Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two rare white birds... and a nemesis

After a successful morning in Las Macanas marsh, Osvaldo Quintero, Euclides "Kilo" Campos and your blogger host headed to the Aguadulce Salinas (saltponds) around noon, trying to take advantage of the not-so-high high tide. As you can imagine, the place was hot as a boiler, and we only saw scattered shorebirds, mainly Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers plus two Collared Plovers. We also saw a Merlin chasing the shorebirds (making it a five-Falco-falcons-species day) and many herons... but one in the distance caught my attention: it was "dancing". We approached it, confirming it was an immature white morph Reddish Egret, probably the first ever reported for Aguadulce (all others had been dark morphs). We think this is only the third report of the white morph for Panama, with a previous one in El Agallito (Herrera) and the other in Pedasi (Los Santos), both in the Azuero Peninsula. We only stayed enough to take good photos and left the place, finding a big flock of Black-necked Stilts accompanied by five Stilt Sandpipers that probably stayed for the winter (usually only a transient in Panama) at the pond in front of the "Turicentro". We lunched in Penonome, and in the way back to Panama City, tried the spot in Punta Chame where Kilo reported the VERY rare (for Panama) American White Pelican. When we reached the place, we found a big flock of Brown Pelicans... but not the big whites. We stayed for a while, watching a flock of sandpipers and plover that included both Semipalmated and Wilson's Plovers (making it a six-plovers-species day) and an adult male Belted Kingfisher hovering over the water and occasionally plunge-diving. The pond was separated of the sea by a dike, so we decided to check it and the beach. When we started to walk the dike, the Brown Pelicans flew to the beach, leaving the pond. Again, no whites were seen. From the dike, we inspected the sandy beach, finding a Great Blue Heron and several American Oystercatchers. We amused ourselves watching these and many others birds, including Sandwich and Royal Terns, Black-bellied Plovers, and so on... only for insistence we checked back the pond, seeing in the distance two pelicans' silhouettes in a sand bank. Kilo aimed his scope and rapidly confirmed they were THE birds: two American White Pelicans preening and resting!!! They simply materialized there because we didn't see them approaching or flying... and they were exactly were we just checked few minutes before. A HUGE lifer, Kilo's report was only the third for Panama! I got some nice pictures despite the distance.
And what about the nemesis? A nemesis is a bird that, despite all your efforts, you can not find (and everyone ask: how is it possible that you have not found that common bird?). Well, the Striped Cuckoo was Osvaldo's nemesis. Close to Panama City, I suggested to try a spot close to the entrance to Farfan (close to the Pan American Highway). There, I played the cuckoo tape while Osvaldo was setting his camera... and after a few seconds the Striped Cuckoo appeared and perched in the telephone wire for just two seconds! Osvaldo demonstrated why we call him the fastest camera of the west by managing to take three photos of the bird... which is no longer his nemesis. Great way to end a day full of rare birds and lifers!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Not only ducks at Las Macanas

