Sunday, July 20, 2014

An unusual sighting

At this point, you may know that several Whistling Herons have been observed in Panama in an unprecedented.  Yesterday, I joined Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck in a search of the most recent record of these species (a pair near Gorgona beach by Euclides Campos).  At the site, we met Venicio Wilson and Ezequiel Jakub who where after the heron too.
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
We did not find the heron, but found some goodies instead.  I only got photos of the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, but we also heard a couple of Gray-breasted Crakes, saw some Purple Martins migrating with other migrant swallows and a pair of American Kestrel of southern subspecies.  The pond after the Malibu development was full of Least Grebes and other aquatic birds... but no Whistling Herons.  In one extreme of the pond, both Venicio and Zeke found an unusual duck.
Masked Duck
The distant shot with my DSLR camera shows an adult male Masked Duck!  Why so excited?  Despite being considered frequent by Ridgely & Gwynne, this species is rare and local, as best described by Angehr & Dean.  Retiring and shy, this species is mainly crepuscular (even thought it was nocturnal!).  This was only my third sight, and the first male with its alternate plumage.  Through Venicio's scope we were able to see the beautiful patterned back... I even managed a nice digiscoped picture of this bird.
Masked Duck
The chick close to the Masked Duck is a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck one of five chicks that approached the duck each time it resurfaced from its dives.  Mommy was close however.  I spite of not seeing the heron, this duck worth the effort!
P.D.: that same day, a Whistling Heron was spotted by members of the Panama Audubon Society in the rice fields of Santa Maria in the Azuero Peninsula... this is an invasion!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beach weekend with family

In order to celebrate some birthdays in the family and to see the final of the World Cup, the extended Cubilla family decided to spent the weekend at the beach!  We chose to rent a spacious apartment in Playa Blanca, in the Pacific coast of Cocle province (central Panama).  This part of the country is blessed with year-round good weather, with sunny days most of the year, making it perfect for beach resorts.
Gabrielle and her cousins Analia and Kevin really enjoyed the trip, as you can see in the photo.  While they played in the sand, I was watching the ocean.  Recently, some rare vagrants have been seen at our Pacific coast probably due to "El Niño" (Gray Gull, Peruvian Booby, Inca Tern).  During "El Niño" years, the water temperature rise, moving into deeper waters those typical cold-water species such as anchovies.  Many birds specialized in feeding from these species have to disperse from their usual haunts to find food, and the Peruvian Booby is a good example.  However, I only saw some common species, like Neotropic Cormorants, Royal and Sandwich Terns, Brown Pelicans, and an unusual number of Blue-footed Boobies flying very close to the beach.
Brown Pelicans
Blue-footed Booby
The white patches in the back and nape, as well as its dark head, distinguishes this species from the similar Peruvian Booby.  One Peruvian Booby was found weakened in the coast Panama City last month.  The story was published here.  Back in the apartment, I noticed that some windows had silhouettes of hawks to prevent small birds crashing them.  It is a good practice after all.
However, I think that another ornament on the roof was also preventing small birds to approach the building.  During the half-time break in the World Cup final, I noticed a characteristic silhouette approaching the roof.  A quick glimpse from the balcony showed this:
Aplomado Falcon
An Aplomado Falcon!  A second bird left the roof when I was staring at it, but this individual stayed for long time, enough to grab my camera and to took some photos.  It was curious as well!
Aplomado Falcon
These fields are close to the eastern limit of its usual range in Panama, as you can see in this eBird map; however, there are several records from eastern Panama province and even from Darien province...,  deforestation certainly have something to do with this range extension.  Nice roof ornament don't you think?  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Code 5: Whistling Heron!

