Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Shorebird close to home

I almost forgot how much I like to watch shorebirds at the Panama Viejo / Costa del Este mudflats. The upper Bay of Panama is an hemispherical important site of the route of migrating shorebirds from the Artic to South America (and beyond!). Each year, hundreds of thousands peeps and other shorebirds make an stop to refuel, or to stay all the winter. But the more important fact is that it is right by the city. I went to Panama Viejo this morning, taking advantage of the early high tide, and found tons of cooperative shorebirds. If they were cooperative? Well, just check out these photos (they were all taken today):The Semipalmated Sandpipers were the most common peeps, outnumbering the Western Sandpipers.This absolutely gorgeous juvenile Least Sandpiper allowed some photos. There were many adults as well. The Spotted Sandpiper is the most widely distributed shorebird in Panama, found almost everywhere if there is water around. I still need a photo of one really "spotted".If you see a dowitcher in Panama, it certainly is a Short-billed Dowitcher. Several flocks, including birds wearing breeding and non-breeding plumages, were present. The pale, bigger bird accompanying them in the second photo is a Willet
The strong, colourful and contrasting pattern of the Ruddy Turnstone is amazing. This bird rules!
These flying birds are Surfbirds. I counted at least 40 birds in that single flock!
The Whimbrel is found year-round in Panama, but definitively is more common during the winter. At least 15 birds were scattered at the mudflats.Contrary to the Whimbrels, there is usually only one Long-billed Curlew in these mudflats. Patiently, surely you'll find it, usually feeding independently of other big shorebirds.The plovers were well represented. From top to bottom, these are: a pair of Semipalmated Plover (migrant, but the most common plover in Panama), Wilson's Plover (resident, this seems to be a juvenile) and Collared Plover (resident -and cute-, this also seems to be a young bird). I also saw many Black-bellied Plovers and three Southern Lapwings in the area (but they were not close enough). Add to this list the American Golden-Plover recently reported at Costa del Este by Carlos Bethancourt and you will get the picture of how special is this place!

I tried to find the American Golden-Plover at Costa del Este, but when I got there, all the birds were too far away in the mudflats, so I didn't find it. Anyway, a Franklin's Gull wearing most of its breeding plumage was a great consolation prize.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Everyone got a lifer?

After a successful birding trip above El Cope in the morning, and after a tasty lunch in town, Gloriela, Euclides "Kilo" Campos, Rafael Luck and your blogger host decided to visit the Aguadulce Salinas (saltponds), barely one and a half hours away. As you know by now, the saltponds are great for shorebirds and waders, and the migration season just started so it was an obvious choice to end the day. The idea proved to be very good when we started to see tons of shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, but also Least Sandpipers, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and the omnipresent Black-necked Stilts. Most of the peeps were wearing their non-breeding plumage, lacking the patterns and colours of the alternate (breeding) plumage and looking confusingly similar. Far away, a flock of Brown Pelicans and Great Egrets also included a Roseate Spoonbill, easily spotted by its rich pink plumage. Kilo recently visited the site, finding Stilt Sandpipers, so we were after them. Of course, Kilo was the first one to spot one of them. The slim bird looked huge in comparison to the peeps that were accompanying him. This particular individual still had some barring in the underparts and seemed to have a problem with one of his legs.
We found more individuals along the saltponds, usually with other peeps. Each time we stopped, we found a new species. We saw three plovers species (Black-bellied, Collared and Semipalmated Plovers), all in non-breeding plumage, many young Black-necked Stilts (just a little bigger than the last time I was there), a Gull-billed Tern and two terns that I'm tentatively calling Caspians'. The waders were well represented. We found Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and then, a nice surprise for me. In a random stop, just to check one of the ponds that was full with peeps and yellowlegs, Kilo focused on a distant heron with Rafael's scope. I could not believe it when he said "Reddish Egret", and there it was, a dark-phase (immature) Reddish Egret perched on a log. WOW, my second lifer for the day! This species seems to be rare, but regular, in Aguadulce and recently one individual was sighted by members of the Panama Audubon Society (probably the earliest date for this species in Panama, here is the report with photos at XENORNIS). Curiously, it is always found away of the road and, in Panama, it have been found in saltponds, sandy beaches and rivers (in the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal). We were able to watch through the scope its pale-reddish head and long neck, and its mostly dark bill. My distant shot shows its distinctive jizz (looking more like a Great Egret than a Little Blue Heron) and the overall dark colour. After a couple of minutes, the bird started to feed in its unique manner, running erraticly from one side to another, sometimes using its wings for change direction. It was so funny to see. The egret was a lifer for Rafael and Gloriela too (like the Stilt Sandpiper as well), so everyone, except Kilo, got a lifer in this trip. But the trip was not over. We reached the beach and then started to return, finding only a Common Black-Hawk with an unidentified shorebird in the claws and at least 150 Black Skimmers flying over the ponds. We stopped again to check a huge mixed flock of resting shorebirds. I found a flock of resting Sanderlings in the opposite side of the road while Kilo was mounting the scope. Meticulously, he checked each one of the birds in the flock, finding at least to hidden birds with dark gray backs, contrasting with the Ruddy Turnstones. He asked me to have a look to confirm his id: a pair of Surfbirds, his nemesis bird. I was able to see its white rump and its mottled underparts confirming the id! A lifer for Kilo! Now officially everyone got a lifer in this trip! Of course, Kilo jumped to the muddy pond without thinking it twice (and I followed him) to have a closer look of the birds. Eventually we got very close to the birds, and then he was able to see its yellow legs and bill (that is Kilo in the pic, watching his lifer). My photo of the flock turned out to be overexposed, a mistake that I was not able to correct using photoshop, but I like the final effect of colourful, blurry shorebirds. With imagination, you can see two Surfbirds, tons of Ruddy Turnstones, Willets and Whimbrels, and a lonely Short-billed Dowitcher (just behind the first Surfbird to the left). What a great way to end a birding day... lifers for everyone!

