Monday, July 27, 2009

Todies' Land

Nop, I'm not going to write about the Greater Antilles because I'm not referring to those todies. I refer to the Tody Motmots, the smallest member of its mainly Central American family. There is something about these birds... they are rare and little known in Panama, but also very attractive and smart. Last saturday I went with Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck to El Valle de Anton in search of this little friend. We explored a side road close to the little town of Los Llanitos on the way to El Valle. We already had experience with todies on this road last May, seeing at least three different individuals along a little creek at the far end of the road. This time, our plan was to bird from the road itself and quickly we heard the call of one of them. Using a recording, we attracted THREE different todies that soon lost any interest in us. Further ahead on the road we saw and photographed others THREE different individuals. They are not easy to photograph. We always found them in shaded places with lots of tangles, usually always behind a leaf or a branch. In addition, they seem to be unsociable enough, moving away rapidly after a quick inspection of the intruders. Then, from a safe perch, they remain still (usually too far for my lens), moving its tail from one side to another, just like others motmots. I'm surprised of finding such a big population in a disturbed area like that one. In fact, not any of the others species recorded in the area are associated with forest (we saw many common species, and heard a Sepia-capped Flycatcher). I have seen todies before, but usually in large tracks of forest (where they are more entrusted with the observer, for example, in Chucanti). Not enough with this, there are many others reports of todies in El Valle itself, specially around the Canopy Lodge area. Of course we birded the El Valle and La Mesa areas, without finding any other tody (we have never been lucky in that place anyway), but seeing a nice mixed flock in the entrance of the Gaital Natural Monument (Tawny-crested and Silver-throated Tanagers, Bananaquits, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Slate-colored Grosbeak and so on...) and a White-tipped Sicklebill perched on Heliconias along the road to La Mesa. So, if you still needs the Tody for your life list, go to Todies' land and have fun.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Journey to Cobachon

After saying good bye to our captain in El Ciruelo, we headed west away from Pedasí. The road is in very good condition all the way to Cambutal, except by the stretch between Cañas and Tonosí. The Mourning Doves were abundant along the road, and even we saw a covey of Crested Bobwhites crossing it. We arrived to Cambutal before noon and parked our car where the asphalt road ends. After asking for some directions and tips, we started to walk the dirt road to Cobachon, a little town in the coast 22 km away. The first 10 km were more or less flat, but then it became hilly and gruelling. The rain accompanied us almost all the way and we had little time because it was getting dark. Anyway, we enjoyed the beauty of the landscapes, the furious sea breaking into the rocky coast, the long and desolate beaches meeting the forested hills full of colourful crabs and the chilly streaming rivers along the way. Despite the hurry, we saw some birds on the way. A Bare-throated Tiger-Heron in the Peña Blanca river and a Black-hooded Antshrike close to the Portobelo river were the highlights. After 6.5 hours (and slightly sad, thinking that we wouldn't make it), we reached an open grassy area with a old sign in its far end, close to the beach. Only after checking it with my binoculars I realize that we reached Cobachon!!, but wait a minute... the place seemed as a ghost town... without sign of life. After 10 long minutes, we saw two kids playing in the beach and soon his smiling dad introduced himself as Daniel Saénz. I immediately recognized the name... he is listed in the book Where to find birds in Panama as THE one can guide you around the place. We were lucky to find him in town. Nicely, he offered us his house and a hot dinner, quickly prepared by his wife. We talked that night about a lot of things, including the Azuero Parakeet. Soon he was telling me about Francisco Delgado, Robert Ridgely, the Englemans and many others that he guided before to Cerro Hoya. He knows many english names of birds and knows very well the behavioral aspects of the parakeet (where and when it occurs, what it eats, its calls, and so on...), and we agree to work out early the following day to look for the parakeet. The Azuero Parakeet was discovered in 1979 by Francisco Delgado and is endemic of the Cerro Hoya and surroundings in the Azuero peninsula. First described as a subspecies of the south american Painted Parakeet, its differences in plumage and its amazing isolation prove to be a different species. Cerro Hoya itself is an unique ecosystem at the Azuero peninsula and is protected by the national park that bears the same name. In the morning of july 21st, we started hiking along the Cobachon river, entering its valley. After an hour, we started climbing the hills looking for the flocks to appear. Soon, Daniel found the first (of many) pair of Great Green Macaws eating quietly the fruits of a nance tree (Byrsonima crassifolia). When they flew across the valley, we admired theirs long and colourful tails and blue flight feathers, contrasting with the green body... amazing! Then, Daniel saw a group of at least 12 Azuero Parakeets perched on a Higueron (Ficus sp.) that flew directly toward us and perched very close...WOW... the Azueros right in front of us and I was so excited watching them that I did not manage to take photos in that moment. What a beautiful bird, hard to describe... and so unique! We found later a different group eating from the fruiting higuerones and guarumos (Cecropia sp.) and I managed to take some blurry photos, but at least the bird is recognizable. The experience revived us since, in spite of our weariness, we descended from the hill, packed our things, say goodbye to the Saénz family and tackled the return, arriving to Cambutal at 7 p.m. That night we got some analgesic and antiinflamatory pills... every single muscle fiber was hurting. I still have a swollen ankle and Gloriela barely moves... but we are happy with the experience. After all, no pain no birds.
Well, are you ready to look for the Azuero Parakeet at Cobachon? Here are some tips:

