Monday, March 14, 2016

Next stop: endemic island!

I finally managed to escape Panama City for two and a half days in order to accept the great opportunity my friend Kees Groenendijk (of Hotel Heliconia Bed & Breakfast) offered time ago... a quick visit to famed Coiba Island (off-shore central Panama) in order to clean-up the endemics and specialties it has to offer.  Isolated from mainland some 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, many of its inhabitants had diverged since then into distinctive subspecies and even completely new species restricted to this island, the largest of Central America's Pacific coast.
I joined a couple of visiting Dutch birders in this journey.  With Kees as guide, we boarded our boat at the Palo Seco beach in western Azuero (close to the town of Malena where the hotel is) and headed directly to Los Pozos trail in Coiba Island.  As soon as we landed, the birds started to show up.  A mixed flock included Scrub Greenlet, Blue-gray and Crimson-backed Tanagers, Streaked Saltator, House Wren and a pair of Tropical Gnatcatchers.  All these species are represented by endemic subspecies restricted to Coiba and adjacent islands.  Most of them look very similar to the mainland congeners, except by the greenlet and the gnatcatchers.  The endemic subspecies cinericia of Tropical Gnatcatcher is distinctively darker below than other subspecies, as you can see in this male.
male Tropical Gnatcatcher (ssp. cinericia)
Los Pozos trail is flat and easy to bird.  Along it we found more Coiba's endemic subspecies, including tons of Barred Antshrikes, some Tropical Pewees, a smart Rufous-capped Warbler, a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and several Red-crowned Woodpeckers.  We also saw a pair of Yellow-bellied Elaenia and a Red-rumped Woodpecker.  The subspecies subpagana of Yellow-bellied Elaenia is not endemic... but is the only site in Panama where it is found; while the woodpecker is VERY rare (essentially absent) from western Panama.  Then, Kees noticed a call he recognized immediately... it was our main target... the endemic Coiba Spinetail!  The little bird crawled along some tangled vines carrying some nesting materials... and then it entered a nest.
Coiba Spinetail's nest
I can't show you a photo of the Coiba Spinetail... but I can show you its nest, a globular mass with a lateral entrance.  There is nothing like the Coiba Spinetail in the adjacent mainland of Panama... and the most similar species, the Rusty-backed Spinetail, lives in a different habitat at the other side of the Andes in South America!  It was a huge lifer for me!  I promise you some photos next time.
Mangroves along the San Juan river, Coiba Island 
Around noon, we left Los Pozos trail and headed to a different habitat; this time navigating through the San Juan river, admiring the impressive mangrove forest along its banks.  Many waders, herons, Yellow -Mangrove- Warblers and Great-tailed Grackles call this forest their home, but Kees was looking after a special resident for the area... a species extirpated from adjacent mainland Panama: Scarlet Macaw.
Scarlet Macaws

Coiba Island is a reserve of macaws and the only wild and viable population in Panama of this striking species.  After a couple of minutes, Kees was able to localize a pair resting under the canopy following their raucous  calls (photo above).  In spite of their size and plumage, they can be difficult to detect sometimes.  We were lucky to have this pair close enough for photos.  They were new birds for me as well.... a very colorful lifer!  After leaving the mangroves, we stopped by the former penitentiary... hundreds of Sandwich and Royal Terns were resting at the remains of the old pier, with some Black and Elegant Terns mixed in (including an anomalous Elegant Tern with red legs).
Black Tern
Elegant, Royal and Sandwich Terns 
Elegant, Royal and Sandwich Terns
We also visited Los Monos trail in order to find another endemic subspecies for Coiba.  Taxonomically talking, the situation of the next species is not clear.  Most authorities consider the Gray-headed Dove as a polytypic species spreading from SE Mexico to western Colombia; however, the form present in the Pacific slope of central Panama (essentially Azuero Peninsula and off-shore islands) is isolated from other populations, have a brighter plumage, apparently is vocally different too and probably deserves species status as Brown-backed Dove, an endemic species for Panama and represented in Coiba Island by its own endemic subspecies nominate battyi).  Well, after walking for a while, Kees located a pair of these doves on the ground.  It was dark and tangled, and my poor photos barely shows how bright this bird looks in the field.
Brown-backed Dove 
Brown-backed Dove
It is almost pale blue in the crown (instead of gray) and bright rufous in the back, with pinkish breast... simply beautiful.  By far this was my best experience with this species... not a lifer, but I only got glimpses of it during my last visit to Coiba Island many years ago.  We saw many more birds in that trail, including Lance-tailed Manakins, Tropical Parulas and White-throated Thrushes... but it was getting late and Kees had another surprise in store for us.  Our boat took us to some rocky islets to the north of the main island.  After some searching, we found three stock shorebirds with yellow legs and long bill.
Wandering Tattler
They were Wandering Tattlers, elsewhere a VERY rare migrant to Panama, but in these islets seems to be regular and even present year-round!  It was my third lifer for the day, something hard to say for me in Panama.  I want to thank Kees for this very quick trip to Coiba... I have to return someday to take better photographs!

1 comment:

  1. very nice post, thank you. One day I like to go there too... greetings Terry