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!


  1. Hello Jan, I do read your blog regulary with a lot of pleasure, I just want to tell you that. I think you are my kind of bird watcher. I thought I share my Blog with you . Maybe one day we bump into each other with our binoculars in PC or Boquete... thanks for your story's .Greetings Terry.

  2. Thanks Terry, I'll look forward to bird with you (BTW, I still need some Boquete birds that somehow eludes me).