Wednesday, September 9, 2020

First birding day in a while!

An open space with a sign that reads "Keep physical distancing"

After almost six months of confinement due to the sanitary emergency, I finally went out to have a birding day, searching for shorebirds in order to participate in the World Shorebirds Day.  The high tide was quite early, so I started with the first lights.  My plan was to visit several places along the waterfront of Panama City, following the tide.  With the water level high, I chose a rocky spot that provide resting sites for tired shorebirds when they are not foraging in the mudflats.  As expected, I found some loose flocks with some of the most common species, plus rocky shores specialists, like Ruddy Turnstones and Surfbirds.  However, they were too distant for decent photos, so I concentrated my shots in some nearby targets, like the groups of Least, Semipalmated and Spotted Sandpipers that were checking the small puddles on the rocks.

Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Spotted Sandpiper

After 30 minutes carrying my backpack, camera, lens and binoculars, I realized that I was exhausted!  Certainly, the sedentary routine of my confinement had something to do with that!  The air conditioner of my car was huge relief... but I had no time to waste, the tide was retiring, exposing the mudflats of my next stop: Costa del Este.  The wetlands of the Upper Bay of Panama are of hemispheric importance for the migratory shorebirds.  Millions of birds use the area during their annual paths, the reason why Panama Audubon Society has worked incessantly in protecting the site, monitoring its birds and doing environmental education in the surrounding communities... and Costa del Este is one of those communities.  From the lookout with interpretative signs depicting shorebirds, I was able to scan the extensive mudflats at the mouth of the Matía Hernández river, adding Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied Plovers, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and, specially, thousands of Western Sandpipers, although widely dispersed.

Greater Yellowlegs
Western Sandpipers

After my short 30-min stop at Costa del Este, I went to a nearby site for a change.  If you want to see a greater diversity of species, then you need to visit different habitats, so I went to a grassy meadow with artificial ponds, known as MetroPark.  The pond had Wattled Jacanas, Black-necked Stilts and both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, while the grassland had Whimbrels and many Southern Lapwings.  I was not the only human being at the site, several people use the open spaces to work out and breath "fresh air"... of course, following the sanitary recommendations, as explained in the multiple signs all over the place (as you can see in the first photo).  My last stop was, again, a different habitat... the only sandy beach of the waterfront, right at the Panama City's coastal belt, by the mouth of the Matasnillo river.  As expected, it produced my only Sanderlings of the day.  Two pale birds were agitatedly feeding in the sand, going forth and back with the waves.  By that time, the tide was low enough to take a break until the next high tide, in the afternoon.
Southern Lapwing


For the second round, I joined my friends Rosabel Miró, Venicio "Beny" Wilson and Aitor Gonzalo, who were also participating in the World Shorebirds Day.  We were after an species that occurs near the city only at one reliable site at the West Bank of the Panama Canal.  The combination of sandy and rocky beaches with tons of bivalves and other mollusks to feed is ideal for the American Oystercatcher.  we knew a place where they breed, so we went there and were rewarded with a pair of vocalizing birds that flew right above us... what a sight!

American Oystercatchers

Pitifully, we were not able to find two plovers species that are also found at that habitat: Collared and Wilson's Plovers, which are also localized near the city.  To take advantage of the few hours of light left, we swiftly moved back to Costa del Este, where the tide cornered the birds in a section adjacent to the mangroves, where these birds spend the night.  We added Marbled Godwit to our checklists, but were impressed with the thousands of peeps present at the site, mostly Semipalmated Plovers, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Almost at night, we left the mangroves (and the mosquitoes), our final count was more than 5000 peeps in that little corner of mangroves.  At the end of the day, I managed to record 19 different species of shorebirds at, or near, Panama City.. an excellent number!  So tell me, how was your World Shorebirds Day?    

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Blooming miracle!

