Friday, January 30, 2015

Experiencing "Un Poco del Chocó": the Endemics

As mentioned in the previous entry, I went to Ecuador in mid-December with my friend Rafael Luck and visited the private reserve Un Poco del Chocó in the northwest.  Our hosts did their best for showing us the rich birdlife around the property... and we got many special species, including some Chocó endemic species and subspecies. Many of these were quite common, and some even regular member of the mixed flocks seen daily crossing the garden.  That is the case of the Ochre-breasted Tanager.
Ochre-breasted Tanager
This species is closely related to both Carmiol's and Lemon-spectacled Tanagers, which we know well in Panama.  The lack of prominent field marks is probably its best field mark.  They were important members of the mixed flocks around the garden.  One or two individuals of the next species were constant too with the mixed flocks.
Chocó Warbler
Yes, Chocó Warbler.  Some authorities consider this form conespecific with the Golden-bellied Warbler of the eastern Andes from central to southern Peru, but there are some differences in plumage (the all-yellow supercilium as you can see in the photo) and song.  Another common species (although not in mixed flocks) was the Chocó Tyrannulet.
Chocó Tyrannulet
Typical for Zimmerius tyrannulets, this one stayed high in the canopy and was, thus, difficult to photograph.  This species used to be considered conespecific with the widespread Golden-faced Tyrannulet (and other forms), but song analysis and genetic works proved that it deserved the recognition as full species.  Another species that we found high in the canopy reluctant to show well was the Chocó Trogon.
male Chocó Trogon
This male is easily identified based on his white iris and green & red underparts without white pectoral band.  The "official" name of this taxa is Blue-tailed Trogon, but that name is already in use for a species in Asia and there is no other trogon species restricted to the Chocó bioregion.  We also saw inside the forest Esmeraldas Antbird, Dusky Chlorsopingus and Pallid Dove; all of them more or less restricted to the Chocó.  Along Las Tolas road, we saw/heard Chocó Toucan, Toucan-Barbet, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, Glistening-green Tanager and the pacifica subspecies of Maroon-tailed Parakeet... all of them also restricted to the Chocó.
Maroon-tailed Parakeet (ssp. pacifica)

Maroon-tailed Parakeet (nominate ssp. melanura)
I put these two photos together to point out the differences between these two taxa.  As you can see, the main cis-Andean population (in this case a member of the nominate subspecies, melanura, from Guaviare in Colombia) has conspicuous white eyering and black front, both lacking in pacifica (sometimes known as Chocó Parakeet).
Jan & Rafael looking for endemics!
It is always nice to get lifers... but Chocó endemics... well, that's just great!  Stay tuned to know what else we saw along Las Tolas road in my next entry!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Experiencing "Un Poco del Chocó": Introduction

The Chocó Bioregion is a narrow zone of wet rainforest that extends from southern Darien province in Panama to northwestern Ecuador, and is home to a great variety of flora and fauna, many of which are not found anywhere else on the planet.  My friend Rafael Luck and I had the opportunity to make a quick trip to northwestern Ecuador in mid-December in order to experience this special and diverse area.  Our basecamp was "Un Poco del Chocó", a private reserve owned by the German Biologist Nicole Büttner and her Ecuadorian husband Wilfrido (Wilo) Vaca.
Biological Station
There, we settled on a modest but comfortable station in the middle of the forest at 1200 meters above sea level.  We shared the station's common areas with some post-grade students and volunteers from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany... and enjoyed the delicious meals prepared by Wilo.  In fact, both Rafael and me are thinking on doing an internship at the station just to learn how to cook! But we were there for the birds... and the list for the reserve is impressive.  Of course, we were after the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, a kind of Holy Grail for the Neotropical twitcher that reappeared at the reserve one month before our visit... well, we do not get it... we got to the reserve just few days late... the antswarm followed by the ground-cuckoo moved to an inaccessible site of the reserve.  However, we had a great time watching other species, both common and localized at the reserve.
Well, Gloriela DID get her Banded Ground-Cuckoo (on her T-shirt)
We spend most of the days walking along the well-marked trails (guided by one of the owners or by Christian Montalvo who is part of the reserve staff) or viewing the birds at the feeders by the station.  The trail system goes all the way from the station at 1200 masl to the Pachijal river, at 950 masl.  Every trail is well marked and identified with a different color.  And the names are quite picturesque too.  Every detail was taken into account ... even the steepest areas had steps and even a ladder to help pass.
And what about the birds?  Well, Ecuador is bird paradise for sure, and although it was not our first visit to the country, we still had many lifers.  Not only Chocó endemics (that will be the subject of another entry), but also more widespread species as well... and some with such fancy names like Ecuadorian Thrush or Guayaquil Woodpecker, for example.
Ecuadorian Thrush
Guayaquil Woodpecker
Right at the garden, the flowering Verbenas attracted several species of hummingbirds, including such gems like Green Thorntail and Booted Racket-tails.  You can't get bored of seeing these amazing creatures hovering in front of the delicate flowers!
female Green Thorntail 
male Booted Racket-tail
The altitudinal range covered through the trails contributes to the high variety of bird species possible in and around the reserve, just like the variety of habitats.  For example, Bronze-winged Parrots are very common over both cleared and forested areas, while the White-capped Dippers are found only at the Pachijal river (where we saw a new species for the reserve: Spotted Sandpiper).
Distant Bronze-winged Parrot
Pair of White-capped Dippers
And inside the forest the possibilities are infinite... including crossing an antswarm attended by ground-cuckoos, Esmeraldas, Bicolored and Zeledon's Antbirds, Northern Barred and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and many more!
male Zeledon's Antbird
Plain-brown Woodcreeper
We spend two and a half days at the reserve and recorded 130 species, including many lifers and special birds.  We dipped on some species, like the Banded Ground-Cuckoo and other Chocó specialties, so we have a good excuse to return!  Thanks to our hosts at Un Poco del Chocó and stay tuned for more photos from our memorable trip.
Christian, Rafael, Wilo and Nicole

