Monday, September 30, 2013

I climbed Pirre and survived!

My previous post was an introduction to my recent trip to Darien National Park in eastern Panama.  My main objective was to hike with a guide to the highlands of the Pirre range behind the station.  This is not an easy task, specially if you plan the craziest one-day trip ever, as I did.  There is a reason for such madness.  Since the closure of the Cana field station, and hence the tour to the summit camp in the Alturas de Nique range, the only reachable site to find the Pirre range endemics is, in fact, the actual Cerro Pirre, a forested massif with its highest point at 1569 meters above sea level... exactly the point I was willing to reach.
Cerro Pirre, as seen from the first lookout at 650 meters above sea level
There were some logistic issues that I needed to solve first, like ANAM and SENAFRONT permits to visit the area.  Fortunately, my good friend Guido Berguido (of Advantage Tours) took care of that, so I smoothly found my way to Pirre Station, passing through the towns of Yaviza, El Real and Pirre 1, where Isaac Pizarro, my local guide, was waiting for me.  He was busy attending a group of biologists, but arranged another local guide, Tilson Contreras, to accompany me to Cerro Pirre.  We left the station in the dark, hearing Vermiculated Screech and Spectacled Owls in the way.  We followed a trail knows as "El Estrangulador", which means "The Strangler"and oh boy, what an appropriate name!  The first few kilometers consist of a constant, but strenuous uphill hike on muddy ground, taking you from 60 to 650 meters above sea level and passing through tall primary forest and two lookouts with exceptionally views of the surroundings forests to the southeast (first lookout) and to the west (second lookout).
First lookout.  Colombia in the background!
This first part of the trail is covered by the locals in two hours, when they reach a camping site known as Rancho Plástico.  There is an interesting story about this name.  Originally, the site was known as Rancho Frío, well beyond the actual site of the ANAM´s Pirre Station that is known as Rancho Frío today.  The actual Rancho Plástico is a still higher camp in the ridge top, called that way because of the plastic tarps used by scientist many years ago for shelter against the rain.  A little bit confusing eh?  The names seem to have migrated downhill!
"Rancho Plástico"
Well, it took me 4 painful hours to get to Rancho Plástico!  At first I tried to carry my own supplies, water and camera gear... soon Tilson was carrying all that stuff and I still was suffering from the terrible march... only the dream of Pirre endemics kept me up... but the worse part was yet to come.  Beyond Rancho Plástico, the trail climbs steeply... covering an altitudinal range of 600+ meters in little more than one kilometer!  In fact, I needed ALL my limbs and nails to climb the last meters to the top, an stretch of the trail known as "La Ensuciapecho" (the one that mess your chest).  By the way, this second part of the trail took me 3 miserable hours to accomplish!
Me, faking a smile at "La Ensuciapecho"
Probably you're thinking at this point "C'mon, stop complaining and tell us about the birds".  When I reached the top, I was so tired that, instead of walking along the ridge, I decided to sit and wait for the mixed flocks... my shaking hands were useless to hold my lens focused in canopy dwellers, so I just grabbed my binoculars for a while... thanks God the summit was a GREAT spot!  Soon, a flock of Pirre Bush-Tanagers mixed with a Lineated Foliage-Gleaner was above my head (yes, I was lying on my back)... you'll have to trust me, the next photo shows the underparts of one of those Pirre Bush-Tanagers.
Of the "Pirre" birds (Pirre Hummingbird, Bush-Tanager and Warbler), the bush-tanager is the only one still endemic to Panama, since the other two have been recorded in the Colombian side of the border. Then, a mixed flock of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers and Orange-bellied Euphonias included a Green-naped Tanager, the only other national endemic remaining.  Other Pirre range endemic recorded was several Pirre Hummingbirds, all females. I dip on the warbler... an expected one since that species is not that common according to Isaac.  No photos of those birds... but at least I got a photo of a Panama near-endemic... a Varied Solitaire.  Its ethereal song fills the air of the montane forest.
I also saw more widespread species that, in Panama, are only readily found in these mountains, like Sooty-headed Wren, Tooth-billed Hummingbird and fascinating views of a singing Choco Tapaculo!  And even more widespread species are relatively common and easier to see up there, like Crested Guan, Red-and-green Macaws, Plain Antvireo, White-throated Spadebill, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and Slate-throated Whitestart.
I only spend three hours in the summit, and then started the return... which was faster, but a little bit scarier.  Around Rancho Plástico we were able to watch more birds, like my life Lemon-spectacled Tanagers, Russet Antshrike, Sharpbill, Wing-banded Antbird and a Crested Guan.
We also saw several mammals species, like agouties, monkeys (three species in fact) and several Pygmy-Squirrels that I'm still trying to ID (this particular individual was seen at 700 meters above sea level and and exhibited a white dot behind the ears).
After 4 hours, we reached the Pirre station at dark... barely.  I was exhausted, but happy... with many life birds in the bag and a great tale to tell.  According to Isaac, very FEW birders have managed to reach the top, all I know are true athletes (not like me for sure), so I like to think that I now belong to a select group of brave masochistic able to do anything for endemic birds!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Flash trip to Darien National Park