Finally spending some time at home thanks to some compensatory time off the hospital.  Apart of staying at home, enjoying my family, I have to admit that I get impressed by the nature around our apartment building.  This time, I noticed a blooming tree right at the social area due to some activity over its yellow flowers.
To be honest, it was the first time I noticed such a tree.  After a while I realized that there were more similar trees in the area, but only the one at the social area was in bloom.  After some research, I finally found the name of this tree: a Yellow Flame Tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum).  Native of South-east Asia, this tree now is part of our urban landscape in Panama City.  What impressed me more is the fact that, in spite of not being a native tree, its flowers attracted a huge number of critters, from bees and other bugs to hummingbirds, honeycreepers and other birds!
Just in few minutes I was able to photograph several different species of bees and related insects.  I only have a superficial idea of what they may be, but there is no doubt that this tree was a rich source of nectar for them, due to the swarms of these flying insects around it.
The usual hummingbird species were around too, both Rufous-tailed and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird were zipping around, chasing each other.  Then, I heard the characteristic metallic call of a species that I had never recorded at my house.  A quick look and I was able to find not one, but two Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds feeding on the yellow flowers!
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
The Snowy-bellied Hummingbird was new for my apartment list, another addition due to the quarantine!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Panama City Nature Challenge 2020

The present sanitary situation certainly changed the world.  The SARS-CoV-2, the infectious agent causing the COVID-19, is now widespread worldwide.  This situation affects all the spheres, including the way how we enjoy our environment.  Taking this into account, this year City Nature Challenge had a different connotation.  The organizers announced that, in order to keep the participants and the organizers safe, the challenge was no longer a competition and encouraged to document biodiversity using the iNaturalist app following the recommendations of the health authorities, which in the case of Panama meant participating from home.
In my case, living in an apartment at a highly urbanized area of the city means a relatively low biodiversity; however, I was determined to document as much living things as possible in the four days of the challenge (from April 24 to 27) from my balcony.  The view from there is dominated by a huge fig tree (Ficus benjamina) that attracts several common birds species.  My balcony list includes 142 species of birds in almost seven years.  However, I usually record 30 birds species daily.  This time, I was eager to obtain photos of those common species that I usually detect by voice-only... and I'm proud about my results!
Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet
I realized that my list of usually-heard-only species was quite long... Golden-fronted Greenlet, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Tropical Pewee are just some of them.  Anyway, taking photos of those common species more than 15 meters away is a real challenge... and those were the near ones!  Imagine taking photos of  swallows and swifts high in the skies!
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Being aware all day of what was moving outside my balcony gave results. I managed to record many migratory, but also resident bird species that I rarely observe from home.  The swallows, flycatchers, tanagers (well... both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers are not "real" tanagers) and New World warblers were well represented by migratory species, while some of the scarce residents (only few records from my balcony in seven years) were Pearl Kite (only my second record ever from my balcony!), Roadside Hawk, Lesser Swallow-tailed Kite and a flock of Wood Storks.
Scarlet Tanagers
Pearl Kite
Wood Storks
In total, I uploaded photos of 57 different bird species during the challenge.  The rest of my 74 species for the challenge were trees and plants that I found at the common areas of my apartment building, including some amazing little wild flowers that I'm still trying to identify correctly.  That was my challenge... how was your?
Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

More information on my Big Year in Panama

Just a short note.  If you browse my blog (specially last year's entries) you will have, more or less, a clear idea on how my year went.  If you want to know a little bit more about the Panama Audubon Society's 600 Club or/and my Big Year in Panama, here is the link to the lecture that I gave (in Spanish) during The 600 Club closure act, in Panama City:
With Panama Audubon Society's Proyect Manager Yenifer González
Also, here is the link to the Facebook Live interview by Rosabel Miró (Panama Audubon Society's Executive Director), held last Thursday, April 16th, that summarizes the above lecture (also in Spanish):
Hope you will enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The closing of an awesome Big-Year!

At the beginning of December 2019, my year list of birds was at 764 species for Panama.  I knew it would require a great effort to reach the Panamanian record of 800 species for a single year.  But I still had a trip to complete: a 10-days expedition to Cana, in eastern Darien province.  Cana Field Station closed operations around nine years ago due to security issues, but going there had been in my mind since I started to birdwatch.  Fortunately, the two Central America's top eBirders (Chris Fischer and Oliver Tomar) hired the top Panama's eBirder (Euclides "Kilo" Campos) to go there and I was able to join them!
The Cana trip was simply spectacular.  We hiked 120 km in 10 days!  The original plan was to hike from the town of Boca de Cupe to Cana in 2.5 days.. but rainy season was not over yet so the trails were really muddy and was very hard to walk.  Also, after former Cruce de Mono station, the jungle ate the trail, so our guides had literally to re-open it with machetes all the way to Cana.  It took us 4.5 days to reach Cana (two more days than expected, improvising two camps in the jungle).  However, we saw many birds species on the way, including my life Slate-throated Gnatcatcher and Black-billed Flycatcher.
Cruce de Mono Station
Black-billed Flycatcher
Cana is overgrown and tearing apart.. it is a shame.  The site was exploited since colonial times for its gold.  At its peak, the area housed around 20,000 inhabitants and there was a railroad in which the material was transported through broken terrain to the town of Boca de Cupe. Now there are only vestiges of that mining operation. Along the trail to Boca de Cupe you can still see sections of the rails on the forest floor, and in Cana there are still old mining machineries swallowed by the jungle.
Old gold-mining machinery at Cana

