Friday, April 19, 2019

500th Bird for 2019!

As posted previously, I spent the last weekend in Penonome with my family.  After exploring the mountains of Olá, we ended the day doing some owling at the savannas surrounding the towns of El Coco and El Gago, finding a new year bird in the form of Barn Owl.  So, when we woke up on Sunday, my Year-List of birds for Panama was at 498!  I already had plans for the day with my family, which included a visit to a river to swim and enjoy, but I was pretty sure that, with some detours of the original plan, I would be able to add at least two new birds during the day.
Zarati river
Actually, it was easier said than done... in my quest for The 600 Club, I have already birded extensively Penonome and surroundings this year.  I needed some intel data and, again, my friend Josanel Sugasti gave me some input on how to find some specialties close to the place I was willing to visit.  We headed north of Penonome, following the road to Chiguirí Arriba, which is a little and charming town almost in the Caribbean side of Cocle province, in central Panama.  The road runs along the Zarati river, eventually crossing it at a place where I usually stop to check the gallery forest along it.
Red-headed Firetip (Pyrrhopyge zenodorus)
At this point, the river excavated an impressive canyon, as you can see in the first photo.  The vegetation attracted several common species of birds, plus my life Firetip (Pyrrhopyge sp.) attending a fruiting tree, but no new species for my year list.  So we kept on until the town of Caimito, where we took the road to Sofre.  The site is known by the colony(ies) of Montezuma Oropendola, which are weirdly into the Pacific slope of the province.  However, it seems that they are located in private property and we didn't have time to ask.  Instead, we focused on another -uncommon- species.  Following the directions of Josanel, I located the lowest part of the road, a place where it cross several narrow creeks, and started to check the power lines.  Soon, we detected a flock of swallows swirling over one of the creeks.  The small size and uniform dark plumage clinched the ID: White-thighed Swallows.
White-thighed Swallow
The swallows offered prolonged views, we even were able to see the tiny white thighs this species is known for and heard some vocalizations.  They were my species # 499 for the year and, to be honest, I thought that was going to be all, since it was time to go to the river as planned, and I was not expecting more new species.  We headed back to Caimito and took again the main road to Chiguiri Arriba.  At the town of La Vieja, we took a dirt road (four-wheel drive needed) to Pozo Azul, also known as Las Pailas by the locals.  We payed at the entrance and took a trail that quickly became a long ladder inside the forest going steeply down the river.
Steps to Pozo Azul
At the bottom, the crystal-clear and chilly waters of Pozo Azul were waiting for us.  What a nice place!  Again, the river had eroded the rocks to form some deep water holes ("pailas") where you can dive and swim, accompanied by fresh water fishes as you can see in the photo!
Pozo Azul
The place was crowded (for Panamanian standards), but anyway we had a great time there.  The way back, up the steps, was not that fun, but we made it on time to hit the road again and continue exploring the region.  With plenty of time, we decided to visit Chiguirí Arriba.  This town is on our hearts since both Gloriela and me did part of our internship at the local (and tiny) health center.  Seeing it after all these years, looking exactly like we remembered it, made us feel nostalgic.
Chiguirí Arriba's health center
I remembered that during my internship, it was not rare to see White-thighed Swallows and Montezuma Oropendola in Chiguiri Arriba, so we had a look, but find neither.  Although the place looked essentially the same as when we did our internship, there were some changes... including a new road to the next town: Vaquilla.  It used to be a rough dirt road... now we were able to reach Vaquilla in few minutes.  To my surprise, right behind the grosery store where we stopped to buy some drinks, we noticed a lot of activity of Montezuma Oropendolas!
Montezuma Oropendola
They were constructing their characteristic nests, and soon realized that there is a complete colony... even including Piratic Flycatchers and oportunistics Giant Cowbirds (both species depend on the oropendolas).  The Montezuma Oropendola was my bird 500th for this year so far!  The truth is that I'm impressed with all the birds obtained (and the sites visited) this year... and we are just starting!  Meanwhile, we ended our visit to northern Penonome at the Cerro La Vieja Butterfly Garden, where our guide explained us the importance of this beautiful insects and the important conservation effort they make at this isolated point of the country... we need more initiatives like that!  Happy birding folks!
Gloriela and Gabrielle at Cerro La Vieja Butterfly Garden

