Monday, March 16, 2015

Assault to the highlands

The highlands of Chiriqui province in western Panama (and all its horde of endemics birds) are too far from Panama City for a weekend trip... unless a VERY rare endemic species becomes common due to a natural phenomenon that occurs only every 15 to 20 years!  Yes, the bamboo is flowering... and many  bamboo-specialist are around!  So, I went with Gloriela in a hurry to the highlands, checking at our hotel in the town of Guadalupe at night this last saturday.  My plan was to walk the road to El Respingo the next day in the morning and then, start the 6+ hours-drive to Panama City again.  It sounded good... except the part of "walking" all the way up to El Respingo.
Yes, all the way up!
However, before getting into bed after a long drive, I contacted my friend Ito Santamaría (who is an experienced guide resident of Guadalupe) with the intention to settle unfinished business.  Somehow, after all this years visiting the highlands, one species still eludes me: Dusky Nightjar.  Endemic to Costa Rica and Panamá, Ito knew a reliable spot to find him... just few steps from his house.  So I followed him in the dark and started to search.  After a little bit of playback, a majestic male showed up allowing great views... taking a photo was difficult due to light conditions... and this was my best shot:
Dusky Nightjar
Notice the conspicuous white corners to the tail and dark rufous plumage.  What a great start!  The next morning, after taking our breakfast, we headed to El Resingo.  As planned, we parked the car where the asphalt ends and started to walk.  Quickly, we recorded several species, like Resplendant Quetzals, Mountain Thrushes, Barred Parakeets, Collared Whitestart, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-thighed and Large-footed Finches (the last three endemics to Costa Rica and Panama).
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Large-footed Finch
As we climbed, we started to notice the flowering bamboos and the singing birds.  At first, some stayed high in the bamboo... in fact, the few Slaty Finches that we saw never approached closely...and I only got this photo of a singing male.
Slaty Finch
But then, the buzzy calls of our target became more and more common... and it was evident that the place was invaded by Peg-billed Finches!  This species is kind of irruptive in Panama... only present associated with flowering bamboo in most cases, and this was not the exception!
Peg-billed Finch
At first, we only got distant shots, like the above showing well the bamboo... but eventually, we got better views and I even managed to record the call with my cell phone.  The distinctive pointed, bicolored bill is evident.
Peg-billed Finch
Close to the entrance of the rangers' station at El Respingo, we saw a pair of Peg-billed Finches carrying nesting material into a rock crevice at no more than one meter from the ground.  The male regularly perched in a sunny spot, where I got this photo:
Peg-billed Finch
I don't know if there are nesting records from Panama... we didn't want to disturb the pair, so we left the birds in peace.  Although the drive to Panama City was tiring, we were both happy with our lifers!  I don't know how long is going to last this Peg-billed Finches invasion... but if you still need to see this Costa Rica/Panama endemic then what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Looking for lifers in Darien province. Part II

After an exciting morning finding Bicolored Wren and many other eastern Panama specialties at the town of Yaviza (central Darien province), we were on our way to our next destination... the Canopy Camp.  After a short drive from the town of Metetí, we found ourselves at the entrance road to the camp.  Right at the gate, we started to find new species for the trip, like this cooperative Long-tailed Tyrant (member of a pair).
Long-tailed Tyrant
We got early in the afternoon to the Canopy Camp and Abel, part of the staff, showed us the installations and our tent... and WOW!!!, what a tent.  Certainly it was the biggest and most luxurious tent that Gloriela, Gabrielle and I have ever seen.  Every detail was covered, and the terrace overlooking the central main area was excellent.
Gabrielle at our "tent"
While Gloriela and Gabrielle settled in the tent, I started to walk along the property with my camera... but it was hot and the activity low; however, I recorded several common species, plus some eastern Panama specialties... for example, both Sooty-headed Tyrannulets and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers were calling from the main area.
Sooty-headed Tyrannulets 
Yellow-breasted Flycatcher
I know these are not the best shots... but Darien province is the only place where you can see these  species in North America... just like my next objective.  After taking a snap, Abel showed us the exact place where a rarity has been appearing religiously every evening for some time.  Although Abel told us that the bird did not appear until after 5:30 pm, we started to wait before 5:00 pm.  Eventually, my friends Alexis Sánchez and Domiciano Alveo (both professional bird guides of the Canopy Family) showed up too with a group of foreign birders and also started to wait.  The place was full of Verbena bushes (Stachytarpheta sp.) and hummingbirds... in fact, we saw at least six different species visiting the purples flowers... then, Alexis warned us... he just saw THE bird... first, a dark silhouette:
A dark hummer... but what a nice reddish tail!
Then, all the binoculars and scopes pointed the beautiful creature: an adult male Ruby Topaz!!!  Lots of WOWs and AHHs of course!  Eventually, the hummingbird had confidence and began to feed closer to us.  The fading light was a problem... but I got some nice pictures after all.
Ruby Topaz (!) 
Ruby Topaz
Ruby Topaz
What a treat!  We clearly saw its glittering ruby-red crown and golden-yellow throat... and the reddish tail as well.  There are only few records for this species in Panama, most of them females and immature males, so seeing and adult male in all its glory was sublime!  We barely managed to eat our dinner and fall asleep due to the excitement; however, the tranquility of the place, and the calls of Mottled and Crested Owls in the distance helped.  Early the next day, we all gathered at the main area for breakfast.
Canopy Camp main area
The dawn chorus was simply great, and the birding right there was exceptional as well.  We got common species and specialties just hanging around and walking along the trails.  Personally, I recorded 80 species that morning just around the camp and the trails (eBird list here), with some highlights like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Royal Flycatcher, Barred Puffbird, Spot-crowned Barbet and Golden-headed Manakins.
Red-rumped Woodpecker
Golden-headed Manakin
A normal trip to the Canopy Camp includes visits to many other special sites around... but we were short of time.  Reluctantly, we left the camp after lunch and started the long way back to Panama City.  We want to thank all the staff of the Canopy Camp, especially Carlos Bethancourt, who always cared about making our visit as pleasant as possible.  I'm pretty sure this was not our last visit to that magical place nor to Darien province!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Looking for lifers in Darien province. Part I