Almost exactly one year ago, a new bird for Panama (and North America), a Whistling Heron, was found in the pastures close to the town of Chepo, in eastern Panama (45 minutes from Panama City).  Intensive search at and around the site were unsuccessful.  Personally, I visited the site several times (chronicles here).  A previous record (from february 2010) was validated in eBird only after photographic evidence was sent to the regional reviewer (me).  Then, my friend and professional birder Guido Berguido (from Advantage Tours, found another Whistling Heron yesterday close to the original site while guiding a birding group late in the afternoon!  In a show of camaraderie, he sent a report almost immediately through social networks, with specific details of the site.
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks
Although I considered going there early today, my job duties prevented me of doing so... but then Rafael Lau photographed the bird this morning almost exactly in the same site.  I took advantage of a gap in my agenda, waited for Gloriela and Gabrielle and went to the site.  It took me one and a half hour to reach the site due to the traffic jams in the city, leaving me only one hour to search the area and find the bird before returning to my clinic with the patients!  Coincidentally, we joined our friend Justo Camargo in the road.  He spent four hours searching for the heron with no luck, so he decided to join us for another try.  He showed me the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks pictured above, and both saw some nice species, like Pied Water-Tyrant and this Striated Heron.
Striated Heron
After a while, we decided to walk into the pasture where the bird was seen in the morning.  It was around 4:00 pm and the sun was high, so Gloriela and Gabrielle stayed in the car.  I walked with Justo to some artificial ponds... a quick search with my binoculars and PAM!!!  A Whistling Heron was standing some 30 meters away.  It was shy (similar to my previous observations in Venezuela and Colombia last year), and soon took flight to some nearby pastures.  I managed a couple of flight shots.
Whistling Heron 
Whistling Heron
I decided to approach carefully, almost crawling, to not disturb the bird.  It was feeding by craning its neck and taking something in the straws with the beak (I hope it were not ticks because I was surrounded by these straws).  I got some distant shots... good for documenting the sighting.
Whistling Heron
Cattle Egret and Whistling Heron
It was larger and stockier than the Cattle Egret as you can see in the picture above.  Not a lifer for me (it was for Justo), but a HUGE Panama life bird instead!  This is just the third record of this species in Panama.  Original from the wet plains of northern and south-east South America, its range and habiat is similar to another recent vagrant to Panama and North America: the Maguari Stork.  Are they only accidental vagrants or we have to wait for a horde of south american new species in the future?  Who knows... I only know that both Justo and I will remember this forever!
JC & JC.  Photo by Gloriela

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Vaux's Swift

The Vaux's Swift (Chaetura vauxi) is a small species resident from northwestern North America to Panama.  Like many other swifts species, these birds are expert fliers, usually hard to identify unless you have excellent viewing conditions (prolonged close views in clear days with dark backgrounds).  To photograph them is even harder, so in this post you'll see essentially Vaux's Swifts silhouettes.
Two subspecies occur in Panama: richmondi, a common breeder of the western highlands; and ochropygia, which is the common small swift over forested area in central Panama (pictured above).  
I took the above photo in the Chiriqui lowlands.  The identity of the birds occurring in the western lowlands of the Pacific slope is still a mystery; however, the best candidate is richmondi coming down from the adjacent highlands (this is what happens in the rest of its Mesoamerican distribution).  The nominal vauxi, which breeds in North America is another possibility although there are no records of this migratory race south of Honduras.  In any case, the pale area restricted to the throat discards vauxi, in which it extends to the belly.
Some consider richmondi a good species.  The differences in rump patterns (less contrasting in richmondi than in ochropygia) could justify this split; however, more studies are needed.  The above photo, from the western highlands, shows the stubby shape, short tail and paddle-shaped, short wings.  In the next photo, the characteristic pale throat of this species is more evident.  For these, and many others reason is why we chose the Vaux's Swift as our Bird of the Month.
Literature consulted:
1.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J.  A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press. 1989.
2.  Chantler, P. (1999). Vaux's Swift (Chaetura vauxi). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2013). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 1 July 2014).

