Sunday, October 5, 2014


Last week, I checked my e-mail and noticed immediately an e-Bird alert message including an unusual report of Bobolinks from near the Caribbean coast in the Canal Area of Panama, specifically at the Gatún Dam.  With that in mind, I convinced my family and my mother-in-law to wake up early today in order to visit the dam and other interesting sites in the surroundings.  A visit to the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center is a most, as we did later in the day (and where I took these photos of the works with my phone).
We took the "Don Alberto Motta" highway to Colon City (just a 40 minutes drive coast to coast!) and turned left at the "4 Altos", heading to the impressive Gatún locks.  Once we crossed the one-lane bridge across the locks, we drove along the grassy slopes of the Gatún dam, watching hundreds of resident and migratory swallows.  After crossing the bridge over the spillway, I parked along the road and started to spot some interesting suspects; however, the first birds I saw were Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters feeding close to the car.
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, male
It was raining a little bit, and the tall grass was quite wet... wet enough to soak my shoes; however, Gabrielle was well prepared (I have to say that my wife is almost clairvoyant anticipating and preparing for any situation that might find our daughter).
Rubber boots and umbrella... someone was prepared!
Eventually, I saw a flock of little brown birds flying low over the grass.  They perched low, but some were barely visible at first... listed crowns and backs, pale conical bills... pointed tail feathers... Bobolinks!
There were also Red-breasted Blackbirds in the vicinity... the females can be quite similar to this species; however, note the unstreaked nape and the uniformly yellowish breasts (with no rosy wash).  Also, these birds were slimmer and smaller than the blackbirds.
Both Gloriela and me had excellent views... the photos are just record shots.  Bobolinks are uncommon transients in Panama... and this was the first time I see them in this country!  Yeah, a Panama lifer (and only the second time ever I see this bird).  We left the dam just after spying this immature Savanna Hawk (also uncommon in this part of Panama).
Savanna Hawk, immature
We visited the Castillo de San Lorenzo (at the mouth of the mighty Chagres river) where Gabrielle was amazed with the history of pirates and cannons defending the site.  We ended at the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center as mentioned earlier... the views of the Gatún lake and the works are unmatched.  After all, we really enjoyed our day at the Caribbean coast... amazing views and national lifers for all!
At the Castillo de San Lorenzo

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Peruvian Booby

The Peruvian Booby (Sula variegata) is endemic of the cold current along the west coast of South America, from Ecuador to Chile.  However, under abnormal conditions, they wander north, up to Panama.  In fact, we are experiencing an "invasion" of this species at our country.
Peruvian Boobies in Peñón de San José, august 9th
Everything started last june 22nd, when one individual was found weakened in Panama City's Amador causeway.  This bird was taken to the Summit Gardens where a veterinarian examined it; however, the bird died the next day.  This report passed unnoticed until it was published in this article.  More than one month later, Panama Audubon's Society (PAS) Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, received an intriguing email from a 13 years-old girl with photos attached showing a Peruvian Booby.  The girl took the photos from the balcony of her apartment in an exclusive development in Panama City.  The next day, august 2nd, Rosabel and other PAS members visited the site, finding the Peruvian Booby (photo in this Xenornis report).  Another PAS member, Rafael Lau, managed to visit the actual balcony where the booby was found.  This individual appeared in june 22nd (thus matching the date of the first record) and was sleeping in the site each night since then.  The owner of the balcony refers that she fed the bird the first weeks because it looked "sick", accepting water and bred until it got better (report with photos here).
Peruvian Booby over Peñón de San José, august 9th
Rosabel insistence paid off when, while scoping the rocky islet Peñón de San José, 1600 meters away of Flamenco island (linked to the city by the Amador's causeway) on august 3rd, she spotted a Peruvian Booby among dozens Blue-footed Boobies.  It was late in the afternoon and the next day a group of birders scoped no less than five Peruvian Boobies in the islet.  Since then, many observers have reported the Peruvian Boobies from the islet.  The highest count was made on august 9th, with no less than 38 adults counted from a boat circumnavigating the islet.  The last time I personally check this group of birds was on august 31st, when I spotted 4 of them from the ferry to the Pearl Islands.
Peruvian Booby in Pachequilla Island, august 31st
So far, the Peruvian Boobies were reported only from or near Panama City (Amador's causeway, Punta Pacífica in Panama City, Peñón de San José and unpublished sightings of birds feeding at sea in front of Costa del Este, in Panama City).  However, during my last trip to the Pearl Islands, we found 7 Peruvian Boobies resting in Pachequilla Island close to Contadora Island.  This is an important record since other observers found none in previous visits.  Also, we should remember that, during "El Niño" of 1983-84, the Peruvian Boobies were reported from the Pearl Islands as well in impressive numbers (3490 birds were counted in Pacheca Island on june 17th, 1983).
Peruvian Booby over Pachequilla Island, august 31st
There is only one report of a Peruvian Booby in Panamanian waters apart from these invasions, an individual resting at sea in front of Juan Hombrón beach, Coclé province by Carlos Bethancourth (report in Xenornis).  These invasions are quite rare, and we must make every effort to document them in detail.  There are few published papers about the 1983-84 invasion, and only one report in eBird of a Peruvian Booby in Bona Island (Upper Bay of Panama) by Chuck Aid on april 3rd, 1983.  For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the Peruvian Booby as our Bird of the Month!
Blue-footed and Peruvian Boobies in Peñón de San José, august 9th.  Can you tell them apart?
Literature consulted:
1.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press 1989.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Pearl Islands experience! Part II

