Sunday, May 1, 2016

Bird of the Month: Oilbird

The Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) is probably one of the most interesting and weird bird species of the Neotropic.  It is so distinctive that is the sole member of the Steatornithidae family, the only frugivorous night bird and the only one that uses echolocation while flying in the dark.  The common name refers to the nestlings, that deposit fat reserves and can be 50% heavier than adults before fledging.  In fact, Steatornis literally means "oil bird"; caripensis, refers to the Caripe region in Venezuela, where Alexander von Humboldt first described it in 1799.
Oilbird.  Photo by Osvaldo Quintero (used with permission)
Better known from South America, there are several records of Oilbirds from Panama and Costa Rica as well.  No colonies have been found so far in these countries, but the possibility of a cave full of "Guácharos" -the common Spanish name- somewhere in eastern Panama is fascinating.  Here in Panama, most of the records are from the Chagres river basin (where the above photo was taken), Panama City (where I took the photo below) and eastern Darien province (three records).  It is still considered a vagrant in our country, but there are more and more reports, now in an annual basis.  For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the Oilbird as our Bird of the Month!
Oilbird at Panama City
Literature consulted:
1. Del Risco A, Echeverri A. Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), Neotropical Birds Online (T.S. Schulenberg, Ed). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: 2011.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R. The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical: 2010.
3.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press: 1989.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

I also went after him

Just a short note.  My friend Natalia, of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, posted some photos of a shy bird that is often heard... but very difficult to see.  The bird have been resting in the same general area for about a month... a Vermiculated Screech-Owl.  So, after leaving my daughter at the school, I went with Gloriela to the PRDC where Natalia was waiting for us.  We where in a hurry, the only access to the town of Gamboa, an old one-lane bridge, would be closed to maintenance until noon, so we only had 30 minutes to find the bird.
Vermiculated (Choco) Screech-Owl
As you can see, the little guy was right where Natalia said.  The form present in central and eastern Panama (and northern South America) is sometimes separated as Choco Screech-Owl due to vocal differences compared to the rest of the population en western Panama and Central America.  Thanks Natalia for showing us this sleepy owl!

