Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Pearl Islands experience! Part II

The second day of our trip to the Pearl Islands (Gulf of Panama), Joris, Francis and your blogger host hired a boat to visit some nearby islands to Contadora; however, Joris and I decided to watch birds in the island interior during the first hours of light.  It was too early for most of the migrants... instead, we found many resident birds around the pond.  This Panama Flycatcher was particularly cooperative:
Panama Flycatcher
At the pond, several pairs of Least Grebes were quite active making display calls and exhibitions and building floating nests.  We managed some close views and photos of these birds.
Least Grebe
It was time to aboard our boat, the captain was waiting for us at Galeon beach and soon we were heading to Pacheca Island, just to the north of Contadora.  This private owned island holds one of the most important breeding colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the Panamanian Pacific... a fact that quickly became obvious... hundreds of frigatebirds flying and resting at the trees of the island... impressive!
Immature Magnificent Frigatebirds
However, both Pacheca and Pachequilla islands were covered in Blue-footed Boobies... hundreds of them!  Pachequilla was literally covered with them.  These amazing numbers of Blue-footed Boobies are not usual... they are easily seen from shore at the continent in several beaches, and hundreds of them rest in islets close to Panama City as well.
Blue-footed Boobies
Blue-footed Boobies
In the other hand, the Brown Boobies were not more than 10... and all of them at Pachequilla island.  In fact, we saw some more in the open sea during the ferry trip from Panama City.  I have to mention that this seems to be a recent shift in the boobies population in these nesting sites.  According to Angehr & Kushlan (Waterbirds 2007; 30: 335-57), the "Brown Boobies nested in similar sites as Blue-footed Boobies but were more widely distributed", and that "although commonly seen roosting in the outer islands of the Pearls, Blue-footed Boobies are relatively rare, scattered, and perhaps irregular as breeders".
Brown Boobies
However, the biggest surprise was a small group of Peruvian Boobies resting at Pachequilla island!  They were easily identified due to their contrasting white head and necks, smaller size and checkered upperparts (and, of course, none of these had blue feet).
Peruvian (and three Blue-footed) Boobies in Pachequilla island 
Peruvian and Blue-footed Boobies in Pachequilla island
We are experiencing an invasion of Peruvian Boobies in Panamanian waters, probably displaced by warmer conditions in their usual range in South America.  Until that day, they were only reported from Panama City and a nearby islet.  We were quite excited about this... but know that these are not exactly good news for the birds.  The last birds we saw while circumnavigating Pacheca island were these two American Oystercatchers... always a nice sight!
American Oystercatchers
We really had fun and enjoyed every second of this flash trip to the Pearl Islands.  Hope you enjoyed it as well!
Isleta island

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Pearl Islands experience! Part I

