Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Mysterious nightjar in Pipeline road

During the last Christmas Bird Count, by the Mendoza river in Pipeline road (central Panama), I found an interesting nightjar perched atop a branch in the open, around 11:00 AM, probably a migrant Chuck-will's-widow (ChWW). All the team members (Venicio "Beny" Wilson, Rafael Luck and Osvaldo Quintero) were able to see the bird and to get photographs. The first thing we noticed was its posture, it was vertically perched like a potoo, showing well the undertail pattern but not as well the back nor the crown. We also noticed immediately its hugeness, looking definitively larger than the common nightjar usually found in Panama (Pauraque), approaching the size of a Common Potoo. Essentially, it was a cryptic patterned nightjar, mostly rufous-brown, with darker tones in the wing coverts and paler in the back. The underparts were mostly dark brown, with many rufous spots and fine dark vermiculations. The closed wings almost reached the tail tip, and the primaries were black with rufous barring. More interesting, at least the two external rectrices showed pale buffy tips and buffy white inner webs all the way to the undertail coverts (which were rufous with black barring), with the external webs boldy barred in buff and dark brown. The bird didn't vocalize nor move during the ten minutes or so that we watched it. Osvaldo and Rafael used their flashes with the camera... my own photo (digiscoped with my DSLR camera) was with natural light (however, the day was cloudy and the lights conditions were not the best). The Common Pauraque (above photo, a male) can be easily ruled out by tail pattern and lack of conspicuous chestnut cheeks (and less patterned shoulders and wing coverts). The really hard task is to rule out the Rufous Nightjar (RNj). The RNj is one of our resident nightjars, closely related to the ChWW. It prefers drier habitats in the Pacific slope of the country (second growths, thickets and forest edges), so a bird found deep inside a mature. wet forest in the Caribbean slope as this one will hardly be a RNj... in the other hand, the ChWW is a boreal migrant recorded in a wide variety of habitats in Panama, including mature wet forest, but also the same habitats preferred by the RNj and even residential areas with big trees. So, habitat favors ChWW... but birds doesn't read books, and there are some records of RNj in the Caribbean slope of the Canal area (although in cleared areas), so habitat alone is not enough to separate these birds. Another thing is the size. The ChWW is our largest nightjar, but we all know that size appreciation in the field is very subjective, and depends of maaaaany factors, including posture. About field marks, these two species are almost impossible to tell apart in the field, specially because we do not hear the characteristic call of the ChWW in its wintering grounds. In the hand, the ChWW have lateral filaments to the rictal bristles, absent in the RNj. Enlarge my photo of a RNj (above, from Summit Ponds, just across the continental divide in the Pacific slope of central Panama) and you will see the long rictal bristles arising from the base of its mouth. Now, call me crazy, but enlarge Osvaldo's photo (the first of this post)... although the resolution is not the best due to the distance, I can see that the rictal bristles look like a brush! Photo artifact? Lateral filaments? OK, it is hard to tell, so lets forget it. What about plumage marks. Some references list differences in the overall coloration, the color of the crown, the back and the throat to separate these two species in the field, but I have found that these field marks are not reliable after checking LOTS of ChWW's photos in the internet, and many RNj's photos as well (there not so many published photos of this species). This probably is due to many contributing factors, like age, sex and race (ssp) of the bird, the photographic settings, the light conditions, etc... but one characteristic seemed useful to correctly separate these two: the male's undertail pattern. In the ChWW, the white (or buff) of the inner webs is very extensive, more than that of the RNj, almost reaching the base of the feather and only skipping the tips. You can see this in Nate's photo, of The Drinking Bird blog, of a preserved ChWW specimen. Compare it with our bird. In the RNj, the white (or buff) is shorter, occupying only the distal half or third part of the feather. This difference is listed and/or illustrated by Ridgely & Gwynne (Birds of Panama), Ridgely & Greenfield (Birds of Ecuador), Hilty & Brown (Birds of Colombia, attached illustration), Garrigues & Dean (Birds of Costa Rica), just to mention a few! It is not exactly a field mark, because is very unlikely to watch this under normal field viewing conditions, so we were VERY lucky. I'm pretty convinced that our bird is a male Chuck-Will's-Widow based on tail pattern and habitat, and I want to know if you agree with me via the comments. Happy birding and Happy New Year by the way!