As I mentioned in my last post, we do not only found ducks at Las Macanas marsh (Herrera province, central Panama) this morning, we (Osvaldo, Kilo, Hector and your blogger host) also found tons of other interesting birds as well. As usual, the place was simply great for raptors, with common species like Savanna, Common Black and Roadside Hawks in the nearby fields, Ospreys and Snail Kites in the marsh. Las Macanas hold a permanent population of these kites (a male in the photo), the only one outside the Canal Area. In the way to the marsh, we also saw Peregrine, Aplomado and Bat Falcons, plus Yellow-headed and Crested Caracaras (also falconiformes). The other group well-represented are the waders... we saw ALL the egrets (except Reddish), plus Great, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and two Black-crowned Night-Herons feeding in the open. We also saw some Wood Storks flying, tons of Glossy Ibises and several White Ibises as well. The Glossy Ibis breed there, and, despite its commoness, I still need a good photo of it as you can see. Anyway, they are really "glossy" with the adequate light. We walked along the edge of the marsh, out of the visitors area guided by Hector, finding in the way a Mangrove Cuckoo, which seems regular in that site in the right season. We reached an area with hundreds of whistling (and others) ducks, but also some shorebirds, including Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts and four Killdeers (the third group I found this month... curious considering that I saw none last year). Kilo detected a group of five dowitchers that looked suspicious. In first place the habitat: a freshwater marsh away from the coast. They also exhibited dark gray breasts and, in flight, dark tails contrasting with the white patch on rump and lower back... but more interesting, they emitted a sharp and clear kick! when alarmed (after joining a bigger group of dowitchers looking essentially the same), and the same note in a quick series when they flew away... Long-billed Dowitchers! I'm pretty familiarised with the more musical call of the Short-billed Dowitchers, and these were completely different! A very rare migrant to Panama, and a lifer for two of us (Kilo saw them last year with Hector). All over the place, the Sandwich Terns were from one side to another, checking the ponds, but at this section of the marsh we also saw a flock of eight magnificent Caspian Terns. We saw them perched first, but they didn't allow us to approach them, so I only got flying shots. Anyway, its huge size and coral-red bill make them impressive birds. I'm convinced that Las Macanas is the most reliable site in Panama to find them. It was a good day. After all, for me, a day with a lifer definitively is a good one... but a day with TWO lifers is GREAT! What I'm talking about? Keep reading my next post and you will figure it out!

Ducks hunt!

Today, I went to Las Macanas marsh (Herrera province, central Panama) with Osvaldo Quintero and Euclides "Kilo" Campos, trying to find some rarities recently reported for the site, specifically two pochard ducks species. Actually, our journey started yesterday, leaving Panama City in the afternoon and stopping in Gorgona where we found the wintering flock American Coots reported elsewhere (yes, the micro black dots in my distant photo of the lake), plus Common Moorhens (Gallinules), a lonely Pied-billed Grebe and an insane number of Least Grebes. Good start (the coots were lifers for Osvaldo). We slept at my house in Penonome, and very early today, we headed to the marsh, picking up in the way our local guide and friend Hector, of the Grupo Ecoturístico Las Macanas. We started checking the open waters, finding interesting birds, but not the pochards ducks we were looking for. We followed Kilo and Hector suggestion and walked to the other side of the marsh, which proved to be a good idea: the place was loaded in hundreds(probably thousands) of birds, specially the abundant Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. This common species, locally known as "guíchichi", has become the common duck of Panama's ponds, marshes and rice fields. They are immediately obvious by their constant calls and by their flight pattern, with contrasting white wing stripe. We were aware that Las Macanas is, so far, the only site in Panama with a resident population of the rare Fulvous Whistling-Duck, so we started to search the flocks of guíchichis with Kilo's scope... and soon we found at least four of these rarities mixed with the guíchichis. Compared to the guíchichis, the Fulvous Whistling-Ducks are cinnamon-brown with darker backs, no contrasting head, dark beaks and feet, and wide white streaking in the flanks (contra white panel in the closed wings exhibited by the guíchichis). There are three identifiable birds in Kilo's digiscoped photo, can you recognize them? We searched the surroundings, finding not only ducks, but also other birds, including rare ones and a lifer for me (the theme of my next post). Hector found a group of what he called "black little ducks", which we confirmed were four American Coots, a lifer for him! He thought we were kidding after telling him that the coots are related to the Purple Gallinules, so common in the marsh, and are not ducks at all. In the meanwhile, Kilo kept searching the guíchichis flocks... his tenacity was rewarded with a pair of American Wigeons mixed with some Blue-winged Teals in the distance. Both birds were easily recognized by their size (bigger than the teals, the most common migrant duck in Panama), the pale heads and white lower underparts... all these marks are visible in Kilo's digiscoped photo (there is a female Blue-winged Teal to the right of the wigeons). The ducks are not a common element of Panama's avifauna, and to find four different species in the same site at the same time is quite amazing for this country (and we missed other two species!). Good hunt!

