Monday, November 17, 2014

At the highlands with family and warblers!

Taking advantage of one of these long weekends, I went with my extended family to spent some time relaxing in the highland town of Paso Ancho, close to Volcán, in Chiriquí province.  Although not a birding trip, I still enjoyed some resident and migrant warblers that call the highlands their home.  We spent most of the days at a comfortable cabin watching the children playing in the garden, grilling on the barbecue or just chatting.
Gabrielle and her cousins, Ana, Givellis and Kevin
Right at the garden, some common species showed up, including Blue-gray and Flame-colored Tanagers, Yellow-billed Siskins and Rufous-collared Sparrows.  However, I was interested in some common migrant warblers.  The first one spotted was the Wilson's Warbler.
A very bad shot of an adult male Flame-colored Tanager... this bird is well-named!
Adult male Wilson's Warbler
This is the most common warbler wintering in the highlands, found essentially everywhere!  The black cap is characteristic of the adult males... but the bright overall yellow coloration is enough to ID this species.  Then, I spied two other migrant species.  These were working the non-native pine trees next to the property.
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler 
As you can see, both the Black-throated Green and the Black-and-white Warblers (both females) were close enough to snap a shot... something quite hard with these restless birds.  We call the latter species the "Creeper Warbler" due to its unique habit of climbing trunks, sometimes upside down, very creeper-like.  The Black-and-white Warbler is very common during the winter through all Panama.  At the other side, the Black-throated Green Warbler is also common during the winter, but only at the highlands; however, it is a frequent passage migrant in the rest of the country.  Both these species are, in fact, more common and widespread than some resident species.  One morning, I went with Gloriela to the Macho de Monte canyon, at the foothills below Volcan... there, we saw one of these resident warblers... the smart Buff-rumped Warbler.
Buff-rumped Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
In comparison with the typical and familiar warblers, this species exhibit a different behavior.  It is terrestrial, always found close to water... usually rushing streams, flicking its expressive tail from side to side.  Certainly the Macho de Monte canyon is a great place to find this species... and a nice touristic attraction too!
Macho de Monte canyon
The Buff-rumped Warbler was not the only river-dweller bird we saw that morning.  A Spotted Sandpiper and a pair of Black Phoebes were present too.  In previous visits we had seen Torrent Tyrannulets and American Dippers as well!
Spotted Sandpiper and Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe
Well, a trip to the highlands is always a nice trip.  Of course, we ended it with the traditional stop at the dessert shop to enjoy some sweet strawberries with cream!
Gabrielle, Gloriela and... strawberries!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ten years counting migrant raptors!

Today was the closure of this season's hawk count over the Ancon Hill in Panama City.  This was a record year, including the largest number of diurnal raptors counted in one day: 2,105,060 bird in November 2nd!
Turkey Vultures
Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawk
For ten years now, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) has organized these counts with the intention to monitor the migration of these species throughout the region.  Panama City is right under the path of these migrating kettles, so every year we marvel at this magnificent spectacle that nature gives us.  Many species of diurnal raptors migrate through Panama, but the most conspicuous are the Turkey Vultures and both Swainson's and Broad-winged Hawks.
Swainson's Hawk (adult, pale phase)
Swainson's Hawk (immature, dark phase)
Broad-winged Hawk
I want to thank the PAS and all the counters and volunteers who every year perform this arduous task. For them, CONGRATULATIONS!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Twitching Avocets!

Just a quick note.  I don't know how, but I roamed furiously through Panama City's traffic jam in peak hour, reaching Panama Viejo around 4:30 pm, just with enough sunlight to capture some images.  My intention: to see the vagrant American Avocet, re-located in this site two days ago (again, notified by my friend José Tejada).  I say re-located because another friend of mine, Carlos Bethancourt, told me about this species in early October.  This time, two birds were seen... and some astonishing photographs were posted in the social networks.  As soon as I got there, I saw my friend Alexis Guevara searching the mudflats with his lovely family.  They just saw the avocet, and his little daughter, Querula, described the elegant bird in detail... a lifer for her.  Soon, he showed me the bird... a single American Avocet was feeding actively in the surf... pretty far away.  I manage some -VERY- distant shots.
American Avocet and Black-necked Stilts
American Avocet and Brown Pelicans
In spite of the distance, this bird is unmistakable!  The bird flew close to a flock of Black-necked Stilts and then started to walk towards us... still quite distant, but we got some terrific scoped views anyway.  I tried to digiscope it with my phone camera; however, my digiscoping skills are close to zero, so I will not hurt your eyesight showing those pictures here... instead, more cropped (and highly edited) pictures.
American Avocet
American Avocet
There are only a handful of records for American Avocets in Panama, including a group that spend some months in nearby Costa del Este (less than 1 mile away) back in 2012 (my own experience here) and a single individual in Juan Díaz (also nearby), back in september 2010 (report here).  If you still need this beautiful vagrant for your Panama List (or Life List), go to Panama Viejo's Visitor Center, walk across the parking lot towards the sea and then check the little creek to the right... don't miss this opportunity! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ducks at the Marina

