Monday, January 30, 2012

Savanna and mangroves

The morning of last saturday, january 28th; Penonome (Cocle province, central Panama) received the visit of an important delegation of birdwatchers from Panama City, prepared to repeat past weekend finding of a Grasshopper Sparrow in Panama after more than 50 years! I joined Rafael Luck, Osvaldo Quintero and Venicio "Beny" Wilson early that morning and departed to the exact site where I saw the bird.
We didn't see it immediately, but certainly our hearts started pumping when we saw a very unusual flycatcher-type bird. Similar in shape and behavior to a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, it seemed to be a partially albino immature because of its relatively short tail. Shortly after this, we were joined by Darien and Camilo Montañez and Marlene (a guest), and started searching. Soon, we had several sightings of a single bird, all brief, but definitives. You can read more about these encounters at Darien's site, Xenornis.
After spending a couple of hours at the site, we went to the Aguadulce Salinas (saltponds), 25 minutes to the west. However, the former saltponds were completely dry, and we decided to go directly to the coast, were some mangrove still persist... and it turned to be a good idea!
In a little pond surrounded by mangroves, we found this flock of sandpipers. As you can see, most of these birds are Lesser Yellowlegs ( straight, relatively short bills, white eye rings, spotted flight feathers) plus some Greater Yellowlegs (similar to the Lesser Yellowlegs, but bigger, with two-toned upturned bills) and Short-billed Dowitchers (chunky shape, long & straight bills) There are at least two Stilt Sandpipers too (slightly downcurved bills). The pond also hosted a single Red Knot and many Black-necked Stilts which refused to stay for the photos. After seeing the obligate Yellow "Mangrove" Warblers, we had lunch at a local restaurant (we ordered an excellent fried fish) and returned to Penonome where we had more encounters with the sparrow before we had to return to our normal lives. It is always nice to scape from the monotony and to engage in the search of a lost bird.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2012 first field trip

Last saturday's evening was hot and sunny, typical of a summer day in Penonome (Cocle province, central Panama), I took advantage of the beautiful day and did a scouting trip to some side roads west of town little after 3:30 PM... and it was great! Not only saw my first life bird of the year, at least three Ring-necked Ducks in a large pond, but also re-found the now-famous Grasshopper Sparrow after more than 50 years in Panama! But as I said, that was only the scouting trip. Very early the next morning, I went to the same place before dawn hoping to catch the ducks closer to the shore of the lake. The fresh air in the savanna and the immensity of the place is hard to describe... and the sunrise resembling a scene of "The Lion King" movie was simply unbelievable!
I did saw ducks closer to shore... but it was a group of Lesser Scaups, plus three Blue-winged Teals and three Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. The three Ring-necked Ducks that I saw the day before were far away in the middle of the lake, and only the male was identified with certainty at that distance.
I began the return journey looking for open habitat specialists, finding surprisingly a Northern Harrier as the first raptor for the day. This is only the second time I see harriers around Penonome (first time here),
and it seems that they are not simply passage migrants, but winter visitors as well. Despite the blurry photo, the shape and white rump is unique among the expected raptors there. After a while, I found a tiny, very shallow pond in the middle of the fields... it was alive with birds. Big waders, in the form of several Great Egrets, a Wood Stork and a Great Blue Heron, were sharing the place with Least and Solitary Sandpipers, two Greater Yellowlegs and three Killdeers which became quite evident thanks to their sweet voices.
The nearby grasslands were full of singing Eastern Meadowlarks, plus some Red-breasted Blackbirds, some of them allowing great pictures and close approaching. They were focused in singing out loud to impress any rival or to attract a mate. It is always nice to see these two species (both called "pastoreros" in spanish) side-by-side. However, the most abundant bird in the savanna was the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. A huge flock of these elegant birds were feeding along the fences and in the ground right in the middle of the dirt road. Easily, they exceeded a hundred of birds!

In the end, I failed to relocate the sparrow, neither I found the Grassland Yellow-Finch reported last year by Ken Allaire... but the bird list for only three hours of birding the savanna was impressive and I can't wait to visit the place again next weekend!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Grasshopper Sparrow in Penonome!!!