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010's Central Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday, earlier than usual, I woke still at dark in order to drive to the sleepy town of Gamboa (central Panama) to participate in the Central Christmas Bird Count organized by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS). Under a light drizzle, and in complete darkness, I joined Bill & Claudia Ahrens and Karl & Rosabel Kaufmann at the entrance gate of the famous Pipeline Road. A pouring rain struck the town all night long, and the weather forecast was not promising. As expected, our owling outing ended with just a Pauraque and a Mottled Owl due to the rain. The road was very damaged, so we only reached the area just beyond the former Limbo hunt camp, from where I started to walk (umbrella in hand) towards my own birding area around the Mendoza river, at the 8.8 km mark, hearing no dawn chorus due to the rain, a very bad sign. After a while, the team formed by Rafael Luck, Osvaldo Quintero and Venicio "Beny" Wilson (destined to explore the depths of Pipeline road) passed me swiftly aboard the tough FJ Cruiser without a problem, but it was a huge fallen tree (and not the muddy, potholed road) that stopped them... so I joined them in their quest after birds. We walked a lot on hilly terrain, passing the Syristes river and reaching the 11.0 km mark (photo courtesy of Beny, more at his Picasa Web Album)... and we were rewarded with special birds for this count, like Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Russet Antshrike, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Speckled Mourner, Olive Tanager and even a rare (for that area) White-throated Thrush attending an antswarm. Of course, the antswarm attracted more regular ant-follower birds too, like Bicolored, Spotted and Ocellated Antbirds, Plain-brown and Northern Barred Woodcreepers and a Rufous Motmot. It is always nice to see the Ocellated Antbirds, with their intrincated pattern and bright blue bare-skin around the eye (file photo). Well, despite this list, the activity was desperately low between the mixed flocks, and we covered large tracks of road without seeing or hearing any bird. It was getting late and we started to return, finding a nicely perched nightjar in the open (I will discuss its ID in another post) close to the Mendoza river. Out of Pipeline road, we headed to the town of Gamboa, stopping first at the Ammo Dump's marshes and finding several waterbirds, including at least two adult Rufescent Tiger-Herons and a Muscovy Duck (another heard). We checked our lists at Guido Berguido's place, finding that we saw a good number of birds despite the weather, The house is at the edge of a nice forest and it has bird feeders scattered in the backyard, attracting hordes of colourful Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers (sometimes Shiny Honeycreeper as well, but not that day), Blue Dacnis, Blue-gray, Palm, Flame-rumped and Crimson-backed Tanagers, a stunning Baltimore Oriole just like the one of the baseball caps, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Variegated Squirrels, Central American Agouti, etc, etc, etc.... the backyard list is impressive. For the afternoon, I went with Darien Montañez and Jose Luciani around Gamboa, looking for some missing birds, and we saw many of them... with Great Antshrike, Golden-winged Warbler, Yellow-billed Cacique and Northern Rough-winged Swallows as my personal highlights. Probably not the best count in terms of quantity, but it is quality what matters after all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great little pond

