Wednesday, April 30, 2014

San Andres Island hotspots. Part I

The day after our arrival to San Andres Island, our only full day, started with a tasty breakfast at our resort.  We planned a full day visiting touristic attractions along the island coast and the hilly interior, an easy trip considering that this island is only 13 kilometers long.  Before departing, I took some minutes to see (and photograph) some birds walking among the tourists looking for leftovers... they were pretty familiar to us.
Ruddy Turnstone
White-winged Dove
I have to accept that it was a bit weird to see Ruddy Turnstones acting as ground-doves picking each piece of bread or anything else they can eat of the ground... and the White-winged Doves acting like our grackles, taking advantage of any neglect to steal food from the dishes on the tables.  After breakfast, we hired a taxi that showed us some of the most popular touristic attractions of the island... the hotspots.  After crossing the urban center at the north end of the island, we took the coastal road that runs along the island's rocky west coast.  Our first stop was at a museum known as the Island House (Casa Museo Isleña), an old colonial style home, property of the Archbold-Garnica family.
Casa Museo Isleña
Friendly guides explain you the details of living in such a house in the colonial times and give you dance lessons (reggae or calipso).  You can ask them to take the family pictures as well.
Cubilla-Archbold family (and a pirate)
Then, our taxi driver took us to the Morgan's Cave, the entrance to a cave system where supposedly Sir Henry Morgan (we Panamanians know him well) hid a treasure hundreds of years ago.  The cave is right in the entrance of the property..., but this is a touristic island, so they first took you in a guided tour through some little museums showing pirates stuff, coconuts stuff, a traditional dance show and the opportunity to take some photos aboard a pirate ship.  Then, you enter to the cave.
Gloriela at Morgan's cave
However, I was more interested in the property itself.  It had many trees... and birds.  I was already familiarized with the common species... like Bananaquits, Caribbean Elaenia and Yellow Warblers.  Then, I detected my second and third life birds for the trip.  First, a colorful Jamaican Oriole.  It remained me several species of yellow Orioles back in Panama, but this had large white panels in the wings.
Jamaican Oriole
In quick succession,  and more close to the ground, a little group of Black-faced Grassquits were working in some low bushes.  This is mainly a Caribbean species (although also found in northern South America), and one I was expecting.
Black-faced Grassquit (male)
Close to them, a Common Ground-Dove also said present.  I was not expecting this one... probably it simply went unnoticed in the bird lists I read before the trip.  In Panama, this species is restricted to the Dry Arc in the Pacific slope.
Common Ground-Dove (male)
In the way to the next site, we passed through Cove Bay.  In a wooded road, bordered by Bougainvilleas, I detected a movement in one of this flower.  I shouted "STOP" to the taxi driver and we left the taxi.  In a nearby fence, a group of three San Andres Vireos were chasing each other!
San Andres Vireo
I feared that I could not find this endemic, because, as I mentioned earlier, this was a family trip... and was not willing to leave my family to go look for it.  So it was simply GREAT to have this group right by the road!  The San Andres Vireo is completely restricted to this tiny island... and was my main target of course.  Notice the yellow lores, the lack of eyering and the two wing bars.  What a great experience!  We were in the middle of our tour along the island's hotspots... I'll write about other hotspot in my next post.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Escape to San Andres Island

San Andres Island certainly is a paradise tucked away in a corner of the Caribbean.  Politically belongs to Colombia, but Panama is closer (only a 50 minutes flight) and even closer to Nicaragua. This is a popular touristic destination, and we decided to spent a relaxing weekend enjoying its sandy beaches and Caribbean culture.  This was a familiar trip, I went with Gloriela and Gabrielle... NOT a birding trip... but I birded anyway!
Rose and Hayne Cays, San Andres Island
And we chose well!  Look that sea (and I'm not a beach lover)! We stayed at an all-inclusive resort builded over the waves, our room had a balcony facing the sea and nothing is more relaxing that the sound of the breaking waves in the morning.
The first day we walked along the beach front and enjoyed the swimming pools of our resort (and of a nearby one of the same chain).  I carried my bins and my camera... just in case.  Soon I started to see some common residents... and the most common of them all were the Bananaquits.  They were everywhere... they reminded me our ubiquitous Blue-gray Tanagers.
While watching the Bananaquits, a hummer appeared feeding in some red flowers.  It was easy to ID, since the only regularly occurring hummingbird in the island is the Green-breasted Mango.
Green-breasted Mango
This was a male.  Notice its chestnut tail and slightly downcurved bill.  Gabrielle was more interested in another resident of the gardens, a big crab (I'll need some help to ID this one).
Can you see the crab?
And right at the gardens, I got my first lifer.  It puzzled me at first... a dull olive flycatcher with two faint wing bars.  However, the bright orange lower mandible and, specially, the lack of eyering gave me some clues.
Caribbean Elaenia
My first Caribbean Elaenia!  Later, I saw many more... but the first is always special.  I got three more lifers the next day... do you want to know which ones?  Stay tuned for the next part of this post!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Random day at the Metro Park

