Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More sunset birds

This is a kind of second part for my previous post about birding the savannas to the south of the town of Penonome (Cocle province, central Panama), along the road to El Gago.  I have to accept that I still have some problems for setting the camera for those light conditions... I hope this will improve soon.  This time I went earlier, so the the light was pretty good when I photographed this Killdeer.
This bird (part of a pair) was very quiet... I never heard the characteristic call this time.  This species is an uncommon migrant to Panama, and once a nesting attempt was documented in this part of the country.  In the other hand, the Eastern Meadowlark is an abundant resident of these savannas.
For some reason, I've always had the impression that these birds await you're near them to start singing!  However, were other singers who caught my attention.  When these birds vocalize, I noticed that they weren't the usual Groove-billed Anis I expected.
In fact, they were a pair of Smooth-billed Anis.  I'm not used to see this species in that road, so now I must be more careful to identify these birds if they are not vocalizing.  Other bird with which I am very careful to identify is the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.
In spite of the unmistakable multicolored head, they can be pretty tricky to separate from the Turkey Vulture; although, the Yellow-headed's low flight is characteristic.  Another species that characteristically flies low is the Northern Harrier.
This is also an uncommon migrant to Panama... but seems pretty regular in these fields.  This female was far away, so the above photo is cropped.  Notice the angled wings, long tail and white rump.  By the end of the day, I found the pair of resident Aplomado Falcons perched exactly in the same bare tree.
I swear these photos are different from my previous post.  The size difference indicates these are male and female (the female is the bigger one).  Along the road I saw another pair flying together, but there is no way to know if they were different birds.
After all, that was a nice sunset birding!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vagrant gulls still in Panama Viejo!

Just in case, the Bonaparte's Gull reported wintering in the area of Costa del Este/Panama Viejo since last november is still around.  A report of Xenornis shows photos by Rosabel Miro last sunday in Panama Viejo, resting with the huge flock of Laughing Gulls (with some Franklin's by the way).
I did a short stop by the Visitor's Center two days ago... no Bonapartes... but the third-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull that is wintering in the area was a nice consolation prize.
However, my friend Celeste wrote me today an e-mail with an attached photo of the Bonaparte's Gull in the same site... so if you still need this species for your Panama Life List... what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Raptors at sunset

During a short visit to Penonome (Cocle province, central Panama) last weekend, I took advantage of the last rays of light at sunset and drove the road to El Gago, hoping to see some typical savanna birds.  The warm light is nice for birding... but for this amateur photographer is not exactly the best condition.  Soon I was trying to change the camera settings... but most of my photos were too dark or to overexposed... I had to edit all the photos in this post.
Like the above shot of a pair of Aplomado Falcons enjoying the sunset.  This species is very attractive and always nice to watch... and only frequently encountered in this part of Panama.  Shortly after this, a young Common Black-Hawk landed in a field after flying in front of the car.
Formerly known as the "Mangrove" Black-Hawk and restricted to the Pacific slope, now it is clear that this form belongs to the broad Common Black-Hawk... both forms are almost indistinguishable, specially the immatures.  After a while, I found a Crested Caracara by the road.
This powerful bird landed right in the middle of the road.  I was able to approach it with the car, and noticed that the bird caught a huge grasshopper and was devouring it!
However, it was so distracted, that never noticed the smaller Yellow-headed Caracara that swooped over it.  In matter of seconds, the Yellow-headed ran the Crested and took the grasshopper... I guess that the Crested Caracara was puzzled!
By the end of the day, my last bird was a gorgeous Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture perched atop a pole. It was VERY dark, but somehow I managed some photos.
For just a short trip to the savannas, it was a nice set of raptors!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Gulls at Panama Viejo

The mudflats of Panama Viejo (Panama City's oceanfront) are well known by the huge numbers of peeps and seabirds that occur there, including a long list of gulls, including rarities like Gray-hooded or Bonaparte's Gulls.     I visit this place often, depending of the tide, and this time I was accompanied by my friend Benoit.  We started to search the hundreds of Laughing Gulls that were resting in the beach, when one bird caught our attention.
Nop, this is NOT a Common Black-headed!
Of course, the coral-red beak and pale legs triggered all the alarms, but the bird seemed to be exactly the same size as the surroundings Laughings, with same mantle color... after a while, the bird took flight, showing only black primaries with white rump and tail with some black spotting... a second-summer Laughing Gull with aberrant soft parts.  I have to admit that I was a little bit disappointed; however, we kept searching... finding some Franklin's Gulls mixed with the Laughings.
We not only saw gulls in Panama Viejo, there were some shorebirds, pelicans, frigatebirds and even a lucky Neotropic Cormorant with a freshly caught catfish in the beak... a huge one by the way!
The high tide gathered the flock closer to the mangroves. Suddenly, I noticed a large gull with conspicuous yellow legs standing with the Laughings, with noticeably darker mantle, pale eye and dark streaking in the head and neck.
Yeap! An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in basic plumage.  The sun was bright and the bird far away... these photos are overexposed and cropped... but the main field marks are evident.  Notice how different the color of the mantle looks depending on the angle of the bird.
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a very scarce migrant to Panama, although regular... with at least one individual recorded each winter.  This was a new year-bird for me, a good one in fact!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The traveller phalarope

