Monday, June 28, 2010

Birding Bocas: Part I

Almost a week ago, I had the pleasure to visit Panama's western Caribbean lowlands of the Bocas del Toro province. This part of the country holds its own array of habitats and wildlife, including a great variety of birds found nowhere else in Panama. This is not a well-known birding destination, specially when talking about the mainland (the Bocas islands are a well-known touristic attraction at the other hand), so I joined two "bocatoreños" in our quest of those Bocas' specialties. After saying good bye to Gloriela, I took the 8:00 PM night-bus to the coastal town of Almirante, arriving 10 hours later. With the first lights I started to identify birds by my own while walking through the streets towards the main avenue. I quickly found a pair of singing White-collared Seedeaters and several flocks of noisy Crimson-fronted Parakeets along the main streets. I met Rafael Luck (who overnighted in town) and soon were heading west, to the town of Changuinola where we joined Venicio "Beny" Wilson. If the bananas were money, then Changuinola would be the richest town on earth! The town is almost entirely surrounded by banana plantations and most of the commercial activity still turns around it. Of course we were not there because of the bananas, but because of the special birds that lives around the town, where good habitat still remains. I got my first life bird in a marshy area very close to the bridge over the San San river in route to the frontier town of Guabito: a pair of Olive-crowned Yellowthroats. A bird that escaped my searches in previous occasions, now was conspicuous and singing everywhere, as it proved later. The same marshy area also had Thick-billed Seed-Finch, White-collared and Variable Seedeaters, Blue-black Grassquits and the Bocas' race of Plain Wren (zeledoni). Some authorities call this form the Canebrake Wren. I must admit that the bird's call was distinctively different from that of the Plain Wren in central Panama and it looked different too... more grayer. I only managed to obtain poor photos of it. We first tried a spot known by Beny good for aquatic birds, the port at the channels in "Las 60". These channels eventually join the Soropta channel that connects to the Caribbean sea, but now are navigable only for little boats ("pangas"). We found some common aquatic birds like Green Heron, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, Mangrove and Souther Rough-winged Swallows, and even a female Pygmy Kingfisher. In the park we found a female Green-breasted Mango and a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. After this, we drove to the other side of Changuinola, to a trail that heads to the beach ("Sendero Ecológico"). Despite the hour and the heat, the place proved to be very good, with mostly regenerative vegetation and some gallery forest along wet meadows that were full of birds, including some interesting species. The Passerinii's Tanagers were numerous in all sort of habitats (including the banana plantations), the same for the attractive Black-cowled Oriloles that were all around. A cooperative Striped Cuckoo responded to playback while we heard the call of a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher that we barely saw later. Then, Beny recognized the characteristic call of a Grayish Saltator (a quite recent addition to the Panama's bird list) and soon we saw one of them working some nearby bushes. Other birds found were tons of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Pale-vented Pigeons, a family group of Olive-backed Euphonias, more Green Herons including one in black phase, the Bocas ssp. of Plain-colored Tanager (with buffy underparts instead of white) and so on... We returned to town in order to have a well deserved lunch just to keep birding! The last spot we visited that day were the rice fields west of town and surroundings. The rice fields were dry so we did not find all those specialties we were looking for (Nicaraguan Seed-Finch for example), but anyway we got good species. In the same field we saw both Bronzed and Shiny Cowbirds and a Crested Caracara which is still rare in Bocas. The Grayish Saltators were calling from everywhere and we heard the characterictic call of several Gray-breasted Crakes while a noisy flock of Aratinga parakeets turned out to be Olive-throated Parakeets (only found in Bocas del Toro) and only the second time ever that I see this bird. It was a very long first day so we stayed in town, planning the journey for the next day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

From white to black... and some yellow!

