Thursday, August 29, 2013

Not only endemics in Cerro Santiago

Besides the endemic species and subspecies found in our last trip to the mountains of the Tabasará range, we also saw more widespread species of birds as you can imagine (read this entry for example).  The group of intrepid birders consisted of William Adsett, Dan Wade and Charles Davies... and for us, every species was special in its special way.  For example, check out this Spangle-cheeked Tanager... beautiful no matter how common it is!
We crossed several flocks, always three to six birds, most of the time mixed with other tanagers, finches and/or warblers.  One of those times, the mixed flock was accompanied by a female Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.  This is an odd silky... it looks more like a colorful thrush, and some even think that this species doesn't belong to the family.
One important element in the Tabasará avifauna are the hummingbirds (as you may know by now).  Besides confusing female Selasphorus, we saw more common species.  In fact, the most common hummer all over the place was the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.  The ground epiphytes along the road through the slopes of Cerro Santiago were frequently visited by these hummers, allowing nice shots (here, adult and immature males, adult female).
Others hummers for the area included Green Violetear, Violet Sabrewing, White-tailed Emerald, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Green-fronted Lancebill and Green-crowned Brilliant.  The male brilliant pictured here is quite blurry... but trust me that it was a real jewel glowing inside a beautiful cloud forest along the Continental Divide trail (above 1700 meters above sea level).
Not only the birds were putting a show, we saw some mammals, like this Pygmy-Squirrel in one of those productive forest patches along the road to the Ngöbe town of Ratón.  We still need some help to ID this little friend.
And the critters were awesome too... Dan was our expert in this field, and we learned a lot.  I will end this post with the photo of one of the coolest critter that I have seen.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cerro Santiago's Selasphorus hummingbirds

As announced previously, in our last trip to the highlands of the Ngöbe-Buglé reservation, in the former eastern Chiriquí province, we saw many Selasphorus hummingbirds... all of them, but one, female-plumaged birds.  In fact, they were not rare... we saw different individuals in eight different sites every day of our trip, including right at the cabin where we stayed.  So, what is the problem?  Well, the problem is that two different species occur in those mountains (well, at least in Cerro Santiago)... and the females are VERY hard to tell apart... you will see what I mean.  It is frustrating... in my first trip to Cerro Santiago, we saw several females... but we were not able to ID them since we never had good views of the tail patterns (check the comments of that post).
The first chance I got to photograph these hummingbirds was in the trail going down into the Caribbean slope, along the Ngwoini creek (at about 1500 meters above sea level, and several kilometers to the east of Cerro Santiago and Cerro Colorado, so supposedly well into the Glow-throated Hummingbird distribution).  We saw there the female pictured above.  Notice the very pale underparts (thought little overexposed).  We also saw a female-plumaged bird by the creek that, after checking the photos, turned out to be a young male (notice the feathers in the throat).  No color in these feathers was evident in the field.
The third day, we visited the main road along the slopes of the Cerro Santiago massif, at about 1700 meters above sea level).  There, we were able to have looks at eye level of the canopy of some flowering trees attracting Selasphorus hummingbirds, including this female.
Notice that there was no evidence of immaturity in this individual (no rufous edge to the feathers of the back) and the white underparts, including the belly and undertail coverts.  One of the available references (Ridgely & Gwynne 1976 and subsequent editions) states that the female Glow-throated is paler below than the female Scintillant, but others (Wetmore 1968, Angehr & Dean 2010) fail to describe this.  Wetmore describe for both Scintillant and Glow-throated Hummingbirds the white lateral tufts, present in this individual, a mark shared with the female Magenta-throated Woodstar.
As you can see, we got great looks of the tail pattern.  Notice that most of the right rectrice #1 (the pair of central feathers in the tail) and all the left rectrice #1 are covered by the left rectrice #2.  Also, notice that both rectrices #2 have a clear green margin above the black subterminal band... but most important... notice the rufous (not buff) tip of the central rectrice (there is a better photo of the tail pattern in Bill Adsett's report of this trip to Xenornis).  Why is this important?  Ridgely & Gwynne also states that the female Glow-throated Hummingbird have rufous tail tips to the central (green) rectrices, absent in the female Scintillant Hummingbird. In fact, the most comprehensive work on these birds, "Systematics of southern forms of Selasphorus" by F. Gary Stiles (1982) also shows this difference in a diagram comparing tail patterns of adult males and females Glow-throated and Scintillant Hummingbirds.
sc = Scintillant Hummingbird; a = Glow-throated Hummingbird.
Some say that the females can't be identified in the field, but I think we have a strong case here.  The truth is that it is better to have good looks of adult males with glittering gorgets, and we did it!  Close to the time to leave the site, I saw a male Selasphorus flying above the canopy of a distant tree... and for a fraction of second it turned its head to me, showing a glittering mid red, rounded gorget!  We stayed in the site for a while, but we only managed to see the male a couple of times, always in the move and for just few seconds.  The next day, Charles Davies went to the site and found the perch that the male was using, and got some good photos (fell free to enlarge the next photos).
Copyright Charles Davies, used with permission.
Copyright Charles Davies, used with permission.
Notice the color of the gorget.  Certainly, it is not orange or golden-orange as we are used for Scintillant Hummingbird.  Also notice the tail... it is mostly BLACK!  The color of the gorget may vary according to the light, distance and angle... but the tail color is a VERY good mark (notice Stiles' diagram again).  Also, notice the gorget shape.  All the adults Selasphorus males have erectable gorgets, but the shape and length of the lateral "wings" differ from one species to another, as explained in another diagram of  Stiles' work.  Compare Charles pictures with this diagram and tell me which one fix better?
Gorget shape (typical form with variants shown in dotted lines). Sc = Scintillant Hummingbird; a = Glow-throated Hummingbird; si, f, t = simoni, flammula and torridus Volcano Hummingbirds
We are calling this individual a typical adult male Glow-throated Hummingbird... and I finally have the pleasure to include this species in my Life List (after three years).