After the exciting news of rare migrant ducks in the Chagres river posted by my friend Jose Tejada in the media networks, I went with my friend Rafael Luck to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort's Marina to check them out.  Early in the morning, we inspected the river close to the docks and quickly found some of the species plus two resident ones (Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Muscovy Ducks); however, the restaurant, with its balcony overviewing the river (supposedly the best site for spotting the birds), was closed. This young American Crocodile right at the ramp was a nice surprise.
American Crocodile
After recording some common species, we met Rafael Lau and José Soto.  I know José from a while now, he is a chief guide at the resort, and he was planning to see to ducks as well.  He kindly invited us aboard a small boat to explore the shores of the river, in a mini birding-by-boat tour (recommended).  These Mangrove Swallows greeted us while we were leaving.
Mangrove Swallows
And soon we relocate some of the species we already had seen earlier.  Close to the dock, three Blue-winged Teals were accompanied by a Northern Shoveler.  The teals are very common in Panama during the winter (in fact, we saw many more later); however, the shoveler is a rarity down here.
Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teals
Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teals 
After some photographs, we navigated upriver, dodging the islands of floating vegetation and seeing some common inhabitants of this habitat.  Some aquatic species are specially adapted to walk in this vegetation without sinking.  They have specialized long toes to better distribute their weights.
Wattled Jacana
Purple Gallinule
The Wattled Jacana and the Purple Gallinule are very common there.  Notice the long toes of the gallinule... those of the jacana are even longer!  Notice also de frontal shield these birds exhibit protruding from the base to the upper bill.  Since these birds forage through dense vegetation, this shields may protect their heads and eyes; however, the shape, size and color of these shields are hormone-dependent, so involved in courtship display and territorial defense.  These were not the only birds with frontal shields in the river.  The most common aquatic bird was the Common Gallinule, but we also found some migrant American Coots as well, both species exhibiting frontal shields.
Common Gallinules and an American Coot
American Coots
The American Coot is regular in these waters, sometimes in amazing numbers.  In the rest of Panama is an uncommon winter resident.  However, we were looking for some rarer migrants.  José headed back to the dock, this time we checked the area in front of the restaurant's balcony, which was open and full of birders as well... and for a good reason... three American Wigeons (two hens and a drake) were swimming in front of them!
American Wigeons
Eventually, they flew away.  I managed some flight shots showing the wing pattern, important for the identification of members of this family.
American Wigeon
American Wigeon
Although rare, the American Wigeon has proven to be regular in some sites (usually in small numbers) in recent winters.  However, the next species is both a rare and irregular winter visitor to our country.
Ring-necked Ducks
Ring-necked Duck
Yes, three Ring-necked Ducks were also present, allowing great views and some nice photos.  In these birds notice the peaked head, dark crown, white eye-ring (with faint pale line behind it), pale neck collar and pale ring to the bill.  Other shots showed the pale vertical mark on side of chest.  All these features separate this species from the similar Lesser Scaup hen (we saw a drake Lesser Scaup earlier).  What a nice day!  Seven (7) duck species in a single spot in Panama.  Even though I did not break my personal record of eight species in a single spot for one day (check this post), it remains an extraordinary number for Panama
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
I want to thank José and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort staff for their kindness and availability to show these species in a comfortable way.   In just a couple of hours, we saw and hear 60 species of birds (eBird list here).  Do not miss the opportunity to see these rare species in Panama!   