The Darien National Park covers 579,000 ha of pristine primary forests and other habitats in extreme eastern Panama, and is home to some range-restricted endemics and near-endemic bird species.  In fact, around 40 species of birds are only readily found for Panama in this park... so you can imagine why I was trying to visit this park.  I have my own "Darien Gap" in my life list... and I wanted to fill it!
To be honest, this was not my first time in the park.  On two previous occasions (you can read about it here and here), I have accompanied the Panama Audubon Society in its annual fieldtrip to El Real, which includes a short visit to Pirre Station (also known as Rancho Frío).  This station is barely within the limits of the park, but surrounded by tall primary forest, making it a great place for birding.  Besides, the installations are comfortable and ideally located next to the Peresénico river.
But reaching it require a two hours walk through muddy trails and creeks from the nearest town, making a one-day visit not exactly a good idea for quality birding... although surely you'll find widespread species like the eastern form of Chestnut-backed Antbird cassini, with distinctive small white spots on wing coverts and females brightly colored below, as shown in the photo.
I  went to this station some days ago, taking advantage of my last days of vacations.  I spend only two half days in the station... my main objective were the highlands of the Pirre range (more about that in my next post), but that was enough to see great birds... and even a life bird for me.  The day of my arrival, my local guide pointed to me a HUGE cuipo tree next to the trail before entering the limits of the national park.  A quick search with my binoculars revealed a wide nest atop the tree... a Harpy Eagle nest!  After searching the surrounding, Isaac found a young Harpy close to the nest... what a great way to start my birding trip!  Not every day you see a Harpy Eagle!
We were not even 15 minutes from the station!  Once in the station, I only had time for dinner and take a shower... soon it got dark and the sounds of the night took over the place.  I heard both Crested and Spectacled Owls, and a Vermiculated Screech-Owl behind the station.  The next day I hiked to the highlands, leaving the station in the darkness of the dawn and returning at night; however, I still managed to photograph a Spectacled Owl in the darkness.
For the last day, Isaac took me to a spot 10 minutes away of the station, crossing the river.  It was a little bit dark, but we heard (and saw) both Streak-chested and Black-crowned Antpittas, Spotted and Chestnut-backed Antbirds and a Bright-rumped Attila.  We stopped next to a tall tree with a wide nest on it... another eagle nest!  This time, the tree was considerably smaller than the HUGE cuipo tree we saw two days before with the Harpy Eagle nest.  This nest was empty... Isaac began to whistle... I waited.  Suddenly, a ghostly shape flew under the canopy, perching in a nearby tree.  I was able to see clean white underwings... a young Crested Eagle!
I was able to see the field marks that separate this young bird of the very similar young Harpy we saw before: single-pointed crest, less massive bill and longer, less massive legs.  But the show was about to start... after a couple of minutes, an adult eagle arrived to the nest, and started to vocalize.
We spent more than 1 hour seeing both birds... but I needed to go.  Reluctantly, I left the eagles interacting between them... what a great life bird... and so close to the facilities!  Amazing.  I started and ended my flash trip to Darien National Park with two huge eagles, the largest eagles in Panama... but those were not my highlights of the trip (not kidding)... check my next post if you want to know!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Back in Panamá!

