Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Panama City Nature Challenge 2020

The present sanitary situation certainly changed the world.  The SARS-CoV-2, the infectious agent causing the COVID-19, is now widespread worldwide.  This situation affects all the spheres, including the way how we enjoy our environment.  Taking this into account, this year City Nature Challenge had a different connotation.  The organizers announced that, in order to keep the participants and the organizers safe, the challenge was no longer a competition and encouraged to document biodiversity using the iNaturalist app following the recommendations of the health authorities, which in the case of Panama meant participating from home.
In my case, living in an apartment at a highly urbanized area of the city means a relatively low biodiversity; however, I was determined to document as much living things as possible in the four days of the challenge (from April 24 to 27) from my balcony.  The view from there is dominated by a huge fig tree (Ficus benjamina) that attracts several common birds species.  My balcony list includes 142 species of birds in almost seven years.  However, I usually record 30 birds species daily.  This time, I was eager to obtain photos of those common species that I usually detect by voice-only... and I'm proud about my results!
Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet
I realized that my list of usually-heard-only species was quite long... Golden-fronted Greenlet, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Tropical Pewee are just some of them.  Anyway, taking photos of those common species more than 15 meters away is a real challenge... and those were the near ones!  Imagine taking photos of  swallows and swifts high in the skies!
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Being aware all day of what was moving outside my balcony gave results. I managed to record many migratory, but also resident bird species that I rarely observe from home.  The swallows, flycatchers, tanagers (well... both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers are not "real" tanagers) and New World warblers were well represented by migratory species, while some of the scarce residents (only few records from my balcony in seven years) were Pearl Kite (only my second record ever from my balcony!), Roadside Hawk, Lesser Swallow-tailed Kite and a flock of Wood Storks.
Scarlet Tanagers
Pearl Kite
Wood Storks
In total, I uploaded photos of 57 different bird species during the challenge.  The rest of my 74 species for the challenge were trees and plants that I found at the common areas of my apartment building, including some amazing little wild flowers that I'm still trying to identify correctly.  That was my challenge... how was your?
Oleander (Nerium oleander)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

More information on my Big Year in Panama

Just a short note.  If you browse my blog (specially last year's entries) you will have, more or less, a clear idea on how my year went.  If you want to know a little bit more about the Panama Audubon Society's 600 Club or/and my Big Year in Panama, here is the link to the lecture that I gave (in Spanish) during The 600 Club closure act, in Panama City:
With Panama Audubon Society's Proyect Manager Yenifer González
Also, here is the link to the Facebook Live interview by Rosabel Miró (Panama Audubon Society's Executive Director), held last Thursday, April 16th, that summarizes the above lecture (also in Spanish):
Hope you will enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The closing of an awesome Big-Year!

At the beginning of December 2019, my year list of birds was at 764 species for Panama.  I knew it would require a great effort to reach the Panamanian record of 800 species for a single year.  But I still had a trip to complete: a 10-days expedition to Cana, in eastern Darien province.  Cana Field Station closed operations around nine years ago due to security issues, but going there had been in my mind since I started to birdwatch.  Fortunately, the two Central America's top eBirders (Chris Fischer and Oliver Tomar) hired the top Panama's eBirder (Euclides "Kilo" Campos) to go there and I was able to join them!
The Cana trip was simply spectacular.  We hiked 120 km in 10 days!  The original plan was to hike from the town of Boca de Cupe to Cana in 2.5 days.. but rainy season was not over yet so the trails were really muddy and was very hard to walk.  Also, after former Cruce de Mono station, the jungle ate the trail, so our guides had literally to re-open it with machetes all the way to Cana.  It took us 4.5 days to reach Cana (two more days than expected, improvising two camps in the jungle).  However, we saw many birds species on the way, including my life Slate-throated Gnatcatcher and Black-billed Flycatcher.
Cruce de Mono Station
Black-billed Flycatcher
Cana is overgrown and tearing apart.. it is a shame.  The site was exploited since colonial times for its gold.  At its peak, the area housed around 20,000 inhabitants and there was a railroad in which the material was transported through broken terrain to the town of Boca de Cupe. Now there are only vestiges of that mining operation. Along the trail to Boca de Cupe you can still see sections of the rails on the forest floor, and in Cana there are still old mining machineries swallowed by the jungle.
Old gold-mining machinery at Cana

