Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Independence Day!

Well... after all in Panama we do not celebrate Thanksgiving Day... coincidentally, today is our Independence Day!  One day like today, but 192 years ago, Panama won its independence without shedding a drop of blood, putting an end to 320 years of Spanish rule.
Declaration of Independence.  Source:á_de_España
We celebrate this day with patriotism and pride, remembering our roots and customs, hearing "Marcha Panamá" (here played by the firefighters' band)... 
or wearing our typical dresses (here, Gloriela is using a "Sombrero Pinta'o" -Painted Hat- and Gabrielle is wearing a "montuno").
Gabrielle with a typical dress (and a drum) 
However, since we have many foreign friends that call Panama their second home, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!  Well, there are no native turkeys in Panama... but this close relative was found by Gloriela in her trip to Guatemala...
Ocellated Turkey
... and this Panamanian species looks pretty similar... only less fancy!
Great Tinamou

Monday, November 25, 2013

In search of THE gull

Two days ago, a Bonaparte's Gull was found in Costa del Este (Panama City).  Some birders were lucky enough to attend the alert and managed to watch the little gull standing in the exposed mudflats at the mouth of the Matias Hernandez river.  I was in Cerro Azul and was not able to reach the site in time, so I went yesterday to Costa del Este hoping to find the vagrant (only a handful of records for Panama).
The view of Panama City from Costa del Este is overwhelming.  By the time I arrived, some birders were leaving the place (including the same pals that accompanied me the previous day in Cerro Azul)... so I joined Rosabel Miro (who first found the gull) and George Angehr along the coast in order to approach a group of waders and gulls resting in the distance.  In spite of our search, we didn't localize the Bonaparte's Gull.  However, Rosabel found a Lesser Black-backed Gull among the abundant Laughings (digiscoped with Gloriela's point-and-shoot and Rosabel's scope).
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a rare winter visitor to our coasts... always in low numbers (usually one), so we were happy anyway.  However, keep an eye for the Bonaparte's Gull, who knows where it will show up!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Great day at the feeders!

Yesterday, I joined Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and Itzel Fong in a day-trip to Cerro Azul, the gated community in the foothills to the east of Panama City.  Our destination was Birder's View, known by its well-kept hummingbird feeders and lush garden attracting many species of birds.  At our arrival, we were attracted to the feeders... just like the tons of hummingbirds swarming around!
What a great spectacle!  Both White-necked Jacobin and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer (like the one above) were the most common species.  Those red feet are so distinctive among the Panamanian hummingbirds.  Other common species was the Snowy-bellied Hummingbird.  Notice the sharp contrast between the iridescent green breast and the snowy white belly.  They have an easily recognizable call, quite metallic in quality.
As I said before, Cerro Azul is the most reliable site (in the world) to find the near-endemic for Panama Violet-capped Hummingbird.  This bird is very special... and beautiful... the only member of the genus Goldmania.  With the right angle, these birds literally glow!
The same for this Crowned (Violet-crowned) Woodnymph.  Usually, it looks pretty dark... almost black, but then... PAM!  Shock of color!
Other common species at the feeders were the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Green Hermits.  In fact, one of these hermits was trapped inside the house.  Luckily, Carlos (the house keeper) rescued him and released it smoothly.
Some other regular species were present in lower numbers, like the Violet-headed Hummingbird (one of my favorites) and the stunning Purple-crowned Fairy.  This one looked like a stuffed bird!
The Long-billed Starthroat and the Green-crowned Brilliant made a single appearance, not enough for photos.  However, we did not lack subjects to photograph.  Not only hummingbirds were attending the feeders: Bananaquits, Green, Red-legged and Shining Honeycreepers were trying to slurp a bit of sugar water.  We even saw a male Yellow-faced Grassquit drinking at the feeder.
What a great day in the foothills!

Friday, November 22, 2013

2,990,894 raptors!

Oh Yeah!, that awesome count is the number of migrant raptors that flew over one single spot in Panama City, the Ancon Hill, during the last season... starting October 1st and ending after 49 days.
These numbers are simply mind-blowing!  In fact, this number is higher than last year season by one million of birds approximately.  The two millions mark was reached in the first 30 days of count.  Some of those "other hawks" can be seen in this post.
The results were announced by the Panama Audubon's Society (PAS) yesterday in an event that congregated members and old friends.  Two of the main hawk counters, Venicio "Beny" Wilson and Ariel Aguirre (both well recognized bird guides too) were the hosts for the night.
After presenting a nice video, filmed and edited by Xavier Lasso with testimonials and cuts of the flights (recalled me my own video published elsewhere), PAS' Executive Director Rosabel Miro showed some interesting pictures of the hawk count site in the summit of Ancon Hill and several examples of how this last season was so important.  Several newspaper articles and TV clips appeared in the media showing the migrant hawks and explaining some facts about this phenomena to the general public.  Before dinner, Karl Kaufmann explained that this amazing number was the result of favorable NW winds, clear days and less rain over Ancon Hill than in previous days, plus more interesting facts.
It is important to note that this is an underestimate.  Sometimes, the raptors flying low over Panama City were simply invisible for the hawk counters in the hill due to fog or rain... so certainly, more than THREE MILLIONS raptors flew over our heads!  Man, I love this city!    

