December is month of bird counts! And the first Christmas Bird Count of this year, the Pacific CBC, ocurred last sunday, december 18th. Organized by the Panama Audubon Society, (PAS) this count included most of Panama City including Costa del Este to the east,Veracruz town to the west and Plantation Road and the Canopy Tower to the north. Historically, Panama counts have been always among the top 10 worldwide, and the Atlantic CBC used to be the highest count of birds for almost 20 years in a row until some years ago. Several factors influenced the decline of our counts, including habitat degradation, lack of resident birders in the Atlantic side of the Canal, new count circles in exceptionally amazing sites in Costa Rica and Ecuador and, most important of all, the low numbers of participants. In fact, the lack of counters have been a conspicuous aspect of the last counts, and the numbers are declining. If we take into consideration the number of
birds species recorded BY participant, the Panama counts occupy the first places. Of the three counts of central Panama, the Pacific CBC is the one with the greatest potential for becoming one of the best counts in the Americas, because it includes several habitats (humid and dry forests, grasslands, residential areas, coast, mudflats and so on), attracts more participants and have easier logistics than any other count in Panama. As usual, Rafael picked me up before dawn and we went to a meeting point where we were joined by Jennifer Wolcott, Rick and Donna Lee. Our group birded the west side of the canal, the areas of Farfan and Veracruz, during the morning. A persistent drizzle prevented us of doing some owling, but it stopped right before the sunrise.
The first birds recorded were not seen, but heard... Tropical Kingbirds. With the first lights, we started to identify the birds at the huge pond in Farfan, mainly white herons and others waders. In the dark, we thought that the hundreds of white dots in the dead trees of the ponds were Cattle Egrets... and in fact, the first three or four herons we saw well were Cattle Egrets... but then we realized that most of the herons in the ponds were Snowy Egrets. In total, we recorded eight species of herons, White Ibises, two Anhingas, several Brown Pelicans and Neotropic Cormorants, and eleven Wood Storks overflying, with one immature landing right in the beach. Despite our count area included dry forest, our main
objectives were coastal and grassland birds, so we headed to Veracruz beach before the high tide, just in time to see the only two American Oystercatchers for the count standing at the beach. We also saw the only Elegant Tern of the count (that is a regular site for this uncommon migrant for Panama), Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated, Collared, Wilson's and Black-bellied Plovers in good numbers. In several occasions we had to cover because of the rain, but it usually lasted only few minutes each time. The good thing about it was that the day stayed fresh and the activity was constant. In the grassy habitat and forest borders behind the beach we found excellent activity. By some unknown reason, the most common seedeater this year was the Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, but we recorded all the expected species, plus some goodies like Merlin,
Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, Straight-billed Woodcreeper and many migrants. The road that we drove behind the former Howard Air Base eventually crossed a patch of mature forest with a very nice creek... but it was quite late in the morning and hot to find any forest bird in there. We decided to left the west bank and headed to Amador in order to get some key species for the area. We found our main objective, a Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, right at the parking lot of the Punta Culebra Natural Center, among with Garden Emeralds, Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds and Mangrove Warblers. In the way back, we spotted a Blue-footed Booby flying fast in the edge of the counting circle (there is a rock with a colony of these birds right outside the count circle!). Most of the participants met at the Chiva Chiva ponds
to compile our numbers and to figure out our plans for the afternoon depending on the species lacking to that moment. I decided to try the Metropolitan Natural Park along with Jennifer, Cora Herrera and Hildegar Mendoza, making some stops on route, finding Pied-billed Grebe, Blue-winged Teal and Zone-tailed Hawk (all missed in the morning). The park held and amazing great activity by the entrance, with mixed flocks including Greenish Elaenias, Ruddy-tailed and Black-tailed Flycatchers, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, tons of White-shouldered Tanagers, and even a sleepy Common Potoo pointed out bythe park ranger. However, it was a tree with pink flowers the star of the show, attracting tons of hummingbirds and honeycreepers, including the male Rufous-crested Coquette reported during the week and earlier in the morning. I know we don't have to lose time during the counts with birds already counted... but I could not resist to
stop and take some photos of the beautiful creature quietly perched waiting its turn to visit the flowers... after all you don't see a male coquette every day!!! Soon, it was too dark to see anything, and the survivors met at the PAS office to finish to compile our numbers. Not the best count in terms of species was the prediction after revising our list. The most resistant (the Montañez, the Kaufmann, Ariel and me) even tried to do some owling, finding only a Common Potoo before receiving a phone call from Beny who already had listened most of our target owls comfortably from his house in Ancon, Panama City (thanks God!), making our journey only a 16+ hours of pure birding. Exhausting, but gratifying!!!