1. Announce that you are going: Cobachon only has three families, and maybe only Daniel can guide you around, so it is better to count with him. Leave a message with Radio Peninsula (995-4214).
2. Hire a boat in Cambutal: the ride is more or less one hour and they charge you around a hundred dollars the round trip. Ask for the service in the Casa González (where the asphalt road ends).
3. If you want to take the scenic road, then plan it with time: the topography is difficult and the road does not have any sign. The locals will tell you that it can be walked in 5 hours, but they are used to walk long distances and they know shortcuts through the beaches to skip the hills. The road climbs eight hills, the third one being specially demanding. Ask everyone you cross in the way for directions, because you have to turn aside of the road while climbing the sixth hill (be kept to the coast)
4. Read all you can about the road and the place (Where to find birds in Panama, Almanaque Azul -spanish only-, the web, and so on...).

Happy birding!

And The Action Continues...

That's right. We didn't stop after the Santa Fe fieldtrip. Instead, we headed south to the Azuero Peninsula and stayed in the town of Pedasí (hometown of the first woman president of Panama). We wake up early on monday morning and meet our captain at El Ciruelo port (with an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron close to the beach). Our destination: the Frailes islands and its colony of seabirds. The last time I visited the islands, there were no terns on it (you can read a narrative of that trip here). The only other occasion I visited the islands was more than ten years ago and back then I did not notice any Sooty Tern, despite the fact that the islands were full of breeding birds (maybe simply I was unable to separate them from the Bridled Terns). This time I was prepared and, after reading some fieldguides and seeing many plates, I printed in my mind the following differences to look in the Sooties:

1. Heavier look with broader wings
2. Less white in the underwing
3. Less contrast between crown and mantle
4. Lack of complete white nape collar
5. Bigger white forehead patch not extending behind the eye

Maybe you can pick apart the Sooty Tern from these pics:
As you can see, we saw both of them, the Bridleds being commoner, and the Sooties restricted to south Frailes Islands, where we noticed another thing: the low pitched voice of the Sooties, quite different from the high nasal calls of the Bridleds. Other birds seen breeding in the islands were the Brown Noddies (the commonest) and the Brown and Blue-footed Boobies. There were also Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds, but none seemed to be breeding in the islands. On the way back, between Frailes north and south, we saw a lonely Galapagos Shearwater close to the boat. The sea and the clouds cooperated and gave us a calm return to mainland, where we prepared ourselves for the next journey.

