Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016's Top 10 Birds

The year 2017 is almost here and we are eager to receive it, full of hopes of better days to come and, in my case, wishing for life birds.  That could be a quite ambitious wish, since 2016 was pretty exceptional regarding new birds species for my Panama Life List!  This year, that is about to end, brought to me 15 amazing lifers plus many range-restricted rarities and even some potential splits.  To choose only ten of them was hard task... I took into consideration rarity, relevance for Panama and the region, beauty and general circumstances of the sighting.
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem (Cerro Hoya)
10. Purple-throated Mountain-Gem (Cerro Hoya): although strictly talking this species was not a lifer, the truth is that the whole experience of climbing Cerro Hoya, in southern Azuero Peninsula, was amazing.  Remote, little explored and full of range-restricted forms, Cerro Hoya probably holds new species for science and this hummingbird certainly is one of those.  The main differences with other forms of this species is the tawny belly and the green, non-iridescencent forecrown.
Typical Coiba Island landscape
09. Coiba Spinetail: endemic to Panama and restricted to the larger island in the Pacific Ocean of Central America, the Coiba Spinetail was the last endemic I had to see in my country.  That day, the Coiba Spinetail was the first of three life birds for the day, the most productive day of the year regarding lifers, but I was unable to get a photo... a nice excuse to return to that paradise island!
Black-billed Cuckoo
08. Black-billed Cuckoo:  nothing is easier than waiting for the life birds to come to you!  And last september 30th, this Black-billed Cuckoo just showed up right in front of my balcony!  Yes! It was a lifer, a long-expected one by the way.
Cave Swallow
07. Cave Swallow: this extremely rare vagrant to Panama was the only migrant swallow present that November 1st in Finca Bayano (to the east of Panama City) aside of the abundant Barn Swallows.  It was just the 6th record for the country, and another addition to the long list of rarities occuring at Finca Bayano this year... a site that proved exceptional regarding rarities.
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
06. Unspotted Saw-whet Owl: this rare owl was re-discovered just three years ago in the upper slopes of the highest mountain of Panama, the Baru Volcano.  Thanks to the growing group of Boquete birders, it was regularly recorded this year... the twitch reunited fine birdwatchers, including the top three birders for Panama (according to eBird) and it was a complete success!
Arctic Tern
05. Arctic Tern: while visiting a completely new site for me, the Islas Secas Archipelago off the coast of Chiriqui province in the Pacific slope of western Panama, this little fellow allowed nice views and conclusive photos... documentation was important because it was just the forth record for Panama!
Hudsonian Godwits
04. Hudsonian Godwit: the third ever recorded Hudsonian Godwit for Panama showed up in Finca Bayano this fall and the news spread like fire!  The very same day I saw my life Cave Swallow, the pair of juveniles godwits decided to feed in the open, proving to be an awesome lifer!
Green-winged Teals
03. Green-winged Teal: a pair of Green-winged Teals were my last lifer of 2016.  Again, Finca Bayano proved spectacular, I was looking for a Northern Pintail reported elsewhere (also rare) when I noticed these birds at flight.  Just the third record for Panama, and the first photos for the country!
Black Noddy
02. Black Noddy: identified while reviewing the photos after the pelagic trip off the coast of western Azuero last December 4th, this Black Noddy was the second report for Panama and the first one documented with photos, thus it is not longer in the list of hypothetical species for Panama.
01. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper: I know you already suspected it... not only a life bird... a HUGE one; but also a new species for Panama and Central America!  This Asian breeder is regular in some parts of North America, and this is only the second record south of the United States of America.  Definitively the rarest of the long list of rarities in Finca Bayano!

I wish to thanks all the birders and friends that accompanied me this year and that helped me to find all these spectacular birds!  Next year will be even better!  HAPPY NEW YEAR 2017!!!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

GT turns five!

Our precious Gabrielle Teresa (GT as we like to call her) is now a young 5 years-old lady, full of life and surprises... yes, is that age when they ask why for everything and each day learn something new.  The celebration started yesterday... we decided to stay in a thematic hotel room in Panama City with her  cousin Analia.  Can you guess the theme?
We did not think that two girls could have so much fun!  Welcome gifts, costumes and dresses, room service, swimming pool, and all the dolls and accesories they can dream of!  Today, after the check-out, it was time for the official birthday party at one of her favorite spot: "Mi Princesa" Fantasy & Beauty. It was an afternoon filled with fun and excitement with family and friends, and Gabrielle enjoyed it so much!
Happy Birthday Gabrielle! Mom and dad love you so much!!!