We stayed in the remains of Cana's main building.  The place still is excellent for birds... Swallow Tanagers were quite common and I got my life Cinereus Becard by the former airstrip.  The Cecropias behind the lodge were filled with fruit and birds, including obliguing Black-tipped Cotingas.
Adult male Swallow Tanager
Adult female Cinereous Becard
Adult male Black-tipped Cotinga
The hike to the upper camp was long and steep.  We got two (of four) major targets: Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant and Pirre Warbler.  We dipped on Golden-headed Quetzal and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia (I already got the latter for my year list at Rancho Plástico in March).  The eastern Darien highlands are so rich and diverse that we got an impressive list of birds, including most of the endemic specialties.  After 10 days, I got 24 new year birds, including 8 Panama lifers, so my total was 788 species by December 20th.
Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant
Pirre Warbler
With the same group (Kilo, Oliver Komar and Chris Fischer), I did a pelagic off Punta Mala on December 22th.  I left Panama City on the 21st (just one day after returning exhausted from the Cana expedition), adding Slate-colored Seedeater in Summit Ponds, and joined them in Pedasi the next day.  The sea was quite rough, but got very good birds, including my life Leach's Storm-Petrel (first photographic record for Panama) and my Panama lifer Red-footed Booby, who was my Panama bird #900 (all time Panama list I mean).  At the end of the pelagic my total was 792 species for the year.
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Some short trips around Panama City produced two more year-birds... by December 24th (my birthday), my total was 794, thanks to a Rufous-winged Tanager accompanying a mixed flock in the foothills of Cerro Azul.  My family was with me and later that day, they surprised me with an original b-day cake to celebrate my 40 years-old!
So close to the 800 mark (only 6 birds left), I organized a quick trip to Chiriqui province, in western Panama.  I took the first flight to David city on Saturday, December 28th, rented a car and drove to the Continental Divide trail in Fortuna (central Chiriqui), where I was expecting to get at least 4 new year birds... however, it was rainy, foggy and swampy due to a cold front from Bocas.  A huge treefall blocked the trail close to the beginning.. so I only got Costa Rican Warbler.  My original plan was to drive from Fortuna (with theorically 4 new year birds in the bag) to Boquete and to spent the night there.  Then, at 3 am, a truck would take me to the summit of the Baru volcano. However, with only one new year-bird, I decided to left Fortuna around 3pm, heading to Cerro Punta, where I got around 5:00pm.  I was after the Hermit Warbler that was reported at the beginning of the road to El Respingo... as soon as I started to "pish", a Hermit Warbler popped out in a pine tree!  Year-bird # 796.  Then, almost  at dark, I played the tape of Rough-legged Tyrannulet, getting a response that I was able to record (I saw the bird briefly)... year bird #797!  Then, I drove to Boquete where I spent the night.
Hermit Warbler
At 3am on Sunday, December 29th, the truck driver was picking me up at my hostel.  He was quite experienced, so he knew the places to look after my main target: the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.  In fact, at the very first stop (Potrero Mulato), we got a responsive Unspotted Saw-whet Owl that never got close enough.  But heard-only birds count too, so we kept on.  We waited for the sunrise at the summit. With first light I was able to locate a pair of Volcano Juncos at the very top of the volcan (at the cross)... no photos.. my camera was in my backpack because it was rainning!  Year bird 799!  After that, I hurried to get down to Boquete to see if I had chances to bird around Lerida or Bajo Mono.  However, my driver suggested to try the pygmy owl call at Los Fogones campsite (around 3200 meters)... to my surprise, tons of birds popped out with the call, including two females Peg-billed Finches!!!!! My year-bird #800 for 2019 and a bird I had only seen once before! That was an excellent 800 bird!
Adult female Peg-billed Finch
More relaxed, I spent the afternoon in Finca Lerida, but was not able to find any new year birds (was hoping for White-winged Tanager). During the evening flight to Panama City, the idea of actually break the record was in my mind.
The next day, Monday, December 30th, I went to my workplace extremely early... I did all my procedures and asked for a permission to leave earlier.  Took my car and drove all the way to former Fort Sherman, in Colon (Caribbean side, some 80 kms away of Panama City).  Went to Shelter Bay marina and tried my old spot for Gray Catbird.  Of course, a catbird showed itself, allowing some photos.  Year bird #801 in the bag.  I drive back to Panama City and started my afternoon journey at 3:00 pm at the office.  Now that the Atlantic bridge over the Panama Canal is open, I was able to did this micro twitch essentially using my lunch time!
Gray Catbird, record-breaking year-bird #801
By December 31st, I left Panama City with my family, heading to Penonome where we planned to receive the New Year. On route, a friend of mine (Josanel Sugasti) told me that he was seeing the Yellow-rumped Warblers at the same site where he saw them few days ago.  He waited for us at the site and, when we finally arrived, he showed me at least three birds.  That was my year-bird #802 for 2019!
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Josanel, Gloriela and me after watching my year-bird #802
Well, 802 species for Panama in 2019... birding mostly during weekends and taking advantage of free days (like Carnival, Holy week, Dias Patrios, etc..). In fact, the only ocassion I took days off of work to bird was for the Cana trip.  Also, take into consideration that I spent 5 weeks out of Panama (two week of vacations with my family, two weeks in Ithaca, NY at Cornell and one week attending several international congresses).. Not bad at all eh?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

