Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ring-billed Gull in Santa Clara beach

After visiting Penonome (central Panama) during april's last weekend, Gloriela and I decided to stop by the Santa Clara beach before returning to the city. For my surprise, we found a Ring-billed Gull among the dozens or more Laughing Gulls. Probably for most of you, the Ring-billed Gull is an abundant, boring gull found everywhere... but for us, in Panama, it is a very scarce migrant, present mostly on the Pacific coast of central Panama, specially around Panama City (more birdwatchers there?). It has been a while since my last sighting of a Ring-billed Gull in Panama... surely due to my few visits to regular sites like Costa del Este and Panama Viejo. The presence of this gull is expected in this part of the country according to Panama's new field guide (Angehr & Dean 2010), but for me was a nice surprise. It was not a mature adult, as you can see by the brown flight feathers; but I'm not an expert aging sea gulls. It was with a flock of Laughing Gulls, begging for food close to a group of visitors. Compared to the the Laughings, the Ring-billed was bigger, paler, heavier, with a distinctive pale iris and a different flight pattern, which both of us saw several times. I followed the flock for a while, trying to capture some close pictures, and I think I did it well. After a while, the whole group flew away (surely a group a playing kids with their canine pets had something to do with that)... so we left in the place enjoying the breeze, the sand and the cold waters of Santa Clara beach!

How many tones of yellow you see?

Recently, during one of those weekends that Gloriela and I spent in Penonome (central Panama), I noticed that most, if not all, of the birds that I photographed were mostly yellow... Mother Nature have an infinite variety of tones and mixtures of colors, making the word "yellow" not good enough. For example, what can be more yellow than a Yellow Warbler? By this time of the year most of the individuals are gone, and those that you are lucky to see exhibit the bright yellow plumage honoring its name. Nice yellow don't you think? But then a male Yellow-crowned Euphonia appears and you have to re-define your concept of "bright yellow"!

Probably the contrast with the black parts makes its yellow to look brighter... or maybe it is simple BRIGHTER! Well, now compare these two with the modest Yellow-bellied Elaenia's yellow belly. I think it is attractive in spite of its dullness, giving a bit of color to a mostly grayish bird.

In general, the small tyrannids are simply duller than others species. In a short walk near the stream, bordering the property, I found almost side-by-side a Mouse-colored Tyrannulet (thanks to its characteristic call, which to me sounds like a maniac little laugh) and a Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant (also by its pretty loud call, specially considering that it is a really tiny bird). Both are dull yellowish, one with brown tones, the other more greenish. Notice the pale legs and the white iris of the Pygmy-Tyrant. Both species are typical of dry areas, so its ocurrence around Penonome is completely expected because the town is located almost in the heart of Panama's dry arch, the area of coastal lowlands in the Pacific slope of central Panama with a marked dry season. Of course we found others birds typical of this habitat too, like Lesser Goldfinches, Lance-tailed & Golden-collared Manakins (the former with no yellow at all I have to admit, but seriously gorgeous), Tropical Kingbirds, and Rufous-sided Warblers showing also its nice yellow underparts. I found several of these active and curious warblers while walking along the stream, in the most shaded areas. I think they are my favorite birds in Penonome due to their curious behavior and the contrasting patern of the head with the underparts. It was a nice combination of yellow tones and good birds!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter Holidays in Darien. Part III

