Monday, October 31, 2016

Cartagena: Wildlife and Nature

As I mentioned in a previous post, Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) was the center of the Gastroenterology and Digestive System Endoscopy of the Americas last month, gathering health professionals, professors and Nobel Prize winners as well.  Despite the intense academic schedule, I was able to escape for a couple of hours to enjoy the nature and wildlife offered by the Colombian Caribbean coast.
I hired a taxi and went to the Guillermo Piñeres Botanical Garden, less than a hour to the south of the city, in Turbaco.  The nine hectares property protect part of the native vegetation and wildlife of the region.  I did some search in advance because, as you know, I was interested in birds, and the site didn't disappoint... I saw and/or heard 45 different species, including three lifers (Glaucous Tanager, Stripe-backed Wren and the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca.
Stripe-backed Wren
Chestnut-winged Chachalaca (Endemic to Colombia)
I published more photos in my eBird checklist and invite you to check them.  Besides the birds, the place was really good for herps.  I know nothing about reptiles, but at least some common ones are easy to ID.  The place was moist enough to sustain a healthy population of iguanas, frogs and other reptiles.
Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)
Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus 
Rainbow Whiptail (Cnemidophorus lemniscatus)
Yellow-striped Poison Frog (Dendrobates truncatus)
The mammals were well represented too, with agoutis and Northern Amazon Red Squirrels as common sights in the forest, but more impressive, I was fortunate enough to cross a troop of Red Howler Monkeys that were quite curious.
Northern Amazon Red Squirrel (Sciurus igniventris)
Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta seniculus)
The taxonomy of the Red Howler Monkey is vexed.  Some authorities split the different populations into different species and call this form the Colombian (or Venezuelan) Red Howler Monkey (ssp. seniculus).  Full species or not, it was nice to find this peaceful inhabitant of the forest and to have a little taste of the rich wildlife and biodiversity that Colombia has to offer!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Shorebirds all around!

When Osvaldo Quintero and I arrived to days ago to the entrance gate of Finca Bayano, to the east of Panama City, the picture was not good... storm clouds were covering the entire place and the overcast day was cold and windy.  It didn't take long before we had to shelter inside the car and wait for the rain to stop.  By that time we only had seen some herons and Wattled Jacanas, but not a single shorebird... and we were after a special one, the Buff-breasted Sandpipers reported twice at the site earlier this season.
Finca Bayano
Eventually, the rain stopped enough to start to watch birds.  The place was flooded and wet... but it was just perfect for shorebirds... they started to appear all over the place: on the road, at the fields, flying overhead... everywhere!  The most common were the peeps, with Least and Western Sandpipers as the most conspicuous, but also with some Semipalmated Sandpipers as well.
Least and Western Sandpipers
While watching them, we started to notice larger shorebirds mixed in.  Most of them were Pectoral Sandpipers but, eventually, we noticed one bird with yellow-buffy tones and yellow legs... it only stayed enough for a couple of shots, but it proved to be the only Buff-breasted Sandpiper of the day!
Pectoral Sandpipers
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a rare passage migrant in Panama, with only few reports each fall (almost none in spring).  This was just the second time I see this species, and was a life bird for Osvaldo!  However, it was not the main highlight of the day.  Soon we realized that it was about to be a unique trip... other rare passage migrants showed up as well: several Stilt and White-rumped Sandpipers were around allowing photos.
Stilt Sandpipers
White-rumped and Semipalmated Sandpiper
Other not-so-rare-but-pretty-uncommon species showed up well too, including a pair of confident American Golden-Plovers and, as a photographic highlight, I have to mention the Wilson's Snipes.  They are common winter visitors but you not often see them so close!
American Golden-Plover
Wilson's Snipe
Nice collection of birds eh?  Oh yes, and there was also the first-record-for-Panama thing... well, YEAH!  A bird ever recorded in Panama... about the same size of the Pectoral Sandpipers, but with contrasting chestnut crown and white eye-brow... but most important, buffy breast with almost no streaks... here is the photo that I added to my eBird checklist:
SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER... WOW!  An Asian breeder way out of route!  It is still pending review, but if accepted by the local Birds Records Committee, it could be the first documented one for Central America!  Now that is what I call a terrific day!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pewees and Empids of Panama City

