Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gulls and Terns by the Beltway

Coastal Beltway
Panama City's waterfront, with its manicured gardens, wide sidewalks and cycleways, sport fields and courts and several other facilities, is a very popular site to spent some time during the weekends.  Today, like every sunday, four lanes of the Coastal Beltway became a huge cycleway (38 kilometers long!) throughout the morning.  I don't bike, but took advantage of the empty sidewalks to take some pictures of the gulls and terns (and other birds) along the route.  The inshore waters were full of pelicans, cormorants and frigatebirds.  I checked a tiny beach close to the Yatch Club, where several gulls and terns (and feral Rock Pigeons) were resting.
Laughing Gull
As you can see, some Laughing Gulls are in complete alternate plumage... it is seen just for a short period of time in Panama... the same applies for alternate Sandwich Terns.
Sandwich Tern
Both species are common year-round in Panamanian coasts, but during the passage period, they become locally abundant.  I really like the light pink tones to the breast of these two species when they are in high breeding plumage... which is seldom seen in Panama of course.  After a while, I noticed another tern species mixed in with the Sandwich Terns.  Structurally very similar, both in shape and size, this individual had a yellow-orange bill:
Sandwich and Elegant Terns
An Elegant Tern!  Notice how similar it is to the Sandwich Tern next to it (thus, quite different to the Royal Tern, also present in the site).  The Elegant Tern is an uncommon and irregular passage migrant in the Pacific coasts of central Panama, with no peak of abundance... but I'm pretty sure that by this time, most of them are farther north on route to their breeding grounds... finding one of them during such a short walk along Panama City's waterfront made my day!
Elegant Tern

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Meet Flubby

Yesterday, I contacted an old friend of mine, Edgardo Tejada, who have been posting photos of a nocturnal visitor to his house since almost two months ago: a Tropical Screech-Owl.  It has been a while since the last time I saw or heard this species, so I decided to pay him a visit to his house in Panama City.  It took me a bit because I was having dinner with my family ... and when we reach his house, Edgardo told us that the owl was gone.
Waxing crescent over Panama City
Too bad I thought, but Edgardo told me not to worry... he is a careful birdwatcher, and after two months watching Flubby (his girlfriend named it that way) he knew its routine... and assured me that the little bird would be back in 30 minutes.  So we walked along the street with a low-powered flashlight and under the light of the waxing crescent moon, catching up with our most recent birding trips and chatting, essentially, about everything.  Suddenly, Edgardo told me to look up into a Tropical Almond tree (Terminalia sp.)... Flubby was spying us quietly!
Tropical Screech-Owl (Flubby)
We were amazed, this little creature was very close... even my daughter Gabrielle was able to see it with her bare eyes without problems.  Compared to others Tropical Screech-Owls, Flubby seems to be both smaller and darker... certainly, it is more tame and confident than others individuals seen in Panama City.  We do not know if this is because of familiarity with people, youth or maybe it's a escapee pet (although this bird is so good hunting cockroaches and grasshoppers that we doubt it was a pet).
Tropical Screech-Owl (Flubby)
We saw (and photographed) Flubby for 15 minutes, more or less, until it disappeared as briefly as it appeared.  You can see in these photos the black borders to the facial disk, the short ear tufts and the herring-bone pattern in the underparts.  This is the fourth owl species I'm able to photograph right here in Panama City (the others are Barn, Black-and-White and Striped Owls), and I wish to thank Edgardo for giving me the opportunity to watch and photograph Flubby!

Insular Guna Yala

Guna Yala is an autonomous territory extending along Panama's eastern Caribbean coast including a 373 km strip of mainland and approximately 365 islands and cays, home of the Gunas and a real paradise on Earth!
Pelican Island, Guna Yala
In fact, these paradise islands are a major touristic attraction for both nationals and foreigners, who visited it seeking for white-sand beaches and sun.  We were not the exception, and some days ago I went with my family to Carti, the town at the end of the El Llano-Carti road (where we birded some days later with Guido Berguido and Noah Strycker), where we boarded the boats towards Perro Chico Island, our destination for the rest of the day.
Gloriela and Teresa (with their molas)
On route to the island, our boatman suggested to visit a natural marvel, a sandbank barely submerged known as "natural pool" because the depth is only a few feet terms... ideally for both kids and grown ups!
Cubilla-Caballero-Gómez-Hilton family!
From the natural pool we were able to see the coralline reef in the distance protecting these islands, the reason why these waters were so calm and peaceful.  Coralline in origin, these low-lying islands and cays are covered in palm trees (important for the Gunas) and surrounded by multicolored waters.  The avian diversity is quite low, but I managed to find some pelicans, terns and even an immature Brown Booby fishing close to Perro Chico island.
Brown Booby
We had a great day on the island; the little ones were who enjoyed it most, playing on the fine, white sand and diving in the warm, crystalline waters.  
Kevin, Analía and Gabrielle
I'm sure we will enjoy these waters again in the future... after all, it is only 2-hours from Panama City.  That's one of the reasons why I love Panama... you can live facing the Pacific Ocean, and to enjoy the warm Caribbean in the same day!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Some nemesis bite the dust!!!

