leaves (BNA Online).


Although WEWAs bear some resemblance to the Waterthrushes and to Swainson’s Warbler, they are in a separate genus, Helmitheros, in fact the sole representative of that genus. Once seen well, they are unlikely to be confused with any other expected species in Connecticut.  The trick is, of course, seeing one well.  More often WEWAs are identified by their song, although this, too, poses a field ID challenge.  

The simple trill of a WEWA is quite similar to the songs of the Pine Warbler and the Chipping Sparrow, both of which may occur in adjoining or overlapping habitats. The former may usually be ruled out by its strict affiliation with pine trees, and almost always high up on them. The latter may be more problematic: I once spent some time tracking down what I was sure was a WEWA, deep in the woods, only to come across a proudly territorial Chipping Sparrow.  With practice, however, the faster pace and drier trill of the WEWA, combined with the habitat, allow for confirmed identification.

Finding Worm-eating Warblers in Connecticut 

WEWA populations in Connecticut, and elsewhere across their southern New England range, have likely benefitted from reforestation over the past several decades and the bird may be found all across the State in extensive deciduous and mixed forests.  According to the BNA Online account “The species is considered area sensitive and nests in highest densities in forests of at least several hundred hectares.”  Nest sites are on the ground, typically on steep slopes or ravine banks.

In the lower southwest corner, a reliable spot is The Nature Conservancy’s Devil’s Den Preserve, where this species has been closely studied since 1991.   Flanders Land Trust’s Whittemore Sanctuary in Woodbury is a relatively accessible location for finding this bird and in the eastern part of the State, multiple WEWAs are reported on eBird at Nehantic State Forest in Lyme during breeding season.  WEWAs are one of the specialty warblers (including Cerulean and Hooded Warblers) that nest in the Macedonia Forest along River Road in Kent.  During migration they may be seen at any of the typical warbler stopovers, such as Connecticut Audubon’s Birdcraft Museum in Fairfield and East Rock Park in New Haven. 

During the 1982-1986 Breeding Bird Atlas research, WEWAs were found in over 30% of the Atlas research blocks; the new Bird Atlas project now underway will provide some interesting insight on the status of this species in Connecticut, where it is near the northeastern edge of its breeding range.  Despite the benefits of reforestation noted above, continuing fragmentation of woodlands in Connecticut may eventually reduce the available habitat.

All Photos © C.S. Wood 2018

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Bird Trekking Into the Chiriqui Cloud Forest of Western Panama

We are back in Panama, a year after exploring the Darien and Canal Zone and this time in the country's west regions of the Caribbean coast and the Chiriqui highlands on the Pacific slopes.  Most of the same folks from last year: Dan, Mark and Linda, Ed, and me plus new friends from Canada Margaret and Harvey.

Fresh off of three days of rain and wind in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, a storm of apparently historic proportions, we headed over the continental divide toward the Chiriqui highlands of western Panama.  We stopped in the fog and mist a few times and managed to find some pretty good flocks of songbirds.

    Near the Continental Divide

Including a variety of colorful tanagers.

    Bay-headed Tanager 

    Emerald Tanager

The trip over the mountains was nothing compared to what awaited us:  a 10 kilometer, one hour ride up to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest EcoLodge on what is apparently intended to be a road, but is closer to a cow path.  Only days before, the road was impassible due to the same rains that soaked us on the Caribbean coast.  This trek took me back to the Harpy Eagle adventure we undertook one year ago in the Darien, which involved a 35 kilometer dugout canoe ride up the rain swollen Chucunaque and Membrillo Rivers, with a return trip through a 90 minute thunderstorm overhead as if Joe Btfsplk from the old Lil’ Abner comics was in the canoe with us.  You can read about that trip here:  A Harpy Eagle Trek in Panama  

    The Road to Mount Totumas

We were welcomed to the Lodge by a swarm of hummingbirds.  Over our three days, 17 species of hummers were seen buzzed around the feeders and flowers, including the Fiery-throated Hummingbird and the Scintillant Hummingbird, both found only at high elevations.  The Lodge sits at about 6300 feet above sea level.

   Scintillant Hummingbird 

   Fiery-throated Hummingbird

We spent the first two days hiking and birding around the cloud forest, good workouts that turned out to be training sessions for the trek scheduled for our last day: a hike into the Amistad National Park.  Departing at the reasonable hour of 6:30 AM, just as daylight bloomed and no rain fell, we headed into the forest, skirting the east base of Mount Totumas and following rugged trails up and down into Amistad Park.  Or so Jeffrey, the owner of the Lodge and one of our guides, had described the trail the night before.  We were soon wondering when the “down” part came into play, and in retrospect it seems the hike in and the hike out were both uphill the whole way.  

Being relatively fit old geezers, we soldiered on, rewarded by looks at some birds found only here, and other birds that were lifers for the world-listers in our group.  We were in a zone of elevation that overlapped the ranges of Slate-throated Redstart (2000’ to 6900’) and Collared Redstart (above 6000’), and we lucked into one of the latter actively gleaning.  Twenty minutes or so of working with our junior guide Reinaldo allowed Dan and me to get good photos of this Chirique highlands endemic.

    Collared Redstart 

    Slate-throated Redstart

   Eye-ringed Flatbill (lifer # ?? for Ed)

Other wonders were discovered along the way:  a King Snake; a long-tailed weasel; a leaf-imitator katydid; picture-winged butterflies; and footprints of puma, peccary, and tapir.  And finally, as we neared the end of our trek, we had nice looks of Mantled Howler Monkeys sitting in the rain, which had returned as a fitting coda.  They looked wet; we could relate.

    Mantled Howler Monkey

   Documenting Leaf-imitator Katydid

When we reached the lodge, though, rain had stopped and our guide Jesse pulled out yet another lifer for Ed, Cherrie’s Tanager.  The male Cherrie’s is indistinguishable from its Carribbean slope relative, Passerini’s Tanager, but the females can be told apart.  I might note here that these two tanager species are somewhat unique in being named after people, instead of color or characteristics, like Emerald Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Speckled Tanager, and Blue-gray Tanager.  

   Blue-gray Tanager 

Neotropic birds in general, and especially hummingbirds, have such delightfully descriptive names:  violetear, green-crowned brilliant, fiery-throated, purple-throated, blue-chested, snowy-bellied; you almost don’t need a book to name them.  And even the less colorful are well-described: no fewer than 19 different shades of brown were found on our list of possible species, including ochraceous, russet, and cinnamon.

   Lesser Violetear

    Violet Saberwing

    Purple-throated or White-throated Mountain Gem (female)

    Purple-throated Mountain Gem (male)

   White-throated Mountain Gem (male)

After nearly 8 hours on the trail, 5.7 miles of trekking, and nearly 1500 feet of elevation gain (net gain of about 700 feet), we were ready for cocktail hour and another fine meal. 

    Our Amistad Park Trek Route

Birds still teemed about the Lodge and we had time for a few more photos before dark fell, including a nice rainbow providing us a fitting sendoff.

    Rufous-collared Sparrow (one of 19 shades of brown on our checklist)

   Flame-colored Tanager

Interestingly, the places we stayed – Tranquilo Bay and Totumas EcoLodge - are both projects of US expats who had remarkable vision, energy, and inventiveness, building self-sufficient, off-the-grid, but remarkably comfortable facilities.  Websites here:  Mount Totumas Cloud Forest EcoLodge and Tranquilo Bay Resort

You can flip through these and additional photos here:  Panama 2017

All photos © C.S. Wood