Monday, September 28, 2009

Waiting the Mega Flock

Yes... I know is still september but I was hoping to find earlier this year the mega flock of migratory sandpipers. Every year, a huge number of sandpipers (mostly Western and Semipalmated) spent the winter in Panama's Upper Bay, most of them arriving in october. It is the best month to look for vagrants among the thousands of peeps. Anyway, I tried yesterday the usual spots (Costa del Este and Panama Viejo) finding only the usual suspects (Black-bellied Plovers, Whimbrels, Willets, Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs, and few Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers) in Costa del Este. My heart accelerated for a second when I saw a peep with an unusual rusty back (thinking on a MUCH rarer Stint or something like that) but otherwise identical to the accompanying Western Sandpipers. It was a lot of fun to watch the noisy Spotted Sandpipers doing nothing else but to chase each other... when do they eat? Of course, there were hundreds of residents birds, including pelicans, egrets and cormorants in the beach. In Panama Viejo I saw again the Gull-billed Terns and the adult Ring-billed Gull among the Laughings close to the Visitor Center, but the sandpipers were too far away even for my binoculars. Well, I suppose that I must be kept waiting.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Beautiful Desert

After visiting Herrera's wettest place in the morning, we drove to the driest one in the evening. The Sarigua desert is not a true desert actually, but a fragile coastal ecosystem known as "albina". Most of its tree-less landscape is due to the deforestation during the last century, though the area is also known as an important archaeological site. It is protected by its own national park, located in coastal Herrera, close to the town of Parita. Of course, we were looking for birds in this arid habitat. Our first stop was at the Visitor Center where we walked a little trail through cacti and xerofitic vegetation, following the call of a Crested Bobwhite nearby, and finding Prothonotary Warbler, Blue-black Grassquit, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet. A Bananaquit was eating in a cactus. I'm amazed by the adaptability of this little friend. You can find it in humid montane forest, residential gardens, and is doing just great in that arid site! We climbed the observation tower near the Center to have a panoramic view of the surroundings. There were some shallow lagoons in the distance that seemed to be full with birds, so we decided to drive in that direction. Shortly after we started to drive, a couple of ground-doves flew to the side of the road. A quick search and soon we were watching a beautiful pair of Common Ground-Doves. This dove is only common, as its name suggests, in this part of the country, being absent in places just to the north or south. They were the first of many pairs that we encountered later. When we reached the lagoons, soon we identified most of the birds. Most of them were Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers with few Least Sandpipers. A group of plovers proved to be Collared, while some Black-necked Stilts and Black-bellied Plovers were feeding in the open. The lagoons next to the mangroves in the other side of the park seemed promising, so we headed in that direction too. The road didn't reach those lagoons, so we parked the car and walked through a fantastic landscape of rocky formations for a kilometer or two. We found tons of herons and egrets, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Whimbrels, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, White Ibis, Laughing Gulls and Least Terns. We wanted to get closer, but it was getting late, so we started to return. We found more birds in the way back, including migrating Eastern Kingbirds and Barn, Bank and Cliff Swallows, Fork-tailed Flycatchers and flocks of Yellow-crowned Amazons going to roost. It was a long day, full of contrasting experiences, a really nice way to taste some of Panama's great diversity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