Monday, April 15, 2019

Panoramic Olá

Olá is a little town in central Coclé province (central Panamá) mere 15 minutes from the Pan-American highway.  This quiet town is the capital of the homonymous district which is, perhaps, the less known district of the province when talking about tourism or birdwatching.  However, Olá offers some natural wonders that are frequently visited by locals, like "Los Chorros" or "El Picacho".
Cerro El Peñón
To the north of the town, the paved road takes you to the mountains, which are exceptionally attractive due to overwhelming sceneries.  I visited one of the most accesible, "Cerro El Peñón" this last weekend with my family.  The winding road through the grassy and dry slopes sinuously takes you all the way to the higher slopes of the mountain.  After the asphalt is gone, the dirt road keep going for miles and miles.  Some impressive rock formations and even a high-elevation plateau become evident, with scattered patches of gallery forests along the narrow valleys.
Of course the evidence of human interventions are everywhere in this landscape, but many areas remains wild and untouched... and I'm talking about natural grasslands up there.  This habitat is home to some localized species in Panama, grass-dwelling species that due to the scarcity of habitat are seldom reported, except from usual sites.  One of those species showed up as soon as we left the car to inspect one of these patches of grass.  A pair of Wedge-tailed Grass-Finches inspected us from a barbed wire.  It was nice to see this species again this year, after finding it in Cerro Campana some months ago... after several years without seeing one!
Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch
However, I was interested in another species.  It may sound weird, but I was searching for Rufous-collared Sparrows.  Yes, the ubiquitous "Tío Chicho" of the western highlands have a population in these mountains that was recently re-discovered by my friend Josanel Sugasti last year (check his eBird checklist HERE).  After some tense minutes without noticing any sign of the birds, I eventually saw a pair quietly feeding mere 10 meters away.  I took some photos before they disappeared in the grass... it is the most exciting sight of "Tío Chichos" so far for me!
Rufous-collared Sparrow
According to Ridgely & Gwynne (1989), Rufous-collared Sparrows are unknown in the province, except for an old specimen simply labelled "Cascajal" (¿?), supposedly in Coclé.  Why is this significant?  The easternmost population of this species in Panama is found in Cerro Campana and Cerro Chame and was described by Wetmore in 1951 as the endemic subspecies orestera, which is supposed to be in average darker than the population (costaricensis) present in western Panamá (east to Veraguas).  Some authorities think it is better to treat orestera as synonym of costaricensis... and this population in Coclé may prove this to be right, since its fills the supposed gap in distribution.  To my eye, these birds are identical to those in the western highlands of Panamá.  To be honest, I don't remember how orestera look... I saw my first ever Rufous-collared Sparrow in Cerro Campana back in September, 1996.  There are no recent records of orestera, and the subspecies well may be extinct or critically endangered by unknown reasons, since it seems that its habitat remains.  I wonder what secrets keep these sparrows of Coclé province.... are they costaricensis?, orestera? an undescribed subspecies?  I hope it is not the last time I run into them!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Time for some LIFERS!!!!