PAS Fieldtrip to Santa Fe

Last weekend I went with Gloriela to western Panama to attend the PAS fieldtrip to Santa Fe National Park, in the Veraguas' highlands. The trip started on friday when we decided to visit Las Macanas marsh in Herrera before heading north to Santa Fe. We not stayed long because of the rising heat, but still found some central lowlands specialties like Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Glossy Ibis, lots of herons, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, and an Aplomado Falcon in the access road. The telephone poles along the Carretera Nacional held many raptors, including caracaras, Savanna Hawks and at least other three Aplomados! It was a nice beginning for the trip. After getting some supplies in Santiago, we drove the windy road to Santa Fe, arriving with the last light and meeting the others six PAS members that were attending the trip, including Karl and Rosabel Kaufmann, our guides. Soon we heard the characteristic call of a Feruginous Pygmy-Owl. Although I thought it was far away, Rosabel used her spotlight and almost immediately showed us the little bird perched on the tree right in the center of the garden! Wow, it was a very good first fieldtrip bird. The next day, early in the morning, we took the Altos de Piedra - Guabal road, but unfortunately, the first car got stuck in a mud pool beyond Altos de Piedra. Part of the group kept walking the road to a tributary of the Mulaba river, where is a sign indicating the boundaries for the national park.

Along the road we saw Black-faced Grosbeaks, Crimson-collared, Flame-rumped, Bay-headed and Plain-colored Tanagers, aracaris and toucans, and a flock of Sulphur-winged Parakeets. Soon the rest of the group reached us after some locals help them with the cars. Beyond that particular mud pool, the road is in good conditions all the way to Guabal, in the Caribbean slope. We stopped close to the site where the new facilities of the park are being constructed, around 600 to 800 meters above sea level, barely still on the Pacific slope. We noticed some flock activity, mainly Dusky-faced Tanagers, in some fruiting Melastomas. Then someone noticed a quite different bird accompanying the tanagers. Soon we recognized it as a Bush-Tanager (and the Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager had been reported from that site), with dull olive upperpart (including crown), gray face and throat (with no yellow or white), black iris, dull yellow breast band (contrasting) and whitish gray underparts, making it a Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, a bird only known from Bocas del Toro's foothills (in Panama). Happy with the finding, we attempt to reach the Continental Divide, but a rainstorm hit us, making us return to our hotel. We spent the evening in Altos de Piedra, under a cloudy sky. Little bird activity, but a promising habitat for next day's mourning. After the dinner, we saw how the panamenian soccer team was defeated by the americans due to a penal kick in the second time. A bit sad, we fall asleep with the calls of our resident pygmy-owl. Sunday mourning was cloudy, but anyway we birded the Altos de Piedra trail, finding woodcreepers, antbirds, antshrikes and flatbills, all typical of more humid forests. After a long search, we managed to locate the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush that was singing in the understore. The last bird seen was a Violet Sabrewing inside the forest, close to a bunch of Heliconias. After all, we enjoyed a nice mix of birds and great landscapes from windy roads with a group of old and new friends.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Western Hummingbirds Gallery

The hummingbirds are among my favorite bird families (only second after the tanagers). These avian jewels are designed exquisitely to obtain the flowers' nectar that supports their busy lives and are readily attracted to feeders, making them popular among the birders (and non-birders too). I already posted a link to a video of a lowland hummingbird feeder close to Gamboa, in central Panama (see the bottom of the lateral bar), but now, I want to post some pics of these beautiful creatures that I got in my last trip to Panama's western highlands. Most of them were photographed while visiting my friends Glenn & Janet Lee in their lovely Cielito Sur B & B Inn (the best breakfast that I ever tasted) last saturday. Others were higher up, above Cerro Punta. Unfortunately, I don't have photos of neither the Selasphorus hummingbirds, nor of the spectacular Fiery-throated Hummingbird, endemics to Costa Rica and Western Panama. The following two species were photographed in the area of Fortuna Forest Reserve. The road that leads to the Continental Divide Trail has been asphalted all the way to the transmission tower, allowing me to park my car in front of a bunch of flowers (already in the Caribbean slope), where I simply waited.Finally, though they aren't restricted to the western highlands, the following two species are so common at the hummingbird feeders in Cielito Sur that deserve to be included in this gallery. Others species restricted to this area and sighted during my last trip, but not included, were the Stripe-tailed Hummingbird and the White-throated & White-bellied Mountain-Gems.
Happy Birding!

