Saturday, November 29, 2014

It does exist! A forest elf

Some bird species are so rare and seldom reported that you usually don't think on them... even when you visit the adequate habitat, they aren't in your radar and, in fact, you think of them as myths... until you find them!  Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and I had that experience today in Altos del María, an exclusive development in the foothills of Panamá Oeste province, above the town of Sorá.  The truth is that we were seeking for some rare sparrows reported elsewhere and started checking some open habitats near a park at the valley.  Soon we found common species, like Tropical Kingbirds, Streaked and Social Flycatchers, Palm, Blue-gray, Crimson-backed, Plain-colored, Summer and Hepatic Tanagers, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds (and a Long-billed Starthroat), Black-throated Green, Rufous-capped and Tennessee Warblers.
female Hepatic Tanager
Long-billed Starthroat
African Tulipan Tree flower (and a Tennessee Warbler too)
Soon we realized that our search was in vain and decided to move to a better area close to the Valle Bonito lake.  One of the best trails in Panama starts there, running along a rushing stream (crossing it several times) and then climbing all the way up to the Continental Divide.
Valle Bonito lake (notice the sidewalk entering the forest)
My friend Alfred Raab, an Altos resident, told me that he had seen one of my nemesis bird along this trail (Dull-mantled Antbird)... my expectations were low... after all, it is my nemesis... and if you think I finally found my nemesis based on the title of this post... then you are wrong.  No, I didn't find the Dull-mantled Antbird... the trail was very quiet and we only found a little mixed flock at the beginning of the trail with some wintering warblers (Blackburnian and Canada), Carmiol's Tanagers, Slate-colored Grosbeaks and a Plain Xenops.
a young Slate-colored Grosbeak
After the 1 km mark on the trail, we flushed from the ground a medium-sized bird that perched at eye-level merely 2 meters from us.  It was in a dark spot, but close enough to see every detail with my binoculars... I could barely believe my eyes: a long-legged, tailless little forest elf... a Scaled Antpitta.  After a few seconds (after recovering from my shock) I was able to show it to Osvaldo and Rafael.  Then, I remembered that I had my camera in hand ... adjusted the setting and took a single photo:
Hey, I know it is an awful photo, heavily edited to at least show the pale moustache and postocular spot, but the general jizz is evident (it looks better if you move away a few steps from the screen).  After all it is my life Scaled Antpitta!  This is a VERY rare species in Panama, and I do not know if it had been recorded before in that area (although the most recent records come from nearby El Valle and Cerro Gaital -you can check the Xenornis reports here-).  Osvaldo managed some shots too, and after editing them, he kindly let me show you one here... so stop hurting your eyes and check this:
Scaled Antpitta
Now that's much better.  This photo shows something we noticed in the field... the clay in its bill.  Was it probably looking for earthworms?  Notice the scaled crown and the tawny underparts.  This is a GREAT lifer, specially considering that I did not see it in places where it is supposedly easier (as in Mindo, Ecuador).  What a great day eh?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Quick stop at the salinas

After our successful pelagic trip off Pedasi in the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama, I decided to stay for the night in town with my family.  The next morning, we enjoyed a typical breakfast at the lovely hostal, enjoying the soft calls of the resident White-winged Doves and other common species in the backyard.
White-winged Dove
We planned a relaxed and paused return journey to Panama City.  We did several stops on route, including one at the Agallito beach and the shooping mall in Chitre (Herrera province), where we had lunch.  Then, we did a short visit to the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats) in Cocle province.  It was already hot (around 1:00 pm), but we knew in advance that the visit would be worth the effort... other two participants of the pelagic trip (Howard and George) visited earlier the place and they texted me the highlights, including a Reddish Egret.
Reddish Egret (immature)
Shortly after entering the saltflats, I spotted a white phase immature Reddish Egret right were it was supposed to be... it was the only heron at the pond, but it was a little bit far away for good photos.  For some reason I was expecting a dark phase bird... so it was a surprise.
Reddish Egret (immature)
The Reddish Egret is a vagrant to Panama; however, it seems to be regular in this site.  By far, the dark phase is more frequently seen... this is only the second white phase bird I have ever seen (the first one was several years ago in this same place).  We continue along the road looking for another species previously found by our friends... a flock with more than 30 Lesser Scaups.
Lesser Scaups in the distance
We did find the ducks... but the flock was smaller... we only counted 18 birds, including at least two drakes.  In the way back, the flock was already gone.  Will this be a good year for migrant ducks in Panama?  So far, many rare species have been reported in central Panama (for example, check this Xenornis report and my own post on Gamboa's ducks).  Apart of these species, we only saw some common shorebirds like Willets, Whimbrels, Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-necked Stilts.  A Caspian Tern at the beach was a highlight too.  Notice the heavy-looking bill and the head pattern showing more black than the Royal Terns.
Caspian Tern
After some other stops on route, we finally arrived home safely and with several avian highlights in the bag!

