Monday, October 31, 2011

Only in Panama

Only in Panama you see...

A traffic light preventing you from crashing a merchant ship
Or a HUGE merchant ship side-by-side with the line of cars waiting to pass...
...some impressive locks, which you cross on a one-lane bridge so close to them that makes you sweat!
Photos of the Gatun Locks in the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal... the biggest locks until we finish the third set of locks.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

At the castle

To end well the weekend, I went with Gloriela (and Gabrielle of course) to the Caribbean coast of central Panama, to the Colon province. Specifically, we tried the San Lorenzo National Park and the former Fort Sherman. In the way, we drove through heavy rain and dense mist along the Transisthmic highway, but as soon as we reached Colon, the weather improved, and a radiant sun illuminated us. The road to Sherman is very picturesque, as I have said before, passing through grasslands, primary forests, lagoons and mangroves. The phone lines along this road are the most birdy in Panama... we saw at least one Broad-winged Hawk, several Common Black-Hawks, a male White-tailed Trogon and four Black-breasted Puffbirds perched on the lines. Notice the drops of water in the puffbird body... it was raining a little bit. Not only that, in the stretch of mangroves, the guests on the wires were the Ringed Kingfishers... three of them were noticed along the route... and all this before reaching the gate at the entrance of Fort Sherman! The grasslands in Sherman were alive with birds, including many migrants. For some reason, the most common migrants this time were the Indigo Buntings and the Blue Grosbeaks. Most of them exhibited the dull winter plumage (essentially all warm brown), some had patches of blue in the wings and ventral parts. In these photos you can notice the difference in bill's size and shape (smaller and thinner in the bunting)... the size difference is not evident (the grosbeak is considerably larger than the bunting). Eventually, we reached the old Castillo de San Lorenzo... as usual, we were almost the only beings in the place, except for a family that was also visiting the ruins. The serenity, the silence and the spectacular sights makes this place special... I'm pretty sure that this Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth was also enjoying these aspects of the castle. Do you remember why he looks so green (if not, you may want to read the comments of this post)? In the castle's plaza, two little birds caught my attention. They were feeding actively in the ground, constantly wagging the tails and with conspicuous yellow undertail coverts: a pair of Palm Warblers! It is always great to find this species in Panama because they are rare here... but not only that... supposedly, they arrive to Panama by mid-November, with november 7th as the earliest date recorded (in El Real, Darien... check the report here). Probably they happen unnoticed or simply unrecorded. We crossed all the corridors of the castle and took many pictures of it... of course I couldn't refuse to take a photo of Gloriela and Gabrielle having the mighty Chagres river as background... a small souvenir of her first visit to the castle!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

One mile from the coast

The news of a male Painted Bunting close to the beach of Juan Hombron in the coast of Cocle province (central Panama, Pacific side) took of us for surprise... it is a very rare migrant in Panama, with just a handful of reports in the last years. It was a potential lifer for Rafael Luck, Osvaldo Quintero and for me, so we left very early Panama City this morning, reaching the entrance to Juan Hombron around 8:00 AM. Close to the entrance, we found one of the discoverer, Danilo Rodriguez, guiding a birding group. He gave us some hope, we knew that it was going to be a hard task. The road to the beach runs through rice fields, pasture land, residential areas and few patches of dry forests... each with a different set of birds. The rice fields and adjacent areas were flooded... both with water and birds! The sight of hundreds of herons of several species and, more important, a big flock of 30 or more Glossy Ibis, among lapwings and jacanas was pretty amazing. A Great Egret stayed very close to the road... probably it was wounded, but we didn't see any sign of lesions. We also saw several Solitary Sandpipers... not so solitary. At least three of them were sharing the same spot in a patch of rice. Most of the birds we saw were common species, but anyway, it was very entertaining. As usual, the birds of open habitats are easier to photograph, and sometimes you have very close encounters, like the one we had with this Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture inspecting us curiously from his fence post. We passed the sleepy town of Juan Hombron and, eventually, reached the beach. Only a distant fishing boat was passing by, followed by many Magnificent Frigatebirds and some Brown Pelicans. We checked very well every small flying dot because you never know what to expect there (a Peruvian Booby was seen last year in that place). We did not stay so long at the beach, we drove the road back to the entrance, but not for long. Just as we were told, at one mile from the coast, we found the patch of dry forest where the Painted Bunting was first seen. We did not find the bunting... but the place was full of migrants! Sometimes, it was hard to point out a single bird among the hordes passing by. The warblers were well represented, with Tennessee and Yellow Warblers as the more common, but also finding at least two male Prothonotary Warblers (not together) and two Blackburnian Warblers to add some color to the scene. By far, the most weird of the migrants we found was a Gray Catbird. The catbird is not uncommon in general, but in this part of the country is almost unknown! It stayed just enough for a couple of photos... not the best photos ever, I have to recognize, but at least the characterstic slim silhouette and the general gray color is quite evident. Perhaps, if you enlarge the photo, even the chestnut crissum is aparent. Well, we failed in finding the bunting... but it was an excellent day of birding anyway!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Abundance of fish