The second day of our trip to the Pearl Islands (Gulf of Panama), Joris, Francis and your blogger host hired a boat to visit some nearby islands to Contadora; however, Joris and I decided to watch birds in the island interior during the first hours of light.  It was too early for most of the migrants... instead, we found many resident birds around the pond.  This Panama Flycatcher was particularly cooperative:
Panama Flycatcher
At the pond, several pairs of Least Grebes were quite active making display calls and exhibitions and building floating nests.  We managed some close views and photos of these birds.
Least Grebe
It was time to aboard our boat, the captain was waiting for us at Galeon beach and soon we were heading to Pacheca Island, just to the north of Contadora.  This private owned island holds one of the most important breeding colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds in the Panamanian Pacific... a fact that quickly became obvious... hundreds of frigatebirds flying and resting at the trees of the island... impressive!
Immature Magnificent Frigatebirds
However, both Pacheca and Pachequilla islands were covered in Blue-footed Boobies... hundreds of them!  Pachequilla was literally covered with them.  These amazing numbers of Blue-footed Boobies are not usual... they are easily seen from shore at the continent in several beaches, and hundreds of them rest in islets close to Panama City as well.
Blue-footed Boobies
Blue-footed Boobies
In the other hand, the Brown Boobies were not more than 10... and all of them at Pachequilla island.  In fact, we saw some more in the open sea during the ferry trip from Panama City.  I have to mention that this seems to be a recent shift in the boobies population in these nesting sites.  According to Angehr & Kushlan (Waterbirds 2007; 30: 335-57), the "Brown Boobies nested in similar sites as Blue-footed Boobies but were more widely distributed", and that "although commonly seen roosting in the outer islands of the Pearls, Blue-footed Boobies are relatively rare, scattered, and perhaps irregular as breeders".
Brown Boobies
However, the biggest surprise was a small group of Peruvian Boobies resting at Pachequilla island!  They were easily identified due to their contrasting white head and necks, smaller size and checkered upperparts (and, of course, none of these had blue feet).
Peruvian (and three Blue-footed) Boobies in Pachequilla island 
Peruvian and Blue-footed Boobies in Pachequilla island
We are experiencing an invasion of Peruvian Boobies in Panamanian waters, probably displaced by warmer conditions in their usual range in South America.  Until that day, they were only reported from Panama City and a nearby islet.  We were quite excited about this... but know that these are not exactly good news for the birds.  The last birds we saw while circumnavigating Pacheca island were these two American Oystercatchers... always a nice sight!
American Oystercatchers
We really had fun and enjoyed every second of this flash trip to the Pearl Islands.  Hope you enjoyed it as well!
Isleta island