Yesterday's afternoon was so sunny and warm, very summer-like, that I decided to go with Gloriela on a short ride to the former U.S. military base of Clayton (Panama City), now home of The City of Knowledge and a residential area. There is a pond right in the center of the area where two species of grebes were seen during the last Christmas Bird Count. I still needed the Least Grebe for my year list so it was an extra reason to visit the site. I drove, entering the relaxing neighborhood, with its wide avenues, forested parks and low traffic; passing by schools, houses and business centers before reaching the pond. I parked in front of it (at the visitors' parking lot of an apartments tower) and then we walked towards the shore, where you can sit on a park-like chairs facing the water. Almost immediatley we found the first, of two, Least Grebe in the far shore. They were readily identified by their bright yellow eyes and small size. One of them even showed to us its white wings panels, which are seldom seen in the wild (It was the first time I see that field mark). One stayed floating while the other was diving frequently... but not as the Pied-billed Grebe present in the same pond. It only showed itself for brief periods of time, long enough to breath. Most of the time it stayed underwater, emerging randomly in different sites of the pond, sometimes close to the Least Grebes. You can tell it apart by its general browner coloration, bigger size and heavier bill. Both grebes were lifers for Gloriela, and the Least Grebe was a new year-bird for me! The only other bird we saw at the pond (well, not including those at the trees surrounding it, like Tropical Kingbirds and Common Tody-Flycatchers) was a Green Heron inspecting the banks close to us (file photo). Well, nice way to spent the afternoon of a sunny day... getting lifers and new year-birds!
P.D.: did I mention the HUGE Common Sliders (aka Pond Slider, Red-eared Slider, Slider Turtle), Trachemys scripta, inhabitating the pond?

Monday, December 20, 2010

2010's Pacific Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday, the Panama Audubon Society carried out the first (of three) Christmas Bird Counts in central Panama, with a great assistence and some good birds showing up. Like last year, I counted in the Farfan/Veracruz area (Panama Canal's west bank) in the morning... but this time alone because Gloriela stayed in home with a cold. I started very early, as usual, finding many of the specialties for the area (shorebirds, waders and open land birds). First, I checked Veracruz beach walking along the tide line in rubber boots finding tons of Willets and Whimbrels in the same flock along with a White Ibis, a Ruddy Turnstone, and some Collared, Wilson's and Black-bellied Plovers. I also found two Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures (so far the only two of the count) and heard a Striped Cuckoo in an adjacent grassland. Then, I checked Farfan beach, finding maaany herons and egrets, including my new-for-the-year Boat-billed Heron inside a mangrove and several Great Blue Herons. The highlights were two American Oystercatchers spotted far away in the rocky shores, also the only two for the count. Other birds related to the aquatic environment were the Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers at the river, several Northern Waterthrushes, a single Prothonotary Warbler and a flock of Greater Anis making a guttural call. These are shiny and good-looking birds compared to the Smooth-billed Anis found before. I like its expressive yellow eyes... not to be confused with the abundant Great-tailed Grackle). I moved to Amador where I entered Punta Culebra, the most reliable site inside the count circle to find the Northern Scrub-Flycatcher... and one of these little friends was perched on the entrance sign! Notice its pattern, quite similar to the Myiarchus flycatchers. You can identify it by its smaller size, short bill and different voice. The site is also very good for Sapphire-throated Hummingbird (only one male seen), Garden Emerald (up to four different birds of both sexes present) and "Mangrove" Warblers (with several seen). I also saw both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies (following a ship entering the Canal!) INSIDE the count circle. By midday, all the groups met at the Chiva Chiva ponds (beyond the Miraflores locks) to compilate the preliminar list and to organize the plans for the afternoon journey. After checking the missing birds, I went to different sites with Darien Montañez (PAS president, this CBC main compilator and XENORNIS editor) looking to add more birds to the day list, with moderate success. The very first stop was at the first of the two Chiva Chiva ponds, were we scoped several Common Gallinules (aka Moorhens), an American Coot and four (probably more) Pied-billed Grebes, the latter two were new year-birds for me! At the mangroves of Diablo Heights, Darien showed me a female American Redstart (new year-bird!) and we saw a quite grayish Cocoi Heron (white thighs and solid black crown, so its grayness was probably age-related). We failed to locate the Cattle Tyrant at its former usual haunts in Amador, but added Shiny Honeycreeper and Black-tailed Flycatcher at the Metropolitan Natural Park (with Venicio "Beny" Wilson and Olmedo Miró). The day ended doing some owling at Beny's place in Ancon... 15 hours of intense birding! Great count with great birds!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The "real" Panama's bird

