Friday, August 22, 2014

At the mouth of the Pacora river

The upper Bay of Panama comprises 48,919 ha of sandy beaches, mudflats and mangrove forests along our central Pacific coast.  The western end of this area is under great pressure by urbanization and the expansion of Panama City and, until recently, its protected status was threatened by particular and economic interests.  Iconic sites (for shorebirds watching) included in the Upper Bay are Panama Viejo, Costa del Este and Juan Díaz (although the first two are out of the protected area); however, I just visited a new site at the mouth of the Pacora river where the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) has conducted shorebirds surveys since some years now in association with others NGOs, like the National Audubon Society and the Center for Conservation Biology, among others.
That's me in Panama Viejo.  Notice the peeps in the background (photo by Osvaldo Quintero)
Getting there ain't easy... the muddy road from the Panamerican highway is slippery and rough in some sites... and it is at least a 1-hour long drive to the beach.  However, this road crosses open habitats, shrubs, gallery forests, rice fields and some wetlands that are highly diverse in terms of avian species.  We did several stops along the way to watch some interesting species... I was driving, so I did'n take so many photos in this part of the trip.  Once in the beach, we started to work..., yes, to work.  This was not an usual birding trip.  With us was a grad student in Marine Biology of the Universidad Internacional Marítima de Panamá, Stephany Carty, some volunteers, an academic advisor from the Universidad de Panama and PAS' resident biologist, Michele Caballero.
Stephany and a volunteer sampling at the study site
Stephany is doing her thesis in these mudflats, characterizing benthic organisms associated with resting and feeding areas for resident and migratory shorebirds (benthic refers to the collection of organisms living on or in sea or lakes bottom -thanks Michele for the explanation).  This and other studies have the aim to begin a process of documentation of this critical habitat with hemispheric importance for shorebirds, and the PAS is supporting these studies while at the same time makes an important work of environmental education in communities adjacent to the protected area.
Western and Least Sandpipers at the beach
In the other hand, PAS' Executive Director, Rosabel Miró, and others PAS members (including me) were searching banded shorebirds.  Last season, some sandpipers were fitted with coded leg flags allowing individual identification.  Those flags assigned for Panama were gray with black characters (as you can see in the "Pluma Fina" section of this PAS' bulletin).  We saw some huge flocks of peeps, including Semipalmated, Western and Least Sandpipers as you can see in the picture above.  We scoped them, but none of these were banded.  We also saw Black-necked Stilts, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers and my favorite shorebird: Red Knots.
Black Skimmers, Short-billed Dowitchers and Red Knots
These birds were easily identified by their pale red underparts, reminiscent of their alternate plumages.  This is an uncommon species in Panama and it seems to have declined in the last years.  In fact, this species is object of intense research because the populations wintering in South America dropped over 50% from the mid-1980s to 2003 (article in pdf here).  Not only waders, we also saw hundreds of other species, like resident Brown Pelicans and Neotropic Cormorants plus an amazing number of terns species... the most common were the Elegant Terns, but at the end we recorded six different terns species, including some uncommon Caspian Terns.
Caspian Terns
Notice the red, heavy-looking bill and the dark underside of the outer primaries in flight.  The highlight were three Common Terns seen flying first and then resting in the sand.  They are not common at all in Panama, as its name may suggest.
Common Terns, Willets and Semipalmated Plovers
In the picture above you can see the Common Terns resting close to a flock of Willets and two Semipalmated Plovers (we saw five plovers species in total).  The slender profile and black carpal bar is characteristic.  However, the most abundant (and intriguing) tern-like species was the Black Skimmer.  A huge flock of these elegant birds were resting in the beach (as you can see in the picture above with Red Knots).  But I noticed something strange when they took off... watch these photos:
Black Skimmers
Black Skimmers
Notice the gray underside of the wings (this can depend on light and angle, but compare the color with the white underparts), the thin (rather than broad) white trailing edge to the secondaries and, more important, the gray tail (instead of white).  All these marks are characteristics of the cinerascens subspecies from South America.
Black Skimmers and Marbled Godwits
The relative abundance of this subspecies with respect to the North American migrants is unknown.  Now I wonder if I have ever seen the North American subspecies niger in Panama (during my first years of birdwatching I didn't notice those details).  As you can see, you can have fun while contributing to scientific knowledge!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Owls, wine and cheese night