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Pearl Islands experience! Part I

Originally a Panama Audubon Society's (PAS) trip, it was cancelled due to lack of quorum; however, there is something about the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama (yes, where one season of Survivors was filmed)... sun, white sands in beautiful beaches, tasty food and plenty of wildlife to enjoy.  So, instead of changing my ferry ticket to Contadora island, I decided to embark and enjoy a weekend in the archipelago.  Surprisingly, Joris and his wife Francis (two PAS members as well) were in the ferry with the same thought.     It is a 2-hours journey to the islands from Panama City, and we saw the first species from the ferry's deck.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
All the storm-petrel that we managed to ID were Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels as you can see in my marginal photo.  Of course some other more common species were noticed; however, the storm-petrels were the most interesting!  Once in Contadora, I contacted our captain (thanks to Venicio "Beny" Wilson for the contacts).  After checking at our hotels, we departed to Pedro Gonzalez Island to the south of Contadora (more or less 50 minutes away).  In the way, we saw huge flocks of Black Terns, with most of them wearing patches of alternate plumage.
Black Tern.  Notice the black patches in the underparts
Black Terns
But the most impressive beasts were two Humpback Whales (mom and calf) close enough to see every detail!  Notice in the photo how close we were to Pedro Gonzalez Island (in the background).  These whales gives birth in these waters... the calf increases rapidly in size and weight by taking the fat-rich milk from his mother while she fasts throughout the season.
Humpback Whale (and Pedro Gonzalez island in the background)
Once in Pedro Gonzalez, we checked at the naval station (as usual) and crossed the town quickly.  Pedro Gonzalez is the third largest island of the archipelago, and home of our main target: White-fringed Antwren.  There are other endemic subspecies in this archipelago, but none of this is as distinctive as the alticincta form of White-fringed Antwren.  First of all, there are no White-fringed Antwrens in continental Panama.  Second, the closest population in South America is distinctively different.
We went directly to a little creek just out of town and soon were seeing our first pair of White-fringed Antwrens, lifer for both Joris and Francis.  Just like my last time, the place was too dark for photos.  The male allowed some great views, but didn't stay long enough for photos.  The female was more cooperative.
White-fringed Antwren, female
White-fringed Antwren, female
Yes, I think these photos are better than my previous ones.  A whitish throat and yellow underparts with orangish breast is evident.  More important, she had no streaks at all in the underparts.  Many authorities place this form within the "Northern White-fringed Antwren" group, geographically logical considering its proximity; however, the lack of streaks in the underparts of the female is inconsistent.  More work is needed in this complex for sure.  We don't stayed long.  We only saw few other species in the island, but highlights were Pale-bellied Hermit and a Blackpoll Warbler working close to some antwrens in the way to the soccer field.
Central American Agouti
It was a nice first day in the Pearl Islands.  Back in Contadora I enjoyed the beautiful Playa Larga beach and saw some Central American Agouties in the hostal's backyard.  We planned with our captain to visit some sea birds colonies in nearby islands the next morning, so check it later!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