Guido, Jan, Noah and Yari
Why so happy?  Well, not everyday you see strange, enigmatic (and nemesis) species accompanied by skilled and famous birders!  On his quest to see 5000+ birds species in one calendar year, Noah Strycker visited Panama for three full days this week (you can track his progress following "Birding without Borders").  He has a quite tight agenda, and of course had to focus on regional specialties of every site he visits, trying to balance quality and quantity of birds observed to reach his goal.  The best way to make this is by birding with the locals.  Noah is not only a lucky guy (as you can read on his blog), he also was wise enough to contact Guido Berguido, and old friend of mine and birder extraordinaire who runs Advantage Tours Panama... as he says: "birding with the local advantage"!  Guido was kind enough to invite me to join them on their trip to Nusagandi, in the wet foothills of Guna Yala in eastern Panama during Noah's second full day in Panama.
Pelican Island, Guna Yala
Guna Yala ("Home of the Gunas") is best known by its paradise islands in the Caribbean Sea and the rich culture of its people.  In fact, just few days before, I visited the archipelago with my family enjoying my last days of vacations... but that is another story!  Of course, we were more interested on the steep-sided valleys and wet ravines of the mostly-undisturbed cloud forest close to the Continental Divide.  This protected area is home of some range-restricted species... and we were after them!
Cloud forest along El Llano-Carti road
As you can see, the El Llano-Cartí road that runs through the area is in very good conditions... the days when powerful 4WD vehicles were required are gone.  So I met with them on Tuesday afternoon at the start of the road in the dry Pacific slope.  They just had an amazing day in eastern Panama province... not only Noah managed to ID his 2000th bird species for the year (Shining Honeycreeper), but also was the biggest day so far regarding birds species recorded (184 when we met... then we added Mottled and Crested Owls after dinner, making it a 186-birds day!).  Impressive, considering that it was not the intention... they started at dawn (not at midnight), birded mostly one site (San Francisco Reserve), took a long nap and Noah even managed to give an interview for a live Colombian radio show!
Noah's 2000th Year Bird (which we found later again in Cerro Azul)
We stayed in Garduk, a known restaurant with modest charming cabins just minutes away from the reserve, popular stop among those seeking the sun and breeze of the Caribbean Sea.  The huge rain storm that hit us during the night worried me... but it stopped right on time before breakfast.
Handcrafts at Garduk restaurant
Yari, our hostess, agreed to join us. According to Guido, she has very good eyes and is like a good luck charm.  I'm absolutely sure it is true!  After a short drive, we started to bird along the main road, finding almost immediately new year-birds like Black-and-Yellow and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers in the same mixed flock, and Brown-hooded Parrots perched quite close.  After a while, we entered one of the forest trails, looking for the great rarities for which this area is famous.  Another mixed flock inside the forest produced Tawny-crested and Carmiol's Tanagers, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Red-capped Manakins and Stripe-throated Wren.  Streak-chested Antpittas and Chestnut-backed Antbirds sounded in the background while we walked along the trail, eventually reaching a clear-water stream.
Crossing the stream
Shortly after our arrival, we started to hear our main target.  As we walked towards the calling bird, I simply could not believe I was about to see one of the most enigmatic species of the New World: the Sapayoa.  The call was louder and louder... then, Guido pointed us THE bird... a lonely Sapayoa was flycatching mere three meters from us!
Its latin name says it all: Sapayoa aenigma.  This species is placed in its own monotypic family and genus, with no close relatives in the New World... in fact, it is most closely related to the Old World's Broadbills (Eurylaimidae).  It was a life bird for Noah and for me... very special due to its restricted range and uncertain affinities!  However, it was not over.  While seeing the Sapayoa, Guido told us that a Dull-mantled Antbird was calling behind us.  I replied "WHAT?¿!*`?!!!!... I don't hear it"!  In fact, I was the only one not hearing the bird... I don't know if I was programmed to simply ignore it... after all these years looking for this supposedly common (almost thrash) bird and dipping miserably, I was simply unable to hear it.  Thanks God the Sapayoa flew away after some minutes, so we were able to walk towards the stream... then I started to hear the bird, closer and closer.  Then, my nemesis materialized: a majestic male Dull-mantled Antbird was walking on the banks of the stream.
Dull-mantled Antbird!!
I managed to approach the bird very close, just few feet, to photograph it and to record its call. 
Look at those fiery red eyes... amazing!  That's the way to see a Nemesis!!!  Trust me, I wanted so hard to see this species that all my friends tagged me on their own Dull-mantled Antbird photos (yes Jose Pérez and Rafael Luck, I'm talking about you guys).  But the surprises did not ended yet.  Did you hear my embed recording?  Something else was calling in the background, and Guido recognized it immediately.  While I was admiring my Dull-mantled Antbird, Guido, Noah and Yari found the bird making the call slightly above eye-level few feet from my position.  Eventually, I joined them and was able to take some shots:
Speckled (Spiny-faced) Antshrike!!!
A female Speckled (Spiny-faced) Antshrike!!!  This bird was calling spontaneously (no playback used) and alone, foraging in low and mid-levels of the forest along the stream, sometimes looking like a foliage-gleaner more than an antshrike.  This was probably the rarest of the species seen that day.  Almost endemic to Panama (barely reaching northwestern Colombia), this very range-restricted species also have uncertain affinities.  Its latin name, Xenornis setifrons, literally means spiny-faced strange bird!  This bird was Guido's nemesis... so even Guido managed to get a lifer that day!  Now you can see why the happy faces at the start of this post!  We saw these species in a 10-minutes lapse, saving us hours of search on the trails (especially for the Xenornis).  Without targets to seek, we decided to move.  After saying good-bye to Yari, we headed to the foothills of Cerro Azul, close to Panama City.  It was late in the afternoon, and time was gold, so we checked first a backyard with several feeders attracting 13 different species of hummingbird, including Brown Violetear, Rufous-crested Coquette and the near-endemic Violet-capped Hummingbird, which was a new year bird for Noah.
Brown Violetear
Violet-capped Hummingbird (file photo)
With the last rays of sun we birded Maipo, finding the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and hearing Black-eared Wood-Quail, both new year birds for Noah too.  We ended at Birders' View hearing again Mottled and Crested Owls in the distance.  Guido and Noah spent the night in the comfortable property while I returned home after a hard day of birding, finding several Common Pauraques at the entrance road.
Common Pauraque
Birding with these two guys was amazing.  And Noah is a great guy... not only smart and lucky, but humble as well, and I wish the best luck on his quest for the rest of the world!  BTW, thanks for the lifers!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Look for the flags!