Monday, January 24, 2011

2011's First Lifer

Last saturday, january 22nd, after birding during the first hours of the morning in Campo Chagres, the team formed by Gloriela, Rafael Luck, Osvaldo Quintero, Euclides "Kilo" Campos and your blogger host decided to spent the rest of the morning (and the first hours of the afternoon) in Pipeline Road and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center (PRDC). At the center, we enjoyed some cold beverages and the company of the center's staff, old friends of us. Of course, we also enjoyed the myriad of hummingbirds that visit the center's feeders. We also saw others birds at the center, including Broad-billed Motmot, Scarlet-rumped Caciques and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. In the way out, we stopped at the entrance road to the center right where Osvaldo photographed a tiny Golden-crowned Spadebill the last week, but the bird did not show up. Instead, we found a pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds. The male was looking at us in a curious manner, like asking what's up with us? A little after that, Gloriela detected a noise in the understore... an aptly named Scaly-throated Leaftosser was working very close to us in the forest floor, picking the leaves with its long beak and throwing it apart looking for insects and other critters. These birds are more often heard than seen, and their calls are typical voices of the lowlands rainforests. This is the first one I actually see in many years, and was a lifer for Gloriela. We saw all the diagnostic field marks, including the obvious white scalloping to the throat. While admiring the leaftosser, Kilo heard a mixed flock of antwrens. I saw Checker-throated and Dot-winged Antwrens, but Kilo assured me that he also heard a Moustached Antwren, formerly merged with the Pygmy Antwren, now restricted to South America. This beautiful patterned antwren likes the highest part of the trees, where it moves quickly... and habit that, combined with its tiny size, make it quite difficult to watch... now imagine how difficult it is to photograph. But I tried it anyway, when we finally find it high above us. If you enlarge the image, you will see its characteristic shape (with very short tail), yellow underparts and white throat. We were not tired yet, so we walked beyond the Juan Grande creek to see what can we find. We heard more antwrens and found a group of Scarlet-rumped Caciques and Purple-throated Fruitcrows harrasing a magnificent Gray-headed Kite (file photo). Little after that, in a huge Ficus tree, Kilo heard the bird of the day, at least for me: a Gray Elaenia. Its call was confusingly similar to that of the Tropical Gnatcatcher (a pair was present in the same tree), except by the first two or three buzzy notes. When I first saw the bird, it reminded me a becard, due to its gray and black coloration, but its bill shape and habits confirmed the ID. The wing pattern was specially contrasting. I'm pretty sure that most of us overlook this bird due to its call, and the fact that it is a canopy-dweller species (Rafael's photo shows its silhouette high in the canopy against the sky). What a nice surprise, the last of the regular-recorded birds in Pipeline Road that I still was missing, a great life bird to have as first for the year! Well, it seems that I have no more reasons to go back to Pipeline Road (JUST KIDDING!!!, I still need a good photo!).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saturday's morning in Campo Chagres

Yesterday, I went with Gloriela, Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and Euclides "Kilo" Campo to the Campo Chagres section of the immense Chagres National Park. This section is adjacent to the south shore of the Alajuela lake, and holds an impressive dry forest reminiscent of that of the Metropolitan Natural Park, in the city (despite most of the park's forests are very wet). The first gate was locked, so I walked with Kilo all the way to the rangers' station where one of the rangers offered to open it, so the rest of the group entered with the car. We saw and heard many birds in the road and in the station grounds, including Collared Forest-Falcon, both Common and Slate-headed Tody-Flycatchers, Golden-collared and Lance-tailed Manakins, and Rosy Thrush-Tanagers (file photo). Apart of a disjunct population in western Mexico, this species is restricted to Costa Rica, Panama and northern South America. They are terrestrial and furtive, and have a rich song that is given by a duetting pair. All these make them odd tanagers, more similar to the northern thrashers. Despite these numbers, the birds were more easily heard than seen, and the activity was a little bit low. Surely, the sunny day was not helping. Anyway, we followed Kilo into the trails, finding a male Gartered Trogon quietly perched at the entrance of the trails, the first of four species recorded for that single site (the other three were Black-throated, Slaty-tailed and Black-tailed Trogons, the last one was a lifer for Gloriela). We also saw a Blue-crowned Motmot, a Western Slaty-Antshrike and a Dusky Antbird; and heard a Thrush-like Schiffornis and a Green Shrike-Vireo. About the migrants we saw Yellow, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided and Golden-winged Warblers plus Yellow-green Vireos heard anywhere. These vireos breed in Panama, and have just arrived from South America where they spent the winter. Its arrival is marked with a lot of song, making it one of the most abundant species at our forests. We decided to go back to the station grounds, finding Yellow-crowned Euphonias and Summer Tanager in the same tree. While admiring a mixed flock with White-shouldered Tanagers and Golden-fronted Greenlets, Kilo heard (for the third time in the morning) the call of a Yellow-green Tyrannulet. This bird is a Panama's endemic, only recorded from the Canal Area to Darien (close to the colombian border). Only Kilo and I saw well the bird, the rest of the group only had glimpses of it. This is because is a tiny, green canopy-dweller, active as a warbler. Can you imagine how tough it is to follow the bird high in the trees with your binoculars? After a while, we decided to left the place. It was still early in the morning, so we drove to the Gamboa area and the Pipeline road (30 minutes away) for the rest of the morning... but that is another story.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Birding by the mall (and the airstrip)