World Shorebirds Day. Part II

Due to technical problems, I was unable to post this story before (as many others as well).  Last weekend, many countries celebrated the World Shorebirds Day, and Panama was not the exception.  Many official institutions and NGOs, organized by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS), gathered in Costa del Este (Panama City) at high tide last september 6th to participate in the Shorebirds Challenge.  After the event, some PAS members stayed to count shorebirds... I joined them the next day.
Shorebirds in Costa del Este
After last sunday's coastal cleanup event in Costa del Este, I joined Rosabel Miró, Michele Caballero and others at shore in the mouth of the Matías Hernández river... the impressive diversity of shorebirds species amazed us... just the photo above shows seven shorebirds species plus Laughing Gulls and a Great Egret... can you ID these species?  Little after I took the above photo, we started to see the flocks of peeps approaching.
Mostly Western Sandpipers
Western Sandpipers
Thousands of peeps, mostly Western Sandpipers, started to appear in the exposed mudflats and in the mangroves.  These birds use the Upper Bay of Panama as feeding station during their passages or as winter grounds.  In an effort to better understand these movements, many of these birds have been ringed with flags of specific colors for each country (more about it in this post).  Earlier that day, Yenifer Díaz and Michele saw briefly one of these birds for short time but they were not able to read the characters in the flag.  Then, through the scopes, we managed to find three different birds with rings and flags.  Rosabel got this distant photo:
Banded Western Sandpiper.  Photo by Rosabel Miró
This particular bird had a muddy flag.  The other two birds had legible flags.  Both were banded almost in the same site last season earlier this year.  Simply amazing!  Only some 200 birds were banded... and we saw three of them!  However, more strange was this little guy:
Semipalmated Sandpiper
As you can see, this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper (notice the short bill)... a leucistic individual (a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation).  Is the first one I ever see... but the web is full of galleries showing these aberrant beauties.  In total, we saw 16 shorebirds species (plus another species seen the previous day)... and three banded ones!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

World Shorebirds Day

Today, september 6th, is the World Shorebirds Day... and to celebrate it many people around the world is censing its local population of shorebirds in more than 750 selected sites.  Panama was not the exception.  In order to include the general population, NGOs and public institutions, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) organized the "Shorebird Challenge" at the registered counting site in Costa del Este (Panama City).
PAS Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, listed the rules for the challenge.  Simple: each organization would be represented by 4 members (plus supporting staff) and provided with binoculares and illustrated field guides with the objective to ID the greatest number of shorebirds species with no professional aid (all these participants were non-experienced in the theme of birdwatching) in 30 minutes.  Each team was assigned an "expert" birdwatcher in charge of the checklist.  We weren't supposed to help in the ID  of any species.... just to confirm it.  All the "experts" were PAS members.
Shorebirds Challenge experts.  From left to right: Ariel Aguirre, Venicio Wilson, Michele Caballero, Jan Axel Cubilla and Yenifer Díaz
The team of the Capital District Municipality, guided by Venicio, were the undisputed winners, identifying 11 shorebirds species after sticking to its strategy of "being where the birds are"... they changed its original watching site after quickly recognizing that most of the flocks were in the other side of the river!  Good one!
1st place: Capital District Municipality team (11 species)
My own team, the crew of MarViva, a regional NGO that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine ecosystems in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, correctly identified 9 shorebirds species.  Our strategy was pretty the same of "being where the birds are"; however, we spent all the necessary time pointing out field marks and didn't make it to the other side on time (where a huge and diverse flock was resting).
2nd place: MarViva team (9 species)
Two teams identified 8 shorebirds species.  The draw was resolved by a knowledge test that won the team of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), guided by Ariel Aguirre.
3rd place: ANAM team (8 species)
Leaving then in the fourth place (also with 8 shorebirds species identified) the composite team of several NGO's and government agencies, including members of Panama's Aquatic Resources Authority (ARAP), Ramsar CREHO and Wetlands International. The last team, the representatives of the Ministry of housing and land zoning (MiViOT), identified 7 shorebirds species.  As you can see, all the government agencies and NGOs that participated have something to do with the protection of the habitat that these shorebirds need in the Upper Bay of Panama.
4th and 5th place: ARAP/CREHO/Wetlands and MiViOT teams
What a great experience.  As mentioned earlier, the site was full of shorebirds and other aquatic species... but the activities are not over... and I will show you some of the shorebirds we managed to ID in another post!

