Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Migrants, castles and more!

I had a crazy idea this morning... to drive all the way to the Caribbean coast after leaving Gloriela at the hospital in order to see if I can find some rare migrants or something. So, I left behind the rainy and dark Panama City, took the highway and after one hour (more or less) I was in Gatun waiting my turn to pass the one-lane bridge through the locks. Contrasting with Panama City, the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal was unexpectedly sunny, hot and bright... probably too much. I did find some migrants, but not the rare ones I was expecting. Anyway, the numbers were impressive. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Bank, Cliff and Barn Swallows were flying low over the grassy fields of the Gatun dam, maneuvering acrobatically and sometimes passing just in front of the car. There was also a huge flock of Eastern Kingbirds at the fence of the facilities, sometimes feeding in the ground. They were accompanied by many Fork-tailed Flycatchers, which could have been migrants too. The only other birds that I saw at the dam were the Gray-breasted Martins, the regular American Kestrel and a Southern Lapwing. The spillway had no many birds, only some Little Blue Herons were present. I decided to go to one of the most important touristic attractions of the area: the Castillo de San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Castle) at the mouth of the mighty Chagres river, within the San Lorenzo National Park. It is about 35 minutes from the locks to the castle through a paved road which crosses several habitats: grasslands, mangroves, residential areas and forests. It also passes through the former Sherman Base (where you are asked for your ID) and the Park rangers station (where you have to pay the fee for entering the park). I did few stops on the way, usually to appreciate the Northern Waterthrushes that were all around. Just a little after the station, I found a snake crossing the road. I was able to see this 5 feet-long beauty before it vanished in the understore of the forest. I think it is a Salmon-bellied Racer, but I could be wrong. Once in the castle, the place was desolated, contributing to the sensation of immensity that was surrounding me.Despite there are no guides, the site has many interpretative signs that tell you the story of this fortress. That was how I knew that it was constructed by the Spaniards back in 1597 to protect the entrance of the Chagres river, and after that, it was destroyed and re-constructed several times, the last one in 1750.
The view is VERY impressive due to its location atop of a hill, dominating the mouth of the Chagres river, which was so important in those days, as it is today! You also have an unobstructed view of the Caribbean sea and some lovely beaches at the base of the hill.
It was a great experience. My last time there was maaaany years ago. Then, as a little child, I imagined myself as a "Caribbean pirate", running and yelling through the corridors of the castle... the idea crossed my mind several times during this visit!

Monday, September 27, 2010

A tiny marsh

Just a quick note. Because you can not be birding forever, after my day at the beach I went to Albrook Mall (right in Panama City) in order to pay some bills (we all have obligations!). While driving my car, leaving the mall, I saw a Whimbrel (!) landing in a tiny marshy area just across the fence between the mall and the "Marcos A. Gelabert" domestic airport. I was surprised when I saw a semi-concealed Green Heron, several Cattle Egrets, two Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a Wattled Jacana and the Whimbrel sharing the tiny spot! On the fence were Great-tailed Grackles , two or more Fork-tailed Flycatchers and at least seven Shiny Cowbirds! OK, maybe you CAN be birding forever after all!

A bit of colour at the beach

It is a fact that most shorebirds and coastal species in Panama are dull-coloured birds. That is because almost all the species dress its basic plumage (the non-breeding one) most of the time they spend in our country. That is why many panamanian birders simply don't like shorebirds, despite they are so close and easy to see. But some species exhibit an unusual bright or contrasting pattern in their bodies. I saw that this morning in the west bank of the Panama Canal. I went to Veracruz beach taking advantage of the early high tide. The day was cloudy and fresh, but the light was not the best for photography. Anyway, I put on my rubber boots and started to walk in the sand, finding almost immediately an amazing amount of birds. A flock of Brown Pelicans was fishing close to shore. The adults were showing an attractive pattern in white, yellow and blue in the head. In the mouth of the river at the easternmost end of the beach was a huge flock of resting shorebirds and waders. The most common were the Willets and the Whimbrels, with more or less 60 individuals in total. As usual, the plovers were well-represented: Black-bellied, Semipalmated, Wilson's and Collared Plovers all over the place. This site is the only one so far near the city where the Wilson's and Collared Plovers outnumber the migratory Semipalmated Plover. The waders were also well-represented, with Snowy and Great Egrets, Little Blue, Great Blue and Tricolored Herons and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons too (did you notice the Collared Plover at the Great Egret pic?). So far no peeps, which are patterned mostly in white and gray, but colourful plovers (specially those Collareds'). To add more colour, a single Elegant Tern joined the flock awhile, showing its orange bill and even a pale rose tone to the chest (which sadly is not apparent in the photo). I'm posting also a photo of a Royal Tern (that I found later) for comparison.Can you separate them? The Elegant Tern have a proportionally longer and thinner bill, which also is more downcurved. Also have more black around the eye (the eye is surrounded by white feathers in the Royal Tern). The Elegant Tern is pretty uncommon in Panama, so this was a very nice finding. And if we are talking about colourful shorebirds, then some pics of Ruddy Turnstones are mandatory! Despite they are wearing its basic plumage, they still are one of the most colourful birds in the beach.But this is not all. I left Veracruz and stopped at Farfan, closer to the city. Following an advice that I received in situ, I decided to walk along the beach to inspect the vast mudflats and the rocky shore exposed during the low tide (thanks Líder). After awhile, I saw a pair of strongly-patterned shorebirds flying low in the distance: a pair of American Oystercatchers! I slowly approached them until I got close enough to start shooting.This must be the most colourful shorebird in Panama! The oystercatchers are quite rare in Panama City, but Farfan have proved to be a regular site for this handsome shorebird. What a great way to end the day!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Really Solitary!

