Monday, August 22, 2016

PAS' Owls and Wines Night

Rather than an owling trip, the Panama Audubon Society's Owls and Wines Night is more like a social event, where old and new friends meet to enjoy a pleasant night.  This year event was held in the iconic Canopy Tower at the Soberania National Park in central Panama.  I went with Gloriela and met the other ten participants a little bit before sunset... the views from the upper deck of the tower are simple overwhelming!
Jan & Gloriela
I don't know if you noticed that a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth was photo-bombing the frame! You can have eye-to-eye encounters not only with these gentile creatures, but also with some canopy-dwellers hard to see otherwise.  Here is a closer look at our friend:
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
The sloths (yes, as in plural) and birds were not the only highlights at the tower.  A set of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (one of four installed in Panama) is on the tower, and Karl Kaufmann explained to us how it works.  The Panama Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada made Panama the first country in Central America to track migratory birds this way.
Motus system
After that, we spend some time tasting fine wines and a selection of cheeses and caught up on environmental, political and religious issues... actually caught up on ALL the issues.  Time flew by so fast that we almost forget the owls... almost.  The forests around the tower are home of many different species of owls and other night creatures. So, aboard one of the Canopy Tower's modified trucks and under the guidance of Michael, we started the search.
Well, to be honest, I never expect many species "seen" on these trips... owling is not an exact science and you should aim to identify the birds by their field marks... the vocalizations in the case of owls.  Nevertheless, we tried. The night was bright clear... actually not very good for owling.  After several stops, we only heard frogs and crickets... until Michael found this guy:
Great Potoo
Not an owl, but a Great Potoo in the middle of the night waiting for insects on a pole.  It was the only night bird for the trip... but a good one.  I want to thank all the participants for the good company and the Canopy Family staff for the awesome night!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Rare migrant at the saltflats

The month of August marks the beginning of the migratory season in Panama.  All over  the country, the early migrants are showing up in both expected and unexpected sites.  One of the historical migrant traps in Panama are the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats) in Cocle province (central Panama), where I did a quick stop with my family last weekend, finding some goodies.
Black Skimmers and Royal Terns
The huge flock of Black Skimmers was accompanied with impressive numbers too of Royal Terns... none of these breed in Panama, but they are found year-round in Panama.  The skimmers, particularly, are regular in these saltflats.  Another species present year-round in Panama is the Black-necked Stilt, but they do breed in Panama... and the saltflats are one of the few breeding sites known in the country.
Black-necked Stilt
But I was more interested in those long-distance migrants that use the saltflats as a re-fueling stop in their journey to higher latitudes... some of them only spent few weeks at our country.  After checking flocks of peeps and larger shorebirds (specially both Yellowlegs), I finally found a lonely Wilson's Phalarope frenetically swimming in circle picking food from the surface.  It was far away, so my pic is essentially for documenting purposes.
A distant Wilson's Phalarope
But my big surprise was the single Stilt Sandpiper found with some Yellowlegs and Dowitchers in a shallow lagoon.  The long legs, slightly downcurved, thin bill and white eye-brow were diagnostic.
Stilt Sandpiper
The Stilt Sandpiper is a rare passage migrant through Panama. Curiously, this is my second sighting this season because we saw at least two of them some days ago to the east of Panama City in Finca Bayano.  It seems that this is going to be a good migratory season!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Visiting Finca Bayano