Monday, June 23, 2014

Quick trip to the highlands. Part II

After a relaxing day in the western highlands of Chiriqui province, I was about to start a new birding day very early in the morning.  I left my family in the hotel room and joined Ito Santamaría who is a knowledgeable local guide and friend of mine.  He kindly accepted to show me two long desired additions to my life list right in the town of Volcan.  For the first species, we drove a little further towards the outskirts of the town. He emphasized that we needed to be very early in the site to locate the bird while it was vocalizing.  The place was just by the road, bordering some lush gardens.  He recognized a weird call... after some moderate use of playback a little flycatcher flew towards us and started to respond with the same rattling call.
White-throated Flycatcher
I got some shots of the little, and rather drab, creature: a White-throated Flycatcher!  You may say why this bird is so special... look at it, a LBJ (little brown job) that looks identical to many other common flyactchers.  In fact, I have confused this species but for its call, which is quite distinctive for an Empidonax flycatcher.  Notice that this bird looks nothing like the illustrations of the field guides plates... it looks disturbingly similar to the Lesser Elaenia, that was pretty common in the area.  However, notice the smaller size and chunky shape, proportionally shorter tail, discrete eye ring and the obvious white throat (I think this bird was molting).
White-throated Flycatcher
Also, this bird behaved very different to the elaenias, actively feeding by making short flights and flutterings and returning to the same perch or close to it.  Ito thinks they breed near this site, but so far he still need to confirm this by finding an active nest of young birds (that look more like the illustrations in the plates, with warmer brown upperparts and ochraceous wing bars).  The White-throated Flycatcher is rare and localized in the western highlands of Panama.  Actually, it seems to be quite uncommon and localized along its wide range.  There were only two previous records in eBird for this species in Panama, so I was more than happy when Ito showed me this individual only 5 minutes after our arrival!  However, Ito had another surprise for me.  We drove less than 5 minutes to the center of the town, to a particular garden bordered with tall trees and a wet meadow (although tiny).  We waited and listen... nothing happened, but he was optimistic.  He played a tape once and listen again... suddenly, an elaborate call was heard in the distance... and we hurried to the source.
Melodious Blackbird
I know, I know... another drab bird!  This is a very special bird... a recent colonizer to this part of the country: a Melodious Blackbird.  Originally endemic to northern Central American, the impressive range extension is probably due to deforestation.  It was first reported in Costa Rica in the 80's, and the first confirmed report for Panama was in the western Caribbean slope almost exactly three years ago (report in Xenornis).  According to Ito, a small population established in the town of Volcan two years ago, at least... but it is very localized... actually found in only two sites.  WOW!  Two life birds in less than 20 minutes... wordless!  It was still very early, so we decided to go to the Volcan lakes; however, the activity around the access road and the nearby coffee farm prevented us for reaching the lakes.  The highlight was a cooperative Masked Yellowthroat.
Masked -Chiriqui- Yellowthroat
Now you are talking Jan (you may say)... this bird is an eye-popper.  The Masked Yellowthroat is a widespread species in South America, with a isolated population in this part of Panama and adjacent Costa Rica.  In fact, this form is known as the Chiriqui Yellowthroat, and sometimes is considered a valid species.  Compare the extension of black in the face of this male with that of other subspecies in South America.
Masked -Chiriqui- Yellowthroat
Certainly is more extensive.  There are some differences in songs and calls as well, and the idea of having an endemic yellowthroat is simply great, so I hope to call this bird Chiriqui Yellowthroat in the near future.  That was only my third sighting of this species in 19 years of birding the highlands... not bad at all.  In the way out, an obliging Olivaceous Piculet sang to call our attention.
Olivaceous Piculet 
A common species, and a nice one.  After it, we had breakfast... a well deserved one!  Two life birds the same day two times the same month (do you remember those rare swifts?).  Thanks Ito for showing me these special birds!

Quick trip to the highlands. Part I

In order to increase my life list, I went with my family, my sister in law and her son to the western highlands of the Chiriqui province last weekend.  This was a quick trip, we only spent one night in the quiet town of Volcan after driving five hours from Penonome in central Panama.  We arrived to Volcan after noon last saturday, and after a quick check in at a modest hotel, we went to a coffee farm and shop to enjoy the cool breeze, some amazing views and great coffee.
The cousins, Kevin and Gabrielle
The grounds of the coffee shop had many common birds, and I tried to ID as many as possible.  The purple flowers around the shop attracted Rufous-tailed and Scintillant Hummingbirds, while some Bronzed Cowbirds were feeding in the ground at the garden.
Female Scintillant Hummingbird
Male Bronzed Cowbird
I really like those flaming red eyes.  After enjoying some coffee beverages, we decided to go the town of Guadalupe.  The main avenue of this tiny town was full of tourists visiting the little shops and cafes... the strawberry desserts are highly recommended.  We hiked a short, but steep trail to a lookout at 1990 meters above sea level, enjoying nice views of the surroundings.
In the way down, this Slaty Flowerpiercer allowed some photos.  Notice the specialized bill, upturned to pierce the flowers in order to steal the nectar.
Male Slaty Flowerpiercer
After the hike, we ended in a comfortable restaurant where we had a pasta dinner and a pizza next to the fireplace.
This was a relaxing day, enjoying with the family and doing some "internal" tourism.  Panama has a lot to offer, even for the Panamanians!  I planned to bird with a local guide and friend the next morning... and the result of using the local expertise was awesome... stay tuned and you'll understand what I mean!

