Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Quetzal culture

Considered by some as the most beautiful bird on Earth, the Resplendant Quetzal is a denizen of highlands forest from southern Mexico to western Panama.  In our country... specifically at the Chiriquí highlands, this bird is well-known and much easier to see than in most parts of its wide range.  There, the image of the long tailed male (although is not its tail after all... more on that later) is a common sight in signs, logos, murals, and so on...
Like this painting in the bathroom wall of a little restaurant at the entrance of La Amistad International Park (above Las Nubes town), or the stone sculptures in the grounds of Los Quetzales Lodge in the town of Guadalupe, representing a couple feeding by hand some quetzals.
But more important... you can actually see them!  March is probably the best month to see flying males in the right habitat (as we did this year).  This splendid male was in an Aguacatillo tree (a preferred fruit) at Los Quetzales cabins, inside La Amistad International Park.  The bright, metallic green is hard to describe, but the contrasting underparts and tail is sublime.
 However, the Resplendant Quetzal is worldwide known by the extremely elongated supracaudal (above the tail) feathers.
Any day with quetzals is a good day!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Western highlands' endemic empids and pewees

The highlands of Costa Rica and western Panamá are a high endemism area for birds (and other wildlife), as we verified in our last trip to the Chiriquí highlands of western Panamá.  As you may guess, I'm going to write only about a though group of flycatchers, often hard to identify: empids (Empidonax ssp) and pewees (Contopus ssp).  Curiously, the next highlands endemics are very distinctive, easily recognizable... nothing to do with the northern species of impossible look-alikes!
See what I mean?  This handsome flycatcher is the Black-capped Flycatcher, found usually very high in the mountains.  Not the best photo, but the bird is gorgeous anyway.  Usually, you get more distant looks, like the one I got in my last trip above El Respingo of a bird perched and vocalizing high on bamboo.
The next species is distinctive in range.  The Dark Pewee is, certainly, very similar to other species both to the north and the south, but you can id it only by range.  No other pewee species in Panama (or Costa Rica) is as uniformly dark and large as this one.
A very typical pewee species, it always is found perched on an exposed high branch, waiting for the insects to pass... then catching them with a short fly and returning to the same branch.  This is a common sight in Chiriquí highlands... not like our next species:
Right!  The Ochraceous Pewee is a genuine rarity in the panamanian part of its range, found only in some very specific sites... absent in most of the apparently perfect suitable habitat up there.  Our guide, Ito Santamaría, heard and then attracted this couple to mere 3 meters from us at Los Quetzales cabins inside La Amistad International Park.
They were lifers for me and for Osvaldo Quintero (who first saw the birds just above our heads), a lifer that I will never forget!

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Birding is not only about seeking for specialties in remote tracks of forest or distant sites... sometimes, the birds come right next to you... specially if you attract them!  So, sometimes we just relax and wait in front of a feeder, as we did in our last trip to Panamá's western highlands.  See these photos, for example, from the bed-&-breakfast of our great friend Glen at Nueva Suiza, Cielito Sur.
This is just a sample, Clay-colored Thrush and Cherrie's Tanagers feeding side-by-side.  In this photo you can see the field mark that separates the female Cherrie's, its bright colored chest.  We saw also Palm and Blue-gray Tanager, and a shy Buff-throated Saltator that only allowed a photo out of the feeder.
But the star was a common migrant to Panamá, the magnificent male Baltimore Oriole (and yes, we got Baltimore Orioles in Panamá, just like those in the caps).
The number of species depends of many factors like season, regularity (that is, how often you attend the feeder), type of food (grains, fruits, and so on...) and location, which is probably one of the most important.  Imagine a feeder like this, but inside a tall montane forest... yes, like those at Los Quetzales cabins, inside La Amistad International Park.  Check the first photo... how many species can you count?    I'll talk about those species next, but first check out who else visited this feeder.
Yes, the Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush was very confiding around the feeder, allowing nice photos.  This species is quite widespread, just like the Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch.
But these feeders also attracted endemic birds, including two antagonists: first, the Yellow-thighed Finch is quite common, usually found in groups, working the middle and low levels of the forest.  A black bird with conspicuous yellow thighs.
In contrast, the uncommon Black-thighed Grosbeak is a solitary canopy dweller.  A yellow bird with incospicuous black thighs.  All these birds just feet from our hands!
Only a sample, as I said!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Raptors high above

