Thursday, August 23, 2012

In search of Darien's specialties

The Darien province, in eastern Panama, holds a myriad of south american birds not found in any other site in North America (OK, that is using the boundaries of the AOU's North American Classification Committee).  And... it is not necessary to mount an expedition to see some of these birds, as we prove it last month.  The group of birders including me, Euclides Campos, Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck, were ready to obtain some lifers in spite of the short time available.
We stayed at Meteti, from where we headed very early in the morning (having breakfast on route) to the wet pastures east to the town of Betzaida.  At a marshy patch with long reeds, we found one of the targets of our trip: the Yellow-hooded Blackbird... and not only one, but many singing males, displaying in a courtship behavior.
The female is duller (considerably), but distinctive as well.  We saw both males and females flying outside the reeds to a nearby farm and vice versa.  The resident status of this species was confirmed some years ago in Darien (and North America), and is expanding westward.
At the same patch, we saw a singing adult male Large-billed Seed-Finch.  Also a south american "invader", this male was feeding a young partially hidden inside the reeds.  The young had a normal-sized bill.
This bird has been found westward into Panama province (once), but the Darien is still the only regular region for it in North America, the same as the next species: the Spot-breated Woodpecker, that we found next to the road.  The lack of red malar make this a female.
We moved to the east, closer to the town of Yaviza, to a patch of tall forest remaining along the mighty Chucunaque river.  The avifauna changed rapidly, with many species typical of humid forests present, like Barred and Black-breasted Puffbirds, Black-bellied Wren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, both Crested and Black Oropendolas and even a noisy Red-throated Caracara that perched high above a fig tree.
After a while, we started our way to the road of El Salto, which crosses a nice forest, part of it protected by the Vida Nueva Foundation... however, we stopped on route in order to watch a Limpkin atop a tree.  They are not uncommon in this part of the country, but it is always great to have sights like this!
At the road to El Salto, we crossed several mixed flocks.  The biggest one included Yellow-margined and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers, White-flanked and Moustached Antwrens, White-shouldered and Plain-colored Tanagers, Tropical Gnatcatchers and more.  Then Euclides heard the call of one of my main targets: the Double-banded Graytail.  Soon, we were seeing three individuals (including one immature) of this Darien specialty... a life bird for me!!!
What a great trip... and we only spend half-day birding!  In the return journey, we made a short stop at the Elementary School in the town of Torti (eastern Panama province) where Euclides identified a group of 30+ Brown-chested Martins perched on a wire.  This austral migrant is seldom reported despite it is quite regular in this part of Panama.  Great way to end the trip!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

At the dry forest

Last month, the Cubilla family spend a wonderful weekend at the beach of Coronado (central Panama), along with our neighbors, friends and "compadres": the Rojas family.  Besides the sun, the relaxing time and the beach, I decided to visit the Eugene Eisenmann Natural Pathway, a heart-shaped trail through one of the last patch of dry forest (bosque seco) remaining in the so-called "dry arc" of Panama, and I brought Gloriela and Gabrielle with me.
Most of you recognize Eugene Eisenmann as one of the most important ornithologist of the last century, but probably you didn't know that he was panamanian, and the Eisenmann family has been linked to the Coronado community since its origins, so its is not strange that this path, and the forest itself are named honoring him.  A dirt road connect the entrance (where the colorful mural is, painted by the renown kuna artist Olodwagdi) to the loop trail at an open, sandy, highly eroded area... it is not clear if the eroded formations are secondary to ancient human activities.
The trail runs behind the low canopy of this forest, making it quite fresh despite the heat of the surroundings (reason why Coronado is so popular as a beach destination).  Along the route, a series of interpretative signs explain important features of this endangered habitat.
There is a particular interest in birds, (notice the Fundación Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann logo in the signs) and we saw or heard plenty of them... including almost all those birds pictured in the next sign (the exception was the Yellow Warbler, which is a boreal migrant to Panama not expected here in July).
Again, at the sandy area, I saw the tracks of an unidentified  mammal.  After consulting, it was clear that the tracks belongs to a big cannid... and I wonder if they don't belong to a Coyote?  Coronado is a regular site for this animal, which expanded naturally its range through Middle America, and now it can be found at the west bank of the Panama Canal (at least).
It was a quick tour, I was worried of not exposing Gabrielle to the increasing heat, so we left after a two-hours walk in order to have breakfast... what a day!
Not impressed daddy!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gray-hooded Gull !!!