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Nazca Booby

The Nazca Booby (Sula granti) is a highly pelagic species of the eastern Pacific and endemic breeder to the Nazca plate, hence the name.  Formerly considered a subspecies of the more widespread Masked Booby, they were split based on physical, ecological and genetic differences.
Nazca Booby
This is a large and elegant species that usually nest in cliffs and steep slopes in remote islands and atolls.  At sea, it feed by plunge-dives from various heights.  As all the boobies and gannets, it has specialized reinforced skulls and air sacs at neck and shoulders to cushion the impact.
Nazca Booby
It is less prone than other boobies to follow ships; instead, they will circle the ship once to then follow its path.  However, this behaviour is enough to get good chances for photos!
Nazca Booby
In Panama, it is rarely (if ever) seen from shore or inside the Panama Gulf.  You need to venture out of the Continental Shelf to see this beautiful sea bird.  For these, and many other reasons, is why wew chose the Nazca Booby as our Bird of the Month!
Nazca Booby
Literature consulted:
1.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press 1989.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona tropical 2010.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pelagic off Pedasi

Pelagic birding is always fascinating... the idea of chasing birds that only land to nest in remote islands, with some of them crossing the world to visit our seas, is just overwhelming!  Our knowledge in Panama about our pelagic birds is limited, so there is plenty of room for new discoveries.  That's why I did not think twice when I was offered the opportunity to participate on a pelagic trip off the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama from the charming town of Pedasi, last weekend.
Sunrise at El Arenal
So I joined George Angehr, Rafael Luck and Euclides "Kilo" Campos aboard a 30 ft sport fishing boat anchored at El Arenal beach, just few minutes from town.  Our captain Jeff and his crew member "Lito" were willing to make our trip enjoyable as possible, so they received us with a cup of hot coffee and explained some safety issues before departing.  Jeff is experienced in this kind of trips, since he was the captain of our last pelagic (back in 2010) and, of course, of the most recent trip earlier this year (report here).
Euclides "Kilo" Campos, George Angehr, Jan Axel Cubilla and Rafael Luck
Good fortune smiled on us from the beginning... the sea was calm as a mirror in El Arenal, and remained so throughout the trip... no seasickness at all (except when Lito mixed up the chum... more on that later).  Also, our captain managed to keep us in schedule and to avoid the thunderstorms that approached from several directions!  We planned a 8-hours trip out at the sea with the intention to visit two seamounts to the south and south-east of Punta Mala, one of these surrounded by 1000-meters depth where we saw a Tahiti Petrel (the first for Panama) in 2010.  We got some common in-shore species the first hour of the trip, like Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Boobies.
A shy Brown Booby
Soon, we started to see more pelagic species.  Not exactly tubenoses, but some interesting species like Sooty, Black and Common Terns.  The later prove quite difficult to ID at sea wearing its winter plumage.  Of course, we were on the search for some rarer terns (like Artic or Roseate Terns for example)... but the photos were pretty useful for ID purposes.
Common Tern
We reached the first seamount by 8:00 am (N 7º 14' 52.0'', W -80º 1' 0.2'').  The idea was to spent at least one hour at each seamount chumming.  Our chum consisted in a mixture of fish oil, some cans of tuna, sardines and popcorn.  We only had two gallons of fish oil, which is hard to find in Panama.  However, I want to thank Fulo Motta and Lily Vallarino who kindly donated the oil and who seemed really interested when Rafael explained them what we would do with it!  Instead of throwing bait overboard constantly to create a wake behind the boat, we decided to throw some to create a "stain" to then navigate around it by making wide circles, waiting for the tubenoses!
Bucket of chum... stinky!
We were surprised by the strong smell of this modest mixture... as soon as Lito started to mix it up, the stench penetrated directly to our medulla oblongata!  Kilo and I struggled to avoid throwing up at the time (we were really close to the chum).  Thank God we got used quickly... and the chum started to work... and boy, it did it!  A medium-sized bird approached swiftly gliding low over the waves, arcing and banking with its long wings.  Dark brown overall with contrasting, well demarcated white lower breast and ventral parts... Kilo and I shouted at the same time TAHITI PETREL!!!
Tahiti Petrel
Tahiti Petrel

The moment was so sublime that even George  thought we were joking... a Tahiti Petrel was inspecting  the stain of chum, allowing great views and photos as well (all the bird photos in this post are mine... If you want to see some really great photos of this trip, check Rafael's at the report in Xenornis).  Size, all-dark throat, lack of white leading edge to the wings and pale rump separates this species from other very similar (although unexpected) tubenoses, including Phoenix Petrel.  In fact, these photos confirm its presence in Panama waters, because it was considered hypothetical for Panama.
Tahiti Petrel with southern Azuero in the background

