Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My last Year Bird!

You must know by now that I like to make bird lists: Life List, Country/Region Lists, Balcony Lists and, of course, Year Lists. Panama is a great country when you talk about birds, personally, my year lists exceed 500 species every year (without too much effort), and up to 800 species can be seen if you try hard... and certainly many more are possible (922 bird species have been seen this year in Panama according to eBird)!  My country Year List was in 509, so I went yesterday to Panama Viejo in search of my last year-bird... a vagrant to our coast that had been reported recently by several observers (reports in Xenornis).  I succeed, but the bird was so far that I tried it again today.  This time, many local and visiting birders were after the bird... for Panamanian standards, the place was crowded!
The tide was retiring, exposing the mudflats... and many common species were scattered all along the place... but our main objective was not among them.  I went to the small mangrove island behind the museum with some other birders, including Ovidio Jaramillo and Juan Pablo Ríos.
In the way, a single Franklin's Gull and a Gull-billed Tern showed well.  Notice the white bar separating the black wing-tips from the rest of the wing in the Franklin's Gull and the general paleness of the Gull-billed Tern, which is the whiter tern of those regularly occurring in Panama.
Franklin's Gull.  Adult in basic plumage
Gull-billed Tern
Soon, Ovidio spotted our objective from the mangroves.  An American White Pelican was standing on the rocks behind the island.  The huge size, white plumage with black primaries and pink bill were clearly noticed.  The two pillars in the background belong to the expressway to the airport (the "South Corridor").
American White Pelican
After a while, the bird flew away and landed in the same rocks where I saw it yesterday, with a big flock of Brown Pelicans.  There is where it has been seen the last four days in a row!
American White Pelican
The American White Pelican is just a vagrant to Panama, with just a handful of records, including my life pair in Punta Chame some years ago.  It is so rare that it was a lifer for Juan Pablo and for my friend Justo Camargo, both experienced birders in Panama.  What a great way to end the year... my year bird # 510!  If you still need it, try for it now before is gone!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Central Christmas Bird Count (CBC)

Yes, it is time for Christmas Bird Counts in Panama and around the world.  This year, we started with the Central CBC last weekend, organized as usual by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS).  Eleven  groups explored the Gamboa and Pipeline road areas, with some of them using boats along the Chagres river and the Gatun lake and with one group birding in Barro Colorado island as well.  I started very early, walking Pipeline road in the dark from the Juan Grande bridge.  Walking alone in the forest give you excellent chances to appreciate wildlife, and I saw many species of birds and mammals in the first hour.  I heard first most of the birds during the dawn chorus, including a pair of Band-tailed Barbthroats perched at eye-level.
Band-tailed Barbthroat
I used flash with this bird... it was still quite dark inside the forest.  The diagnostic tail-pattern is barely visible in this photo.  The truth is that this bird is nearly unmistakable in Panama if seen well.  Its voice, however, is easy to left unidentified, contrary to what happens with the White-throated Wood-Wren.
White-breasted Wood-Wren
During my walk, I crossed several territories of this species.  Its fluid and rich song repeats a phrase several time... then it (or they... usually a pair sings antiphonally) change the phrase and start all over again.  Seeing them is difficult... and I barely manage a photo of one of these vigorous singers.  After a while, I joined the group of Carlos Bethancourt.  Carlos, and old friend of mine and senior bird guide for the world famous Canopy Tower, was heading deep into Pipeline road aboard a modified 4WD vehicle.  He was accompanied by Charlotte Elton, Mikko Oivukka, Domiciano (Domi) Alveo (another guide of the Canopy family) and Domi's wife, Angie.  Carlos needed all his driving skills to pass some mud pools in order to reach the low hills beyond the Limbo bridge.
Reaching these hills was very important because are continuous with the foothills of eastern Colon province.  Our main targets were foothills species found only in these hills in the entire count circle.  Both Carlos and Domi are very experienced birders, specially for that site.  We reached the Mendoza river and started to bird.
Mendoza river sign
The birding skills of these two guys are kind of legendaries.  Soon they started to point out bird calls, adding numbers to our list... many of them specialties for the area: Sulphur-rumped and Carmiol's Tanager, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Long-tailed Woodcreepers, among others.
Record shot of a Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Of course, we also saw many more common species along the road, including Gray Elaenia, Streak-chested Antpitta, Chestnut-backed, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds, four trogon species, Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers, Blue-crowned Manakins, etc.
Blue-crowned Manakin, female
Pipeline road is a birding hotspot with a bird list of more than 300 species... however, you need several days to make it justice, or to be very lucky.  Not only the road conditions prevented us for continue further into the forest, by noon, a torrential rain hit us hard... well, it is a rainforest after all!
My count ended just outside Gamboa, looking for some common species after the rain stops.  After 9-hours of continuing birding, I decided to return home in order to make the day list.  Now, I'm waiting the next CBC this weekend... see you there!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Debbie Ann Dance Academy presents Alice in Wonderland