If there is a group more difficult to identify than the pewees and Empidonax flycatchers (Empids) in the New World, then I don't know it... these members of the Tyrant Flycatchers family are extremely similar, specially here in Panama where most of them occur as long-distance migrants (so often with faded plumages and silent).  The "difficult-to-ID" label doesn't apply to all of them... some are quite distinctive, as those residents of Panama's western highlands (check this).  In Panama City (central Panama), there is only one resident pewee... the Tropical Pewee.
Tropical Pewee
This species is extremely similar to other migrant pewees... but this one vocalizes frequently (that's how I identified the above individual), thus making it easy to ID.  Also notice the pale loreal area (the area between the eye and the base of the bill) and the relatively short primary projection (the length of the wing/primaries beyond the tertials on a resting bird).  Compare it with the next species:
Eastern Wood-Pewee
VERY similar!  Silent birds during migration season are hard to ID, but I also heard this bird, it is an Eastern Wood-Pewee.  They become very common in Panama City as passage migrants, where they frequently vocalize as well.  Now compare this bird with the next one (that I saw in the same site that this Eastern Wood-Pewee):
Western Wood-Pewee
First of all, its darker overall color is evident at first glance.  However, notice also its straight back.  In comparison, the Eastern Wood-Pewee looks hunchbacked.  This is a Western Wood-Pewee, which is not that common at all in Panama City during migration.  This one didn't vocalize, but with careful observation it can be ID properly.  Other field marks to notice are the different wing bars, with a dull upper wing bar and a bright lower wing bar.  In Eastern Wood-Pewee, both wing bars are equally bright.  Other differences are better appreciated in the next photo of the same individual:
Western Wood-Pewee
It has a mostly dark lower mandible and a more extensive vest compared to Eastern Wood-Pewee.  Other differences in posture, primary projection / tail length ratio and tail angle are not evident in these photos... but at least you can see that it is not absolutely necessary to listen these birds to positive ID them.  It is a shame that we can't say the same about identifying Empids... check for example this one, I took the next photo the same day I saw both pewees above:
Traill's Flycatcher
Traill's Flycatcher
Prominent wing bars, eye-ring, coloration, behavior and short primary projection identify it as an Empidonax flycatcher (not a pewee)... considering the not-very-prominent eye-ring and size it can only be identified as a member of the former Traill's Flycatcher complex (Alder and Willow Flycatchers).  I took the photo last weekend, so both species are expected.  Anyone want to try?  The only other regularly found Empid in Panama City is the Acadian Flycatcher, which usually favors a different habitat (forest), is smaller and has a more prominent eye-ring... but several other very-similar species have been recorded as vagrants around and close to the city.
Acadian Flycatcher
The last pewee found in Panama is one relatively easy to identify due to its larger size, large-head look and prominent vest in the underparts, the Olive-sided Flycatcher.
Olive-sided Flycatcher
So, are you ready to ID our pewees and Empids?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Cartagena: Cultural and Academic

Last month, thousands of health professionals related to the Gastroenterology and the digestive system Endoscopy met at one of the most interesting and lovely cities of the world: Cartagena de Indias in the northern coast of Colombia.  The PanAmerican Digestive Disease Week took place on September 10th to 13th with a high academic level.  Essentially, all you need to know as a Gastroenterologist and/or Endoscopist was updated at several sessions, courses, talks, workshops and hands-on trainings held in the modern Cartagena Convention Center "Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala".
Cartagena de Indias was a great setting for this event.  There is always something to do in the city... walk within the walled town with its plazas, or above the impressive wall itself, enjoying the colonial architecture, or taking a journey to the past to pirates tales at the Castillo de San Felipe (and its impressive tunnel system -- recommended), drink a coffee at the historic Getsemani neighborhood, or eat a traditional fried fish with coconut rice and avocado salad in Boca Chica beach... you name it!
Many of my colleagues from Panama and all over America attended this great event... it was nice to see some old friends again and to listen my professors, textbooks' authors and worldwide authorities in the matter at their lectures.  Certainly, my major highlight was to meet a personal hero... a person who changed the world's gastroenterology for ever by establishing the relationship of the germ Helibacter pylori and the peptic ulcer disease (and winning a Nobel Prize by the way): Barry J. Marshall.  Hearing the story of how he did that (with co-author J. Robin Warren) was sublime! C'mon, that's the story I tell each semester to my young Medicine students... but charismatically told by the protagonist himself!
Barry J. Marshall
From Marshall B. Helicobacter connections. ChemMedChem 2006; 1: 783-802
OK, saying "to meet" is not exactly accurate... once he finished his lecture, most of the audience gathered around him to speak with him and get some photos; it was crowded!  However, I ran across him the night before at the welcome cocktail and got a nice photo with a legend. Not only that, I found out that he is a blogger too (check his blog: What I know and what I think I know).  He has not posted for a while, but to have something in common with a Nobel Prize winner is something special.... just another reason to keep blogging!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Off shore western Azuero: birds and mammals