Inspired by the recent reports of rarities showing up in eastern Panama, I decided to drive more than 250 km last weekend through pot-holed roads into central Darien province with my family.  After literally "escaping" Panama City's traffic jam, we drove all the way non-stop except in the little town of Tortí to have dinner.  Our surprise was that the restaurant we chose had hummingbird feeders!
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird
It was late and the light was fading; however, we saw six different species of hummingbirds attending the feeders, including the Scaly-breasted Hummingbird pictured above.  It was my first for the year.  After our tasty dinner, we reached the town of Metetí at night.  After checking in at our modest hotel, we went to sleep without setbacks.  Early the next day, we ate our breakfast preparing for the long drive to the town of Yaviza.  I only recorded common species in Metetí, with this leucistic House Sparrow as the highlight.
leucistic House Sparrow
The deteriorated road made the drive to Yaviza a 1-hour trip.  At this town is where the PanAmerican Highway ends... literally (the only gap along this route from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego!), and is the entrance gate to emblematic towns in eastern Darien (like El Real, Pirre, Boca de Cupe, Paya, Pucuru, etc...) and to Darien National Park through pangas and little canoes, using the mighty Chucunaque and Tuira rivers.
Following some published reports, we walked directly to the cemetery at the entrance of the town.  It was quite hot and sunny and I wondered if I had enough information to find my goal.  However, it only took a moment before we noticed a movement halfway up a Corotú tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) near the entrance of the place... somehow, Gloriela managed to took a photo of that moment:
Wait!... is that a....
Yes!  I was seeing a Bicolored Wren working the medium level of that tree!  Why so excited?  The Bicolored Wren is a recent colonizer of eastern Panama from Colombia... and Yaviza is, so far, the extreme western part of its expanded range... and a lifer for me and Gloriela!  I got some photos too!
Bicolored Wren
The bird searched carefully every loose piece of bark and each epiphyte quietly, resting just for a couple of seconds before resuming its task.  We only saw this individual... previously,  a pair with a begging young was recorded in that same site.
Bicolored Wren
Bicolored Wren
With our main target in the bag, we drove back to Metetí in order to prepare for our next adventure.  However, we stopped at a forest patch near Yaviza for a while.  Almost immediately we noticed some kettles of Broad-winged and Swainson's Hawks plus many Mississippi Kites migrating.  Then, I heard a familiar call... a little bit of search produced this magnificent Rufous-tailed Jacamar by the road.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar, female
Not only that... some other eastern Panama specialties showed up as well, like Black Antshrike, Double-banded Graytail and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers.  What a great day... but was not over.  After collecting our stuff in the room, we left Metetí and headed to the renowned Canopy Camp, where we booked one night with the intention of observing another rarity... so stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Short visit to Metro Park