Last saturday, Debbie Ann Dance Academy presented its 2014 closure act at the iconic Balboa Theatre.  Students, instructors and guests performed in several disciplines, including folklore, hip-hop, aerial and modern dance, tap and, of course, ballet.
However, the main act consisted in a ballet adaptation of Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland.  Most of the main chapters of the original story were represented by the academy's student.
My daughter, Gabrielle, with her Baby Ballet companions performed twice.  First, during "The Caucus Race and the Long Tale" (chapter three)... she was a turtle.
Then, they performed during "The Queen's Croquet Ground" (chapter eight)... they all were cute flamingos!
The play was a complete success, and we were all proud to see our little Gabrielle dancing and having fun on stage with her friends.  Do I mention that she is still 2-years old?  Yes, this is her second closure act (the first one was in february, closing the summer course).  If you want to see more photos of this act, visit my facebook photo album.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Random stops along Panama City coast

The modern and busy Panama City offers more than lush and cheap shopping, it offers the chance to watch thousands of waders and other aquatic species without much effort.  Some days ago, I visited several sites along the coast just to see what can I find.  My first stop was at the west bank of the Panama Canal, at Farfan.  This site is opposite to the Amador Causeway, where the Biomuseo is now an iconic symbol (designed by Frank Gehry).
There is a huge pond just next to the beach, surrounded by a dike with overgrown vegetation.  I was able to walk along this dike for some sections.  There were many shorebirds species, including this Lesser Yellowlegs (that was not shy at all).
Lesser Yellowlegs
I was interested in the ducks, since this site produced in the past some very rare species and this season some rare ones were reported too.  I saw several groups of Blue-winged Teals, which is the commonest wintering duck in Panama.  There were some individuals far away in the other side of the pond that I was unable to ID, but certainly they were teals too.
Blue-winged Teals
Blue-winged Teals
One of these groups of teals included seven Lesser Scaups as well... can you separate them?
Blue-winged Teals and Lesser Scaups
I also saw a weird concentration of Franklin's Gulls resting in this pond.  The Franklin's Gull is a common passage migrant, but quite uncommon as winter resident.  I counted no less than 35 individuals, including this first-winter individual.  Notice the white outer tail feathers, broad eye crescents, white underparts and pale inner primaries.
Franklin's Gull, 1st-winter
Then I moved to Panama Viejo.  The number of Laughing Gulls was impressive... and there were also some Franklin's Gulls with them.  Notice the difference in wing patterns and general shape/size of the two flying adults in basic plumage.
Laughing and Franklin's Gulls in basic plumage 
Franklin's Gull in basic plumage
I also saw a very distant Lesser Black-backed Gull among the Laughings and several terns species... too distant for photos.  But several other species were close enough to appreciate well, like this Wood Stork.  Panama Viejo is a regular spot for them in the city and, as you can see, they can be effective as pest control. What major city in the world has no rat problem?
Wood Stork (having lunch)
Nearby, a flock of elegant Black-necked Stilts was feeding in the exposed mudflats.  They are found year-round in this site and are beautifully patterned in black and white with long, pink legs.  They are even more elegant when flying.
Black-necked Stilt
But nothing compares to the elegance of the American Avocet... and a pair seems to be wintering right there in Panama Viejo!  One individual literally materialized in front of me, close enough for some shots.  It was feeding in the water.  When it flew again, I noticed something rarely seen... its curious pink toes.
American Avocet
Nice collection of birds along our coast!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: American Avocet

The American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) is an elegant wading bird beautifully patterned in black and white that breeds in North America and winters principally in western North America, Mexico and the Caribbean.  In Panama, it is considered a vagrant... recorded only in few winters.  It has an unmistakable profile, with its long legs and upturned bill.
American Avocet in almost full alternate plumage
During the breeding season, they get a cinnamon color to the neck and head.  As fas as I know, this plumage has been seen only once in Panama, back in 2012 when a group of these birds stayed long enough to molt into it right here (the photo above was taken in Costa del Este, Panama City in May 2012).  However, the basic plumaged birds are quite attractive too.
American Avocet in basic plumage
The American Avocet belongs to the Recurvirostridae family, which consists of three genera and only seven to nine species depending on how many Stilts do you recognize as full species.  Avocets and stilts share the same elegant profile of slim bodies and long legs and are found often together exploiting the same habitat in spite of the different shape of their beaks.
American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt
This season, a pair of these delicate birds is wintering in Panama Viejo (Panama City), and I invite anyone still needing it for its life or country life list to visit them.  For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the American Avocet as our Bird of the Month!
American Avocet
Literature consulted:
1.  Angehr G, Dean R. The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010.
2.  Family Recurvirostridae. In: del Hoyo J, Elliot A, Sargatal J, Christie DA & de Juana E (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Editions, Barcelona (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/ on 01/12/2014. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