With almost 10% of the known birds of the world, Panama is becoming a premier birding destination in the neotropics. With so many birds, and with five Endemic Bird Areas according to BirdLife International, it is absolutely expected that our country list harbors many birds' names reflecting part of their ranges (or ALL their ranges), like Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Veraguan Mango, Coiba Spinetail, Tacarcuna Bush-Tanager, Pirre Warbler, and so on.... But what about the birds exhibiting "Panama" in their common names? Many countries are honored with at least one bird species named after them in the Americas. For example lets see our neighbors: Costa Rica have two of them (Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and Swift) and Colombia, three (Colombian Crake, Screech-Owl and Tapaculo). So, after an extensive research, "our" bird is... (drums): the PANAMA FLYCATCHER (Myiarchus panamensis)!
What? Was you expecting something more fancy? Well, is the only one we got. The Panama Flycatcher is a typical Myiarchus flycatcher, a group of very homogeneous, crested birds patterned in yellow, olive and gray (except the handsome Rufous Flycatcher of Peru); with distinctive voices. They are so similar, that most of them are named after countries, people or something about their crests. The Panama Flycatcher has a broad distribution, ranging from Costa Rica to northern South America (so, is not restricted to Panama) and is pretty common all over Panama in the right habitat.
They are quite confiding and lethargic, allowing close approach if you want to photograph them. They do not flycatch, like others tyrant flycatchers; they prefer to check the foliage in a skulking way. The adult lacks the rufous tones or the contrasting cap of the others two Myiarchus present in Panama: the Great Crested and the Dusky-capped Flycatchers. There is no other "Panama" bird, unless you are considering the proposal of Ridgely about the viridiflavus form of Scrub Greenlet found in Panama and adjacent Costa Rica as a full species... he proposed the name "Panama Greenlet"... but that is unlikely to become reality. So, next time you find a Panama Flycatcher in the field, think on it as the "real" Panama's bird!
This post was submitted to Bird Photography Weekly # 120. Check it out!

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Peregrine bites the dust

While looking for shorebirds and waders in Costa del Este (Panama City) last saturday, Osvaldo Quintero and I witnessed a dramatic episode of the daily fight for survival in the birds' world. A young Peregrine Falcon was mercilessly attacked by a pair of adults, probably defending their winter territory. We were inspecting the recently cut grass of the extensive fields in Costa del Este, spying the birds that were taking advantage of the insects and others critters available. The most numerous were the Cattle Egrets... a complete flock was following the tractor working on the fields, but also many raptors were attending too, including an adult Zone-tailed Hawk flying over some Black Vultures (not to be confused with the Turkey Vultures that were on the fields too). First, I noticed the noise of the three birds maneuvering in the air, both adults chasing the young one.
The fight reached the ground, right where the egrets were, so they flew away without thinking on it twice! Once in the ground, the young Peregrine tried to repel the attacks, showing its claws to the adults during each of their steep attack dives, lying on its back.
Eventually, the tractor came close to the Peregrine, so the adults stopped the attack for a while, allowing me to take some pictures.
However, the young Peregrine flew to a nearby flooded field, where it was struck again, this time by only one member of the pair. The adult Peregrine was too fast for my camera in Aperture mode, so you will see only its blurry silhouette and the young one trying to defend itself. Notice the third witness of the attack, a Crested Caracara in the background of the next photo (only the head is visible).
It was a nasty attack, sometimes with an audible PAFF! during each hit by the adult. After several minutes (and many hits), the adult left the young one inmobile in the ground. A Turkey Vulture approached it, surely with obscure intentions, but for its dissappointment (and our relief), the young Peregrine started to move, quite wet and clumsy.
The Peregrine Falcon flew to a nearby wall, where the Crested Caracara joined him.
It seemed to be well for such a fight and then it flew to never be seen again... I hope it found its own territory and to be strong enough to fight another day.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Panama Audubon Society Pot-luck dinner

