Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cattle Tyrant before breakfast

I left Gloriela and her sister in the Coastal Beltway early this morning. Usually, I walk with them, but today I had another plan: to look after the Cattle Tyrant that has been reported recently from the Tocumen International Airport in the outskirts of the city. I would drive to the airport, find the bird, take some photos and then return to the beltway in order to pick up them. They usually take 1.25 to 1.5 hours to walk the circuit so I was counting with the sunday morning's light traffic to achieve my goal in that time. So I started to drive thinking in a strategy to find the bird. I needed a strategy because if you don't get the bird in the first try, then you will have to drive all the way to the airport's facilities to return if you want another shot, under the attentive and vigilant look of the authorities. After doing it several times with binoculars and cameras, and without dropping or picking up anybody in the facilities, you will look very suspicious. After some minutes I came up with my strategy: I was going to park (illegally, notice the sign in the photo) close to the "Bienvenidos a Panamá" sign and wait for the bird to photograph it without leaving my seat. The only thing I needed then was the bird to cooperate. So I followed my plan and waited close to the sign... and waited... and waited. I parked in the narrow shoulder of the airport's entrance road so the cars were passing near me rapid and furious. And guess what... I ran out of time (I planned a strict schedule, allowing only 20 minutes to find and photograph the bird!), SO I LEFT!!! Well, I know that I killed the suspense by titling this "Cattle Tyrant before breakfast", but I had to try it. After passing the authorities (trying not to look suspicious) and the "Bienvenidos a Panamá" sign, I remembered that the tyrants were also found in the little "Plaza" named "Consejal Alvaro López" at the turn-off to Tocumen town. So I drove very slowly around the plaza, eventually finding a narrow spot to park and wait other 5 minutes. Almost immediately, a Cattle Tyrant flew and perched on a pole right in front of me!!! I felt so lucky! Let's go directly to the photos.

The bird quickly went down to the ground and started to run after insects with sudden changes of direction and an occasional jump to catch those that were trying to escape. The olive wash to the underparts and the dark iris may suggest this is an immature bird. It looked pretty similar to the Tropical Mockingbirds that were feeding close to him, both in habits and shape (long tail, bill and legs). Maybe it is not colourfoul or impressive, but in Panama this is a very local bird, absent of most areas that seem to be appropiate. Only two sites in the Pacific slope of central Panama are known for this bird (the other one is Amador, in downtown Panama City), and few scattered reports are known for the Darien province (including the first one at the Cana airstrip close to the border with Colombia back in 1981). For a bird of open habitats, it is inexplicably rare in Panama, and there is a gap in its distribution (most part of eastern Panama and western Darien provinces). This can be due to lack of coverage in those areas by birders (passing unnoticed) or simply, its northward expansion from western Darien (and Colombia) to central Panama was not through the mainland, but through the Pearl islands as might indicate a report done by Venicio "Beny" Wilson and published in XENORNIS. Or maybe we still need to know the real habitat requirements of this species in Panama. For example, it is reported that commonly these birds are with the cattle in South America, a relationship never seen in Panama (although there are some cattle close to the airport site). Other thing is that all the nesting sites found in Panama (here and in Amador) have been so far on palm trees, and commonly these birds are found perched on these palm trees when they are not in the ground. My own experience with Cattle Tyrants in South America was of two singing birds on a palm tree at the central plaza of Pueblo Rico (Risaralda department, Colombia). Coincidence? Who knows... maybe the palm trees are very important for these birds. The last time I saw this bird in Panama was four years ago in Amador, during a Christmas Bird Count, so it is a year-bird for me this time. Of course, I passed of the time destined to enjoy the bird, but not by too much... Gloriela and her sister only waited for me 5 minutes. She immediately knew that I found the bird by seeing the big smile at my face. After that we had breakfast and believe me, never a breakfast tasted so good!


  1. Qué concidencia yo también ví el mío ayer. Como a eso de las 4pm, cuando regresábamos de la gira de Cerro Azul decidimos darle una (una) vuelta al aeropuerto. Fuimos despacito por la entrada principal y nada. Subimos la rampa, como quien deja a un pasajero y luego, al bajarla, a la mano izquierda estaba un Cattle Tyrant, en la hierba, pegado a la calle. Casi, casi nos lo perdemos pues ya nos ibamos, incluso tuvimos que hacer reversa, con 2 policías bien cerca que por suerte estaban mirando para otro lado cuando hicimos esto. Este tirano sí que fue cooperador con nosotros...

  2. JaJaJa, tal vez exagero pero yo estaba nervioso esperando a que un policia me preguntara qué estaba haciendo ahí o que me quisiera verificar con el pele-police.

  3. You are a lucky guy Jan. If it were me, I would have spent as much time as I needed with the bird and gotten back late and in trouble ;-)

    But you had a plan and it worked out well. You got some great photos of the Cattle Tyrant! Plus you had a wonderful breakfast with Gloriela and her sister. What a perfect way to start the day!

  4. Nice, Jan. I love a good chase! You're right - the tyrant does strongly resemble a tropical mockingbird.

  5. Hallo Jan,

    Nice bird and also superb photos. End of November a friend and I will come to Panama for a birdingtrip.
    We have to pick up our car at Tocumen International Airport. So hope to see this beauty!

    I have to read a lot of blogs from you. Nice list you have.

    Lennaert Steen from the Netherlands.

  6. I saw one when we had to detour to El Real from Cana. It was riding on the backside of an old horse near the El Real airstrip. This was in March 2006. We were on a tour with Ancon Expeditions and bad weather forced us to leave Cana in smaller groups and land at the concrete strip at El Real. We birded the road to the village while we were waiting for the plane to return with the rest of our group. That's when we got the second known record of the Cattle Tyrant in Panama (according to our guide who photographed it).