The Cerro Hoya Expedition

The Azuero Peninsula, in south-central Panama, is known by its infamous history of deforestation that began with the Spanish colonization.  However, there are still patches of wooded areas, mainly in the highlands of the southern extreme of the peninsula, specially in the Cerro Hoya massif.  This is not coincidence... the roughness of the area, and its inaccessibility prevented the destruction of this natural treasure... but also prevented its exploration, thus becoming one of the most unknown areas in Panama, ornithologically talking at least.  Home to some range-restricted and globally threatened species, the Cerro Hoya massif also host a number of montane species represented by distinct forms, isolated from similar populations by at least 150 kms.
That's why my friend Euclides "Kilo" Campos and I were so interested in climbing that mountain.  Accompanied by a visitor birder, Macklin, and organized by Kees Groenendijk (of Hotel Heliconia, he also accompanied us), the four of us set camp at 1160 meters above sea level last week... after six hours of climbing along a winding and steep trail.
Of course we birded along the trail, finding some very nice species.  We started to hear, and see, Brown-backed Doves above the 400 meters mark and to hear Azuero Parakeets above the 1000 meters mark.  Both are endemic forms, still considered subspecies of wider-ranged species, in this case, Gray-headed Dove and Painted Parakeet, respectively.  The Panama Audubon Society considers both full species, endemics to the country... quite restricted endemics by the way!
Brown-backed Dove
Also above the 400 meters mark the characteristic calls of the Three-wattled Bellbirds started to be more and more common, as well as sightings of White-ruffed Manakins.  These populations seem to reside in the area year-round.  About the bellbirds, some experts think that these birds differ vocally to the populations of the western highlands.  The far-carrying calls are impressive.  However, in spite of the loud calls, these beautifully patterned birds are quite difficult to see.  We were lucky enough to spy some males, and I managed some photos as well.
male White-ruffed Manakin
male Three-wattled Bellbird
We stayed two nights in the forest, spending one day almost entirely above the 1200 meters mark looking for montane subspecies, finding both expected and new ones for this region.  The montane forest made us wonder if we were still in the Azuero Peninsula!  There are some curiosities up there... for example, some lowlands species are found all the way up to the montane forests, like Scaly-throated Leaftosser and Cocoa Woodcreeper, certainly due to the lack of their montane counterparts in this region (in these cases, Tawny-throated Leaftosser and Spotted Woodcreeper respectively).
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Other montane species are shared with other remaining (although lower) montane areas in the Azuero Peninsula, like El Montuoso Forest Reserve.  Some of these species are widely distributed, like the Golden-crowned Warbler, while other are more local, sometimes hard to find... like the beautiful White-winged Tanager.  Cerro Hoya is probably the most reliable site to find this beauty!
Golden-crowned Warbler
male White-winged Tanager
But we were after the forms only found in the Cerro Hoya massif... and we found three of them (only missing the Selasphorus sp., probably due to lack of appropriate habitat up there).  All of them were above 1200 meters above the sea level.  The most common was the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.  This form is certainly a new subspecies... and probably a new full species!
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem ssp. nov.
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem ssp. nov.
Check this post with the rationale of why this could be a good species... you can see the differences with other forms in my photos.  The other endemic form was the White-naped Brush-Finch, ssp. azuerensis.  This form was darker in the underparts and browner in the upperparts than other forms found in Panama... it was also more arboreal and quite shy.
White-naped Brush-Finch ssp. azuerensis
The last form was the most difficult to find... in fact, we only saw two pairs, both above the 1300 meters mark: Black-cheeked Warbler.  Phenotypically, the only difference we noticed was its olive(ish) upperparts, instead of grayish.  These birds responded to recorded calls of Black-cheeked Warblers from the western highlands.
Black-cheeked Warbler ssp. nov?
As you can see, it was a quite productive trip.  We recorded 123 species for the area, including some new ones to Azuero and even one lifer!  While walking around 1300 meters above sea level, we found two chicken-sized birds walking in a small ravine... they were Rufous-necked Wood-Rails!  That evening, we heard at least two pairs at the campsite... Kilo barely managed to record part of the call with his cell phone (headphones needed).
There are only few reports of Rufous-necked Wood-Rails in Panama, where it is considered a real rarity and this is the first time the species have been recorded away from mangroves in Panama (although it has been recorded in similar habitats in other countries).  As you can see, there is still much to learn about this place, and I'm pretty sure this is not the last thing we will heard about discoveries in Cerro Hoya!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Land of Contrasts

Our duties in Bolivia were not over.  After completing successfully the first part of the XII International Course on Advances in Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy in La Paz, it was time for the 40 of us participants from 18 Latin American countries to take a 1-hour flight to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in the Amazonian lowlands.  It was a drastic change: Santa Cruz was hot, flat and green... nothing to do with La Paz.  After arrival, we had little time to visit the main plaza, including the impressive Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo and the surroundings.
Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo, Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Again, the activities of the course demanded all our time and concentration.  We had talks to attend, topics to discuss and workshops to get done at the Hospital Universitario Japones.  Every participant prepared topics in advance concerning common gastrointestinal diseases in their countries and, at the end, we presented a set of conclusions and recommendations to implement back in home.
My working group at Montero
Then it was time for the social projection of the course, we left behind the busy Santa Cruz city and moved to the town of Montero, some 50 km to the north.  There we performed endoscopic studies to the population in two intense journeys.  We stayed out of town, in a immense resort with wooded areas, a natural lagoon and lots of facilities.  My own cabin was pretty close to the lagoon and to a jogging track rich in wildlife.
I did early morning walks along this track, and the number of species was quite impressive. Not only birds, but also some mammals, like White-tailed Deers for example.
White-tailed Deer female
I got some new species for my life list of birds.  Some where straightforward, but others were more difficult to ID... for example those Thrush-like Wrens... I was not aware that the subspecies present there was essentially unspotted!  I also photographed some common species in the ground of the resort, check them out:
Rufous Hornero 
Burrowing Owl
Some of the new ones were quite common too, like these Velvet-fronted Grackles that I thought first were cowbirds until I heard them, or the Red-crested Cardinals that were everywhere.  These cardinals (two species in the resort) are not related to the northern cardinals nor to the grosbeaks, but to the colorful tanagers.
Velvet-fronted Grackles
Red-crested Cardinal
And talking about colorfulness.... one of my last lifers in Santa Cruz was a famous bird, icon of the tropics and probably the most common one in advertisements concerning paradisiacal beaches and lush forests, even in countries were this bird is not found (like Panama): Toco Toucan:
Ooops, wrong photo!
Toco Toucan
Yes, I know... is a terrible photo, but I got great views through my bins.  The bird stayed just few seconds, but it was enough to see every detail.  After all, I spend 10 days in Bolivia, a country full of contrasts, new friends and exuberant wildlife... and I hope to be back soon!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

