Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whale watching trip to the Pearl Islands

Last weekend, I went with my family on a private tour to the Pearl Islands, the heavenly archipelago within an hour and a half from busy Panama City.  My friend Mario Ocaña organized the trip and was a terrific host, and my whole family is impressed by his professionalism and camaraderie.  Our objective was to watch whales... but it was an open itinerary, and we included some time to enjoy the beaches (as in plural!), to have lunch in Contadora island and to visit some seabirds colonies.
Ready for adventure!
In fact, the first attraction was close to the dock.  Few minutes after leaving the marina, we were admiring hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies and other seabirds resting at the Peñón de San José, a rocky islet to the south of Flamenco Island.  However, the main attraction there were the three Peruvian Boobies resting on the rocks among the Blue-footed Boobies.  They are irregular visitors to Panama (only under abnormal conditions, like El Niño).
Peruvian and Blue-footed Boobies
Blue-footed Boobies
Brown Booby
As you can see, I'm including also a photo of a Brown Booby seen later and another pic of the Blue-footed Booby, both from Pachequilla island, the first of the Pearl Islands that we visited that day.  The sight of several hundreds of seabirds on the rocks made us feel like in a Nat Geo documentary!  A little bit after leaving Pachequilla, we encountered our first pair of whales: mother and calf Humpback Whales!
Mother and calf Humpback Whales
These warm and shallow waters are perfect for the whales to raise their young.  Soon these beasts will engage on an epic transequatorial journey to their feeding grounds around Antarctica.  The second whale appeared shortly after the above pair close to Contadora island... as Mario says, the harder whale to find is the first one!
Humpback Whale (Contadora island in the background)
With the whales in the bag, we decided to enjoy the white-sanded beaches of both Mogo Mogo and Chapera islands... the Survivor: Pearl Islands sets.  We had the whole beaches for us, and the little ones enjoyed it most (specially Gabrielle, after her slight disappointment after realizing that whales were not purple, as her toy whale).
In our way to Contadora island, we saw some Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  For most of the participants, they were little dark bat-like birds flying swiftly and in zig-zag among the waves... this photo shows that they are delicately patterned in brown and buffy, with contrasting white uppertail coverts.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
And of course we saw more Humpback Whales!  Several more, including pairs of mother and calf, solitary adults and even a distant group of adults flapping their flippers and jumping out the water!  The show was amazing and soon we were joined by several other boats admiring the whales as well.
Noisy blow
The ride back to Panama City was a bumpy one, but we were more than happy after enjoying these nature marvels so close to the big, busy city.  While we were having a sunny day at the islands, a huge storm system was whipping Panama City... but we made it without experiencing any rainstorm at all!  I want to thanks Mario for the excellent trip, and hope to repeat it soon my friend!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pelagic off Western Azuero

