Monday, October 26, 2009

Raptors' highway

It was 3:06 pm when I received a cell phone call. In the other side, Osvaldo only had to tell me once "I'm seeing thousands of them" in order to look through my office's window towards Ancon hill... they were there: thousands of little dark dots in the sky that a closer look revealed to be Broad-winged and Swainson's Hawks over the city. Each october, most of the world's population of these two hawks species, plus millions of Turkey Vultures, pass through the isthmus in their annual southward migration. Literally, you can see hordes of raptors, forming what looks like aerial highways over central Panama (including Panama City). It is an event that many citizens go unnoticed... but many does not mean all of them.

The history of counting migrating raptors goes back to 1996, when Dr. George Angher organized the first simultaneous raptors counts at the narrowest part of the isthmus (you can read more in the Panama Audubon Society web site, under "Projects"). Now, it is a serious task, with many qualified and experienced persons counting in several strategic points. The time and effort invested to document this marvel is worth admiring and reminds me others more renowned places (Veracruz River of Raptors in Mexico comes to my mind). These observation places are located along the Panama Canal. Traditionally, Ancon hill has been the most important observation site throughout the years, usually counting more than one million birds per season and that, my friends, is something that only happens in few places around the globe. The hill dominates Panama City and still is covered with dry forest that host many widespread species (birds, mammals, and others). It is within the city, so accesible that even the city's Major visited the place this season to watch the huge flocks of raptors.

Why is Panama so important for these raptors? A quick glimpse to any world map will give you an idea of the answer. Panama is an obligated pass in most of the main migration routes in the Americas, and it doesn't involve flying over large stretchs of ocean. This is important because the raptors need the ascending thermal currents to gain altitude, to glide then towards the base of the next thermal current, repeating the process again and again.

At least in Panama, the Swainson's Hawks rest hidden in open fields with tall grass, while the Broad-winged Hawks rest in forested areas. Few octobers ago, birding the Escobal road towards Achiote (Colon province in the Caribbean slope) early in the morning, I saw a single Broad-winged Hawk flying from the canopy of the surrounding forest... then other, and other, and other, and so on... I counted at least 200 lazy hawks in a couple of minutes, waking up in order to continue its journey... an amazing show that I will remember forever.
As bonus, the main flocks also can bring with it some scarcer species, like Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Merlin, and others, so it is always a good idea to double check those flocks each time you have the chance. In any case, the mere phenomenon of thousands of raptors flying over you deserve a look, don't you think?

If you have the opportunity to visit Panama during the migration season, or are a resident here, don't forget to look at the sky... you can be surprised! On the other hand, if you don't have the opportunity, follow this season's daily counts in one of the strategic points (Semaphore hill) here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Time to pay attention to the bamboo?

