Sunday, August 6, 2017

At the end of the road

Few months ago (yes... months!), I took advantage of some spare days and went to Darien province in eastern Panama in order to find a bird that has eluded me since I started birding more than 20 years ago.  You may expect that it is a rare and range-restricted species... and until some years ago, only reliable during the expeditions that ventured deep into the jungle of the Darien Gap.
Welcome to Yaviza. Km 12,580 final from Alaska
So I drove all the way to the town of Yaviza, where the Pan-American Highway abruptly ends... the only gap in more than 30,000 km of concrete and asphalt, and where the Darien Gap officially start!  My short stop there produced Bicolored Wren, a recent colonist to eastern Panama (and Central America), but not the target of my trip.  Some forest patches near town produced some eastern Panama specialties, like Black Oropendola, Black Antshrike and the cassini  ssp. of Chestnut-backed Antbird with its distinctive white spots on wings.
male Chestnut-backed Antbird, ssp cassini 
It was late, and I drove back to Metetí, where I spent the night.  The "appointment" with my target would be on the afternoon of the next day, so I planned to spent the next morning birding El Salto road, which requires an early start... as I did.  Early next day, I caught the dawn chorus in the famous road that ends in the mighty Chucunaque river.  El Salto road is a birding hotspot of the Darien lowlands.  Many Darien specialties and range-restricted species are easily seen there... but not the one I was looking for... but it was a nice spot to spent a couple of hours birding.  In quick succession I got some nice birds like Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Double-banded Graytail, Black-tailed Trogon, Choco Sirystes and many more.
El Salto road birding hotspot
Gray-cheeked Nunlet
Time flies when you are having fun, and soon it was time to return to Metetí in order to meet an old friend of mine.  After lunch, I joined  Nando Quiroz, who is an experienced birding guide, specialized in Darien birds.  He was in a private tour with a visiting birder who kindly agreed to accept my company for some hours... so I joined them and went across the Chucunaque river into the Embera-Wounaan region, into mature, old forest.  Before arriving to the local village, Nando stopped the car at the entrance of a narrow trail.  We walked a little bit and then he pointed us a huge Cuipo tree (Cavanillesia sp.)... it had a nest with an eagle on it... a Crested Eagle!
Crested Eagle
The Crested Eagle is a rare, huge raptor of the neotropics and not very often you have the opportunity to watch one on a nest.  It was not a lifer, but just the second time ever I had the chance to experience it!  In the short way out, back to the car, we crossed Red-throated Caracaras, Blue Cotingas, Golden-headed Manakins and a pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws, detected by their raucous calls... they were lifers for me!  Once at the village, Nando suggested to take a little "panga" at the river to have a better field of view for my target.
That's Nando at back
We were looking for a bird that  inhabits forest edges and clearings... but in Panama it seems to specialize in river banks.  So there we were, aboard a wooden canoe in the middle to the river... Nando was whistling patiently.  Then, a response in the distance... something was answering to Nando's whistling.  After some tense minutes searching the surroundings, Nando pointed out a Cecropia tree.  A small, drab bird with long and pointed bill was flycatching and returning to the same perch... I shakily managed to take some photos.
Dusky-backed Jacamar
DUSKY-BACKED JACAMAR!!!  I know it is not fancy, nor colorful... but this is a quite special bird.  Restricted to a tiny area of eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia, this distinctive species required complete expeditions in the past.  Now, there are some accesible sites along the Chucunaque river that not even need a boat ride to reach!  Of course, you need an experienced guide to take you there... and Nando certainly is one of the best!  Thank you very much!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the birding continues! Pelagic off western Azuero