When my mother-in-law told me that she needed to do some shopping at the mall, I immediately offered myself to give her a ride. She wanted to go to the transport terminal's mall next to the Panama City's domestic airport, where Ken Allaire reported a flock of Killdeers some days ago. I grabbed my camera and my binoculars, left her at the mall and started to search the surroundings. The first thing I noticed was a big flock of Laughing Gulls having a bath in a rain pond at the parking lot. They have become common in the transport terminal during the last years, surely feeding on the drivers' lunches leftovers (as in other sites, the Western Gulls at the L.A. airport comes to my mind). I drove the "Marginal Este" Avenue that runs along the fence of the airstrip, checking the grasslands and finding some common birds at the tiny marsh. Several Great Egrets and a Little Blue Heron where feeding there, plus some Wattled Jacanas. The adults and youngs might not be more different! The black birds with red frontal shields and wattles, and yellow bills are adults... the white-&-brown birds with white eyebrows are immatures. Both have contrasting yellow flight feathers and long toes to walk over the floating vegetation... and both are noisy. These birds are also known by their peculiar familiar dynamics: a female lay the eggs in several nests where the males incubate them. The females are quite aggresive and will not tolerate another female in their territory. I also saw at least four different Southern Lapwings working the short grass. These birds are regular there, usually detected by their loud calls and showy flight pattern. After a while, a rainstorm prevented me from continuing checking the airstrip, so I waited for my mother-in-law inside the car. By the time I picked her, the rain stopped and I did a last check to the airstrip... hearing the Killdeers! They were in a track of mud recently created by the construction works at the airstrip. At first it was frustating... we heard them everywhere, but we were not able to see them. Surely they were alarmed by the Crested Caracara that landed in the track. After a while, I started to detect them far away... close to the Caracara. First one, then two more, and more.... finally I counted no less than eight individuals! I tried to photograph them, but the photos were not good enough due to the distance. Anyway, you can identify them by their characteristic double breast band and general jizz. Notice that there are two of them in the photo with the flying Caracara (OK, you may need to enlarge ALL the photos, please ignore the noise). What a great bird to find within the city. It is kind of curious that I have already seen two different flocks of Killdeers this month, considering that I didn't see a single one last year. Thank you Ken for the info, another proof that you can get surprises almost anywhere in Panama!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Punta Culebra for a while

