Monday, May 21, 2012

An elegant bird

I spend this afternoon with my family in Costa del Este, Panama City.  Of course I was looking for the American Avocets that have been wandering around and that I saw some days after my arrival from my trip to northern South America in march (also with my family).  Even from the highway connecting directly Panama City with Costa del Este (the South Corridor), it was evident that the tide was perfect, with waters rich in nutrients, considering the hundreds of gulls, pelicans, frigatebirds and cormorants that were feeding (those ships are waiting to enter the Panama Canal).
I knew in advance (thanks to Osvaldo, Rafael and Itzel) that the Avocets have been seen recently in the opposite side of the river that we usually bird, close to the mangroves, so I inspected the site with my binoculars... the place was full of shorebirds and gulls!
The most common shorebird was the Willet, followed by the Whimbrel.  Others shorebirds present in good numbers were Short-billed Dowitcher, several unidentified peeps (surely more than one species), Black-bellied Plovers and Spotted Sandpipers (actually wearing spots!).  The only gull was the Laughing Gull (as expected).
There was also a nice flock of beautiful Marbled Godwits... but they were shy and flew as soon as I tried to approach them (can you identify the others shorebirds flying with them?).
I did found an avocet.  A lonely adult was standing in the surf, away of the others shorebirds.  Despite my search, I was unable to find the others avocets (usually six or seven are seen).  I have to admit that this is a serious gorgeous bird... so elegant... and a MEGA rarity in Panama.
This excursion represent the highest number of avocets seen at the same time in Panama, and by far, the birds that have stayed the longest... even exhibiting their breeding plumages here in the tropics (for the first time in Panama).  One wonders if they will stay all the summer?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More species than supposed !

I have just attended a VERY interesting lecture by Matthew Miller (of the Bermingham lab at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's -STRI- Naos Laboratory) during the Panama Audubon Society's monthly meeting in Panama City.  His first words stated that we are probably underestimating 30% of the avian diversity of our country !!!  
Many different forms of lowland birds (and surely highlands too) in Panama may represent new, sometimes cryptic, species under the biological species concept.  Birds like White-whiskered Puffbird, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and White-breasted Wood-Wren are probably represented by more than one species within Panama... amazing!  Just check Matthew's chart on White-breasted Wood-Wren populations that exhibit almost no introgression among them (suggesting THREE different species!).
There are different ways for divergence among the new species... with some groups forming distinct, new separable species in a relatively short time by exhibiting habits and behaviors that reinforce the breeding barriers among them, as in the case of the Selasphorus Scintillant and Volcano Hummingbirds.
Volcano Hummingbird, genetically very similar to the Scintillant Hummingbird
But others  than the Selasphorus hummingbirds were the main attraction of the lecture.  First of all, he showed to us the distinctiveness, both physical and genotypically, of the Escudo Hummingbird, Amazilia handleyi.  Actually recognized as part of the widespread Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, A. tzacatl, the recognition of handleyi as a distinct, VERY range-restricted, full species would raise the conservation of tiny Escudo de Veraguas island as of high priority (the island is unprotected right now, and could hold more species new to science).
Two Amazilia handleyi at the extreme right.  Notice the larger size and general darker coloration in comparison with Amazilia tzacatl to the left
And what everybody was waiting for.... Matthew confirmed the discovery of a completely new hummingbird species for science.  In july 2011, STRI personnel collected a Lampornis hummingbird from southern Azuero Peninsula (Cerro Hoya), superficially similar to the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem (Lampornis calolaemus) of Nicaragua to central Panama.  It differs in both crown and vent coloration, you can see the difference in vent color in the next two photos of prepared skins (Venicio "Beny" Wilson's photo shows the difference in crown color here).
Lampornis sp. nov. at extreme left (two skins)