New friends and birds in the heights

"Nobody warned us that nostalgia is the cost of having good times"  -Mario Benedetti.
La Paz, Bolivia
I just spend ten fabulous days in Bolivia.  At first, just another training course (although a renowned one) concerning my job... now, beautiful memories of what certainly was one of the best academic and socio-cultural experiences.  The XII International Course on Advances in Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy was held in La Paz, gathering together young professionals of 18 Latin American countries.  Most of us arrived one day earlier to adapt to the height... 3600 meters above sea level (4000 at the airport!) is quite impressive.  In spite of the "soroche", we had time to fraternize at the historical center of the city... the click was immediate.
Plaza Murillo, La Paz
It was an intense course, with live cases, premier conferences with international experts and long sessions, but we all were happy to share experiences and to work together.  The action was non-stop, with academic activities from dawn until sunset, and cultural events at nights.  An early start means sunrise photos.
Sunrise in La Paz
La Paz is so different to Panama City that even some common birds were lifers for me.  During the scarce spare time we got, I visited the ravine below the Zenon Iturralde park, very close to our hotel.  I got a quite impressive list... eventually; including Rufous-collared Sparrow, Great Thrush, Black-hooded Sierra-Finch, Giant Hummingbird and so on...
Black-hooded Sierra-Finch (female)
Great Thrush
I also got several Gray-bellied Flowerpiercers.  This active little bird is hard to photograph (sorry for the poor shot), but is an endemic bird to Bolivia..., found nowhere else in the globe.  They were actively visiting the flowering bushes in the ravine.  Following them up and down the stairs at 3600 meters above sea level was exhausting!
Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer
The last day of La Paz course, our hosts planned a touristic afternoon.  We visited some iconic places close to the city, like "the Animas valley", the "Zona Sur", the Cable Car to El Alto (really impressive) and the "Valle de la Luna".
I can assure you that there is nothing similar in Panama. The eroded valley attracts visitors for its strange figures.  Neil Armstrong himself named the place because of its similarity to lunar landscapes... who better to make such a comparison?  However, I don't agree.  The valley seemed full of life to me..., nothing to do with the moon: the xenophitic vegetation (something we're not used in Panama) was exuberant and beautiful.
What a great experience... but it was not over.  The second part of the course was in the city of Santa Cruz... but that is another story.  Meanwhile, let me emphasize that this was one of the best lived experiences in every way!
Group at Valle de la Luna
Love you guys!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter outing

After a long free weekend, due to the Holly Week festivities, I went with my family in a short outing to the Metropolitan Natural Park, in Panama City.  The truth is that we were just seeking to leave home for a while... and this park (mere 5 minutes from our place) is a great place to spend a couple of hours.
But first, some egg hunt!  My wife placed some decorated eggs in the woods ... my daughter found them all in a few minutes.  She still don't know the meaning of Easter... but certainly had fun looking for them in the woods!  I found my own jewels in the woods... a particular fruiting tree attended by many resident and migrant birds.  In the ground, picking up fallen fruits, was this usually-hard-to-see Orange-billed Sparrow.
Orange-billed Sparrow
It was joined by these migrants:
Bay-breasted Warblers
Yes, those were Bay-breasted Warblers picking up the fallen fruits too.  There were more in the tree itself, accompanying Chestnut-sided and Yellow Warblers (both migrants as well), and several White-shouldered Tanagers that never left the canopy.  This species exhibit a notorious sexual dimorphism... males and females look completely different.
male White-shouldered Tanager
female White-shouldered Tanager
They were joined in the canopy of the tree by this beautiful male Black-crowned Tityra.  It stayed just for a few seconds... and was alone.  We usually see pairs of tityras on fruiting trees.
male Black-crowned Tityra
As you can see, we all enjoyed our Easter.   Happy Easter to all!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