Since the closure of the former Tocumen marshes to birders some years ago, we have been visiting a rice farm to the east of Panama City known as Finca Bayano, looking for those open habitat species of birds difficult to find around Panama City.  The site is promising since it have a nice mixture of habitats: pastures, gallery forests, scrubs and bushes, cultivated fields and so on...  So we visited it last weekend, reaching the place at sunrise.
Finca Bayano
I joined Rosabel Miro and Bill Adsett for this birding adventure... and to be honest, I was expecting a regular day in the field, however, we soon noticed that everything was set to have a great day!  Literally hundreds of herons, egrets, ibises and storks were feeding on the flooded fields.
Well, but all these species were common ones... then we started to notice some shorebirds in the same fields... first some scattered groups... by the end of the trip we saw no less than 100 Pectoral Sandpipers, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted, Solitary, Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers... but more important, we saw at least two Stilt Sandpipers, pretty uncommon for Panama. I took a short video showing some Pectoral Sandpipers (is the first time I saw so many of them!).
video
As you can see, my digiscoping abilities are close to zero... but I just wanted to document the numbers.  The waders were not the only highlights.  We saw many species with nesting materials or feeding young.  In fact, we saw several pairs of elegant Pied Water-Tyrants making nests and at least two Pale-breasted Spinetails feeding young birds (they look rather plain).
Pied Water-Tyrant
Also impressive was the number and variety of raptors in those fields: both Caracaras, Bat and Laughing Falcons, Pearl, White-tailed and Hook-billed Kites, Common Black, Roadside, Gray-lined, Savanna and Zone-tailed Hawks were hunting all over the place... in fact, we just saw this Zone-tailed Hawk to grab a whiptail lizard from the ground.
Zone-tailed Hawk with whiptail lizard
However, the most surprising bird (at least for me) was another raptor... but not a diurnal one.  Over a field with dry grass I saw a ghostly figure approaching low to land over a bush facing away.  After a while, the bird turned its head 180º towards me... a Barn Owl was making eye-contact with me under a bright sun!
Barn Owl
Any day with an owl is a good day!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Time for changes! AOU 57th supplement.

As a mid-year tradition, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) published this month the 57th supplement to the Check-list of North American Birds.  This year's changes affect a lot the Panama bird list as well.  These changes include splits, lumps, English and Latin names changes, new orders and subfamilies and changes in the linear sequence of the list.  I will mention those splits/lumps  and names changes affecting Panama birds, but you're welcomed to check the publication to know all the other changes.  Are you ready to make some changes... you may have one or two new species in your life lists!  Lets check them out:
English and Latin names changes
  • Morphological, biogeographical and genetic data proved that the medium-sized Shearwaters do not belong to the genus Puffinus and are now named Ardenna, leaving the Latin names of the next species this way: Ardenna pacifica, Ardenna grisea and Ardenna creatopus for Wedge-tailed, Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters respectively.
  • Due to a split, the form of Green Violetear found in Costa Rica and western Panama (including Azuero Peninsula and ranging to South America) is known as Lesser Violetear (Colibri cyanotus).  The form present in Mexico and northern Central America is called now Mexican Violetear.
  • The Gray-necked Wood-Rail form found in Costa Rica, Panama and South America is called now Gray-cowled Wood-Rail (Aramides cajaneus), due to a split of the form found in Mexico and northern Central America, which is called now Russet-naped Wood-Rail (Aramides albiventris).
  • Genetic data indicate that the Yellow-breasted Crake is not closely related to Porzana, thus its new Latin name is Hapalocrex flaviventer.
  • After the taxonomic changes of the form of Black-mandibled Toucan found in Panama (the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Ramphastos ambiguus swainsoni), its name is changed into Yellow-throated Toucan... insipid, but quite descriptive and inclusive for both forms (with black and chestnut mandibles).
    Yellow-throated Toucan
  • Dusky Antbird is not a true Cercomacra antbird, and is now called Cercomacroides tyrannina.
  • Due to splits affecting mostly extralimital forms, the form of Sirystes found in Panama (and the Choco bioregion) is called Choco Sirystes and its Latin name changed to Sirystes albogriseus.
  • The Latin names of Tawny-crowned, Golden-fronted and Lesser Greenlets are changed into Tunchiornis ochraceiceps, Pachysylvia aurantiifrons and Pachysylvia decurtata.
  • The Latin name of White-thighed Swallow is changed into Atticora tibialis.
Splits and lumps
  • A long-expected change, the Blue-crowned Motmot complex have three recognized species in Mesoamerica, two of them occurring in Panama: Lesson's Motmot -instead of Blue-diademed Motmot- (Momotus lessonii) in western Panama and Whooping Motmot (Momotus subrufescens) in central and eastern Panama.  The original paper mentions a gap in the ranges of these two species in central Panama; however, probably both species occur replacing each other altitudinally in the central provinces.  You can help to better understand this by recording with photos, video and -specially- audio every Momotus motmot in that region of Panama (Cocle & Veraguas provinces and the Azuero Peninsula).
  • The Plain Wren is split into three (yes, three!) species, two of them occurring in Panama: Canebrake Wren (Cantorchilus zeledoni) in western Bocas del Toro province (already accepted by the Panama Audubon Society -PAS-) and Isthmian Wren (Cantorchilus elutus) in the rest of Panama.  By far, that's my favorite name change so far!
    Isthmian Wren!
  • The Three-striped Warbler is split into three species as well, two of them occurring in Panama: the Costa Rican Warbler (Basileuterus melanotis) of Costa Rica and western Panama (east to Veraguas) and the near-endemic Tacarcuna Warbler (Basileuterus tacarcunae) in eastern Panama and extreme northwestern Colombia.  The Tacarcuna Warbler has become very rare in its past distribution in Cerro Azul/Cerro Jefe and the Guna Yala foothills to the east of Panama City, so now it is a good time to search for it.
Clearer now?  It is time to update your records and to go out after those new species around the corner!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hello Antigua!