In spite of the long free weekend, I have not had time to go out to birdwatch... that's why I'm posting some old photos of residents birds at the Metropolitan Natural Park, right in the middle of Panama City.  By this time of year, the park is filled with migrants going back home, so I hope I can show pictures of them soon... for now, what about this common voice inside these forests?
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Yes, it is a male Slaty-tailed Trogon.  Its call sounds like a dog barking, seriously!  Sometimes it is hard to believe that such beauties live so close to the skycrapers... the same can be said about this Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Slate-colored Grosbeak
Actually not a grosbeak, but a saltator, a fact that sounds logical if you compare it with some other forest-dwelling saltators in South America.  Did you notice that both birds bear names that have nothing to do with their amazing coloration!  Just look the deep coral-red bill!  In the other hand, the next resident bird is named after its bill:
The Double-toothed Kite is a forest raptor quite common in the city.  Although not really "toothed", the name refers to the pair of identations at the cutting edge of the upper mandible.  This mark is not very conspicuous in the field, nor in my photo.  I found this immature bird a little bit after finding a pack of White-nosed Coatis.
White-nosed Coatis
I mention this because the Double-toothed Kite is known to follow troops of monkeys and other mammals, taking advantage of the insects flushed by these animals.  Perhaps this bird was doing just that!  Well, that's all for now... but soon I'll be back with those migrants photos!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Route Anton - El Valle de Anton

During our last visit to Penonome our friends and neighbors, the Rojas family (Edwin, Lurkys, Saisly and the little Mariangeles), invited me and Gabrielle to a short trip to the touristic town of El Valle de Anton, in the foothills of the Cocle province.  El Valle is well-known by its comfortable weather, its sunday market and many other attractions, like restaurants, lodges, forest trails, waterfalls, a zoo, and many more.  This time, we took a new and recently habilitated route starting at the town of Anton (10 minutes from Penonome) in the PanAmerican Highway.
Cerro La Cruz
This windy road takes you gradually along pastureland and low hills to the town of Caballero.  From there, it climbs abruptly until reaching its highest point at La Cruz hill.  From there, there is a magnificent view of El Valle... the charming town at the bottom of an ancient volcanic caldera.
El Valle de Anton
You can see the lava domes that usually are called the "rim" of the crater.  Actually, this is not a crater, but the caldera that left when most of the volcano collapsed after a huge eruption some 200,000 years ago.  Of course, this is a nice place to take photos.  As you will see, this hill is named after this solid cross.  There is another, smaller cross a little bit higher... but we decided to use this as background.
Gabrielle and me at the cross!  Cerro Gaital in the background.
From there, the roads descends VERY abruptly to El Valle, joining then the road to El Macho waterfalls.  Along this road, in the way to the town center, we found a big colony of nesting Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.  This is a famous colony because I have seen photos of this very same colony in the social media.
Oropendolas' colony
Chestnut-headed Oropendolas
We stopped to appreciate this spectacle, and witnessed an interesting aspect of the life within these colonies.  We noticed that the oropendolas were quite agitated.  After some seconds, we noticed the reason.  Several Giant Cowbirds were trying to lay their eggs into the oropendolas' hanging nests!
Giant Cowbird
Yes, the Giant Cowbirds are obligate parasites of the oropendolas, and they know this!  After laying their eggs at the oropendola's nest, they leave the entire task of raising their chicks to the oropendolas.  Curiously, and unlike other brood parasites, their chicks do not destroy the eggs or kill the nestlings of their adoptive parents.  Perhaps the cowbirds' chicks help somehow the oropendolas' nestlings... but tell that to this oropendola!
Get the heck out!!!
In the other hand, almost every oropendola colony have a breeding pair of Piratic Flycatchers... and this was not the exception!
Piratic Flycatcher on stolen nest
I don't know how the comparatively large oropendolas tolerate these birds.  They drive away the owners of the nest, dispose of the eggs and lay their own without building its own nest.  Probably that's why they have that bandit mask!
Piratic Flycatcher
We left the colony and drove to the town.  In the way, we were able to see the famous "India Dormida".  Literally, this means the sleeping indian... surely you can recognize her lying on her back with the head to the right of the picture.  This is one of the most recognized El Valle icons!
India Dormida
After having lunch in a little restaurant, we visited the zoo.  The girls were amazed with the animals, while Saisly and Lurkys appreciated the scenery from a comfortable bench.
Saisly and Lurkys... and not, they are not twins
I took photos of some common birds in the gardens and open habitats of the zoo, like the abundant White-tipped Dove... well known by the name "Rabiblanca".  Its hollow whooo-OOO-oo call is a common sound in our towns.
White-tipped Dove
What a nice day, enjoying with our friends, knowing new roads and enjoying picturesque towns along the way.  Thanks for this great day!
Lurkys, Mariangeles and Edwin Rojas.  Thank you guys!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blood Moon

