Thursday, March 20, 2014

PAS Fieldtrip to El Chorogo. Part III.

In my previous entries, I posted photos of the specialties found in the forests of El Chorogo (western Panama, Burica Peninsula).  This post will include more widespread species, but also some non-bird inhabitants of these forests.  Two and a half days is probably not enough to discover all what this place has to offer, but we (William Adsett, Antonio Domínguez and your host) were very lucky.  For example, we saw White-crested Coquettes every single day of the expedition, including two gorgeous males feeding in white flowers at the canopy of a tree along the Costa Rica-Panama border trail (in both sides of the trail!).
male White-crested Coquette
That was my first adult male for that species.  I usually see females in the foothills.  Not a common species anywhere!  We did well with the hummingbirds, probably because we found many flowering trees, including many Inga and Salvia sp., attracting Charming, Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Long-billed Starthroat, Blue-throated Goldentail, Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermits, and tons of Crowned Woodnymphs (abundant inside the forest!).  However, our biggest surprise was this White-tipped Sicklebill that hovered in front of me for some seconds!
White-tipped Sicklebill
Although not unexpected, this is probably the first record for El Chorogo.  Always an impressive hummer to watch!  Another impressive sighting were the Great Tinamous' eggs.  Why?  Because they are of a bright turquoise color!
Great Tinamou's nest with four brightly colored eggs
This is weird because most of the neotropical ground-dwelling bird lay cryptic eggs.  Egg color is probably an intra-specific signal for others tinamous; thus, attracting several females to lay its eggs together because a large clutch is less prone to predation than a small, single female-layed clutch, according to a theory.  We found this nest after flushing the male.  We also flushed another ground-dwelling bird during one of our walks:
Marbled Wood-Quail
Yes!  A Marbled Wood-Quail, this individual decided to froze in a branch, looking at us.  It was a member of a small covey that stayed undercover.  They are frequently heard, but rarely seen this well!  Close to campsite, a boreal migrant became one of my almost-lifers: a Louisiana Waterthrush.  One individual was walking along the waterhole deep inside the forest.
My poor photo is due to the light conditions inside the forest... very dark in fact.  In spite of this, you can see the broad, white eyebrow and the buffy flank of this bird.  I also noticed the snowy white throat (with no streaks) and the chip notes that sounded slightly different to the widespread Northern Waterthrush (that we saw outside the forest).  Also close to campsite, we saw some Spot-crowned Euphonias.
male Spot-crowned Euphonia
In the above photo you can see the "spots", invisible under normal field conditions.  This was the only euphonia found inside the forest, and is restricted to western Panama... specifically to Chiriqui province.  Another Chiriqui-restricted species in Panama, although not a bird, is the Central American Squirrel Monkey.
Central American Squirrel Monkey
Central American Squirrel Monkey
In fact, this species is restricted mostly to the Burica Peninsula in Panama (see the comment section for details) due to habitat loss in its formal range (more widespread in Costa Rica).  We found several troops, some with more than 30 individuals and with many females carrying youngsters. They are very agile, roaming the treetops with grace and skill.  Of course, we were careful as we watched the canopy. The reason? The inhabitants of the forest floor, like this harmless snake about 5 feet long.
After some research by Bill, we think this was a Pseustes poecilonotus, known by many common names (like Neotropical Bird Snake, Dos Cocorites, and so on...) and highly variable.  We have no idea of the name of this species when we saw it... but had no doubts when we saw the next one:
Fer-de-lance!  This is a pit viper, the main cause of snake envenomation in Panama, where is widespread and well-known by the locals as "Equis" (meaning "X") because of the dorsal pattern resembling the letter X.  Thank God no one stepped on!  
We added more species in the way out the last day of our expedition, like Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and Great Antshrikes, and had great looks of some raptors nicely perched, like this Laughing Falcon atop a towering tree in the middle of pasture lands.
Laughing Falcon
Or this majestic King Vulture that you usually see flying high overhead.  What a great way to end a terrific trip!
King Vulture
The wildlife found in El Chorogo is the most threatened in Panama due to the destruction of all its formal extension, and we have to support the efforts of Panama Audubon Society and some other ONGs (as well as some particulars) to protect it!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