I have to admit that I often visit the Metropolitan Nature Park in Panama City despite it is ridiculously close to our house.  Nevertheless, the place is just great for birding... nowhere else you'll find forest birds so close to a large and modern city (actually in the middle of a large and modern city).  For example, during my last visit (some days ago) I found this Forest Elaenia just behind the Visitors' Center.
Forest Elaenia
As its name suggest, this is a forest bird... more often heard than seen because it is a canopy-dweller; but this guy was pretty low catching juicy caterpillars in front of me.  Notice the seldom seen yellow crown patch:
Forest Elaenia... yummy!
Other forest dwellers are pretty common as well... and I'm not talking only about birds because several mammals species are present too.  During my short walk I saw two troops of Geoffroy's Tamarins, one troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys, a Coatimundi and several Central American Agoutis quietly feeding close to the trails.
Central American Agouti
Another conspicuous element in this park during this time of the year are the migrants.  I saw no less than seven species of wood-warblers along the trails, plus Summer Tanager, Baltimore Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  I manage some photos of the most cooperative birds: Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Golden-winged Warbler.
Black-and-white Warbler (male)
Northern Waterthrush
Golden-winged Warbler (male)
Some of the above came with mixed flocks including resident species, like Lesser Greenlets, White-shouldered Tanagers, Tropical Gnatcatchers and Olivaceous Woodcreepers.  However, one resident species caught my attention: a pair of Yellow-green Tyrannulets.  This species is endemic to Panama, and a canopy-dweller too... so it wasn't easy to take a photo!
Yellow-green Tyrannulet (ENDEMIC!!!)
I managed this poor shot... but you can see the slender profile (similar to a gnatcatcher), two yellow wingbars and white eyering.  I noticed it first by its thrilling call and confirmed the ID after seeing it raising quickly and repeatedly its wing over the back.  Everyday with an endemic is, certainly, a good day... specially so close to home!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Coquettes of Cerro Azul

For most Panamanians, a coquette is a graceful and beautiful girl full of live; therefore, it is not surprising for us that the name is used to designate this group of handsome hummingbirds that delight us.  Along with my friend Osvaldo, I went some days ago with my two coquettes (Gloriela and Gabrielle) to the foothills of Cerro Azul (just to the east of Panama City) to spend the afternoon comfortably seated on the terrace of Birder's View, watching the hummingbird feeders.
Gabrielle and Gloriela at the feeders
A swarm of hummingbirds buzzed around us, with White-necked Jacobins and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds as the most numerous, but with other five species present too and even some other nectivores taking advantage of a free meal too.
Shining Honeycreeper
Green Honeycreeper
After a while, we noticed a bee-like hummingbird side-by-side at the feeders with the most common (and aggressive) species, standing against the bullying and harassment... a female Rufous-crested Coquette.
female Rufous-crested Coquette
female Rufous-crested Coquette
Notice the orangish face and throat and, specially, the white rump band.  Its paused flight was characteristic too.  Eventually, we saw two female birds at the feeders... but Osvaldo warned us that an adult male was working the flowers in the backyard (not visiting the feeders).  After a while, a beautiful male Rufous-crested Coquette pop-up from behind the flowers.
male Rufous-crested Coquette
male Rufous-crested Coquette
What an amazing day... three Rufous-crested Coquettes in the same backyard!  And what a backyard by the way... you can see hundreds and hundreds of acres of pristine humid forest (part of the Chagres National Park) in the background of the next photo featuring again my two coquettes.
Gloriela and Gabrielle (with Chagres N.P. in the background)
Good birding!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bird of the Month: Crested Owl

The Crested Owl (Lophostrix cristata) is a widespread, strictly nocturnal species found inside humid forests from southern Mexico to Amazonian South America.  Within its distribution, is unlikely to be confused with other species due to its long and pale ear-tufts.
Crested Owl
Its deep growl is a distinctive sound at night in the forest of the Caribbean slope of the former Canal Area in central Panama (where I took these photos).  However, localizing them at night is extremely difficult; this species like to call from the mid to upper level of the trees and always seems to be hidden.
Its diet consist mainly in big insects; however, it can include small mammals as well, like rodents.  That's probably the case with this individual, photographed behind the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center this cloudy morning.
Crested Owl
There are three recognized subspecies, of which two occur in Panama.  The one supposedly found in central and eastern Panama (and northern South America), wedeli, differs from Amazonian nominate in its yellow eyes according to one reference; however, I do not know if this can be evaluated in daylight, but these photos (and many other from central Panama, in daylight as well) show no yellow at all.  The subspecies stricklandi, found from western Panama to southern Mexico, differs in darker head coloration, yellow eyes and vocalizations.
Crested Owl
This species generally roosts by day in tangled thickets, sometimes very low or along streams, and nest in tree holes.  It is always a treat to find a day-roosting owl, and this was not the exception.  For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the Crested Owl as our Bird of the Month!
Crested Owl
Literature consulted:  
1.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010.
2.  Mikkola H. Owls of the World: a Photographic Guide. Second edition 2012.
3.  Holt, W., Berkley, R., Deppe, C., Enríquez Rocha, P., Petersen, J.L., Rangel Salazar, J.L., Segars, K.P., Wood, K.L. & Kirwan, G.M. (2015). Crested Owl (Lophostrix cristata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2015). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 1 March 2015).