Umbrellas show!

Both of us (Gloriela and me) woke up very early yesterday, at 4:00 AM. After a quick shower we soon were heading to Costa del Este, picking up Euclides "Kilo" Campo in the way, to meet Rafael Luck at his home. We all were going to travel in his 4WD because our destination was the General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park above the charming town of El Cope (simply known as El Cope NP), in the coclesian foothills of central Panama. August is a good month to visit this park. First, there are no strong winds, nor too much fog (at least in the morning... but be prepared for some rain). Second, many species of the western highlands that breed at the higher slopes of the park come down (the park facilities and main trails system is more or less at 700 meters above sea level) in a sort of post-breeding altitudinal migration that is poorly known. The road turns into gravel passing El Cope. It is in a general good condition, but after the town of Barrigon it becomes steep and quite eroded, needing a powerful, high-clearance vehicle to deal with it in parts. No problem for Rafael's vehicle. After a little more than three hours in the road from Panama City, we were paying our entrance fee at the ranger station. The park ranger told us that we were the first visitors in about a week, a fact that we confirmed while signing the guest's book. We found some fog, so we waited at the Visitor's Center for the day to clear. Soon, a mixed flock showed up with Tawny-crested, Bay-headed and Emerald Tanagers, Tawny-capped, Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonias and Shining Honeycreepers. We were lucky enough to hear a Western Wood-Pewee and a Chiriqui Quail-Dove (a bird that I saw during my last visit, about a year ago). The activity was pretty good at the Center, but we had to move in order to find our main objective: the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. This spectacular cotinga, endemic to Panama and Costa Rica, is found there only seasonally, and till now only along the Snowcap and Los Helechos trails. We walked the first 500 meters of the Snowcap trail, the most reliable stretch for the cotinga, without luck. In the way back, we found an antswarm followed by tons of birds: Ocellated, Bicolored and Inmaculate Antbirds, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Stripe-breasted Wren, Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreepers. Then, Kilo desperately called me. He heard the contact (warning?) calls of a covey of Black-breasted Wood-Quails and I hurried to join him (Gloriela and Rafael were too far away). Soon we were watching a group of at least five wood-quails nervously walking at barely five meters of us downslope. A huge life bird for me! We were running out of time so we decided to walk Los Helechos trail, a loop trail that starts at the Visitor's Center. We found again the mixed flock, but new species were the Silver-throated and Black-and-yellow Tanagers, Yellow-margined and Slaty-capped Flycatchers and a calling Golden-olive Woodpecker. We thought that the stars of the show were a pair of Black-crowned Antpittas that responded to playback, but then, in the way back, Kilo pointed out an Umbrellabird perched very close to us that flew away after few seconds, followed by a second individual. We tried in vain to relocate them, so we decided to left the trail (after all we saw the cotingas). Again, Kilo re-found the pair of Umbrellabirds nicely perched very close to the Visitor's Center. These bird allowed great pictures, showing only little curiosity. The bird showing the pale red patch of bare skin in the neck seemed considerably bigger than the other bird, and both looked like overgrown fruitcrows! They were so cooperative that they were still in the same branches when we decided to left the site (45 minutes after finding them). What a great show, those birds were simply fascinating... one of many reasons for visiting El Cope!
P.D.: we ended the day at the Aguadulce Salinas (saltponds). Check it out here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Not so odd after all?