In all the extensive grasslands and ponds in Costa del Este (Panama City), I only was able to found one, and only one, Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). What else can you expect of a bird with such a name? In Panama, the Solitary Sandpiper is a common winter visitor, found from august to april. Only the Spotted Sandpiper has a more widespread distribution in Panama and like it is found commonly away of the coast. It is incredible how a bird breeding in Canada and Alaska found its way to Panama and beyond!This particular bird was in a muddy spot in the middle of a grassland, walking deliberately, picking insects from the water surface. It allowed me to approach closely, always vigilant. Sometimes, it was doing a high-pitched peet!; my sign to freeze and to stop approaching it.
Despite it is not brightly coloured, it has a very attractive pattern in white and brown with yellow legs. Those tiny white dots in the back and the white eye-ring are specially showy.For a solitary bird, this sandpiper looks simply great!
This post was submitted to Bird Photography Weekly #109. Check it out!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What is singing over there?

If you have asked this before, then you will be glad to know that Xeno-canto announced some weeks ago that they are launching an automated sound recognition system called Pai-luiz, designed by Hermann Redies. It is available for all the users in the Americas only. You can try it at http://www.xeno-canto.org/america/neocrex.php and then tell me what you think.
So... it is time to solve all those mysteries tape-recorded!

Photo: male Saffron Finch singing its lungs out at Amador, Panama City.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Diablos Rojos' Art

Who can not recognize a Diablo Rojo (Red Devil)? In Panama City, our public transport consists mainly of these imported school buses painted in red, agressively driven by madmen (hence the name). I have to admit that not all of them deserve this reputation, but the name is so popular that hardly any driver will be upset if you call his "ship" a Diablo Rojo. Despite its roughness, its noisy engines, the loud music and some security issues, they are also known by the colourful designs that exhibit in many parts of its body. These artistic designs are not randomly painted in the bus' body... each part is designated to a specific motive. For example, the sides are reserved for the bus name along with a painting of a landscape or a fight or fantastic scene, the fuel lid is designed allusive to food or feeding; the back (or emergency) door usually shows a portrait of a relative, a politician, a Hollywood star (yes, like Angelina) or a rap/reggae singer; a landscape always fills the front part above the windshield; both bumpers are scripted with hilarious or religious messages and the battery lid must shows something allusive to power or to 12 Volts! But one of the parts that exhibit the greatest diversity of themes is definitively the motor lid. We usually don't see it because is too high, but from my apartment (at a fourth floor), it became very apparent. Here is only a TINY sample of all the motives that I photographed in about 30 minutes. I grouped them into themes: first, the "religious" theme (or "kind of religious" theme sometimes).One of my favorites, the "mystical" theme... usually showing wizards, sorceresses, monsters and/or legendary creatures.Also, the "eagles & flags" theme is quite common.Some exhibit cartoons characters, mostly Looney Tunes, but also comic heroes.Others exhibit TV characters, like The Undertaker or Jason.Finally, the women could not be absent (of course, I'm showing only the "decent" ones, usually warlike ladies).This is art in its most popular expression!
P.D.: the end is near for Panama City's Diablos Rojos due to a new transport system that is about to be implemented, so "enjoy" them while you can!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

More than shorebirds in Costa del Este

When I mention Costa del Este (Panama City), I'm pretty sure that, at this point, most of you think on shorebirds. Yes, Costa del Este is an excellent site for shorebirds, but you can find other interesting species as well. Yesterday, I found two hard-to-find species within the city limits, considering that both are pretty common just to the east and to the west. The first one was a young (but beautiful) Savanna Hawk in the middle of a grassland. It stayed for a while and then flew to a streetlight post, where an American Kestrel started to attack him (I included it in my "raptors on streetlights" collection).The other species was a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. It was eating something in the ground, but I did not figure out what it was.Later, I moved to the Matías Hernández river, which was full of Neotropic Cormorants. I found several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (I included a photo at my "waders and more waders" post), but also Mangrove (Yellow) Warblers, Eastern Wood-Pewees, an Amazon Kingfisher and a subadult Black-crowned Night-Heron perched in a mangrove tree.It is always nice to find all these birds in the city!