Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Panama Viejo with the PAS

Celebrating the 50 years of the Panama Audubon Society (PAS), we joined a group of volunteers, members of the directive board (myself included) and general public in a visit to Panama Viejo, last sunday.  This site exhibits a mix of habitats, like mangroves, mudflats, rocky and sandy beaches, and gives a great opportunity for environmental education and birding.
In fact, PAS resident biologist Michelle gave us a nice introduction to this complex ecosystem and showed some samples of different species of mangroves, mollusks and worms... very important to support the millions of birds that use the Upper Bay of Panama as wintering ground.
Besides the environmental importance of the site, Panama Viejo is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The "old" city was the first European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, founded in 1519, and is full of history and interesting facts, most of them explained in the museum... where we met.
Bell tower of the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Asunción
About the birds, well... at the end of the visit we counted 44 species, including 14 species of migrant plovers and shorebirds that use this site in their annual migration as a feeding station during the passage or as wintering grounds.  However, we were impressed by the resident species.  Hordes of Great and Snowy Egrets, Cocoi, Great Blue, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons filled the mudflats, accompanied by a flock of 17 Wood Storks... and even a Roseate Spoonbill that flew away to soon.
Did you notice the Black-necked Stints in the above photo?  They are present year-round, but are more abundant during the winter.  We saw impressive numbers of this species scattered in loose flocks at the mudflats.  We had such a great time identifying Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets and Whimbrels.  Eventually we found the lonely Long-billed Curlew that winters there.  It was too far away for photos, but everybody was able to watch it through the scopes.
After a while, we headed to the stand of mangroves in front of the Visitors Center.  There, we had great views of the city and the rocky shores full of sea creatures trapped in the pools left by the retiring tide.
We also had better views of the Wood Storks, this time feeding in the surf... acting like shorebirds.
This was a great experience, sharing with friends and people interested in our birds and how to preserve their habitats.  Happy Birthday PAS!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Impressive migration over Panama City!

When I went to my workplace this morning, all my unit in the hospital was closed.  The reason?  Our president decreed a day off due to XXIII Ibero-American Summit of Heads of State and Government... so I went back to my apartment to rest a little.  After a while, I started to noted some movements in the sky... all over, huge kettles of raptors were flying above Panama City, in their annual migration to South America.
The massive amount of birds darkened the sky... not kidding!  Soon, I started to receive text messages and facebook notifications of friends experiencing the same spectacle from different points of the city... this wonder of nature did not go unnoticed, since many of my non-birder friends also texted me!
The above photo only shows a tiny fraction of the Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures that passed today... there are at least 170 hawks... and this is a cropped picture!  The next picture shows better these two species that, above my apartment, were by far the most abundant.
In other parts (for example, above the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal), the predominant species was the Swainson's Hawk.  I only counted some 200 Swainson's Hawks in 55 minutes... compared to some 5000 Broad-winged Hawks and 10,000 Turkey Vultures!
When I see these huge kettles, I always look for other raptors mixed within these flocks.  That's how I picked up these Mississippi Kites.
Or this Osprey.  The long wings, slightly angled in the wrist, are characteristic.  None of these birds breed in Panama, nonetheless they are pretty common in this season.
I also saw four Peregrine Falcons.  They flew VERY high, so there was no way to see if any carry a transmitter or something (yeap, I'm talking about Island Girl).
Don't stop looking at the sky, since the season is not over yet!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Birding the Pearl Islands: seabird colonies and huge beasts!

After a successful first day finding our main target, the White-fringed Antwren, in the Pearl Islands, the itinerary for the second day included to visit some other islands with colonies of common seabirds and, in the way, to look for whales and other cetaceans.  In that aspect I was optimistic because the previous day we saw both Pantropical Spotted and Bottlenose Dolphins from the ferry to Contadora and even a Humpback Whale very close to the first island we were suppose to visit this time, Paquecha.
Bottlenose Dolphins (file photo)
We first did a short walk in Contadora before breakfast, finding more migrants than resident species (by the way, if you know how to ID the empid pictured below, that did not vocalize, let me know).  Purple Martin and Pied-billed Grebe were nice surprises for me... and new year birds too.
At 9:00 am, we boarded the boat in Executive beach and headed to Pacheca and Pachequita Islands, passing first by Saboga Island and its 300 years-old church, the oldest in the archipelago.
The first thing we noticed was the huge number of Magnificent Frigatebirds swarming over the two islands.  Pacheca holds the second biggest colony of this species in Panama (only Isla Iguana has a bigger colony of frigatebirds in Panama), and we saw hundreds of them, including immature birds perched in low bushes and trees.
Other species also nest on these islands, including Neotropic Cormorant, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Pelican, and so on...  These diversity reminded me a previous trip to the islands of the Upper Bay of Panama, also with Beny as a guide.
The Virgen Del Valle protects those who ventures to these waters... and it seems that also protects these birds!
After inspecting Pacheca and Pachequita Islands, we landed in Bartolome Island to watch the colony of Brown Pelicans.  While I was trying to photograph the resident Yellow "Mangrove" Warblers, Gabrielle was having a great time enjoying the island's white sands.
Gabrielle in the sands of Bartolome Island
Then, something catched Beny's attention out in the sea passing Contadora, so we headed that way immediately.  After some minutes in the boat, what caught his attention became evident... it was... it was... well, see by yourself:
OH YES!  A huge Humpback Whale with calf!  As I said before, the Pearl Islands have become a major site for whale watching in Panama.  These whales travel all the way from the southern seas to give birth to their young in these warm waters.
And they are pretty picky with temperature selection, choosing only waters around 24.8º Celsius.  We followed them for a while from a safe distant... what an amazing experience.  I'm glad that my family could marvel at this spectacle of nature.
In the way back to Contadora, we found this American Oystercatcher resting in some rocks... always a beauty.  Curiously, this and the Spotted Sandpipers were the only waders we saw in the islands.
After all these emotions and nature marvels, we still had time to enjoy Executive beach in Contadora before heading back to Panama City in the ferry.  Thank you Beny for this great trip and to all the participants who joined us to this corner of Panama!
Gloriela and Gabrielle in Executive beach, Contadora

