Monday, May 11, 2015

Our Global Big Day

Last May 9th was held the Cornell Lab's Global Big Day around the world, and Panama was not the exception.  In fact, Cornell's Team Sapsucker did its big day in our country, with amazing results.  Of course, my wife and I participated in this great event, and instead of choosing a route along the Canal Area and Panama City (aiming to a probable list of more than 200 birds), we decided to mobilize towards the interior of the country to begin our count in the foothills of Coclé province.  We stayed at some lovely cabins the previous day above the town of El Cope, where we finalized the details for the big day.
That's Gloriela "finalizing the details"
The alarm went off at 3:30 am.  We hardly sleep last night thinking about the day that awaited us.  As we loaded the car, we heard the distinctive nasal call of a Common Nighthawk above us, making it our first species for the day!  Our plan was to drive the dirt road all the way to the General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park, best known as El Cope NP (as you can see it has the longest name for a national park in Panama), and spent one to two hours owling; however, our car was unable to climb a slippery slope almost one mile before the park entrance (then we learned that day that no one could climb the slope), so we had to walk upslope in the dark, reaching the park entrance short before sunrise (I took the next photo later, with better light of course).
The place was foggy, dark and windy... and we heard few species during the dawn chorus (and no owls).  We waited a while to walk the trails inside the park... it was too dark to see anything, so we birded by ear...  I was in charge of the identification issues, bird photography and driving; Gloriela, of annotating the species, individuals, effort data and non-bird photography.  For no apparent reason, we called our team "The Penguin Squad" (yes, I know, we were only two of us... but it sounds cool).
The foothill forests of this national park are the most beautiful in Panama, and are the extreme eastern end of the range of several western species, like Chiriquí Quail-Dove and Black-breasted Wood-Quail (both heard at dawn).  Other species are more widespread, like Black Guan, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Pale-vented Thrush and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus, among others.
A shy Black Guan
Purplish-backed Quail-Dove
The Black Guan (found by Gloriela by the Visitors Center) was the only one for Panama during the event, so far.  The day was low... and we feared we would not have enough time to find some key species; however, we found our friend José Pérez and his wife Yissel birding along the main road inside the park.  They planned to bird most of the day and to submit their sightings to eBird, so we thought the place was well-covered and decided to start our way down to the car, with roughly 50 different species for the site after four hours.  We added many more species in the way down, with mixed flocks of tanagers and honeycreepers as the main highlights.  In the way down to the dry lowlands, we picked up new species everywhere: Boat-billed Flycatcher and Buff-throated Saltator at the town of El Cope, Brown-throated Parakeets, meadowlarks and Zone-tailed Hawk at La Candelaria, tons of herons, egrets and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures at the Rio Grande savannas, and so on... eventually reaching the Aguadulces Salinas (saltflats).
A monument to the salt workers at Aguadulce
It was a little bit dissapointing... the saltflats were devoid of birds, dry and hot.  The things looked better at El Salado beach, where the exposed mudflats (part of the Parita Gulf) attracted the first waders for our day list: Whimbrels, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers and Black-necked Stilts, among others, were new for the day.  Leaving Aguadulce, we headed west along the Panamerican highway and then south, along the National highway into Herrera province... becoming the only eBirders for that province during the event.  Our first stop was the Santamaría ricefields, adding Savanna Hawk and Glossy Ibis.  Then, we headed to Las Macanas marsh.  Again, hot and dry... but at least we managed some great additions to our list, including this Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl:
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
The big lagoon was full of herons, including an absurd number of Great Blue Herons, Caspian Terns, Blue-winged Teals and two Lesser Scaups.  Several new species in that site... but we had to move.  Our next stop was the most arid and dry place visited on our trip, and protected by its own national park too: Sarigua.
Notice the barren terrain and the xerophytic vegetation in the above picture.  Probably not the first option for a bird-a-thon like this; however, because this was a nation-wide effort, we chose this place to look for a localized species.  It took some time before finding our goal.  Despite its name, this species is actually "common" only in Sarigua.
Common Ground-Dove
Yes, Common Ground-Dove!  The Panamanian population is isolated from populations both to the north and south, and probably merits recognition as a distinctive subspecies.  We found three different pairs close to the ranger station.  We also saw (and heard) several White-winged Doves, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyants and grassquits.
Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant
As expected, the place was very hot... so we headed to Chitré (Herrera province capital city), and then to El Agallito beach.   Although we reached the place late in the afternoon, the tide was just raising... and the exposed mudflats were extensive.  From shore we were able to spot hundreds of waders in the distance... so we put on our rubber boots and started to walk towards them.  And what a great place... flocks of Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and five plover species among many more were wading on these mudflats.
That's me, looking for some shorebirds
When the sun began to hide, we picked the last diurnal species along the highway back to Penonome, where we were going to spent the night (at our house, of course).  We reached Penonome at night, and after a short break for dinner, we found Common Pauraque and Tropical Screech-Owl at 9:30 pm... making it a 19-hours day of intense birding!  After traveling 300 km by car and over 5 km on foot, 14 complete checklists (and other 9 incidental sightings) and lots of cokes and snacks, we managed to record 151 species for the day!  We had a lot of fun participating in this first Global Big Day, and it seems that Panama did very well... with more than 600 species recorded for the day.  What an achievement!   

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