PAS Fieldtrip to El Chorogo. Part II

As mentioned previously, William (Bill) Adsett, Antonio Dominguez, and your blogger host, went to El Chorogo (western Panama in the Burica Peninsula) during the carnival festivities.  I already posted some bird photos from the access road to El Chorogo.  After several hours riding our horses, we finally reached the forest and set our tents in the usual campsite close to a waterhole frequented by bathing birds in the evening.
Entering the forest
The activity is slow in the forest interior, but the birds found there are quite special, and difficult to get anywhere else in Panama!  Actually, I got many almost-lifers... birds that I had seen only once before.  That's the case of the White-throated Shrike-Tanager.  A pair was constantly close to the campsite, and we found several more with mixed flocks during the hikes along the trails of El Chorogo.
male White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Other almost-lifer was the Rufous-winged Woodpecker.  My only previous sighting was 11 years ago exactly in the same site (above the waterhole near campsite)!  This is a rare species anywhere in Panama!
male Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Awakening in the forest was fabulous. The dawn chorus was just terrific with more Great Tinamous and Short-billed Pigeons than you can imagine.  Common voices of this chorus were Riverside and Scaly-breasted Wrens, Northern Schiffornis, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner and three species of trogons, including my almost-lifer Baird's Trogon, a species restricted in Panama to Burica Peninsula!
male Baird's Trogon
We spend two and a half days in the forest, walking the trail that runs along the Panama-Costa Rica border.  We found several mixed flocks that were simply spectacular!  There was always at least one pair of Russet Antshrikes within these flocks, some migrants warblers, two different Rose-throated Becards, antwrens, tanagers, and so on...  I took the next photos of  White-ruffed Manakin and Black-hooded Antshrike in one of these mixed flocks.
male White-ruffed Manakin
male Black-hooded Antshrike
Inside the forest, we only found a pair of Golden-naped Woodpeckers (contrasting with the several pairs we found in the way up outside the forest).  I promised you better photos, remember?
male Golden-naped Woodpecker
female Golden-naped Woodpecker
The third woodpecker species was one restricted to western Panama, and also an almost-lifer for me: Pale-billed Woodpecker.  We found several pairs along the trails and in the campsite.  This impressive species is quite large and noisy!
male Pale-billed Woodpecker
At this point of the trip, I already had two lifers in the bag (Painted Bunting and Costa Rican Swift)... but one key species was missing, one that I missed in my last trip to El Chorogo 11 years ago: Tawny-winged Woodcreeper.  This species is rare in Panama, and my only chance was to find an antswarm, because the woodcreeper frequently follow the army ants.  Bill and our local guide Armando knew a place where it was likely to find an antswarm.  After a while, I heard the calls of several Bicolored Antbirds and Gray-headed Tanagers, both ant-followers.  Soon we were in the middle of an antswarm... with two Tawny-winged Woodcreepers attending!
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
They looked superficially similar to the more common and widespread Plain-brown Woodcreeper, but they were slightly smaller, with buffy throat and narrow superciliary... ah, and of course, with contrasting tawny flight feathers with dark tips.
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Third lifer in the bag!  I still have more photos and stories about this trip to share, so stay tuned for the third part of this post!

