Panamania Just another Weblogs at Harvard Law School weblog

January 29, 2005

Mist-netting, the island-effect and a party bus–January was a good month

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 9:20 pm

My life has been a whirl-wind
since arriving back on BCI after Christmas with my family in
Maine. After a week of family, too much food, old
friends, new friends, really cold weather, an introduction to the OC,
swimming in the Belfast High School Alumni meet, and going to my
roommate’s “Beer Pong Formal” New Years party, arriving on BCI felt like
a return to the quiet life. The illusion didn’t last long.

Vilma and I dove into the January field work (which we actually
finished in record time), tramping up and down hills after the
capuchins. Dipteryx panamensis
is fruiting right now, making monkey watching more hazardous than
normal, as monkey groups will spend over an hour feeding in one of
these huge canopy trees, periodically dropping the large seeds that
they have scraped the flesh off of. Meanwhile, you are on the
ground, neck craned back, trying to find a place where the understory
is open enough to give you a view of the monkeys high up in the canopy,
and dodging these heavy missiles that come whizzing past your
head. So far, there have only been near misses, but it feels
inevitable that some day one of is going to get knocked out by a
falling Dipteryx.

The upside of Dipteryx is that, unlike the Coussarea
fruits we were processing last month, each fruit has lots of pulp on
it, and harvesting 10 grams (dry weight) was easy. However, the
other fruits we were collecting this month made up for it. Apeiba (commonly known as monkey-comb) and Lindackeria gave us more than enough trouble to make up for the relative ease of Dipteryx.

From bottom left: 
Apeiba aspera, Mabea occidentalis, Lindackeria laurina and some other pretty things I found in the forest

Some of the fruits and flowers I’ve been seeing this month:  Virola, Paullinia, Ficus and others

The monkeys have also been eating a lot of nectar this month, both from
the balsa trees that are flowering in front of my dormatory, and from
Clitoria (proof that the botanists who spend years in the rainforest
and discover and name new species are sexually frustrated).

January also brought my 25th birthday, which I think was the best I’ve
had so far. I got so many cards, packages, calls and emails from
my friends, and just generally felt very loved. Additionally, my
friends on the island arranged a surprise birthday party for me (and
Axel, whose birthday is the same day as mine) on a Panamanian pary
bus–a chiva pachangera. Basically it is just a typical
Panamanian bus that they had cut out one side of to make it open air,
taken out a bunch of the seats, and installed huge speakers and a DJ so
you can dance! We drove all over the city, dancing and drinking.
from time to time the bus would stop, and we’d dance on the sidewalk
(usually right next to the ocean) for a while before continuing with
the driving, drinking and dancing. The liquor was of the gut rot
Panamanian Seco variety, the music was typical panamanian, and there
was lots of latin style grinding going on. It was a debaucherous,
but really fun night!

Axel, Dora and Sebastian

Andrea, Eloisa, Me (hidden), and Marta

Spending too long on BCI turns you into something of a recluse–you
start to get very annoyed by changes to the island routine, including
the arrival of new people.  Right now feels like the calm before
the storm, as there is a really nice community of interesting people
doing really cool work.  However, the Magill undergraduate course
that brought 40 students to the island sent a large portion of the BCI
residents into hiding.  Now we are counting down to the arrival of
the Princeton undergraduate course, who will be staying for even

One of the groups that has been working on the island in January is
studying the local bird extinctions.  BCI is unique in that a
first-rate ornithologist has been on the island almost continuously
since scientists started doing research here.  As a result, there
are very complete records on the bird species living on the island
which reveal a dramatic series of extinctions.  Doug Robinson, of
Oregon State, hypothesizes that these extinctions may be related to the
climatic changes that he claims are making BCI, and Panama in general,
drier.  The bird group was here conducting another survey of the
BCI birds, and setting up a long term study that will continue to
monitor the population.  Part of their survey consisted of
mist-netting along trails to catch and tag birds, and I went along with
them on what turned out to be the best netting day any of them had ever
seen.  In one morning we caught 78 birds in 28 mist nets. 
There were so many birds that half of us were working up birds that had
been caught, while the other half was walking the nets to collect birds
that had been caught.  We opened the nets at 6:30, and by 7 were
completely swamped!  It was an amazing day, trying my hand at
untangling birds from the nets (more difficult and definitely more
stressful than trying to untangle kite lines that have been
beginner-ified), banding and measuring birds, and recording the data
being shouted at me by 4 other people who were working up birds. 
We caught some pretty interesting birds, but my favorites were some of
the most common.  The manakins are little birds that you see all
over in the forest, but they are beautiful. 