Eventually, we saw two birds at the same time!  I really like the above photo because you can see how close to mainland we were... that is the charm of this region ... the continental shelf ends abruptly near the coast here, allowing us to have these experiences.  The Tahiti Petrel was not the only species attracted to by the chum... three species of Storm-Petrels decided to show up as well.  I had seen both Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels before in Peru and Panama... but the Least Storm-Petrel was a life bird for me... the first for the day!
The Black Storm-Petrels are not really "black"

After this success at the first seamount, we decided to go to the next one, which seemed even more promising given the proximity to really deep waters.  On route we started to see our first shearwaters, plus another species already recorded, like Brown Boobies and Sooty Terns.  The first shearwaters to appear were the Galapagos Shearwaters.  This species is regular and common (at least in september and october) and so far all seem to be of the "pale underwing form" (there is some variation in the underwing pattern of this taxa).
Galapagos Shearwaters (pale underwing form)
Then came the second most common shearwater for this time of the year, the Wedge-tailed Shearwater.  My photos shows an individual in pale-phase, by far the most common out there; however, we also saw a dark-phase individual (photo in Xenornis).  Notice the slender profile accentuated by the long tail and long, dark bill.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater (pale phase)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater (pale phase)
After two hours, we finally reached the second seamount (N 7º 18' 31.7'', W -79º 39' 43.1'') and started to chum again, this time with no adverse effects at all.  This time, the birds were slow to appear; however, the first one to show up was... you guessed it, a Tahiti Petrel again!!!
Our third Tahiti Petrel for the day!
Tahiti Petrel over the waves
The photos showed a different bird to the two others we encountered before in the first seamount (notice the molt in the flight feathers)... simply amazing!  But soon things got better... our captain warned us that a white bird was flying in front of the boat heading to port... so I hurried in that direction in order to catch a distant Nazca Booby that seemed to be just passing (completely ignoring us).
Nazca Booby
It was a lifer for me as well!  And a long expected one.  I managed to get the distant photo above showing the diagnostic orange bill.  The bird disappeared in the waves soon after that.  And we started to see Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  At one point, we saw three of them at the same time... a low number considering previous experiences with this species in these waters.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
We were running out of time, so we started the way back.  By 12:30 pm, we saw a huge flock of shearwaters and terns close to the surface.  According to Lito, this was a feeding frenzy over a school of tuna, so we headed there.  The activity was fast... and furious.  Soon, a Pomarine Jaeger (the second for the day) inspected our wake, followed closely by our second Nazca Booby!  This time, the bird circled us once (allowing great photos) and lost interest.
Nazca Booby 
We finally managed to spot a definitive Sooty Shearwater (after several false alarms, including the dark-phase Wedge-tailed Shearwater of which I spoke earlier), the silvery wing linings literally shone.  We are pretty sure that it was not alone, but we were not able to inspect all the flock due to lack of time.  The big surprise came shortly after this.  Three shearwaters were approaching the boat from the bow to port flying just a few feet above the waves... I called them first Wedge-taileds due to their size and general pattern and started to shoot them; however, I realized that they looked stockier and not as long-tailed, so I yelled to Rafael to shoot them with his full-frame camera, which he did when the birds made ​​an U-turn and began to approach from astern.
By that time, I just thought it was a good opportunity to photograph the birds, as they were passing close... I shoot them again, but this time managing only to capture the back of one of them.
It was not until I reviewed my first photo that I realized that these birds were in fact PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATERS... a species that I had seen twice in Peru in large numbers, but ever recorded for Panama... I grabbed Rafael's camera and started to see his photos as well... simply WOW!!!  He managed excellent shots of these birds!  The stocky shape, lack of white in the rump and the heavy looking, pale bill with black tip are good field marks.
Pink-footed Shearwater
In the cropped photo above is evident the underwing pattern... even the pale legs are visible (almost reaching the tip of the tail)!  If accepted, this would be a new addition to Panama's bird list.  Certainly, a successful trip... two life birds, another two Panama life birds, one confirmed species and another new to the country!  This only proves that we need to venture more often to these depths in order to better understand the occurrence and distribution of these pelagic species in our country.