Monday, May 23, 2016

Stragglers and confusing

This last weekend I decided to visit the mudflats of Panama Viejo in Panama City to check the over-summering shorebirds there.  Most of the shorebirds and gulls present in that site already migrated back to their breeding grounds in the north, but a substantial number spent the summer in these beaches, enjoying the tropical sun... usually immatures and non-breeding individuals (thus contrasting with our resident species that are busy with their nesting activities or feeding young).  For my surprise, I found some stragglers still hanging around the place.  The first one was this Franklin's Gull:
Franklin's Gull
Franklin's Gull
This bird is in full alternate plumage... a real beauty!  The wing pattern, stocky shape, short bill and legs and prominent white eye-crescents separate it from the superficially similar Laughing Gulls, which are abundant even at this time of the year.  The bulk of the population migrates through Central America earlier this month, with some extraordinaire movements noticed (check this post for example).  As I mentioned, most of the over-summering birds are immatures or in non-breeding plumage, which is the case of most of the Laughing Gulls staying in Panama, like the birds in the next picture:
Elegant Tern and Laughing Gulls
All of them are Laughing Gulls, except for the lonely Elegant Tern in the center of the photo.  It is also a straggler, but this one is in basic plumage... who knows if is planning to stay longer here.  It was first reported during the Global Big Day one week ago... and is still present there.
Other birds are present just shortly during their passage to the breeding grounds.  That's the case of the White-rumped Sandpiper.  Considered very rare in Panama, it seems regular only for a week or two in mid-May at this site.  I only saw one, but the peeps were too far away to see if more were around.
White-rumped Sandpiper
Now the confusing.  I noticed this weird warbler behind me working the mid-level of the ornamental Ficus tree at the parking lot of the Visitors Center in Panama Viejo.  I have to admit that the first thing that came to my mind was some sort of Parula... but the shape/size and some features of the plumage were wrong.
Young Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler
Then, a female Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler came and started to feed the bird... problem solved!  No matters how weird it looks, think first in a common bird with atypical features than a vagrant with typical features (this is adapted from an old medical saying).   Happy birding!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Global Big Day: 2016 edition

I pounded the alarm at 2:30 am.  It was May 14th... Cornell Lab's Global Big Day.  For two years in a row, Gloriela and I decided to bird that day in Cocle province (central Panama), joining more than 50 registered participants for Panama (some of them grouped into "teams") in this rally of birding.  We stayed at our house in Penonome, from where we drove to the foothills above the town of El Cope, into the General de División Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park (the longest name of any Panamanian national park).  A constant drizzle accompanied us along the way... in fact, our first bird for the day was not a night bird, but a Great-tailed Grackle that vocalized at its roost when we were leaving Penonome.  The rain didn't stop until 6:00 am... not a single owl was recorded of course, but it stopped on time for the dawn chorus.
Some birds recorded up there include Pale-vented Thrush, Stripe-breasted Wren, Zeledon's Antbird and great views (again) of Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, but in general the activity was low due to the rain and fog, so we moved to the lowlands, making several stops along the way.  Our itinerary followed exactly the same route we did last year (check this post), checking several sites along the Panamerican highway.  At the Aguadulce Salinas we found a group of 30 Black Skimmers resting on the ground, with some waders... quite unusual for this time of the year.
distant Black Skimmers 
In the way out of Aguadulce, we kept checking birds out of our list: Pearl Kite, American Kestrel, Crested Caracara, Savanna Hawk, Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork... all were seen while driving along the highway.  We skipped Las Macanas marsh in order to reach El Agallito beach in Chitre to find more waders.  We reached the place a little bit late, and the surf was far away.
Mudflats at El Agallito
Anyway, we got both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpiper, a single Sanderling, both Yellowlegs and others more at the extensive mudflats.  As you can see, the day was cloudy... and we found rain in most of the sites that we visited, including at the supposedly driest place of Panama: Sarigua.
The Sarigua National Park is usually referred as a "desert" by the Panamanians... certainly is not a true desert  because it is full of life.  Our main target there, Common Ground-Dove, was a little bit hard to find due to the rain, but eventually we heard (and saw) an individual in a thorn bush by the road without leaving the car.  We stopped by Las Macanas marsh in the way back to Penonome; the fields surrounding the marshes were alive with dozens of both White and Glossy Ibises, lapwings, herons and egrets.  We met Hector there, a local guide and representative of the Grupo Ecoturístico Las Macanas (GEMA) who showed us a place where we saw some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Crested Bobwhites and more herons.
Glossy Ibises
Before leaving, we deliver to Hector a spotting scope donated by the Panama Audubon Society, (PAS) since GEMA always helps us with the logistics during the International Waterbird Census and is interested in preserving and sustainably develop the local ecosystem.
Hector, with the scope at the GEMA headquarters
By the time we reached Penonome it was already dark.  We decided to visit the outskirts searching for owls and nightjars.  At Gloriela's parents property we saw several Common Pauraques and heard the last bird of the day, a Tropical Screech-Owl.
Common Pauraque
It was an intense day... for us, 18-hours of continued birding, 21 complete eBird checklist and many more "incidentals" ones, hundreds of miles and 135 species.  The numbers for Panama are good too, so far we are the best Central American country and are within the world's Top-Ten!  See you next year for the Global Big Day!  