Monday, March 17, 2014

PAS Fieldtrip to El Chorogo. Part I

Once, most of the lowlands in the western Pacific of Panama was covered in lush humid forest, with characteristic flora and fauna shared only with Costa Rica.  Today, it is gone... except for some scattered patches, most of them not large enough to accommodate its original biodiversity.  That's why, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS), and some of its members, started to buy the last remaining patches of considerable extension in the Burica Peninsula, along the border with Costa Rica, a place known as El Chorogo.
El Chorogo
I joined Bill Adsett and Antonio Dominguez in a trip to those forests, looking for those specialties not found away of the Burica Peninsula in Panama and taking advantage of the carnival free days.  Getting there is not easy.  You have to drive all the way to the town of Puerto Armuelles (at least seven hours from Panama City), and from there, to the towns of San Bartolo Linea and San Bartolo Limite.  This first part of the trip is through a considerable flat terrain and very degraded habitat, pasture lands, riverine bushes and tiny gallery forest along the 15+ river crossings.
White Ibis and Snowy Egret
This is a bird rich area, with many waders and waterbirds along the shallow rivers, and raptors and flycatchers elsewhere.  Notice for example the flock of White Ibis and the Snowy Egret feeding along the San Bartolo river (above), or the very attractive Northern Jacanas that were pretty common.
Northern Jacana
Among the waders we found several flocks of Least Sandpipers, scattered Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, some Greater Yellowlegs and, surprisingly, a pair of Killdeers too.
One (of two) Killdeer along the San Bartolo river
Eventually the road becomes hilly, away of the river.  There are plenty of flowering and fruiting trees and patches of secondary forests... and many birds too!  The species are different from those seen previously along the road, and includes some western specialties... those species that survive in these degraded habitats.  In a random stop, I heard a thrilling call similar to that of the common Red-crowned Woodpecker.  A quick search resulted in a pair of the rare (for Panama) Golden-naped Woodpecker.  My distant shots don't make them justice... I promise better photos in my next post!
Golden-naped Woodpecker (male)
Golden-naped Woodpecker (female)
There are only few records of this species from the western foothills (none recently) away of the Burica Peninsula.  Eventually, we saw several pairs in this habitat before reaching the forests of El Chorogo, and only one pair in the forest itself.  Other species that is doing well in these patches is the Fiery-billed Aracari.  They are still common both in lowlands and foothills of western Panama, but they are so beautiful that you never get tired of seeing them!
Fiery-billed Aracari
Bill left the car in a ranch at San Bartolo Limite.  From there, we took the horses.  While waiting for the horses and for our local guide Armando, I started to explore the surroundings.  The first trogon species (Gartered) was calling from the woods,  while many migrants also said present: Tennessee, Yellow, Chestnut-sided and Blackburnian Warblers, Philadelphia and Yellow-throated Vireos and several Ruby-throated Hummingbird!
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (male)
The activity was furious, and more and more birds started to appear: Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, Orange-chinned, Brown-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets, hordes of Red-legged Honeycreepers and Thick-billed Euphonias.  Then, I saw a small bird flying atop a nearby tree.  Bright red underparts and throat, blue head and green back: a male Painted Bunting!  This was a life bird for me, certainly not in my radar because is very rare in Panama.  Great way to start!  Then, we rode the horses uphill (2.5 hours to the forest), stopping at some patches of flowered Inga trees attracting tons of hummers: more Ruby-throateds, many Blue-throated Goldentails, some Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, a lonely Charming Hummingbird and the first White-crested Coquette for the trip (a female).  In one of these patches, Bill found a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar (male)
In that patch of secondary forest, the last before a huge pastureland bordering El Chorogo, Bill mentioned that they used to see the localized Costa Rican Swift.  The Costa Rican Swift, a recent split from the Band-rumped Swift, was one of my main targets for the trip (with Tawny-winged Woodcreeper) and I was about to have my first chance to find it.  So, before getting to the open, I started to search the sky through the canopy... finding some swifts flying above our heads!
Costa Rican Swift
Costa Rican Swift
I hurried to the open, where a flock of eight Costa Rican Swifts were flying and chasing each other, sometimes against the dark background of the forests of El Chorogo allowing great views.  I have to admit that it was not until I saw the whitish, large contrasting rump patch when I declared them my long-desired lifer!
Costa Rican Swift
Costa Rican Swift
Notice the body and wing shape.  This species is larger than the Band-rumped Swift (of central and eastern Panama), with a more contrasting pale throat and a distinctively shaped pale rump as you can see in the pictures.  Notice that in the area the common swift is Vaux's Swift, which we found previously and later.  Notice the cigar-shaped body and the wing shape of the Vaux's Swift.
Vaux's Swift
Vaux's Swift
Of course, none of the above birds had the contrasting pale rump of the Costa Rican!  Three days later, we were unable to find the Costa Rican Swifts again in our way back from El Chorogo, so I feel extremely lucky of having the opportunity to see (and photograph) this species in Panama.  Two lifers in the bag, and we had not even reached El Chorogo!