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Antigua, in Guatemala, for just a couple of days.  This is going to be a quite short report, since I barely had time to bird... I spend most of my time attending an academic activity.  Antigua, with its cobbled streets, colonial buildings and warm people is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its convoluted history is quite interesting.
Typical cobbled street in Antigua
Agua Volcano in the background
I have to admit that I was more interested in the natural marvels surrounding this beautiful city... not only birds, but also a landmark we are not used to see in Panama: volcanoes.  My wife warned me about the active volcanoes surrounding the city... she climbed the smoky Pacaya Volcano during her visit to the country some years ago (check this post)... but I was not prepared for the sighting of an active volcano spewing fire, lava and clouds of ash!
Fuego Volcano
I took the above photo around the corner of my hotel!  That's the Fuego Volcano in a way I never dreamed to see... scary (at least for this Panamanian)!  I tried to sleep that night trying not to think on that sight of course; instead, I thought of the new birds I was about to see, since it was my first time in northern Central America and was pretty sure that even the common birds would be lifers.  The very first bird I saw was a Great-tailed Grackle (the most common one in Panama City!)... but then I got some nice lifers right at the main plaza, like Pacific Parakeet, Inca Dove, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Black-capped Swallows and Yellow-winged Tanagers.  However, my favorite lifer at the city was the Bushy-crested Jay that I found in a wooded area very close to the hotel.
Bushy-crested Jay, adult
Bushy-crested Jay, immature
This species is restricted to northern Central America, and was conspicuous and noisy (well, is a jay after all).  It was my last life bird in the city, and I knew that I had to get out of the city into the woods if I wanted more life birds.  After a quick internet search it was clear that the place to go was Finca El Pilar, just 10 minutes away of the main plaza.   Taking advantage of the only free afternoon, I took some hours to bird the trails.  At first the activity was low... but this sign kept me optimistic!
The hummingbird feeders attracted both Violet and Cinnamon Sabrewings, Magnificent, Azure-crowned and White-eared Hummingbirds, and Green-throated Mountain-Gems (four of them life hummers for me), while White-naped Brush-Finches, Band-backed Wrens and more Bushy-crested Jays roamed the forest interior.
Cinnamon Sabrewing
White-naped (Yellow-throated) Brush-Finch
I had the trails for my own, so I was able to see some secretive forest-dwellers like Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes and even a group of Singing Quails scurrying uphill... I managed a creepy photo of one of the quails.
Singing Quail
When leaving the place, a fruiting tree by the entrance produced Brown-backed Solitaire and Gray Silky-Flycatcher, my last two life birds in Guatemala.  I know this is just a taste of the extraordinaire avifauna of Guatemala and northern Central America, and I know I will be birding this country again soon!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Impressive numbers at Boca de Pacora