We all know that shorebirds (in general) are great, long-distance migrants.  It is incredible how these lightweight birds fly thousands of miles twice a year from and to their breeding grounds... but some of them stand remarkably.  That's the case of one of the Red-necked Phalaropes with attached tracking devices from Shetland (north-east of Scotland).  It was thought that these birds wintered in the Arabic Sea, the logical route... however, this individual preferred the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean in Ecuador and Peru!  That's right, a 16000 miles round trip crossing the Atlantic Ocean through Iceland and Greenland and flying along North America's east coast and the Caribbean to finally end in Peru... and back!
Red-necked Phalarope in basic plumage.  Aguadulce Salinas (Panama), August 17th, 2013.
But you know what is more amazing?  This bird probably flew over Panama, specifically over the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats).  In this article, the short video shows the route followed by this particular Red-necked Phalarope... check the migration route over Panama (at minute 1:10).  I've always wondered what does this pelagic species inland during its passage... now this "new" migration route provides a logical explanation.  So, next time you see a Red-necked Phalarope inland, ask yourself if is not coming from northern Europe!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Face-to-face with a Zone-tailed

To live on the sixth floor of an apartment block over a hill in Panama City has its advantages.  One is that you can have close encounters with the raptors that take advantage of the ascending thermal current to gain height.  Only good lucks assure you a correct ID of some of theses raptors, specially if one of these mimics a more common species.
That is the case of the Zone-tailed Hawk.  Of course there is no doubt of its identity in the above photo... but when you see this bird high in the sky, it becomes quite difficult to separate from the similar Turkey Vulture.  In fact, with some experience you can notice the smaller size of the hawk as the first evidence of its identity.  Some days ago, I had the opportunity to watch one of these masters of flight circling close to my apartment.  I had my camera close, so I grabbed it just before noticing that the bird was turning towards me.
After a few seconds, it was flying just in front of me, mere 4 or 5 meters away!  The bird saw me directly without deviating from its course... I could swear I felt its penetrating glare!
The hawk gained height swiftly, leaving me astonished!  Now that's the way to enjoy a Zone-tailed!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gabrielle's first Christmas Bird Count

Today we participated in the Atlantic Christmas Bird Count organized by the Panama Audubon's Society (PAS)... and "we" includes my wife Gloriela and my two years-old Gabrielle.  We woke up very early in the morning and took the highway all the way to Galeta Point, in the Galeta Island Protected Area.  There, we met with a group of biology students and their professors who volunteered to participate with us.
After organizing the group, we went to the coastal habitats looking for shorebirds and seabirds.  The activity was pretty low in that matter, probably this American Crocodile had something to do with the lack of shorebirds?
The truth is that I really like Galeta.  Is quiet and scenic, with nice Caribbean beaches and a northwest breeze that keeps everything fresh.  The only shorebirds in the area were the Black-bellied Plovers resting at the breakwater.
However, after a persistent search at every corner of that coast, we found a lonely Ruddy Turnstone resting nervously.
We decided to sit and wait.  Gabrielle seemed to be enjoying the trip a lot!
While Gabrielle was playing with the pebbles at the beach, a small tern appeared over the sea accompanying a pair of larger Sandwich Terns.  The red feet, dark carpal bar and dark wedge to the upperwings confirm the ID: a Common Tern, a rarity for the count.
My distant shot is only for documenting the sighting... at least in this one the red feet are obvious.  By the end of the day, we counted 82 species... not bad at all, including this cooperative Broad-winged Hawk in the way out.
Nice day in the Caribbean coast!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Bonaparte's Gull

The Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) is a small, graceful gull that breeds in North America (Canada and western Alaska) wintering south regularly to northern Mexico and the Greater Antilles, with vagrants recorded all the way to western Europe, the Lesser Antilles, southern Central America, including Panama, and northern South America.
My first experience with this species was some years ago at the Niagara river in April, above the famed Niagara Falls.  There, dozens of birds were flying and resting above some rocks in the middle of the river (OK, my photo shows exactly zero gulls... but the place is magical).
This gull is less variable than the larger species, needing only one year to acquire the adult plumage.  The dark marks in the wings (forming a broken W pattern) and black tail band make this individual a first-winter bird.
As I mentioned above, this species is only a vagrant to Panama, with six previous records.  Three of these records were in the 70s and 80s in the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, while the most recent were from Panama City's waterfront in the Pacific Ocean, with a group of six adults in winter plumage in Panama Viejo back in january 1996 (eBird report) and a first-winter bird at the mouth of the Matasnillo river in december 1998 (report in Xenornis).  Then, one was found by Rosabel Miro in Costa del Este last november 23rd and another (probably the same bird?) was found by Itzel Fong in Panama Viejo last december 28th and relocated the next day, when I was able to see it.
In ABA terms, this species would have been a Code 5 (if applicable) right in our front yard!  For this and many other reasons is why we chose Bonaparte's Gull as our Bird of the Month!
Literature consulted:
1.  National Geographic Society's Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
2.  Ridgely RS, Gwynne JA.  Guía de las Aves de Panamá.  1ra edición español 1993.
3.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A field guide. 1st edition 2010.