Since kids, we have been inculcated that the name Panama derives from an indigenous word meaning "abundance of butterflies and/or fish"... now I see why! I went to the Flamenco Marina at the Flamenco Island (the last of three islands attached to Panama City by a road constructed with material from the Panama Canal excavations) trying to photograph anything I can (including a female Crab-eating Racoon looking for food at a rocky shore and a curious Brown Pelican in alternate plumage), when I noticed an old man with his grandsons and a bag of bread, throwing small pieces towards the water. I gave a glimpse over the bard of the pier... but I was not prepared for the spectacle I was about to see: tons of multicolored fish, in many sizes and shapes trying to have a piece of bread desperately! I know exactly nothing about wild fish... so, if you have any talent identifyng fish species from distant over-the-water photos, try to help me i.d. them!

And all this while seeing the fabulous Panama City skyline in the distance!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Common, as its name suggest

Last week, I wandered around Panama City with my camera and binoculars reaching, eventually, the Coastal Beltway in high tide. The first bird I noticed was a lonely Gull-billed Tern (the whiter tern in Panama), but then I saw many common birds like Laughing Gulls, Royal and Sandwich Terns (black bill with yellow tip, the most common in the place) flying around, but a little flock of medium sized terns caught my attention. Very elegant when flying, with a stylized figure and forked tail, plunging to feed from the surface... Common Terns! Eventually I realized that the site was full of them, even with some individuals resting in the beach! You may ask why I seem to be so excited by a bird with the adjective "common" as part of its name. Because in Panama, this bird is common only during a short period of time, while migrating... and october is the perfect month to see them here. All of them had the winter plumage, characterized by the dark carpal bar at rest, the black cap with white forehead and a characteristic flight pattern. I checked almost all the birds present looking for rarer species, like Forster's or Artic Terns... but all seemed to be Commons. Judge by yourself!

It is always great to find these little guys in the city... a personal addition to the Coastal Beltway list of birds!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

At the Ancon Hill

I still don't know why I don't visit the Ancon Hill more often. It is in Panama City, VERY close to my place, and holds a good amount of wildlife, not only birds, but also mammals and insects. But, more important, it is a nice migrant trap in the right season, specially october. Several times during the first two weeks of this month, I visited the volunteers of the migrant raptors count, who have reported rare migrants like Black-billed Cuckoo and almost a definitive Painted Bunting this season at the summit of the hill. Despite I saw none of these rarities in my visits, the number of species and individuals of migrants was really amazing. Gloriela (and Gabrielle) accompanied me the last time, and even helped the counters recollecting data on temperature and wind direction for the records. Surely, the most common species (only after the abundant Sawinson's Thrushes) was the Eastern Kingbird. Flock after flock passed by, taking advantage of some fruiting trees in the vicinity of the summit. Some of them also did some flycatching while we were there, sometimes side-by-side with our local Tropical Kingbirds who simply shared the perch without hesitation. The flycatchers were well represented. Not only the Eastern Kingbirds were present, we also saw Great Crested and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. The latter is an uncommon transient through the isthmus. We had the opportunity to have side-by-side views of this species with the very similar, resident and much more common and noisy Streaked Flycatcher. Many field marks have been described to separate these two flycatchers, but the most reliable is the black chin and more pronounced black malar stripe of the Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. You can notice that the chin area of the Streaked Flycatcher is completely white. The amount of yellow in the underparts can be similar for both species, the same with the color of the bill (usually, the Sulphur-bellieds have only little pink in the base of the lower mandible). Perhaps the Streaked Flycatcher is very common, but it can't be more beautiful! In the meanwhile, a single Geoffrey's Tamarin was eating the berries of a tall tree abiove our heads. We noticed it first because one of the berries struck Gloriela in the head! We were able to heard the rest of the group in the trees nearby; they sound like a flock of little birds... or were they laughing at us? We quickly forgot the incident after seeing our first group of migrant Scarlet Tanagers. Even without the breeding plumage, the males are still attractive, with their contrasting jet black wings. They outnumbered the others tanagers, a phenomenon that happens only this time a year. The only other migrant tanager (or should I say "cardinal"?) was the Summer Tanager, with one or two shyly working around the trees bordering the access road. Another representative group was the wood-warblers. Hordes of Yellow, Canada, Blackburnian, Tennessee and Black-and-white Warblers invaded the hill, giving it some color. My photo of the female Black-and-white Warbler is simply to poor to reflect the beauty of this smart, creeper-like warbler. I still need a good photo of most of these warblers, but you know, they simply can not stop... always in the move, usually high in the canopy, in backlight... in summary: a real headache for the amateur photographer (like me)! Sometimes it was hard to focus in a single bird due to the great activity all over the place, but a slim silhouette definitively caught my attention during one of the first visits. The bird in the shade turned out to be the first (of many) Yellow-billed Cuckoo having a huge worm for lunch... I was expecting the Black-billed reported by the volunteers... but you can not win everytime and, after all, it is a good reason to return next year!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