Today I spent the morning searching for birds with Osvaldo Quintero in the Old Gamboa road (aka Summit Ponds road). This is an easy walk, with many birds due to the variety of habitats and close to the city... it is perfect for those seeking a long list in few hours or if you want to have prolonged views of emblematic neotropical birds like toucans, caciques, trogons, kingfishers and so on... We started at the ponds itself, where we saw Amazon and Green Kingfishers waiting over the surface for a victim, and a Collared Aracari that deigned in giving a glimpse over its shoulder. A pair of Great Kiskadees were on a wire, paying attention to all our movements. Soon we realized that the commonest birds now were the migrants, with Northern Waterthrushes and Eastern Wood-Pewees in almost every corner. Others migrants recorded were Prothonotary, Chestnut-sided and Yellow Warblers plus a lonely Great Crested Flycatcher. That activity was low, but constant, with common birds comming to us like Blue-and-gray, Crimson-backed and Gray-headed Tanagers, a pair of Orange-chinned Parakeets excavating a nest, Clay-colored Thrush and others. A quick search of the skies produced migrating flocks of swallows plus some unidentified Chaetura swifts. Also, we got a migrating flock of Swainson's and Broad-winged Hawks accompanying a greater group of Turkey Vultures (more on them in another post, I promise). I must say that not everything is good in paradise... part of the trail has been widened and cleared in order to improve an access road to some installations of the ACP (Panama Canal Authority), but we still managed to find some specialties of the area, including a Jet Antbird (although only heard). A bit discouraged by the scene, we reached the group of bamboo close to the half way, most of it now lying on the floor. For our surprise (and I mean BIG surprise), we heard the characteristic loud and buzzy thrill of a Slate-colored Seedeater right above us in the bamboo!! We played a tape and then a second male with a female appeared, allowing us to take some shots. We stayed for 15 minutes or so, appreciating these nomadic seedeaters. Very happy with the finding, we decided to go to the Metropolitan Natural Park, just to see if we can catch up the migrating flock of raptors over the city. One hour later we were in the lookout, but with no luck this time (no raptors). We started to return through "La Cienegüita" trail. Few minutes later, I heard what I thought first was an auditive hallucination caused by the dehydration: a loud and buzzy thrill over a bunch of bamboo!! And guess what... for the second time in the day we were watching two males Slate-colored Seedeaters singing with all their forces. Well, I imagine that it is time to pay more attention to the bamboo. Considering that all those bamboo-associated birds are quite rare and nomadic (at least in Panama), and that this particular month of october has produced some reports of these birds (Barred Parakeet, Peg-billed and Slaty Finches here; Slate-colored Seedeater here) is logical to think that maybe IT IS HAPPENING... the flowering of the bamboo... or maybe I'm just overreacting and all these are coincidences? It is supposed to be one of the rarest sight in the botanical world, an event that occurs every 10 to 120 years and when it occurs; well, all the bamboo plants of that species flower at the same time and then die at the same time too... is not amazing? I'm not going to take any risk and I will organize a birding trip to the western highlands, searching for those bamboo-specialists that I still need. Want to join me?

Bim-bim... who is?

Nothing is more pleasant than to withdraw to the countryside after a week of arduous work in the big city. That is why I went with Gloriela to Penonome (central Panama) yesterday, visiting her parents' finca. Each weekend, they plant native trees in what used to be cattle land a couple of years ago. Now, it is a regenerating habitat holding a wide variety of wildlife, including birds. The plan is to have a little cabin in the property (already in construction) to shelter of the sun and the rain, since the entrance's tree is not good enough for that purpose. By now, it was just what Gloriela needed to hang her hammock and to take a nap, while I was having a walk in the surroundings. Eventually, I found a medium sized shrub with tons of little yellow berries frequented by lots of birds... all of them flycatchers: Lesser and Yellow-bellied Elaenias, Social, Panama and Streaked Flycatchers and Tropical Kingbirds were all taking advantage of the fruit bonanza. A little further, a flowering tree was attracting Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and what I'm tentatively calling a female Sapphire-throated Hummingbird (range and habitat... If you have other opinion let me know), plus a family group of Red-legged Honeycreepers. The countryside is NOT countryside without the call of the Bim-bim (aka Yellow-crowned Euphonia) filling the air. These beautiful little friends are common cage birds in some parts of the country because of its calls and its brightly coloured plumage (males only). By the way, as you surely guessed, the local name Bim-bim [beem-beem] is an onomatopeia of its common call. Other Euphonias has their own onomatopoetic names in Panama, like Ren-ren (Fulvous-vented and Olive-backed Euphonias). The Euphonias used to be considered as little stubby tanagers, but now they are considered more closely related to the fringillids (siskins and goldfinches), a decision that makes more sense to me. The finca still has part of its original vegetation along the creek, where you can find a more humid habitat, with mossy trunks and tall Cecropias... and birds like Thick-billed Euphonias (not to be confused with the Lesser Goldfinches -a fringillid- also present), Lance-tailed Manakins, Black-chested Jays, Masked Tityras and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas. I even found deer's tracks in the muddy shore of the creek and heard a Sepia-capped Flycatcher in the bushes. We spent most of the day in that place, just relaxing, having fun and hearing the incessantly bim-bim, bim-bim, bim-bim. Because everyting comes to an end, we started to head back to town in the evening to say good bye to our friends and relatives. See you next weekend!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Oh my God-wit, there is an intruder among us!