Bocas' Lowlands

Saturday's evening and Sunday's morning found us bidwatching the Two Tanks Road in Chiriqui Grande, Central Bocas del Toro. Earlier, on saturday, the conditions of the Pipeline road after the Fortuna dam prevented us from birding the usual spots in the Bocas' foothills. Several landslides were partially blocking the road (and I couldn't find the entrance to the Verrugosa trail) and some streams overflew on the way, making difficult to stop in the usual sites (for example, Willie Mazu). Anyway, this part of the country form a part of the Central American Caribbean Slope EBA and has its own special birds. We stayed at the former Bull Pension (now, Hospedaje La Amistad) and birded only the first part of the road, since the last part of the dike road has been used as a dumping site. Although the activity was low, it was constant, with common species showing up and even some surprises (for me). The first birds sighted were the Brown Jays, easily detected by their loud calls, followed by the huge Montezuma Oropendolas. Common birds were Passerini's, Golden-hooded and White-lined Tanagers, Band-backed Wren, Olive-backed Euphonia, Groove-billed and Greater Anis, Blue-headed and White-crowned Parrots and Pale-vented Pigeons. A little bird working the bushes along the road turned out to be a male Pacific Antwren, a long desired lifer for me! Not much later, a quick search to the sky produced a group of ten or more Gray-rumped Swifts, my second lifer of the day! They flew against the forested hill, allowing me prolonged views of the pale rump and throat. The second day we found almost the same species (except the antwren), plus a Laughing Falcon and a Green Ibis that flew directly to us! We were hurried to return over de Continental Divide in order to visit Las Lajas beach (Panama must be the only place where you plan a beach trip to the Pacific Ocean standing on the Caribbean coast). After all, two lifers is pretty good if you're not twitching.

Going to the West

In spite of being a small country, Panama possesses five Endemic Bird Areas (EBA's) according to BirdLife International. That means more endemics birds in a little container. That's why I drove almost 2000 km in an extendend weekend (since thursday) with Gloriela to visit the western part of the country (Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro), passing through three different EBA's. Though the Panamerican highway runs along the historical limits of the South Central American Pacific Slope EBA, now what's left is only very degraded habitat in the lowlands, except for some isolated sites. However, is good for raptors. Only along the stretch of highway between Chame and Santiago we saw three different vultures species; Pearl and White-tailed Kites; Savanna, Roadside, Short-tailed and Common Black Hawks; Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras; Bat and Aplomado Falcons and even two American Kestrels (hard to see details of the crown and chest at 80 km/hr). After a few stops in the way, we arrived to Paso Canoa, in the border with Costa Rica, and headed south to Puerto Armuelles to check the Progreso and Esperanza marshes described in the book Where to Find Birds in Panama (Angher, Engleman & Engleman 2006), finding only Cattle Egrets. We headed back to Concepcion and, eventually, Volcan and Cerro Punta, but the heavy rain and the fog prevented us to do any birding that afternoon. We stayed at the modest Cerro Punta hotel. Friday's morning was sunny, allowing us to bird the road to El Respingo above Cerro Punta, and to visit Finca Dracula in the morning. The first birds of the day were the familiar Rufous-collared Sparrow and the Mourning Doves (we started very early as you can see in the photo). A pair of Black Phoebes were working at the hotel's garden, and flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons flew over us. Then, at the entrance of the Respingo road, a female Resplendent Quetzal welcomed us with a group of Black Guans. More or less at the middle of the road, we found a big mixed flock with Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, Ruddy Treerunner, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Yellow-thighed Finches, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush and Collared Whitestart that delighted us for an hour or so, allowing me to take some pictures. Back to Guadalupe, we had brunch in a little restaurant with Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds and Slaty Flowerpiercer out in the garden. We decided to spent the rest of the morning at the Finca Dracula. They have an incredible orchid collection, making them 7th in the world! We took the orchid tour and learned a lot about these marvelous flowers, saw the world's smallest orchid and all the different Dracula sp. that grow in their grounds, among others (hundreds of them, the finca houses 2200 species from all over the world!!). The orchids aren't the only reason to visit Finca Dracula. Being adjacent to La Amistad International Park, and the several bird feeders in their ground (fruit, seed and hummingbird feeders) make this place excellent for birding. In fact, we saw or heard many birds there, including the regular Slaty Finches, Silver-throated & Flame-colored Tanagers, many hummingbirds, and even a Red-tailed Squirrel on a banana feeder. We spent several hours in this place, crossing the sidewalks, taking pictures and watching birds. For the evening, we descended to Volcan and took the road to Santa Clara. It was devoid from birds, maybe because of the time of the day (it was hot). We reached the frontier town of Rio Sereno where we don't last much. Back in Bambito we had our dinner in an argentine grill and called it a day. Time to sleep because next day's plan included to drive over the Continental Divide to Bocas del Toro!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Happy B-day Mom!!

