Monday, May 23, 2016

Stragglers and confusing

This last weekend I decided to visit the mudflats of Panama Viejo in Panama City to check the over-summering shorebirds there.  Most of the shorebirds and gulls present in that site already migrated back to their breeding grounds in the north, but a substantial number spent the summer in these beaches, enjoying the tropical sun... usually immatures and non-breeding individuals (thus contrasting with our resident species that are busy with their nesting activities or feeding young).  For my surprise, I found some stragglers still hanging around the place.  The first one was this Franklin's Gull:
Franklin's Gull
Franklin's Gull
This bird is in full alternate plumage... a real beauty!  The wing pattern, stocky shape, short bill and legs and prominent white eye-crescents separate it from the superficially similar Laughing Gulls, which are abundant even at this time of the year.  The bulk of the population migrates through Central America earlier this month, with some extraordinaire movements noticed (check this post for example).  As I mentioned, most of the over-summering birds are immatures or in non-breeding plumage, which is the case of most of the Laughing Gulls staying in Panama, like the birds in the next picture:
Elegant Tern and Laughing Gulls
All of them are Laughing Gulls, except for the lonely Elegant Tern in the center of the photo.  It is also a straggler, but this one is in basic plumage... who knows if is planning to stay longer here.  It was first reported during the Global Big Day one week ago... and is still present there.
Other birds are present just shortly during their passage to the breeding grounds.  That's the case of the White-rumped Sandpiper.  Considered very rare in Panama, it seems regular only for a week or two in mid-May at this site.  I only saw one, but the peeps were too far away to see if more were around.
White-rumped Sandpiper
Now the confusing.  I noticed this weird warbler behind me working the mid-level of the ornamental Ficus tree at the parking lot of the Visitors Center in Panama Viejo.  I have to admit that the first thing that came to my mind was some sort of Parula... but the shape/size and some features of the plumage were wrong.
Young Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler
Then, a female Yellow "Mangrove" Warbler came and started to feed the bird... problem solved!  No matters how weird it looks, think first in a common bird with atypical features than a vagrant with typical features (this is adapted from an old medical saying).   Happy birding!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Global Big Day: 2016 edition

I pounded the alarm at 2:30 am.  It was May 14th... Cornell Lab's Global Big Day.  For two years in a row, Gloriela and I decided to bird that day in Cocle province (central Panama), joining more than 50 registered participants for Panama (some of them grouped into "teams") in this rally of birding.  We stayed at our house in Penonome, from where we drove to the foothills above the town of El Cope, into the General de División Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park (the longest name of any Panamanian national park).  A constant drizzle accompanied us along the way... in fact, our first bird for the day was not a night bird, but a Great-tailed Grackle that vocalized at its roost when we were leaving Penonome.  The rain didn't stop until 6:00 am... not a single owl was recorded of course, but it stopped on time for the dawn chorus.
Some birds recorded up there include Pale-vented Thrush, Stripe-breasted Wren, Zeledon's Antbird and great views (again) of Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, but in general the activity was low due to the rain and fog, so we moved to the lowlands, making several stops along the way.  Our itinerary followed exactly the same route we did last year (check this post), checking several sites along the Panamerican highway.  At the Aguadulce Salinas we found a group of 30 Black Skimmers resting on the ground, with some waders... quite unusual for this time of the year.
distant Black Skimmers 
In the way out of Aguadulce, we kept checking birds out of our list: Pearl Kite, American Kestrel, Crested Caracara, Savanna Hawk, Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork... all were seen while driving along the highway.  We skipped Las Macanas marsh in order to reach El Agallito beach in Chitre to find more waders.  We reached the place a little bit late, and the surf was far away.
Mudflats at El Agallito
Anyway, we got both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpiper, a single Sanderling, both Yellowlegs and others more at the extensive mudflats.  As you can see, the day was cloudy... and we found rain in most of the sites that we visited, including at the supposedly driest place of Panama: Sarigua.
The Sarigua National Park is usually referred as a "desert" by the Panamanians... certainly is not a true desert  because it is full of life.  Our main target there, Common Ground-Dove, was a little bit hard to find due to the rain, but eventually we heard (and saw) an individual in a thorn bush by the road without leaving the car.  We stopped by Las Macanas marsh in the way back to Penonome; the fields surrounding the marshes were alive with dozens of both White and Glossy Ibises, lapwings, herons and egrets.  We met Hector there, a local guide and representative of the Grupo Ecoturístico Las Macanas (GEMA) who showed us a place where we saw some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Crested Bobwhites and more herons.
Glossy Ibises
Before leaving, we deliver to Hector a spotting scope donated by the Panama Audubon Society, (PAS) since GEMA always helps us with the logistics during the International Waterbird Census and is interested in preserving and sustainably develop the local ecosystem.
Hector, with the scope at the GEMA headquarters
By the time we reached Penonome it was already dark.  We decided to visit the outskirts searching for owls and nightjars.  At Gloriela's parents property we saw several Common Pauraques and heard the last bird of the day, a Tropical Screech-Owl.
Common Pauraque
It was an intense day... for us, 18-hours of continued birding, 21 complete eBird checklist and many more "incidentals" ones, hundreds of miles and 135 species.  The numbers for Panama are good too, so far we are the best Central American country and are within the world's Top-Ten!  See you next year for the Global Big Day!  

