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.

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