Just to spent time of our free weekend, Gloriela and I decided to make a quick visit to Punta Culebra, in Panama City. The place is well-known by its marine exhibitions (operated by the STRI), but is also very quiet, close to the city, and with an interesting array of common birds and other animals that it is always a good choice. Typical of the dry season, the Bougainvilleas were completely bloomed in a variety of bright colors, including the scarlet-pink one being visited by a female Garden Emerald. This is just one of several species of hummingbirds residing there, and probably Punta Culebra is the most reliable site within the city to find it (pretty easy in fact). Some usually-hard-to-see species are more confident there, probably they are used to the visitors and are not longer afraid of them. That is the case of the Plain Wren. Several pairs are found around the installations, very easy to see, specially when singing (which they do a lot). Usually, this species (as many others wren species) prefers the entangled and dark understore of forested areas, where even a glimpse of them becomes difficult. After a couple of minutes, it started to rain, so we sheltered in our car, and had a nap before continuing with our walk, finding immediately a Red-crowned Woodcreeper working the main trunk of the tree at the parking lot (you can enlarge the photo). These "zebra-backed" woodpeckers are the most common member of the family in the city (and all over Panama), and exhibit a wide variation of color tones and patterns. This particular one was quite brown to the head and underparts, while others are immaculate white in these parts. We found many more common city birds, including tons of Variable Seedeaters feeding both in the ground and high in the trees. The females and immatures outnumbered the adult males, like the one I'm showing here with the spike. Other common birds recorded were Blue-gray, Palm and Crimson-backed Tanagers, Tropical Mockingbird, Scrub Greenlet and Great-tailed Grackles. We also saw a family group of Yellow-crowned Euphonias, with several females (photo) and a singing male that remained elusive. By the end, again at the parking lot, a group of confiding Crab-eating Racoons were assaulting a trash can, like real bandits. One did not resist the curiosity and climbed a fence to watch us better... great way to call it a day!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Night outing to Costa del Este

I received an e-mail from Osvaldo Quintero with an attached photo showing a beautiful Barn Owl perched on a wall in Costa del Este, Panama City. He took the picture few nights ago (thanks to Venicio "Beny" Wilson) and nicely offered to show me the exact place this night. So, I went with Gloriela to his house, picked him and then we headed to Costa del Este more or less at 8:00 PM with a silver half moon over our heads. Despite the late hour, the place was crowded with joggers, people on bikes, or with their dogs. Osvaldo suggested me to leave the helm in order to be able to handle the camera, using the car as a hide because the birds (at least two present) were pretty shy. So, with Gloriela as the driver, Osvaldo as the guide and I as the spotter and shooter, we crossed in circles a huge walled lot which had a street closed to traffic crossing it right by the middle. The first bird we saw was a cooperative Yellow-crowned Night-Heron walking atop the perimeter wall. We used it to practice and for setting our cameras in the proper mode, making it clear that I was needing a stronger flash, so Osvaldo gave me his invoking that he already had good photos of the owls. My photos came out better then. After the first round, I finally spotted a Barn Owl perched in the wall, looking fixedly to the grass, but it flew as soon as we tried to approach. This happened several times until we found a bird nicely perched close to the street (in the meanwhile we saw a Lesser Nighthawk and another Night-Heron, this time a juvenile). I took some pictures from the car, but still was too far, so I decided to approach it by foot, using the furtive technique that Osvaldo had just taught me: very quiet I walked towards the bird putting a palm tree (that the owl had nearby) directly between ourselves. At the palm tree, I quickly appeared aside, took a photo and returned to my position behind the palm tree surprising the bird. And it worked!!! You can see the palm tree in my second photo. Of course, Osvaldo's photos are much better, but I'm very happy with my own photos because are quite good despite the light conditions (thanks Osvaldo for the flash). This owl is beautiful, with an unique heart-shaped face and those soft buff-and-brown tones to the upperparts. We even heard its sharp cry breaking the silence of the dark field and witnessed its stealth flight in pursuit of a prey (surely some unfortunate rodent). What a great experience, my first photo of such a creature and a lifer for Gloriela! Thanks Beny and Osvaldo for sharing this!

Show me the migrants!

