Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preening friend

During my last birding walk at the coclesian savannas of Penonome, I found this Eastern Meadowlark perched on a fence post. He did not care much about me since he continued with his daily duties... singing, preening, enjoying the view at the top of his world.
I know they are pretty common... but they are also pretty attractive too and their songs really are THE sounds of these fields.
So, take your time to appreciate these little friends... you can get surprised!
This post was submitted to Bird Photography Weekly #113, check it out!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Savanna birding

Last sunday, I went very early to the savannas just to the south of Penonome (Cocle province). It was quite foggy, but anyway I found most of the typical birds of this habitat, and more. I noticed that many of the rice fields were flooded, attracting many birds, both residents and migrants. I saw (and photographed) most of the birds while seated in my car, using it as a hide. This technique proved very useful because the birds are used to the cars that regularly transit the dirt road that I explored. Without it, this photo of a pair of Crested Bobwhites would have been very hard to get.
Both, Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-breasted Blackbirds shared the same fields. This comparison makes more sense in spanish, since both species are called "pastoreros". You can see the little amount of pink(ish) colour at the throat of the female blackbird in the second photo.
About passerine migrants, I found Yellow and Mourning Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, a single Swainson's Thrush and a flock of distant Dickcissels (barely evident in my photo). Also, some non-passerines migrants showed up in the form of Soras (I got glimpses of one, but heard MANY more in the rice fields), five Solitary Sandpipers and my personal highlight: several Wilson's Snipes. They were too shy... I only got a photo of a flying-away bird, but at least you can see its striped dorsal pattern and straight bill (OK, you may need to enlarge the photo). Other shorebird in the area, the Southern Lapwing, is definitively resident. I say so because for the first time in my life I saw a little chick accompanied by three adults. No doubt these birds are doing extremely well.
Of course, you may know by now (if you have read my previous posts about this part of Panama) that the place is very good for raptors.
I took all the next photos while seated in my car, except by the migrant Mississippi Kite (an immature) pictured here flying. It was with a huge flock of migrating Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks.
Both Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras were very common.
Not so often you find a perched White-tailed Kite so close. WOW, those eyes are expressive!
This Roadside Hawk was, as you guessed it, by the road.
The Aplomado Falcon is an scarce resident of these open lands. I found a pair of these beautiful birds. The male (judging by its smaller size) was eating and unidentified bird.
Others raptors for the area included Osprey, Savanna Hawk, a migrant Peregrine Falcon and a pair of American Kestrels on a wire.

In the way to Penonome. Part II

Yes, we did another stop on our way to Penonome. This time in Cerro Silvestre, Arraijan (west side of the Panama Canal, 15 minutes from Panama City) at the home of Gloriela's godfather where we picked up her cousin and nephew. I amused myself with the birds at the well-kept garden, attracted in part by the bananas that they left for them at the fence. In attendance were Streaked Saltators, Variable Seedeaters, Clay-colored Thrush, Palm, Blue-gray, Crimson-backed and Plain-colored Tanagers.
As you can see, several Plain-colored Tanagers were feeding with the bananas, allowing close approach (they were not intimidated by the Clay-colored Thrush at all). We said good-bye to everyone after few minutes, including to Paco... the family's Yellow-crowned Amazon, in order to continue our way to Penonome.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

In the way to Penonome. Part I

We spend this weekend at our house in Penonome, sharing with friends and family and enjoying the calmness of the place. We left Panama City on saturday, but before that I did a 2.5-hours walk in the Metropolitan Natural Park while Gloriela was buying the supplies for the weekend. The place was alive with migrants! First of all, I found many Turkey Vultures resting on the trees at the entrance to the trails, surely waiting for the day to heat up in order to continue its migration. Not too much after them, I started to find tons of migrants passerines, including Black-and-white, Yellow, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian and Canada Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Olive-sided and Eastern Wood Pewees (singing), Great Crested Flycatchers and hundreds of Swainson's Thrushes... amazing! Despite so many warblers, I was unable to get decent pictures of them... they are so agile and the day was so cloudy that I hardly got a chance. However, the resident birds did show well. I saw three species of manakins (Golden-collared, Red-capped and this semi-concealed subadult Lance-tailed Manakin), three woodpeckers (Crimson-crested, Lineated and Red-crowned Woodpeckers), Cocoa and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, many tanagers (including Rosy Thrush-Tanagers), Green Shrike-Vireo, Lesser and Golden-fronted Greenlets and many flycatchers (Social, Boat-billed, Panama, Dusky-capped and so on...). But the one that stole the show was a very cooperative Slaty-tailed Trogon quietly perched at eye-level at the "Mirador". Very good after all for a short walk!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Panama's Vultures