One-day expedition to Darien

Darien is the easternmost, largest and less developed province of Panama, with a rich biodiversity, including hundreds of birds species. And now it is not indispensable to organize a huge expedition to remote areas to enjoy it... as you will read, it is enough with one day! The last weekend of september, I left Panama City the friday's afternoon with Rafael Luck and Osvaldo Quintero toward the town of Meteti, in central Darien. We only did few stops along the way, including some spots around the Bayano bridge, finding a female Cerulean Warbler with a mixed flock and a nice Crimson-crested Woodpecker drilling a hole in a dead trunk. In Meteti, we contacted our local guide, Daniel Santos by recommendation of Venicio "Beny" Wilson who told us about the several new birding spots along the Panamerican highway and the highlights he found recently (you can read it on his report to Xenornis). A very early breakfast the next day in town (with tons of House Sparrows waiting for the breadcrumbs) and we were ready for action. We picked up Daniel along the way and immediately he showed us the first birding spot: a marshy area beyond the town of Betzaida. The place was alive with birds, with both Smooth-billed and Greater Anis inspecting the bushes, Cattle Egrets following -you guessed it- the cattle, adult and juvenile Purple Gallinules inspecting the rushes and a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks flying over the marsh. We also heard the first, of many, Gray-breasted Crakes, but they were hidden in the thick vegetation. We drove a little farther to the east and took a side road with the entrance marked by a cow's skull. Immediately, in the dirt road we saw several Red-breasted Blackbirds very low, the males exhibiting the rather dull non-reproductive plumage, and a Cattle Tyrant walking in the open. There are few reports of Cattle Tyrants from Darien, including the very first one for Panama in Cana many years ago, so it was a delightful find. Each time we approached the bird, it flew to a low tree by the side of the road, where it looked like a kingbird. We visited exactly the same site at least four more times and we found the bird each time in the same place. The tyrant was not the only highlight of that road. We also saw several Pied Water-Tyrants, one (probably more) Spectacled Parrotlet and a White-tailed Kite eating a lizard, but the best was about to come. Close to the entrance, we heard the characteristic tinkling song of several Gray-breasted Crakes. Osvaldo started to play the call with his i-phone and then an adult Gray-breasted Crake came to the open for five seconds to inspect us!!! A HUGE lifer for me and for Rafael, who managed to took the photo I'm showing here. You can't imagine how many times I have been close to singing individuals without having a glimpse of the bird! Very happy with the encounter, we drove back to the first marsh, when suddenly, I spotted a bird atop some bare branches next to the road... a male Yellow-hooded Blackbird!!! Osvaldo took a quick blurry shot of the bird from inside the car, but the blackbird didn't wait for the rest of us, and flew very high in the distance. This species is a recent addition to Panama's list, but it was Beny who first reported it in that part of the province. It was not a lifer for me, since I saw a male a couple of years ago in El Real (farther east), but it was for Rafael and Osvaldo. It was around 10:00 A.M. and the sun was very high and hot already. We drove back towards Meteti, picking up along the way some interesting species like Spot-crowned Barbet, Orange-crowned Oriole, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher and a nice Striped Cuckoo singing its heart out. We stopped at a little marsh outside the town of Nuevo Bijao. It was tiny, VERY close to the highway and the place was so hot that we had little expectatives. But then Daniel saw a male Yellow-hooded Blackbird flying just over the marsh just to drop into it suddenly! Only Daniel saw it... but it was enough for us to spent a couple of more minutes inspecting it. Despite the heat, we started to see and hear nice birds eventually. Inspecting the distant trees at the edge of the marsh, we discovered a lonely Limpkin perched quietly quite low while an adult Pearl Kite was trying to escape of the trio of Tropical Kingbirds harassing him. We heard both Gray-breasted and White-throated Crakes side-by-side and saw a bunch of migrant Orchard Oriole and Yellow Warbler. But the real surprise came later. At the edge of the marsh, we got a pair of Black-capped Donacobius preening! Despite the distance, the amount of white, both in the tail and wings, was pretty obvious. After asking for permission to the owners of the adjacent ranch house, all of us climbed up (OK, some crawled) the barbed wire fence to have closer looks. With the aid of Osvaldo's i-phone, the birds approached enough to have excellent views (but not excellent photos as you can see). These birds are unique, and the show they perform while duetting is amazing! However, while enjoying the Donacobius, we did saw several males Yellow-hooded Blackbirds flying over the place... I even saw one perched among the tall grass for few seconds after it landed. We left Nuevo Bijao and visited the Fundación Vida Nueva at the entrance road to El Salto. The foundation keeps an extensive forest which harbors many Darien specialties... but it was almost noon when we reached the place, and the only birds we saw were Collared Aracaris, Black-chested Jays and a pair of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers (the "USE BOOTS" sign is justified, the trails were VERY muddy). We left Daniel at his home and left Darien after an excellent birding, with a huge list full of eastern Panama specialties and after spending only one morning!