Sunday, September 30, 2012

Islands trip

We have just arrived after an exciting day at the ocean, specifically around the Gulf of Panama, participating in a whale-watching trip guided by my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson.  I went with Gloriela and Gabrielle, and three other participants, leaving Panama City early in the morning and heading directly off shore, to the waters surrounding Otoque island.
With the town of Otoque Oriente in sight, our captain pointed out the first marine creature of the day, a huge Sea Turtle that made a brief appearance for our delight.  We don't know the exact species, nor which one is expected in these waters... any help?
Very close, southeast of Otoque, is the island of Boná, the first thing we noted was some old structures covered in vegetation that used to be some kind of excavation project, long ago abandoned.
However, I was more interested in the seabirds colony of the islands, mainly Magnificent Frigatebirds.  Hundreds of these masters of the air, including many young birds, were on their nests or flying around us.
There were also boobies on the cliffs... both Blue-footed and Brown Boobies nest in this island, and we saw many of these species resting at the cliffs, sometimes side-by-side!
But it was the Boná's turquoise, warm waters that we liked most, and we couldn't resist to have a bath.  Gloriela took the photo of us holding my camera with just one hand (Gabrielle was in the other arm)... she did the same when she photographed the immature Brown Booby that circled us, probably thinking that we were fishing or something.
The third island of that group, Estivá, is quite curious in having a huge cave excavated in one of its cliffs... with bats included.
The rocky northern tip of the island was full of Brown Pelicans and Blue-footed Boobies as well.
We left this group of islands and head north, in our way to the Valladolid islet.  Before reaching the islet, we crossed a group of shorebird-like birds that we confirmed were Red-necked Phalaropes.  We also got closer views of both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies (on a log), and saw two different Bridled Terns; however, I was unable to focus my lens on them... my record shot is just for documentation... in spite it is flurry, you can see the characteristic profile and longish tail, as well as the upperparts color, ruling out other -more common- terns.
At the Valladolid islet, we also saw many pelicans and more boobies... but this islet in particular was dominated by Neotropic Cormorants, that flew as soon as we approached them.
We did see some cetaceans, in the form of Bottlenose Dolphins; however, the whales failed to show... still, we were very happy with the experience... surely we will repeat it!  Thanks Beny for the trip!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Birders fellowship

It is great how birding can join different nationalities and personalities in a warm environment of fellowship.  That's how you bird with a friend which have never seen before (thanks facebook) and to feel that you have done the same thing for years!  My good friend Carlos Wagner (a colombian birder) visited Panama, attending a forum on wild cats, and I organized an outing around Panama City to show him some birds... and what a better place than the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center to show him.  We entered early enough to try to call out some owls... and we got some responses by a Vermiculated Screech-Owl and a Spectacled Owl... but only a group of Western (Panamanian) Night-Monkeys show themselves in the night (file photo, but form the same site).
Waiting for sunrise in the middle of a rainforest is an interesting experience... the fresh air full with the sounds of the dawn chorus and the silhouettes of the birds and other animals starting to search for their first meal is simply refreshing!
After a hot cup of coffee, we decided to climb up the world-famous 34 meters-high canopy tower... what a marvelous point of view of all those canopy dwellers.  We saw many birds from there, including the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan pictured here, some pigeons, parrots, trogons and puffbirds, and even a flock a noisy Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in the distance.
We walk the trail leading to the Calamito lake, watching some mixed flocks, mainly with Dot-winged Antwrens, Lesser Greenlets, migrant Black-and-white and Canada Warblers, an impressive male Blue Cotinga, Green Shrike-Vireos, a pair of Fasciated Antshrikes (with nest), among many others.
After watching a flock of antbirds and woodcreepers following an antswarm (including a cooperative Great Tinamou), we decided to left the Center in order to walk the main Pipeline road.
The activity was quite low, we saw more of the same, plus an unidentified snake crossing the road and a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys.  Pipeline road said good-bye to us by showing a beautiful Sunbittern quietly feeding at the Juan Grande creek... spectacular! 
The rest of the afternoon we visited some sites along the Pacific coast of Panama City, including Amador, the Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo and Costa del Este, adding more and more species... we finished quite late, and I left him at an hostal in the city.  Carlos, it was great having you visiting Panama and hope to see you soon!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Afternoon walk

This is just an excuse to post some photos that I got during a short walk across the savannas south of the town of Penonome (Coclé province, central Panamá) last weekend (the same day we found the avocet in Aguadulce).  I took the road to El Gago through rice fields, secundary growths and typical savanna habitat in company of Gloriela and Gabrielle.  By the first part we saw a HUGE flock of migrant swallows, most of them Barn Swallows, flying low over the rice field.  Many were perched on barbed wires along the fence of the field, but I only managed to capture a marginal photo of an immature bird.
We also saw in the same flock both Bank and Cliff Swallows.  I got the rare opportunity to photograph a perched Cliff Swallow at eye level... you usually found them flying, or very high if perched.  This species is very attractive if you see it well!
Warning: the next photo have the worst background ever published in the web.  OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit, the true is that this road also conduct to the municipal dump... and the vultures and caracaras have taken advantage of this, as you can see, this Crested Caracara is trying to get an easy meal in the garbage.
We also found a nice American Kestrel by the road, almost in complete darkness.  Notice the lack of dots or marks in the underparts of this male.  The kestrels are now quite common around Penonome, and are found year round.  Probably they belong to one of the south american subspecies colonizing Panama... a very nice addition to the already impressive Panama's avifauna.
Well, that's all for now folks! 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Now they're everywhere?