I know you have seen tons of photos of yesterday's Blood Moon in the social media... and this photo has the intention to show you some more!  Yes... I also set the alarm clock at 2:15 am to witness this wonder of nature.  By that time, the moon was already of a reddish tone due to its passage through the Earth's amber shadow.  It is red because of the same reason why our sunsets are orange: tiny particles in the atmosphere that scatter the light  (the Tyndall effect).
This is the first lunar eclipse of a series of four that will occur in 2014 and 2015 (a tetrad) at approximately six months interval.  My image is not that sharp because of the low shooting speed needed to capture the image in the middle of the darkness.  I was holding the camera, so every tiny movement (as produced by breathing or heartbeat) can blur the picture.  I sharpened both pictures using a commercial software... and I'm quite satisfied.  I decided to close the eyes for some minutes... I woke up 90 minutes later and the eclipse was almost done!
At least I manage this last photo.  Well, it is time to get a tripod for the next eclipse, that will occur in october 8th, 2014... point it in your diary!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Panama's Dry Arc

The coastal area of Panama's central Pacific slope is the driest in the country, receiving less than 1500 mm of annual rainfall.  The area around the Parita gulf is particularly dry, and is the middle point of an area known as the "Dry Arc" due to this condition, its xerofitic vegetation and "deserts", and the prolonged dry season (lasting up to seven months).
Last weekend, I went to this part of the country, accompanied with my pals Osvaldo and Rafael (no last names needed for these two).  After a quick breakfast in the town of Chitre, we headed to our first destination: Sarigua National Park.  This area, known locally as the Sarigua desert, is certainly the driest center of the arc.
Of course, this is not a true "desert", but a man-made one, after the indiscriminate exploitation of the natural resources since pre-Columbian times leaving only barren terrain and scattered bushes.  However, this vegetation is the perfect niche for the most localized ground-dove in Panama: the Common Ground-Dove.  This is the only reliable site to found this species in Panama, the closest population of its congeners is in central and northwestern Costa Rica!
This was one of our main target... but not the MAIN target of our trip to Sarigua.  In fact, we were looking for a rare migrant reported there last year.  We checked the very exact place where it was reported: the water tank behind the rangers' station, where a leak in the tank made a green oasis in the middle of the desert, attracting many common birds.  While waiting, I heard another specialty of the dry arc: White-winged Dove (file photo).
As the ground-dove, the closest population is in Costa Rica, but there is a record from western Panama, probably a vagrant migrant.  Then, I saw a green finch with pale bill... a female Painted Bunting, our main target!  We were not able to photograph it, but we saw it again two more times in the general area and again one more time in the road to the Parita river, certainly a different individual. The rangers advised us to look for the male in the flowering trees along the river.  We didn't find a male bunting, but this Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage entertained us (and yes, I took this photo in the "desert").
Other highlights were Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a Common Nighthawk flying high above.  I only got marginal photos of these two... they are barely recognizable.
We left Sarigua and headed to Las Macanas marsh.  In the dry arc, the water is a precious resource... and any permanent water source is a magnet for wildlife.  This marsh is just that... a protected oasis used by men and animals with multiple purposes (as the sign suggests).
By the time we reached the marsh, it was pretty hot... and the water level low.  Thousands of herons, storks, ibises and jacanas were scattered all over the place.
One of the most numerous was the Glossy Ibis, like the one pictured below.  When I started to birdwatch some years ago, this was a very rare species in Panama.  Now, it is abundant in this part of the country.
By noon, we decided to have lunch in the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats), 30 minutes from Las Macanas.  We were not expecting huge flocks of waders due to the horrendous heat and the low tide, but we witnessed the traditional salt harvest from the drying pools.
After a delicious fried fish (an entire corvina... our own tradition when visiting this site), we checked the pools again, finding a tiny flock with Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpipers and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Well, a typical day in Panama's Dry Arc!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Costa Rican Swift

The Costa Rican Swift (Chaetura fumosa) is a small aerial master endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.  In Panama, this is a local species, restricted mainly to the last remaining patches of forests (and borders) of extreme western Chiriqui province, where I took the photos of this post (and where all the recent records come from).
Costa Rican Swift
This is one of those species that has become rare in Panama due to habitat destruction... it is more common and widely distributed in Costa Rica, so I actually agree with the name!  Like many swifts species, it can be hard to identify.  The best field marks are shape, pale throat and, of course, the large and pale rump patch.
Costa Rican Swift
The Costa Rican Swift was split from the Band-rumped Swift (Chaetura spinicauda) from central Panama eastward.  Martin M. (2000) proved this based on ranges and morphologic data among the so-called "pale-rumped" group of Chaetura swifts in the New World.  My friend Osvaldo Quintero photographed this Band-rumped Swift in central Panama some years ago.  Notice the chunky shape and the smaller pale rump of this bird (that actually looks like a "band").
Band-rumped Swift.  Copyright Osvaldo Quintero, used with permission.
For these and many other reasons is why we chose the Costa Rican Swift as our Bird of the Month!
Costa Rican Swift
Literature consulted:
1.  Marin M.  Species limits, distribution and biogeography of some New World gray-rumped spine-tailed swifts.  Ornitologia Neotropical 2000; 11(2):93-107.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A field guide. Zona Tropical, 1st edition. 2010.