The pelagic avifauna of Panama is essentially unknown.  Very few, if any, pelagic birding trips are done off Panamanian coasts, specially off the Azuero Peninsula (central Panama) where the Continental Shelf break is close to shore.  Several new species for Panama have been recorded in those trips in the last five years, including Tahiti Petrel, Pink-footed Shearwater and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, while many others have been confirmed and documented adequately.  That's why a pelagic trip in Panama is always exciting.  So, more or less one month ago, we took the opportunity to make a pelagic trip off the Azuero Peninsula again... but this time from its western side... departing from Reina beach close to the town of Mariato.  Our friend Kees Groenendijk (who runs the charming Heliconia B&B in the town of Malena with his wife Loes) organized everything: lodging, boat, captain (Tim), chum and snacks... so it was not difficult to convince George Angehr, Howard Laidlaw, Rafael Luck and Euclides -Kilo- Campos to join us in the adventure!
Rafael, Euclides, Howard, George, Jan and Kees
The Continental Shelf break was still one and a half our away to the south from the departing point, but the inshore waters were full of life, with American Oystercatchers and Collared Plovers at the sand of Reina beach, with over-summering Willets, Whimbrels and a lonely Spotted Sandpiper.  Soon, we started to see the first Brown and Blue-footed Boobies for the day, plus many Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans and even a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins close to Cebaco island.  Kees showed us some rocky islets close to Punta Naranjo (Azuero's southwestern corner) that were covered in Brown Noodies.  This tern is seldom seen so close to shore in Panama.
Rocky islets close to Punta Naranjo (and a Brown Pelican)
Brown Noodies 
The omnipresent Magnificent Frigatebird dwarfed the Brown Noddies, although they are quite large for a tern.
Magnificent Frigatebird and Brown Noody
At this point we started to see real pelagic birds. The Continental Shelf break drops steeply VERY close to shore in this part of the Azuero Peninsula... in fact, most of the pelagic birding was done having the southern Azuero coast within sight.  Kees started to chum at several spots along the break... soon, we were surrounded by several Black and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels attending the slick. I have to admit that this was the first time I saw those species so close and in detail!
Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels
Black Storm-Petrels
Black Storm-Petrel
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
These small tubenoses are well adapted for the rough seas, in spite of their size.  Most (if not all) of the Black Storm-Petrels seen were in wing molt, probably indicating non-breeding birds on its second cycle (year) at this date.  About the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels... I don't know if they can be ID to subspecies in the field.  Both the nominate tethys and kelsalli forms have been recorded in Panamanian waters.  These birds were evidently larger than the Least Storm-Petrels seen nearby and the wings looked narrow and long, with a shallow tail fork (they looked square-tailed in the field and in the photos), all consistent with nominate tethys.  As I mentioned earlier, we also saw some Least Storm-Petrels.  They showed little interest in the chum and only visited the slick for few seconds; however, I managed a diagnostic photo showing the graduated tail and the dark plumage resembling Black Storm-Petrel.
Least Storm-Petrel
The storm-petrels were the highlights of this trip due to the prolonged and detailed views of the birds, but we also recorded several Galapagos Shearwaters (all of them of the "light-winged" variation), a definitive Pink-footed Shearwater (fifth report for Panama, second one documented with photos) and a Nazca Booby flying to the west above the Continental Shelf break.
Galapagos Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater
Nazca Booby
The pelagic birds were not the only highlights of this trip.  At some point, we saw no less than four Humpback Whales, with one young animal leaping off the surface almost completely!  This, plus the dozens Pantropical Spotted Dolphins off shore in a feeding frenzy, the Bottlenose Dolphins inshore and the Spinner Dolphins spotted by some of the group (not by me), made it a four-species-day of cetaceans!
Humpback Whale
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
I wish to thank Kees and Loes for receiving us and for organizing this amazing trip.  I know I'll be back to western Azuero soon... and not only for the pelagic birding because the area is home to many endemic taxa and other nature marvels.  See you soon!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hungry birds

The exposed mudflats, mangroves and beaches of the Upper Bay of Panama are a very important feeding station for both migrant and resident waterbirds and waders year-round.  The simply amazing numbers of peeps and other shorebirds that spent most of their lives here are prove of that.  But this time, I want to highlight that almost during every visit I witness a waterbird catching/eating large catfishes... like this Great Egret in Costa del Este.
Great Egret
The habitat is just ideal for the catfishes, so I guess they abound and are quite easy to catch. Sometimes, the birds just take them from the mud... or, in the case of the Magnificent Frigatebirds, are stolen from other birds.  This is a repetitive scene in Panama Viejo (where I took the next photos): a lucky bird catch a fish just to be harassed by these feathered pirates... and who can resist those bandits?
Magnificent Frigatebird
The Magnificent Frigatebird is a specialized kleptoparasite... parasiting by theft.  However, as it usually happens, this frigatebird was not the only one patrolling the site and soon another individual tried to steal the prize.
Two Magnificent Frigatebirds after the fish
Seeing those two frigatebirds in the air is fun.  The large birds are extremely agile in the air, and elegant... even when they chase each other.
Agility in the air
Eventually, the catfich fell to the floor... after all, nobody knows to whom is working... the birds spend 10 minutes disputing the catfish just to give it to a cat that was just passing by.
What can I say?  Some are luckier than others!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Bird of the Month: White-rumped Sandpiper