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Birding the Tabasará range. Part II

In my previous post, I talked about the last trip we made to the mountains of the Tabasará range in western Panamá.  In company of William Adsett, Dan Wade and Charles Davies, we explored some forest patches at both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes, finding interesting species.  In this post, I'll show you some of those special (aka endemics) forms and species that we found.
Continental Divide
Ok, probably not all the endemics, since I'll be discussing the status of the Selasphorus hummingbirds we saw up there in another post.  But we also saw the other national endemic living in these mountains: Yellow-green Finch.  It was quite common, we found them several times in three different sites, although in small numbers, usually two or three individuals each time.  This species is pretty similar to the Yellow-thighed Finch, both physical and vocally.
Of the endemic subspecies, the most common (by voice) was the chiriquensis race of Silvery-fronted Tapaculo.  In spite of great looks (for a tapaculo!), obviously we were not able to snap a shot!  The bush-tanagers were also pretty common.  We found several groups of Common Bush-Tanagers in both slopes, sometimes with mixed flocks.  The subspecies found there, punctulatus, spreads along the highlands and foothills all the way to central Panamá, including El Valle de Antón and Altos del María.
I know is not the best photo, but at least you can see the very dark head and the characteristic drop-like postocular spot.
But we also saw Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, both along the road to Ratón as well in the Continental Divide trail up to 1750 meters above sea level.  The form present there was once described as a valid subspecies, diversus, supposedly with yellower underparts.  They looked quite similar to the birds found around the Barú volcano in western Panamá, except for the white lateral crownstripe... its looked thinner in those birds.  My photo doesn't shows this, but this photo by William (of a previous visit) shows well what I mean.
We didn't know this, but the Ruddy Treerunners that we saw in both slopes were also represented by endemic subspecies, boultoni.  This form is redder in the under and upperparts.
However, the most interesting endemic subspecies (for me), was the bensoni race of Black-cheeked Warbler.  Reported as rare, it is seldom reported at all from the area, and surely not from the most accessible areas  along the paved road.  We saw them three different days in two sites, only one or two birds, as you can see in the excellent photo by Charles.
copyright Charles Davies, used with permission
I was unable to remember the differences with other races back then, but we all were convinced that they looked different.  Notice the slaty-gray back (with no olive tones).  Also, the lack of yellow tones to the underparts was quite obvious in the field.
Not bad at all... what you think?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Birding the Tabasará range. Part I

The mountains of the Tabasará range, in western Panamá, are physically (and ecologically) separated of the main Talamanca range by the Fortuna depression, making this an area of subespecific  and especific endemism.  Most of the intact forest is restricted to the higher altitudes and to the Caribbean slope of the range, with very few, if any, good roads accessing it; and all the area is included within the indigenous reserve of the Ngöbe-Buglé people, making this area quite difficult to visit.  That's why, when I received the kind invitation of William Adsett for visiting this region for the weekend, I said "YES!" immediately!
After joining Charles Davies in Panamá City, and Dan Wade in the town of San Félix in Chiriquí province, we drove the improved road up to the mountains, passing the Ngöbe town of Hato Chami and exploring partially the new road to Llano Tugri, finding some low elevations birds and then returning to the main road.  This paved, well-maintened road reach its highest elevation (little more than 1700 meters above sea level) in the western slope of the Cerro Santiago massif, to then run along the Continental Divide between the former provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro (now the Ngöbe regions of Nedri and Ñucribo, respectively) for a couple of kilometers.
Road over the Continental Divide
Leaving the paved road, we followed the dirt, pot-holed road to the Ngöbe town of Ratón, passing by the infamous Cerro Colorado and through very nice patches of forest, home of most of the endemics species and forms of the region.  Our home for the next three nights was a rustic cabin right in the Continental Divide, in a site known as Buena Vista (well-named, it means good look).
Buena Vista!
Our hosts were the Pineda Montezuma family, owners of the cabin and the land surrounding it, and interested in conservation issues.  One of its member, Jorge, accompanied us during the birding outings... and the birding was good!  That night, we had great views of a calling Bare-shanked Screech-Owl right by the cabin!
Now you can see why this bird is named that way (shank is the lower part of the leg).  This bird was quite rufous, a color not appreciable in my shots due to the low light conditions.  The first day, we birded a trail going to the Caribbean side, finding some interesting species... like this beautiful male Orange-bellied Trogon.
In the forest, we crossed a nice mixed flock with Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Slate-throated Whitestart, Barred Becard (range extension), Brown-capped Vireo (range extension) and Three-striped Warblers.
We followed a river through degraded habitat, finding some other birds, but we were surprised by the lack of life in the river itself... until we reached the highest part, with furious rapids and many fallen trees and logs.  Charles found two American Dippers and a Torrent Tyrannulet, rivers dwellers typical of the highlands creeks and rivers.  I watched them for some minutes... and I can state that it is always amusing to watch American Dippers.  It is incredible how comfortable they are in the water!
A light drizzle accompanied us during our return journey to the cabin.  Of course we saw endemics... but that is theme of other post!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

