Monday, January 28, 2013

A visiting hunter

Last friday's evening, I was leaving my apartment in Panamá City to take care of some duties when suddenly a small-sized falcon perched high at a TV antenna.  I returned and grabbed my camera and started to shoot.  My ID was a Merlin, because I saw one individual at least two different times last month in the surroundings, surely taking advantage of the abundant Rock Doves living in the city. 
It was already pretty dark, and the moon was high enough to appear in my photos, looking like a big, silver disc.  I compensated the darkness with the camera's incorporated flash and increasing the exposition.  Without these changes, my first photos looked to dark, and the bird in question recalled a Bat Falcon.  But my last photos came out better, and you can notice the pale face of this bird (nothing to do with the black face and cheeks of the Bat Falcon) and its more bluish-gray back (not black).
Still, the bird was quite distant for my camera, but this cropped photo shows again the same details.  Anyways, for a Merlin, this individual is quite dark, probably indicating is of one of the northwestern subspecies (for example, suckleyi).  
Well, I think I need another chance to get better photos of this little beast!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ducks fest!

Because a promise is a debt, as I told you in a previous post, we had an extraordinaire day at the marshes east of Panama City a week ago, seeing/photographing eight (8) ducks species!  Ok, it may not sound extraordinaire for some of you... but in Panama, this is simply a mind-blowing number of species.  Not only variety... the numbers were impressive too, just check the next photo of one of the flocks of Blue-winged Teals.
You see, here in Panamá, our bird list includes 16 species of ducks; one is considered extirpated (White-faced Whistling-Duck) while five others are considered vagrants (Comb Duck, Mallard, White-cheeked Pintail, Green-winged and Cinnamon Teals), leaving us with ten species with some kind of realistic (but not optimistic) chances to see in Panamá, since seven are considered rare to very rare, some with connotations like "local" and "irregular".  Guess what, this season, all those ten species had been recorded, and personally I have seen nine already!
Did I mention the numbers?  The above photo shows only a tiny fraction of the huge flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in the site.  This and the Blue-winged Teals are, by far, the commonest species in Panamá, the ones that we see more often, and both are well-known by the panamanians with names like "guichichi" and "salceta" respectively.  From here, all the next species are considered rare, but you have to agree that if you have seen recently a flock of more than 90 Lesser Scaups, then seeing a dozen or so that day was not unexpected.
Seeing Muscovy Ducks was not unexpected too.  Considered rare, this species is also well-known by the locals (as Pato Real), and, away from Las Macans marsh in Herrera province (central Panama), is the second most often found resident species in Panama (second after the "guichichi").  We saw two females, with little white in the wings and no crests.
And talking about resident species, one of my personal highlight was the female-plumaged Masked Duck that we found (actually twice) in one of the first ponds.  A little far for photos, the bird eventually flew (literally jumping out of the water), showing the white patches in the secondaries to land few feet away to "disappear" within a flock of other species.  Curiously, in the way out, we found a dead bird in the street.  This is only the second time I see this species, so I was really happy without knowing what else to expect.
OK, I was expecting at least one other species, a Northern Shoveler, considering the growing number of reports for this season, including five that we saw recently in Punta Chame, to the west of Panama City.  And we found a single female among a group of American Coots and Blue-winged Teals.  Again, only a distant shot.
From here the things become serious!  Among the hundreds of teals, we recognized larger birds resting with them.  It became evident that the birds were American Wigeons when we saw an adult male, and then another, and another, and then two flying... WOW, I don't know how many, but to be conservative I annotated ten birds (surely an underestimation).
But ten American Wigeons is nothing compare to forty (40!) or more Northern Pintails!!!  The last time I remember a report of this species in Panama was 14 years ago, and then only a pair was seen.  The next photos shows different groups (and I could be underestimating the numbers again, check again the first photo in this post).
So you can imagine my surprise when we saw this flock?  Not only that, this duck is elegant, beautiful, very rare and was a LIFER!!!  What a crazy day!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Birding the marshes. Part II