I visited the area of Amador in Panama City under the heat of a midday sun just to see if I could find some yellow in the form of a Cattle Tyrant that has been reported there several times. Instead, I found a lot of white, black and different shades of gray in the form of many common birds in the surroundings... most of them Fork-tailed Flycatchers. These amazing birds have very elongated rectrices (tail feathers) that they display while chasing the flying insects which they eat, mostly with acrobatic aerial maneuvers. They are pretty common in the open habitats of the Pacific slope all along Panama (except the Darien province), where you can see one or many individuals calmly perched atop a bush waiting for an insect. They breed in Panama, but we also have migrants from the north and maybe from South America too. The exact movements of this species in Panama are not well known yet. For example, I saw a huge flock in the Gatun locks of the Panama Canal last january in the Caribbean slope, where it is supposed to be uncommon. Maybe it was a flock of migrants. Now, I saw also a huge flock in Amador, with at least 100 birds scattered along the extensive gardens and fields of the area. The Birds of Panama Fieldguide mention that it is possible that these birds leave their breeding grounds in big flocks and who knows if this is an evidence of that. Anyway, they are funny to see. Some even descended to the sidewalk to drink water and others were feeding with fruits of a palm tree. Sometimes thery were joined by the Great-tailed Grackles and the Tropical Mockingbirds that abound in the area (then, giving some black and gray to my former black-and-white linen). Two white dots in a distant field turned out to be a pair of White Ibises feeding in the grass like Cattle Egrets, not even noticing the group of kids playing soccer in the field next to them. According to some reports, the flock of ibises feeding in the grass of the Amador area can have dozens of birds, just like in other grassy areas within the city, like the Omar Park and others. So, now it is not rare to see White Ibises outside the coast of the city. And what about the yellow? Well, I did not find the Cattle Tyrant, but found others common tyrannids, like the omnipresent Social Flycatcher and the more-than-familiar Tropical Kingbird. A day without these two is not a day in Panama! Both birds are known in Panama as "pechiamarillo" (yellow-breasted), just like all the other medium to large-sized flycatchers with mostly yellow underparts, so including also the kiskadees, the Boat-billed Flycatcher and many others Myiozetetes flycatchers. Both, the Social Flycatcher and the Tropical Kingbird, have light yellow underparts; but the bright yellow tone for the visit was given by the hordes of Saffron Finches that patrol the fields, mostly females and immatures, but always with two or more bright males accompanying them. What a beautiful bird and what a beautiful combination of colors in Amador!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Azuero Parakeets in Flores!

You don't see a panamanian endemic everyday. That is why last sunday was so special. Thanks to an invitation made by Osvaldo Quintero, I went with Gloriela, Rafael Luck and Venicio "Beny" Wilson to the southernmost part of the Veraguas province in the western side of the Azuero Peninsula, to the little town of Flores. Our goal: to relocate the panamanian endemic Azuero Parakeet found for the first time by a birder (that is, not by locals) in that side of the Cerro Hoya mountain range by Beny last april. The only idea of having a chance to watch this bird included mounting an expedition, with lot of hiking and climbing, almost no facilities and really serious logistic headaches (read my journey to Cobachon entry and you'll know what I mean)... until now. We left Panama City during the mid-morning of saturday, june 12th heading west along the Panamerican highway. Osvaldo could not go due to personnal issues, the only negative note about this trip; but under the guiding of Beny we were very confident of our chances (Beny is very modest... he is in fact one of the best guides in Panama). We took the road to Atalaya only a few kilometers before reaching Santiago (Veraguas province's capital city) and then the turn-off to the town of Mariato, which we passed stopping only at the little town of Malena where Beny arranged our rooms and the dinner. Then, we drove to Flores, to the finca of Juan Velásquez, which property includes some forested hills adyacent to the Cerro Hoya National Park. We drove under a heavy rainfall, but somehow we found common species like Great and Cattle Egrets, tons of White Ibises, Red-breasted Blackbirds and Eastern Meadowlarks. A dark bird spotted by Beny turned to be an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. These Tiger-Herons are common along the peninsula's coast, as well in some insular areas (my photo is from El Ciruleo, in the eastern side of the peninsula). The road is very escenic, with impressive beaches and hills. Once at Juan's place, his family welcomed us by saying that the parakeets have been regular during the morning around the house, feeding in fig and nance trees that abound around the property (which have the Playita river and its valley as backyard!). They are present from april to july, the rest of the year they live high in the mountain range according to Juan. The interest of this family in preserving the land for the parakeets (and other wildlife) is admirable. They are constructing a little cabin for the visitors, but until it is finished, Juan is charging $10.00/person for visiting the property, proving to his neighbors that there are others ways to profit that do not involve logging the forest. We spent the night in Malena, after an excellent fish dinner. The next day (sunday, june 13th) we had breakfast at our cabin and started our way to Flores. We drove all the way to the cabin at Juan's property, who accompanied us in our search of the parakeet. The first bird that appeared for photos was a magnificent King Vulture perched atop a tree, having a sunbath. It was a sub-adult because it had some black feathers in the back. That multi-coloured head is something special! We quickly found many birds typical of the pacific slope savanas, like Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Groove-billed Anis, Bronzed Cowbirds, a pair of Pearl Kites, many Blue Ground-Doves of both sexes and two very special birds: a female Orange-collared Manakin (in a nance tree) and a Black-hooded Antshrike; both of them restricted to the western pacific slope of Panama and southeastern Costa Rica (not exactly in savanas). While admiring the valley of the Playita river and the birds, Juan pointed us a flock of 15 or 16 Azuero Parakeets that flew close to us, passed the car and landed over a fig tree full with fruits (we could have seen the birds from the car!!!). Great! the birds were quietly feeding with the figs, allowing us to take some photos. They stayed for 15 minutes more or less to then fly away inland. We followed Juan while searching the birds, finding them after 15 minutes in a forested area. They were engaged in social activities, as you can see in the short video filmed by Gloriela through Beny's scope with her point-and-shoot camera. Four birds are preening, two of them preening each other intimately! (more and better videos at Beny's YouTube account). We also saw a pair copulating and other ones "kissing" each other.

