Saturday, April 30, 2016

I also went after him

Just a short note.  My friend Natalia, of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, posted some photos of a shy bird that is often heard... but very difficult to see.  The bird have been resting in the same general area for about a month... a Vermiculated Screech-Owl.  So, after leaving my daughter at the school, I went with Gloriela to the PRDC where Natalia was waiting for us.  We where in a hurry, the only access to the town of Gamboa, an old one-lane bridge, would be closed to maintenance until noon, so we only had 30 minutes to find the bird.
Vermiculated (Choco) Screech-Owl
As you can see, the little guy was right where Natalia said.  The form present in central and eastern Panama (and northern South America) is sometimes separated as Choco Screech-Owl due to vocal differences compared to the rest of the population en western Panama and Central America.  Thanks Natalia for showing us this sleepy owl!

The Cerro Hoya Expedition

The Azuero Peninsula, in south-central Panama, is known by its infamous history of deforestation that began with the Spanish colonization.  However, there are still patches of wooded areas, mainly in the highlands of the southern extreme of the peninsula, specially in the Cerro Hoya massif.  This is not coincidence... the roughness of the area, and its inaccessibility prevented the destruction of this natural treasure... but also prevented its exploration, thus becoming one of the most unknown areas in Panama, ornithologically talking at least.  Home to some range-restricted and globally threatened species, the Cerro Hoya massif also host a number of montane species represented by distinct forms, isolated from similar populations by at least 150 kms.
That's why my friend Euclides "Kilo" Campos and I were so interested in climbing that mountain.  Accompanied by a visitor birder, Macklin, and organized by Kees Groenendijk (of Hotel Heliconia, he also accompanied us), the four of us set camp at 1160 meters above sea level last week... after six hours of climbing along a winding and steep trail.
Of course we birded along the trail, finding some very nice species.  We started to hear, and see, Brown-backed Doves above the 400 meters mark and to hear Azuero Parakeets above the 1000 meters mark.  Both are endemic forms, still considered subspecies of wider-ranged species, in this case, Gray-headed Dove and Painted Parakeet, respectively.  The Panama Audubon Society considers both full species, endemics to the country... quite restricted endemics by the way!
Brown-backed Dove
Also above the 400 meters mark the characteristic calls of the Three-wattled Bellbirds started to be more and more common, as well as sightings of White-ruffed Manakins.  These populations seem to reside in the area year-round.  About the bellbirds, some experts think that these birds differ vocally to the populations of the western highlands.  The far-carrying calls are impressive.  However, in spite of the loud calls, these beautifully patterned birds are quite difficult to see.  We were lucky enough to spy some males, and I managed some photos as well.
male White-ruffed Manakin
male Three-wattled Bellbird
We stayed two nights in the forest, spending one day almost entirely above the 1200 meters mark looking for montane subspecies, finding both expected and new ones for this region.  The montane forest made us wonder if we were still in the Azuero Peninsula!  There are some curiosities up there... for example, some lowlands species are found all the way up to the montane forests, like Scaly-throated Leaftosser and Cocoa Woodcreeper, certainly due to the lack of their montane counterparts in this region (in these cases, Tawny-throated Leaftosser and Spotted Woodcreeper respectively).
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Other montane species are shared with other remaining (although lower) montane areas in the Azuero Peninsula, like El Montuoso Forest Reserve.  Some of these species are widely distributed, like the Golden-crowned Warbler, while other are more local, sometimes hard to find... like the beautiful White-winged Tanager.  Cerro Hoya is probably the most reliable site to find this beauty!
Golden-crowned Warbler
male White-winged Tanager
But we were after the forms only found in the Cerro Hoya massif... and we found three of them (only missing the Selasphorus sp., probably due to lack of appropriate habitat up there).  All of them were above 1200 meters above the sea level.  The most common was the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.  This form is certainly a new subspecies... and probably a new full species!
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem ssp. nov.
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem ssp. nov.
Check this post with the rationale of why this could be a good species... you can see the differences with other forms in my photos.  The other endemic form was the White-naped Brush-Finch, ssp. azuerensis.  This form was darker in the underparts and browner in the upperparts than other forms found in Panama... it was also more arboreal and quite shy.
White-naped Brush-Finch ssp. azuerensis
The last form was the most difficult to find... in fact, we only saw two pairs, both above the 1300 meters mark: Black-cheeked Warbler.  Phenotypically, the only difference we noticed was its olive(ish) upperparts, instead of grayish.  These birds responded to recorded calls of Black-cheeked Warblers from the western highlands.
Black-cheeked Warbler ssp. nov?
As you can see, it was a quite productive trip.  We recorded 123 species for the area, including some new ones to Azuero and even one lifer!  While walking around 1300 meters above sea level, we found two chicken-sized birds walking in a small ravine... they were Rufous-necked Wood-Rails!  That evening, we heard at least two pairs at the campsite... Kilo barely managed to record part of the call with his cell phone (headphones needed).
There are only few reports of Rufous-necked Wood-Rails in Panama, where it is considered a real rarity and this is the first time the species have been recorded away from mangroves in Panama (although it has been recorded in similar habitats in other countries).  As you can see, there is still much to learn about this place, and I'm pretty sure this is not the last thing we will heard about discoveries in Cerro Hoya!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Land of Contrasts