After a successful previous day at some marshes east of Panama City, I travelled with my family to our house in Penonomé (Coclé province, central Panamá) in the afternoon.  The sunday morning, january 20th, Gloriela, Gabrielle, Teresa and Kevin joined me in a quick visit to Las Macanas marsh, in Herrera province, and only one hour away of Penonomé.
Of course, after seeing eight duck species the previous day, I wanted to see if I could find at least 10 species for the weekend, so I targeted Las Macanas to find my ninth species: the Fulvous Whistling-Duck.  My family stayed at the facilities because of the bright sun, but enjoying the refreshing breeze instead. 
I searched the ponds close to the tower... hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, but alas, no Fulvous.  The Black-bellieds looks almost comical, with their bright orange bill and legs, and sweet voice.
Knowing that sometimes they are hard to find, I started to walk my way through dry terrain to some ponds where I had seen those ducks before (check this post).  In the way, some Snail Kites were flying over the marsh, masterly maneuvering with the tails.
Eventually, I found a flock of Lesser Yellowlegs resting close to some Blue-winged Teals.
If you enlarge the photo with the yellowlegs, you may notice that one of the ducks is actually a female Northern Shoveler!  I didn't realize it back then, but I found a pair of Northern Shovelers later in the day.  The female stayed for some photos, but I only got distant flying shots of the male.  There are many sightings of shovelers in Panama for this season, which has been exceptionally good for ducks in general.
After a while, I reached the ponds that were full of whistling-ducks, teals and even a huge male Muscovy Duck.  By that time I was tired and thirsty, but I was glad to see that, when hundreds of whistling-ducks took off, at least one of them presented the characteristic dark wings and tail with white rump band of a Fulvous Whistling-Duck, my ninth duck species for the weekend!  They were too far away for photos... so I took photos of a nearby flock of Black-necked Stilts instead.
We left Las Macanas very happy... and in the afternoon, we left Penonomé in order to reach Panama City by mid-afternoon.  Of course, we made a quick visit to Gamboa searching for the tenth duck species: the female Ring-necked Duck reported elsewhere... but they were to far away to identify with certainty, and quite dark too.  But nine species of ducks in two days, and in Panama... exceptional!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Birding the marshes. Part I

Last saturday, I joined Osvado Quintero early in the morning to explore some marshes to the east of Panama City where someone told us that he was seeing "clouds" of duck every morning since a while. Intrigued, we followed the directions and eventually found the site, surprisingly next to a huge urban development and a neighborhood.  Our first sight: CLOUDS of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks darkening the sky... amazing!
If you have the time (and patience) to count the dots, no less than 1500 birds are present in that photo... and this was only part of one of the flocks!  Eventually, we saw and photographed eight (8) ducks species that morning, definitively a record for Panama (but more about that in another post).  Quantity and quality, everything was exaggerated.  For example, we saw tons of American Coots, just the next photo shows more than 20!
Or the absurd numbers of Cocoi Herons and Wood Storks all over the place, but specially in a big pond where I took the next photo (just half of the pond in this photo).
We also recorded Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Striated Herons, among many others as you can see in the next photo (although I accept comments about the Striated Heron).
Of course, the Pied Water-Tyrant could not be absent.  We were so impressed by the immense flocks of other species that we saw only two of this smart flycatcher.
However, one of the highlights were two (YES, TWO!) Long-winged Harriers.  We saw first a dark bird with the characteristic profile and facial pattern, pale panels in the primaries, white rump band and many white tail bands.  We even managed to take some photos of this individual.  Then, we saw another individual, a brown one with creamy underparts and dark chest, surely a female.
With just a handful of reports, this was exceptionally good... rethinking it, I have been quite lucky with this species, and that day in general will be hard to forget!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

An exotic bird and a native primate.