Every year, the Panama Audubon Society organizes the "Owls, wine and cheese night" for its members (and non-members as well) with the intention of spending a pleasant time with friends and, incidentally, find some owls.  The 16th annual meeting was held last saturday in the facilities of the Parque Municipal Summit, on the Gaillard road in the way to Gamboa.  For those who arrived early, the event started birding the Summit Ponds, that are very close to the park.  We saw several common species (personally recorded 37 different species); however, this American Crocodile was a highlight (at least for me).
American Crocodile
This was the second "Owls, wine and cheese night" for Gloriela and me.... and the first one for Gabrielle.  As usual, we started with the wine and cheese part of the event.  Ten persons attended the meeting, and we enjoyed a nice selection of cheeses, desserts and ceviche... as well as some fine wines (coke for the drivers like me).
After a while, we went out in search of some owls.  Rosabel Miró and Karl Kaufmann took the lead handling the spotlight and the recorded calls to attract the birds.  Edgar Arauz, park director and with whom we are very grateful for all the support offered, joined us while we drove slowly the paved circuit crossing clearings, shrubs, forest patches and borders.  The first night creature to appear was a Four-eyed Opossum for some of the group, but we missed it; however, we had another nice marsupial in the spotlight: a handsome Central American Woolly Opossum (Caluromys derbianus - also known as Derby's Woolly Opossum) that allowed some photos!
Central American Woolly Opossum
It was a lifer for me and for most of the participants... simply great!  And what about the owls?  Well, the only species to respond to our recorded calls was the Mottled Owl; however, while looking for the responsive owl, incidentally one of the participants found a young Spectacled Owl high in a tree!
Spectacled Owl
Why so excited?  Because my highly edited photo shows an owl that we actually SAW during the "Owls, wine and cheese night".  Traditionally no owls are seen in these events (although many are heard).  Gloriela thinks this is due to our "wine first, owls later" methodology... I think it is just luck.  In any case, it is not easy to see owls in Panama... most of them are forest dwellers that, although attracted by our recordings, usually remain just out of sight.  Even Gabrielle was excited by seeing this owl!
I also saw a Pauraque to complete the bird list for the night.  I hope to see you in the next Panama Audubon Society's "Owls, wine and cheese night"!

991 bird species for Panama!

At this point, you should know that some exciting new additions to the Panama's bird list showed up in the last couple of months, plus some rarities and range extensions too.  That's why I was invited by the Panama Audubon Society to give the lecture during the last monthly meeting.  The main objective was to talk about those new species recorded in Panama since the publication of Angehr and Dean's Field Guide to the Birds of Panama in 2010.
Photo by Rosabel Miró
I really enjoyed preparing this presentation.  First, I gave a short introduction about what a species is and the requisites to have a huge list of birds in a given area or country.  Saying this, Panama is really blessed by geographical situation, variety of habitats and more than 2000 km2 of territorial seas in two oceans... making this a 991-birds species country!  I know you have heard this before, but a country smaller than the state of South Carolina has more birds species than Alaska, Canada and United States together (with 984 species accepted by the American Birding Association).
Photo by Rosabel Miró
After this brief introduction, I talked about the stars of the night: the eleven new species of birds for the country since 2010.  One by one, I explained when, where and by whom these species were first recorded and then I added an update on the status of each species (confirmed or hypothetical, one or several records, etc...).  Personally, I have seen six of these species (Tahiti Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Whistling Heron, Pearly-breasted Cuckoo, Spot-fronted Swift and Melodious Blackbird), but certainly I have searched out the other species, dipping miserably in some occasions  (Maguari Stork, Gray-bellied Hawk, Variegated Flycatcher, Bicolored Wren and Clay-colored Sparrow)... not bad at all!
I finished the presentation with an incomplete list of the probable new additions to the list in the next months/years... who knows, probably you will be the next person adding a new bird species to the Panama's list!
PAS Executive Director Rosabel Miró at the end of the lecture (photo by Michele Caballero)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Double celebration!

One day like today... but 495 years ago, Panama City was founded as the first one in the Pacific coast of the recently discovered world by the Spaniards.  According to history, it was Pedro Arias de Ávila who founded the city on august 15th, 1519.
The original city was destroyed during a pirate attack in 1671, and now only some ruins stand out (Panama Viejo).  The most impressive is the bell tower of the Catedral Nuestra Señora de Asunción (above); however, other important structures have been restored, one of the most impressive is the Convento de la Concepción where I took the photo of the virgin in the glass box below.
I'm sure the Spaniards would be impressed with the new and modern city that exists today only a few miles away from the original town; however, would be even more impressed with the Panama Canal that, coincidentally or not, was inaugurated exactly 100 years ago, on august 15th, 1914.

In fact, they were who first thought of making a canal across the isthmus to link both oceans.  Yes, in 1534, King Carlos V ordered the first feasibility studies for this project... of course, the necessary technology would not exist until the 19th century.  Now, the Panamanian are proud of this magnificent engineering work, uniting the oceans and the world!
Happy august 15th!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What can a reforested finca do?