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rails and Crakes in Gamboa Ammo Dump Ponds

The Ammo Dump Ponds in the town of Gamboa (former Canal Zone) are probably one of the most birded sites in Panama.  It is a good introduction for the beginner and even veteran birders find it quite enjoyable... and add to this that almost every visiting birder to Panama stop by the ponds on route to the famed Pipeline road.  And with all that attention, it is amazing that some resident species of the pond are rare enough to attract hordes of birders when they decide to show up.  That is the case of the last discovery of my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson, when he found a Yellow-breasted Crake walking exposed close to shore one week ago.  This species is known to breed there... but there are only few records from the area.  So yesterday I went with Gloriela to the ponds, looking for the elusive bird.  My friend Howard was already there when we started to search the marshy areas.  The day was cloudy and dark... perfect for the rallids (most of them are similarly elusive species), and soon I was able to see the largest of them at the opposite side of the ponds: a Gray-necked Wood-Rail.
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
It is a distant photo, but this bird is not easy to see... not to mention to photograph.  One huge rail in the bag... but we were after the smallest one recorded in Panama, and we knew it wouldn't be an easy task.  Another good sign that the day was good to watch elusive species became in the shape of a Least Bittern flying across the pond and allowing great views with the scopes... another super elusive bird in the bag... but it was not THE bird we were looking for.  Close to us, this Rufescent Tiger-Heron decided to rest quietly.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Then, THE bird materialized like a ghost in front of Howard; we were not close to him and all his efforts to invocate the bird again only attracted a group of three White-throated Crakes to the exact place where the Yellow-breasted Crake was.  I know that feeling... when a group of fellow birders are twitching a rarity but you are the only one that manage to see it... you only want that someone else find the bird too just to prove that you are not mad after all. Of course Howard was not mad... he had a photo of THE bird that we missed... that's life!  Hey, but a group of White-throated Crakes feeding exposed is a real treat!  These birds are very common by voice at the ponds, but you never see them... and let me tell you: that was the best sighting ever of White-throated Crakes!
White-throated Crake
A little bit disappointed, we moved to the Rainforest Discovery Center in order to take our lunch... a tasty fried sea bass and some cold drinks, but first we attended a talk offered by, coincidentally, Venicio Wilson.  It was nice to hear him talking about the role of birds in the ecology of the rainforests... he almost made us forget how miserably we dipped on the crake earlier... a l m o s t.
However, after lunch, many birders decided to try the crake's spot in the way out... so we joined them.  Venicio himself showed us the exact site where he originally saw the bird and we chat about a lot of themes... the time flew with them.  Around 3:30 pm, I noticed a tiny bird at the water just in front of the group.  Skeptical, I raised my binoculars ... only could say "THERE IT IS!!!"  Yes my friends, THE bird materialized again in front of the group, nobody else noticed it before... it simply was there.
Yellow-breasted Crake
The Yellow-breasted Crake stayed for close to 15 minutes walking deliberately and feeding quietly.  Then, it flew to a nearby floating island and disappeared.  Venicio thinks that he saw a different bird... I think that only few birds are so beautiful and shy that this one.  A tiny bird... but a HUGE lifer!
Yellow-breasted Crake