I have said before that the main reason for my many visits to the Aguadulce Salinas (Coclé province in central Panamá) was to find a vagrant American Avocet.  It seemed to be logical... it was the site with more reports until a group of avocets was found in Costa del Este (Panama City) last march.  I was fortunate enough to watch this group (here, with my daughter Gabrielle) more than 20 days after they were first reported and then I found a lonely individual in full breeding plumage in the same site (you can read more about it here... the next photo is of that day).
So yesterday was the first time that I was going to the saltponds NOT thinking on finding an avocet.  I left Penonome with Gloriela and Gabrielle and 30 minutes later we were at a restaurant having breakfast by the main plaza.  I took my time to cross the town in order to reach the saltponds... it was sunny and hot, and, since Gabrielle is only 8 months-old, I decided to drive with the air conditioner on, stopping the car and watching from my window if any interesting stuff was appearing.  That's how I got these (and many other) photos of a nice Pearl Kite preening on a telephone cable by the access road.
We found more raptors, including a vibrant Aplomado Falcon perched nicely on a telephone cable too, and a Common (Mangrove) Black-Hawk, which I think is probably the same bird that I photograph each time I visit the saltponds (it seems to like exactly the same telephone pole).
Eventually, we started to see scattered flocks of shorebirds and waders along both side of the road crossing the ponds.  The highlight was a pair of Wilson's Phalaropes swimming in a pool very close to the road.  A huge flock of more than 30 Least Terns was also noteworthy; however, they were too far away for photos.
While checking one of these flocks, I noticed a bird standing alone in the background.  I quickly recognized its white-and-black pattern and even the upturned bill characteristic of a non-breeding American Avocet!!!  The bird flew a few meters, just to land farther away of us.  Once my nemesis bird; now, it is the third time I found this species this year (and curiously, all those times I was with my family... lucky amulets?).
Great way to confirm that the Aguadulce Saltponds are still a vagrant magnet!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Day at the foothills

One of the few birding trips I made last month was to the foothills close to Panama City... the area of Cerro Azul / Cerro Jefe.  This is a popular weekend destination for the citizen; however, many people lives complete-time up there, including many birder friends.  Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck, Itzel Fong and myself departed from the city in a relaxed trip all the way up to the private neighborhood of Los Altos de Cerro Azul, and went directly to our first destination, the naturals paths at the end of the Paseo Colombia.
The day was partially cloudy, and as soon as we got out of the car, we started to watch birds.  A female Gartered Trogon welcomed us, offering excellent photo opportunities.  The eye-ring color and the undertail pattern are diagnostic.  She ate some Cecropia fruits by hovering in front of them for few seconds.
The mossy start of the path provoked a nasty fall to Osvaldo... thanks God he was not hurt... a tough guy for sure!  Seeing this, we decided to left the paths, and moved one to the highest part of the foothills, to Cerro Jefe.  The elfin forest covering the highest slopes is something special, looks like another world!
We visited the Vistamares lookout and, despite the lacks of birds, we enjoyed the views of the surrounding forests.  Notice how the elfin forest have twisted and dwarfed trees (many of them palm trees), an adaptation of the windy conditions up there... the fancy houses of Los Altos can be seen in the background.
To call it a day, we went to Los Altos Camping Club in order to have lunch.  We decided to seat in the terrace, facing a fruiting tree... for our surprise, the tree was FULL of birds!  We had a great time shooting our cameras at Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue-gray, Palm, Crimson-backed, Golden-hooded and Plain-colored Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreepers and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, among others!

Great way to call it a day!  
Panama City, as seen from Cerro Jefe

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Bird of the Month: Pearl Kite

The Pearl Kite (Gampsonyx swainsonii) is a small raptor of open habitats quite common in most part of its range within Panama.  However, this was not always the case.  The Pearl Kite once was considered rare and local, but naturally it expanded its range further north into Central America (definitively thanks to the clearance of the forests along our Pacific slope), and now, it is regularly found up to Nicaragua, with a recent report from El Salvador.
In Panama, it was first recorded in 1977.  Since then, this lovely, but lethal, bird has become a familiar sight in many parts of Panama, including around the city and, specially, around my house in Penonome (central Panama), where the surrounding savannas offer an excellent habitat.
Look it close... it is not only the smallest of our hawks (in general), but also one of the most beautiful patterned.  It looks kestrel-like, and share with them aspects of its biology.
For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the Pearl Kite as our Bird of the Month!
Literature consulted:
1.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The birds of Panama.  A field guide.  2010.
2.  Ridgely RS, Gwynne J.  A guide to the birds of Panama. 1993.