AOU Checklist changes affecting Panamá

Last month issue of The Auk (the American Ornithologist's Union -AOU- publication) includes a supplement of the checklist with some important changes affecting the taxonomy of the birds in North America (and Hawaii).  I will mention only those affecting the birds found in Panamá, and I'm including not only splits and lumps, but also name changes and other issues.
In taxonomic order, I will start with the shorebirds.  Now, many species considered monotypical are now included within the genus Calidris.  That means, we now list the Surfbird as Calidris virgata, Buff-breasted Sandpiper as Calidris subruficollis and Ruff as Calidris pugnax.  The order of the species within the genus Calidris also changed, as well as the sequence of the families within the Charadriiformes order.
There are three Calidris virgata in the flock
The Green-crowned Woodnymph is re-lumped with the Violet-crowned Woodnymph and re-adopt the name Crowned Woodnymph (Thalurania colombica) based on better understanding of the ranges and intergrades within these two forms in Colombia (however, they are not known to come into contact in our country).
Former Green-crowned Woodnymph from Ecuador
Black-crowned Antshrike (Thamnophilus atrinucha) is the new name for the Western Slaty-Antshrike due to genetic evidence indicating that our form is not related to the "real" south american slaty-antshrikes, in spite of the physical similarities.  Both subspecies of Immaculate Antbird found in Panamá (Myrmeciza i. zeledoni from Costa Rica and western Panamá, and M. i. macrorhyncha from eastern Panamá and western Colombia and Ecuador) are now called Zeledon's Antbird (Myrmeciza zeledoni), a new species different from the Immaculate Antbird restricted now to Colombia and Venezuela.  Also, the latin name of the Rufous-rumped Antwren change to Euchrepomis callinota.
Black-crowned Antshrike (it's going to be difficult to get used to this name)
As expected, the Thrush-like Schiffornis was split into four species, with two forms occurring in Panamá: the dull, uniformly olivaceous Northern Schiffornis (S. veraepacis) found in both lowlands and highlands of western Panamá, and highlands of central and eastern Panamá (except the Alturas de Nique massif) and the more rufous, gray-bellied Russet-winged Schiffornis (S. stenorhyncha) found in lowlands of central and eastern Panamá (and all elevations of the Alturas de Nique massif).
Bad photo of a Northern Schiffornis, from Altos del María
The Green Manakin is called now Xenopipo holochlora, and both Red-capped and Golden-headed Manakins changed their genus to Ceratopipra instead of Pipra.  Also, the checklist sequence of the manakins changed.
Ceratopipra mentalis
According to Gregory and Dickinson (2012), Ptilogonys (and Ptilogonatidae, the latin name of the Silky-Flycatchers family) is an incorrect spelling and has no nomenclatural standing.  The checklist corrects this and now the name of the family is changed to Ptiliogonatidae and the genus to Ptiliogonys, affecting the latin name of the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher to Ptiliogonys caudatus.
A minor misspelling was corrected in the latin name of this common species
The latin name of the Common Bush-Tanagers changed to Chlorospingus flavopectus (however, there are no splits in this group).
Common Bush-Tanager... I was expecting splits in this species!
Some issues are pending, other were not even mentioned... notably the Blue-diademed/Whooping Motmot.  Surely more studies are needed before a formal pronunciation of the AOU.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bird of the Month: Pied Water-Tyrant

The Pied Water-Tyrant (Fluvicola picta) is a small, active and attractive bird found from eastern Panamá to northern South America.  As its name suggest, this bird is always found close to water, in marshy habitat and sometimes open areas and even gardens.
In Panamá, it is found in the eastern half of the country, including around Panamá City, where it used to be common... now is difficult to find due to lack of adequate habitat.  I took the next photo in Costa del Este, many years ago, when the site was a huge marsh.
Both sexes look alike, and both contribute to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks.  They are often parasited by cowbirds.  In fact, we saw many cowbirds in the same fields where I took most of the photos appearing in this post.
For these, and many others reasons, is why we chose the Pied Water-Tyrant as our bird of the month!
Literature consulted:
1. Angehr G, Dean R.  The birds of Panama. A Field Guide. 2010
2. Del Hoyo J, et al. Handbook of the birds of the world Alive. Lynx editions.