The news spread through the social media... a vagrant (for Panama) Large-billed Tern appeared in the coast of the upper Bay of Panama close to the mouth of the Pacora river (Boca de Pacora) to the east of Panama City... and we were after him! Under the guidance of Karl and Rosabel Kaufmann, Stephany Carty, Rolando Jordan and your blogger host rode the intricate dirt roads through pasture lands, scrubs and patches of gallery forests in order to reach the beach.  The one-hour drive resulted in some nice birds of course, like this obliging and aptly-named Roadside Hawk.
Roadside Hawk
I took the above photo from the car... in fact, we only left the cars in order to watch a roosting Barn Owl (always nice to see an owl in daylight) and to find a calling Striped Cuckoo that turned out to be a life bird for Rolando!
Striped Cuckoo
Eventually, we reached the beach.  The surf was quite away, but the tide was raising.  The extensive mudflats were full of waders and other water birds.
Boca de Pacora beach
We checked first a sand bank where Rosabel's group saw a family of American Oystercatchers with a recently fledged young some days ago.  There are few breeding reports of this species in the upper Bay of Panama, including mine some years ago while celebrating with my wife our anniversary (check this post).  We saw at least 12 different oystercatchers at the site that day, some of them doing courtship displays.
American Oystercatchers
As the tide was rising, the birds began to gather closer to the coast.  Impressive flocks of Neotropic Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds obscured the horizon... but more important, flocks of migrants also started to appear.  It is the middle of June and these species shouldn't be in Panama... at least not in such numbers: tons of Sandwich, Gull-billed and Common Terns were quite unusual... and no less than eight Caspian Terns also add some color to the flock.
Caspian Terns
The most common species was the Black Skimmer.  Close to one hundred birds were resting at the beach.  However, these birds probably belongs to the South American subspecies cinerascens, which are larger than the North American birds, with gray wing linings and tails and thin white trailing edge to the wings.
Black Skimmers
Black Skimmers
Although we found most of the previously reported species for the area, the Large-billed Tern did not appear again.  We had to leave the place since a huge rainstorm was about to hit us, but we were happy anyway knowing that all those birds still call Panama their home!
Dark clouds over Boca de Pacora

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Stopping by the park

Exactly three years ago, I photographed a pair of Striped Owls, with my family, right in the middle of Panama City at the very popular Parque Omar (here the photos).  Today, my friend Osvaldo Quintero showed me this Striped Owl almost in the same site, over the tennis court:
Striped Owl
The Striped Owl is rarely seen in Panama City, where there is little available habitat.  This individual was discovered due to the droppings that appeared each morning on the court since some days ago.  A second individual had just left the site, according to the tennis players.  This owl is beautifully patterned in warm brown, white and black... and have the conspicuous ear-tufts associated with owls by the non-birders.
Striped Owl
After some shots, I left the site with the owl exactly in the same site.  If you want to see it just check the branches above the tennis courts over the droppings.  Happy birding!   