Monday, November 24, 2014


Since in the last pelagic trip off Pedasí we did so well, a group of intrepid birders took to the sea on saturday, November 22nd ... and of course I could not miss this opportunity.  This time, George Angehr (also repeating), Karl & Rosabel Kaufmann, Howard Laidlaw and Darien Montañez joined me at the picturesque town of Pedasí (southern Azuero peninsula in central Panama) the day before.
Sunrise at El Arenal
As the previous trip, the starting point was El Arenal beach, which is less than 5 minutes from the hostal in town where we were staying.  A little "panga" took us to the 30 ft sport fishing boat commanded by Jeff, this time assisted by Elvis (aka Chombo) who took the group photo with my cel phone.  Everything was ready and we started the trip with relatively calm seas, leaving El Arenal and Iguana island behind and heading straight to the deep waters surrounding a seamount at 27 nautical milles SE of Punta Mala.
Howard, Karl, Darien, Jan, Rosabel and George
Apart of some common inshore species, like Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns, a group of dolphins welcomed us spinning in the air.  I don't know the species, but they don't seemed to be the typical Tursiops (Bottlenose Dolphins) to whom I'm used... they were smaller and with longer beaks... probably Spinner Dolphins?
Leaving the ID issues on marine mammals behind, lets back to the birds.  The first pelagic species to showed up was the Galapagos Shearwater... a pair of these flew right by the boat allowing great views.  They were of the pale-underwing form... it is important to mention it since some dark-underwing forms occur and the significance of this difference is unknown.
Galapagos Shearwater
Eventually, we started to detect more and more Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.  Although considered rare, the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters are regular in Panamanian waters.  In fact, this and the Galapagos Shearwaters were the most common encountered shearwaters in all my pelagic trips off Azuero.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
As usual, most of the birds were pale morphs... and most of them were in heavy wing molt too.  We also saw an intermediate morph.  The slim shape accentuated by its long tail and the underwing pattern eliminates other possibilities... although we were looking for some rarer species that, in Panama, includes Sooty and Christmas Shearwaters!
Wedge-tailed Shearwater intermediate morph
But we were not disappointed at all!  A huge flock of feeding Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (and a lonely Pink-footed Shearwater too), gulls (including my life Sabine's Gull) and terns was patrolled by some feathered bandits specialized in kleptoparasitism... they were harassing smaller birds to stole their catches.  I'm talking about the jaegers... two species in fact.  We saw first a Pomarine Jaeger easily identified thanks to its twisted and elongated central tail feathers (plus other field marks, specially size).
Pomarine Jaeger
Then, we saw a jaeger harassing a Sooty Tern.  Our impression was that this particular jaeger was just slightly bigger than the tern, suspecting that it was a Parasitic Jaeger; however, it was too far away. Later, I photographed an adult jaeger that showed some interest in our boat.  The clean white underparts (with no mottling in the flanks at all), faint breast band and pointed, elongated central tail feathers indicates Parasitic Jaeger.
Parasitic Jaeger
But the surprise came later.  In the distance, another bandit was after a large tern.  This time, the supposed jaeger looked huge, considerably larger than the poor tern and than the Pomarine Jaeger seen before... but more important, this bird had VERY conspicuous and large white panels in the primaries... a South Polar Skua!
South Polar Skua flying away
Notice the large-bodied appearance and the short, squared tail.  The broad, long wings with those white flashes, the huge size and the powerful wingbeats reminded me a Crested Caracara... yes, a caracara!  Although a marginal photo, this is probably the only photographic evidence of its presence in Panamanian waters (there are several sight records).  I also photographed some other species for my personal collection... including the three regularly recorded storm-petrels in Panamanian waters: Least, Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels:
Least Storm-Petrel 
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel 
Black Storm-Petrel
We didn't see Tahiti Petrels nor Nazca Boobies in this trip... but in return we got several jaegers, skuas and my life Sabine's Gull... that's why I like so much these trips... you can expect the unexpected!  