And after exciting 16+ hours of pure birding, we ended at the town of Malena, western Azuero, with our friends Kees and Lowes of Heliconia Inn.  We scheduled a pelagic trip for the next day, and the rest of the participants were already there: Mario Ocaña, George Angehr (yes, the author of "The Birds of Panama" field guide), visiting birder Enos Diestre and Kees Groenedijk as our guide.
That's me, George, Mario, Kees, our captain and Enos
As usual, very early the next day (May 14th) we took a quick breakfast and headed to the dock at Rio Negro, close to the town of Mariato.  With the first lights we started to navigate along the western coast of the Azuero Peninsula, in a route now familiar to some of us who were recurrent in this kind of trips.  It soon became clear that this would be a spectacular journey... since hordes of Black Terns, Brown Noddies and Galapagos Shearwaters started to appear... even close to shore!
We found several of these flocks feeding over schools of Bonitos... the show was simply amazing!  Frenzy feeding action both under and above the waves... it was hard to focus in just one bird.  In fact, among the dozens of goodies and Black Terns, there were other terns species, like Common and Sooty Terns for example.
Brown Noddies
Alternate Black Tern
Common Tern
Sooty Tern
But most important, the first tubenoses were also attending the party.  First a few... then, flocks with up to 50 Galapagos Shearwaters resting on the water or swiftly moving around each good spot.  The Galapagos Shearwaters are always present in these pelagic trips; however, it was the first time I saw so many... reminding me those photos of one of my favorite field guides on pelagic birds.  They allowed some close shots by the way!
Galapagos Shearwater
When we reached the Continental Shelf break, some other tubenoses started to appear... up to three Wedge-tailed Shearwaters started to feed among the Galapagos Shearwaters, while some Black and Wedge-rumped  Storm-Petrels also did some quick appearances... but they were quite shy for photos. Trust me, it is not easy to aim and shoot those little guys from a buoying boat in the middle of the ocean!
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Wedge-tailed and Galapagos Shearwaters
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
We recorded some other species, including Brown and Nazca Boobies, Bridled Terns and Laughing Gulls out there.  We also had some nice non-avian highlights... like several Hammerhead sharks (unknown species... if you have an idea let me know) and at least two different species of sea turtles, including the one pictured here:
Hammerhead Shark sp.
Sea Turtle sp.
As you can see, a successful trip.  Each one of these trips in Panama help us to understand a little bit more our pelagic avifauna... still a lot to do in this aspect of course.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

2017 Global Big Day in Panama

For the third year in a row, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology held the Global Big Day on last May 13th, a day when thousands of eBirders around the world joined forces to record the largest ever seen before number of birds.  Not a global competition, but an event to raise awareness and support global conservation, to work as a team, to set goals and to surpass oneself... that's the magic of this initiative.
In one way or another, many birders worked together to elevate their countries to the highest place in this non-declared "competiton".  Here in Panama, several groups announced their routes and targets.
Of course I did the same.  In what is now a tradition, I went with my wife Gloriela to the foothills of Cocle province (central Panama) and stayed the night before at the cabin of the General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park above the town of El Cope.  Exactly at 12:00 am, I went out in the dark looking for owls.  The night was chilly and foggy, and only a Mottled Owl was heard in the distance... but that was my first bird of the day!  Later, around 5:00 am, we were ready to listen the dawn chorus.  In quick succession we started to add species by ear: Rufous Motmot, both Clay-colored and Pale-vented Thrushes, Hepatic Tanager and so on...  With the first lights we started to hike La Rica trail, taking then La Rana trail in a kind of loop back to the cabin.  There was another group birding the area, so we did the transect quite quickly, adding some nice species like Stripe-breasted Wren, Spot-crowned Antvireo and Orange-bellied Trogon.
Adult male Orange-bellied Trogon
Soon, it was time to start the descend to the lowlands.  On route we did several stops to check the activity... still above El Cope town we found Black-headed Saltator, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and Giant Cowbirds, while at town a Lesson's Motmot allowed nice views and photos.  The exact ID of members of the former Blue-crowned Motmot in central Panama is a mystery, but now I think that all of them (both in the foothills and in the lowlands) probably are Lesson´s Motmots.
Black-headed Saltator 
Lesson's Motmot
The heat of the lowlands savanna contrasted with the chilly humid premontane forest that we left behind.  It was suffocating!  Nevertheless, we kept birding.  Typical birds of this habitat were Savanna Hawk, Ruddy, Plain-breasted and Blue Ground-Doves, Brown-thorated Parakeets, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and both Golden-fronted and Scrub Greenlets.  At the Aguadulce Salinas, a huge group of Black Skimmers was expected, but the dozens of Wilson's Phalaropes were not!  Nice additions for the day.  At El Salado beach, many waders, including American Oystercatchers, were present, while some nearby fields were good for egrets, meadowlarks and other species.
Wilson's Phalarope (file photo)
Our next stop was Sarigua, were our target was the isolated form of Common Ground-Dove.  An important species for the country since no other group was expected to find it... the ground-dove is extremely localized in Panama, and Sarigua is the best place to find it.  It took us a while, but eventually Gloriela found a pair by the main road in the way out.  With our target in the bag, we ended the day at the town of Chitre, checking some common species and few waders.  We still had a long way to western Azuero... where we stayed that night in order to prepare for the pelagic trip (yes, more about that in my next post).
Globally, the event was a complete success! In Panama, we only managed to achieve one goal (of three): to surpass last year's numbers.  We failed in being the first Central American country in the general table and to enter the world Top Ten...  but certainly next year will be waaay better!