We stayed in the remains of Cana's main building.  The place still is excellent for birds... Swallow Tanagers were quite common and I got my life Cinereus Becard by the former airstrip.  The Cecropias behind the lodge were filled with fruit and birds, including obliguing Black-tipped Cotingas.
Adult male Swallow Tanager
Adult female Cinereous Becard
Adult male Black-tipped Cotinga
The hike to the upper camp was long and steep.  We got two (of four) major targets: Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant and Pirre Warbler.  We dipped on Golden-headed Quetzal and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia (I already got the latter for my year list at Rancho Plástico in March).  The eastern Darien highlands are so rich and diverse that we got an impressive list of birds, including most of the endemic specialties.  After 10 days, I got 24 new year birds, including 8 Panama lifers, so my total was 788 species by December 20th.
Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant
Pirre Warbler
With the same group (Kilo, Oliver Komar and Chris Fischer), I did a pelagic off Punta Mala on December 22th.  I left Panama City on the 21st (just one day after returning exhausted from the Cana expedition), adding Slate-colored Seedeater in Summit Ponds, and joined them in Pedasi the next day.  The sea was quite rough, but got very good birds, including my life Leach's Storm-Petrel (first photographic record for Panama) and my Panama lifer Red-footed Booby, who was my Panama bird #900 (all time Panama list I mean).  At the end of the pelagic my total was 792 species for the year.
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Some short trips around Panama City produced two more year-birds... by December 24th (my birthday), my total was 794, thanks to a Rufous-winged Tanager accompanying a mixed flock in the foothills of Cerro Azul.  My family was with me and later that day, they surprised me with an original b-day cake to celebrate my 40 years-old!
So close to the 800 mark (only 6 birds left), I organized a quick trip to Chiriqui province, in western Panama.  I took the first flight to David city on Saturday, December 28th, rented a car and drove to the Continental Divide trail in Fortuna (central Chiriqui), where I was expecting to get at least 4 new year birds... however, it was rainy, foggy and swampy due to a cold front from Bocas.  A huge treefall blocked the trail close to the beginning.. so I only got Costa Rican Warbler.  My original plan was to drive from Fortuna (with theorically 4 new year birds in the bag) to Boquete and to spent the night there.  Then, at 3 am, a truck would take me to the summit of the Baru volcano. However, with only one new year-bird, I decided to left Fortuna around 3pm, heading to Cerro Punta, where I got around 5:00pm.  I was after the Hermit Warbler that was reported at the beginning of the road to El Respingo... as soon as I started to "pish", a Hermit Warbler popped out in a pine tree!  Year-bird # 796.  Then, almost  at dark, I played the tape of Rough-legged Tyrannulet, getting a response that I was able to record (I saw the bird briefly)... year bird #797!  Then, I drove to Boquete where I spent the night.
Hermit Warbler
At 3am on Sunday, December 29th, the truck driver was picking me up at my hostel.  He was quite experienced, so he knew the places to look after my main target: the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.  In fact, at the very first stop (Potrero Mulato), we got a responsive Unspotted Saw-whet Owl that never got close enough.  But heard-only birds count too, so we kept on.  We waited for the sunrise at the summit. With first light I was able to locate a pair of Volcano Juncos at the very top of the volcan (at the cross)... no photos.. my camera was in my backpack because it was rainning!  Year bird 799!  After that, I hurried to get down to Boquete to see if I had chances to bird around Lerida or Bajo Mono.  However, my driver suggested to try the pygmy owl call at Los Fogones campsite (around 3200 meters)... to my surprise, tons of birds popped out with the call, including two females Peg-billed Finches!!!!! My year-bird #800 for 2019 and a bird I had only seen once before! That was an excellent 800 bird!
Adult female Peg-billed Finch
More relaxed, I spent the afternoon in Finca Lerida, but was not able to find any new year birds (was hoping for White-winged Tanager). During the evening flight to Panama City, the idea of actually break the record was in my mind.
The next day, Monday, December 30th, I went to my workplace extremely early... I did all my procedures and asked for a permission to leave earlier.  Took my car and drove all the way to former Fort Sherman, in Colon (Caribbean side, some 80 kms away of Panama City).  Went to Shelter Bay marina and tried my old spot for Gray Catbird.  Of course, a catbird showed itself, allowing some photos.  Year bird #801 in the bag.  I drive back to Panama City and started my afternoon journey at 3:00 pm at the office.  Now that the Atlantic bridge over the Panama Canal is open, I was able to did this micro twitch essentially using my lunch time!
Gray Catbird, record-breaking year-bird #801
By December 31st, I left Panama City with my family, heading to Penonome where we planned to receive the New Year. On route, a friend of mine (Josanel Sugasti) told me that he was seeing the Yellow-rumped Warblers at the same site where he saw them few days ago.  He waited for us at the site and, when we finally arrived, he showed me at least three birds.  That was my year-bird #802 for 2019!
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Josanel, Gloriela and me after watching my year-bird #802
Well, 802 species for Panama in 2019... birding mostly during weekends and taking advantage of free days (like Carnival, Holy week, Dias Patrios, etc..). In fact, the only ocassion I took days off of work to bird was for the Cana trip.  Also, take into consideration that I spent 5 weeks out of Panama (two week of vacations with my family, two weeks in Ithaca, NY at Cornell and one week attending several international congresses).. Not bad at all eh?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