Our duties in Bolivia were not over.  After completing successfully the first part of the XII International Course on Advances in Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy in La Paz, it was time for the 40 of us participants from 18 Latin American countries to take a 1-hour flight to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in the Amazonian lowlands.  It was a drastic change: Santa Cruz was hot, flat and green... nothing to do with La Paz.  After arrival, we had little time to visit the main plaza, including the impressive Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo and the surroundings.
Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo, Santa Cruz de la Sierra
Again, the activities of the course demanded all our time and concentration.  We had talks to attend, topics to discuss and workshops to get done at the Hospital Universitario Japones.  Every participant prepared topics in advance concerning common gastrointestinal diseases in their countries and, at the end, we presented a set of conclusions and recommendations to implement back in home.
My working group at Montero
Then it was time for the social projection of the course, we left behind the busy Santa Cruz city and moved to the town of Montero, some 50 km to the north.  There we performed endoscopic studies to the population in two intense journeys.  We stayed out of town, in a immense resort with wooded areas, a natural lagoon and lots of facilities.  My own cabin was pretty close to the lagoon and to a jogging track rich in wildlife.
I did early morning walks along this track, and the number of species was quite impressive. Not only birds, but also some mammals, like White-tailed Deers for example.
White-tailed Deer female
I got some new species for my life list of birds.  Some where straightforward, but others were more difficult to ID... for example those Thrush-like Wrens... I was not aware that the subspecies present there was essentially unspotted!  I also photographed some common species in the ground of the resort, check them out:
Rufous Hornero 
Burrowing Owl
Some of the new ones were quite common too, like these Velvet-fronted Grackles that I thought first were cowbirds until I heard them, or the Red-crested Cardinals that were everywhere.  These cardinals (two species in the resort) are not related to the northern cardinals nor to the grosbeaks, but to the colorful tanagers.
Velvet-fronted Grackles
Red-crested Cardinal
And talking about colorfulness.... one of my last lifers in Santa Cruz was a famous bird, icon of the tropics and probably the most common one in advertisements concerning paradisiacal beaches and lush forests, even in countries were this bird is not found (like Panama): Toco Toucan:
Ooops, wrong photo!
Toco Toucan
Yes, I know... is a terrible photo, but I got great views through my bins.  The bird stayed just few seconds, but it was enough to see every detail.  After all, I spend 10 days in Bolivia, a country full of contrasts, new friends and exuberant wildlife... and I hope to be back soon!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

New friends and birds in the heights

"Nobody warned us that nostalgia is the cost of having good times"  -Mario Benedetti.
La Paz, Bolivia
I just spend ten fabulous days in Bolivia.  At first, just another training course (although a renowned one) concerning my job... now, beautiful memories of what certainly was one of the best academic and socio-cultural experiences.  The XII International Course on Advances in Gastroenterology and Digestive Endoscopy was held in La Paz, gathering together young professionals of 18 Latin American countries.  Most of us arrived one day earlier to adapt to the height... 3600 meters above sea level (4000 at the airport!) is quite impressive.  In spite of the "soroche", we had time to fraternize at the historical center of the city... the click was immediate.
Plaza Murillo, La Paz
It was an intense course, with live cases, premier conferences with international experts and long sessions, but we all were happy to share experiences and to work together.  The action was non-stop, with academic activities from dawn until sunset, and cultural events at nights.  An early start means sunrise photos.
Sunrise in La Paz
La Paz is so different to Panama City that even some common birds were lifers for me.  During the scarce spare time we got, I visited the ravine below the Zenon Iturralde park, very close to our hotel.  I got a quite impressive list... eventually; including Rufous-collared Sparrow, Great Thrush, Peruvian Sierra-Finch, Giant Hummingbird and so on...
Peruvian Sierra-Finch (female)
Great Thrush
I also got several Gray-bellied Flowerpiercers.  This active little bird is hard to photograph (sorry for the poor shot), but is an endemic bird to Bolivia..., found nowhere else in the globe.  They were actively visiting the flowering bushes in the ravine.  Following them up and down the stairs at 3600 meters above sea level was exhausting!
Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer
The last day of La Paz course, our hosts planned a touristic afternoon.  We visited some iconic places close to the city, like "the Animas valley", the "Zona Sur", the Cable Car to El Alto (really impressive) and the "Valle de la Luna".
I can assure you that there is nothing similar in Panama. The eroded valley attracts visitors for its strange figures.  Neil Armstrong himself named the place because of its similarity to lunar landscapes... who better to make such a comparison?  However, I don't agree.  The valley seemed full of life to me..., nothing to do with the moon: the xenophitic vegetation (something we're not used in Panama) was exuberant and beautiful.
What a great experience... but it was not over.  The second part of the course was in the city of Santa Cruz... but that is another story.  Meanwhile, let me emphasize that this was one of the best lived experiences in every way!
Group at Valle de la Luna
Love you guys!