Monday, May 26, 2014

Code 5: Maguari Stork

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, I received a message in my phone with a cropped picture attached.  My friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson send me a picture of a bird that he just saw some minutes before, along with Rosabel Miro and Celeste Paiva (the spotters).  The picture quickly filtered to social networks...  they just found a new species for Panama: Maguari Stork (first report in Xenornis here).  Knowing how huge this was, I planned a trip to Juan Hombron area, where the bird was found.  I knew time was against me... these vagrants don't stay long... but I had to go to work, and could only escape after noon with my friend Rafael Luck.  In the meanwhile, my friend Osvaldo Quintero, along with Rafael Lau and Beny, went to the area this morning... finding not one, but two Maguari Storks!  Osvaldo kindly let me use one of his photos.
Maguari Stork.  Copyright Osvaldo Quintero, used with permission.
This was great!  Two individuals still in the same place where Beny saw it the day before.  Beny waited for us close to the site and showed us the exact place where they saw the birds just some hours before.  Our expectations were high, and we checked every corner of the huge lagoon where they saw the birds.
As you can see, I left without even wasting time changing my outfit!  The excitement of twitching a rarity is enough to left everything behind, even your rubber boots and most of your birding gear!  I'll kill the suspense right now: we do not find the bird.  Big disappointment considering that it would be a lifer for both Rafael and me (as it was for Beny the day before).  Nonetheless, we saw some common inhabitants of these dry pastures, like Mouse-colored Tyrannulet and Straight-billed Woodcreeper (both noticed first by voice).
Mouse-colored Tyrannulet
Straight-billed Woodcreeper
I also managed my first Bare-throated Tiger-Heron for these pastures.  In fact, this bird was showing its bare, yellow throat.
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
OK, we do not find the bird... but we tried hard... and that's the idea after all.  I hope that it still remains in the area although seems improbable, maybe we can have another chance.  In the meanwhile, I'll try to focus in another code 5 for our area (yes, two code 5 in one month for Panama)... so stay tuned!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Beach walk

Celebrating our sixth anniversary, Gloriela and I decided to spend a night at a beach resort, just 15 minutes from Panama City.  We had a relaxed and happy day, and enjoyed the amenities available... including the sandy beach.
During our beach walk this morning, we took the opportunity to see birds and other wildlife.  For example, we followed the tracks of a racoon for a while, and a pair of Central American Agouties walking close to the sand, but close to cover of course.
Central American Agouti
After seeing most of the common birds expected for this habitat, we saw one specialty of these coasts.  A beautiful patterned American Oystercatcher flew very close to us, and I managed to take a couple of flight shots... of which this was the best.
American Oystercatcher
The bird landed in a sand bar very close to a patch of mangroves.  There, another oystercatcher was resting in sand.  These waders are great.  The contrasting and specially-adapted bill is quite striking in the distance... and those expressive eyes... WOW!
For some reason, the first bird seemed agitated, confronting us directly.  I assumed he was protecting its territory, or maybe had a nest nearby, so we move slowly, following our tracks.  We forget the incident and walked all the way to the end of the beach... a long beach by the way.
Then, in the way back, we saw again the oystercatcher from a different angle.  The bird was standing behind the sand bar, at the banks of a small stream bordered by mangroves.  I noticed another shorebird close to the oystercatcher.  First, I thought it was a peep, but soon realized it was a recently fledged chick!
We stayed away to not disturb the birds.  That's why my photos are quite cropped and edited.  The bird noticed our presence, of course; however, they continued their activity, with the adult feeding the small one.  Then, the second adult appeared... carrying a juicy oyster!
The bird gave the oyster to the other adult oystercatcher and left the scene towards the rocky shore, certainly looking for more yummies.  Then, the bird dropped the oyster near the chick and this began to devour it with pleasure.  We left the happy family, busy with their duties.  That was the first time we saw an oystercatcher chick... not bad at all for a short walk!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Last days of migration

At least in Panama, the migration season is almost done.  Most of the migratory species are already in their breeding grounds in the north, or passing swiftly through Panama.  As mentioned in my previous post, I went to Panama Viejo searching for migrants (although I ended photographing herons instead).  By far, the most common migrant were the Laughing Gulls.  This is the most common gull in Panama, but it does not breeds here.  However, big flocks of this species (mainly immatures) can be seen during the summer.  By this time is not rare to see beautiful adults in alternate plumage among the immatures and basic-plumaged adult birds!
Laughing Gulls
In the other hand, the Franklin's Gulls are only passage migrants in Panama, with only few spending the winter in our coasts.
Franklin's Gull
Notice the dark half-hood and broad eye crescents.  Also notice the black-and-white tips on primaries.  The Franklin's Gulls are also smaller and stockier than the Laughings, field marks that helped me to identify the few Franklins among the hundreds Laughings resting in the sand.  And the thin, long and orange bills of these two terns helped me to identify them as Elegant Terns.
Elegant Terns
Like the Franklin's Gulls, the Elegant Tern is an uncommon passage migrant through Panama... and only in the Pacific coast.  As you can see, the bright orange bill added some color to the monotonous shades of white and gray typical of the gulls and terns.  But if we talk about color, then another migrant win the prize:
Ruddy Turnstones
Yes!  This pair of Ruddy Turnstones almost acquired its full alternate plumage... so colorful!  They are always fun to watch.  So what are you waiting for... there is still some time to catch some late migrants!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Herons at the bay