An update about the id of the Tyrannus kingbirds that I photographed some weeks ago in the lookout of the Metropolitan Natural Park. The discussion about its identity in ID Frontiers and through private messages to Ken Allaire (who posted the information in the first place at the forum) brought some interesting candidates, including Snowy-throated and White-throated Kingbirds, with the latter being the most favored... until Chris Benesh joined the discussion. He, nicely, pointed out that all the features that made odd the kingbirds at the photos are perfectly explained by them being juvenile Tropical Kingbirds, instead of a flock of way-too-lost adults kingbirds from South America. I have to admit that the simple idea of dealing with such a great occurrence of a bird never ever reported out of South America was overwhelming, but I consider that Chris made an excellent analysis and that he is right. After all, in the medical field we say that "the rare manifestations of common diseases are MORE common than the common manifestations of rare ones". Apply it to birds and then we get a flock of juvenile Tropical Kingbirds confusing some birders! As I posted, we failed in relocate the flock of kingbirds at the site the days following the first observation, and all the photos (kindly shared by Osvaldo Quintero) of those days showed "typical" Tropical Kingbirds in all sort of ages (including the young bird of the last photo which exhibits all the features of "typical" Tropical Kingbirds).
I'm grateful with all of you who contribute in resolving this mystery, this surely was a great experience.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Panama's 2010 Official Bird List

The Panama Audubon Society (PAS) just published the 2010 version of the Official List of the Birds of Panama, which includes so far 969 species. This list follows the taxonomy of the AOU's Checklist of North American Birds and includes all the recent changes made in its most recent supplements. There are some differences however. Regarding endemic species, the PAS recognizes the Escudo Hummingbird (Amazilia handleyi), the Coiba Spinetail (Cranioleuca dissita) and the Azuero Parakeet (Pyrrhura eisenmanni, following Joseph 2000) as full species. Also, the Canebrake Wren (Thryothorus zeledoni) is recognized as distinct from Plain Wren (T. modestus) following Kroodsma and Brewer 2005. In a certain strange way, this list includes the Blue-throated Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus caeruleogularis) surely following Navarro 2001, but fails to include the Violet-throated Toucanet (A. gognatus) which is present in eastern Panama. Perhaps we have 970 species instead of 969?
You can download a free PDF version of the plain list at the PAS webpage (with English, Spanish and Scientific names), or following this link.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cattle Tyrant before breakfast

I left Gloriela and her sister in the Coastal Beltway early this morning. Usually, I walk with them, but today I had another plan: to look after the Cattle Tyrant that has been reported recently from the Tocumen International Airport in the outskirts of the city. I would drive to the airport, find the bird, take some photos and then return to the beltway in order to pick up them. They usually take 1.25 to 1.5 hours to walk the circuit so I was counting with the sunday morning's light traffic to achieve my goal in that time. So I started to drive thinking in a strategy to find the bird. I needed a strategy because if you don't get the bird in the first try, then you will have to drive all the way to the airport's facilities to return if you want another shot, under the attentive and vigilant look of the authorities. After doing it several times with binoculars and cameras, and without dropping or picking up anybody in the facilities, you will look very suspicious. After some minutes I came up with my strategy: I was going to park (illegally, notice the sign in the photo) close to the "Bienvenidos a Panamá" sign and wait for the bird to photograph it without leaving my seat. The only thing I needed then was the bird to cooperate. So I followed my plan and waited close to the sign... and waited... and waited. I parked in the narrow shoulder of the airport's entrance road so the cars were passing near me rapid and furious. And guess what... I ran out of time (I planned a strict schedule, allowing only 20 minutes to find and photograph the bird!), SO I LEFT!!! Well, I know that I killed the suspense by titling this "Cattle Tyrant before breakfast", but I had to try it. After passing the authorities (trying not to look suspicious) and the "Bienvenidos a Panamá" sign, I remembered that the tyrants were also found in the little "Plaza" named "Consejal Alvaro López" at the turn-off to Tocumen town. So I drove very slowly around the plaza, eventually finding a narrow spot to park and wait other 5 minutes. Almost immediately, a Cattle Tyrant flew and perched on a pole right in front of me!!! I felt so lucky! Let's go directly to the photos.