We enjoyed the birds and its chattering calls, while a Violaceous Trogon was singing nearby. Then, a troop of White-faced Capuchins scared the parakeets, that flew to a nearby nance tree. We relocated again the birds under the vigilance of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that acted as a witness of our joy and happiness. It is always nice to find an owl in the day-time, specially one so cute, don't you think? The parakeets were eating nance this time, very low in the tree an allowing extremely close approaching by us. They were very confident of people, and we got excellent shots of them, both with our DSLR's and by digiscoping (Gloriela is much better than me in that technique because she always does "digimicroscoping" at her work). What a glorious moment, and what a cooperative flock of birds. I don't know if they were as curious as we were. The birds flew to another nance tree in a nearby hill. It is a real spectacle to see a flock of these birds flying with their blue flight feathers and red tails and rumps. They looked like tiny Great Green Macaws, that also occur in the area, but not that day. We reluctantly said good-bye to Juan and his family, finding a different flock of 5 or 6 parakeets close to their house (confirming Juan's statement of the coexistence of several flocks in the area). It was a long way to Panama City, again under a heavy rainfall most of the way. Still we are thrilled by the experience! Thank you Beny for showing us the easy way to see one of Panama's most extraordinary endemics. If you still need that bird, or simply want to see it again, don't hesitate to contact Beny, it is a great experience!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Black Terns in the Coastal Beltway

Taking advantage of yesterday's high tide, I decided to walk along Panama City's oceanfront in the Coastal Beltway. It is just a 5 minutes walk from my apartment and is a very popular place for jogging or for bicycling while admiring the city skyline or the Panama Bay and all the ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal. Of course, I brought with me my camera and binoculars... just in case. There were not so many people in the beltway, surely because it was around noon in a very sunny (and hot) day and many municipal workers were doing some gardening and maintenance of the installations, which is a good thing. I started in front of the Balboa monument. It is an icon of the city, appearing in many postal cards. Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific ocean (the "South Sea") back in 1513 (september 25th) after a 24-days journey through the wilderness of what is now the Darien province. Many things in Panama are named after him, including our currency and the avenue that runs along the beltway. Despite the hour, almost all of the common urban birds were immediately evident along the beltway, including an absurd number of Ruddy Ground-Doves accompanied by a pair of females Saffron Finches and a pair of Tropical Mockingbirds close to the monument. The Gray-breasted Martins patrolled the air while the House Sparrows sang from the light poles. I started to pay attention to the ocean. Many Sandwich Terns were flying around, accompanied by an occassional Laughing Gull or two. Usually is the only gull species present during the summer (our wet season). Then, I saw a graceful little tern flying very close to the huge boulders that limit the beltway: a Black Tern in winter plumage. Soon, another individual joined the first one in what I think was a kind of circuit, flying from one side to another always to the west of the Yatch Club. I know that some birds stayed during the summer in Panama, but this is the first time that I saw this species away of its ususal migration dates. They were so regular (that is, completing the circuit every each 15 minutes or so) that I was able to sit at the second best spot to photograph them (the first spot was already occupied by a busy couple!). No matter that, they were too fast, so my pics are a little blurry. Anyway, I'm happy because they were my first Black Terns of the year! Since we are in "winter" here in Panama, most of the waterbirds were resident species, including the Neotropic Cormorants resting at the Yatch Club and in the boats, but also Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds and many herons. It is a nice contrast to see all these birds against the modern skyscrapers and the luxurious yatchs. One that was over-wintering was an Osprey, resting atop the main mast of a sailboat. They do not breed in Panama, but you can always find some individuals year-round. Well, nice walk in the beltway, even getting a new bird for my year list!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