In our quick trip to southern Azuero Peninsula, the Cubilla family did a last stop visiting La Playita Resort where we enjoyed the peaceful beach... but I'm not going to bother you with any more photos of my girls enjoying  the sea... instead, I'll surprise you with the pic of a new bird for Panama!
OK, just kidding.  Evidently, this Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is an exotic bird for this country... a pair is kept by the resort owners in the gardens to entertain the visitors.  Native from Australia, the Emus are the second tallest birds alive, second only after the Ostrich.  
They were not the only exotic birds in the property... odd looking pygmy chickens and two species of macaws flying freely were adorning the place.  The Scarlet Macaws are native to this part of the Azuero Peninsula, but these were definitively introduced birds, often mating with the Great Green Macaws (or Military? I'm not sure of the identity), producing odd-looking hybrids.
Scarlet Macaw from La Playita some years ago.
But then, I was pleased to see a troop of native Coiba Howler Monkeys resting close to the main dining room.  These are wild primates that made their way to the grounds of the resort due to the excellent patch of dry forest that still surrounds the property. 
Some authors consider this form a subspecies of the broad Mantled Howler Monkey of the rest of Panama (there is a photo at the end of this post).  The Coiba Howler Monkey is restricted to Coiba island and to the southern Azuero Peninsula, with the latter population recognized as the subspecies trabeata, the "Azuero" Howler Monkey.
This is only the third time ever I saw this species, and the first time I'm able to get photos.  Notice the golden-brown coloration that distinguishes this primate.
Nothing is best than a troop of monkeys to lighten your day!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

At first light in El Ciruelo

After an exciting previous day at Isla Iguana, my family and friends stayed for the night at a friend's house in El Ciruelo, facing the ocean.  The morning of sunday, january 13th, I woke up, walked to the balcony and saw literally hundreds of pelicans, gulls, terns and other birds frenetically feeding at the beach!
I took my bins and camera and headed to the beach (5 minutes away) with Gloriela (the only one awake that early)... mostly Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls were in attendance.
Among the dozens Laughings, I found two (probably more) Franklin's Gulls, and Gloriela was able to compare both species side-by-side.  Shorter legs, smaller bill, more extensive black hood, more prominent eye crescents, etc...
The first tern I saw turned out to be a Royal Tern.  Notice the poor light of the early morning sun, but still enough to pick this species out of the flock, with its large size and orange bill.
But soon we realized that the other orange-billed terns in the flock were not Royals (again in poor light)...
I was listing the differences in comparison to the Royal Tern: smaller, thin bills, obviously crested with solid black crown extending to the eye (no white eyerings)... Elegant Terns!
The Elegant Tern is uncommon in Panama, so seeing four at the same time was great.  The fourth individual also exhibited anomalous red feet.
The last tern in the area was the Sandwich Tern, a lonely individual flew over the flock several times before disappearing in the sea.
Nice way to start the day, with two lifers for Gloriela and not one, or two, nor three, but four Elegant Terns allowing photos... and all before breakfast!  

Visiting Isla Iguana

It is summer time in Panamá, time to enjoy the sun and the beaches along our coasts... as we did last weekend.  The Cubilla family, along with a bunch of great friends, visited the coast of southern Azuero peninsula, specifically around the town of Pedasí and beyond!
We then headed to the Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge, 7 km off the coast from El Arenal beach where we took the boats (seeing both Royal and Elegant Tern in the beach).  The island emerged from the sea thousands of years ago, first as two islands with a coral reef between them that eventually formed the central part of the island (it looks like an "8"), with coral white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters, a must for every beach lover!
The island is well-known by the scuba divers, but also for its wildlife, including birds, as you can see in this interpretative sign at the Visitors' center (and eventually, I saw ALL these species that day).
As you arrive, it is immediately obvious that this is an important nesting site for the Magnificent Frigatebirds... hundreds can be seen resting or flying over the island... each season, more than 5000 birds engage in mating activities.
The iguanas are also an important element of the island's wildlife (as you can guess by its name).  I found MANY Black Iguanas (Ctenosaur sp.) close to the beach, but only one Green Iguana behind the Visitor's center on an introduced exotic tree.
Of course, I spend more time enjoying the warm waters, but I took a couple of minutes to walk the short trail to the lighthouse where I found several individual of Yellow "Mangrove" Warblers, of the endemic subspecies iguanae, found only in this tiny island.  Then, I returned to the beach to see my two girls enjoying the trip: PRICELESS.
After a couple of hours, it was time to leave.  Reluctantly, we boarded our boats and started the return journey.  At the estuary of the Pedasí river, we where able to see a flock of resting Laughing Gulls accompanied by two American Oystercatchers that even my non-birders friends appreciated as really beautiful birds.
That was an excellent end for a great day at a paradisiac island, but we continue our trip southward, searching new beaches to enjoy, so stay tuned!