Some days ago, I stopped at the Panama Viejo mudflats to check the migrant shorebirds and gulls that spent the winter in the site.  However, I was impressed by the number of resident birds present in the area... particularly herons.  The most common were Great and Snowy Egrets.
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Both species breed in Panama... in fact, notice the bright colors of the bare parts and the elongated plumes in the back of the Snowy Egret pictured above.  However, there are relatively few nesting colonies identified in Panama (heronries).  Another species that breeds in Panama is the Tricolored Heron.
Tricolored Heron (immature)
This individual is an immature due to the rufous tones in its plumage.  I usually see only few individuals of this species in these mudflats.  In the other hand, the Little Blue Heron was very common, both immature and adult birds.
Little Blue Heron (immature) 
Little Blue Heron (adult) 
Curiously, this species is considered a rare breeder in Panama; however, as mentioned earlier, this species is very common and present year-round in our country.  Also present in the mudflats were both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron (subadult)
These birds are more active at night, when those specialized eyes are really useful, but they seemed to be comfortable during daylight as well.  Nice collection of species... add the Green Heron present at the river and the other resident waterbirds like pelicans, cormorants and White Ibises and you get a colorful collage for the site.
White Ibis
In the adequate season, you can also see Cocoi and Great Blue Herons in these mudflats.  In fact, I took the next photo some months ago.
Great Blue Heron
Two or three Cocoi Herons were feeding close to this Great Blue Heron that day.  So, in a good day, you can get nine different species of herons in this site... and you only need to move farther east to get up to four more species (Cattle Egrets, Capped and Striated Heron plus Bare-throated Tiger-Herons are present in the marshes around Tocumen for example)... hmmm, sounds like a challenge!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

One of our resident Setophaga warblers

Setophaga is a genus of wood-warblers that includes most of the former Dendroica warblers with which we are very familiar... these colorful and lively little birds that spend much of their lives in our land.  This because most of the Setophaga warblers breeds in North America and the Caribbean, and are present in our country as winter residents... in fact, most of these are commoner in winter than most of our resident wood-warblers (mainly Basileuterus warblers).  However, two Setophaga warblers do breed in Panama.  One is the Tropical Parula.
Tropical Parula
Despite being Setophaga (genetically), it is still hard for me to consider it next to the former Dendroica warblers.  Is something about its smaller size and chunky shape (and the fact that it is still known as parula).  However, the other resident Setophaga is quite distinct: the Yellow Warbler.
Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler (immature male)
Well, for many people, the above photo shows something different to the usual Yellow Warbler.  Broadly defined, the Yellow Warbler is the most widely distributed Setophaga warbler, ranging from Canada and Alaska to northern South America; however, the groups breeding in Central and South America and in the Caribbean are sometimes considered a full species, the Mangrove Warbler.  At least in Panama, this is an aptly name, because it is restricted in the mainland to mangroves.  In fact, this species is the symbol of the Panama Audubon Society and other NGOs in their campaign to save this critical habitat in the Panama Bay.
Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler in a sticker to save Panama Bay's mangroves
Evidently, the amount of chestnut in the head and breast is different to the northern populations (the aestiva group).  The males of the group present in Panama (erithachorides) have entirely chestnut heads, while the petechia group (the Golden Warbler, mainly in the West Indies) have little chestnut in the crown.  I took the next photo of an adult male Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler in Panama Viejo, close to home.
Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler (adult male)
This bird was singing.  In fact, it sounds exactly the same as the northern populations.  Certainly they are closely related, and the debate will continue for sure.  For now, I'm glad to have such a beauty so close to home... our own resident Setophaga warbler!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