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

At the Caribbean side

For the last weekend, I joined my pals Osvaldo Quintero and Rafael Luck and visited the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, specifically the former Fort Sherman and the forests of the San Lorenzo National Park.  These area is quite varied in habitats, and rich in migrant species.  Our hope was to find some of these migrants, specially the rare or vagrants.
We started around the former Fort Sherman, and area with forest, mangroves, coast and grasslands... making it good for raptors.  The most common was (as its name suggest) the Common Black-Hawk, like the one pictured above.  We saw many of these hawks, most of them perched atop telephone poles.  We also saw Broad-winged Hawks, Yellow-headed Caracara, Peregrine Falcon, American Kestrel and a hovering Short-tailed Hawk in front of the marina.  This was a dark morph adult which, in Panama, seems to be as common like its white phase counterpart.
We decided to check a patch of forest behind the old church.  In previous visits, this site proved to be very good for migrants passerines; however, this time only the calls of the White-tailed Trogons were evident.  Eventually, we managed to see four trogons... some of them allowed great photos, like this female showing the undertail pattern.
Of course, the undertail of the adult male is completely white.  My photo shows this field mark... although the bird was a little bit far away.
Then, we visited an historic point of this former US base: the Toro Point Lighthouse.  Notice the structure resembling vaguely the Eiffel Tower... that is because this lighthouse, built by the French in 1893, was designed by Gustav Eiffel!
Shortly after I took the above photo with my phone, it started to rain.  We decided to wait at the marina restaurant, where we had our breakfast with a deserved cup of coffee.  After a while, we left the restaurant and decided to leave Fort Sherman because the activity, in general, was very low.  We drove through the Gatun spillway and dam, entering the forests of the San Lorenzo National Park and, eventually, into the road to the town of Achiote.  This road is famous in the birding world... but we arrived late in the day.  We only heard some Blue-black Grosbeaks and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans in the distance.  Some movements in the shrubs by the bridge turned out to be some kind of snake.
I have to admit that I know nothing about snakes identification... and after lot of searching in internet, I'm still confused with this one.  Perhaps a Yellow-bellied Racer?  It recalled me a Salmon-bellied Racer that I saw some years ago in this area too.  It was more or less 6 feet-long and very quick!
We entered the town of Achiote, birding the forest borders and the pasturelands surrounding it.  The only highlight was the above Rufescent Tiger-Heron.  It is unusual to find this species in the open in Panama; although in South America is commonly found in similar habitats.  However, my favorite bird was the lonely Killdeer that we found in the baseball field.
This uncommon migrant is unmistakable, and the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal seems to be a regular wintering site.  Well, probably not the day with the highest number of birds recorded or with the rare or vagrant migrants we were expecting... but very entertaining anyway!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Birding the dry lowlands

Last weekend, I went with Osvaldo Quintero in a quest along the dry lowlands of central Panama's Pacific slope searching for migrants and some resident specialties for the area.  We left Panama City at dark, very early in the morning, and drove directly to our first destination: El Chirú, some 1.25 hours away in Cocle province.
Quite recently, El Chirú figured in the map as the most reliable site in Panama to find the scarce Grassland Yellow-Finch, represented by an endemic subspecies.  In fact, the only time I've seen this species in Panama was in this place some years ago.  Since then, the habitat has deteriorated, but still is a good place to find common residents, like Crested Bobwhites right in the middle of the dirt road, or flocks of Brown-throated Parakeets atop the introduced Eucalyptus trees (file photo).
This is an isolated population of Brown-throated Parakeets, and well could be considered a full species in the future (Veraguan Parakeet).  After a while, we moved to Juan Hombron, birding along the road that crosses rice fields, dry forest patches, and riverine habitat.  These patches of forest are very good for migrants in the appropriate season, and so we found Yellow, Prothonotary and Tennessee Warblers, Northern Watertthrushes, tons of Eastern Wood-Pewees and two pairs of Gray Kingbirds.
We found these kingbirds exactly in the same spot where we saw them last year, they are always welcomed.  We had the opportunity to compare this species directly with the ubiquitious Tropical Kingbird... and the longer flights made by the Gray Kingbirds after flying insects became evident.  It was getting hot quickly, so we left Juan Hombron and started the return way, stopping for beverages on route, and shortly in the town of Gorgona to check an artificial pond where we saw many Least Grebes (some of them hiding in the grass like the one in the photo - looking for nesting sites?) and heard a Gray-breasted Crake, which was a surprise for us.
Our last stop was Punta Chame.  This 10 km-long sand bar extends into the Pacific Ocean away of the mainland, and its varied habitats are very good for migrants and resident birds.  However, it was late when we reached the place and the activity was low.  We had lunch in town and moved to the beach.
As you can see in the photo, it was about to rain.  We enjoyed the view of the islands of the Gulf of Panama (Otoque, Boná and Estivá... the same I visited with Gloriela and Gabrielle one year ago).  From Punta Chame, these islands look very close to shore.  In the way out, we found this American Kestrel on a wire.
Sincerely, I can't tell if this individual is a northern migrant or a resident bird, since south american races of this species are colonizing Panama and are quite common now in some sites.  Migrant or not, this was a nice bird to end the day!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rain and birds

If your free day starts chilly and rainy, most of us prefer to stay in bed rather to wake up.  I usually do that... however, this time I preferred to grab my binoculars and started to watch through the windows and from the balcony of our apartment, in Panama City.  At first, nothing moved... then, I started to see some species, holding under the rain.
The time was not appropriate for flying... specially for raptors and vultures.  This pair of Black Vultures decided to wait the rain to stop atop the roof of a nearby mall.  In the other hand, this completely wet Yellow-headed Caracara preferred the trees of the little hill facing the balcony.
Any corner is good for shelter, as these Rock Pigeons proved.  They were very close to my window... they not noticed my presence.
However, some species were flying around in spite of the rain, like a flock of Gray-breasted Martins and this Zone-tailed Hawk that, at first, I thought it was a Turkey Vulture.  The similarity is impressive, even the way to fly from one side to another taking advantage of any breeze, making it look effortless.
A nice thing about the rain is that, when it stops, is like a new dawn... all the hungry birds come out... in my case, a pair of migrant Scarlet Tanagers just in front of the balcony!
What a great way to spend a rainy day!