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Tropical Avian Ecology Summer Field Course in Panama

Guest Peter Lahanas

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Guest Peter Lahanas





COURSE LOCATION: Bocas del Toro Biological Station, Boca del Drago, Isla Colon, Republic of Panama.  The biological station is located on a hill facing the Caribbean Sea.  Coral reef and seagrass ecosystems lie in front of the station and lowland tropical rain forests surround us. This juxtaposition of the two most biologically diverse ecosystems provides tremendous opportunities for education and research. See: http://www.itec-edu.org/ for details.


INSTRUCTOR: Scott T. Walter, Ph.D., Tulane University,  tel: 337-591-1188, email: scott.t.walter@gmail.com, Specialty: bird ecology, reproduction, behavior, systematics and conservation.


COURSE DESCRIPTION: This course will begin with an introduction to the ecology and conservation of tropical birds within the context of how a wide range of species utilize and interact with diverse ecosystems. We will learn extensive field identification techniques to facilitate identification of a variety of bird species from families common in the U.S., as well as species in families unique to the Neotropics. Field observations will also be used to identify various bird guilds, and to study avian habitat use across different landscapes around the ITEC field station. A review of avian conservation topics will then transition the class into field research. Following training in ecological study design, students will form small groups to conduct research projects. We will address data management, statistical analysis, and presentation techniques as students prepare to orally present their research results. Finally, each student will design and implement an independent research project that includes data analysis and formal presentation. Lectures in research manuscript preparation will guide students in writing short reports on group and individual research projects.  


FORMAL LECTURES:  Throughout the course there will be classroom lectures that provide the foundation for the avian ecology and conservation information that we will further observe and study in the field. As different birds are active at different times of the day and night, our schedule will vary to accommodate the study of particular species.  The majority of our time will be spent observing and studying birds in the field.  Lecture topics may include:


  • Tropical bird background
  • Residents and migratory species
  • Bird field identification
  • Avian guilds
  • Niche partitioning: habitat use vs. availability
  • Bird conservation topics
  • Bird research in the tropics
  • Importance of seed dispersal by birds
  • Bird demographic measures
  • Research paper critiquing
  • Experimental design and data collection
  • Research implementation; planning and logistics
  • Data management
  • Statistical analysis
  • Research presentation pointers
  • Research manuscript preparation


INFORMAL LECTURES:  Informal lectures will be provided periodically during orientation walks, during group field projects or in discussion groups. These will cover a wide variety of topics and will generally be prompted by what we encounter in the field, or by the direction taken during group discussions.


READINGS:  Readings corresponding to lecture subjects will be assigned in the texts.  We will also read and critique papers brought by students and faculty and additional readings may be assigned from time to time.



   - The Birds of Panama, George R. Angehr and Robert Dean. Zona Tropical Publications. 2010. ISBN: 978-0-9798804-5-2.

    - Select readings from Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds, Bridget J.M. Stutchbury and Eugene S. Morton. Academic 

       Press 2001, 165pp. ISBN: 978-0-12-675555-8.

    - Select readings from Ornithology, Third Edition, Frank Gill, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 2007. ISBN


                - Select research articles.


FIELD BOOK:  A water-proof field notebook will be required in the course. The field book will contain all data related to group projects and independent research project.  The field book should also contain all other incidental observations such as species lists, behavioral notes, etc., and contain detailed location information. 


FIELD PROJECTS:  Course emphasis will be placed on hands-on experience with a wide variety of bird observation and sampling techniques. Field outings may include:

  • Field observations, sampling and survey techniques
  • Use of mist nets
  • Seed dispersal by birds
  • Use of rocket-, woosh, or cannon nets
  • Bird morphometric measures
  • Seabird colony visit to Bird Island
  • Dawn chorus auditory observation
  • Nocturnal bird auditory observation
  • Point count surveys
  • Habitat use vs. availability surveys
  • Nesting behavior
  • Foraging behavior


INDIVIDUAL RESEARCH PROJECTS:  Following group project completion and professor feedback, students will develop an ecological research question of their own interest, design a study, and implement the project. Students will be given independence to conduct these studies while the instructor provides oversight and mentoring as needed. Projects will culminate in presentations to the student body, faculty, and staff at the ITEC research station, as well as to interested locals. Research manuscripts from these projects will serve as the final project for the course.


BOQUETE CLOUD FOREST FIELD TRIP:  This three-day field trip takes place

midway through the course and will allow students the opportunity to

experience assemblages of birds found in tropical cloud and seasonally dry forests.  We travel in ITEC boats to the mainland and then by private bus to the town of Boquete which lies at the base of 11,000 ft. Volcan Baru.  The bus trip will take us up and over the central mountain range and through remote Palo Seco National Park.  Several stops will be made in route. 


COURSE LENGTH: ITEC Summer field courses are about four weeks in length. The TAE C-15 course will run from July 15 through August 9, 2015.


TUITION: $2150 USD.  Tuition fee includes all lodging, meals and airport transfers in Bocas del Toro.  The tuition also covers transportation and lodging during the cloud forest field trip to Boquete. 


REGISTRATION DEADLINE: June 15, 2015.  The course is limited to 10 students and applications will be evaluated as they arrive.  If you believe that your application may arrive late, notify ITEC.


GRADING and COURSE CREDIT:  Up to 6 units of credit will be given, 3 for the lecture portion and 3 for the field portion.  A letter grade will be assigned based on exams, reports, proposals, attendance at lectures, as well as by less tangibles such as personal attitude, motivation, and contribution to the course.  Course credit must be arranged through the student's institution.  Contact ITEC for details. 


APPLICATIONS can be found at: http://itec-edu.org/education-programs/application/.



A LIST OF AREA BIRDS found at the field station and adjacent mainland areas can be found at http://itec-edu.org/bocas-del-toro-bird-list/.


CONTACT:  Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation, 2911 NW 40th PL, Gainesville, FL 32605, tel: 352-367-9128, email: itec@itec-edu.org, web: http://www.itec-edu.org.  ITEC is a 501©(3) non-profit organization founded in 1996.

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