Friday, April 7, 2017

To twitch, or not to twitch

Different birders watch birds in different ways.  Some of them like to spend the afternoon relaxing in the porch, watching the birds at the feeders in the middle of the backyard while others chase all the species possible within a region... some keep watching birds everywhere, anytime while other only birdwatch during the weekend.  I do a little bit of everything, depending on time of course.  However, sometimes a little extra effort is necessary if you want to add new birds to your life list.
Large-billed Tern at Gamboa
This year have been exceptional regarding occurrence of local rarities.  And so far, I have managed to cross the country several times searching for them... successfully!  Alone, with my family or with friends, chasing a rarity is always exciting, specially if you manage to successfully locate the bird you were looking for.  For example, the day after the first report of a vagrant Large-billed Tern in the town of Gamboa (central Panama) I decided to pay a visit in my lunch break... actually it was my only chance because I was about to leave the city later that day and for more than a week.  Gamboa is mere 30 minutes or less from Panama City, so the decision was straightforward.  After 10 minutes of my arrival, the Large-billed Tern circled above the public dock (right where it was reported) showing its spectacular flight pattern and allowing nice photos (above) and even better views.  I probably stayed only 20 minutes... yes, I saw it and that was all... back to work!
Twitching a Dwarf Cuckoo
Time is important... you better try to find your desired birds as soon as you get the news of its occurrence.  Some vagrants stay for long periods of time while others are seen only once or twice.  When the very rare (for Panama) Dwarf Cuckoo appeared in Tortí (one and a half hours to the east of Panama City) one week ago, I lost the chance to chase it... when I finally went to the site four days later, the bird was not there.  The birders that went the next day of the initial report found it by the way.  A Little Cuckoo at the site was a great consolation prize, but having a twitching trip with good friends always worth it... with or without Dwarf Cuckoo!
Little Cuckoo at Torti
But some times you get lucky... when my friend Rafael Lau published the photos of a very rare (for Panama) Hermit Warbler in Bambito (western highlands of Chiriqui province), I was in the middle of a trip with my family, thousands of kilometers away of Panama.  When I finally was able to twitch the bird, I drove more than 700 kms back and forth in the same day with my wife Gloriela and my daughter Gabrielle.  At the site, I started to search for the vagrant warbler.  It took me a while before an adult male Hermit Warbler decided to materialize in front of me, allowing some shots, like the one posted below... amazing!  We were in a rush, and only had time for another specialty of the Chiriqui highlands: strawberries with cream!
Hermit Warbler at Bambito
Strawberries & cream!
And then, just few weeks after my life Hermit Warbler, I went back to the Chiriqui highlands, again in a long twitch from Panama City with my wife.  My objective, a relative common, but secretive, inhabitant of montane forests.  Some friends of mine repeatedly reported a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove in the trails above the town of Guadalupe, within La Amistad International Park.  But a very early drive in the dark through a really bad road was necessary in order to be at the trail on time to watch the bird... and that was exactly what we did.  After spending the night at town (just after watching, for the first time, a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl), I drove the road in complete darkness.  The road looks like a dry river bed... quite bumpy and scary... but we made it.  At first light, we were at the start of the trail.  Soon, I saw a plump figure walking toward us... I barely trusted my eyes because a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove was in collision trajectory!  When the quail-dove noticed our presence (mere five meters from us), it turned around, walking up-trail.  Then, I remembered that I was carrying my heavy camera and tried some shots... just this came out:
What a great experience!  Finding your desired bird is magical, specially after investing time and effort on it.  The above picture probably doesn't show the quail-dove in all its splendor, but I kind of like it... I can almost feel the chilly air in the morning under the canopy of the montane forest while seeing this photo!  For me, the answer to the question is TO TWITCH!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Roatan!