Monday, October 14, 2013

Birding the Pearl Islands: in search of the White-fringed Antwren

The Pearl Islands is a group of more than 200 islands in the Gulf of Panama, known for their beautiful beaches, luxurious resorts and, more recently, the opportunity to see whales and other cetaceans in the proper season.  All this is great, but my interest in the islands was focused on other subject: birds (of course).  The islands are home to many endemic subspecies and some are huge nesting colonies of common seabirds, so the idea of a birding trip combined with whale watching and enough time to relax in a paradise beach seemed feasible, specially to include Gloriela and Gabrielle, in a sort of mini-vacations.
Contadora, as seen from Bartolome island
Venicio "Beny" Wilson (www.benywilson.com) was the perfect person to organize the trip... he is an experienced bird and whale watching guide, has lot of experience with the endemic forms of the islands and in how to find them and, most important, he is a great friend of us since many years ago.  Accompanying us were Rafael Luck, Celeste Paiva, Jennifer Wolcott and Dan Heinrichs, who also liked the attractive itinerary.  We took the first ferry to Contadora Island from Panama City, and after one and a half hours, we reached the touristic island.  We didn't stay longer, only enough to unload our luggage and board the boat that would take us to our destination one hour farther south: the town of El Cocal in Pedro Gonzalez Island.
After an uneventful trip, we reached Pedro Gonzalez and met our local guide who conducted us through the town into a trail going to the water reserve, passing by second growths and tall trees... but also having spectacular views of the island and the pristine beaches.
Quickly became evident that the islands act as migrant trap.  The impressive number of empids and pewees all over the island was proof of it... in Panama they usually don't vocalize, so they can be very difficult to identify.  Most of them seemed to be Eastern Wood-Pewees.
The migrants mingled with the residents species, and we saw in quick succession more and more empids, wood-warblers, Summer Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos and so on... Of the resident species, one of the most common was the Northern Scrub-Flycatcher.
A nice surprise for me was the pair of Hook-billed Kites that Beny recognized immediately due to his experience with this raptor in the Lesser Antilles.  Is my first sighting for the year of this species.  One of the birds was carrying a snail in the beak.
However, we still needed to find the main objective of our trip.  The largest islands of the group hold an extraordinarily isolated population of White-fringed Antwrens, and according to Beny, Pedro Gonzalez Island is the most reliable site to find them.  This species is not found in mainland Panama, and the closest population inhabits the Caribbean slope of Colombia.  This species was on top of my wish list since I have not seen the species during my travels in South America and this isolated race (alticincta) could well be considered a full species in the future!  It was midday and the lunch was about to be ready: a recently caught Mahi-mahi with plantains.  In the meanwhile, most of us decided to check a nearby gallery forest along a creek... Gloriela and Gabrielle decided to wait for lunch in a hammock provided by Beny... he thought in everything!
It was pretty hot and quiet inside the forest, but then Beny saw a dark little bird working the tangles some meters away: a male White-fringed Antwren!  These are active birds hard to photograph, so I took my time to appreciate it through my binoculars, noticing its long white eyebrow and the black face and underparts.  When I finally decided to try with my camera, the only photo that came up was the next one:
Definitively only a record shot, but you can see the field marks I mentioned before plus the white marks in the undertail (and in the wing).  What a life bird!  We had lunch (EXQUISITE!) and returned to the same spot for another shot, this time Gloriela was able to see a female... and I managed another blurry shot.
At least the bird is recognizable, but more important, you can see the pale underparts with buffy chest and no streaks at all, placing this form within the southern group of White-fringed Antwrens... more studies are needed to determine how many species form this complex... two seems probable (Northern and Southern White-fringed Antwren)... but who knows.  This form only shows little curiosity to tape recordings of (Southern) White-fringed Antwren from South America, but certainly do not respond to these tapes. Also, Beny states that this form only emits a short series of contact calls, quite liquid in quality ("tu-ik, tu-ik, tu-ik"), and never the long "chip" song... probably they have been isolated for enough time to develop vocal differences?  I propose the name Pearl Islands Antwren!  Eventually, we saw many more individuals, including another male that Gloriela was able to spy.  In the way back, one of the last birds we saw in Pedro Gonzalez was the resident Bran-colored Flycatcher, which was a new year-bird for me.
This was a GREAT day, and ended with a nice dinner in Contadora.  The next day the itinerary included a visit to some seabirds colonies, whale-watching and so on... so don't miss my next post!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Celebrating Panama Audubon Society's 50 years!