More on Coiba's fauna

If you only watch endemic birds during your visit to Coiba Island, off-shore central Panama, then you did it wrong.  Coiba is such an amazing place... rich in wildlife, most of it quite distinctive, reason why it is a national park including the surrounding waters, (rich in wildlife as well).  First of all, the boat ride from mainland is usually enriched with sightings of pelagic birds, whales and dolphins.  One of the most regular species is the Pantropical Spotted Dolphin... we found a pod of these graceful swimmers close to mainland.
Pantropical Spotted Dolphins
As its name suggests, they are widespread in tropic oceans; however, the next species is unique to Coiba.  It is pretty common and used to visitors around the rangers headquarters... in fact, I took the next photography right by the dinner hall.  As many other "endemics", this one looks rather similar to a mainland species; however, the Coiban Agouti differs in some skeletal (craneal) parameters.
Coiban Agouti
During my short visit to Coiba Island a couple of weeks ago, I managed to see many endemic subspecies of birds and mammals, including the agouti.  Curiously, the only mammal we actually targeted in this trip was not seen... but at least we heard it (or them) a couple of times.  For example, one of them vocalized at the beginning of this sound file recorded in Los Monos trail.
Did you hear it?  Listen carefully... just some howls at the very beginning.  Sometimes regarded as a good species, the Coiba Howler Monkey is most often considered a subspecies of the Mantled Howler Monkey.  When treated as full species, usually includes the Azuero Howler Monkey that is restricted (as its name suggest) to the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama... you can check some photos of this howler in this post.  Now another question.  Did you recognize the song in the sound file?  It was a White-throated Thrush, also represented by an endemic subspecies in Coiba.
The howlers were not the only primates recorded in the trip, we also saw a troop of White-faced Capuchins patrolling the beach near the rangers headquarters.  A lonely Bare-throated Tiger-Heron didn't pay too much attention to them, but they were the main starts during our departure of the island.
White-faced Capuchins (Coiba Island) 
White-faced Capuchin and Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
There are many endemic forms of animals and plants in the island... too many to list.  During a previous visit to the island I also saw the endemic subspecies of White-tailed Deer very close to the rangers headquarters... I managed a photo with a point-and-shoot camera... it is the smallest form of this widespread species.
tiny White-tailed Deer, ssp. rothschildi (Coiba Island)
Well, after all it was a great trip... birds, mammals and I not even mention ALL the lifers I got underwater while snorkeling with Kees at the coral reef in Granito de Oro Island... just another world!  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Next stop: endemic island!