It was 5:00 am last October 1st, 2016.  In spite of a not-so-favorable weather forecast, a group of intrepid birders, including George Angehr, Howard Laidlaw, Joris Deruwe, Miguel Siu and your blogger host were standing in the dark while Kees Groennedijk was taking care of the last details for our first pelagic trip of the year.  We were at the dock in Reina beach close to the town of Mariato in western Azuero Peninsula (Veraguas province).  A little "panga" took us along the Negro river and, eventually, to the fishing boat anchored off shore due to tide issues.
Part of the group at the dock in Negro river
Our pelagic trip started in the dark.  It was not after passing the 6:00 am mark that we started to watch some birds... the first one was the silhouette of a Magnificent Frigatebird.  We took the same route we did last year, navigating parallel to the western coast of the Azuero Peninsula to Punta Naranjo (the southwest corner of the peninsula), then off few miles to deep waters along the Continental Shelf break, moving to the west while chumming and then going back to Reina beach more or less in an straight line.
Punta Naranjo
Still within the Continental Shelf, our first highlight was an immature Red-billed Tropicbird that decided to swim quite close to the boat, allowing some shoots before taking off again.  The species seems to be regular in those waters according to Kees, but it was the first time I see it in the Pacific Ocean.  Eventually, we saw three to four different individuals, all of them immatures and within the Continental Shelf.
Immature Red-billed Tropicbird
Immature Red-billed Tropicbird
At Punta Naranjo we only saw two (instead of dozens) Brown Noddies flying close to the rocks.  By that time, it was evident that the most common species present was the Black Tern... loose flocks of up to 50 birds were seen each hour, specially within the Continental Shelf, plus other terns species like Royal and Common Terns inshore and many Bridled Terns well offshore... but also some resting on floating debris close to shore.
Brown Noddy 
Black Tern (basic)
Common Tern (alternate)
Bridled Tern (basic)
This time, our time at deep waters was not very productive.  At the chumming sites we only saw few Galapagos Shearwaters... the only tubenose recorded in the whole trip.  That's right... no other shearwater, petrel nor storm-petrel species that day.  At least, we were expecting two or three different species of storm-petrels... none was seen.  Were they not there?  The chum was not smelly enough?  We were not lucky enough?  Certainly, we still need to know a lot about our pelagic avifauna.
Galapagos Shearwater
Besides the birds (and lack of them), the other highlight was the number of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins that we managed to see.  Several dozens of these intelligent animals accompanied us for a while, they gave us a marvelous show!
And that my friends was our day at the sea.  No new birds for Panama and no life birds, plus a little bit of seasickness for the first time (weird, since the sea was quite calm)... but hey! that's pelagic birding!!!  Can't wait for the next one!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A conservation sucess story

The coastal town of Malena, in the western side of the Azuero Peninsula in central Panama (Veraguas province) is special for many reasons.  Small and quiet, with happy and kind people, no sale of alcoholic beverages and a strong conservation sense.   Some fourteen years ago, members of the community started to protect the sea turtles that use Malena beach as a nesting site.  After identifying the main threats (like feral dogs, illegal poaching for the eggs, inappropriate use of the beach and so on....) they started to take action, to train and to consult with NGOs and state agencies, and established a strong conservation program that now is an example to follow for other communities.
Welcome to Malena beach: nesting area
Taking advantage of our stay in Hotel Heliconia (yes, that's another story), we visited Malena some days ago and contacted Ana, who owns and runs the Hostal Iguana Verde at town, to plan a visit to the nesting area on the beach.  She explained that, from June to December, community volunteers patrol the beach in order to find active nests to then relocate the eggs in two designated areas where they take care of them.
Gloriela and Gabrielle in Malena beach
When the eggs are about to hatch, they surround the nest with a kind of mesh and begin to monitor them more closely.  When the little sea turtles hatch, they remain in a state of lethargy under the sand until they are ready to go to the sea... a period marked by a burst of activity in the little turtles that push them towards the sea.  The volunteers collect the turtles in a basket when this happens, and leave them at least 10 meters from the beach.  These 10 meters are very important for the tiny sea turtles to enable them to return exactly to the same beach as adults to spawn the next generation.
Ana showed us some recently hatched sea turtles that were starting to warm up.  They were young Loggerhead Sea Turtles (Caretta caretta), one of four species of sea turtles that nest in Malena beach seasonally.  We decided to wait for them to be more active while Ana explained us that somehow, some sea turtles managed to "scape" from the designated area and "ran" to the sea earlier that day.  For our surprise, Ana found one of those escapees frantically "running" to the sea!
Trust me, there is a tiny sea turtle in front of them towards the sea
What an overwhelming experience!  Watching this tiny sea turtle following its instincts developed after millions of years of evolution is simply amazing.  Ana decided to release the most active sea turtles that we saw earlier at the designated area.  As soon as they felt the sand began its journey to the sea.
The effort and dedication of the people of Malena ensure that our future generations can enjoy this wonder of nature, and these noble creatures that need all our help to survive.  Congratulations  to Ana and all the volunteers that keep this program alive and we hope to have this experience again... soon!

Monday, October 3, 2016

An expected bird in an unexpected site

Short (but exciting) note.  Each October, I hope to finally see my life Black-billed Cuckoo somewhere in Panama.  This migrant becomes fairly regular for a very short period of time during its southward migration in central Panama... the Ancon Hill seemed like the most reliable site; however, year after year somehow I manage to dip on that one!  In fact, exactly three years ago I wrote about this same bird in this blog (check it here).  Well, last friday, September 30th, I was not even thinking on Black-billed Cuckoos (obviously... it was still September!)... I was about to leave my apartment when I noticed something through the balcony... a stylized bird perched on a tree under a light drizzle... I took this picture:
Black-billed Cuckoo
Black bill, red eye-ring, not very evident under tail pattern: BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO!!!  And right at home.  What a great way to begin a weekend: Life bird and my 133th species for my balcony list.