It does exist! A forest elf

Some bird species are so rare and seldom reported that you usually don't think on them... even when you visit the adequate habitat, they aren't in your radar and, in fact, you think of them as myths... until you find them!  Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and I had that experience today in Altos del María, an exclusive development in the foothills of Panamá Oeste province, above the town of Sorá.  The truth is that we were seeking for some rare sparrows reported elsewhere and started checking some open habitats near a park at the valley.  Soon we found common species, like Tropical Kingbirds, Streaked and Social Flycatchers, Palm, Blue-gray, Crimson-backed, Plain-colored, Summer and Hepatic Tanagers, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds (and a Long-billed Starthroat), Black-throated Green, Rufous-capped and Tennessee Warblers.
female Hepatic Tanager
Long-billed Starthroat
African Tulipan Tree flower (and a Tennessee Warbler too)
Soon we realized that our search was in vain and decided to move to a better area close to the Valle Bonito lake.  One of the best trails in Panama starts there, running along a rushing stream (crossing it several times) and then climbing all the way up to the Continental Divide.
Valle Bonito lake (notice the sidewalk entering the forest)
My friend Alfred Raab, an Altos resident, told me that he had seen one of my nemesis bird along this trail (Dull-mantled Antbird)... my expectations were low... after all, it is my nemesis... and if you think I finally found my nemesis based on the title of this post... then you are wrong.  No, I didn't find the Dull-mantled Antbird... the trail was very quiet and we only found a little mixed flock at the beginning of the trail with some wintering warblers (Blackburnian and Canada), Carmiol's Tanagers, Slate-colored Grosbeaks and a Plain Xenops.
a young Slate-colored Grosbeak
After the 1 km mark on the trail, we flushed from the ground a medium-sized bird that perched at eye-level merely 2 meters from us.  It was in a dark spot, but close enough to see every detail with my binoculars... I could barely believe my eyes: a long-legged, tailless little forest elf... a Scaled Antpitta.  After a few seconds (after recovering from my shock) I was able to show it to Osvaldo and Rafael.  Then, I remembered that I had my camera in hand ... adjusted the setting and took a single photo:
Hey, I know it is an awful photo, heavily edited to at least show the pale moustache and postocular spot, but the general jizz is evident (it looks better if you move away a few steps from the screen).  After all it is my life Scaled Antpitta!  This is a VERY rare species in Panama, and I do not know if it had been recorded before in that area (although the most recent records come from nearby El Valle and Cerro Gaital -you can check the Xenornis reports here-).  Osvaldo managed some shots too, and after editing them, he kindly let me show you one here... so stop hurting your eyes and check this:
Scaled Antpitta
Now that's much better.  This photo shows something we noticed in the field... the clay in its bill.  Was it probably looking for earthworms?  Notice the scaled crown and the tawny underparts.  This is a GREAT lifer, specially considering that I did not see it in places where it is supposedly easier (as in Mindo, Ecuador).  What a great day eh?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Quick stop at the salinas

After our successful pelagic trip off Pedasi in the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama, I decided to stay for the night in town with my family.  The next morning, we enjoyed a typical breakfast at the lovely hostal, enjoying the soft calls of the resident White-winged Doves and other common species in the backyard.
White-winged Dove
We planned a relaxed and paused return journey to Panama City.  We did several stops on route, including one at the Agallito beach and the shooping mall in Chitre (Herrera province), where we had lunch.  Then, we did a short visit to the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats) in Cocle province.  It was already hot (around 1:00 pm), but we knew in advance that the visit would be worth the effort... other two participants of the pelagic trip (Howard and George) visited earlier the place and they texted me the highlights, including a Reddish Egret.
Reddish Egret (immature)
Shortly after entering the saltflats, I spotted a white phase immature Reddish Egret right were it was supposed to be... it was the only heron at the pond, but it was a little bit far away for good photos.  For some reason I was expecting a dark phase bird... so it was a surprise.
Reddish Egret (immature)
The Reddish Egret is a vagrant to Panama; however, it seems to be regular in this site.  By far, the dark phase is more frequently seen... this is only the second white phase bird I have ever seen (the first one was several years ago in this same place).  We continue along the road looking for another species previously found by our friends... a flock with more than 30 Lesser Scaups.
Lesser Scaups in the distance
We did find the ducks... but the flock was smaller... we only counted 18 birds, including at least two drakes.  In the way back, the flock was already gone.  Will this be a good year for migrant ducks in Panama?  So far, many rare species have been reported in central Panama (for example, check this Xenornis report and my own post on Gamboa's ducks).  Apart of these species, we only saw some common shorebirds like Willets, Whimbrels, Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-necked Stilts.  A Caspian Tern at the beach was a highlight too.  Notice the heavy-looking bill and the head pattern showing more black than the Royal Terns.
Caspian Tern
After some other stops on route, we finally arrived home safely and with several avian highlights in the bag!