From sea level to paramo!

Western Panama is a diverse region.  Only on its Pacific slope, you can explore lush lowland forests (although, currently, there are only a few patches left), coastal wetlands and mangrove stands in the morning, montane and sub-montane forests at midday and visit the paramos of Panama's highest peak, the Baru Volcano, to see the sunset.  I did that itinerary some months ago during my Big Year quest (OK, not exactly in the same order).  If you have the chance to bird Chiriqui province, I suggest you to follow this itinerary, starting at Chiriqui's capital city, David.
Northern Jacana
Sunrise caught me in Quebrada Berlina, at the David-Querevalo road, very close to busy David city in fact.  As you guess, I saw many common water birds, including hundreds of Cattle Egrets, Anhingas, Cormorants, gaudy Northern Jacanas, etc...  But the reason why I went there so early was not the water birds, but an emblematic species of western Panama.  Ages ago, Scarlet Macaws used to fly wild all over our western Pacific lowlands, but the pet trade, habitat loss and the use of their long and colorful feathers for regional folkloric dances decimated them, to the point that they were extirpated from mainland Panama (it last stronghold was Coiba island, off Veraguas province).  Since some years now, Scarlet Macaws have returned to the David - Querevalo area.  It is not clear if they arose from an informal re-introduction program or escapees... the truth is that now there are no doubts about the wildness of this population.
Scarlet Macaw
As expected, at least three pairs of Scarlet Macaws flew above me, with one pair staying on nearby trees, detected by their raucous calls.  I hope this population continues to grow and, eventually, reoccupy its former distribution in western Panama.  From there, I drove through agricultural landscapes and cattle pastures to the highlands.  In fact, I was willing to visit Cerro Punta area, but a car accident blocked the only access road, so I stayed around the town of Volcan, looking for mid-elevation species and mixed flocks filled with migrants... and they didn't disappoint!  A huge mixed flock with mostly migratory species showed up almost as soon as I got off the car:  Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and hordes of warblers, including Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Golden-winged, Tennessee and rare Yellow-throated Warblers allowed great views and some photos!
Yellow-throated Warbler
But I was more interested in some resident warblers.  Soon, I also found both of them... both Gray and Olive-crowned Yellowthroats.  The Gray-crowned Yellowthroat was a year-bird for me, while the Olive-crowned Yellowthroat was... well, kind of complicated.  The form present in Panama (and adjacent Costa Rica) was considered conspecific with South American Masked Yellowthroat and known as "Chiriqui Yellowthroat".  However, the last taxonomic review considered it only a form of the more widely distributed Olive-crowned Yellowthroat... a species I already saw for the year.  They sound similar, although are quite different in their head patterns.  So it was not a year-bird, but it was the first time I managed to actually see the "Chiriqui" form for the year (I heard it few months before in the same site).
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (file photo)
Olive-crowned "Chiriqui" Yellowthroat (file photo)
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat (file photo)
After noon, I hit the road again, this time I took the road that connects Volcan to Boquete, at the opposite flank of the Baru volcano.  This road transects some nice patches of forests and also get you to one of the best sites in Panama for bird photography (yes, I'm talking about Birding Paradise)... but I was in a hurry and drove directly to the charming town of Boquete, where I met my friends Howard, Dodge and Lorna.  We hired in advanced another two friends who are excellent bird guides for western Panama: Jason Lara (of Jason Lara Tours) and Raúl Velásquez.  Using a high-clearance, modified 4WD vehicle, we started our ascent to the summit of the Baru volcano around 3:00 pm.  The rough and steep 13 km-long road to the summit is only accesible with that type of vehicles, and some restrictions apply for entering it.  Of course, Jason and Raul took care of all the permits well in advance.  Of course, the road transects several habitat types, and we birded them all.  The lowest part (but well above 1800 meters) produced such beauties like Scintillant Hummingbirds, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, Flame-colored and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, more resident and migrant warblers and an exquisite pair of Resplendant Quetzals feeding on an "aguacatillo" tree.  The quetzal is the essence of the western highlands... a bird that arouses emotions both in experienced  and novice birders and even in the general population.
Adult male Resplendent Quetzal
Jason and Raul had a surprise for us.  At a known site, they started to search for a special bird for us.  Some activity of Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, plus alarm calls of Sooty Thrushes confirmed our suspicions... a top predator was close.  Some searching and there it was: a fierce Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl was steering at us trying to ignore the hordes of hummingbirds and other little birds mobbing him.
Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl
We left the pygmy-owl with his fans and keep ascending through the windy road.  Above 3000 meters, the landscape changes abruptly to paramo, the only easy accesible paramo in Panama.  Not only the vegetation, but the wildlife is very different up there.  These paramos hold very unique species for the country, including three of them that are essentially restricted to this habitat (present only in another mountain top in Panama apart of the Baru volcano) both in Panama and Costa Rica (and nowhere else), descending to lower elevations only seasonally and/or occasionally. The most common is the previously mentioned Sooty Thrush.  In spite of the boring name, this bird is really attractive and with attitude, showing no fear to the humans intruders of its reign.
Sooty Thrush
The second one is the aptly named Timberline Wren.  A real skulker, difficult to photograph, but easily detected by its nice song.  Notice how much patterned is this guy, with vibrant white facial marks and underparts.
Timberline Wren
Lastly, but not less important, a real high-elevation specialist.  The next species is rarely seen away of the paramo.  It is also the most difficult one to find... for me that is... it takes to climb all the way to the highest part of the volcano, right a t the top of it to find it... the southernmost junco, the Volcano Junco!  That is another fearless, fierce-looking marvel:
Volcano Junco (file photo)
The above is a file photo.  It took me two ascents to the Baru volcano top to finally add the junco to my year-list.  But all the effort of climbing to the roof of Panama has its benefits.. like awesome sunsets and chilly weather!
Clouded sunset from the summit
That's me at the summit of Baru volcano
At dark, it is time for owling.  The star of the show is, by far, the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.  However, it also took me two volcano climbings to add him to my year-list.  At the other hand, we were lucky enough to have crippling views of a cooperative Bare-shanked Screech-Owl.  Its distinctive vocalization was heard at several sites along the road, but this guy decided to show up right in front of us and at eye level after calling it only once.  I only took some quick shots while the bird was in the spotlight, to not disturb it.
Bare-shanked Screech-Owl
Descending the volcano road in the dark is quite scary at places, but is an exciting experience anyway!  We heard some other species in the way down, like Dusky Nightjar, but essentially were focused on the road.  We arrived at our hotel in Boquete around 11:00 pm.  As you can see, it is possible to bird starting at sea level and ending at the high paramo of the highest peak in Panama... all of this in one day.  Try it once, you won't regret it!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Birding anywhere!