After an excellent day near El Salto town, in central Darien province (eastern Panama), our last day in Darien province started with a Pied Water-Tyrant at the grounds of our hotel in Meteti acting as a House Sparrow. This elegant bird was hunting the insects attracted during the night to the parking lot lamp. A couple of photos and we (Rafael, José Carlos, Mahelis, Gloriela and I) were ready to visit the Filo del Tallo Hydrological Reserve, to the south of Meteti. The first part of the trails, until the first creek, is full of Heliconias patches, thus making it Hermits' heaven! In fact, we saw five hermits species, including the one of the photo. The light conditions were awful, but you can see the long central rectrices tipped in white (ruling out Rufous-breasted Hermit and Band-tailed Barbthroat, both seen), the greenish back and the quite-straight-for-a-hermit bill (ruling out Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits, also seen), making it a Pale-bellied Hermit. Like the hermit, another eastern Panama specialty was hanging around the creek, a male Black Antshrike appeared allowing some photos (a female was there too, but was shyer). As its name suggest, it is completely black, but you can recognize the shrike-like, heavy bill characteristic of this genus. After a while, the trail runs along the border of the forest and a cleared patch with regenerative vegetation. The bird activity was great probably due to this mixture of habitats. We saw a Forest Elaenia working VERY low (it is usually a canopy-dweller, only detected by its calls), allowing us to see its yellow crown patch and an unexpected Mangrove Cuckoo (probably the first record for the Darien province)... but the bird that definitively stole the show was a very cooperative Cinnammon Woodpecker making a hole in a dead trunk right by the trail, almost at eye-level allowing GREAT photos!

Photographic oppotunities like that can not be wasted, so we spent almost 30 minutes with the woodpecker! After that, we continued our walk, entering the forest again. It was magical, with tall trees and hanging bridges, tons of butterlies and, of course, birds.

We started hiking uphill, finding Slaty-tailed Trogon, Golden-crowned Spadebill and an Olivaceous Flatbill in the way. Eventually, we reached our main target: a Golden-headed Manakins lek. It was crazy... around twenty gorgeous males were together in the same group of contiguous trees, making noise, exhibiting themselves, doing the "moonwalk" dance (moving backwards on its perch rapidly without evidently moving the feet... amazing!), and acting as really wackoes each time a female approaches (which occurred very often, so I suppose the competence was fierce). We even saw an immature male (notice the bright soft parts) performing the dances! The place was quite dark, so most of my photos of the gaudy males are not good enough to show you how really great are these birds. The deep black body contrasting with the bright yellow head and those expressive white eyes visible from far away are hard to forget! Again, we stayed long enough to impress that amazing spectacle in our minds and, reluctantly, started the way back. The raucous calls of a Red-throated Caracara helped us to locate the bird just under the canopy of a distant tree, but despite the distance I think the photo was very good. Formerly well distributed in Panama, now it is mainly restricted to the eastern part of the country, with scattered records from the western half, one of them recently from the Chiriqui highlands. In the way back to Panama City, we stopped at the San Francisco Reserve, near the town of Torti, and again in the Rio Mono bridge (both in eastern Panama province), adding more eastern Panama's specialties (with One-colored Becard at the bridge as highlight). After all it was a succesful trip, full of special birds, many of them not found in any other part of Panama, nor Central America (notice that I posted photos of thirteen species not found any further than Panama into North America in this three-parts account, starting here with Part I). We hope you enjoyed them as much as we did!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter holidays in Darien. Part II