Friday, June 13, 2014

My first wish list

Seeing the Least Bittern in Gamboa earlier this week after all these years birding in Panama (19 years so far) with my wife was a great experience.  As I mentioned in the previous post, this was not a lifer.  I saw my first Least Bittern maaany years ago in coastal Lima (Peru) and since then, I had seen many spectacular heron species, including Least and other bitterns... so, what's the big deal?
Pinnated Bittern in Guaviare (Colombia), where I also saw a Least Bittern
This bird was so important to me because it is part of my very first wish list of birds to see in Panama!  You make a wish list with those species (of birds, in this case) that you want to see in the near or far future in a specific geographical area (state, country, world).  And I did my first formal wish list 18 years ago, in 1996.  In fact, I still have that list with me... handwritten in spanish (back then I did not have my physician handwriting) and with a yellowish hue due to the years, I found it deep buried under some old notes and bird lists.
The second bird in this list is Least Bittern (Mirasol Menudo)
Reading it brought back fond memories.  I can swear I remember each of those observations.  If you read it carefully, you can infer that I was just beginning to see birds.  My wish list have some birds not considered rare at all (Mourning Dove for example) and some broad groups (like any macaw or any quail-dove for example) as well.  Each of those records is an anecdote... I have some to share with you.  When I wrote that list, I considered that the most difficult species to see in Panama would be the Grasshopper Sparrow.  In fact, I thought it would be impossible, since the endemic subspecies beatriceae had probably been eradicated from our territory by habitat destruction in the Coclesian savannah of central Panama.
Grasshopper Sparrow.  January 2012.
Then, two years ago, in a random field close to our house in Penonome, while birding alone I found a Grasshopper Sparrow that allowed great photos!  The news of the re-discovery of the once-thought-exctinct bird in Panama spread like wildfire and the bird was relocated by at least two different birding groups in the next week.  Want to hear another story?  Look at my list... there are still two spaces left blank.  One is Bobolink, the other is Little Cuckoo.  Back in April 1998, while participating in the Young Ornithologist Program by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Panama Audubon Society, I had a chance to see this bird.  The field trips for the program included a visit to Costa del Este, then a marshy area surrounded by a mangrove forest in the outskirts of Panama City.  At one point, one of the instructors (Dr. Robert Ridgely!) pointed a rare Spot-breasted Woodpecker to the group while, in the opposite direction, someone else (I don't remember who, sorry) pointed a Little Cuckoo.  In matter of seconds I weighted both options.  Both were in my wish list... the cuckoo was considered uncommon in the right habitat (including some areas in the Canal Area close to the city); in the other hand, the woodpecker was considered rare even in its usual range and only few reports for those mangroves (and none since then).
My life Little Cuckoo in Guaviare (Colombia)
Well, you know what was my choice.  After seeing the Spot-breasted Woodpecker, I ran in the opposite direction to see if I can catch the cuckoo... the bird was gone.  Since then, I've seen the woodpecker on six occasions in Panama, and I have not even had a chance to see the cuckoo!
I have done many other lists since then, but the first will always be special ... and from what I see, I have two targets for my upcoming birding trips!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A tiny heron

For some reason, both my wife and I had a free afternoon today.  After reading some interesting reports from Gamboa (in central Panama), we decided to visit the quiet town at the banks of the mighty Chagres river, trying to relocate the Least Bittern that my friends Venicio "Beny" Wilson and Osvaldo Quintero saw (and photographed) earlier in the day.  We left Panama City at 3:00 pm, with clear skies; however, Gamboa is 40 minutes away crossing the Continental Divide well into the Caribbean slope, so the weather is unpredictable... and the picture was not good.
A heavy rain hit us part of the way.  Thanks God the weather was cloudy in town (dark, with no rain at all), so we stopped at the Ammo Dump ponds, where the bird has been seen for some time.  The Least Bittern is a shy resident in this part of the country.  When I asked Gloriela if she wanted to go after it, the first thing she asked me was "it is rare? (Gloriela is kind of a twitcher)",  my response was YES.  It is seldom seen and reported... and is a bird that I had never personally seen in Panama (yes, I'm kind of a lister).  The usual suspects (Wattled Jacanas) swarmed everywhere.  We just sit and waited.
Wattle Jacana.  File photo
While waiting, other residents of these ponds showed up, like Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, an Anhinga and a Ringed Kingfisher.  After 10 minutes, a tiny bird with conspicuous buff wing patches approached from the other side of the pond, landing just out of sight... a Least Bittern!  we decided to sneak into another lookout, with a better angle of view.  After a while, the bird came out of hiding, probably after feeding the chicks according to Beny, and perched atop some low bushes.  It turned out to be a beautiful male.
Least Bittern.  Actual photo
For some seconds I forgot I had my camera handy, we were amazed watching the tiny creature with our binoculars.  Eventually, I grabbed my camera and took the above shot... just for record, nothing to do with the excellent photos of this very same individual previously taken.  It was a life bird for Gloriela and a nice addition to my Panama list.  The bird stayed only for one minute or so... after that, it flew to some reeds where it disappeared.  We waited 30 minutes and nothing... we only add a Purple Gallinule to our list.
Purple Gallinule.  File photo
Then, it started to rain... a huge thunder storm was approaching!  We decided it was enough and returned to the city under some spectacular lightnings.  What a great way to end a twitch!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Portraits in the savanna