Friday, December 23, 2016

More surprises at Finca Bayano

I guess that, at this point, you already know that Finca Bayano (the rice farm to the east of Panama City) is a terrific place for birdwatching.  Not only quantities, but also quality is present at this site... so far, many rare and very rare species have been recorded... including a new species for Panama!  I thought that the rarity season ended with the fall migration, and had not visited the site in a few weeks... until my friend Euclides "Kilo" Campos reported a VERY rare (for Panama) Northern Pintail... so I decided to pay a visit.
We have been so many times in Finca Bayano this year that it was easy for Kilo to give me the exact location of the observation ... he just had to tell me "the Roseate Spoonbill's spot" and that's it!  So, I drove directly to the site last December 11th , finding the pond pictured above.  At first glance, no ducks were on the water, but eventually I realized that there were scattered groups hiding in the rice at the farther edge of the pond.  I walked along a dry dike in order to get closer to take some photographs... but as usual, the ducks became very nervous when I approached them.
Blue-winged Teals, Stilt Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers
I approached them enough to take the above shots... As you can see, those Blue-winged Teals were mixed with Stilt Sandpipers and two Long-billed Dowitchers.  Then, I noticed other ducks well hidden in the rice.  These birds were larger than the teals, with obvious bigger bills: Northern Shovelers.  The shovelers are scarce, but regular, winter visitor to our country.
Northern Shoveler
I checked them carefully looking for the pintail, but I just found more teals and shovelers instead.  When I started my way back, a huge flock of teals took off from the rice fields.  I was not aware they were hidden in such numbers in the rice... dozens of bird suddenly started to fly from one side to another.  For my surprise, one of the teals looked suspiciously pale in the underside... when I found it with my binoculars I watched the bright green speculum and the lack of pale blue wing coverts... I barely trusted my eyes!
Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals
Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals
Not one, but two Green-winged Teals were present within the flock... GREEN-WINGED TEALS!!!!  Why so excited?  That was just the third record for Panama... and the first photos of the species for the country!  Ohh... and a life bird for me as well!!!  What a HUGE surprise for the site.  Thanks God the photos show well the birds... they are fast flyers, with sudden shifts and turns, and hard to follow with the lens.  Four days later, I went back to the site... this time with my friend Kilo.  His careful scrutiny with the scope resulted in finding both birds at the edge of the same pond... they were life birds for him as well!
Digiscoped Green-winged Teal
After much searching, we were not able to find the pintail... but who is complaining?  Finca Bayano is still full of surprises.  Interestingly, we have not yet found the rare rallids we expected to find when we started visiting the rice farm... we thought at first that Finca Bayano would be full of rails and crakes... but so far, only common species have been recorded... and not so often.  However, as a nice bonus, this Sora decided to show up attracted by our recorded calls... it is a common species seldom seen this well.
So, what are you waiting for? You may be the next discoverer of a mega rarity, or even a new species for Panama, at Finca Bayano!