In a kind of Christmas season tradition, each december the Panama Audubon Society (PAS) organizes a pot-luck dinner anticipating the Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs). This year's dinner was yesterday, and it was full of surprises. As usual, each member contributed with a dish (including both of us), making the menu a very assorted one. Then, Rosabel Miró (PAS Executive Director) announced the winners of the "Bird photo of the year" competition. Congratulations to Itzel Fong who won the first place with her photo of a Green Heron at the Juan Díaz mangroves, a bird that symbolizes the efforts of the society to preserve this important habitat. She also won the third place (congratulations again), leaving me the second place for my Broad-billed Motmot photo (thanks PAS for the very nice plate). Then, PAS president Darien Montañez talked about the CBCs and encouraged all of us to participate in any of this year's counting circles along central Panama and Volcan area (and to pay the $5.00 fee by the way). But probably the most exciting part of the meeting (at least for me) came when the PAS Director for Science George Angehr announced and presented his new book: "The Birds of Panama: A Field Guide". It is a three-years long project resulting in the most updated and comprehensive work on Panama's birds, with more illustrations (by Robert Dean) than any other Panama field guide and including range maps in a easy-to-use and practical format... a great addition to any collection for any birdwatcher or nature lover. Thanks to Venicio "Beny" Wilson who kindly shared with me the next photos showing George, Rosabel and Darien during the presentation of the field guide.
I almost forget, congratulations to George not only for his new book, but also for winning the "best dish of the night" competition with his world-famous salad!

You can see more images of the meeting by Beny at his Facebook photo album here. It was a great event, and it was nice to see all you guys again! See you in the counts!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mid-week Twitch

Imagine the worst day to bird in the foothills of Cerro Azul (central Panama): dark, rainy, foggy, windy and cold. Well, that day was yesterday... and despite it Osvaldo Quintero, Gloriela and I visited the site in an after-work twitch to see the Brown Violetear reported there a week ago. It was the third visit for me (and the second for Gloriela and Osvaldo) in less than seven days, I already posted the story of my previous two visits. We reached the Cerro Azul gate quite late (around 4:20 PM) due to a huge traffic jam in the city... this because of the shopping madness for the mothers' day and the heavy rain all day long. Despite the weather, Cerro Azul had surprises for us... starting with a Fasciated Tiger-Heron standing on a rock close to the road by the Río Jefe... and I was just telling Osvaldo that finding that bird was very unlikely because the torrential made the usually-clear-and-nice forest creek into an unleashed, mighty, roaring river! Did I mention that it was a long-desired Panama life bird for me and a lifer for Gloriela? Great way to start.
When we finally reached Birders' View, it was very dark and windy... not very promising. But Osvaldo's networking showed to be useful when he received the information that we can try Birders' View's neighbors "Smithy" and Rachelle, who keep hummingbirds and banana feeders in their property. So we introduced ourselves and the couple kindly received us willing to show their incredible feeders, completely FULL of colourful birds and hummers! We simply got distracted by all that activity, tons of hummers zipping right at our faces, lots of tanagers, euphonias, grassquits and others begging for bananas, bread and seeds... wordless! Then, I saw a big hummer at one of the several hummingbirds feeders of the backyard: a BROWN VIOLETEAR!!! A lifer for all of us! It was comparable in size to the White-necked Jacobins accompanying it at the feeder, and considerable bigger than the Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds of the picture. If the Jacobins were approaching too close, it was confronting them opening its erectile violet ears... amazing! Its green-and-blue gorget was also evident while perched on the feeders (Jacobin in the foreground, Violetear in the background). It made several visits to the same feeder, to then perch in the same Hibiscus plant (popular known as "Papo"). It appeared just in time because the light was dissapearing fast (it was almost 6:00 PM!). The Brown Violetear is a rare and erratic hummingbird in Panama, with just a handful of records, including only two other previous records for this locale. So, despite the rain, the fog and the wind I can't think on a better day in Cerro Azul!

No Violetears, but plenty of Sicklebills!