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some gulls overhead

It is that time of the year when most of our wintering gulls depart to their breeding grounds in North America... and is not rare to see some species in unusual sites or in massive numbers gathering together to start (or continue) the long journey.  For example, some days ago I went to one of the huge malls in Panama City for some last minute shopping; however, something caught my attention at the parking lot:
Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls
It is not rare to see the common Laughing Gulls at the mall and at the nearby bus terminal, but this time I saw a nice Ring-billed Gull among them.  This is not the first time this species had been reported there, but certainly was the first one for me.  The Ring-billed Gulls are regular along the coast in Panama City... but this place is not in the coast.
Ring-billed Gull
I then moved to Panama Viejo, where the extensive mudflats attracts hundreds of Laughing Gulls... but this time, they were outnumbered by Franklin's Gulls.  Of course, both species are regular in Panama... but is only during migration when you can see these numbers.
Laughing and Franklin's Gulls
Not only that, most of the Franklin's Gulls were in alternate plumage, with a very nice rose color to the breast and conspicuous wing patterns and black hoods.  They were easily ID at flight as you can see in the next photos:
Franklin's Gulls 
Franklin's Gulls
There are been several reports of Franklin's Gulls flocks in northern Central America as well... so it is time to grab your binoculars to watch out these gulls passing through!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Inca Tern at the Panama Canal... wait, whaaaat?

Yes... that was my first impression when my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson reported this rarity in the Social Media yesterday... an adult Inca Tern was seen at the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal right in front of the Visitors Center.  The Inca Tern is a real vagrant to Panama, endemic to the Humboldt Current off western South America, supposedly only appears up here under anomalous conditions, specially during El Niño years.  So I hurried up to the Visitors Center, picking up in the way my friend Osvaldo Quintero and his son Osvaldo Jr.
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
We got to the center 20 minutes before closure... and started to look at the far side of the locks where Beny reported the bird earlier.  As you can see in the above photo, we used the lookout in the fourth floor to locate the bird, which was where the red arrow is pointing.  It required the maximum zoom of our lenses... and lot of trimming back in home... this is the result:
Inca Tern at the Panama Canal
Not only very rare... also exaggeratedly beautiful!  This bird was with Sandwich Terns and Laughing Gulls, and seemed to be enjoying its stay... we saw it fishing successfully twice, taking a bath, preening and resting by the walls of the locks.
Inca Tern with little fish
Inca Tern at the Panama Canal
There have been some reports in the past few years in Panamanian coasts, including mine back in 2010 (eBird checklist here), but this is the first report in the vicinity of Panama City in more than 30 years!  Good excuse to visit the Panama Canal these days!
Inca Tern at the Panama Canal

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Bird of the Month: Oilbird

The Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) is probably one of the most interesting and weird bird species of the Neotropic.  It is so distinctive that is the sole member of the Steatornithidae family, the only frugivorous night bird and one of the few that uses echolocation while flying in the dark (sharing this characteristic with some Aerodramus swifts).  The common name refers to the nestlings, that deposit fat reserves and can be 50% heavier than adults before fledging.  In fact, Steatornis literally means "oil bird"; caripensis, refers to the Caripe region in Venezuela, where Alexander von Humboldt first described it in 1799.
Oilbird.  Photo by Osvaldo Quintero (used with permission)
Better known from South America, there are several records of Oilbirds from Panama and Costa Rica as well.  No colonies have been found so far in these countries, but the possibility of a cave full of "Guácharos" -the common Spanish name- somewhere in eastern Panama is fascinating.  Here in Panama, most of the records are from the Chagres river basin (where the above photo was taken), Panama City (where I took the photo below) and eastern Darien province (three records).  It is still considered a vagrant in our country, but there are more and more reports, now in an annual basis.  For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the Oilbird as our Bird of the Month!
Oilbird at Panama City
Literature consulted:
1. Del Risco A, Echeverri A. Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), Neotropical Birds Online (T.S. Schulenberg, Ed). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: 2011.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R. The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical: 2010.
3.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press: 1989.