Friday, August 22, 2014

At the mouth of the Pacora river

The upper Bay of Panama comprises 48,919 ha of sandy beaches, mudflats and mangrove forests along our central Pacific coast.  The western end of this area is under great pressure by urbanization and the expansion of Panama City and, until recently, its protected status was threatened by particular and economic interests.  Iconic sites (for shorebirds watching) included in the Upper Bay are Panama Viejo, Costa del Este and Juan Díaz (although the first two are out of the protected area); however, I just visited a new site at the mouth of the Pacora river where the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) has conducted shorebirds surveys since some years now in association with others NGOs, like the National Audubon Society and the Center for Conservation Biology, among others.
That's me in Panama Viejo.  Notice the peeps in the background (photo by Osvaldo Quintero)
Getting there ain't easy... the muddy road from the Panamerican highway is slippery and rough in some sites... and it is at least a 1-hour long drive to the beach.  However, this road crosses open habitats, shrubs, gallery forests, rice fields and some wetlands that are highly diverse in terms of avian species.  We did several stops along the way to watch some interesting species... I was driving, so I did'n take so many photos in this part of the trip.  Once in the beach, we started to work..., yes, to work.  This was not an usual birding trip.  With us was a grad student in Marine Biology of the Universidad Internacional Marítima de Panamá, Stephany Carty, some volunteers, an academic advisor from the Universidad de Panama and PAS' resident biologist, Michele Caballero.
Stephany and a volunteer sampling at the study site
Stephany is doing her thesis in these mudflats, characterizing benthic organisms associated with resting and feeding areas for resident and migratory shorebirds (benthic refers to the collection of organisms living on or in sea or lakes bottom -thanks Michele for the explanation).  This and other studies have the aim to begin a process of documentation of this critical habitat with hemispheric importance for shorebirds, and the PAS is supporting these studies while at the same time makes an important work of environmental education in communities adjacent to the protected area.
Western and Least Sandpipers at the beach
In the other hand, PAS' Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, and others PAS members (including me) were searching banded shorebirds.  Last season, some sandpipers were fitted with coded leg flags allowing individual identification.  Those flags assigned for Panama were gray with black characters (as you can see in the "Pluma Fina" section of this PAS' bulletin).  We saw some huge flocks of peeps, including Semipalmated, Western and Least Sandpipers as you can see in the picture above.  We scoped them, but none of these were banded.  We also saw Black-necked Stilts, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers and my favorite shorebird: Red Knots.
Black Skimmers, Short-billed Dowitchers and Red Knots
These birds were easily identified by their pale red underparts, reminiscent of their alternate plumages.  This is an uncommon species in Panama and it seems to have declined in the last years.  In fact, this species is object of intense research because the populations wintering in South America dropped over 50% from the mid-1980s to 2003 (article in pdf here).  Not only waders, we also saw hundreds of other species, like resident Brown Pelicans and Neotropic Cormorants plus an amazing number of terns species... the most common were the Elegant Terns, but at the end we recorded six different terns species, including some uncommon Caspian Terns.
Caspian Terns
Notice the red, heavy-looking bill and the dark underside of the outer primaries in flight.  The highlight were three Common Terns seen flying first and then resting in the sand.  They are not common at all in Panama, as its name may suggest.
Common Terns, Willets and Semipalmated Plovers
In the picture above you can see the Common Terns resting close to a flock of Willets and two Semipalmated Plovers (we saw five plovers species in total).  The slender profile and black carpal bar is characteristic.  However, the most abundant (and intriguing) tern-like species was the Black Skimmer.  A huge flock of these elegant birds were resting in the beach (as you can see in the picture above with Red Knots).  But I noticed something strange when they took off... watch these photos:
Black Skimmers
Black Skimmers
Notice the gray underside of the wings (this can depend on light and angle, but compare the color with the white underparts), the thin (rather than broad) white trailing edge to the secondaries and, more important, the gray tail (instead of white).  All these marks are characteristics of the cinerascens subspecies from South America.
Black Skimmers and Marbled Godwits
The relative abundance of this subspecies with respect to the North American migrants is unknown.  Now I wonder if I have ever seen the North American subspecies niger in Panama (during my first years of birdwatching I didn't notice those details).  As you can see, you can have fun while contributing to scientific knowledge!