Originally a Panama Audubon Society's (PAS) trip, it was cancelled due to lack of quorum; however, there is something about the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama (yes, where one season of Survivors was filmed)... sun, white sands in beautiful beaches, tasty food and plenty of wildlife to enjoy.  So, instead of changing my ferry ticket to Contadora island, I decided to embark and enjoy a weekend in the archipelago.  Surprisingly, Joris and his wife Francis (two PAS members as well) were in the ferry with the same thought.     It is a 2-hours journey to the islands from Panama City, and we saw the first species from the ferry's deck.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
All the storm-petrel that we managed to ID were Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels as you can see in my marginal photo.  Of course some other more common species were noticed; however, the storm-petrels were the most interesting!  Once in Contadora, I contacted our captain (thanks to Venicio "Beny" Wilson for the contacts).  After checking at our hotels, we departed to Pedro Gonzalez Island to the south of Contadora (more or less 50 minutes away).  In the way, we saw huge flocks of Black Terns, with most of them wearing patches of alternate plumage.
Black Tern.  Notice the black patches in the underparts
Black Terns
But the most impressive beasts were two Humpback Whales (mom and calf) close enough to see every detail!  Notice in the photo how close we were to Pedro Gonzalez Island (in the background).  These whales gives birth in these waters... the calf increases rapidly in size and weight by taking the fat-rich milk from his mother while she fasts throughout the season.
Humpback Whale (and Pedro Gonzalez island in the background)
Once in Pedro Gonzalez, we checked at the naval station (as usual) and crossed the town quickly.  Pedro Gonzalez is the third largest island of the archipelago, and home of our main target: White-fringed Antwren.  There are other endemic subspecies in this archipelago, but none of this is as distinctive as the alticincta form of White-fringed Antwren.  First of all, there are no White-fringed Antwrens in continental Panama.  Second, the closest population in South America is distinctively different.
We went directly to a little creek just out of town and soon were seeing our first pair of White-fringed Antwrens, lifer for both Joris and Francis.  Just like my last time, the place was too dark for photos.  The male allowed some great views, but didn't stay long enough for photos.  The female was more cooperative.
White-fringed Antwren, female
White-fringed Antwren, female
Yes, I think these photos are better than my previous ones.  A whitish throat and yellow underparts with orangish breast is evident.  More important, she had no streaks at all in the underparts.  Many authorities place this form within the "Northern White-fringed Antwren" group, geographically logical considering its proximity; however, the lack of streaks in the underparts of the female is inconsistent.  More work is needed in this complex for sure.  We don't stayed long.  We only saw few other species in the island, but highlights were Pale-bellied Hermit and a Blackpoll Warbler working close to some antwrens in the way to the soccer field.
Central American Agouti
It was a nice first day in the Pearl Islands.  Back in Contadora I enjoyed the beautiful Playa Larga beach and saw some Central American Agouties in the hostal's backyard.  We planned with our captain to visit some sea birds colonies in nearby islands the next morning, so check it later!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

World Shorebirds Day. Part II

Due to technical problems, I was unable to post this story before (as many others as well).  Last weekend, many countries celebrated the World Shorebirds Day, and Panama was not the exception.  Many official institutions and NGOs, organized by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS), gathered in Costa del Este (Panama City) at high tide last september 6th to participate in the Shorebirds Challenge.  After the event, some PAS members stayed to count shorebirds... I joined them the next day.
Shorebirds in Costa del Este
After last sunday's coastal cleanup event in Costa del Este, I joined Rosabel Miró, Michele Caballero and others at shore in the mouth of the Matías Hernández river... the impressive diversity of shorebirds species amazed us... just the photo above shows seven shorebirds species plus Laughing Gulls and a Great Egret... can you ID these species?  Little after I took the above photo, we started to see the flocks of peeps approaching.
Mostly Western Sandpipers
Western Sandpipers
Thousands of peeps, mostly Western Sandpipers, started to appear in the exposed mudflats and in the mangroves.  These birds use the Upper Bay of Panama as feeding station during their passages or as winter grounds.  In an effort to better understand these movements, many of these birds have been ringed with flags of specific colors for each country (more about it in this post).  Earlier that day, Yenifer Díaz and Michele saw briefly one of these birds for short time but they were not able to read the characters in the flag.  Then, through the scopes, we managed to find three different birds with rings and flags.  Rosabel got this distant photo:
Banded Western Sandpiper.  Photo by Rosabel Miró
This particular bird had a muddy flag.  The other two birds had legible flags.  Both were banded almost in the same site last season earlier this year.  Simply amazing!  Only some 200 birds were banded... and we saw three of them!  However, more strange was this little guy:
Semipalmated Sandpiper
As you can see, this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper (notice the short bill)... a leucistic individual (a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation).  Is the first one I ever see... but the web is full of galleries showing these aberrant beauties.  In total, we saw 16 shorebirds species (plus another species seen the previous day)... and three banded ones!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

