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 ( 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!

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up, Jan Axel--and a great time. Beny did a super job, and as you say, it was a very compatible group. The Pearl Island Antwren was beautiful, but as you say, difficult to photograph--I got two pictures that are good enough for evidence, nothing more. And your daughter was cute as a button, as they say!