Golden-collared Manakin

I wasn’t the only one who was excited about the manakins, though. 
Even the experienced birders who had untangled scores of them from mist
nets thought they were something to get excited over, especially when
you caught a male in good condition.

I had some problems keeping a hold of the birds as I measured and
weighed them.  The first one I tried to work up escaped before I’d
finished with him. I did finally get the hang of it, though!


Today was my day off, which I spend reading (for pleasure only) in the
hammock at my friends house in Gamboa.  Its been nice to have a
few days off to do non-work related things.  February 1st is
coming soon though, so I’ll be back in the field, following monkeys,
and trying to get all the work done before Bob Lessnau shows up on the
19th to help me collar a few more monkeys!

December 17, 2004

What the winds blew in

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 8:56 pm

 The winds
have arrived in the Canal Zone, bringing with them the
dry season.  After months of gray skies,
glassy water, daily downpours and chiggers, the sun is now shining every day,
conditions in Lake Gatun are perfect for small boat
sailing, and the ticks are starting to multiply.  It is hotter during the day, cooler at night,
and the forest has stopped smelling like rotting carcasses and acquired a new,
more pleasant scent.   New flowers are blooming, and the Dipteryx
fruits are starting to mature, relieving the extreme food shortage that has
been afflicting the frugivores for the last few months. 

The start of the dry season means
something different for each island resident.

For Andrea, the winds bring a sense of panic because the
seedlings she has been growing for one of her experiments will now die if she
transplants them to the forest

After spending weeks hunting down
800 Quararibea asterolepis seeds,
planting them and watering the 400 seedlings that germinated and grew, she is
faced with difficult decision:  should
she transplant them into the forest, even though their chances of surviving the
dry season are miniscule, or should she try to keep them alive in a shade-house
until the beginning of the next rainy season, 5 months from now? 

The decision to not transplant
means that all the seedlings have to be transplanted into larger pots, and
because Andrea is interested in the micorrhizae associated with plant roots,
all the pots, and the soil has to sterilized before the seedlings can be
transplanted.  She and her assistant Alex
have been spending the last week scrubbing planting pots, cloroxing them to
make sure no fungal spores are hanging around, and running soil through a very
frightening looking machine that makes sure the dirt is sterile.   On top of this all, they have also been
harvesting and peeling Coussarea
seeds, which they are planting tonight for their next

has been a major player in my life recently as well.  Because it is just about the only fruit
available in the forest right now, the capuchins have been spending huge
amounts of time eating this little white berry. 
In addition to watching monkeys eat it, I have also been spending huge amounts
of time (say 12-15 hours in the past 5 days) peeling Coussarea, and scraping the pulp off the seed. I’m doing this
because I want to know about the nutritional content of the most important
foods in the capuchin diet.  This
information will be really helpful for understanding why they make the foraging
decisions they do, and will also help me determine the quality of each capuchin
social group’s home range.  I only needed
ten grams of dry Coussarea pulp, but
that translated into more than 50 grams of wet pulp, and over 400 whole
fruits.  Luckily, my new research
assistant, Vilma, was here last week to help me with all of this!

Vilma has been working on BCI on and off for a few years,
and was tracking ocelots when I first arrived. 
I’m really excited to have her helping me with my project!

Along with the sunny weather, a large number of the
non-residents ARTS team members also descended on the island in December.  In addition to Tony, the software designer,
Karl, the database guy, Kevin, our spatial statistics consultant, and Dan, of
NYARTS (pronounces neeeeyarts), Roland, one of the PIs on the project also was
on the island for a couple of weeks.  The
lab was bursting with people, and meetings had to be held on the balcony

The outcome of all these people’s efforts is
somewhat mixed for me.  The system is still being tinkered with,
and I’m still not exactly sure what kind of data I will get from it,
and what I will be able to do with that data.  It’s a little bit
stressful, not really knowing what shape the project is going to
take.  However, that stress has been somewhat mitigated by the
amount of time I’m spending in the field.  When you are physically
exhausted, there is a whole lot less energy left over to spend worrying
about things.