After a long traveling day, the morning of friday 22th caught us (Rafael, José Carlos, Mahelis, Gloriela and your blogger host) in our way to the Embera village of Nuevo Vigía, in the margins of the mighty Chuqunaque river... but due to supposed securities issues, the authorities at Puerto Peñita didn't let us continue upriver in order to visit the site. So bad, after spending half morning trying to convince them, we realized that it was useless, so we decided to move to another site, (seeing an Orange-crowned Oriole as consolation prize) also in the margins of the Chuqunaque river near the town of El Salto, where Venicio "Beny" Wilson, George Angehr and others documented, probably for the first time, a nest of a Double-banded Graytail, an enigmatic ovenbird only found in eastern Panama and northern Colombia. We hired the services of a local guide, Daniel Santos, who took us to the site of the nest and through secondary forest and pastureland looking for one of the main targets of the trip (more on that later). The nest was a globular structure as described by Beny, but from a different angle, it looked like a oven (or like a donut?). No birds were seen then, so we followed Daniel, hearing Yellow-breasted Flycatchers in several places, seeing some of them eventually. You can see in the photo the characteristic broad bill and a little bit of ochre in the chin. Formerly known only from El Real (farther to the east) some years ago, this species have colonized most part of the Darien province in an accelerated way. The calls of Greater Anis, and the sightings of several Wood Storks in the skies announced that we were close to the required habitat of our main objective: Black-capped Donacobius. According to Daniel, the site was close to the margins of the river, but we started hiking inland under a merciless sun with Daniel saying every each stretch of road "only 200 meters away". After several "200 meters", we finally reached a very wet, muddy place, finding at least three Green Ibis flying away while making their loud cacophony. We were at the margins of a little marsh, covered in lilies, mud and water all the way to the ankles. At first glance, nothing moved. José Carlos played the recording and we wait for a while... nothing. Then, Daniel found a curious Black-capped Donacobius inspecting us atop some lilies in the opposite margin of the marsh! Then two others birds appeared! The three of them eventually got closer to us, stopping to sing in a duetting fashion, while "dancing" rhytmically, bouncing their heads while fanning their tails from one side to another: magnificent! In the meanwhile others birds appeared. A nice Spot-breasted Woodpecker, with its contrasting white face, was calling above us while an immature Tiger-Heron was quietly perched on a Cecropia tree inspecting us as curiously as we inspected the Donacobius. I have to admit that I need help with this bird. We can exclude Fasciated Tiger-Heron by habitat (can we?), but the others two species can be found in that habitat (open marshes close to forest). Now, according to Angehr & Dean (2010), the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron is not expected away from the coast in that part of Panama and, considering the buffy spots in the wings, making a clear band effect not found in such species, my diagnosis is Rufescent Tiger-Heron. It was to hot to saw anything, so we left Daniel at his home and went back to Meteti to have lunch and to rest a little at the hotel. In the afternoon we went back to the site, checking again the Double-banded Graytail's nest without luck, but finding a flock of Spectacled Parrotlets, the smallest psittacid in Panama, and a specialty for this part of the country. We first heard their sweet chattering calls, very different from any other parakeet or parrotlet in Panama, and then saw at least six individuals, two of them probably looking nesting sites. An excellent end for our first day of full birding in Darien. For the next (and last) day we planned a visit to the Serranía Filo del Tallo Hydrological Reserve... click here to read about it!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter holidays in Darien. Part I

Recently, taking advantage of the Easter holidays' long weekend, a team of adventurers departed from Panama City in order to explore some new sites in Darien, Panama's easternmost province, the largest and less populated too. José Carlos García and Mahelis Rodríguez (of Birding Panama), Rafael Luck, Gloriela and I started our journey a little after 2:00 PM last thursday, aboard Rafel's FJ Cruiser. It was planned as a travel day, but we did a short stop over the Rio Mono bridge, an excellent place to start looking for eastern Panama specialties. And we were not dissapointed. We followed the characteristic call of a Barred Puffbird and after a while we got excellent views of this bird, allowing some photos. At the bridge itself, a molting male Black-tailed Trogon also showed up, along with a Cinnamon Becard, both of them quite common in that place. Notice the yellow bill of the trogon, which separates him from the similar Slaty-tailed Trogon, which is commoner where we usually bird (around Panama City). Some people ask why do we risk our lifes birding on the edge of a bridge where most of the drivers past rapid and furius (Gloriela included)?... well, we always took our precautions, the reason is simple: canopy-dwellers birds at eye-level. Don't trust me? Check the next photos of a male Rufous-winged Antwren that simply came close to have a glimpse at us.

Usually, you have to break your neck to get only belly-views... but there, I even got its back in the frame!