The bird quickly went down to the ground and started to run after insects with sudden changes of direction and an occasional jump to catch those that were trying to escape. The olive wash to the underparts and the dark iris may suggest this is an immature bird. It looked pretty similar to the Tropical Mockingbirds that were feeding close to him, both in habits and shape (long tail, bill and legs). Maybe it is not colourfoul or impressive, but in Panama this is a very local bird, absent of most areas that seem to be appropiate. Only two sites in the Pacific slope of central Panama are known for this bird (the other one is Amador, in downtown Panama City), and few scattered reports are known for the Darien province (including the first one at the Cana airstrip close to the border with Colombia back in 1981). For a bird of open habitats, it is inexplicably rare in Panama, and there is a gap in its distribution (most part of eastern Panama and western Darien provinces). This can be due to lack of coverage in those areas by birders (passing unnoticed) or simply, its northward expansion from western Darien (and Colombia) to central Panama was not through the mainland, but through the Pearl islands as might indicate a report done by Venicio "Beny" Wilson and published in XENORNIS. Or maybe we still need to know the real habitat requirements of this species in Panama. For example, it is reported that commonly these birds are with the cattle in South America, a relationship never seen in Panama (although there are some cattle close to the airport site). Other thing is that all the nesting sites found in Panama (here and in Amador) have been so far on palm trees, and commonly these birds are found perched on these palm trees when they are not in the ground. My own experience with Cattle Tyrants in South America was of two singing birds on a palm tree at the central plaza of Pueblo Rico (Risaralda department, Colombia). Coincidence? Who knows... maybe the palm trees are very important for these birds. The last time I saw this bird in Panama was four years ago in Amador, during a Christmas Bird Count, so it is a year-bird for me this time. Of course, I passed of the time destined to enjoy the bird, but not by too much... Gloriela and her sister only waited for me 5 minutes. She immediately knew that I found the bird by seeing the big smile at my face. After that we had breakfast and believe me, never a breakfast tasted so good!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Odd kingbirds photos

During a visit to the Metropolitan Natural Park (PNM, in Panama City) last tuesday, agust 10th, I found a flock of more or less 20 Tyrannus Kingbirds. I took only four (4) photos, showing three different individuals. All the three birds in the photos show pale heads (specially the throat) with contrasting dark "mask" (including the last photo of a semi-concealed bird), and yellow underparts including the chest, which have little -if any- olive on it. Also, some photos show pale edges in the coverts, notched tails and smallish bills. These marks suggest White-throated Kingbirds, Tyrannus albogularis (never reported out of South America, but migratory in its amazonian distribution), instead of the expected Tropical Kingbirds. Two of these photos were published in XENORNIS and then Ken Allaire kindly posted to ID Frontiers on my behalf with part of the text that I e-mailed him:
"Last tuesday I saw this flock of kingbirds at the highest lookout of the PNM [135 meters above sea level]. In the field I thought it was weird to see all these TK's [Tropical Kingbirds] together (around 20) and all seemed to be quite small, resembling a flock of Eastern Kingbirds. They were eating lots of fruits, but also flycatching. The only reason why I took the photos was precisely that they looked "pretty", you know, with a nice yellow colour of the underparts, including the chest and not like usual TK's (with olive wash to the chest and gray heads). They did not vocalized."
I'm now showing all the original pictures, each one followed by one or two cropped versions. I did not change colours, contrast or sharpness. Feel free to comment about the identity of these birds or follow the discussion at ID Frontiers.