Monday, November 17, 2014

At the highlands with family and warblers!

Taking advantage of one of these long weekends, I went with my extended family to spent some time relaxing in the highland town of Paso Ancho, close to Volcán, in Chiriquí province.  Although not a birding trip, I still enjoyed some resident and migrant warblers that call the highlands their home.  We spent most of the days at a comfortable cabin watching the children playing in the garden, grilling on the barbecue or just chatting.
Gabrielle and her cousins, Ana, Givellis and Kevin
Right at the garden, some common species showed up, including Blue-gray and Flame-colored Tanagers, Yellow-billed Siskins and Rufous-collared Sparrows.  However, I was interested in some common migrant warblers.  The first one spotted was the Wilson's Warbler.
A very bad shot of an adult male Flame-colored Tanager... this bird is well-named!
Adult male Wilson's Warbler
This is the most common warbler wintering in the highlands, found essentially everywhere!  The black cap is characteristic of the adult males... but the bright overall yellow coloration is enough to ID this species.  Then, I spied two other migrant species.  These were working the non-native pine trees next to the property.
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler 
As you can see, both the Black-throated Green and the Black-and-white Warblers (both females) were close enough to snap a shot... something quite hard with these restless birds.  We call the latter species the "Creeper Warbler" due to its unique habit of climbing trunks, sometimes upside down, very creeper-like.  The Black-and-white Warbler is very common during the winter through all Panama.  At the other side, the Black-throated Green Warbler is also common during the winter, but only at the highlands; however, it is a frequent passage migrant in the rest of the country.  Both these species are, in fact, more common and widespread than some resident species.  One morning, I went with Gloriela to the Macho de Monte canyon, at the foothills below Volcan... there, we saw one of these resident warblers... the smart Buff-rumped Warbler.
Buff-rumped Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
In comparison with the typical and familiar warblers, this species exhibit a different behavior.  It is terrestrial, always found close to water... usually rushing streams, flicking its expressive tail from side to side.  Certainly the Macho de Monte canyon is a great place to find this species... and a nice touristic attraction too!
Macho de Monte canyon
The Buff-rumped Warbler was not the only river-dweller bird we saw that morning.  A Spotted Sandpiper and a pair of Black Phoebes were present too.  In previous visits we had seen Torrent Tyrannulets and American Dippers as well!
Spotted Sandpiper and Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe
Well, a trip to the highlands is always a nice trip.  Of course, we ended it with the traditional stop at the dessert shop to enjoy some sweet strawberries with cream!
Gabrielle, Gloriela and... strawberries!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ten years counting migrant raptors!

Today was the closure of this season's hawk count over the Ancon Hill in Panama City.  This was a record year, including the largest number of diurnal raptors counted in one day: 2,105,060 bird in November 2nd!
Turkey Vultures
Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawk
For ten years now, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) has organized these counts with the intention to monitor the migration of these species throughout the region.  Panama City is right under the path of these migrating kettles, so every year we marvel at this magnificent spectacle that nature gives us.  Many species of diurnal raptors migrate through Panama, but the most conspicuous are the Turkey Vultures and both Swainson's and Broad-winged Hawks.
Swainson's Hawk (adult, pale phase)
Swainson's Hawk (immature, dark phase)
Broad-winged Hawk
I want to thank the PAS and all the counters and volunteers who every year perform this arduous task. For them, CONGRATULATIONS!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Twitching Avocets!

