Sunday, July 21, 2019

All about timing!

At this point, most of you know that I'm doing a Big Year in Panama.  As in any other place, making a big year implies a lot of time and, why not, money (to travel, essentially)!  However, if you have a profound knowledge of your area birds and their natural history (or get advised by the people who has that knowledge), you may save both time and money... specially if you have a regular job that doesn't implies birding or if you are NOT taking a sabbatic year to birdwatch!
My family in front of Eugene Eisenmann's mural in Coronado, Panama (some years ago of course!)
It is all about timing... knowing when some species are most likely to be more conspicuous than usual, when is their peak migration, or when they visit more accesible sites so you don't have to organize a whole expedition to look after them.  A have many examples of how good timing helped me to find rare or unusual species... but I'll write about two recent experiences in this post.  It took me only two days to trackle down two VERY localized species for Panama, both of them represented by endemic forms that, coincidentally, are named eisenmanni, honoring Eugene Eisenmann (1906-1981), a Panamanian ornithologist well-known in the neotropics by his nomenclature arrangements.  The first one was Grassland Yellow-Finch (Sicalis luteola eisenmanni).  As many other grasslands species, this one is declining in our country due to habitat loss.  Even knowing its usual haunts, it is not easy to find this species in Panama... except during its breeding season when adult males are conspicuously singing atop low bushes in the middle of pasture land.
Adult male Grassland Yellow-Finch
Not only that... this species is absent from apparently suitable habitat, even at the SAME location where we use to spot it... El Chirú, Coclé province in central Panama.  These males are not easy to find either.  The very high-pitched song is hard to follow to the source, there are only few territories (and individuals), you need to crawl under barbed wire fences and dodge curious cattle and being expose to ticks and chiggers while trying to approach them (because if you don't lie down they will spot you right away in their preferred open habitat).  All of these is worth the effort... after just 1.5 hours of driving from Panama City to El Chirú, I was able to find this adult male right away.  Try to do the same any other month... you'll spend weeks around without finding even one!
Singing adult male Grassland Yellow-Finch
I enjoyed this male for some minutes until it flew after another adult male.  Then, I left the place and headed southwest, to western Azuero Peninsula in central Panamá. The several stops along the way (to birdwatch, of course) made a 2.5-hours drive from El Chirú to the town of Malena into a 6+ hours trip.  At Malena, I joined my friend Kees and his wife Loes, who run the lovely Heliconia B&B, my home for that night.  During dinner, we planned the next day: an early breakfast before the 1.5-hours drive to the town of Flores, in extreme southern western Azuero peninsula.  Why?  Well, nances and figs.  Yes, fruits!  Our target there inhabits the middle elevations forests of the Cerro Hoya massif,  essentially inaccessible without mounting an expedition or without an strenuous hike (probably more accesible through Río Pavo).
Kees at Río Pavo
However, during the few weeks when the nances and figs are ripe, our target descend from the mountain to feed on them at the border of the forest with cattle pastures.  And we knew a place where that happens regularly: Finca Velásquez.  Since many years now, Juan Velásquez and his lovely family have been watching and reporting the returning of the Azuero Parakeets (Pyrrhura picta eisenmanni) to their property bordering Cerro Hoya National Park.  Over the years, the ripening of the fruit has been more difficult to predict and the flocks that descend are smaller, shyer and stay for shorter time... so the Velásquez family's input is VERY important to travel there and see the parakeets!
Great Green Macaws
Juan waited for us at the entrance of the finca at 7:00 am and guided us through dirt roads to his property. As soon as we got there it was evident that the fruiting trees were attracting birds, including some parakeets and parrots species, but not the Azueros... yet.  Juan invited us to wander around since he usually sees the parakeets around 9:00 to 10:00 am and pointed us the preferred nance trees. Even before we were able to do so, a flock of resident Great Green Macaws revealed its presence with raucous calls while they flew above us to sit on a fig tree by Juan's house.  It is amazing how such huge birds "dissapeared" as soon as they perched on the fig tree!  We then took the trail to Río Pavo, finding nice activity of mixed flocks, including some western Pacific lowlands specialties like Orange-collared Manakin and Black-hooded Antshrike.  The raptors were represented by some nice species, including rare Black-and-White Hawk-Eagles and obliging White Hawk that posed for photos.
White Hawk
At 9:00 am, we were waiting in front of the nance trees pointed before by Juan.  On time, a flock of 12 Azuero Parakeets flew in and perched quietly in one of the trees!  We had excellent views while the birds were eating, but they did not allow photos.  They stayed less than ten minutes and flew away.  One hour later, the same flock arrived again and did the same.  This time I managed to obtain poor photos of an individual feeding on nance.  The Azuero Parakeet is considered part of the Painted Parakeet complex of South America; however, its extraordinaire isolation and differences in plumages respect to other forms merits it specific status according to some authorities, including the Panama Audubon Society.
Poor shot of an Azuero Parakeet feeding on nance
Without the opportune help of the Velásquez family, it would be impossible to see this species and to be back in Panama City by dinner time!  So, there were no need of expeditions nor days off at work (I already runned out of permits for this year)!  There is no doubt that good timing is everything when birding!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

YES, we are still in Panamá!