Some bad news for me is that two of the radio collars I put
on monkeys have malfunctioned, so I have lost two social groups from my sample.
This is partially compensated for by the lucky fact that one of the
radio-collared males has immigrated into another group, so the net loss from my
study is only one group.  However, this
all means that I will have to dart again in February—something I am not really
looking forward to at all. 

There has also been a lot to celebrate on the island
recently.   Marta
just heard that she has
been awarded a Fulbright to do her PhD work in the US.

It also looks like Raff will finally be escaping from BCI,
as he has job offers to go work for a bush dog project in Peru or tracking
coyotes in Illinois.

I am headed home in a few days to spend Christmas with my
family.  It’s a weird period of
transition on the island, because when I get back, a lot of my friends here
will have finished their research and left. 

Titoche—leaving us to go back to Belgium
because his beetles aren’t producing larvae right now.

The constant flux of people makes island life interesting,
but also emotionally tiring.  I’m glad to
be going home for a while, and I’m hoping for snow and good sledding

Rainbow over the dredging division docks.

Christophe mending the holes the bats chewed in his mist

An assassin bug caught in a spider web

Merry Christmas!
  I hope you all have a great holiday!

What the winds blew in

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 8:56 pm

December 3, 2004

The coolest plant ever!!!!

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 7:45 pm

Check this out!

plants that move

Mimosa pudica

November 25, 2004

Thanksgiving–BCI Style

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 5:42 pm

Not being with family for Thanksgiving (a first for me) is turning out to be a much stranger (and sadder) experience than I expected. However, despite missing the cooking and bustling and all sitting down at a table for a multiple-hour meal, it’s been quite an enjoyable day. Robinson, our chef, used to be the bread sculpture champion when he cooked for the US army, so in addition to the turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes (with marshmallows), and gravy and Mac n’ cheese (?), but no mashed potatoes, we also had a huge bread sculpture in the shape of a cornucopia, stuffed with fresh fruit and candy! Bert Leigh, the only senior scientist who is regularly on BCI, gave a spirited blessing, and a somewhat puzzled mixture of Panamanians, Germans, British, Belgian, Columbians, and French joined us Americans in a Thanksgiving lunch.

Although Robinson cooked most of the meals, island residents made the deserts. We had a massive pie baking party last night (the one night a year we get access to the big industrial kitchen–so many fun cooking tools!), and made about a dozen pies. Apple, pumpkin, and pecan. Mom–your pecan pie recipe got *rave* reviews!! Mary-Jane played the fiddle while a crowd of people drank, peeled apples, made crusts, pureed pumpkin and generally made a huge mess in the kitchen. The whole thing was a blast.

So, now that I’m slipping into a food coma, I thought I’d take the time to put some photos from my recent trip to the US up for you all to see. I was home for most of the month of October, running around from one part of the northeast to another, and finally ending up in Texas. First, I was in Cambridge seeing friends, meeting with advisors, rowing outriggers on the Charles, and first crying, and then celebrating as the Red Sox got trounced and then made the most exciting come back ever (and I don’t even particularly like baseball). Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Boston when they won the series against the Yankees–I was in a bar in Albany, NY where a very bizarre karaoke contest was taking place (Frank Sinatra, followed by Billy Ray Cyrus, and then a little Eric Clapton).

After a data analysis seminar in Albany, I headed to Portland, Maine for my high-school friend Missy’s bachelorette party. After dinner and a few margaritas (at Margaritas–where all my memories of getting carded in high-school occurred) with the mother, and mother-in-law to be of the bride

we headed out into Portland.

The next morning (a little later than originally planned), Bree Candland and I headed to Bethel, a little town in western Maine to fulfill our bridesmaids’ duties. The wedding was at the Bethel Inn, which we pretty much had all to ourselves, so it was like a gigantic house party. Missy, Katie, Bree and I all went to high school together, and Andrea, a college friend of Missy’s, is just simply a lot of fun, so there was a lot of silliness in the bride’s maids suite. (Including water ballet in the hotel pool after the rehearsal dinner, instigated by the mother of the groom! Even Ritchie, Missy’s brother, came and played!

Katie and Bree in their Sass Master’s uniform.