Recently, I went with Gloriela to the Caribbean side of central Panama, specifically to the San Lorenzo National Park and the former Fort Sherman, in search of the migrant warblers that my former Central CBC's team reported during the Atlantic CBC (I did not participate in that one). I tried to find the migrant warblers some months ago, without success due to the sunny and hot day, but this time the day was completely different. We started earlier this time, but a heavy rain stopped us from birding during the first hours of the morning. We waited at the Castillo de San Lorenzo for the rain to stop, and when it happened (more or less) we started to walk along the ruins. At one of the corners of the old fortress, by the ditch, we found a cooperative Yellow-rumped Warbler showing nicely its rump. It was feeding mostly on the ground, in the short, wet grass in a very active manner. Almost immediately, Gloriela noticed a second warbler very close to the first one, but this one was more uniformely brown. I quickly checked it with my binoculars, confirming its identity, a rare (for Panama) Palm Warbler. We stayed for a while, admiring these two rare species (both were lifers for Gloriela) until the rain started again. Then, we drove to Fort Sherman, to the former church where the CBC team found many migrants (don't ask at the restaurant about the church... they have no idea). The place was simply magic. Soon, we both were surrounded by lots of migrants probably because of my intense "pishing". The first one we saw was a female Blue Grosbeak that flew from the understore to a tree, to inspect us. Then, a mixed flock with both resident and migrant species showed up. It was amazing to see, in the same flock, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Prothonotary, Black-and-white and Tennessee Warblers, Northern Waterthrush and American Redstart (a female), plus the residents Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Common Tody-Flycatcher and Lesser Greenlets. Then, I saw a little warbler high over the main flock with bright yelllow throat and breast (with a dark chestnut spot), white underparts, bluish upperparts and contrasting but incomplete white eye-ring: a male Northern Parula, just like reported for that very same place! This is just my third sight (the second for Gloriela), with my last one during an Atlantic CBC with Rafael Luck two years ago (report in XENORNIS). But a bigger bird was accompanying the flock too. It was first very hard to see because it moved in the understore, but then, when the flock visited a bare tree, it did the same showing it slim profile and chestnut vent, a migrant Gray Catbird. Despite it was not a lifer for any of us, we enjoyed it because this bird is seldom seen in Panama (specially in the open, my second photo shows better the actual field conditions where you usually find this skulker). About the reported warblers, we only missed the Yellow-throated found by the CBC team in Fort Sherman. In our way out we stopped to enjoy the several Killdeers working the grasslands of the airstrip. The Killdeer is not rare, but is always nice to see them. We found at least three nervous individuals, making its kil-deer call for us. Great day after all... I already want to go back!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Panama City's common tanagers

Panama City is blessed with a great diversity of wildlife within its limits, not only birds, but also mammals and other critters. This is thanks to the many types of habitats surrounding it, like the extensive mudflats of its coast, the forests to the west and north and the savannah to the east. But we can't forget that part of this diversity actually reach the very same concrete jungle, as long as there is any tree or shrub, though decorative. Often, this diversity strikes us as a colorful kaleidoscope in the form of birds so common that most panamanians don't even turn to see them. I'm talking about two beautiful tanagers, antagonist in color and well-known by its popular names. The first is the ubiquitous Blue-gray Tanager, widespread known as the "Azulejo" by its soft blue tones. Think about it... blue tones, big black eyes and sweet chattering make this bird sooo charming. They are found in groups, and are common visitors to feeders (they love bananas). These birds are so sociable, that they even nest in man-made structures, including our own homes! Despite most of the citizens can identify an Azulejo quite easily, not all of them distinguish it form the very similar Palm Tanager, which is as sociable and charming as the Azulejo, but less known and duller-colored in olive with black wings... but a closer look usually reveals its attractive violet tones (enlarge the photo). In some parts of the city, both species can be very tame, sharing a feeder or a bird bath very close to the observers without fear. The other species is known by us as the "Sangre e' toro" (bull's blood)... a name that becomes immediately obvious when you see an adult male Crimson-backed Tanager showing its bright-red contrasting with the velvet black and the silver beack in all its brilliance! Of course, the duller females and immatures (photo below) exceed in number the adult males, but these birds always are found in groups with at least one adult male attending. This species is less common than the Blue-gray Tanager, but still pretty common. A family group regularly visit the Espave tree at the parking lot of the hospital where I work (the other two tanagers do the same), giving some color to the otherwise homogeneous landscape of concrete and glass. The tanagers are only a minimal example of the birds commonly found within the city limits... there is even a book on the theme (A Guide to the Common Birds of Panama City by Jorge Ventocilla, illustrated by Dana Gardner) that I'll follow for future posts. So, take your time to appreciate these colorful birds sharing the city with us!