After a productive trip to Córdoba, Argentina, I'm back in Panamá... and still on vacations.  The true is that I'm spending most of the time in home with my baby girl Gabrielle... occasionally seeing some birds from the balcony.  That's why, when we traveled this last weekend to Penonomé (central Panamá), I took advantage to visit some places that, usually, are great for birding.
It has been a while since my last visit to the road to El Gago... and many things have changed.  I went with Gloriela and Gabrielle last saturday's afternoon and were impressed by the sight of the tall windmills in the savanna.  These are part of an important government project to produce green energy.  It was a little bit late as you can see in the photos... so we only saw some very common savanna birds, like many Eastern Meadowlarks, singing from exposed perches.
Or this Roadside Hawk inspecting us curiously.
The next day, I convinced the same crew to accompany me to the Aguadulce Salinas (saltponds), 30 minutes to the west.  It was around noon and hot, but I only wanted to have a quick look at the saltponds, searching for passage migrants.  The first thing we noticed were the big flocks of terns and skimmers over the place.  Check for example the next photo showing many Gull-billed Terns resting with several Elegant Terns.
Or this flock of Black Skimmers in the distance... more than 100 birds were resting in that pond.
I already had seen this numbers in Aguadulce this year.  But other species were new for the year, like the Stilt Sandpipers and Wilson Phalarope.  These are passage migrants (don't winter in Panamá), and this is the only time to see them in Panamá... so mission accomplished!
I saw Red-necked Phalarope in my previous visit, making this year a two-phalaropes year for the site.  We had to return to Panamá City, so we only spend 45 minutes in the pond.  In the way back, I just made a quick stop at a flooded field in Río Grande where a flock of several species of herons were feeding in the mud.  It looked like a great place for migrant shorebirds.
I only saw two Solitary Sandpipers and a Black-necked Stilt among the Cattle, Great and Snowy Egrets, the Southern Lapwings and the lonely White Ibis... but I'm sure this place deserve more visits.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The bird of the trip!