If there is a resident bird species in Panama that evokes myths and mystery, that certainly is the Grasshopper Sparrow. Formerly a breeder in the Pacific slope, it was thought eradicated due to habitat loss. Not a single resident, nor a vagrant migrant of northern subspecies, have been recorded since the 60's and thus the endemic subspecies of Cocle, beatriceae, was sadly believed extinct by almost all of those who have crossed the country looking for birds in the last decades... until now.
Last saturday's afternoon, I was returning from seeing my first life bird for 2012 (Ring-necked Duck, more on that in another post) and was almost at the entrance of the dirt road (4 miles west of Penonome, central Panama), already seeing the cars at the Panamerican highway, when I decided to stop just to check a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks. As soon as I stopped, I detected a subtle movement in the short grass next to the car. My very first impression was of a gray, tiny mouse, crawling under the grass... but soon realized that it was a bird! The tiny creature eventually stopped no more than 4 meters from my window, raised its head over its shoulders to inspect me and froze... I was shocked! A mythical bird, almost a ghost, the lost Grasshopper Sparrow was standing in front of me, alive... I still shake only of thinking of it. Nervous, I grabbed my camera and started shooting... and the bird did not move. I was able to see it very well, both with my binoculars and through my camera, realizing how beautifully patterned it was. It stayed for complete five minutes, only moving quickly few steps each time just to stand again. It was doing this whenever I was lowering my look to check the photos or to take the binoculars, and sometimes it was difficult to relocate the bird due to its perfect camouflage. It left so unexpectedly as it appeared, flying very quick and low to taller grass taking advantage of the second I took to check the last series of photos... it was very cautious! I started calling my friends to give the good news, but almost immediately I was concerned about the specific identity of the bird I saw: it was a member of one of the resident subspecies or a migrant from the north?
There is little literature regarding the subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrow found in Panama, and none in recent years. There are descriptions in the monumental work of Alexander Wetmore, and in Ridgely & Gwynne's Birds of Panama, both based on previous papers. However, you can get on-line the paper of Storrs Olson aptly named "The subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) in Panama" (Proc Biol Soc Wash 1980; 93: 757-9), which describes the three subspecies recorded for the country (two resident, one migrant).
The first thing to take into consideration: the migrant subspecies (pratensis) is essentially indistinguishable of the resident subspecies bimaculatus, distributed along the Pacific slope of Panama (specimens from Chiriqui, in western Panama, and Chepo -east of the Canal area-) and extending to Mexico. There are plenty of photos on-line of pratensis, so it is useful in order to compare with my photos (I took many, but they are essentially variations of those I'm posting here). We have to consider pratensis as a VERY rare vagrant to Panama, only recorded so far in the western Caribbean slope twice in the late 60's and with its southernmost -usual- winter range extends only to Belize. In the other hand, beatriceae (named honoring Alexander Wetmore's wife, Annie Beatrice) is described as quite distinctive in being the palest of all the subspecies.
Based on range, beatriceae is the expected subspecies at that locality (and notice that two specimens examined by Olson were collected exactly at 4 miles west of Penonome). The key characteristics are: throat, breast, flanks and undertail coverts pale pinkish buff (not rich ochraceous yellow as in bimaculatus or pratensis); median crown stripe very pale, almost white (no deep buff). As bimaculatus, beatriceae have distinctly reddish streaks in the nape (distinguishing them from southern subspecies). Others -pale- subspecies from North America have never been recorded south of Honduras in the winter, and are not expected in Panama.
I think (or want to think) the bird of Penonome belongs to the endemic subspecies beatriceae by the field marks highlighted above and that can be appreciated in my photos, which I only cropped (no adjustments of color, contrast or sharpness added)... what do you think?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Gabrielle Teresa

Just in case you missed the new, my precious baby girl was born last december 27th weighting a little more than 9 pounds(!), now she is a healthy one week old little baby full of energy and life. For just a week, she seems to have changed since her birth (check the photos here)... or it is only my impression?
Welcome Gabrielle Teresa to the world, mom and dad love you very much!
P.D.: where did I see those tiny binoculars?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bird of the month: Cinnamon Woodpecker

This edition of "Bird of the month" features a species selected as "Bird of the year 2012" by the Panama Audubon Society... yes, you're right, I'm talking about the Cinnamon Woodpecker (Celeus loricatus). For such a common species, in the right habitat, this is a beautiful bird. It is well
distributed at our Caribbean slope forests all over Panama, but also in the Pacific slope from central Panama eastward. It looks also comical, with its bushy crest and cinnamon color. As you can see, the female lacks almost all the red color that the male shows in the head, like many others woodpecker species. The Celeus woodpeckers inhabits a broad range of habitats, and all have contrasting patterns in their plumages, with some being absolutely gorgeous
patterned in yellow, black, chestnut or cinnamon. The first photo is the same individual of the winning photo, however, is not exactly the same photo due to contest rules. It is always a thrill to find such a photogenic beauty so close! For these, and many others reasons is why the Cinnamon Woodpecker is our bird of the month (and of the year)!

Literature consulted
1. Angher G, Dean R. The birds of Panama. 2010