The New World Vultures (Cathartidae) are one of the most conspicuous elements of Panama's avifauna... there is always at least one of them within sight field. Misunderstood and usually ignored, they play an important role as scavengers, eating the carcasses of dead animals. They are amazingly adapted for this way of life, and they are so succesfull that most species are essentially aboundant in their own habitat (which includes cities and towns for some species). Sharp eyes and sense of smell, bald heads, effortless long-distant flights, strong gastric juices and to urinate on its legs are just a few of these adaptations.
Of the seven species that compose this family (including two species of extra-limital Condors), four are found in Panama. Of these, the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) is certainly the most common. If a panamanian is talking about a Gallinazo or, more commonly, a Gallote; then, he is talking about the Black Vulture. They congregate in incredible huge flocks at their prefered sites, like dumping sites and some beaches, feeding in almost anything they can find. As its name suggest, they are entirely black except for the white primaries which are easily seen in soaring birds.
The Black Vulture is the only member of its genera, the same as the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa). This bird is well-named. Not only is the biggest of the vultures (of course I'm not taking into account the condors), it is also quite distinctive from all others due to its mostly white plumage and multicoloured head. Also, it is the first one to eat if there are other vultures' species around a carcass. The numbers of this majestic bird are not even close to that of other species, but anyway it is still common in regions with extensive forest. Despite I have seen this species many times, it is always nice to see it perched (and not soaring as I usually do). This particular individual was taking a sunbath during the first hour of light.
The other two species belong to the genera Cathartes. The most common is the Turkey Vulture (C. aura). The resident subspecies are sedentary birds outnumbered by its black cousins. However, they become aboundant during migration, when most part of the populations breeding in North America fly over the isthmus in an impressive spectacle that marvels both birders and non-birders. The resident group can be distinguished by its pale (white or bluish) nape, and some authors think that they may represent a distinct tropical species... but more studies are needed for sure. At close range, it is obvious why we call them Turkey Vultures... they are pretty evocative of those big game birds worlwide known. In Panama, they are well-known with the local name Noneca; in other regions they are know also as Auras. Young birds exhibit more feathered dark-heads (is the same for all the Cathartes vultures). They have an incredible sense of smell... you can tell by seeing its skull, which have disproportionaly huge cavities to accomodate its sensory organs. Also, they are designed to fly or, more exactly, to soar across huge distances taking advantage of every single breeze, saving as much energy as they can. Its silhouette is distinctive, even from far away!
Finally, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (C. burrovianus) is also pretty common... in the right habitat: swampy savannas and grasslands where they feed mostly on dead fish probably. Despite its commoness, few people is aware of the existence of a yellow-headed (instead of red-headed) vulture, until they get a close look. Then, the bird is impressive, with its rather multicoloured head. One can say that it is beautiful... an adjective not usually used with this family of birds. The Lesser Yellow-headeds usually soar low over the fields, showing its white shafts in the primaries feathers, which separate them from the similar Turkey Vulture. Despite all these vultures occupy different habitats, it is not unusual to see up to three species together at many sites, but more impressive is that, so far, I have seen all the four species together in two places this year. First at El Real airstrip (western Darien province), and then at Flores (southern Veraguas province) where I photographed the King Vulture pictured above. So, always be prepared for the unexpected!

Thursday, October 14, 2010


So, hundreds of thousands birds are not enough? What about ONE MILLION of them? During tonight's Panama Audubon Society (PAS) monthly meeting (and on its facebook page) it was announced that they reached today more than one million migrating raptors for this season... ONLY after 14 days and ONLY over the Ancon Hill in Panama City!!! To be more exact, they reached the amazing count of 1,062,204 birds, most of them Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged and Swainson's Hawks. This is the first time that they reached the one-million mark for a season so quickly. During the meeting, they also presented the educational material that they give for free at the counting sites to anyone interested, like this poster featuring Swainson's Hawks (in spanish, in colaboration with BirdLife International, among other organizations), describing how important is to preserve the habitat that these hawks use during the migration. Congratulations guys!!!

Birding with the sunset

The last high tide of the weekend was a very late one, so I went to the Juan Díaz mangroves (east of Panama City) with Osvaldo Quintero in order to enjoy the flocks of shorebirds that use the site to rest and to spent the night. As I have posted before, big numbers of shorebirds congregate at the entrance to the mangroves, in a marshy zone that is about to become a huge development with golf courses and alikes. We decided to go directly to the mangroves and to check the shorebirds in the way out. We were not the only ones to have that same idea, since we found some others birders at the place checking the ponds, including José Carlos García and Mahelis Rodríguez (both fine guides and participants of the Panama's 600 Club) and José Carlos' mom. Later we also found birder/photographer Itzel Fong, checking the ponds too. Considering the rather small panamanian birders community, this was a nice meeting, specially because it was totally coincidentally... no previous arrangements, no plans, no phone calls, etc... after all Panama is so small! OK, about the birds. The pond at the mangroves forest's edge was full of waders, including several species of herons, mostly Great Egrets, and Wood Storks... but also with an incredible amount of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (with tons of juveniles... the dark-billed ones in the next photo, which you can enlarge) and three Blue-winged Teals.
There were some shorebirds in that pond too, most of them were Semipalmated Plovers and Black-necked Stilts but also Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Western Sandpipers, Wilson's Plovers and a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher under heavy molt that was feeding with a group of Least Sandpipers. José Carlos found a nice Merlin perched atop the mangroves while both caracaras were patrolling the area.
The place was so nice that we stayed until it was too dark to photograph something.. so we moved to the more open ponds of the entrance. The numbers were impressive, but not as my last time there two days before. Again, most of them were Semipalmated Plovers with some Wilson's and Collared Plovers, and many Least and Western Sandpipers (notice the warm tones in the next photos, due to the fading light of the afternoon).
It was a great afternoon, sharing our passion for the birds and enjoying the sunset with friends!