A quick, after-work visit today to the mouth of the Matías Hernández river in Costa del Este produced a nice assortment of shorebirds: Whimbrels, Willets, Yellowlegs and a big group of Marbled Godwits (part of it pictured above). A closer look revealed an elegant Black Skimmer resting peacefully among the Godwits. It stayed for a while, without paying attention to its neighbors, but then flew far away, joining a really BIG flock of Laughing Gulls and, at least, other three or four Skimmers in the beach.

Quite uncommon some years ago, the Skimmers are now regular in this place, sometimes in huge numbers, with the south american race cinerascens also present (hard to tell if this one belongs to it). It is simply fascinating to watch this agile birds skimming the surface of the water while they feed, and I'm glad that now we have the opportunity to witness that show more often.

Monday, October 19, 2009

... and talking about luck

Osvaldo Quintero went yesterday to Pipeline road, in order to do some solo birding, and found a spectacular Sunbittern close to Juan Grande bridge. The cooperative creature stayed for a while, preening and doing Sunbittern stuff, for Osvaldo's delight. You can read the report (and watch the photo) here. Sometimes you get lucky when birding alone; so, congratulations Osvaldo!! I missed the show... I spent the weekend with my family and friends in Gorgona, central Panama coast. Nothing to report, except for the amusing flock of Sanderlings running from one side to another behind the waves.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lucky moments

My encounter with the Green-and-rufous Kingfisher last sunday in Pipeline road made me remind some others lucky moments there. Why lucky? OK, consider this: in more than 15 years birding Pipeline road, this is my first G&RKF there (and only my second one ever). I know the book assures it is rare to uncommon; but, as others birds, it is simply a rare sighting. Perhaps some birds are simply unconspicuous, maybe others are not around anymore (Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Black-crowned Antpitta). Anyway, I think is a good excuse to write about some others lucky moments that I have had in this place (and for posting pictures of great birds, though the pics are not so great). Remember that this are just my lucky moments... Pipeline road has a long list of lucky guys seeing absolutely terrific birds (Black-collared Hawk, Uniform Crake, Oilbird, Green Ibis, and so on...).

Agami Heron: this colourful forest rivers denizen was photographed on april 09 in Frijolitos (right by the bridge). Only one other sighting, more than ten years ago in Agua Salud, wading the river, deep inside Pipeline road. Great Curassow: a family group beyond Sirystes, the same day I saw my first Agami, is the only record I got of this species in Pipeline road.

Sungrebe: maybe not an uncommon bird, but definitively a rare sighting without the aid of a boat. My three sightings have been so far in november 08 and january 09 in the stretch of Gatun Lake reachable from the Rainforest Discovery Center. Marbled Wood-Quail: only two coveys by now. The last one between Juan Grande and Frijolitos a couple of months ago.Capped Heron: an individual flying over the Rainforest Discovery Center three months ago is my only sighting from Pipeline road (my photo is from Summit ponds, where it seems to be regular at the end of the dry season). Rufous-crested Coquette: a single male over the Juan Grande bridge 14 years ago is my only sighting... but it has been recorded in the Rainforest Discovery Center more recently.Sunbittern: at least three sightings in Juan Grande and Limbo, but none in several years (I have been luckier with this one in Plantation road and the western highlands where I took this picture). Wing-banded Antbird: two sightings (one week between both) on june 1997 close to "El Alamo", in Limbo.Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo: OMG!!!, this magnificent ground dweller is the reason why our hearts want to leave of the chest whenever we find a big antswarm. This january 09's photo gave me 15 minutes of fame... even Robert Ridgely commented on it via e-mail! My only other sighting was many years ago during a Christmas Birds Count in Limbo.