I finally managed to escape Panama City for two and a half days in order to accept the great opportunity my friend Kees Groenendijk (of Hotel Heliconia Bed & Breakfast) offered time ago... a quick visit to famed Coiba Island (off-shore central Panama) in order to clean-up the endemics and specialties it has to offer.  Isolated from mainland some 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, many of its inhabitants had diverged since then into distinctive subspecies and even completely new species restricted to this island, the largest of Central America's Pacific coast.
I joined a couple of visiting Dutch birders in this journey.  With Kees as guide, we boarded our boat at the Palo Seco beach in western Azuero (close to the town of Malena where the hotel is) and headed directly to Los Pozos trail in Coiba Island.  As soon as we landed, the birds started to show up.  A mixed flock included Scrub Greenlet, Blue-gray and Crimson-backed Tanagers, Streaked Saltator, House Wren and a pair of Tropical Gnatcatchers.  All these species are represented by endemic subspecies restricted to Coiba and adjacent islands.  Most of them look very similar to the mainland congeners, except by the greenlet and the gnatcatchers.  The endemic subspecies cinericia of Tropical Gnatcatcher is distinctively darker below than other subspecies, as you can see in this male.
male Tropical Gnatcatcher (ssp. cinericia)
Los Pozos trail is flat and easy to bird.  Along it we found more Coiba's endemic subspecies, including tons of Barred Antshrikes, some Tropical Pewees, a smart Rufous-capped Warbler, a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and several Red-crowned Woodpeckers.  We also saw a pair of Yellow-bellied Elaenia and a Red-rumped Woodpecker.  The subspecies subpagana of Yellow-bellied Elaenia is not endemic... but is the only site in Panama where it is found; while the woodpecker is VERY rare (essentially absent) from western Panama.  Then, Kees noticed a call he recognized immediately... it was our main target... the endemic Coiba Spinetail!  The little bird crawled along some tangled vines carrying some nesting materials... and then it entered a nest.
Coiba Spinetail's nest
I can't show you a photo of the Coiba Spinetail... but I can show you its nest, a globular mass with a lateral entrance.  There is nothing like the Coiba Spinetail in the adjacent mainland of Panama... and the most similar species, the Rusty-backed Spinetail, lives in a different habitat at the other side of the Andes in South America!  It was a huge lifer for me!  I promise you some photos next time.
Mangroves along the San Juan river, Coiba Island 
Around noon, we left Los Pozos trail and headed to a different habitat; this time navigating through the San Juan river, admiring the impressive mangrove forest along its banks.  Many waders, herons, Yellow -Mangrove- Warblers and Great-tailed Grackles call this forest their home, but Kees was looking after a special resident for the area... a species extirpated from adjacent mainland Panama: Scarlet Macaw.
Scarlet Macaws

Coiba Island is a reserve of macaws and the only wild and viable population in Panama of this striking species.  After a couple of minutes, Kees was able to localize a pair resting under the canopy following their raucous  calls (photo above).  In spite of their size and plumage, they can be difficult to detect sometimes.  We were lucky to have this pair close enough for photos.  They were new birds for me as well.... a very colorful lifer!  After leaving the mangroves, we stopped by the former penitentiary... hundreds of Sandwich and Royal Terns were resting at the remains of the old pier, with some Black and Elegant Terns mixed in (including an anomalous Elegant Tern with red legs).
Black Tern
Elegant, Royal and Sandwich Terns 
Elegant, Royal and Sandwich Terns
We also visited Los Monos trail in order to find another endemic subspecies for Coiba.  Taxonomically talking, the situation of the next species is not clear.  Most authorities consider the Gray-headed Dove as a polytypic species spreading from SE Mexico to western Colombia; however, the form present in the Pacific slope of central Panama (essentially Azuero Peninsula and off-shore islands) is isolated from other populations, have a brighter plumage, apparently is vocally different too and probably deserves species status as Brown-backed Dove, an endemic species for Panama and represented in Coiba Island by its own endemic subspecies nominate battyi).  Well, after walking for a while, Kees located a pair of these doves on the ground.  It was dark and tangled, and my poor photos barely shows how bright this bird looks in the field.
Brown-backed Dove 
Brown-backed Dove
It is almost pale blue in the crown (instead of gray) and bright rufous in the back, with pinkish breast... simply beautiful.  By far this was my best experience with this species... not a lifer, but I only got glimpses of it during my last visit to Coiba Island many years ago.  We saw many more birds in that trail, including Lance-tailed Manakins, Tropical Parulas and White-throated Thrushes... but it was getting late and Kees had another surprise in store for us.  Our boat took us to some rocky islets to the north of the main island.  After some searching, we found three stock shorebirds with yellow legs and long bill.
Wandering Tattler
They were Wandering Tattlers, elsewhere a VERY rare migrant to Panama, but in these islets seems to be regular and even present year-round!  It was my third lifer for the day, something hard to say for me in Panama.  I want to thank Kees for this very quick trip to Coiba... I have to return someday to take better photographs!