I received an e-mail last friday, july 13th, from my friends Cindy & Leslie Lieurance (The Petrels in Panama): they had found a Gray-hooded Gull at the Visitors Centre of Panama Viejo during high tide in the afternoon (report here, video here).  I saw the message too late, so I planned to visit the site two days later.  Osvaldo Quintero and Itzel Fong joined me in my search for the rare gull (for Panama); however, we got there too early and the tideline was too far away.  Anyway, we enjoyed seeing many waders, like Great and Snowy Egrets, Cocoi Herons, both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, White Ibis and even a Wood Stork in the sand.  We decided to have lunch to return later.
After lunch, we returned to Panama Viejo and the tide was higher, so we started to watch the usual Laughing Gulls, the only expected gull in Panama during the boreal summer.  After a while we detected the target bird among the Laughings.  Notice the slightly paler mantle, the whiter underparts and the color of the soft parts.
Due to the distance, it was not obviously too different to the Laughings, but once in the air, the bird was  unmistakable with a striking white wedge in the primaries.  Also it came closer to us, making evident its red bill and feet and pale eye (though not so evident in my photos... Itzel's are better).
Native of South America (and Africa), the Gray-hooded Gull is a rare vagrant to central Panama, mostly in Panama City, with one report of the Pearl Islands.  Ridgely & Gwynne mention an adult with basic plumage in Panama City back in september of 1955; since then, at least other five reports had been published, starting in august of 2000, many with photos.  All these birds were sighted between march and october (during the austral winter) and in one occasion two different birds were recorded.
It was not a life bird for me, but definitively a GREAT bird for Panama anytime.  Thanks petrels for sharing this.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Two different marsh birds

During a recent trip looking for good "birdable" marshes close to Panama City, I was able to register two different species of birds that, in spite that both shares the same habitat, are notably different in several ways.  The distinctive two-notes call of the Pale-breasted Spinetail revealed its position inside a bush... however, the skulking habits of this bird made it difficult to locate.
The Pale-breasted Spinetail is one of the most common and widespread furnarid (ovenbird) in Panama.  Like many other members of its family, it has a distinctive voice (to me it sounds like a little sneeze), furtive habits and modest plumage in different shades of brown, gray and white.  In fact, I managed to took these photos only because this bird react to a tape-recorded call.
By the other hand, the Pied Water-Tyrant is a conspicuous, active and silent member of the tyrant-flycatchers family, and, in Panama, is restricted to the central and eastern parts of the country.
Beautifully patterned in black-and-white, this bird always highlight any birding trip.  Easy to see and quite confident with the observers, I can't think in a more vivacious bird!
And what you think, quite different don't are they?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bird of the Month: Yellow-hooded Blackbird

The Yellow-hooded Blackbird (Chrysomus icterocephalus) is an attractive icterid inhabitant of grassy and marshy habitats from eastern Panama to northern South America.  Its expansion to Panama is relatively recent, and now is widely accepted as resident, so its occurrence status for North America was changed in accordance by the American Ornithologists' Union (previously known for the area by an old specimen from Barbados).
My first encounter with this species was many years ago in a seaside marsh of Lima, Peru, where an introduced population exists.  Since then, I have seen this species in other two south american countries, including the individual pictured in the next photo from a ranch in eastern Venezuela.
During my last incursion to eastern Panama, we all were impressed by the numbers of Yellow-hooded Blackbirds found in a single marshy patch by the road.  Several males were singing and in full courtship display.
We were able to see the females as well, exhibiting sexual dimorphism; however, she is quite distinctive.
For these, and many others reasons is why we chose the Yellow-hooded Blackbird as our bird of the month!
Literature consulted
1.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The birds of Panama. A field guide. 2010.
2.  AOU's 52nd supplement to the checklist of North American birds. 2011