It is not a secret that while you gain experience watching birds in an area, it become more and more difficult to find new ones.  That's why I celebrate every new bird for my Panama list as if it were a lifer... and I knew that if I want more new birds, I had to climb Cerro Pirre, in eastern Darien province.  The first time I went there (check this post), I got almost all the Darien highlands endemics... but my time at the foothills was limited and I missed several species, including some potential lifers.  This time, I contacted a local expert... my friend Isaac Pizarro, who is a certified guide and who knows extremely well the endemics and the local specialties (and more important, he was available for the free days of carnival).  If you don't want to loose time, contact him to find all the birds you need!
Dock with "piraguas" in Yaviza, Darien province
My plan was to spend two nights at "Rancho Plástico", which is a camp site in the middle of the forest around 622 meters on the slopes of Cerro Pirre, in Darien National Park. My journey started very early, driving all the way from Panama City to Yaviza, where I met Isaac, who was waiting for me at the public dock.  From there, we took a "piragua" along the Chucunaque river, arriving to El Real around one hour later, where we met our porter and took a taxi to the community of Piji Basal, where we started to walk.  On the way, we got several eastern Panama specialties, including Double-banded Graytail, Choco Syristes, Yellow-backed Tanager and obliging Black Oropendolas, to name just a few.
Black Oropendola
We reached Pirre Station (better known as Rancho Frío) where part of a group of entomologist was collecting butterflies and other insects.  The other part was already at the Rancho Plástico camp site, so we hurried to go there.  The trail to Rancho Plástico from Rancho Frío is extremely good for birding, specially close to and at Rancho Plástico.  After one hour of hiking, Isaac guided me off the trail to a spot where he regularly sees Black-tipped Cotinga.  To my surprise, an adult male Black-tipped Cotinga was perched and exposed atop a tall and distant tree!  My very first Lifer of the trip!  Terrible photos so I will keep on.  With each step, I was adding more and more species to my Year List (remember that I'm doing a Big Year in Panama for The 600 Club).  Before reaching Rancho Plástico, we checked the lookouts ("Miradores") for mixed flocks (almost always including Scarlet-browed Tanagers) and some other specialties.  Some species easy to hear, but almost impossible to see, where quickly detected and actually seen!  Plumbeous Pigeon, Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo and my life Choco Tinamou!
Scarlet-browed Tanager, adult male
Plumbeous Pigeon
We set the camp at Rancho Plástico, where the rest of the entomologist group was working on the specimens they collected earlier.  Darien National Park is mega diverse, just imagine how many different insects they found!  But well, I was there for the birds... and the birds did not disappointed us.  Central American Pygmy-Owl, Choco Screech-Owl, Crested and Spectacled Owls were all heard (if not seen) at night, plus bonus Tawny-faced Quail at roost!
Central American Pygmy-Owl 
Tawny-faced Quail, female
The next morning, we started the hike (or I may say climb) to the summit ridge of Cerro Pirre with the entomologists.  The dawn chorus at Rancho Plástico was alive.  We recorded several species by voice first, eventually seeing most of them.  The trail up to the ridge is quite steep and muddy... but there are plenty of avian highlights possibilities to entertain you.  Many of the species are essentially restricted to Darien National Park, while others are way easier to see here than in any other part of Panama (or Central America!).  Most of the lifers I got where in these middle elevations, since the last time I was there, essentially birded only the highest slopes.  Some (HUGE) highlights included Crested Eagle (a dark morph adult), Wing-banded Antbird, Sooty-headed Wren, Gray-and-gold Tanager, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, Yellow-green Grosbeak, Orange-bellied Euphonia and a stunning pair of Yellow-collared Chlorophonia.
Lemon-spectacled Tanager
Yellow-green Grosbeak
Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, immature male
Even before reaching the ridge, as soon as we passed the 900 meters mark, we started to find some of the Darien highlands endemics.  In quick succession we recorded Pirre Hummingbird, Choco Tapaculo, Varied Solitaire and Pirre Chlorospingus.  We dipped on the Green-naped Tanager and on the Pirre Warbler.  The later is nowadays very rare and localized in this part of its limited range and, according to Isaac, it is now necessary to hike around three hours along the ridge to find a good spot for it... time we didn't have.  The group of entomologists set camp at the ridge while Isaac and I spent a couple of hours birding nearby.  We added several Tooth-billed Hummingbirds, King Vulture and Ornate Hawk-Eagle, but nothing else, so we headed back to Rancho Plástico.
Pirre Hummingbird, male
Varied Solitaire
Pirre Chlorospingus
For the last day of the trip, Isaac took me to THE spot for one of the rarest birds in Panama.  I knew all about it... a narrow trail that descends vertiginously from Rancho Plástico to the river, then climb back up a small stream covered with dense vegetation to reach the place where the chances to finding it are the best.  In the way, we found most of the river-dweller birds you might expect: Dull-mantled Antbird, Sapayoa, Buff-rumped Warbler, and many more.  Once at the spot, we waited for the bird to response a taped call... after some tense minutes we heard a response from upstream.  Eventually, a pair of Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper showed up in full display!  What a bird!  I can't show you a decent photo of it but trust me, that is a bird you need to see!
The Streamcreeper is one of those furnariids that is not closely related to other members of the family; although, the general jizz, accentuated by its long bill, reminded me a leaftosser with bold pale spots in the underparts.   With that great lifer in the bag, the way back up was less miserable than expected.  Once again in Rancho Plástico, it was time to pack up and roll out.  Isaac managed to get me another two lifers (Saffron-headed Parrot and Olive-backed Quail-Dove) before getting to Pirre Station, where we rest a little bit (and I took a well deserved shower!).   As usual, the trail from Pirre Station to the main road was full of nice birds, like Sunbittern, both Rufescent and Fasciated Tiger-Herons, Rufous Piha, White-fronted Nunbird and many more... but my time was limited.
Fasciated Tiger-Heron
White-fronted Nunbird
Our taxi driver from El Real was already waiting for us at the road.  Soon, I got to El Real where I said goodbye to Isaac and thanked him for all the lifers and new year-birds I got.  After all, it was -again- just a three days trip to one of the most remote and preserved forests of Panama.  In summary, I got 77 new year-birds, including seven (7) lifers plus other three (3) Panama lifers!  What a great trip... I can't wait to go back!
Pirre Range (eastern Darien)