Last week, I went to Costa del Este (Panama City), taking advantage of a short gap in my daily duties to see what can I find at the mudflats.  The skyline of Panama City, as seen from the mouth of the Matías Hernández river in Costa del Este, is outstanding!
Panama City
As soon as I got there, the birds started to show up.  The upper Panama Bay is a very important shorebird conservation area of the western hemisphere... literally thousands of peeps and other shorebirds were feeding at the extensive mudflats or resting at the mangroves.  I recorded 11 shorebird species, plus many other aquatic birds, like herons, pelicans, cormorants, frigatebirds and gulls.  Most of them were exhibiting traces of their alternate plumage, like this Short-billed Dowitcher:
Short-billed Dowitcher
... or these Western Sandpipers (in fact, they have most of their alternate plumage):
Western Sandpipers
These two species were close enough to shore in order to obtain these photos... and in order to notice that at least one of the Western Sandpipers was banded!
Western Sandpipers
Probably is hard to tell from these photos, but the bird had a yellow band in the right leg and a gray engraved flag in the left leg.  After many photos and field observations, I was able to read the code XAV at the flag.  This cropped picture shows the code:
Western Sandpiper
Of course, I reported this sighting at .  I know this bird was banded in Panama due to the combination of colors... and because I saw when they were banded (although not this same individual) in Costa del Este some weeks ago in a joint effort of Panama Audubon Society and The Center for Conservation Biology (sponsored by Environment Canada, National Audubon Society, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service).
Banding a Western Sandpiper
So, keep an eye for these banded bird while birding at the Upper Bay of Panama!