Saturday, January 24, 2015

More rarities showing up in Panama Viejo!

The mudflats and mangroves of Panama Viejo (Panama City) are exceptionally good for shorebirds and other water birds.  The list of specialties and rarities found in this site is quite extensive... and this season, many have been reported so far.  After seeing several reports of rare gulls in the social media, I did a quick visit some days ago.  As soon as I get to the site, I checked the huge flock of Laughing Gulls resting in the mud behind the Museum and Visitor center... and this guy immediately caught my attention!
Herring Gull (1st winter) with Laughing Gulls
The immense size and brownish plumage of this first-winter Herring Gull made it very conspicuous among the Laughings.  It moved occasionally to preen, paying little attention to the surrounding gulls.
Laughing and Herring Gulls (1st winter)
Except for one.  I noticed that this Herring Gull started to walk towards a sleepy gull in the middle of the flock... I thought it was a random gull, but a closer look revealed its yellow legs and bill.
Laughing, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls (and two Sandwich Terns)
Yes, an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was hanging around too!  Both species are rare, but regular, winter visitors to Panama, an any of each can make your day... but both of them in the same frame?  Simply great!  The Lesser Black-backed Gull was not comfortable with the closeness of the gull, so it walked away from it ... approaching me and allowing some nice shots.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Three gulls species was not bad... so I started to search the flock looking for another different species.  Eventually, I saw a distant adult Franklin's Gull flying by the mangrove island.  I took some record shots.
Franklin's Gull (winter adult)
Four species in a single spot in Panama... that is remarkable.  However, my personal record is SIX species in Costa del Este some years ago (all these plus Kelp and Ring-billed Gulls).  I don't know if more species have been seen the same day in a single site for Panama, but both Costa del Este and Panama Viejo seems to be very special places for this to happen, specially if you consider that other species have been reported in these sites (Black-legged Kittiwake, Belcher's, Gray, Gray-hooded, Bonaparte's and Sabine's Gulls).  So... want to break this record?  Check the mudflats at Panama Viejo!
Brown and American White Pelicans
P.D.: Bonus American White Pelican still at the rocks behind the mangrove island!
Brown and American White Pelican