Birding takes you to amazing places.  Even if you're birding close to home, you may feel that  you are hundreds of miles away.  Well, I recently had that feeling.  Alfred Raab, an old friend of mine winter-resident of Altos del María (AdM), and exclusive development in the foothills of western Panama province, invited me to bird his domains. He wanted to show me some new year-birds for my Big Year quest and I was not going to refuse it.  So, accompanied by Rolando Jordan, we left Panama City around 5:00 am and spent the next 1.5 hours driving along the dry and hot Pacific lowlands while chatting about the probabilities for the day.  Soon we met Alfred at the entrance of AdM.
Altos del María at 8:40 am
AdM development includes several private neighborhoods with paved roads and all the facilities, well-maintained trails and exuberant green areas.  It spreads from about 350 to up to 1100 meters above sea level, with habitats that includes shrubs and pasture lands, secondary dry forests and primary cloud forest as well.  The latter, being above the 1000 meters mark and near (or at) the Continental Divide, are extremely wet, almost always covered in mist and quite chilly... sure it makes you wonder if you are still in Panama!  Well, of course we headed that way!
Red-faced Spinetail (immature)
The weather is not the only thing making you feel away of your usual birding spot... the birds as well!  Those forests represent the extreme eastern end of the range of several species of the western highlands, like Black Guan, Snowcap, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, White-tailed Emerald, Black-faced Grosbeak and Elegant Euphonia... but also are home to some other more widely distributed highlands specialties that are nearly impossible to find in other central foothills (like Cerro Campana or Cerro Azul), like Scaled Antpitta, Red-faced Spinetail, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Sooty-faced Finch and others.  Some species are extremely difficult to find although, but still the list of possibilities is impressive considering how close to the big city it is and how developed it had become!
Common Chlorospingus ssp. punctulatus
Well, we were amazed by the activity up there... the dawn chorus was in its splendor, including five (5) different wrens species just yards away (Song, Scaly-breasted, Isthmian, Rufous-breasted, Rufous-and-White, White and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens)!  We even got a new bird for AdM for Alfred (Gray-chested Dove).  However, the mist and rain made us move to a lower section, finding blue skies mere 10 minutes away!  Soon, we started to see flocks of Common Chlorospingus, one of the most conspicuous species in mixed flocks in AdM and represented there by the ssp. punctulatus, once considered a full species ("Dotted Chlorospingus").  The taxonomy of actual Common Chlorospingus is certainly a mess... with several different forms meriting specific status for sure!  Anyway, AdM is probable the best place to watch this form.  Other common foothills/highlands species seen or heard were Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Thorntail, Brown Violetear (lifer for Rolando), Tawny-crested Tanagers, Northern Emerald-Toucanets, White-throated Spadebill (one of my targets) and many more!
Brown Violetear
Northern Emerald-Toucanet
One of the most entertaining areas is Valle Bonito, with its trail to the Continental Divide.  It starts at an artificial lagoon with more open habitat that holds some aquatic species as well.  It is an exclusive area... even AdM residents like Alfred need a written permit in advance to enter the area.  Glad Alfred had it!  It was impressive how different the weather was: sunny and calmed... The walk into the forest produced few species (like Bicolored Antbird and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers), while the walk around the lagoon produced a handsome Bran-colored Flycatcher showing exactly how bran color looks like!
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer
Bran-colored Flycatcher
We decided to go back to first site... perhaps it was already clear and sunny as well and we had some targets only found at the wettest parts of the forest.  To our surprise, the place was still foggy and chilly!  We walked some trails adding few new species to our list.  One of these trails get you to a lookout that is good for soaring raptors... but we knew the chances of seeing them were very few due to weather.  Anyway, the sight of the cloud forest from the lookout was impressive.  Moss-covered trees dominated the landscape up there... it looked like another world!
Monte Azul lookout at 2:10 pm
It was a too short day at AdM with Alfred and Rolando.  We ended with more than 90 species in spite of the weather.  To celebrate, we had a quick lunch at a local restaurant accompanying our sancocho (typical chicken soup) with an excellent papaya milkshake.  It was time to go back to the city and to say good-bye to Alfred, not without promising that we will go back after those -few- species that we missed that day.  Happy birding guys!
Alfred, Jan and Rolando.  AdM

