Monday, April 14, 2014

Panama's Dry Arc

The coastal area of Panama's central Pacific slope is the driest in the country, receiving less than 1500 mm of annual rainfall.  The area around the Parita gulf is particularly dry, and is the middle point of an area known as the "Dry Arc" due to this condition, its xerofitic vegetation and "deserts", and the prolonged dry season (lasting up to seven months).
Last weekend, I went to this part of the country, accompanied with my pals Osvaldo and Rafael (no last names needed for these two).  After a quick breakfast in the town of Chitre, we headed to our first destination: Sarigua National Park.  This area, known locally as the Sarigua desert, is certainly the driest center of the arc.
Of course, this is not a true "desert", but a man-made one, after the indiscriminate exploitation of the natural resources since pre-Columbian times leaving only barren terrain and scattered bushes.  However, this vegetation is the perfect niche for the most localized ground-dove in Panama: the Common Ground-Dove.  This is the only reliable site to found this species in Panama, the closest population of its congeners is in central and northwestern Costa Rica!
This was one of our main target... but not the MAIN target of our trip to Sarigua.  In fact, we were looking for a rare migrant reported there last year.  We checked the very exact place where it was reported: the water tank behind the rangers' station, where a leak in the tank made a green oasis in the middle of the desert, attracting many common birds.  While waiting, I heard another specialty of the dry arc: White-winged Dove (file photo).
As the ground-dove, the closest population is in Costa Rica, but there is a record from western Panama, probably a vagrant migrant.  Then, I saw a green finch with pale bill... a female Painted Bunting, our main target!  We were not able to photograph it, but we saw it again two more times in the general area and again one more time in the road to the Parita river, certainly a different individual. The rangers advised us to look for the male in the flowering trees along the river.  We didn't find a male bunting, but this Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage entertained us (and yes, I took this photo in the "desert").
Other highlights were Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a Common Nighthawk flying high above.  I only got marginal photos of these two... they are barely recognizable.
We left Sarigua and headed to Las Macanas marsh.  In the dry arc, the water is a precious resource... and any permanent water source is a magnet for wildlife.  This marsh is just that... a protected oasis used by men and animals with multiple purposes (as the sign suggests).
By the time we reached the marsh, it was pretty hot... and the water level low.  Thousands of herons, storks, ibises and jacanas were scattered all over the place.
One of the most numerous was the Glossy Ibis, like the one pictured below.  When I started to birdwatch some years ago, this was a very rare species in Panama.  Now, it is abundant in this part of the country.
By noon, we decided to have lunch in the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats), 30 minutes from Las Macanas.  We were not expecting huge flocks of waders due to the horrendous heat and the low tide, but we witnessed the traditional salt harvest from the drying pools.
After a delicious fried fish (an entire corvina... our own tradition when visiting this site), we checked the pools again, finding a tiny flock with Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpipers and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Well, a typical day in Panama's Dry Arc!

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