City doves

The doves and pigeons are a worldwide group of well-known and familiar birds that occupy many niches, from forest interiors to deserts, and from ground-dwellers birds to canopy specialists. Certainly, they are not limited to "natural" habitats. Many species are so well adapted to our urban environment that many big cities in the world host at least one species, sometimes with an incredible population, since they are described as "abundant" in some places. When I visited Taipei (capital of Taiwan, maaaany years ago), the dominant species were both the Spotted and Red Collared-Doves. Both remained me the Eurasian Collared-Doves that were very common at the Miami International Airport, where it is an introduced species of course, during my short connection in my way to Toronto, Canada, where the common species was the Rock Pigeon, but with Mourning Doves common as well. The Mourning Doves are THE doves in most of North America. They reach Panamá, where they are common urban birds in the western highlands, specially in and around the agricultural town of Cerro Punta. Curiously, they are found in the lowlands of western and central Panama too, but there they are very shy, usually found in the fields and open areas (not in towns like Penonome). Despite its commonness, it is weird that nobody have yet heard its characteristic mournful call in the lowlands. Contrary to what happens with the Mourning Doves, the melancholy calls of the White-winged Dove is now quite common to hear at least in the town of Chitre, in the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama. A close relative, the West Peruvian Dove of, you guess, western Peru is abundant in Lima. That city have others species as well, including Rock Pigeons, Croacking Ground-Doves and Eared Doves. It was not unusual to find all four species feeding close to each other in some parks in the middle of that huge city. The Eared Doves where the dominant ones in Bogota, Colombia, as I confirmed it during my first (and last) birding trip to that beautiful country. And what about Panama City? Well, like Lima, Panama City have several species, the most common being the Rock Pigeons, but with the Pale-vented Pigeons increasing in numbers. When I moved to the city, three years ago, they were common enough to find at least some individuals in the big trees of some parks nearby. Now, a flock usually gives me the good mornings while perched on the TV antenna of my apartment! Sometimes they are joined by others urban birds like Gray-breasted Martins, Tropical Kingbirds, Social Flycatchers, Blue-gray Tanagers or even a pair of Yellow-crowned Amazons to give some color. OK, it is not that these birds needs more color. As you can see in the picture of the Pale-vented Pigeon at Bocas town in Colon island (Bocas del Toro, western Caribbean slope), these birds are colourful if you have a close view. These social birds spent most of the day in the canopy of the tall fruiting trees that still remains in our city. During the afternoon is frequent to see flocks of these birds flying high to their roosting areas in the former Canal Zone (in the forest, for example in the Metropolitan Natural Park or the Camino de Cruces National Park). In the other hand, the White-tipped Dove is common in suburban areas, and in many towns outside Panama City. More or less a year ago, I photographed one in her nest at the neighborhood Las Nubes of Cerro Azul, just under the roof of a house. I posted the photo in one of the very first entries of this blog page. As I told you before, Panama City have many doves species in its streets... but by far, the cutest are the tiny Ruddy Ground-Doves. They are widespread birds, very well-known by most panamanians by names like "tortolita" or "cocochita". A pair of these ground-doves is always present at the entrance of the hospital where I work, always nervously walking picking food from the soil with its bobbing head and avoiding the cars! They are so funny to see! So, it is not great to share our homes with these birds?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Plantation road