As mentioned before, Jorge ( did his best to show me as many birds as possible in Argentina... and succeeded by taking me to different types of habitats.  That included dry chaco and a type of habitat completely new for me: an extensive salt flat known as Salinas Grandes.  The road took us north of Córdoba, first through farmlands that, unexpectedly for me, were rich in birds!
Several stops along the road produced many lifers for me.  Look at the picture above.  We saw huge flocks of cowbirds, but it was not until we stopped to check that these were of several species.  This flock had Shiny, Screaming and Bay-winged Cowbirds; although the picture only shows the last two species... they keep a strange relationship: the Screamings are brood parasite, almost exclusively, of the Bay-wingeds.  Another stop close to Villa Gutiérrez produced many species of finches, among more common species.
The Red-crested Finch is quite spectacular.  This individual showed up for some seconds, allowing only few shots.  Other species found in that spot were Common Diuca-Finches, Rufous-collared and Grassland Sparrows, Cinnamon Warbling-Finches, Saffron Finches and a Great Pampa-Finch (photo from the Sierras Grandes).
Eventually, we reached the dry chaco, and before entering the salt flat, we birded the shrubs along the road.  One special bird, an expected one, was a strange falconid common in that habitat: the Spot-winged Falconet.  The taxonomic relations of this monotypic species is unclear, and probably is more related to the Laughing Falcon.
This habitat was rich in birds too.  We found Greater Wagtail-Tyrants, Ringed Warbling-Finch, Crested Gallitos and Black-crested Finch.  For a common bird, these finches are simply beautiful!
We entered the salt flats through the town of Lucio V. Mansilla, finding a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle in the middle of the place... however, there was no vegetation... only a chance for a great panoramic photo!
In this part of the salt flat, the edge was devoid of the vegetation we were looking for: bushes of the salt-tolerant Salicornia plants; so we headed south looking for them... entering again into the dry chaco and finding Checkered and White-fronted Woodpeckers, White-banded Mockingbirds and a Many-colored Chaco-Finch accompanying two Crested Gallitos.
Eventually, Jorge found a perfect place... full of scattered Salicornia bushes right in the edge of the salt flat; however, it was noon and very hot.  In a random stop, I started to search the surroundings through the binoculars.  After some false alarms, I saw in the distance a group of birds close to a bush behind the car.  A quick look by Jorge confirmed my suspicion.
The mythical Salinas Monjita!  This is one of those birds you read about but never think you'll see   some day.  Is not only a range-restricted endemic, but also a habitat-restricted one... only found in this type of vegetation in the border of the Salinas Grandes!  WOW!  They were far away, but eventually we got closer.
Jorge, photographing and videotaping the Salinas Monjitas
If you read trip reports for central Argentina, you'll see that some birders seeking for this Argentina's endemic have failed.  First we saw two birds, then another, and another.  We saw eight (8!) individuals in total.  Jorge explained to me that they congregate in flocks during the winter, so it is more difficult to find them since these flocks may wander great distances.  In the other hand, during the breeding season, the couples are scattered all over the suitable habitat, making it easier to find them.
We saw them making short flights to the vegetation and even running short distances in the salt (looking like a plover in that aspect).
The Salinas Monjita was first described in 1979 as a subspecies of the more widespread (but also endemic) Rusty-backed Monjita.  However, soon the differences between these two forms became apparent and now most authorities recognize it as a full species (detailed rationale here, check the field marks listed in the proposal with my photos).
For me, it was a MEGA lifer, and I still don't know how to thank Jorge for giving me the opportunity to see and photograph this bird.  Definitively THE BIRD OF THE TRIP!

More Córdoba's ovenbirds

During my last trip to Córdoba, central Argentina, Jorge ( showed me both endemic and widespread bird species.  I already talked about most of the endemic ovenbirds we saw (read this post).  About the widespread species... well, I was impressed by the number of furnariids (ovenbirds) that form part of the common Córdoba's avifauna.  I have to say that I really liked this scene.
This is the nest of one of the most common furnariid around Córdoba, the Rufous Hornero.  It looks exactly like the traditional ovens still in use in some parts of interior Panamá... and certainly in other parts of the world.  I took this photo of Gloriela and Gabrielle (then a 3 months-old baby) next to an oven in a little town close to Penonomé (central Panamá).
Amazing!  Now the name makes sense, since there are no horneros in Panamá.  In fact, there are almost no furnariids at all in central Panamá where I'm used to bird... well, not until the woodcreepers were included within the furnariids.  Yes... officially, the woodcreepers ARE ovenbirds, like this Narrow-billed Woodcreeper that we saw in chaco habitat close to the town of Quilino.
Certainly it looks pretty similar to some woodcreepers of the same genus here in Panamá.  But to be honest, I don't feel well naming these birds ovenbirds...; the tit-spinetails, on the other hand, is another story.  We saw two species: a Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail in Pampa de Achala and a group of Tufted Tit-Spinetails near Quilino.
In spite that ALL of the ovenbirds I saw were lifers for me, most of them belong to widespread groups. What I mean is that I've seen horneros, tit-spinetails, canasteros and cinclodes in other parts of South America.  That's why for me it was a great satisfaction to see members of completely new groups for me, like the Brown Cacholote (sorry, no photo)... and also unique ovenbirds with no obvious close relatives and absolutely GREAT names, like Firewood-gatherer and Lark-like Brushrunner.
Come on!  The brushrunner certainly was the most weird and spectacular ovenbird in the surroundings.  I dreamed of seeing this bird long before landing in Argentina... and I have to admit that at some point in the day I thought I would not see it; but Jorge always reassured me saying that this species was common, that it was only a matter of time, that this bird is peri-domiciliary.  By the end of the day, we headed to Quilino and then Jorge pointed them to me, yelling "Crestudos", it spanish name.  A group of four brushrunners were right by the road, close to a house as he predicted.  Some stayed in the ground, others flew to a nearby tree.  The Lark-like Brushrunner was the last lifer for the day... what a great lifer!
P.D.: I mentioned that the brushrunner was the last lifer of the day... but not THE bird of the day... that title belongs to an endemic... stay tuned for details!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

