Monday, June 2, 2014

Swifts tale

Last month, a series of intriguing and exciting news came from the western highlands of Panama.  The discovery of several Cypseloides swifts nesting behind waterfalls was shocking.  Why?  For background, Cypseloides is a genus of uniformly dark and little known swifts, specially in the neotropics.  In Panama, only two species were known... one is extremely rare.  The other one, known only by two specimens.  The identification depends in subtle field marks, like size, facial pattern, nostril shape (yes, nostrils) and so on...  very difficult in fact without prolonged views or specimens.  That's why, the opportunity to study these birds sitting on a nest is priceless.
The Bricks
The nest were discovered close to the town of Boquete (where "The Bricks", a basaltic formation, is a well-known touristic attraction).  Since the publication of extremely good photos (for a swift) in Xenornis, there has been an extensive discussion about the identity of these species... well, about one of them (the other one is simply unmistakeable if seen that well).  Accompanied by a group of fine birders, and guided by one of the discoverers, Craig Bennett, I went with my family to the charming town of Boquete in a "swift" weekend trip.  After arriving saturday's afternoon, a heavy rain stopped us from make a first try at the place (exact location reserved to avoid disturbance to the nesting swifts).  We decided to visit the nests the following day (june 1st).  My wife and Gabrielle spent the day around the central plaza, while I went to look for the bird with the rest of the group.
George Angehr, Darien Montañez, Rosabel Miró, Rosa Montañez and Craig Bennett
After a hard trek, climbing through muddy paths and trying not to fall, Craig showed us the first nesting bird.  After simple instructions, I was able to see two white dots almost glowing in the dark... WOW! a Spot-fronted Swift... the first for Panama and a little known species.  We used a scope to watch and photograph the birds from a safe distance.
Spot-fronted Swift!
This is an awful photo, I know... my digiscoping abilities are exactly none, and we were too far for my 400 mm lens.  I took this photo with my cell phone, the quality is... well, you can see it.  However, I don't care... this is an extremely rare swift... and from now, my favorite swift in the world!  Those facial marks are unique, making this species relatively easy to identify if seen well.  We spent only a couple of minutes in the site and moved on to the next pair, also behind a waterfall.
White-chinned Swift
This time, the subject of our scrutiny was a nesting White-chinned Swift... also a rare and little known species.   We took the same precautions as in the previous nest.  For some time, we think this bird was a Black Swift, but the consensus is toward White-chinned considering rounded head and small nostrils (vs flatter head and larger, oval-shaped nostrils in Black Swift).
White-chinned Swift
What a great experience.  I don't recall the last time I saw two lifers in the same day in Panama... and certainly, these were HUGE lifers.  There were only two previous records of White-chinned Swifts in Panama (two specimens far away the western highlands), and none of the Spot-fronted Swift... so I'm a happy man!  Thanks Craig for the great job you're doing with these discoveries... I'll wait for the publication!

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