From sea level to paramo!

Western Panama is a diverse region.  Only on its Pacific slope, you can explore lush lowland forests (although, currently, there are only a few patches left), coastal wetlands and mangrove stands in the morning, montane and sub-montane forests at midday and visit the paramos of Panama's highest peak, the Baru Volcano, to see the sunset.  I did that itinerary some months ago during my Big Year quest (OK, not exactly in the same order).  If you have the chance to bird Chiriqui province, I suggest you to follow this itinerary, starting at Chiriqui's capital city, David.
Northern Jacana
Sunrise caught me in Quebrada Berlina, at the David-Querevalo road, very close to busy David city in fact.  As you guess, I saw many common water birds, including hundreds of Cattle Egrets, Anhingas, Cormorants, gaudy Northern Jacanas, etc...  But the reason why I went there so early was not the water birds, but an emblematic species of western Panama.  Ages ago, Scarlet Macaws used to fly wild all over our western Pacific lowlands, but the pet trade, habitat loss and the use of their long and colorful feathers for regional folkloric dances decimated them, to the point that they were extirpated from mainland Panama (it last stronghold was Coiba island, off Veraguas province).  Since some years now, Scarlet Macaws have returned to the David - Querevalo area.  It is not clear if they arose from an informal re-introduction program or escapees... the truth is that now there are no doubts about the wildness of this population.
Scarlet Macaw
As expected, at least three pairs of Scarlet Macaws flew above me, with one pair staying on nearby trees, detected by their raucous calls.  I hope this population continues to grow and, eventually, reoccupy its former distribution in western Panama.  From there, I drove through agricultural landscapes and cattle pastures to the highlands.  In fact, I was willing to visit Cerro Punta area, but a car accident blocked the only access road, so I stayed around the town of Volcan, looking for mid-elevation species and mixed flocks filled with migrants... and they didn't disappoint!  A huge mixed flock with mostly migratory species showed up almost as soon as I got off the car:  Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and hordes of warblers, including Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Golden-winged, Tennessee and rare Yellow-throated Warblers allowed great views and some photos!
Yellow-throated Warbler
But I was more interested in some resident warblers.  Soon, I also found both of them... both Gray and Olive-crowned Yellowthroats.  The Gray-crowned Yellowthroat was a year-bird for me, while the Olive-crowned Yellowthroat was... well, kind of complicated.  The form present in Panama (and adjacent Costa Rica) was considered conspecific with South American Masked Yellowthroat and known as "Chiriqui Yellowthroat".  However, the last taxonomic review considered it only a form of the more widely distributed Olive-crowned Yellowthroat... a species I already saw for the year.  They sound similar, although are quite different in their head patterns.  So it was not a year-bird, but it was the first time I managed to actually see the "Chiriqui" form for the year (I heard it few months before in the same site).
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (file photo)
Olive-crowned "Chiriqui" Yellowthroat (file photo)
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat (file photo)
After noon, I hit the road again, this time I took the road that connects Volcan to Boquete, at the opposite flank of the Baru volcano.  This road transects some nice patches of forests and also get you to one of the best sites in Panama for bird photography (yes, I'm talking about Birding Paradise)... but I was in a hurry and drove directly to the charming town of Boquete, where I met my friends Howard, Dodge and Lorna.  We hired in advanced another two friends who are excellent bird guides for western Panama: Jason Lara (of Jason Lara Tours) and Raúl Velásquez.  Using a high-clearance, modified 4WD vehicle, we started our ascent to the summit of the Baru volcano around 3:00 pm.  