One day, MANY endemics!

Did I mention that Jorge and I saw some national endemics while birding the Sierras Grandes west of Córdoba (central Argentina)?  In my previous post, I pictured the Carbonated Sierra-Finch which is an Argentina endemic with a quite large distribution within the country.  Beside the sierra-finch, we found other three (3!) national endemics that day in Pampa de Achala.  The first one was a species that, like the sierra-finch, also has a large distribution within the boundaries of Argentina: the Cinnamon Warbling-Finch.
We saw a male mixed with Rufous-collared Sparrows as you can see in the photo.  There are some autumn and winter reports from Uruguay, but that seems to be a rare vagrancy pattern.  In contrast, the next species (and subspecies) are completely restricted to these plateau.  Jorge took me to the banks of the Yuspe river and waited.  Soon, one of our first targets showed up as expected by Jorge:
Previously considered a subspecies of a more widely distributed species, the Olrog's Cinclodes is essentially restricted to Pampa de Achala.  Notice the conspicuous white in the closed wing, the bicolored eyebrow and the short, thin bill.
We walked a little bit, finding another Olrog's Cinclodes, this time accompanied by a Common Miner... also an endemic subspecies (contrerasi) for these sierras.  The spanish name of "caminera" refers to the habit of walking that these birds exhibit.
After a while, we found other furnariid sharing the same riverine habitat: a White-winged Cinclodes.  Compared to Olrog's Cinclodes, notice the obvious longer bill, the striking white bar in the closed wings, and the darker look overall.  This is also an endemic subspecies, schocolatinus, looking quite different to the geographically distant nominate.
With our targets in the bag, we moved to the highest part of the road reached that day, the Cuchilla Nevada, well over the 1800 meters above sea level.  No water up there, only arid grassy and shrubby pampa with rocky stands.  Now, we were after other endemic, the third cinclodes species for the day.  We did several stops in apparently suitable sites... then, the bird materialized in front of us.
That's right: Cordoba Cinclodes!  Just with the name you can assume that this is a range-restricted endemic (even with its Latin name: Cinclodes comechingonus).  Notice the rufous wing band.  My  next photo shows the yellow base to the lower mandible... but that was not very evident in the field.
By that time, I was more than happy... but Jorge had another surprise for me.  We stopped at a different type of habitat... this time less rocky and more shrubby.  Some playback and then a Puna Canastero hopped into evidence atop a shrub.  This species was first described from these sierras, and some think that the other subspecies described later don't belong to this species... some even call this bird "Cordoba" Canastero.
That was really a great day... full of endemics and distinct forms.  As bonus, we visited the shores of the San Roque lake, in the Punilla valley, finding the forth species of cinclodes for the day: two Buff-winged Cinclodes.
Formerly part of the Bar-winged Cinclodes complex, this partially migratory species is restricted to the south cone of the continent... so it was a lifer for me!  Four Cinclodes in one day, all of them lifers for me... amazing!  But the lifers festival don't stop here... stay tuned for more!