Just a quick note.  I don't know how, but I roamed furiously through Panama City's traffic jam in peak hour, reaching Panama Viejo around 4:30 pm, just with enough sunlight to capture some images.  My intention: to see the vagrant American Avocet, re-located in this site two days ago (again, notified by my friend José Tejada).  I say re-located because another friend of mine, Carlos Bethancourt, told me about this species in early October.  This time, two birds were seen... and some astonishing photographs were posted in the social networks.  As soon as I got there, I saw my friend Alexis Guevara searching the mudflats with his lovely family.  They just saw the avocet, and his little daughter, Querula, described the elegant bird in detail... a lifer for her.  Soon, he showed me the bird... a single American Avocet was feeding actively in the surf... pretty far away.  I manage some -VERY- distant shots.
American Avocet and Black-necked Stilts
American Avocet and Brown Pelicans
In spite of the distance, this bird is unmistakable!  The bird flew close to a flock of Black-necked Stilts and then started to walk towards us... still quite distant, but we got some terrific scoped views anyway.  I tried to digiscope it with my phone camera; however, my digiscoping skills are close to zero, so I will not hurt your eyesight showing those pictures here... instead, more cropped (and highly edited) pictures.
American Avocet
American Avocet
There are only a handful of records for American Avocets in Panama, including a group that spend some months in nearby Costa del Este (less than 1 mile away) back in 2012 (my own experience here) and a single individual in Juan Díaz (also nearby), back in september 2010 (report here).  If you still need this beautiful vagrant for your Panama List (or Life List), go to Panama Viejo's Visitor Center, walk across the parking lot towards the sea and then check the little creek to the right... don't miss this opportunity! 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Ducks at the Marina

After the exciting news of rare migrant ducks in the Chagres river posted by my friend Jose Tejada in the media networks, I went with my friend Rafael Luck to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort's Marina to check them out.  Early in the morning, we inspected the river close to the docks and quickly found some of the species plus two resident ones (Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Muscovy Ducks); however, the restaurant, with its balcony overviewing the river (supposedly the best site for spotting the birds), was closed. This young American Crocodile right at the ramp was a nice surprise.
American Crocodile
After recording some common species, we met Rafael Lau and José Soto.  I know José from a while now, he is a chief guide at the resort, and he was planning to see to ducks as well.  He kindly invited us aboard a small boat to explore the shores of the river, in a mini birding-by-boat tour (recommended).  These Mangrove Swallows greeted us while we were leaving.
Mangrove Swallows
And soon we relocate some of the species we already had seen earlier.  Close to the dock, three Blue-winged Teals were accompanied by a Northern Shoveler.  The teals are very common in Panama during the winter (in fact, we saw many more later); however, the shoveler is a rarity down here.
Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teals
Northern Shoveler and Blue-winged Teals 
After some photographs, we navigated upriver, dodging the islands of floating vegetation and seeing some common inhabitants of this habitat.  Some aquatic species are specially adapted to walk in this vegetation without sinking.  They have specialized long toes to better distribute their weights.
Wattled Jacana
Purple Gallinule
The Wattled Jacana and the Purple Gallinule are very common there.  Notice the long toes of the gallinule... those of the jacana are even longer!  Notice also de frontal shield these birds exhibit protruding from the base to the upper bill.  Since these birds forage through dense vegetation, this shields may protect their heads and eyes; however, the shape, size and color of these shields are hormone-dependent, so involved in courtship display and territorial defense.  These were not the only birds with frontal shields in the river.  The most common aquatic bird was the Common Gallinule, but we also found some migrant American Coots as well, both species exhibiting frontal shields.
Common Gallinules and an American Coot
American Coots
The American Coot is regular in these waters, sometimes in amazing numbers.  In the rest of Panama is an uncommon winter resident.  However, we were looking for some rarer migrants.  José headed back to the dock, this time we checked the area in front of the restaurant's balcony, which was open and full of birders as well... and for a good reason... three American Wigeons (two hens and a drake) were swimming in front of them!
American Wigeons
Eventually, they flew away.  I managed some flight shots showing the wing pattern, important for the identification of members of this family.
American Wigeon
American Wigeon
Although rare, the American Wigeon has proven to be regular in some sites (usually in small numbers) in recent winters.  However, the next species is both a rare and irregular winter visitor to our country.
Ring-necked Ducks
Ring-necked Duck
Yes, three Ring-necked Ducks were also present, allowing great views and some nice photos.  In these birds notice the peaked head, dark crown, white eye-ring (with faint pale line behind it), pale neck collar and pale ring to the bill.  Other shots showed the pale vertical mark on side of chest.  All these features separate this species from the similar Lesser Scaup hen (we saw a drake Lesser Scaup earlier).  What a nice day!  Seven (7) duck species in a single spot in Panama.  Even though I did not break my personal record of eight species in a single spot for one day (check this post), it remains an extraordinary number for Panama
Gamboa Rainforest Resort
I want to thank José and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort staff for their kindness and availability to show these species in a comfortable way.   In just a couple of hours, we saw and hear 60 species of birds (eBird list here).  Do not miss the opportunity to see these rare species in Panama!