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Beach Weekend (and more)!

Sometimes, you only need to get away and relax.  My wife and I decided that it was time to have an escape to a secluded beach in order to enjoy the sun and the marine breeze.  Luckily for us, doing so is as easy as taking a ferry to the paradisiac Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama, mere one to two hours from busy Panama City.  We chose a beach club at Viveros Island that we visited earlier this year and loved it then.  The pristine turquoise waters and the fine white sands of the beach are irresistible!
At 3:00 pm, the ferry picks up the few visitors back to the city, but we booked a room in advance (because the place only has two rooms) and, essentially, had the complete club and the beach exclusively for us the rest of the afternoon.
Playa Honda, Viveros Island, at sunset
But this is a birding blog, and I'm sure you're waiting the birding story here... and yes, there is a birding story.  Early in the morning, I explored the surroundings with my camera.  After watching some common species, I started to hear an unfamiliar call (to me that is).  After recording it, I realized that the bird doing it was an adult male White-fringed Antwren that I managed to photograph in spite of how far away it was.
White-fringed Antwren, adult male
This species is restricted, in Panama, to the largest islands of the archipelago, where it is represented by the endemic subspecies alticincta.  It is not found in the mainland, and the closest population occurs in Caribbean Colombia.  I was expecting it at the island because my friend José Pérez photographed it  here last year for the Global Big Day (thanks for the instructions José).  HBW Alive states that the song of this endemic subspecies is unknown, so I uploaded mine to Xeno-Canto, where you can listen to it (HERE is my recording) and compare with the recordings of other subspecies of the complex (notice that they recognize alticincta as part of Northern White-fringed Antwren).  The ant wren was a great addition to my year list, but certainly other birds also showed well, including a cooperative Jet Antbird and an impressive Hook-billed Kite perched few meters away.
Jet Antbird, adult male 
Hook-billed Kite, adult female
So what else you can ask?  Spending time at a beautiful beach alone with the girl you love while recording -probably for the first time- range-restricted and endemic subspecies of antwrens is my  definition of paradise on Earth!
P.D.: more photos at Gloriela's Intagram

Monday, April 1, 2019

This is NOT an April fools!