Many years ago, an invasion of rare rails and crakes close to Panama City attracted dozen of birders to former Tocumen marshes.  Back then, I was doing my fellowship in Internal Medicine and, literally, was living at the hospital with no possibilities to go out to birdwatch.  One of the rarest birds there was the Paint-billed Crake.  With just a handful of records, this species was not only rare, but naturally evasive and difficult to see due to secretive habits and dense habitat.  I missed it, of course, and it was not after 11 years later that a group of experienced birders found a new reliable site.
But there were two problems.  First:  the site is far away west of Changuinola, in Bocas del Toro province.  With limited time due to my work obligations, I had to take a midday flight to Changuinola, rent a car and then drive to where they found the crake.  Second: the site is a dump!  Yes, a swampy, smelly dump filled with millions of flies... but what a place to bird!  Sometimes birding takes you to unexpected places... but as soon as I approached I realized why others had entered the site looking for birds.  Hordes of egrets, vultures and Pale-vented Pigeons were seen from the road, the residual waters had shorebirds and teals, and dozens of flycatchers, grackles, meadowlarks, seedeaters and seed-finches adornated the surrounding bushes.  But I was after the crake after all, so I sited among the flies and waited.  Soon, a Paint-billed Crake walked around some flooded reeds, allowing great views, but few -poor- photos.
Paint-billed Crake
What a sight!  Another one of my nemesis bit the dust!  The rest of the afternoon I was able to relax, doing some birding in the surroundings.  At the hotel in Changuinola that night, I planned the next day to leave the lowlands very early to catch the first light at the Continental Divide in Fortuna area, almost two and a half hours away.  And I did it.  The scenery could not be more different from the previous day:  pristine humid pre-montane forest, fresh air and chilly temperature.  I even got some little rain, but nothing to worry about.  Instead of taking the Continental Divide trail, I tried a shorter one known as the "Umbrellabird trail".
This trail goes steeply downhill from the main road; however, I only bird the first couple of birds, and that time was not the exception:  a huge mixed flock with tanagers, antbirds, Golden-bellied Flycatchers, chlorophonias and woodcreepers entertained me for a while, while some skulkers were easily heard in the understore, like both Black-headed and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes, Silvery-fronted Tapaculos and a Northern Schiffornis.  Then, my main target started to call... a sweet whistled note.  After 30 minutes imitating it back and forth, the forest denizen finally showed up:
Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta! Any day with an Antpitta is an excellent day.  The Ochre-breasted Antpitta is very localized in Panama, it was a country lifer for me (I got my life Ochre-breasted Antpitta -Shakira- in Ecuador some years ago).  I started my way back to Changuinola, making few stops along the way.  For example, close to town, I visited the road to "El Silencio", where I made two additions to my year-list, in the form of White-collared Manakin and Northern Bentbill.  After that, and still having some time before my flight back to Panama City, I followed the instructions of my friend Euclides "Kilo" Campos to look after a relative recent addition to Panama's avifauna.  After the split of former Gray Hawk into two separate species, a gap of distribution was immediately evident in western Panama.  Recent sightings confirm that the form present there is in fact Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus), and not the widely distributed -in Panama- Gray-lined Hawk (Buteo nitidus). Well, finding a pair of vocalizing Gray Hawks was quite easy with the detailed instructions of Kilo.
Gray Hawk
The Gray Hawk was also a Panama lifer for me, a great addition by the way since this species is only found in lowland Bocas del Toro.  I got prolonged views, photos and voice recordings and was able to check all the field marks that separate both forms.  That is the way to get a lifer... and all of these on time to catch my afternoon flight back to Panama City!