The White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis) is a small to medium-sized shorebird, one of the largest peep species, that occurs rarely in Panama during its fantastic migrations.  Think about it... a bird that barely reach a length of 7 inches, a weight of 2 ounces and that breeds in Artic Canada and Alaska flies 15,000 km every year TWICE to and from its wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego.
White-rumped Sandpiper
After leaving their breeding grounds, these birds fly out above the Atlantic Ocean to northern South America, where they start a trans-Amazonian journey to their wintering grounds.  During the northbound passage, they reach central North America via the Caribbean.  That's why they are so rare in Panama, which is not on their usual migration route.
White-rumped Sandpiper
The slender profile is due to the elongated wings, an adaptation to their long-distance migrations.  The slightly larger size and longer legs compared to other peeps sandpipers make them easily spottable  when mixed with other species while feeding or resting.
Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers
Among the peeps, it is the only one with white upper tail coverts (the "rump"... in fact, it is dark-rumped), a field mark mostly visible when the birds flies, but sometimes while feeding or preening.  Is particularly useful if you inspect a tight flock of peeps in flight.
White-rumped Sandpiper flying
For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the White-rumped Sandpiper as our Bird of the Month!As I mentioned earlier, it is a rare transient migrant throughout Panama, always in small numbers.  It has been recorded in both coasts along the Canal Area and western Bocas del Toro.  During this last spring passage, it was recorded in the Pacific side of the Panama Canal (where I took all these photos) and Bocas del Toro... a remarkable set of reports for this species in Panama (we saw at least 15 different individuals in one site).
At least five White-rumped Sandpipers in this shot
For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the White-rumped Sandpiper as our Bird of the Month!
White-rumped Sandpipers
Literature consulted:
1.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Pres 1989.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010
3.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds.  At http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-rumped_Sandpiper/id

Monday, May 18, 2015

Roosting Owls in Metro Park

Just a VERY short note.  By now this should be past news; anyway, if you have 30 minutes free and are close to the Metropolitan Natural Park in Panama City, be sure to visit Los Caobos trail (behind the bonsai shop).  A trio of roosting Black-and-White Owls has remained for several days in the same place, virtually ignoring hikers, birders and photographers.  I found two of them last weekend... immutable as ever.
Black-and-White Owls
Finding owls as their day roost is always a treat, especially if it is as beautiful and attractive as this species. So, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lifer next door

When many people participate in a massive birding event, as last Global Big Day, it is inevitable that some rare or exotic species will be reported.  While reviewing the Panama numbers (620 species, so far!), I noticed three rare species reported for the Canal Area and Panama City that were potential life birds for me.  One of them was reported very close to my home, in the exposed mudflats of Panama Viejo.  So, taking advantage of my lunch time, I grab my bins and camera and headed that way.  The first thing I noticed was the huge number of migrant Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers.
Short-billed Dowitchers 
Black-bellied Plovers
I was interested in the peeps that use these mudflats, but most of them were far away following the retiring tide.  Not enough with that, it started to rain and I had to seek refuge in my car several times due to the short showers that prevented me to review thoroughly the flocks.  Well, at least I found the continuing American White Pelican mixed in with the Brown Pelicans (can you find it?).
Brown and American White Pelicans
During one of those moments waiting inside the car facing the mudflats, I noticed a small flock of peeps approaching from the mangrove island.  I hurried to check them.  Initially, nothing out of the ordinary.  Then, one of the peeps caught my attention.  The flock included both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers... but one of them looked "wrong".
A Western/Semipalmated Sandpiper and a...
The birds flew closer and I was able to relocate the bird, this time it was close enough to confirm my initial suspicion: a White-rumped Sandpiper!!!
White-rumped Sandpiper
Notice the slender profile due to its long wings and the more angled position while feeding compared to the other peeps.  I also noticed that the wing tips crossed each other after passing the end of the tail and the finely streaked breast and flanks.  I know these are awful photos... but it is a rare passage migrant in Panama, and a lifer for me (did I mention that already?).  The flock only stayed for less than 5 minutes in front of the Visitors Center before flying away.  When leaving, I managed some last shots of my lifer:
White-rumped Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Any doubt?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Our Global Big Day