Monday, May 23, 2016

Stragglers and confusing

This last weekend I decided to visit the mudflats of Panama Viejo in Panama City to check the over-summering shorebirds there.  Most of the shorebirds and gulls present in that site already migrated back to their breeding grounds in the north, but a substantial number spent the summer in these beaches, enjoying the tropical sun... usually immatures and non-breeding individuals (thus contrasting with our resident species that are busy with their nesting activities or feeding young).  For my surprise, I found some stragglers still hanging around the place.  The first one was this Franklin's Gull:
Franklin's Gull
Franklin's Gull
This bird is in full alternate plumage... a real beauty!  The wing pattern, stocky shape, short bill and legs and prominent white eye-crescents separate it from the superficially similar Laughing Gulls, which are abundant even at this time of the year.  The bulk of the population migrates through Central America earlier this month, with some extraordinaire movements noticed (check this post for example).  As I mentioned, most of the over-summering birds are immatures or in non-breeding plumage, which is the case of most of the Laughing Gulls staying in Panama, like the birds in the next picture:
Elegant Tern and Laughing Gulls
All of them are Laughing Gulls, except for the lonely Elegant Tern in the center of the photo.  It is also a straggler, but this one is in basic plumage... who knows if is planning to stay longer here.  It was first reported during the Global Big Day one week ago... and is still present there.
Other birds are present just shortly during their passage to the breeding grounds.  That's the case of the White-rumped Sandpiper.  Considered very rare in Panama, it seems regular only for a week or two in mid-May at this site.  I only saw one, but the peeps were too far away to see if more were around.
White-rumped Sandpiper
Now the confusing.  I noticed this weird warbler behind me working the mid-level of the ornamental Ficus tree at the parking lot of the Visitors Center in Panama Viejo.  I have to admit that the first thing that came to my mind was some sort of Parula... but the shape/size and some features of the plumage were wrong.
Young Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler
Then, a female Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler came and started to feed the bird... problem solved!  No matters how weird it looks, think first in a common bird with atypical features than a vagrant with typical features (this is adapted from an old medical saying).   Happy birding!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Global Big Day: 2016 edition

I pounded the alarm at 2:30 am.  It was May 14th... Cornell Lab's Global Big Day.  For two years in a row, Gloriela and I decided to bird that day in Cocle province (central Panama), joining more than 50 registered participants for Panama (some of them grouped into "teams") in this rally of birding.  We stayed at our house in Penonome, from where we drove to the foothills above the town of El Cope, into the General de División Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park (the longest name of any Panamanian national park).  A constant drizzle accompanied us along the way... in fact, our first bird for the day was not a night bird, but a Great-tailed Grackle that vocalized at its roost when we were leaving Penonome.  The rain didn't stop until 6:00 am... not a single owl was recorded of course, but it stopped on time for the dawn chorus.
Some birds recorded up there include Pale-vented Thrush, Stripe-breasted Wren, Zeledon's Antbird and great views (again) of Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, but in general the activity was low due to the rain and fog, so we moved to the lowlands, making several stops along the way.  Our itinerary followed exactly the same route we did last year (check this post), checking several sites along the Panamerican highway.  At the Aguadulce Salinas we found a group of 30 Black Skimmers resting on the ground, with some waders... quite unusual for this time of the year.
distant Black Skimmers 
In the way out of Aguadulce, we kept checking birds out of our list: Pearl Kite, American Kestrel, Crested Caracara, Savanna Hawk, Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork... all were seen while driving along the highway.  We skipped Las Macanas marsh in order to reach El Agallito beach in Chitre to find more waders.  We reached the place a little bit late, and the surf was far away.
Mudflats at El Agallito
Anyway, we got both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpiper, a single Sanderling, both Yellowlegs and others more at the extensive mudflats.  As you can see, the day was cloudy... and we found rain in most of the sites that we visited, including at the supposedly driest place of Panama: Sarigua.
The Sarigua National Park is usually referred as a "desert" by the Panamanians... certainly is not a true desert  because it is full of life.  Our main target there, Common Ground-Dove, was a little bit hard to find due to the rain, but eventually we heard (and saw) an individual in a thorn bush by the road without leaving the car.  We stopped by Las Macanas marsh in the way back to Penonome; the fields surrounding the marshes were alive with dozens of both White and Glossy Ibises, lapwings, herons and egrets.  We met Hector there, a local guide and representative of the Grupo Ecoturístico Las Macanas (GEMA) who showed us a place where we saw some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Crested Bobwhites and more herons.
Glossy Ibises
Before leaving, we deliver to Hector a spotting scope donated by the Panama Audubon Society, (PAS) since GEMA always helps us with the logistics during the International Waterbird Census and is interested in preserving and sustainably develop the local ecosystem.
Hector, with the scope at the GEMA headquarters
By the time we reached Penonome it was already dark.  We decided to visit the outskirts searching for owls and nightjars.  At Gloriela's parents property we saw several Common Pauraques and heard the last bird of the day, a Tropical Screech-Owl.
Common Pauraque
It was an intense day... for us, 18-hours of continued birding, 21 complete eBird checklist and many more "incidentals" ones, hundreds of miles and 135 species.  The numbers for Panama are good too, so far we are the best Central American country and are within the world's Top-Ten!  See you next year for the Global Big Day!  