In the usual order: Axel Shamir, mom, grandma', Manuel, Jhalina, Jan Axel. Just for the record, that cheesecake was delicious. Jhalina, you are next!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Beach Weekend

Living in a tropical country with coast in two oceans means that you MUST spent at least one weekend of your vacations in a beach, so we did it. Gloriela and myself spent this weekend in an all-inclusive hotel at the coclesian coast (central Panama). May be july isn't the best month for a beach trip in Panama (is the middle of the rainy season), but any way, the idea is to relax and to enjoy. Somehow, Gloriela found an excellent package for two days in one of the local hotels. I must say that this area is crowded in new hotels and projects (villas, apartments, houses, and so on...) including some very luxurious and expensive ones. Is a good income for the province, taking into account that most of the employees came from the locality (at least it says the pamphlet). Because of the late check-in, first we visited Panama´s navel (literally talking): Penonome. In this town is located the geographical center of the country. In company of Gloriela's parents, we visit some relatives during the morning before heading to the beach. Then, at the hotel and after a long wait for our room, we were enjoying the sun and the breeze at the quiet swimming pool (there was also an activities swimming pool... crowded). We ate a lot... and played ping pong, and tasted some cocktails (really like that one with amaretto and coffee liquour, but I don't remember the name!). I brought my camera and binoculars (of course) and saw many common birds. There is a marshy area in front of the parking lot that looks promising for waders in the right season. Now it has Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Southern Lapwing, many egrets and kiskadees, and even a Common Black-Hawk. The gardens were full of birds like grassquits, seedeaters, House Wrens and grackles, while two non-tickable Keel-billed Toucans were adorning the dinning room. The weekend passed too quickly, but at least we got some rest (and a nice tan).

Thursday, July 2, 2009


July is my vacation month this year. Gloriela managed to get july as her vacation month too, so we planned a lot of activities (too many I guess for only 30 days). The plan includes fieldtrips to the Chiriqui province, to attend the PAS fieldtrip to Santa Fe, beach weekends, Patronales in Santiago and many other minor trips. I already started yesterday joining Rafael Luck, Osvaldo Quintero and his relatives in a trip beyond the Bayano bridge (eastern Panama). We didn't got many birds pics (except for a cooperative Red-rumped Woodpecker and a group of Crested Caracaras) but we spent a wonderful time enjoying nature and the traditional "pesca'o frito" in Coquira. In the way back, I run up with the presidential procession transfering from AtlaPa to the Casco Viejo. Because you never get completely free of work, I also plan to finish some reports and research protocols during these days. July is also a busy month regarding birthdays in my family. My mom, sister and her spouse all were born a month like this one. By the way: HAPPY BIRTHDAY MANUEL! Wait for us to have some cake with you in the evening.