The rough and steep 13 km-long road to the summit is only accesible with that type of vehicles, and some restrictions apply for entering it.  Of course, Jason and Raul took care of all the permits well in advance.  Of course, the road transects several habitat types, and we birded them all.  The lowest part (but well above 1800 meters) produced such beauties like Scintillant Hummingbirds, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, Flame-colored and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, more resident and migrant warblers and an exquisite pair of Resplendant Quetzals feeding on an "aguacatillo" tree.  The quetzal is the essence of the western highlands... a bird that arouses emotions both in experienced  and novice birders and even in the general population.
Adult male Resplendent Quetzal
Jason and Raul had a surprise for us.  At a known site, they started to search for a special bird for us.  Some activity of Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, plus alarm calls of Sooty Thrushes confirmed our suspicions... a top predator was close.  Some searching and there it was: a fierce Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl was steering at us trying to ignore the hordes of hummingbirds and other little birds mobbing him.
Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl
We left the pygmy-owl with his fans and keep ascending through the windy road.  Above 3000 meters, the landscape changes abruptly to paramo, the only easy accesible paramo in Panama.  Not only the vegetation, but the wildlife is very different up there.  These paramos hold very unique species for the country, including three of them that are essentially restricted to this habitat (present only in another mountain top in Panama apart of the Baru volcano) both in Panama and Costa Rica (and nowhere else), descending to lower elevations only seasonally and/or occasionally. The most common is the previously mentioned Sooty Thrush.  In spite of the boring name, this bird is really attractive and with attitude, showing no fear to the humans intruders of its reign.
Sooty Thrush
The second one is the aptly named Timberline Wren.  A real skulker, difficult to photograph, but easily detected by its nice song.  Notice how much patterned is this guy, with vibrant white facial marks and underparts.
Timberline Wren
Lastly, but not less important, a real high-elevation specialist.  The next species is rarely seen away of the paramo.  It is also the most difficult one to find... for me that is... it takes to climb all the way to the highest part of the volcano, right a t the top of it to find it... the southernmost junco, the Volcano Junco!  That is another fearless, fierce-looking marvel:
Volcano Junco (file photo)
The above is a file photo.  It took me two ascents to the Baru volcano top to finally add the junco to my year-list.  But all the effort of climbing to the roof of Panama has its benefits.. like awesome sunsets and chilly weather!
Clouded sunset from the summit
That's me at the summit of Baru volcano
At dark, it is time for owling.  The star of the show is, by far, the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.  However, it also took me two volcano climbings to add him to my year-list.  At the other hand, we were lucky enough to have crippling views of a cooperative Bare-shanked Screech-Owl.  Its distinctive vocalization was heard at several sites along the road, but this guy decided to show up right in front of us and at eye level after calling it only once.  I only took some quick shots while the bird was in the spotlight, to not disturb it.
Bare-shanked Screech-Owl
Descending the volcano road in the dark is quite scary at places, but is an exciting experience anyway!  We heard some other species in the way down, like Dusky Nightjar, but essentially were focused on the road.  We arrived at our hotel in Boquete around 11:00 pm.  As you can see, it is possible to bird starting at sea level and ending at the high paramo of the highest peak in Panama... all of this in one day.  Try it once, you won't regret it!