That is right, last sunday I went again to Cerro Azul (central Panama foothills) along with Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck in search of the Brown Violetear reported elsewhere. Contrasting with my last visit, the day was sunny and hot in Panama City when we left it, and it was a clear day too in Birders' View when we arrived, but very windy. The activity was quite low, specially in the flowering trees and bushes that were attracting the hummingbirds, so we did not saw a sign of the Violetear. We decided to bird inside the forest, sheltered from the wind. Eventually we got to the now-famous Heliconia patch, home of the splendid White-tipped Sicklebill, and just few seconds after our arrival, one individual hovered in front of me for three seconds! Despite its dullness, the White-tipped Sicklebill is spectacular if you take into account its size and, of course, its distinctive bill. The combination of curved bill and streaked underparts is unique among Panama's hummingbirds. They are perfectly adapted to the dark understore where they live (just see how much light its eyes reflect when you photograph them with flash), sucking the nectar of the Heliconias flowers with its specialized, 90º curved bill. The purpouse of that extravagant bill become evident when you see its favored flowers (as in the picture). Notice also that they like to perch in the flowers, instead of hovering in front of it, when feeding. We found at least two different individuals, with one of them allowing great pictures while perched, making its insignificant call. After all it was a great, sunny day at Cerro Azul, despite we did not see our main target... but who is complaining?
This post was submitted to Bird Photography Weekly # 119. Check it out!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mostly common birds at Cerro Azul (plus Thorntail)

I visited Cerro Azul (foothills close to Panama City) three times in the past seven days. The reason: last week report of the very rare (for Panama) Brown Violetear at Birders' View. In the first two visits I recorded almost exactly the same species of birds, most of them common backyard birds in Cerro Azul, with the only exception of the female Green Thorntail that I saw atop the white-flowered tree of the parking lot with Gloriela during my first visit exactly seven days ago. She (the thorntail, not Gloriela) was a new year-bird for me... more or less a year ago I got my life thorntails in that very same tree. No photos of that first visit because of the clouded and dark day up there. During my second visit (this time with Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck) last sunday, the light conditions were much better, and I got pictures of many common birds, including all the photos I'm showing in this post. It is true that the protagonist of the day was the White-tipped Sicklebill, but that is matter of another post. Back to the Birders' View garden, the Yellow-faced Grassquits were abundant, making their thrilling call everywhere and having an snack at the feeders, but also checking the native plants. At first they were a little shy, but after a couple of minutes they got very close to us because we stayed next to the feeder. We also saw a pair of Variable Seedeaters working the bushes away of the feeders. This is one of the most common species in Panama, with a rich song that is a common sound in the lowlands, but also up there. This black and white form is the dominant one in most of Panama, but we also have a totally-black form in the Caribbean slope (hence the name "Variable"). Another little friend that is quite common, but hard to see, is the Scaly-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. It has a loud voice, for such a tiny bird, that usually reveals the true commoness of this tiny flycatcher. The full crest is often seen in the field, but usually you can see the flattened look of its head and a bit of color of the hidden crest by the nape (not in this picture by the way). We also saw a lot of common hummingbirds, including Green Hermits, White-necked Jacobins, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Blue-chested, Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed, Violet-headed and Violet-capped Hummingbirds. The last species is near-endemic to Panama, only found in this mountain range all the way to the Tacarcuna range and adjacent parts of Colombia (also in the Maje range in the Pacific slope of Panama-Darien provinces), making Cerro Azul the most reliable site IN THE WORLD to see this little jewel... so even a photo of a female at a feeder is good photo! Of course, I also got photos of my favorite hummer in that garden: the Violet-headed Hummingbird! In the way out we saw another of the Cerro Azul's regular birds. Perched on a telephone wire, an immature male American Kestrel was inspecting its surroundings. It was in Cerro Azul when some years ago the first signs of breeding for this species was noticed in Panama... now they are year-round residents in central and eastern Panama, a population that probably came from the south (Colombia) to firmly stablished here. Well, all these birds may be common, but they are so interesting anyway!