Plantation road is a nice 7 km-long trail inside the Soberanía National Park (central Panama) that shares its entrance with the world-famous Canopy Tower. It used to be the access road to a now-largely-overgrown cacao plantation, hence the name. It is located very close to the Continental Divide (which is not so high in this part of the isthmus) so the possibilities to find species typical of the Caribbean slope are high and is one of the premium sites for birdwatching during the Pacific CBC. I decided to visit this trail yesterday's morning just to see if I could find some new birds for my year list. The place was a little quiet, surely because of the clouded day. Right by the entrance a Blue-crowned (Whooping) Motmot welcomed me, flycatching a huge insect in front of me. There were not other cars in the parking lot, so I supposed that I was going to have the trail only for me... and I was right. That is why I found so many wildlife during my walk; not only birds, but also herps, mammals and all sort of critters. I did some trekking since I was not actively searching the birds... I stopped by any activity only long enough to take a picture or to identify the birds. The first birds I saw inside the forest was an active pair of Dot-winged Antwrens. These birds are easy to spot, but not so easy to photograph due to its warbler-like behavior. Antwarbler should be a better name for these birds since they move restlessly searching every leave and little branch for insects. The female, with its chestnut-red underparts, was more attractive than the male, which remained still for two seconds... barely enough for taking the photo that accompany these lines. Not far from the antwrens were two females and a male Spotted Antbird away of army ants. They were searching low in the understory very antbird-like. The handsome male is unique among our antbirds because of its contrasting black dotted collar and the cinnammon wing bars. The trail was very dark, there were not many holes in the canopy to permit sunlight to reach the forest floor, which was full of fallen trunks covered in moss and mushrooms. I know that Gloriela really like mushroom photos, so I took some during my walk, only a little sample of the great variety found during it.
The trail follows a little creek, the Masambi Chico "river", which is always worth the effort to check. I was constantly inspecting it because it holds Sunbitterns, which are occasionally reported nesting. I did not have luck with the Sunbitterns, but saw many mammals close to the water, including a White-nosed Coati, many Central American Agoutis and a pair of Red-tailed Squirrels feeding with some kind of fruit. In two different places, close to the creek, I felt the characteristic smell of a group of Peccaries that I'm sure I missed only for a couple of minutes. Trust me, you never forget the smell of a Peccary! To complete the list of mammals I also saw several troops of Howlers Monkeys and one little troop of White-faced Capuchins along the trail. Eventually, I found many birds, most of them shy inhabitants of the forest interior. Despite the darkness, I was able to have great views of those rarely seen birds like Song Wrens, White-breasted Wood-Wren, several Black-faced Antthrushes (seen and heard), Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Golden-crowned Spadebill (first detected by its low-pitched trilling call), and many more. Both Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots were singing everywhere, allowing only some distant and dark photos. The differences between these two species are very obvious in the field (despite they look so similar in the plates of the fieldguides), specially when considering their very different calls! Can you tell apart each species? In one section of the trail it was so dark that a Rufous Nightjar was hunting from the ground of the trail, but it flew inside the forest when I approached. I found the old cacao plantation (marked only by some very old pilasters and many cacao fruits growing wild... I understand then that the squirrel was precisely eating cacao). In one section of the trail, I saw a movement in one side. Trying to have a better look, I walked toward it when suddenly a Great Tinamu took off with such noise and impetus that it scared me to death!! Alone in the trail, I just recovered my heart rate when, after a few steps, a pair of Gray-chested Doves flew almost from my feet, also making a loud noise with their wings and almost hitting me in their desperate attempt to scape from this now-very-scared birder... WOW! When walking alone you have many more chances to have these close encounters with nature. I reached a grassy field more or less at 4.5 km. In its edge, a termite nest had a big hole in the middle of it. It looked like a trogon's nest and shortly before I had listened both Black-throated and White-tailed Trogons in the trail. I waited and waited but nobody appeared, so I decided to keep moving and check it in the way back. I did not last long in the trail because it was getting hot, and the forest after the grassy field was not as old, with smaller trees and many palms trees. It was also very quiet. Only 2 km farther in the trail it ends, merging with the historical "Camino de Cruces". In the way back, I checked the nest as planned and there it was: a female White-tailed Trogon readily identified by its light-blue eye ring and blue back. Some publications consider the population west of the Andes (including Panama) a separate species from that of the Amazon. Back in the trail, I was really impressed by the quantity of herps that were taking advantage of every sunny space on it. Most of them were Whip-tailed Lizards (Ameiva sp.), but also were frogs, toads, anoles and young Green Iguanas (by the way, feel free to comment if you know the specific i.d. of the next creatures).
Close to the entrance, I found a distant dark-gray raptor with short orange legs, one white tail band, an expressive red eye and, when flying away, lot of white under the wing. A Plumbeous Hawk!!! a very rare resident of these forests, and also a new year-bird for me. I was so happy with my finding that I almost left unnoticed the group of birds feeding in some berries very close to me. A quick check with my bins revealed both Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, males and females. The males of both species are gorgeous if you are lucky enough to have prolonged views. As you can see in my photos, I was lucky enough... I even saw the particular yellow thighs of the male Red-capped that usually are concealed. The last birds I saw were feeding together in the same flock: Checker-throated, White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens. They didn't bother by the HUGE nearby wasp (?), but I did, so I left the Plantation road, very happy with all the birds and wildlife that I was able to watch and with the 9 km that I walked in total.