Thursday, July 11, 2019

To the depths of the Burica peninsula

Due to Panama's topography, there are few sites from where you can launch a pelagic birding trip.  The typical sites (in the Pacific) are extreme eastern Darien province and some sites in the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama.  The logistic is always complicated (and expensive) due to lack of tour operators and pelagic birders as well!  But then, there is another site where the oceanic depths are close to shore: the Burica Peninsula in extreme western Panama.  While looking for good boats to make a pelagic trip, I came upon Hooked On Panama, a fishing lodge at the southerly town of Limones, at the very tip of the peninsula.  They were more than eager to provide boat, crew and chum, plus the on-ground facilities for our pelagic trip after explaining to them the lack of scientific knowledge of the pelagic avifauna in Panama!
From left to right: Jan Axel, Dave Klauber, George Angehr and Christian Gernez
This was an scouting trip after all... June - July is probably not the best season for pelagic birding in Panama, but anyway we wanted to make that first contact and to evaluate the feasibility of doing more trips from Limones.   Three other birders joined me: Christian Gernez, Dave Klauber and George Angehr, who is the author of "The Birds of Panama,  A Field Guide" and probably one of the most experienced pelagic birder for Panamanian waters.  Taking advantage of the lodge, I travelled with my family, who enjoyed the pool and the beach while we were out under the sun looking for pelagic birds.  In fact, the excellent road conditions from David city, and the lodge amenities are points in favor.  Another point in favor: the boat!  A locally customized 33' Blackfin vessel with all the safety equipments, spacious, comfortable, designed to offer a 360º view of the surroundings and easily accommodating up to six pax!
Our crew knew exactly what we were up to!  Our captain Chaka took us immediately to deep waters south of Burica island and then to the east along the Continental Shelf break while mate Jacinto helped us with all our needs and with the chumming process (essentially fish guts and pop corn).  They have a lot of experience fishing pelagic billfishes, but this was their first time guiding a group of birders... the essentials tips seems to be the same for both activities (fishing and birding in deep waters).  But even before reaching deep waters, we started to have some nice surprises, like the completely out-of-season Elegant Terns close to the lodge (they are supposed to be breeding in Baja this time of the year) and the Humpback Whales swimming extremely close to the town beach (a little bit early, but not unexpected).  Bird and whale watching could be some activities that the lodge can offer during the low-season months of fishing, as Christian pointed out.
Royal and Elegant Terns with Brown Pelicans at the lodge
Humpback Whale at Limones
One of the things about doing a pelagic trip in Panama in June-July is weather.  We were always close to dark clouds and storm systems, but somehow we managed to avoid all of them, experiencing no rain at all (OK, Chaka had a lot to do with that).  Still with land at sight, we started to find the first pelagic birds in the form of Storm-Petrels.  With the exception of few Black Storm-Petrels, all of them were Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  Paying attention to this species is key to gain experience on its identification and of other species.  However, after seeing many of them and starting to feel comfortable, we realized that they often showed different flight styles (quite direct with steady wingbeats, but also more bouncing and desperate-looking), size/proportion impressions and molt-timing!  Some birds were fresh-looking while other were in active wing molt... some looked quite small and compact while others looked larger with proportionally long wings...  Were these differences age/sex related, or were they different subspecies?  Or different species?  We need more study on these guys!
Fresh-looking Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (notice wing molt)
The storm-petrels were not the only tubenoses out there, we also find Galapagos Shearwaters and a possible Wedge-tailed Shearwater as well, but was too far away to ID with certainty.  However, the most impressive of them all were the Tahiti Petrels (YES, in plural).  We managed to see up to four different individuals at the same time, sometimes very close to the boat!  Just the fourth record for Panamanian waters, where the species surely is a regular visitor during its non-breeding season.  Thinking on these birds crossing the vast Pacific Ocean to visit our warm waters is simply overwhelming!
Tahiti Petrel.  Fourth record for Panama
Apart of the Elegant Terns seen at shore, we only saw another tern species during the trip: Brown Noddy.  Most of the terns species found in Panama are boreal migrants, so we did not expect to find them in June-July, at least not in considerable numbers.  Our resident tern species (like the noddy) are probably found close to their breeding islands during this time of the year.  Anyway, we enjoyed the sole member of the Sterninae out there... the anti-tern species by the way (dark body, pale crown, wedge tail)
Brown Noddy
Another highlight of the trip were the Sulids (boobies).  We found three different species (of five possible), including Nazca and Brown Boobies.  At some point, we approached Islas Ladrones that host one of the biggest colonies of Brown Boobies in Panama, crossing several flocks of these boobies flying back and forth from and to the islands.  The Nazcas, as usual, were always far from shore, on floating debris or in powerful flight over the waves showing no interest in the boat.
Brown Booby 
Nazca Booby
Soon it was time to go back.  A huge school of Short-beaked  Common Dolphins gave us the farewell before heading back to shore.  Calm waters meant that nobody had sea-sickness at all and the cloudy day help to avoid sunburns!  After a 6-hours trip we were back at the lodge, enjoying a couple of cold drinks and celebrating this very first pelagic experience birding the depths of the Burica Peninsula.  I can not wait to go back!  Would you join me?
Short-beaked Common Dolphins