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rails and Crakes in Gamboa Ammo Dump Ponds

The Ammo Dump Ponds in the town of Gamboa (former Canal Zone) are probably one of the most birded sites in Panama.  It is a good introduction for the beginner and even veteran birders find it quite enjoyable... and add to this that almost every visiting birder to Panama stop by the ponds on route to the famed Pipeline road.  And with all that attention, it is amazing that some resident species of the pond are rare enough to attract hordes of birders when they decide to show up.  That is the case of the last discovery of my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson, when he found a Yellow-breasted Crake walking exposed close to shore one week ago.  This species is known to breed there... but there are only few records from the area.  So yesterday I went with Gloriela to the ponds, looking for the elusive bird.  My friend Howard was already there when we started to search the marshy areas.  The day was cloudy and dark... perfect for the rallids (most of them are similarly elusive species), and soon I was able to see the largest of them at the opposite side of the ponds: a Gray-necked Wood-Rail.
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
It is a distant photo, but this bird is not easy to see... not to mention to photograph.  One huge rail in the bag... but we were after the smallest one recorded in Panama, and we knew it wouldn't be an easy task.  Another good sign that the day was good to watch elusive species became in the shape of a Least Bittern flying across the pond and allowing great views with the scopes... another super elusive bird in the bag... but it was not THE bird we were looking for.  Close to us, this Rufescent Tiger-Heron decided to rest quietly.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Then, THE bird materialized like a ghost in front of Howard; we were not close to him and all his efforts to invocate the bird again only attracted a group of three White-throated Crakes to the exact place where the Yellow-breasted Crake was.  I know that feeling... when a group of fellow birders are twitching a rarity but you are the only one that manage to see it... you only want that someone else find the bird too just to prove that you are not mad after all. Of course Howard was not mad... he had a photo of THE bird that we missed... that's life!  Hey, but a group of White-throated Crakes feeding exposed is a real treat!  These birds are very common by voice at the ponds, but you never see them... and let me tell you: that was the best sighting ever of White-throated Crakes!
White-throated Crake
A little bit disappointed, we moved to the Rainforest Discovery Center in order to take our lunch... a tasty fried sea bass and some cold drinks, but first we attended a talk offered by, coincidentally, Venicio Wilson.  It was nice to hear him talking about the role of birds in the ecology of the rainforests... he almost made us forget how miserably we dipped on the crake earlier... a l m o s t.
However, after lunch, many birders decided to try the crake's spot in the way out... so we joined them.  Venicio himself showed us the exact site where he originally saw the bird and we chat about a lot of themes... the time flew with them.  Around 3:30 pm, I noticed a tiny bird at the water just in front of the group.  Skeptical, I raised my binoculars ... only could say "THERE IT IS!!!"  Yes my friends, THE bird materialized again in front of the group, nobody else noticed it before... it simply was there.
Yellow-breasted Crake
The Yellow-breasted Crake stayed for close to 15 minutes walking deliberately and feeding quietly.  Then, it flew to a nearby floating island and disappeared.  Venicio thinks that he saw a different bird... I think that only few birds are so beautiful and shy that this one.  A tiny bird... but a HUGE lifer!
Yellow-breasted Crake