Sunday, August 29, 2010

Everyone got a lifer?

After a successful birding trip above El Cope in the morning, and after a tasty lunch in town, Gloriela, Euclides "Kilo" Campos, Rafael Luck and your blogger host decided to visit the Aguadulce Salinas (saltponds), barely one and a half hours away. As you know by now, the saltponds are great for shorebirds and waders, and the migration season just started so it was an obvious choice to end the day. The idea proved to be very good when we started to see tons of shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, but also Least Sandpipers, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and the omnipresent Black-necked Stilts. Most of the peeps were wearing their non-breeding plumage, lacking the patterns and colours of the alternate (breeding) plumage and looking confusingly similar. Far away, a flock of Brown Pelicans and Great Egrets also included a Roseate Spoonbill, easily spotted by its rich pink plumage. Kilo recently visited the site, finding Stilt Sandpipers, so we were after them. Of course, Kilo was the first one to spot one of them. The slim bird looked huge in comparison to the peeps that were accompanying him. This particular individual still had some barring in the underparts and seemed to have a problem with one of his legs.
We found more individuals along the saltponds, usually with other peeps. Each time we stopped, we found a new species. We saw three plovers species (Black-bellied, Collared and Semipalmated Plovers), all in non-breeding plumage, many young Black-necked Stilts (just a little bigger than the last time I was there), a Gull-billed Tern and two terns that I'm tentatively calling Caspians'. The waders were well represented. We found Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and then, a nice surprise for me. In a random stop, just to check one of the ponds that was full with peeps and yellowlegs, Kilo focused on a distant heron with Rafael's scope. I could not believe it when he said "Reddish Egret", and there it was, a dark-phase (immature) Reddish Egret perched on a log. WOW, my second lifer for the day! This species seems to be rare, but regular, in Aguadulce and recently one individual was sighted by members of the Panama Audubon Society (probably the earliest date for this species in Panama, here is the report with photos at XENORNIS). Curiously, it is always found away of the road and, in Panama, it have been found in saltponds, sandy beaches and rivers (in the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal). We were able to watch through the scope its pale-reddish head and long neck, and its mostly dark bill. My distant shot shows its distinctive jizz (looking more like a Great Egret than a Little Blue Heron) and the overall dark colour. After a couple of minutes, the bird started to feed in its unique manner, running erraticly from one side to another, sometimes using its wings for change direction. It was so funny to see. The egret was a lifer for Rafael and Gloriela too (like the Stilt Sandpiper as well), so everyone, except Kilo, got a lifer in this trip. But the trip was not over. We reached the beach and then started to return, finding only a Common Black-Hawk with an unidentified shorebird in the claws and at least 150 Black Skimmers flying over the ponds. We stopped again to check a huge mixed flock of resting shorebirds. I found a flock of resting Sanderlings in the opposite side of the road while Kilo was mounting the scope. Meticulously, he checked each one of the birds in the flock, finding at least to hidden birds with dark gray backs, contrasting with the Ruddy Turnstones. He asked me to have a look to confirm his id: a pair of Surfbirds, his nemesis bird. I was able to see its white rump and its mottled underparts confirming the id! A lifer for Kilo! Now officially everyone got a lifer in this trip! Of course, Kilo jumped to the muddy pond without thinking it twice (and I followed him) to have a closer look of the birds. Eventually we got very close to the birds, and then he was able to see its yellow legs and bill (that is Kilo in the pic, watching his lifer). My photo of the flock turned out to be overexposed, a mistake that I was not able to correct using photoshop, but I like the final effect of colourful, blurry shorebirds. With imagination, you can see two Surfbirds, tons of Ruddy Turnstones, Willets and Whimbrels, and a lonely Short-billed Dowitcher (just behind the first Surfbird to the left). What a great way to end a birding day... lifers for everyone!

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