In spite of not finding the Maguari Stork reported for Juan Hombron (Cocle province, central Panama) after several visits, the good thing is that I had the opportunity to take some close-ups of common inhabitants of these typical arid savannas.  Advantages like clear light and unobstructed views are the ingredients to great portraits... even for an amateur photographer like me.
Variable Seedeater
For example, the male Variable Seedeater pictured above was quite curious and came to inspect me for a while.  Several males were engaged in courtship displays and singing the heart out.  They were very common in those fields.  Another common species was the Straight-billed Woodcreeper.
Straight-billed Woodcreeper
Not only common, but beautiful as well too.  For a woodcreeper, it is quite distinctive, with that straight, pink bill and bold head marks.  It is restricted to mangroves and adjacent shrubs and secondary growths.  In the other hand, the Groove-billed Ani is simply an all-black bird.  In fact, it is easier to ID it by voice than by sight (due to confusion issues with the Smooth-billed Ani present in smaller number in this same area).
Groove-billed Ani
However, with looks like this you can actually see the grooves in the bill of this individual!  It easy to ID the birds if you actually see the field mark by which they were named; for example, can you name the next species?
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Jejejeje, just kidding.  However, they would be more difficult to identify if flying away.  The Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures are commoner than Turkey Vultures in this habitat, specially this time of the year.   Also common, and a nice representative of this savanna, is the Savanna Hawk.
Savanna Hawk
This long-legged hawk is huge and colorful, making it recognizable from long distances.  Due to the lack of tall trees in the savanna, this raptor (like many other as well) take advantage of any high site (like this telephone pole) to observe its domains.  Well, that is all for now... but certainly is not my last time in Juan Hombron looking for my Maguari!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Swifts tale

Last month, a series of intriguing and exciting news came from the western highlands of Panama.  The discovery of several Cypseloides swifts nesting behind waterfalls was shocking.  Why?  For background, Cypseloides is a genus of uniformly dark and little known swifts, specially in the neotropics.  In Panama, only two species were known... one is extremely rare.  The other one, known only by two specimens.  The identification depends in subtle field marks, like size, facial pattern, nostril shape (yes, nostrils) and so on...  very difficult in fact without prolonged views or specimens.  That's why, the opportunity to study these birds sitting on a nest is priceless.
The Bricks
The nest were discovered close to the town of Boquete (where "The Bricks", a basaltic formation, is a well-known touristic attraction).  Since the publication of extremely good photos (for a swift) in Xenornis, there has been an extensive discussion about the identity of these species... well, about one of them (the other one is simply unmistakeable if seen that well).  Accompanied by a group of fine birders, and guided by one of the discoverers, Craig Bennett, I went with my family to the charming town of Boquete in a "swift" weekend trip.  After arriving saturday's afternoon, a heavy rain stopped us from make a first try at the place (exact location reserved to avoid disturbance to the nesting swifts).  We decided to visit the nests the following day (june 1st).  My wife and Gabrielle spent the day around the central plaza, while I went to look for the bird with the rest of the group.
George Angehr, Darien Montañez, Rosabel Miró, Rosa Montañez and Craig Bennett
After a hard trek, climbing through muddy paths and trying not to fall, Craig showed us the first nesting bird.  After simple instructions, I was able to see two white dots almost glowing in the dark... WOW! a Spot-fronted Swift... the first for Panama and a little known species.  We used a scope to watch and photograph the birds from a safe distance.
Spot-fronted Swift!
This is an awful photo, I know... my digiscoping abilities are exactly none, and we were too far for my 400 mm lens.  I took this photo with my cell phone, the quality is... well, you can see it.  However, I don't care... this is an extremely rare swift... and from now, my favorite swift in the world!  Those facial marks are unique, making this species relatively easy to identify if seen well.  We spent only a couple of minutes in the site and moved on to the next pair, also behind a waterfall.
White-chinned Swift
This time, the subject of our scrutiny was a nesting White-chinned Swift... also a rare and little known species.   We took the same precautions as in the previous nest.  For some time, we think this bird was a Black Swift, but the consensus is toward White-chinned considering rounded head and small nostrils (vs flatter head and larger, oval-shaped nostrils in Black Swift).
White-chinned Swift
What a great experience.  I don't recall the last time I saw two lifers in the same day in Panama... and certainly, these were HUGE lifers.  There were only two previous records of White-chinned Swifts in Panama (two specimens far away the western highlands), and none of the Spot-fronted Swift... so I'm a happy man!  Thanks Craig for the great job you're doing with these discoveries... I'll wait for the publication!