San Andres Island's Big Pond

As mentioned earlier, the Cubilla-Archbold family made an escape to San Andres Island (Colombia) for the weekend.  After leaving the keys of our room at the deck of our resort, we headed to the hilly center of the island, to a natural lagoon known as Big Pond.
We first crossed the urban center and passed through La Loma neighborhood.  You can have breathtaking views of the beaches at this part of the island (and where the First Baptist Church is located as well).  After a while, you reach the pond, surrounded by scrubs and secondary growths.
One of the main attractions there are the Spectacled Caimans (known as "Babillas") that come out the water to inspect the visitors.  Most of them are small, but there are some reports of 2 meters-long individuals.
Spectacled Caiman
We were more interested in the birds... and the site turned out to be quite good.  Immediately, we noticed a nice collection of herons and shorebirds taking advantage of the calm waters: Great and Snowy Egrets, Green, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons plus Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers and two Lesser Yellowlegs.  Even a male Blue-winged Teal was resting at the shore!
Snowy Egret and immature Little Blue Heron 
Tricolored Heron (immature)
Blue-winged Teal (male)
We walked around the pond following our taxi driver Emerson who accompanied us.  This is a short and easy walk, full with migrant species.  We saw Yellow, Tennessee, Protonothary, Magnolia and Yellow-rumped Warblers in quick succession.
Some resident species were present too, like Smooth-billed Anis, Brown-throated Parakeets, herds of Bananaquits and Black-faced Grassquits, San Andres Vireo and a lonely Mangrove Cuckoo that allowed some shots.
Mangrove Cuckoo
However, one resident caught my attention.  While enjoying some cold drinks at a nearby bar, we saw some Tropical Mockingbirds in the surroundings.  The subspecies magnirostris is endemic to San Andres Island... and some authorities considered it a full species.
Tropical "San Andres" Mockingbird
Tropical "San Andres" Mockingbird
These birds were comparatively pale-faced and with an obvious larger bill with curved culmen.  In fact, that is exactly what magnirostris means: large bill.  Compare it with the Tropical Mockingbirds present in Panama.
Tropical Mockingbird (photo from Panama Viejo)
We had enough time to reach our transfer to the airport.  This was an intense weekend, with tons of interesting sites visited, lots of sun, sand and cays and, of course, many special birds (39 species in total).  Surely this will not be our last time on San Andres Island!

San Andres Island hotspots. Part II

In the second day of our trip to San Andres Island (Colombia), we decided to travel around the island, visiting its touristic attractions.  I already showed you some of these hotspots.  After stopping for a while in Cove Bay (and watching our life San Andres Vireo), we continue southward along the island's  western rocky shore.  After passing several natural pools, we reached the southern tip of the island.  There, a tiny hole in the rocky beach brings a nice show to the tourists... it is known as the "Blowing Hole".
This hole is the only exit tract to a cave systems that reach the beach.  When the waves push the water inside the caves, the air is expelled through this hole... but beware, depending on the tide, the air can be followed by the water as well (just watch this video).  This rocky shore is coralline in origin... perfect for the Ruddy Turnstones.  They were the most common shorebird in the island.
Ruddy Turnstone
After turning at the southern tip, we drove north along the east coast, where most of the white-sand beaches are located.  These beaches are coralline too, and protected by a coral reef where most of the cays surrounding the island can be found.  Al these cays are major attractions, but we decided to spent the afternoon relaxing at Rocky Cay (the entrance road was property of the Archbold-Suarez family)... its warm and crystalline waters were perfect!
Two thirds of the Cubilla-Archbold family
Rocky Cay
The next day, we hired a boat in order to visit the other cays.  They are close to shore, so you can visit them in one morning.  Our first destination were Haynes and Rose Cays.  The later is known also as the aquarium due to its coral reef filled with multicolored fishes.  In the way to the cays, we crossed a replica of an ancient Pirate Ship.
Rose Cay as seen from Haynes Cay (San Andres urban center in the background)
At Rose Cay we took a tour through the reef aboard a boat with glass floor... simply amazing.  At Haynes Cay we had little time to walk around the tiny cay, finding two other waders (Willet and two Spotted Sandpipers) and a Contopus pewee that didn't vocalize.
Spotted Sandpiper
Then, our boat took us to Johnny Cay, to the north.  This cay is a popular destination due to its white beaches and Caribbean-style... you can have a Coco-loco (a local drink) while hearing Bob Marley or any other reggae or calypso rhythm.  However, the surf was pretty strong for Gabrielle... so we decided better to enjoy the music.  Only Bananaquits and Magnificent Frigatebirds in this cay for the record.
Magnificent Frigatebird (male)
That was our last day in San Andres Island, and we hurried to make the check-out at our resort.  We still had some time on the island and decided to spend it well, but that's another story.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: San Andres Vireo

The San Andres Vireo (Vireo caribaeus) is endemic to the tiny Columbian island of San Andres, in the Caribbean sea.  This species is common in a great variety of habitats within San Andres; however, due to its tiny range (restricted to 17 km2 within the island), it is considered Vulnerable by BirdLife International.
Within its island, the San Andres Vireo is quite distinctive (locally known as "Chincherry")... with no similar species.  A small to medium-sized vireo, with conspicuous yellow lores and two white wing bars.  However, it is very similar to other vireos species.. like Mangrove and Thick-billed Vireos... some of them sharing the same insular habitat.
During my last (and only) visit to San Andres Island, I found this endemic in the south part of the island.  By voice, it was quite common.  For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the San Andres Vireo as our Bird of the Month!
Literature consulted:

1. BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Vireo caribaeus. Downloaded from