Friday, February 7, 2020

Mount Totumas Cloud Forest's Hummingbirds Gallery

Last year I had the opportunity to travel all over Panama, knowing new birds and sites by the way.  Certainly, one of the Top 5 sites (not only my opinion, but my family's too) was Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, in the western highlands of Chiriqui province.  Taking advantage of some free days in November, I went with my family for a couple of nights at the lodge, which is the highest eco-lodge in Panama (at 1900 meters), surrounded by a beautiful montane forest (as you can see in the top photo).  The well-marked trails are alive, not only with birds, but with all sort of critters, mammals and other wildlife... in fact, the place is known by holding one of the greatest invertebrates collection for Panama and by recording almost all of the feline species on its trails (captured with game cameras).  But a thing that is specially spectacular in Mount Totumas is the hummingbirds show.  Several hummingbird feeders placed strategically around the property, plus plenty of flowering trees and bushes, make Mount Totumas a hummingbird's heaven.
Gloriela using the hummingbird hat (featuring Snowy-bellied and Talamanca Hummingbirds)
The hummingbirds are used to people, so it is not rare to feel them close to you when they pass swiftly.  They will even feed right at your face, if you use the hummingbird hat!  They have a list of more than 25 different species of hummers for the property.  Of course, some are rare or do not visit the feeders, while others are seasonal... but the regular visitors are so amazing that you will spend hours admiring them without noticing it.  With some patience, you will get amazing shots, like the one I'm presenting in the next gallery
Glorious adult male Green-crowned Brilliant.
Talamanca Hummingbird.  This adult male is showing why its former name ("Magnificent") was  well earned.
Adult male Violet Sabrewing, one of the largest hummingbird in Panama
Lesser Violetear... what a boring name for such a great creature
Adult male White-throated Mountain-Gem.  The photo make him no justice!
Adult male Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.  A little jewel for sure.
I don't know what I like more, the contrasting Snowy-bellied Hummingbird or its pink perch.
Aptly named Scintillant Hummingbird, and adult male.
The star of the show: adult male Magenta-throated Woodstar.
So, what you think?  Amazing right!