World Shorebirds Day

Today, september 6th, is the World Shorebirds Day... and to celebrate it many people around the world is censing its local population of shorebirds in more than 750 selected sites.  Panama was not the exception.  In order to include the general population, NGOs and public institutions, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) organized the "Shorebird Challenge" at the registered counting site in Costa del Este (Panama City).
PAS Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, listed the rules for the challenge.  Simple: each organization would be represented by 4 members (plus supporting staff) and provided with binoculares and illustrated field guides with the objective to ID the greatest number of shorebirds species with no professional aid (all these participants were non-experienced in the theme of birdwatching) in 30 minutes.  Each team was assigned an "expert" birdwatcher in charge of the checklist.  We weren't supposed to help in the ID  of any species.... just to confirm it.  All the "experts" were PAS members.
Shorebirds Challenge experts.  From left to right: Ariel Aguirre, Venicio Wilson, Michele Caballero, Jan Axel Cubilla and Yenifer Díaz
The team of the Capital District Municipality, guided by Venicio, were the undisputed winners, identifying 11 shorebirds species after sticking to its strategy of "being where the birds are"... they changed its original watching site after quickly recognizing that most of the flocks were in the other side of the river!  Good one!
1st place: Capital District Municipality team (11 species)
My own team, the crew of MarViva, a regional NGO that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, correctly identified 9 shorebirds species.  Our strategy was pretty the same of "being where the birds are"; however, we spent all the necessary time pointing out field marks and didn't make it to the other side on time (where a huge and diverse flock was resting).
2nd place: MarViva team (9 species)
Two teams identified 8 shorebirds species.  The draw was resolved by a knowledge test that won the team of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), guided by Ariel Aguirre.
3rd place: ANAM team (8 species)
Leaving then in the fourth place (also with 8 shorebirds species identified) the composite team of several NGO's and government agencies, including members of Panama's Aquatic Resources Authority (ARAP), Ramsar CREHO and Wetlands International. The last team, the representatives of the Ministry of housing and land zoning (MiViOT), identified 7 shorebirds species.  As you can see, all the government agencies and NGOs that participated have something to do with the protection of the habitat that these shorebirds need in the Upper Bay of Panama.
4th and 5th place: ARAP/CREHO/Wetlands and MiViOT teams
What a great experience.  As mentioned earlier, the site was full of shorebirds and other aquatic species... but the activities are not over... and I will show you some of the shorebirds we managed to ID in another post!