So, are you ready to grab your bins and camera and to expect the unexpected next time in Pipeline road?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday in Pipeline road

Taking advantage of my free day, I went today with Osvaldo (no last name required) to the Gamboa area. Not an early start because we were more interested in photography and the light was not good enough. One thing is for sure... Pipeline road is getting popular among both visitors and locals. The parking lot was full of cars and we crossed many scientists, hikers, joggers, bikers and birders along the way. We drove directly to Juan Grande where we found our big surprise of the day. I saw "something" flying inside some bushes when crossing the bridge. Through a little space in the foliage I distinguished a typical kingfisher silhouette, a little bigger than the usual Green Kingfisher that we are used to see there... but it quickly flew away and perched over the water. Using my binoculars I saw the rufous underparts with no white at all... a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher!!! and it flew again after a short glimpse, and Osvaldo didn't see it. We walked along the muddy riverbank and after a couple of meters I saw the bird again, this time nicely perched behind a bunch of dead leaves. It took some time to place ourselves in order to start shooting our cameras, but at least we got a couple of recognizable pictures. Pretty shy for a kingfisher! Happy with our luck, we continued. The bird activity was low after our first sighting... only few antwrens and antshrikes, but eventually we found an antswarm attended by Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, Gray-headed Tanagers and a Plain-brown Woodcreeper. An antswarm in the tropics always is a good find... except if you are so amazed enjoying the birds that forget the ants that are going towards you!! This particular antswarm was composed of thousands of little black ants, smaller and faster than the Eciton burchelli that usually we found, and it was not until we feel the bites in our ankles that we realize that we were in the middle of it!!! We stepped aside for a while, but the birds were so tame that I kept shooting. Being a little swarm, it did not have Ocellated Antbirds, always a spectacular guest to see... but the Spotted Antbirds offered a great show, jumping to few feet of us, vocalizing incessantly its buzzing calls that, with those of the Bicolored Antbirds, make unmistakable the sound of an approaching antswarm. Now, more than happy and thirsty, we drove to the Rainforest Discovery Center for a soda or two. Of course I took my time to photograph the hummingbirds, with a cooperative White-vented Plumeleteer being the highlight, gleaming with natural sunlight... but I must admit that those Blue-chested Hummingbirds are really spectacular when facing the sun. Well, a nice day after all, with no rain at all despite the weather forecast.
P.D. : if you have any idea of the identity of this winged friend below, let me know.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rainy day

October is one of the most rainy months of the year in Panama, and we verified it last saturday, during our day visit to El Valle de Anton. The day started good, with clear skies, but it became dark rapidly. Our first stop was close to Los Llanitos ("Todies Land") where we recorded ALL the motmots species found in Panama, with Tody Motmot in my saw-and-barely-photographed list (as I have said before, they are very tough to photograph). After a quick hot coffee and a piece of pineapple pie in a little bakery close to the famous "mercado" in El Valle, we headed to the Cerro Gaital Natural Monument where a smiley-faced Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth welcomed us. By mid-morning the day was dark and chilly, with some dropplets falling down, but that didn't stop us. We walked the loop trail (El Convento) reaching only the second station. In the way we saw a nice Green-crowned Brilliant and a mixed flock of Silver-throated Tangers, Common Bush-Tanagers, Bananaquits and very cooperative Black-faced Grosbeaks (a huge group, maybe 15 individuals). A little noise in the understore resulted in a Nine-banded Armadillo who quickly ran away. The migrants were represented by Canada, Blackburnian and Mourning Warblers plus Swainson's Thrushes. It soon began to rain, so we headed back just in time to reach the car when a heavy downspur covered everything. We left El Valle, calling it a day not before a short visit to the lowlands of El Chiru, but it was late and we only saw very common birds (plus a nice Pearl Kite). The return journey was under a rainstorm all the way to Panama city, but at least it was refreshing!