Monday, November 24, 2014


Since in the last pelagic trip off Pedasí we did so well, a group of intrepid birders took to the sea on saturday, November 22nd ... and of course I could not miss this opportunity.  This time, George Angehr (also repeating), Karl & Rosabel Kaufmann, Howard Laidlaw and Darien Montañez joined me at the picturesque town of Pedasí (southern Azuero peninsula in central Panama) the day before.
Sunrise at El Arenal
As the previous trip, the starting point was El Arenal beach, which is less than 5 minutes from the hostal in town where we were staying.  A little "panga" took us to the 30 ft sport fishing boat commanded by Jeff, this time assisted by Elvis (aka Chombo) who took the group photo with my cel phone.  Everything was ready and we started the trip with relatively calm seas, leaving El Arenal and Iguana island behind and heading straight to the deep waters surrounding a seamount at 27 nautical milles SE of Punta Mala.
Howard, Karl, Darien, Jan, Rosabel and George
Apart of some common inshore species, like Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns, a group of dolphins welcomed us spinning in the air.  I don't know the species, but they don't seemed to be the typical Tursiops (Bottlenose Dolphins) to whom I'm used... they were smaller and with longer beaks... probably Spinner Dolphins?
Leaving the ID issues on marine mammals behind, lets back to the birds.  The first pelagic species to showed up was the Galapagos Shearwater... a pair of these flew right by the boat allowing great views.  They were of the pale-underwing form... it is important to mention it since some dark-underwing forms occur and the significance of this difference is unknown.
Galapagos Shearwater
Eventually, we started to detect more and more Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.  Although considered rare, the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters are regular in Panamanian waters.  In fact, this and the Galapagos Shearwaters were the most common encountered shearwaters in all my pelagic trips off Azuero.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
As usual, most of the birds were pale morphs... and most of them were in heavy wing molt too.  We also saw an intermediate morph.  The slim shape accentuated by its long tail and the underwing pattern eliminates other possibilities... although we were looking for some rarer species that, in Panama, includes Sooty and Christmas Shearwaters!
Wedge-tailed Shearwater intermediate morph
But we were not disappointed at all!  A huge flock of feeding Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (and a lonely Pink-footed Shearwater too), gulls (including my life Sabine's Gull) and terns was patrolled by some feathered bandits specialized in kleptoparasitism... they were harassing smaller birds to stole their catches.  I'm talking about the jaegers... two species in fact.  We saw first a Pomarine Jaeger easily identified thanks to its twisted and elongated central tail feathers (plus other field marks, specially size).
Pomarine Jaeger
Then, we saw a jaeger harassing a Sooty Tern.  Our impression was that this particular jaeger was just slightly bigger than the tern, suspecting that it was a Parasitic Jaeger; however, it was too far away. Later, I photographed an adult jaeger that showed some interest in our boat.  The clean white underparts (with no mottling in the flanks at all), faint breast band and pointed, elongated central tail feathers indicates Parasitic Jaeger.
Parasitic Jaeger
But the surprise came later.  In the distance, another bandit was after a large tern.  This time, the supposed jaeger looked huge, considerably larger than the poor tern and than the Pomarine Jaeger seen before... but more important, this bird had VERY conspicuous and large white panels in the primaries... a South Polar Skua!
South Polar Skua flying away
Notice the large-bodied appearance and the short, squared tail.  The broad, long wings with those white flashes, the huge size and the powerful wingbeats reminded me a Crested Caracara... yes, a caracara!  Although a marginal photo, this is probably the only photographic evidence of its presence in Panamanian waters (there are several sight records).  I also photographed some other species for my personal collection... including the three regularly recorded storm-petrels in Panamanian waters: Least, Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels:
Least Storm-Petrel 
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel 
Black Storm-Petrel
We didn't see Tahiti Petrels nor Nazca Boobies in this trip... but in return we got several jaegers, skuas and my life Sabine's Gull... that's why I like so much these trips... you can expect the unexpected!