Certainly NOT!  If you still want to see one of the most elusive bird of Panama, now is when!  The Neomorphus Ground-Cuckoos are the jewels of the crown for the neotropical birders.  Rare, localized and definitively impressive ground-dwelling cuckoos of the interior of humid forests, usually associated with antswarms or following herds of peccaries, having a glimpse of them is like touching gold!
Great Potoo
A pair of Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos have been reported at the famous Pipeline Road (north of Gamboa, Colon province, central Panama) since mid-March attending an antswarm.  Pipeline is known for its long list of spectacular bird species, but it happens that the cuckoos (or I may say, the antswarm) have stayed at the same general area since then.  So I took advantage of my break at the office and headed to Pipeline. The staff at the Rainforest Discovery Center were the first to give me the instructions.  I soon find my friend Josanel Sugasti, who had not yet seen the bird today but gave me some tips to find the exact place (after showing to me the roosting Great Potoo over my head!).  The army antswarm is not by the road... you have to walk into the forest some 300 meters along a now-dry creek to find it.  I was not sure of the exact place because I was only hearing Gray-headed Tanagers.  Yes, they DO follow antswarms, but this particular antswarm was supposed to be attracting dozens of other, usually noisy, birds species.
Gray-headed Tanager
Thanks God another friend of mine came to the rescue.  Ismael "Nando" Quiroz (of Tamandúa) was guiding a group of visiting birders.  When I asked if he got THE bird, he said "Yes, only two"... and nope, he was not joking.  Nando pointed me the correct direction.  I followed his detailed instructions and soon started to hear Ocellated, Spotted and Bicolored Antbirds, among others.
Bicolored Antbird
Yes, I was in the middle of a forest at noon, standing on an army antswarm, sweating a lot due to the excitement (and the intense heat and humidity, plus the fact that I was dressed for an air-conditioned office, including shoes, didn't help either).  Just when I started to think that I needed to be on the road back to Panama City in less than an hour, then it happened.  Not one, but two Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos were quietly catching preys that were trying to escape the furious army ants.  It doesn't matter if you had seen them before, they are simply magnificent creatures!
Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo
I'm very grateful with all the friends that helped me today.  Now you know it.  What are you waiting for to look after them?
Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

They are here to stay!

And that is for sure!  I'm talking about the Carib Grackles.  For some reason, this species colonized Panama unnoticed more than one and a half year ago from Colombia, where it showed an explosive expansion of its natural range.  In fact, the first record was mere 40 kms to the east of Panama City.  
Back then, I noticed this rather small adult male grackle with a huge group of normal-sized Great-tailed Grackle... nothing rare, just unusual... until I heard it!  This small grackle had a different voice!
Carib Grackle.  Finca Bayano, Panama.  August 15th, 2017
I hurried to take photos of this grackle, and managed some (like the one above)... but soon concluded that it had to be some dwarf or anomalous individual or something like that.  After all, there were no previous records in eastern Panama of this conspicuous species, which I already knew from South America.  But for some reason, I did not erase those photos.  Just a few weeks later, while birding some fields close to the town of Chepo with some fellow birders including Venicio "Beny" Wilson and Rolando Jordan, I noticed again these small grackles accompanying normal-looking Great-tailed Grackles... but this time there were no doubts... those were Carib Grackles!
Carib Grackles.  Near Chepo, Panama.  September 9th, 2017
Since then, the grackles were recorded in several hotspots to the east of the first records and into Darien province.  In fact, there are some regular spots where the birds are almost guaranteed, like the river near the town of Torti in eastern Panama province.  There have been reports of juveniles birds there, although we have not yet found a nest so far.  I went to this site in my way back from Finca Los Lagos after my twitch for the Bare-faced Ibis.  As soon as I got there, I noticed the Carib Grackles at the bank of the river.  They were vocalizing and I managed photos and sound recordings this time, that I included in my eBird checklist for the site.
Carib Grackles. Torti, Panama. February 3rd, 2019
Carib Grackle. Torti, Panama. February 3rd, 2019
Its similarity to the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles certainly had something to do with its "sorpresive" colonization... simply no one cared to check the grackles before!  Several reports have been of birds in association with Great-tailed Grackles, and almost all the birds have been found associated with water.  I wonder how far will they reach into western Panama, but something seems sure... they are here to stay!