That's right, Panama Audubon Society (PAS) turns 50!  And for the occasion they have organized a series of activities to share with members and general public, celebrating our birds.  We started last weekend with the first of a series of Sunday trips.  Many members of the board of directors (including me) accompanied our guide for the day, my friend Justo Camargo, very early at the Metropolitan Natural Park, where we met the participants.  Former PAS president, Darien Montañez, opened the event before heading to the trails.
However, I decided to accompany Rosabel Miró (PAS Executive Director), Yenifer Díaz (and his mom) and Celeste Paiva, who expected a very special group of participants to the event: a group of 16 fifth-grade kids and teachers of one of the Elementary Schools where PAS conducts its environmental education program "Aulas Verdes" (Green Classrooms).
Rosabel and Yenifer in front of the group!
Rosabel gave them commemorative t-shirts as a gift, and lent them binoculars.  After a little introduction to birdwatching, we walked slowly around the installations, bordering the forest. The experience of sharing your love for nature and birds with those kids is amazing.  They were curious and interested in everything I was saying...
And everything we were showing...  thanks God the birds were particularly cooperative, allowing great scoped views... like this day-roosting Chuck-will's-widow.
Or this Common Potoo at the little park by the gate of the main trails.
The event was a great success, and we will repeat the experience every sunday of this month... here is the schedule for the trips to come: 
1.  Sunday, october 13th: Parque Municipal Summit (7:00 am - 9:30 am)
2.  Sunday, october 20th: Cerro Ancon (8:00 am - 12:00 pm)
3.  Sunday, october 27th: Panama Viejo (7:30 am - 11:00 am)
Join us and celebrate with us our 50 years!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Day-flying moths over Panama

During a short break in the work, someone pointed to me a "butterfly" resting in the window of the office.  A quick glimpse and I was able to see many of the day-flying moth Urania fulgens flying eastward, plus the one resting behind the window. These moths have many common names, one of the most widespread used is Swallowtail Moth.  Confusion is expected because these moths show a remarkable resemblance of the butterflies of the genus Papilio, both in physical appearance and in flight behavior.
They present a natural spectacle during its annual migration through Central and South America, specially during those years of "population explosion", every 8 to 10 years approximately when millions of individuals are observed at our fields and cities, almost everywhere. There is still much to learn about these movements, which seems related to food-resources availability, specially its hosts which are vines of the genus Orephaga.
These moths are toxic, a fact indicated by its bright coloration. Its toxicity is derived of the alkaloids present at the plants that they eat during its larval life.  I took the first photo with my phone, through a dirty window, so the colors are not very apparent, but these moths are beautifully patterned in black and electric green.  Well, definitively october is the migration month in Panama!

Literature consulted:
1. Neal G. Smith. Migrations of the day-flying moth Urania in Central and South America.  Carib J Sci 1972; 12: 45-58. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Migrants through the city

October is the peak of the migration season through Panama, time to have your binoculars handy because you never know what to expect.  This last week has been very productive in terms of new species seen from my balcony.  Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Kingbird, Black-and-white, Yellow and Blackburnian Warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Common Nighthawk, Osprey and Broad-winged Hawk were all new for the balcony list (we moved in july to our apartment).
I also saw a flock of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers in the hill facing the frontal balcony... can you see how many are in the next photo?
They were a little bit far for photos... but are still recognizable.  Seeing this species surrounded by towers and skyscrapers was special.
Migration can give you a lifer in or near your home... at least that is what I'm hoping for.  One of those long expected lifers, the Black-billed Cuckoo, was seen in the Metropolitan Natural Park last weekend by my good friend Osvaldo Quintero, who kindly shared this photo with me:
Copyright Osvaldo Quintero, used with permission
This park is just 10 minutes away of my apartment... in fact, I can see it from the window!  I'll try this next sunday, who knows, maybe this is THE year!