Eventually, we reached the town of Meteti, in central Darien province, our base for the next two days of birding. As a fun fact, the Hotel Felicidad, where we stayed for the night (waiting for the next day), was submerged in the loud calls of several Clay-colored Thrushes... not supposed to be in Darien, so I guess we started with the right foot our trip!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dry arch's fruits and birds

It has been a while since my last post, I have been busy at work this month... but somehow I managed to accomplish some short trips to the dry coastal lowlands to the west of the former Panama Canal Zone, an area known as the dry arch for its weather conditions, very popular for its white sand beaches and many resorts along the coast. At almost the end of the dry season, tons of fruiting trees are fully loaded in some tropical, tasty and colorful candies. If you drive along the PanAmerican highway in this section you will see lots a tiny fruit stops where you can buy them. One of the most abundant fruit is the plum. Despite we call it a plum, these fruits probably are not related. The plum trees are popular as fence's posts around the properties and houses. Grape-shaped, these fruits are hard, turning red and fleshy while maturing. In fact, many people eat them still green, calling them then "cracker plums" due to the sound they produce with each bite. Many birds visited the plum trees at Gloriela's relatives property in Gorgona (western Panama province, at the eastern end of the arch), including Blue-gray, Palm and Crimson-backed Tanagers (a gaudy male in the photo), Red-crowned Woodpeckers and Brown-throated Parakeets; but, to be honest, I saw none actually eating the fruits. Another common tree loaded in fruits was the cashew. If you don't know from where the cashew nuts come from, then just check my photo and you will recognize one of them attached to that yellow fruit. The fruit itself have a funny taste, I like it more in juice, or "chica" as we say in Panama (in other countries of the region, the term chicha implies some alcohol in the content of the drink... it is not the case in Panama). Again, many birds are attracted to these fruits, but also the insects and others critters that also attracted other non-frugivorous birds, like the female Barred Antshrike or the singing Rufous-browed Peppershrike that I'm showing here, both of them photographed near the fruits while catching the insects. But by far, probably the most iconic tropical fruit in this part of Panama (and perhaps, everywhere) is the mango. There are too many varieties of this fruit, with so many regional names that it is impossible to list them all, but here is a little sample: mangos calida', chupa-chupa, hilacha, huevo 'e toro, papaya, etc... If you know more mango varieties or any other dry arch's fruit missing, let me know in the comments.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bird of the month: Ovenbird

The Ovenbird (Seiurus atricapilla) is a ground-loving warbler that breeds in Canada and eastern United States, migrating then to Florida, Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America for the winter. Panama represents the southernmost part of its usual wintering range, where it is frequently encountered in the western part of the country, becoming increasingly rarer farther east, including around the former Panama Canal zone in central Panama, and with only two record from our easternmost province, Darien. It can be seasonally very common in selected sites. We were just dating when I took Gloriela to her first real birding trip to the exotic, remote and tiny Escudo de Veraguas island off the coast of Bocas del Toro (western Caribbean slope, check the map at the end of the posts of this blog). It was october's second week and the island turned out to be a migrant trap... Gloriela got the wrong idea that the Ovenbird was simply the MOST common bird of Panama, considering the number of tame individuals that we saw, sometimes walking just inches from our feet (she called them the "pollitos"). In fact, I took the first photo with a point-and-shoot camera with an optic zoom of 3X (notice the sandy soil of the island)! The orange crown bordered in black and the white eye-ring separates this species from the similar-looking waterthrushes, sharing with them the ground-dwelling habits and the streaked underparts. But despite the general similiar appearance, these birds are not closely related, as demonstrated recently by Lovette and Hochachka. In fact, the Ovenbird seems to be basal to all the others warblers, a rather surprising relationship for this migrant. Well, for these and many others reasons is why we choose the Ovenbird as our bird of the month!

You can check this week's most interesting posts at Bird Photography Weekly # 136.

Literature consulted:

1. Ridgely RS, Gwynne J. A guide to the birds of Panama. First spanish edition 1993.

2. Angehr GR, Dean R. The birds of Panama. A field guide. First edition 2010.

3. Lovette IJ, Hochachka WM. Ecology 2006; 87:S14-S28