To increase the list of birds of the place!  As mentioned in a previous post, my father-in-law bought some pasturelands in the outskirts of Penonome (Cocle province, central Panama) and started to plant native trees almost ten years ago.  Now, the property is full of live!  The most conspicuous creatures are the birds for sure.  During my last visit, I found many species  that are hard to find in the surroundings pastures.  For example, watch this Rufous-capped Warbler.
Rufous-capped Warbler
Yes, this species is common in quite degraded habitat... but I usually find one or two during my walks... that day, I found no less than seven different birds!  I also found another Lance-tailed Manakin lek within the property; however, I found the next individual while it was feeding alone in a fruiting tree.
Lance-tailed Manakin
You can easily see why it is called lance-tailed.  You can also see how beautifully patterned is this guy!  My relatives barely trust me when I told them that I took the photo in the property.  Other species are not so brightly colored, but are special as well.  Think about the Yellow-olive Flycatcher or the Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, both uncommon species in this part of the country.
Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant
The flowering shrubs attracted several hummingbirds species... this male Sapphire-throated Hummingbird delighted all my family... it decided to visit the flowers right by the cabin!
Sapphire-throated Hummingbird
And this Black-chested Jay (one of three birds) was eating some nance fruits from the finca... there are several fruiting trees at the property... and the nances are quite plentiful, so I suppose I will see these jays more often (it was my first record for the area).
Black-chested Jay
But the most impressive sighting was a female Hook-billed Kite flying over the finca.  Although far away, you can see the characteristically silhouette with proportionally long tail and broad wing that are narrower at the base.
Hook-billed Kite
This species is essentially unknown from the Pacific lowlands in the dry arch of central Panama.  At the end, I recorded 42 species in 2 hours (see my eBird checklist)... not bad for a former pastureland!

Gabrielle's Panama

When my father-in-law acquired the "finca" almost 10 years ago, the site was only pastureland with scattered shrubs in the outskirts of Penonome (Cocle province, central Panama).  Instead of clean it up, he decided to reforest with native plant species.  Then, a family tradition began.  He gave his eldest grandson, Jean-Michael, a Panama tree, and planted it together in the property.  Some years later, he did the same with his second grandson, Kevin.  Both Panama trees stand imposingly in the middle of a completely reforested finca that stands out from the surrounding pastures and teak plantations.  This year, it was Gabrielle's turn to plant a Panama tree with his grandpa.
Gabrielle, her grandpa Rogelio and the Panama tree seedling (notice other native trees in the background)
The Panama tree (Sterculia apetala) is our national tree, and is native of this part of the country.  These trees can reach up to 40 meters height (usually 25 meters) and close to 2 meters in diameter.  They are prized for their adaptability, need for little care and the shade they offer when grown.
Gabrielle planting her Panama tree
After a while, she sought for the help of our friend, the professor Ortiz... she simply said "mucha tierra" (too much earth), and Ortiz helped her with his shovel.
Ortiz, Gabrielle and Rogelio
We hope this is the first of many planted trees for Gabrielle.  After all, we need more of this in our world.  After almost 10 years reforesting, the results are obvious... what I mean?  Check the next post and you'll see!
Passion fruit flowers, at the finca
P.D. : All photos by Gabrielle's grandma, Gloriela.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Pearly-breasted Cuckoo update

After our quick trip to the Peñón de San José, some of us (Rafael, Beny and me) decided to look after another potential lifer... the pair Pearly-breasted Cuckoos that was found nesting in eastern Panama province, specifically at the Rio Mono bridge.  In the way, we stopped near Chepo before lunch to try for the Whistling Heron reported elsewhere; however, it was raining and dark... and we didn't find the heron.  This Pearl Kite (taking advantage of the rain to took a bath) was a nice consolation prize.
Pearl Kite
After having lunch at the Coquira port under a heavy rain, we departed to Rio Mono.  It was dark by the time we reached the bridge, not good for photos.  As expected, a Pearly-breasted Cuckoo was at its nest.  We digiscoped it from the far side of the road to not disturb it.  Remember, the light was awful for photos.
Pearly-breasted Cuckoo
After a couple of minutes we decided to bird around the bridge, because the cuckoo was not moving.  We saw/heard some species not found farther west, like Rufous-winged Antwren and White-eared Conebill.  A group of three Collared Aracaris feeding in some Cecropia fruits allowed some photos.
Collared Aracari
Then, we heard the cuckoo calling.  I was able to see the second Pearly-breasted Cuckoo approaching through the shrubs into the nest.  This time, I noticed the lack of any rufous in the primaries (just in case).  While one of the parents was perched aside the nest (showing perfectly its undertail pattern and white underparts), the other fed two hungry chicks!  Yes, now they are four (4) cuckoos in Bayano!  These are good news!  
Remember, if you are going to see this rarity, try not to disturb the family (do not play recorded calls nor approach to closely).  Happy birding!