Monday, January 5, 2015

2014's CBCs: Pacific & Atlantic

The Pacific and Atlantic Christmas Bird Counts were conducted on Sunday 27 December and 4 January (2015) respectively, organized by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS).  I'm summarizing both counts in this post, in part because my assigned areas for both counts are rather similar: coastal habitats with a variety of vegetation, from mangroves to patches of secondary forest and open areas.  In the Pacific CBC, my counting area is the west bank of the Panama Canal... from Farfán to Veracruz.  Our meeting point was the pond at Farfán, where some rare ducks have been reported in the previous week.  There, Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and I met Alfred Raab, who joined us this year.
Let's count some birds!
Thanks to Alfred's scope, we where able to quickly identify the distant ducks in the ponds, including a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, more than 40 Blue-winged Teals (but not Cinnamon Teals), a pair of Northern Shovelers and a single male Lesser Scaup.
Lesser Scaup
The last two are rare for the count circle (and for Panama); in fact, the Lesser Scaup needs full documentation... that's why I took this digiscoped photo with my phone.  After Farfán, we drove to Veracruz beach, looking specially for shorebirds.  We found some fine species, including some  Sanderlings resting in the same rocks that a group of terns... including a Common Tern, also rare for the count (and deserving full documentation as well).
Royal, Common and Sandwich Terns (and some Willets)
We got many more interesting species, like Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black Terns and a pair of American Oystercatchers back in Farfán.  In fact, the oystercatchers were the last birds we saw for the Pacific CBC before lunch.  One week later, I was in the other extreme of the Panama Canal, this time in Colon province for the Atlantic CBC with my friend Rafael Luck.  Our assigned area was Galeta Point, a reserve that holds a marine laboratory of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  The weather forecast was not good... large waves would hit the coast all morning.
Those were bad news for the shorebirds, our main objectives.  We did not see a single shorebird species that day... but saw several Sandwich and Royal Terns, some Laughing Gulls, a distant Parasitic Jaeger and one Common Tern, a rare sight as I mentioned before.
Common Tern
The inland part of the site was well covered by dozens of researchers and students in the morning, so we kept birding the coast.  However, in the afternoon, we birded the main road and the mangrove forests along it... we were lucky enough to find some specialties previously reported and some new birds for the count.  I really liked the warblers: Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Magnolia and Prothonotary Warblers were quite easy to see.
Prothonotary Warbler
But the real highlight was a female Northern Parula accompanying them, allowing some photos and great views.  We were unable to relocate two rare species seen the day before (Praire Warbler and Ovenbird); although I don't know if any of the other groups working Galeta saw them.  The Northern Parula is a rare, but regular, migrant to these mangrove forests.
Female Northern Parula
Female Northern Parula
My personal highlight was not a warbler.  While seeing them, a large bird flew into the mangroves.  The soft plumage, slim profile and bandit mask make it unmistakable: a Mangrove Cuckoo.
Mangrove Cuckoo
After many years counting birds in Galeta, this is my first Mangrove Cuckoo for the site.  So, as you can see, there is always something new in the CBCs surprising you.  I still don't have the official numbers of these counts, but I'm glad to participate and contribute in this activity...  see you in Christmas for the next counts!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Bird of the Month: American White Pelican

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus) is a heavy-bodied bird with characteristic long bill that supports the unmistakable large bare throat pouch.  This species is a typical member of the Pelecanidae: large, mostly white with black flight feathers and with preferences for freshwater habitats.  At this point, you may notice that this description does not fit our usual species in Panama and Latin America, the Brown Pelican (nor the Peruvian Pelican, sometimes considered conspecific).  But the truth is that, worldwide, most pelican species fit very well the above description.
American White Pelican
In Panama, the American White Pelican is a very rare vagrant.  With only three confirmed previous sightings, the appearance of one mature individual right here at the Panama City waterfront two weeks ago was huge news.  Since then, many local and visiting birders have seen the magnificent beast almost daily, making this sighting the most documented in Panama so far.
American White Pelicans
At first glance, the difference are quite obvious.  This species is appreciable larger than the common Brown Pelicans, and the obvious different plumage and soft-parts colors make it to glow!  Other differences are less obvious.  This species does not feed by plunge-diving; rather, they feed cooperatively driving the school of fish to swallow water, where they scoop-them easily...  It makes me wonder about the fate of a single individual; however, the Panamanian bird have been seen feeding alone, scooping little preys along the surf.
American White Pelican
In their usual range, these are freshwater birds; in Panama, all the records have been in the coast or very close to it (as seen in the photo of the two birds seen in Punta Chame -central Panama- in 2011).  There is no clear pattern of vagrancy for this species in Panama... we are quite far from their usual winter distribution, so we must seize every opportunity to see this bird in our country!  For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the American White Pelican as our Bird of the Month!
American White Pelican
Literature consulted:
1.  Angehr G, Dean R. The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010.
2. Family Pelecanidae. In: del Hoyo J, Elliot A, Sargatal J, Christie DA & de Juana E (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Editions, Barcelona (retrieved from on 01/01/2015.