A curious thing about our last trip to the Chiriqui highlands in western Panamá last month was the great number of raptors that we saw up there, most of them migrating.  Starting at the foothills with Barred Forest-Falcons, Yellow-headed Caracaras and Roadside Hawks, the variety was quite good.  Can you id the raptor in the next photo?
Once in the highest part, at El Respingo, above 2550 meters above sea level, we witnessed a spectacle: hundreds of migrant Swainson's and Broad-winged Hawks flying back to North America above our heads.  By far the highest number of Buteos I had ever seen in the highlands.
That's because, usually, the only Buteo we see in the Chiriqui's highlands is the resident race of Red-tailed Hawk.  This bird in particular was far away... so we weren't able to check all the field marks... but considering that migratory races of this species are rare in Panamá, we assume that this one belonged to our residents.
Little before that, we witnessed an uncommon migrant raptor, an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, fiercely chasing a Wilson's Warbler.  I mention this because when we were trying to decide where to have lunch, I saw a raptor elevating in a thermal just in front of the hotel in Guadalupe.  At first sight, I thought it was an immature Sharp-shinned gaining height... but it was apparent that this bird was larger and bulkier.  I took a couple of shots... look at them and let me know what you think.
All the photos show the typical Accipiter shape, with long tail and relatively short wings... but all my photos show the rounded tip to the tail, a field mark for Cooper's Hawk, a vagrant to Panamá, with only some records.  Anyone agree?

Friday, April 19, 2013

A mix of widespread and endemic birds

Western Panamá highlands form part of the Talamanca range, a well-recognized endemic bird area shared with Costa Rica, and a birding trip to this part of Panamá always is full of a great diversity of both Talamanca endemics and more widespread species.  During our last incursion to the highlands, Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck, your blogger host and our guide, Ito Santamaría,  experienced this diversity.  We visited the Bajo Frío area, above Cerro Punta, looking primarily for quetzals (and we eventually saw and photographed them) and finding tons of birds in the way, starting with some common, widespread species.
See what I mean?  Who can't recognize an Acorn Woodpecker?  This clown-faced birds are quite noisy and conspicuous, a common sight in this part of the country.  And talking about common sights, nothing is more common in the highlands than Mountain Elaenias.  This species is found from northern Central America to northern South America.
While looking for quetzals, a covey of Spotted Wood-Quails started to sing close to us.  Ito attracted them with a recorded tape.  Eventually, we got amazing looks of several individuals, but capturing a photo is another theme.  These wood-quails are found from southern Mexico to western Panama; in fact, I have seen this species in Costa Rica as well.
As we moved to higher slopes, along the road to El Respingo, the avifauna changed, and we started to find Talamanca's endemics birds..., like this cooperative Black-cheeked Warbler, part of a flock with five or six birds foraging low in the understore.  This one was taking a sunbath!
There are too MANY endemic birds in those mountains, so I'm only showing a few... in this post of course.  However, we found the next two endemics high at El Respingo, in spite of the weird sign (as I said before, "beware of dog" is not enough in Chiriquí):
"No trespassing, tiger running free"
The Fiery-throated Hummingbird is a specialty of these high altitudes.  The "fiery" throat is hard to see (and this bird liked to stay in dark places), but the tiny white post-ocular spot and the blue tail are good marks.
Also endemic, the Volcano Hummingbird is a tiny gem.  This male was making impressive aerial displays.  The pointed throat usually looks dark, but in the right angle, it glows in an splendid purple tone!
Stay tuned for more highland specialties in the next posts!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

To the highlands!

After a year without visiting Panamá's westernmost province, Chiriquí, I was finally on my way last month, accompanied by Osvaldo Quintero.  We left Panamá City late in the morning, so we were expecting to reach the highlands late that afternoon (a 6-hours drive).  We were supposed to meet Rafael Luck and Ito Santamaría above Cerro Punta, in the town of Guadalupe, but realizing that we were not going to make it until dark, we decided to stop at the Macho de Monte Canyon, to take advantage of the last lights.  The "beware of dog" sign is simply not enough for the Chiricans.
"WARNING: possible presence of snakes"
The main reason why I like to visit this spot in march is the flowering Inga tree by the gate of the hydro plant.  The first hummingbird species I noted was a Brown Violetear, first time I see that species outside central Panamá (and erratic everywhere in our country).  Another new for this site (for me) was the Charming Hummingbird.  Several individuals were trying to feed, harassed by the abundant Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds.
You'll have to trust me on this one.  Notice the straight, long bill with reddish base to the lower mandible, dark tail with square tip and greenish rump.  However, I was expecting to find the star of the western hummingbirds: the White-crested Coquette... and like other times, a female appeared to take advantage of the flowering tree.  She stayed in the canopy... to far away for photos... so, again, you'll have to trust me!
The hummingbirds are not the only highlight at this site.  We saw a pair of Buff-rumped Warblers feeding at a small short-grass field.  These smarts birds are very active, always fanning the tails, showing the conspicuous buff coloration.  They were a life photo for both of us.
Almost by the time we were leaving, I heard the characteristic call of a regional endemic.  After a while, we located a pair of Spot-crowned Euphonias working the moss-covered trees.
As you can see, the spots of the male's crown are very inconspicuous... the female is similar to the extralimital Tawny-crowned Euphonia.
Almost at dark, we left the site, heading to Guadalupe and joining Rafael and Ito at Los Quetzales lodge to plan the next day.  It was a heavy itinerary... but you'll see that in my next post!