Friday, August 22, 2014

At the mouth of the Pacora river

The upper Bay of Panama comprises 48,919 ha of sandy beaches, mudflats and mangrove forests along our central Pacific coast.  The western end of this area is under great pressure by urbanization and the expansion of Panama City and, until recently, its protected status was threatened by particular and economic interests.  Iconic sites (for shorebirds watching) included in the Upper Bay are Panama Viejo, Costa del Este and Juan Díaz (although the first two are out of the protected area); however, I just visited a new site at the mouth of the Pacora river where the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) has conducted shorebirds surveys since some years now in association with others NGOs, like the National Audubon Society and the Center for Conservation Biology, among others.
That's me in Panama Viejo.  Notice the peeps in the background (photo by Osvaldo Quintero)
Getting there ain't easy... the muddy road from the Panamerican highway is slippery and rough in some sites... and it is at least a 1-hour long drive to the beach.  However, this road crosses open habitats, shrubs, gallery forests, rice fields and some wetlands that are highly diverse in terms of avian species.  We did several stops along the way to watch some interesting species... I was driving, so I did'n take so many photos in this part of the trip.  Once in the beach, we started to work..., yes, to work.  This was not an usual birding trip.  With us was a grad student in Marine Biology of the Universidad Internacional Marítima de Panamá, Stephany Carty, some volunteers, an academic advisor from the Universidad de Panama and PAS' resident biologist, Michele Caballero.
Stephany and a volunteer sampling at the study site
Stephany is doing her thesis in these mudflats, characterizing benthic organisms associated with resting and feeding areas for resident and migratory shorebirds (benthic refers to the collection of organisms living on or in sea or lakes bottom -thanks Michele for the explanation).  This and other studies have the aim to begin a process of documentation of this critical habitat with hemispheric importance for shorebirds, and the PAS is supporting these studies while at the same time makes an important work of environmental education in communities adjacent to the protected area.
Western and Least Sandpipers at the beach
In the other hand, PAS' Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, and others PAS members (including me) were searching banded shorebirds.  Last season, some sandpipers were fitted with coded leg flags allowing individual identification.  Those flags assigned for Panama were gray with black characters (as you can see in the "Pluma Fina" section of this PAS' bulletin).  We saw some huge flocks of peeps, including Semipalmated, Western and Least Sandpipers as you can see in the picture above.  We scoped them, but none of these were banded.  We also saw Black-necked Stilts, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers and my favorite shorebird: Red Knots.
Black Skimmers, Short-billed Dowitchers and Red Knots
These birds were easily identified by their pale red underparts, reminiscent of their alternate plumages.  This is an uncommon species in Panama and it seems to have declined in the last years.  In fact, this species is object of intense research because the populations wintering in South America dropped over 50% from the mid-1980s to 2003 (article in pdf here).  Not only waders, we also saw hundreds of other species, like resident Brown Pelicans and Neotropic Cormorants plus an amazing number of terns species... the most common were the Elegant Terns, but at the end we recorded six different terns species, including some uncommon Caspian Terns.
Caspian Terns
Notice the red, heavy-looking bill and the dark underside of the outer primaries in flight.  The highlight were three Common Terns seen flying first and then resting in the sand.  They are not common at all in Panama, as its name may suggest.
Common Terns, Willets and Semipalmated Plovers
In the picture above you can see the Common Terns resting close to a flock of Willets and two Semipalmated Plovers (we saw five plovers species in total).  The slender profile and black carpal bar is characteristic.  However, the most abundant (and intriguing) tern-like species was the Black Skimmer.  A huge flock of these elegant birds were resting in the beach (as you can see in the picture above with Red Knots).  But I noticed something strange when they took off... watch these photos:
Black Skimmers
Black Skimmers
Notice the gray underside of the wings (this can depend on light and angle, but compare the color with the white underparts), the thin (rather than broad) white trailing edge to the secondaries and, more important, the gray tail (instead of white).  All these marks are characteristics of the cinerascens subspecies from South America.
Black Skimmers and Marbled Godwits
The relative abundance of this subspecies with respect to the North American migrants is unknown.  Now I wonder if I have ever seen the North American subspecies niger in Panama (during my first years of birdwatching I didn't notice those details).  As you can see, you can have fun while contributing to scientific knowledge!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Owls, wine and cheese night

Every year, the Panama Audubon Society organizes the "Owls, wine and cheese night" for its members (and non-members as well) with the intention of spending a pleasant time with friends and, incidentally, find some owls.  The 16th annual meeting was held last saturday in the facilities of the Parque Municipal Summit, on the Gaillard road in the way to Gamboa.  For those who arrived early, the event started birding the Summit Ponds, that are very close to the park.  We saw several common species (personally recorded 37 different species); however, this American Crocodile was a highlight (at least for me).
American Crocodile
This was the second "Owls, wine and cheese night" for Gloriela and me.... and the first one for Gabrielle.  As usual, we started with the wine and cheese part of the event.  Ten persons attended the meeting, and we enjoyed a nice selection of cheeses, desserts and ceviche... as well as some fine wines (coke for the drivers like me).
After a while, we went out in search of some owls.  Rosabel Miró and Karl Kaufmann took the lead handling the spotlight and the recorded calls to attract the birds.  Edgar Arauz, park director and with whom we are very grateful for all the support offered, joined us while we drove slowly the paved circuit crossing clearings, shrubs, forest patches and borders.  The first night creature to appear was a Four-eyed Opossum for some of the group, but we missed it; however, we had another nice marsupial in the spotlight: a handsome Central American Woolly Opossum (Caluromys derbianus - also known as Derby's Woolly Opossum) that allowed some photos!
Central American Woolly Opossum
It was a lifer for me and for most of the participants... simply great!  And what about the owls?  Well, the only species to respond to our recorded calls was the Mottled Owl; however, while looking for the responsive owl, incidentally one of the participants found a young Spectacled Owl high in a tree!
Spectacled Owl
Why so excited?  Because my highly edited photo shows an owl that we actually SAW during the "Owls, wine and cheese night".  Traditionally no owls are seen in these events (although many are heard).  Gloriela thinks this is due to our "wine first, owls later" methodology... I think it is just luck.  In any case, it is not easy to see owls in Panama... most of them are forest dwellers that, although attracted by our recordings, usually remain just out of sight.  Even Gabrielle was excited by seeing this owl!
I also saw a Pauraque to complete the bird list for the night.  I hope to see you in the next Panama Audubon Society's "Owls, wine and cheese night"!