(I wish you could see, but they were wearing matching shoes at the wedding rehearsal!)

The wedding was beautiful, Bree sang, I cried, the party was fun (bridesmaids don’t end up getting to eat or drink anything–dresses always fit too tight!), and the Sox won the first game of the world series (which the bride and groom stayed up to see the end of!)

After the wedding, I went home to Maine and tried my best to do absolutely nothing for a week. Unfortunately, my plans were somewhat thwarted by evil IBM–I’ve been trying to buy a new laptop for over a month now. It got it, it didn’t work, they couldn’t fix it, they sent me a new one, to the wrong address. . .the saga continues. But other than spending far too much time on hold, I had a lot of fun walking the dog, sleeping, walking the dog, eating, walking the dog, watching a movie, and walking the dog. The full lunar eclipse was amazing from my parents’ house. It was a perfectly clear night:

We were all watching the baseball game at a friend’s house (cable hasn’t made it to Bayside yet, and thus no Fox–a mixed blessing really), and we all ran outside to see the eclipse.

I also helped out at a flu clinic, and despite my hopes of seeing the elderly behaving badly (the last flu clinic had been a mob scene, apparently), everything was orderly, and everyone was polite and well-behaved.

After a peaceful week in Maine, I headed to Texas for my friend Paola’s wedding, with an election night over-night in Cambridge on the way. Suffice to say that the Houston airport was a psychologically scarring place to hear Kerry concede.

Paola had promised me a good Mexican wedding, and that it certainly what I got! I arrived in Brownsville a couple of days early and got to help Paola ferry guests across the border, although the plan of also transporting liquor for the party was jinxed in favor of a less complicated plan. It was fun getting to meet her family again, as I now speak better Spanish than I did when they were at Stanford for graduation, so I could actually talk to them more. I also got to meet her fianc

September 20, 2004

Flying. . .or close enough!

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 11:12 pm

Living on BCI, you sometimes start to go stir crazy and just need to get off the island. I work in the forest, except when I’m working in the lab, or sleeping in my room, leaving precious few places to escape to when I can’t stand to look at my computer or think about capuchin monkeys any more.

Boat rides are one way to get off the island. A couple of days ago, Andrea needed to look for seeds for one of her experiments. It was a perfect late afternoon, so we took one of the motor boats and went around to the back side of the island to search for them.

I think the hurricanes must be taking all of the moisture out of our weather patterns because even though it is the rainy season, and it should pour almost everyday, we’ve had two solid weeks of gorgeous weather. Sunny days with a nice breeze, which are somewhat detrimental to my work schedule.

The weather has been putting everyone in a great mood, except for Randy. He is studying the dispersal potential of forest birds, so he nets a bunch of birds, and then takes them out into the lake and sees if they are able to fly back to shore. I had always thought that birds could all fly, and had never really considered the different degrees to which that was true. Apparently, many of the forest birds don’t fly well at all, and have to be rescued when they crash land in the lake!!! Anyway, the reason Randy is grumpy about the beautiful weather is that when it is too bright, the birds (who spend their entire lives in the shade of the canopy) can’t see very well and get disoriented. On sunny days, even some of the best fliers crash land in the lake, or fly in circles, stressing themselves out. Luckily, he saw a tapir this morning, which is really, really rare and seems to have improved his mood considerably.

Yesterday, after too many hours staring at a computer, bashing my head against a mental block, I decided I needed to get away for a while. I couldn’t get off the island on a boat, so I decided to climb up to get away.

Andrea and I went up Fausto tower–one of the 7 40 meter tall ARTS towers that have antenna on top. The view was spectacular, and I surprised myself at how little trouble I had getting up (and down!). I was expecting to freak out half way, but I didn’t. It was amazing to be above the canopy, when you spend so much time staring up at it from underneath.

It was the most amazing feeling to clip your safety on to the tower, and let go with your hands and just lean back. There is a huge cell phone tower (twice as tall as Fausto tower) in the center of the island. Supposedly, from there you can look out and see both oceans. Weather permitting, I’ll be posting some photos from there soon!