Peñón de San José revisited

The finding of Peruvian Boobies at the Peñón de San José (a rocky islet in Panama Bay) was pretty exciting news for the panamanian birders (although not exactly good news for the birds); however, having to ID these birds through scopes at 1.6 km away was not that satisfactory. That's why I joined Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and Venicio "Beny" Wilson in a short boat trip to the islet yesterday's morning.  After leaving the dock, our captain took us swiftly around Flamenco Island (from where we scoped the boobies last time), seeing a colony of Brown Pelicans and many Magnificent Frigatebirds and Neotropic Cormorants passing by.  Soon, we were approaching the Peñón de San José, that was full of boobies!
Blue-footed Boobies
Blue-footed Boobies
As you can see, most of them were Blue-footed Boobies... tons of them.  We counted at least 200 birds, including many immature birds, as in the photo above.  Of course, the main objective of our trip were the Peruvian Boobies scoped from shore, but considering the huge numbers of Blue-footed Boobies in this and other islets around Panama Bay make us wonder if some of these birds are southern visitors too.  Notice the solid brown wings of the immature birds, different to the scaled pattern of the back and wings of Peruvian Boobies immatures.  After a while, we started to see Peruvian Boobies... two at first, then three more, then more and more... WOW!  we counted 38 adult Peruvian Boobies... at least!
Peruvian Boobies
Apart of the obvious differences in legs color, notice the white neck and head (with no brown streaks) and, as mentioned before, the scaled effect of the upperparts.  The Peruvian are also smaller than the Blue-footed Boobies.  Most of these birds were resting in the vertical cliffs of the southern/eastern face of the islet... in fact, the next two Peruvian Boobies were the only that we saw in the northern cliff (the one that can be seen from Flamenco Island).
Peruvian Boobies
After visiting the islet, we visit some other islets, like Changame, Tortolita and Tórtola islands.  In Tórtola, we saw many more Blue-footed Boobies and tons of Brown Pelicans... and yes, we checked the field marks.
The Brown Pelican is the only regularly seen species of pelican in Panama... but if we just saw Peruvian Boobies, why not Peruvian Pelicans?  The adult birds looked normal-sized (Peruvian are considerably larger) with uniformly dark upperwings coverts and the juvenile birds (with all brown head and white bellies) had gray gular pouches.  OK, not Peruvian Pelicans... but I'll keep searching!
Rafael, Beny, Osvaldo and me!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Seeing the effects of "El Niño"

El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is, as its name suggests, an oscillation of the ocean-atmosphere system and is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific.  The fishermen in northern Peru noticed that these phenomena usually occurred during the last months of the year, associating it with Christmas and with the niño Jesus, hence the name.  During strong El Niño events, the birds populations along the Humboldt Current disperse looking for reachable source of food.
Peruvian Boobies resting in a rocky island off the coast of Lima (Peru)
One particularly susceptible species is the Peruvian Booby.  They specialized in capturing anchovies by bomb-diving in rich waters of upwellings; however, when the water temperature rise, these anchovies schools move to deeper waters or migrate to other latitudes, out of reach for the boobies.  So, the presence of several Peruvian Boobies in the coast of Panama City is not exactly a good new.  The last time we saw such numbers of Peruvian Boobies (during the 1982-83 El Niño) at our coasts, the population collapsed in their usual range... from 3 to only 0.2 millions of birds!
Peñón de San José
The first Peruvian Booby recorded this season was found weakened in the Amador Causeway, in Panama City.  Its story appears in this article and in this Xenornis report.  Then, more than one month later, more Peruvian Boobies were seen in Panama City, specifically at a rocky islet known as Peñón de San José, 1.6 km to the south of the Flamenco marina at the end of the Amador Causeway (except for a photogenic individual found in private property in Punta Pacifica).  Yesterday, I joined Rosabel Miró (who photographed the Punta Pacifica bird and found the first Peruvian Booby at the islet), Michele Caballero and Andrea Carrillo to the Amador Causeway in order to aim the scopes towards the islet.  Leslie and Cindy Lieurance were already scoping the islet and, after a while, Darien Montañez and Osvaldo Quintero joined us as well.
Soon, several Peruvian Boobies started to appeared; both resting and flying.  They were too far away for our DSLR cameras, and my poor attempts to digiscope these birds produced the marginal photo I'm showing next:
Peruvian Booby (yes... in the center of the picture)
I know it is not too much... but the clean-white head and neck, contrasting with the dark and slightly checkered back is evident.  These birds (at least five different individuals... surely more) were mixed with Blue-footed Boobies.  A large flock offshore of boobies floating in the ocean may have had more individual.  I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that we will have more and more Peruvian Boobies at our coasts, so stay alert!