991 bird species for Panama!

At this point, you should know that some exciting new additions to the Panama's bird list showed up in the last couple of months, plus some rarities and range extensions too.  That's why I was invited by the Panama Audubon Society to give the lecture during the last monthly meeting.  The main objective was to talk about those new species recorded in Panama since the publication of Angehr and Dean's Field Guide to the Birds of Panama in 2010.
Photo by Rosabel Miró
I really enjoyed preparing this presentation.  First, I gave a short introduction about what a species is and the requisites to have a huge list of birds in a given area or country.  Saying this, Panama is really blessed by geographical situation, variety of habitats and more than 2000 km2 of territorial seas in two oceans... making this a 991-birds species country!  I know you have heard this before, but a country smaller than the state of South Carolina has more birds species than Alaska, Canada and United States together (with 984 species accepted by the American Birding Association).
Photo by Rosabel Miró
After this brief introduction, I talked about the stars of the night: the eleven new species of birds for the country since 2010.  One by one, I explained when, where and by whom these species were first recorded and then I added an update on the status of each species (confirmed or hypothetical, one or several records, etc...).  Personally, I have seen six of these species (Tahiti Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Whistling Heron, Pearly-breasted Cuckoo, Spot-fronted Swift and Melodious Blackbird), but certainly I have searched out the other species, dipping miserably in some occasions  (Maguari Stork, Gray-bellied Hawk, Variegated Flycatcher, Bicolored Wren and Clay-colored Sparrow)... not bad at all!
I finished the presentation with an incomplete list of the probable new additions to the list in the next months/years... who knows, maybewho knows, probably you will be the next person adding a new bird species to the Panama's list!
PAS Executive Director Rosabel Miró at the end of the lecture (photo by Michele Caballero)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Double celebration!

One day like today... but 495 years ago, Panama City was founded as the first one in the Pacific coast of the recently discovered world by the Spaniards.  According to history, it was Pedro Arias de Ávila who founded the city on august 15th, 1519.
The original city was destroyed during a pirate attack in 1671, and now only some ruins stand out (Panama Viejo).  The most impressive is the bell tower of the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Asunción (above); however, other important structures have been restored, one of the most impressive is the Convento de la Concepción where I took the photo of the virgin in the glass box below.
I'm sure the Spaniards would be impressed with the new and modern city that exists today only a few miles away from the original town; however, would be even more impressed with the Panama Canal that, coincidentally or not, was inaugurated exactly 100 years ago, on august 15th, 1914.

In fact, they were who first thought of making a canal across the isthmus to link both oceans.  Yes, in 1534, King Carlos V ordered the first feasibility studies for this project... of course, the necessary technology would not exist until the 19th century.  Now, the Panamanian are proud of this magnificent engineering work, uniting the oceans and the world!
Happy august 15th!