Friday, February 8, 2019

A Visit to Finca Los Lagos (aka Ibis-Land)

The news spread like fire!  A Bare-faced Ibis returned to the same area where it was seen for the first time in Panama last year.  As you heard it, the Bare-faced Ibis found in Darien province (eastern Panama) by Pepe Castiblanco and Erasmo De Leon was the last addition to our national list of birds, but after the first few sightings, it disappeared... until now.  It reappeared in the same general area last month, and since then, several twitchers have found it with the help of Erasmo.
Finca Los Lagos, Darien
So, last Sunday I decided to try for it.  Erasmo's nephew, Jean, showed me the way through pasture land and dry riverbeds until we reached Finca Los Lagos, property of Erasmo's parents, at first light.  It was evident why it attracted so many birds... the surroundings were extremely dry due to the harsh dry season, but the place holds a lake with marshy vegetation and other wetlands that attracts tons of life.  Also, the property borders an extensive forest too... a nice combination.  We did the first try before breakfast... and I'm going to kill the suspense right away because the very first ibis we saw mere 100 meters from the house was THE ibis!
Bare-faced Ibis with Blue-winged Teals and a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
The ibis was not a lifer for me to be honest... but it was the first time ever I see one in Panama!  With its growing number in South America, I wonder why this species have not yet "invaded" our country. It was quite shy and I only managed distant shots... but hey, I got my target and I was just starting!  With the ibis in the bag, we decided to bird along the forest border in direction to a nearby wetland.  As you can imagine, we found several other species... but as suggested by the title, I was impressed with the diversity of ibises species.  In quick succession we saw Glossy, Green and White Ibises feeding on the wetlands!
Glossy Ibis
Green Ibises
White Ibises (immatures)
I don't recall any other site in Panama where you can see four different species of ibises at the same time (the Panama list of birds have seven species of ibises, with the other three extremely rare, just as the Bare-faced), indicating the quality of the habitat at the site.  The ibises were not the only one attracted to these wetlands, the ducks were well represented with large numbers of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Blue-winged Teals, plus at least 150 Muscovy Ducks, which are hunted in other sites.  Even a beautiful drake American Wigeon posed for photos!
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks
Muscovy Ducks
American Wigeon with Blue-winged Teals
We saw hundred of herons, egrets, jacanas and other aquatic birds... but there were other specialties too.  The flycatchers were well represented with several species, including Cattle Tyrant (in spite of its preferred habitat, it is still scarce and erratic in Panama), Pied Water-Tyrant, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Great and Lesser Kiskadees, Tropical and Gray Kingbirds, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tyrant, and many more!  A female Golden-green Woodpecker also showed well, specially considering how difficult to find usually they are, and by the river, the nominate subspecies of Boat-billed Heron (with white-ish- breast and face) was resting in the open.
Cattle Tyrant
Long-tailed Tyrant
Golden-green Woodpecker (female)
Boat-billed Heron
In the way back, Jean took me to a little marsh where he thought the Bare-faced Ibis liked to wander.  Using some bushes as hides, we managed to approach very close to the marsh.  Effectively, the ibis was there... and this time I managed some great shots and even tape-recorded it guttural vocalization, which you can heard from this eBird checklist.
Bare-faced Ibis
What a great way to end a twitch!  My four-and-a-half-hours drive back to Panama City was definitely more bearable with the feeling of mission accomplished!  I greatly recommend contact Erasmo for a visit to this private property in eastern Panama... write him at or through his page at EcoTourDarien.  Happy Birding!