More than birds

What I like about birdwatching is that it allows you to know many sites, cultures and nature marvels while you are seeking the birds. That´s why I was so excited by my last trip. With Gloriela, Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck, I visited yesterday El Montuoso Forest Reserve, in Herrera province. Although the list of birds recorded there isn´t spectacular, the simple idea of visiting a new site for me in Panama was fascinating. Not only that, the journey was also interesting, crossing some very traditional towns, like Pesé (home of the locally popular Seco Herrerano), Las Minas de Ocú, and so on... After an overnight stay in Chitre (Herrera's capital city), we headed to El Montuoso early in the morning. That is a picturesque road, through pastures and grasslands, little towns with clay houses, and charming people with their "machetes" in hand. After Pesé, the road becomes hilly, specially after Las Minas de Ocú, with great views of the surrounding lowlands (check the photo). Around 8:00 am we reached the ANAM's Tres Picos ranger station where we met the rangers who had an special guest, professor Victor Martínez, a renowned herpetologist in Panama. He was collecting snakes with a group of students of the University of Panama. After a short introduction (and after paying the entrance fee), we walked the loop trail behind the station. It runs along a creek, crossing it several times. It is amazing that a humid forest like that one still survives in the Herrera province. Our main target was the Brown-backed Dove, a national and enigmatic endemic that would have been a life bird for Osvaldo and Rafael. Although we dipped on it, we found many others birds. In the beginning of the trail we found a lek of Lance-tailed Manakins close to a pair of Orange-collared Manakins, our other target for the day. They were not easy to photograph, as you can guess by my photo, but a regional endemic anyway! Other birds recorded were Chestnut-backed Antbird, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Black-and-white, Yellow and Rufous-capped Warblers, Blue-throated Goldentail and the third species of manakin for the day: a beautiful male White-ruffed Manakin with contrasting white vent. During the return we found another mixed flock, this time with Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers and Golden-crowned Warblers, plus one or two Orange-billed Sparrows. I saw a flycatcher accompanying the group with olive-green back and two ochraceous wing bars. When it turned around I was able to see the dusky markings in its face: a Sepia-capped Flycatcher! an unexpected life bird for me. Happy with the finding, we headed to the station where the professor ask us if we were lucky with snakes (while chasing a really BIG tarantula). He thinks that we find many snakes while birding. I didn't agree, until we find a long and thin green snake (maybe a Green Vine Snake) right in the entrance of the loop trail only ten minutes later! After watching the snake for several minutes, we continue our way, looking for the dove, which never appeared. This didn't discourage us since we were astonished by that charming forest. It is like an island in the middle of a sea of devastation, the last remaining oasis for those spectacular birds and animals in the Herrera province... at least it is protected. It was getting hot so we left the place, heading to Las Minas de Ocú where we had our tasty meal: rice, lentils and meat. The owner of the fonda where we ate offered us a "pesada"; a nance dessert prepared with the addition of sugar, flour, milk and a piece of white cheese... delicious! It is a quite common dessert in rural Panama. We took some pictures of the little town, its central plaza and its church before heading to the coast (1.5 hour away) to the El Agallito beach, near Chitre, where we had a cold beer while watching some waders and Mangrove Warblers. From pastures to forests, hills to beaches, tarantulas and snakes to life birds, that's why I like birdwatching!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Free weekend, short trips

This weekend was a really busy one for me. Anyhow, I managed to visit few places close to the city with my camera. Starting yesterday, taking advantage of the not too very high tide in the morning, I stopped at the mouth of the Matías Hernández river in Costa del Este. This site is known by the flocks of gulls and sandpipers that gather there, sometimes with really nice goodies (even a new species for Panama!). Unfortunately, the flock was not close, and it seemed to be composed mainly by Laughing Gulls, plus a lonely Black Skimmer. Resting with the gulls was a group of Marbled Godwits and Black-bellied Plovers too far away for my camera. A group of Semipalmated Plovers with Spotted Sandpipers and Whimbrels was closer, allowing me some shots. Then, I drove to Panama Viejo, checking the mudflats between the tower and the Visitor Center. A Ring-billed Gull was among the Laughings plus tons of Brown Pelicans and Neotropic Cormorants. There were Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers too, and many other common birds (Willets, Yellowlegs, and so on...), but I didn't stayed long because is simply a bad idea if you are alone (specially with binoculars and camera equipments clearly visible). So, I stopped at the Visitor Center where some Gull-billed Terns were delicately picking food of the surface, watching a Ruddy Turnstone (not so ruddy) flying by and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons right in the open in the middle of the day. The little patch of mangroves was full of pelicans, cormorants, egrets and herons, but no storks like other times. The garden and the grass at the Center hold a family group of Saffron Finches, now a common bird in Panama City. It never fails to impress with its bright yellow body. With that in mind, I finished my duties for the day and went to the dance presentation of my 5-years old nephew at his school in the afternoon. Today, I went to Gamboa, with Osvaldo Quintero. As usual, the first stop was in the Ammo Dump, where the resident Tiger-Herons were waiting for us. A female Olivaceous Piculet quickly appeared just for a couple of minutes, while a pair of babies Capybaras were having breakfast very close to us. After a few pictures, we headed to the Rainforest Discovery Center, enjoying a group of Purple-throated Fruticrows right in the installations, building a nest. Males and females were bringing nesting material, announcing its arrival noisily. We walked some trails with no luck, just to find a huge mixed flock right in the parking lot. The birds cooperated, allowing us nice views. Cinnamon and White-winged Becards, White-shouldered, Plain-colored and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Shining and Green Honeycreepers, Forest Elaenias, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow Warbler, Long-billed Gnatwren, just to mention a few. A beautiful male Purple-crowned Fairy was visiting the nearby Heliconias, just stopping for a second or so. My blurry picture does not do justice to it, but at least you can have a glance of the explosion of colours it gave to us when facing the sun. Every five minutes or so we added a new species to the flock... there is a Golden-collared Manakin and a Fasciated Antshrike... oh my lord look at that male Blue-crowned Manakin... is that an Empidonax over there? Wow, the action was intense, so we stayed an hour more or less. Back in the Center, we saw a single Squirrel Cuckoo hunt and eat at least ten big and fat worms in less than 15 minutes... that was a really hungry cuckoo! It was getting hot and late, so we started to return to Panama City, seeing a Ruddy-breasted Seedeater having lunch (a tasty spike) next to our window. Nice mix of birds for a short trip!