Last May 9th was held the Cornell Lab's Global Big Day around the world, and Panama was not the exception.  In fact, Cornell's Team Sapsucker did its big day in our country, with amazing results.  Of course, my wife and I participated in this great event, and instead of choosing a route along the Canal Area and Panama City (aiming to a probable list of more than 200 birds), we decided to mobilize towards the interior of the country to begin our count in the foothills of Coclé province.  We stayed at some lovely cabins the previous day above the town of El Cope, where we finalized the details for the big day.
That's Gloriela "finalizing the details"
The alarm went off at 3:30 am.  We hardly sleep last night thinking about the day that awaited us.  As we loaded the car, we heard the distinctive nasal call of a Common Nighthawk above us, making it our first species for the day!  Our plan was to drive the dirt road all the way to the General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park, best known as El Cope NP (as you can see it has the longest name for a national park in Panama), and spent one to two hours owling; however, our car was unable to climb a slippery slope almost one mile before the park entrance (then we learned that day that no one could climb the slope), so we had to walk upslope in the dark, reaching the park entrance short before sunrise (I took the next photo later, with better light of course).
The place was foggy, dark and windy... and we heard few species during the dawn chorus (and no owls).  We waited a while to walk the trails inside the park... it was too dark to see anything, so we birded by ear...  I was in charge of the identification issues, bird photography and driving; Gloriela, of annotating the species, individuals, effort data and non-bird photography.  For no apparent reason, we called our team "The Penguin Squad" (yes, I know, we were only two of us... but it sounds cool).
The foothill forests of this national park are the most beautiful in Panama, and are the extreme eastern end of the range of several western species, like Chiriquí Quail-Dove and Black-breasted Wood-Quail (both heard at dawn).  Other species are more widespread, like Black Guan, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Pale-vented Thrush and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus, among others.
A shy Black Guan
Purplish-backed Quail-Dove
The Black Guan (found by Gloriela by the Visitors Center) was the only one for Panama during the event, so far.  The day was low... and we feared we would not have enough time to find some key species; however, we found our friend José Pérez and his wife Yissel birding along the main road inside the park.  They planned to bird most of the day and to submit their sightings to eBird, so we thought the place was well-covered and decided to start our way down to the car, with roughly 50 different species for the site after four hours.  We added many more species in the way down, with mixed flocks of tanagers and honeycreepers as the main highlights.  In the way down to the dry lowlands, we picked up new species everywhere: Boat-billed Flycatcher and Buff-throated Saltator at the town of El Cope, Brown-throated Parakeets, meadowlarks and Zone-tailed Hawk at La Candelaria, tons of herons, egrets and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures at the Rio Grande savannas, and so on... eventually reaching the Aguadulces Salinas (saltflats).
A monument to the salt workers at Aguadulce
It was a little bit dissapointing... the saltflats were devoid of birds, dry and hot.  The things looked better at El Salado beach, where the exposed mudflats (part of the Parita Gulf) attracted the first waders for our day list: Whimbrels, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers and Black-necked Stilts, among others, were new for the day.  Leaving Aguadulce, we headed west along the Panamerican highway and then south, along the National highway into Herrera province... becoming the only eBirders for that province during the event.  Our first stop was the Santamaría ricefields, adding Savanna Hawk and Glossy Ibis.  Then, we headed to Las Macanas marsh.  Again, hot and dry... but at least we managed some great additions to our list, including this Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl:
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
The big lagoon was full of herons, including an absurd number of Great Blue Herons, Caspian Terns, Blue-winged Teals and two Lesser Scaups.  Several new species in that site... but we had to move.  Our next stop was the most arid and dry place visited on our trip, and protected by its own national park too: Sarigua.
Notice the barren terrain and the xerophytic vegetation in the above picture.  Probably not the first option for a bird-a-thon like this; however, because this was a nation-wide effort, we chose this place to look for a localized species.  It took some time before finding our goal.  Despite its name, this species is actually "common" only in Sarigua.
Common Ground-Dove
Yes, Common Ground-Dove!  The Panamanian population is isolated from populations both to the north and south, and probably merits recognition as a distinctive subspecies.  We found three different pairs close to the ranger station.  We also saw (and heard) several White-winged Doves, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyants and grassquits.
Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant
As expected, the place was very hot... so we headed to Chitré (Herrera province capital city), and then to El Agallito beach.   Although we reached the place late in the afternoon, the tide was just raising... and the exposed mudflats were extensive.  From shore we were able to spot hundreds of waders in the distance... so we put on our rubber boots and started to walk towards them.  And what a great place... flocks of Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and five plover species among many more were wading on these mudflats.
That's me, looking for some shorebirds
When the sun began to hide, we picked the last diurnal species along the highway back to Penonome, where we were going to spent the night (at our house, of course).  We reached Penonome at night, and after a short break for dinner, we found Common Pauraque and Tropical Screech-Owl at 9:30 pm... making it a 19-hours day of intense birding!  After traveling 300 km by car and over 5 km on foot, 14 complete checklists (and other 9 incidental sightings) and lots of cokes and snacks, we managed to record 151 species for the day!  We had a lot of fun participating in this first Global Big Day, and it seems that Panama did very well... with more than 600 species recorded for the day.  What an achievement!