Bocas Vacation

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 2:08 am

A couple of weekends ago, I went to Bocas del Toro–a beach town on the northern Caribbean coast–with a group of BCI people who were all feeling like they needed to get off the island. We took the overnight bus from Panama City to David, a town in the northern province of Chiriqui. The bus ride wasn’t hideously long, but it was so over-airconditioned, I thought I was going to die of exposure. I don’t think I’ve been that cold since we went camping in Yosemite in October. We arrived in David at 5:30 am, in time to catch a very small bus to Admirante, where we could catch a water taxi out to Bocas.

The second bus appeared to be the only transportation option for most of the people living between David and Admirante. It stopped every half mile or so, and it was always a little unclear where the people who got out were going, and where the people gettting on had come from. The sun was just coming up as we got to the edge of the mountains, and we had a gorgeous view out over the province of Bocas del Toro, toward the Caribbean. By the time we finally got on the water taxi, we were all starting to wake up, and were VERY ready to be on the beach.

After all the waffling and indecision that seems to inevitably accompany making any sort of choice for a large group, we finally got our stuff into a hotel, and headed out for Red Frog Beach. To get to most of the beaches, you hire someone with a boat to take you there, so we had a very pretty boat ride through mangrove swamp. We got let out on a raised board walk through the swamp, which didn’t look very promising. However, after about a ten minute walk we came to the beach. We played vollyball and swam, and took advantage of the sun–its the rainy season, so when the sun comes out, you appreciate it!

On out walk back, we learned where the beach’s name came from.

We also went snorkling and visited a couple of other beaches, including Drago, which was my favorite

We spent three days in Bocas, mostly relaxing on the beach or playing in the water. It was fun, although far from my favorite vacation place ever. Then, salty and sandy, we got to do the bus trip in reverse, arriving back in Gamboa in time to take the 7am boat to BCI.

Slippin’ and Slidin’

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 12:33 am

It seems like a really long time ago, but I’ve gotten ahold of photos from some of the afternoon Olympic events, so I figured I’d put them up. The jello slip and slide and jousting events were the brain children of Brett, Dupa, Raff and Andrew, and they were making jello in the lab kitchen for almost an entire week in preparation. You couldn’t walk into the walk-in fridge because it was too full of jello, and the whole building smelled like candy strawberry for days. It was definitely the highlight of the day–much more fun than jello wrestling, the original suggestion, would have been.

This is me before my bronze medal-winning slide:

and during:

and after, posing with the champion slip n’ slider, Christophe


The other major event of the afternoon was the jousting competition. This was one of those ideas that refused to die, despite set backs. An attempt to haul a huge tree trunk off the shore into the middle of the lake to serve as the jousting platform failed, as did several alternate plans. In the end though, it was definitely worth it–this event showed who on the island played fair, and who played dirty.

August 30, 2004

2004 BCI Olympics

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 10:37 pm

Last weekend, we carried on a proud island tradition by hosting the 4th BCI Olympic Games.  This event pits BCI researchers against other STRI scientists from Tupper (the main labs in Panama City), Gamboa (the town accross the lake), and NAOS (the marine labs).  Opening Ceremonies were held at the Old Dining Hall:

We had a old-time/bluegrass musical theme, provided by Mary-Jane and Gabs.

And some Chariots of Fire, as the torch arrived, up the very, very steep hill:


The crowd was rowdy, despite the time (closer to 8 am than 9), and the Gamboans were definitely the best dressed!

“Before the Opening Ceremony”

Our Senorita of Ceremonies, Andrea, got the morning off to a great start

The only event requiring  actual athletic talent was the volleyball tournament in the morning.  After that, it degenerated pretty quickly:

Slip n' Slide:

Unfortunately, Axel, who took these photos, left before the slip n’ slide got started.  I’m still hunting around for someone with photos from the afternoon, including the slip n’ slide, floatie race, gladiator event, and the Jungle Sextathalon (its an obstacle course).  Just as a preview though–I won the bronz metal in the slip n’ slide event!!

August 29, 2004

Ocelot trapping

Filed under: crofootStories — crofoot @ 11:09 pm

Today was a complete and utter failure from the point of view of my monkey research. On the bright side, because I couldn’t find my monkey group, I went with Raff to help him put a new collar on an ocelot. This is Encito, booking it when we finally released him. Encito is a beautiful young male now, but researchers on BCI have been studying him since he was just a kitten. You might think with all that experience, Encito would stop going into traps after the bait, but so far he doesn’t seem to have learned.

Check out this video clip

Releasing Encito

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