From left to righ: Lampornis sp. nov., Lampornis calolaemus and Lampornis castaneoventris
The Purple-throated Mountain-Gem distribution is interrupted by that of the White-throated Mountain-Gem (Lampornis castaneoventris) in Costa Rica and western Panama, with two separable form: cinereicauda (so far restricted to Costa Rica) and nominal castaneoventris (extreme eastern Costa Rica and western Panama)... but in the next photo of one of Matthew's slides, you can also see how genetically different are the Cerro Hoya birds from all the others members of the complex (notice that the pectoralis population of Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica is also very distinct from the homogenes - and calolaemus - birds from southwestern Costa Rica/Panama and northern/central Costa Rica respectively, but physically very similar).
Notice how distinct the Cerro Hoya birds are (enlarge the picture and follow the lines)
Congratulations Matthew, and we are eager to see the formal description of the new species (as in plural) published soon!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Good Friday in Flores

I spend the last Good Friday (april 6th) birding with my buddies Rafael Luck and Venicio "Beny" Wilson in extreme southwestern Azuero Peninsula of central Panamá,  at the slopes of Cerro Hoya near the town of Flores.  This was my second time in Flores, and I already blogged about it, because this spot is certainly the most accessible and easy site for seeing the endemic Azuero Parakeet!
Again, the Velasquez family received us, and Juan guided us through part of his property.  This is not exactly parakeets' season, they spent this part of the year in the higher slopes, coming down by may and june, but we want to have a shot and, who knows, maybe see some others goodies for the area.  The road going down Flores from the town of Mariato is simply spectacular, hilly, with great views of the rushing sea.
It is from close to Flores where you can see the forested slopes of Cerro Hoya... it is like a lost world in the middle of pasture lands... notice the fog and the rain covering the valley.  The humid forest of Cerro Hoya holds some interesting species, some of them only present in this particular mountain range in the world!
Juan took us through a narrow trail that steeply started to raise over the flat terrain surrounding, entering humid forest after crossing a nice creek.  The hike was a little bit exhausting for us, who were carrying photographic equipment.  Eventually we reached a flat spot where Juan had seen before the endemic (for Panama) Brown-backed Dove eating of the fallen fruits of a palm tree... but again, this was not the right time of the year for seeing them.  
However, the place was alive with the sounds of Orange-collared Manakins (only a record shot... shaking hands by the time we saw the manakins), we DID hear a pair of Azuero Parakeets flying-by upslope and heard (and saw) the characteristic double hoop of the local subspecies of Blue-crowned Motmot... which appeared to correspond vocally with lessoni, the Blue-diademed Motmot.
We walked more deeply inside the forest... the feeling of being in the middle of a tall, humid forest in Azuero is simply abstract!  We even saw birds so typical of forest interiors that we barely believed it... as for example, a pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds (photo) and a Royal Flycatcher.
In the way down, we stopped for lunch at the watering place for the cattle, accompanied by a Slaty-tailed Trogon and a young Spectacled Caiman carefully watching at us.  Circling above us were a pair of Short-tailed Hawks and, above them, a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle that we found later never has been reported for the Azuero Peninsula (I hope Rafael's photos are conclusive).
After the lunch, Juan guided us through the forest border at the lower slope of the hill.  At one stop, we delighted ourselves with a mixed flock including Rufous-browed Peppershrike, two Tropical Gnatcatchers, a Yellow Warbler and a White-winged Becard.  At the same time, a pair of impressive White Hawks were monitoring us, eventually getting tired of us and flying away majestically.
Then, Beny pointed towards some trees, evidently excited: a group of Critically Endangered "Azuero" Spider Monkey was passing by... I don't know how many, probably around 30 individuals, with many young ones, agile and gracefully were moving among the branches, sometimes stopping to have a look at us!  What a great experience... this subspecies of the Central American Spider Monkey complex is severely affected by habitat destruction... and probably only two or three populations persists only in those forests!
In spite of the torrential downpour that struck us ultimately, we spend a VERY good time with Juan... and we hope to return back soon to Flores and Cerro Hoya!