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rails and Crakes in Gamboa Ammo Dump Ponds

The Ammo Dump Ponds in the town of Gamboa (former Canal Zone) are probably one of the most birded sites in Panama.  It is a good introduction for the beginner and even veteran birders find it quite enjoyable... and add to this that almost every visiting birder to Panama stop by the ponds on route to the famed Pipeline road.  And with all that attention, it is amazing that some resident species of the pond are rare enough to attract hordes of birders when they decide to show up.  That is the case of the last discovery of my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson, when he found a Yellow-breasted Crake walking exposed close to shore one week ago.  This species is known to breed there... but there are only few records from the area.  So yesterday I went with Gloriela to the ponds, looking for the elusive bird.  My friend Howard was already there when we started to search the marshy areas.  The day was cloudy and dark... perfect for the rallids (most of them are similarly elusive species), and soon I was able to see the largest of them at the opposite side of the ponds: a Gray-necked Wood-Rail.
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
It is a distant photo, but this bird is not easy to see... not to mention to photograph.  One huge rail in the bag... but we were after the smallest one recorded in Panama, and we knew it wouldn't be an easy task.  Another good sign that the day was good to watch elusive species became in the shape of a Least Bittern flying across the pond and allowing great views with the scopes... another super elusive bird in the bag... but it was not THE bird we were looking for.  Close to us, this Rufescent Tiger-Heron decided to rest quietly.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Then, THE bird materialized like a ghost in front of Howard; we were not close to him and all his efforts to invocate the bird again only attracted a group of three White-throated Crakes to the exact place where the Yellow-breasted Crake was.  I know that feeling... when a group of fellow birders are twitching a rarity but you are the only one that manage to see it... you only want that someone else find the bird too just to prove that you are not mad after all. Of course Howard was not mad... he had a photo of THE bird that we missed... that's life!  Hey, but a group of White-throated Crakes feeding exposed is a real treat!  These birds are very common by voice at the ponds, but you never see them... and let me tell you: that was the best sighting ever of White-throated Crakes!
White-throated Crake
A little bit disappointed, we moved to the Rainforest Discovery Center in order to take our lunch... a tasty fried sea bass and some cold drinks, but first we attended a talk offered by, coincidentally, Venicio Wilson.  It was nice to hear him talking about the role of birds in the ecology of the rainforests... he almost made us forget how miserably we dipped on the crake earlier... a l m o s t.
However, after lunch, many birders decided to try the crake's spot in the way out... so we joined them.  Venicio himself showed us the exact site where he originally saw the bird and we chat about a lot of themes... the time flew with them.  Around 3:30 pm, I noticed a tiny bird at the water just in front of the group.  Skeptical, I raised my binoculars ... only could say "THERE IT IS!!!"  Yes my friends, THE bird materialized again in front of the group, nobody else noticed it before... it simply was there.
Yellow-breasted Crake
The Yellow-breasted Crake stayed for close to 15 minutes walking deliberately and feeding quietly.  Then, it flew to a nearby floating island and disappeared.  Venicio thinks that he saw a different bird... I think that only few birds are so beautiful and shy that this one.  A tiny bird... but a HUGE lifer!
Yellow-breasted Crake

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some gulls overhead

It is that time of the year when most of our wintering gulls depart to their breeding grounds in North America... and is not rare to see some species in unusual sites or in massive numbers gathering together to start (or continue) the long journey.  For example, some days ago I went to one of the huge malls in Panama City for some last minute shopping; however, something caught my attention at the parking lot:
Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls
It is not rare to see the common Laughing Gulls at the mall and at the nearby bus terminal, but this time I saw a nice Ring-billed Gull among them.  This is not the first time this species had been reported there, but certainly was the first one for me.  The Ring-billed Gulls are regular along the coast in Panama City... but this place is not in the coast.
Ring-billed Gull
I then moved to Panama Viejo, where the extensive mudflats attracts hundreds of Laughing Gulls... but this time, they were outnumbered by Franklin's Gulls.  Of course, both species are regular in Panama... but is only during migration when you can see these numbers.
Laughing and Franklin's Gulls
Not only that, most of the Franklin's Gulls were in alternate plumage, with a very nice rose color to the breast and conspicuous wing patterns and black hoods.  They were easily ID at flight as you can see in the next photos:
Franklin's Gulls 
Franklin's Gulls
There are been several reports of Franklin's Gulls flocks in northern Central America as well... so it is time to grab your binoculars to watch out these gulls passing through!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Inca Tern at the Panama Canal... wait, whaaaat?

Yes... that was my first impression when my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson reported this rarity in the Social Media yesterday... an adult Inca Tern was seen at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal right in front of the Visitors Center.  The Inca Tern is a real vagrant to Panama, endemic to the Humboldt Current off western South America, supposedly only appears up here under anomalous conditions, specially during El Niño years.  So I hurried up to the Visitors Center, picking up in the way my friend Osvaldo Quintero and his son Osvaldo Jr.
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
We got to the center 20 minutes before closure... and started to look at the far side of the locks where Beny reported the bird earlier.  As you can see in the above photo, we used the lookout in the fourth floor to locate the bird, which was where the red arrow is pointing.  It required the maximum zoom of our lenses... and lot of trimming back in home... this is the result:
Inca Tern at the Panama Canal
Not only very rare... also exaggeratedly beautiful!  This bird was with Sandwich Terns and Laughing Gulls, and seemed to be enjoying its stay... we saw it fishing successfully twice, taking a bath, preening and resting by the walls of the locks.
Inca Tern with little fish
Inca Tern at the Panama Canal
There have been some reports in the past few years in Panamanian coasts, including mine back in 2010 (eBird checklist here), but this is the first report in the vicinity of Panama City in more than 30 years!  Good excuse to visit the Panama Canal these days!
Inca Tern at the Panama Canal

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Bird of the Month: Oilbird

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

Saturday, April 30, 2016

I also went after him

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

The Cerro Hoya Expedition

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Land of Contrasts

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