The dry season in Panama has kept me busy... between work and family outings to enjoy our beautiful country, I have not had time to update this blog... and; so far, I have made only short excursions to watch common birds around Panama City.  However, taking advantage of a long weekend last month, I took my family to the island of Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands off the Caribbean coast of Honduras.  Not a birding trip... but binoculars and camera were both part of my luggage of course.
It could not be easier.  A direct flight right from Panama City domestic airport (mere 10 minutes from our apartment) took us in less than two hours to the paradise island.  The mixture of cultures is felt as soon you get off the plane and everyone is willing to gift you a smile. A short transfer tooks us to our all-inclusive resort.  Only a narrow one-lane bridge connects the main island with the resort, which was a private island by itself, with coralline white beaches, patches of mangroves, deciduous forest, some open areas and, of course, all the resorts amenities you can need... my girls just loved it!!!
I have to admit that my expectations were not high regarding possible lifers... as most islands out there, the avifauna is limited, and the island is close enough to Panama to share many species with us.  Of course some residents birds certainly would be new for my Life and Central American lists, and I made short walks around the resort two to three times a day, each day, looking for them.  Right at the resort grounds, two of such resident were quite common: Mangrove Vireo and Canivet's Emerald... both lifers by the way.
Mangrove Vireo 
female Canivet's Emerald
However, the site was quite good for boreal migrants.  Several species of waterfowls, waders, wood warblers and others call Roatan its home during the winter months.  Some are widely distributed back in Panama, like Yellow and Black-and-white Warblers, Northern Waterthrush and Northern Redstart, while others are considered rarities back there, like Northern Parula, Ovenbird, Yellow-throated, Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers.
Black-and-White Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
In fact, the Worm-eating Warbler pictured above was only my second one ever!  Most of these birds were seen around the resort or incidentally along the touristic tour that we took around the island.  As I mentioned, this was not a birding trip... but at least I was hoping to get some range-restricted species for Central America in one of the planned side trips: a diving experience to Cayos Cochinos, home of Caribbean Dove and Yucatan Vireo.  Both species are found in Roatan, but are scarce, specially the dove... at the cays, they are more common and easy to see... and I was sure my family would enjoy the sun and the beach of the place.  However, a cold front hit the islands (and most of Central America) the day of the trip, and it was cancelled due to rough sea conditions.
The view from our room during the cold front
Well, in spite of the weather, we enjoyed the resort's amenities and took it easy at the pool and the room.  I found more Roatan residents, including a pair of Brown-crested Flycatcher (not a lifer, but new to my Central America list) and a nice selection of doves and pigeons: feral Rock Pigeons and Eurasian Collared-Doves, White-winged Doves, Common Ground-Doves and White-crowned Pigeons.
Brown-crested Flycatcher
White-crowned Pigeon
The last species was particularly beautiful and conspicuous, specially considering my previous experiences with it in Panama and San Andres island. I saw it very well and quite close, even at the middle of very populated towns, like Coxen Hole and its water treatment facility close to the airport.
In fact, the place was quite birdy, with dozens Blue-winged Teals and American Coots, some stilts and Least Grebes and even a pair of rare (for the island) Ring-necked Ducks.
Ring-necked Duck
The last place we visited was the Carambola Botanic Gardens, in the northwestern coast of the island.  We enjoyed a nice walk, but the trail to the viewpoint at the top of the hill was blocked by the fallen trunks and palm leaves of the previous day cold front. However, I managed to spy a singing Yucatan Vireo in a tangled tree high above us.  I saw the bird for just a fraction of second and ID'd it based on voice... I will include it in my Life List next time I found it with more prolonged views (I hope).
At the end, what a great trip we had... fun, sun, sand, tropical breeze and some life birds of course!