Friday, December 16, 2016

At the roof of Panama

The Chiriqui province, in the Pacific slope of western Panama, offers the most accessible sites to birdwatch the Talamanca highlands and all its array of endemic species, and thus, is a popular destination for national and international organized birding tours.  However, few people ventures to its highest peak, the Baru volcano, with its 3.475 meters above sea level, in order to find the specialties restricted to the highest slopes. 
Paramo near the summit of Baru volcano
The high elevation vegetation and the paramo at the summit of the volcano are unique in Panama, and is protected by the Volcan Barú National Park.  Other similar habitats are essentially unaccessible in our country.  The seriously deteriorated, pot-holed and irregular road to the summit start at the charming town of Boquete, but only highly modified vehicles  can make it to the top... it is a bumpy ride, but is better than walk the 14 km-long road to the top (if you start at the rangers station).  But apart of witnessing awesome landscapes and to experience the sight of both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean from the top, why else do you want to climb that high?  For the birds of course!  Some exciting findings at the upper slopes of the volcano came to light in the last months by the growing community of Boquete birders, including Rafael Velasquez and Jason Lara. That's why we contacted them to arrange a trip up there some weeks ago... and by "we" I mean Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck, Euclides "Kilo" Campos, Darién Montañez and your host of course.
male Volcano -Heliotrope-throated- Hummingbird
We left Boquete aboard two huge trucks and started the ride around 2:00 pm.  I can swear that it felt like the vehicle was climbing a ladder!  Our first birding stop on route was at the crater known as Potrero Mulato, just above the 3.000 meters.  The birds up there where distinctively different to those found in lower slopes: Large-footed Finch, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Black-capped Flycatcher, Fiery-throated  and, aptly named, Volcano Hummingbirds started to be common sights... even a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl responded to our tapes in the distance; however, these were not the birds we were looking for... so we kept climbing.
Black-capped Flycatcher
Eventually we reached Los Fogones campsite, at 3.260 meters. The vegetation looked pretty much like the paramo in the first photo, but with taller trees.  It was Volcano Hummingbirds' heaven... we even found a female on a nest. and several males displaying.  We fail to locate one of our "secondary" targets: Volcano Junco.  Although disappointed, it did not hurt as much because the species would not be lifer for me.  More than ten years ago, I climbed the volcano with a group of friends following the path in the opposite side of the mountain.  It was strenuous, rained all day and we almost froze at night while camping near the summit... but in the bright side, a flock of Volcano Juncos (and some Sooty Thrushes) decided to feed mere six feet from me while I was still trying to warm myself in front of an improvised campfire with the first rays of the sun.  I was alone in the campsite... and I clearly remember that while I was seeing the juncos, the phrase "with birds I'll share this lonely view" rumbled in my head... mountain sickness?  Hypothermia?  Who knows... I just remember the birds in the paramo.  In conclusion: not, it would not be a lifer for me.  But the bird that Jason was attracting with a recorded tape would... soon, a Timberline Wren started to sing around us, keeping low in the bushes and allowing some nice, but short glimpses.
Timberline Wren
What a bird!  Beautiful, smart, sonorous, range and habitat restricted... and a lifer!  So far so good!  However, it was not our main target (believe it or not).  Near sunset, we reached the summit of the sleeping volcano.  We like to think in Panama that our highest peak is extinct; but is not, although it last eruption was in the 16th century and the lava flow and debris avalanche reached as far as the Pacific Ocean (ten times the area covered by the Mount St. Helens debris avalanche in 1980!).  Back then, the lateral eruption melted the perpetual snows that covered the summit, collapsing it.  Now there is no snow left... but for this sun-lover of Panama City, the 8º Celsius temperature up there was freezing cold!
Sunset at the summit of Baru volcano
Well, the Rufous-collared Sparrows and the Sooty Thrushes seemed well adapted to the dropping temperatures at the summit.  In fact, both species were quite common and active... I just was thinking on keep warm.  The birds even were actively feeding at dark after sunset... those small silhouettes in the dark hoping around felt weird.
Sooty Thrush
We took dinner after sunset and started to descend in complete darkness.  The skills of our drivers were impressive... dodging huge boulders and tilting the car almost 45 degrees from side to side to fit into narrow corridors... it was scary and exciting at the same time.  Around 3.130 meters, Raul made us to stop in the road.  It was about 7:20 pm and completely dark due to the waning crescent moon... but the clear skies let us watch the stars, a rare sight up there.  He carefully chose a patch of forest with open windows (areas free of foliage) hoping to attract our main target into to one of them in order to have unobstructive views.    We took our positions behind Raul, with spotlights and cameras ready... he then played the tape at full volume once... a response was heard almost immediately!  He then played the tape at very low volume and waited... an UNSPOTTED SAW-WHET OWL started to call very close to us!
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
We realized that the bird was below eye-level... but it quickly flew to a higher perch (right to one of those "windows") where we managed to spotlight it... and I was able to take the photos of this post.  What a sublime experience! That is a species considered extremely rare... probably it just passed unnoticed all this time due to its high elevation habitat... thanks to the fluorishing community of Boquete birders now we know a little bit more about this rare owl. The first photos from Panama were taken just this year by Raul and Miguel Siu, and the bird was re-discovered just three years ago when Jason Fidorra and Lena Ware managed to record and see a bird close to Los Fogones campsite.
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl

At the end, we heard at least three different individuals.  There were lots of high-fives and hurrays! Mission accomplished!  A little after the birds left the site, it began to rain, and we continued our descent to Boquete, where we celebrated with a round of cold beers.  Those were many emotions for a single day ... and the owl's calls were still in my head at bedtime... but I still had one day left in Boquete and did not think about wasting it... so I fell asleep to recharge batteries with the vivid memory of the rarest and cutest owl without spots!  Tomorrow would be another day... and other story, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016's Last Pelagic Trip Off Western Azuero Peninsula

Pelagic trips are always exciting off Panama coasts.  The pelagic avifauna is so poorly known that effectively no one knows what to expect.  That's why I try to attend every pelagic trip I can... and this trip was not the exception!  My friend Kees Groenendijk, of Heliconia Inn B&B, organized everything, as he has did in the last trips.  He and his wife, Loes Roos, have become real experts in the logistics of these special trips, and I highly recommend them if you plan a visit to that area.
Alfred, Howard, Rolando, Kees, Mikko and Jan Axel
This time, the companions willing to brave the waves, endure the weather conditions, withstand the odor of fish viscera that we use as bait and to ignore the seasickness were Alfred Raab, Howard Laidlaw, Rolando Jordan and Mikko Oivukka.  Kees, as usual, was our guide and in charge of the chumming process (thanks God).  We left Reina beach, close to the town of Mariato, just before dawn.  Watching the sunrise from the deck of the boat was magical.
We did the same route we followed in previous pelagic trips (you can read about them here and here) and the sea was relatively calm in spite of the dark clouds in the horizon.  After reaching Punta Naranjo (Azuero's southwestern corner), we headed directly to the south, to the Continental Shelf break and into deep waters.  At this point, we had only seen common inshore species, except for a jaeger that passed swiftly that we were unable to ID to species.  At the Continental Shelf break, we started to use the chum to attract our first tubenose... a Galapagos Shearwater.
Galapagos Shearwater
This species is regular in Panamanian offshore waters, although the numbers seem to fluctuate each season, we only saw a few of them this time.  The only other tubenose seen in this trip was a Wedge-tailed Shearwater that we were unable to photograph, but was easily ID'd since we had some experience with that species in Panama from the pelagic trips from eastern Azuero.  More interesting was the completely lack of storm-petrels in these waters... they certainly were not there!  We also saw another pelagic species... not a tubenose, but a pair of elegant Sabine's Gulls.
Sabine's Gulls
What a good sight!  The bird with the black terminal band in the tail and brown upperparts is a juvenile; while the other bird is an adult in basic plumage. The conspicuous wing pattern was unmistakable even at long distances.  We recorded at least five individuals of these graceful gulls.  After several hours, we started to head towards mainland.  In the way, we crossed some non-avian highlights.  First, a pod of 20 or may be 30 Short-finned Pilot Whales that stayed with us for more than 30 minutes.
Short-tailed Pilot Whales
spyhopping Short-finned Pilot Whale
Then, an Indo-Pacific Sailfish decided to feed at the surface very close to our boat... it was a lifer for me!  In fact, my first billfish ever!  Amazing!  Curiously, No one on board showed even the slightest interest in catching the fish... such a magnificent beast is better enjoyed free at the sea.
Indo-Pacific Sailfish
In the way to port, we decided to check a seamount known by local fishermen as a good spot for fishing.  As soon as we got there, a flock of Common and Black Terns welcomed us feeding over a school of Bonitos... it was a feeding frenzy.
Black and Common Terns
However, we noticed a different bird with them... in fact, someone mentioned that a "black" bird was feeding close to the surface.  We immediately identified it as a  noddy... certainly a Brown Noddy, the expected and common species in the area... it was a little bit dark to feel comfortable, but what else could it be?  I took several photos, most of them blurry shots...
Black Noddy
Black Noddy
The photos show a dark bird with uniform upper and under wing patterns, a contrasting white crown and forehead and slightly grayer tail; but most important, it has a thin, long bill... a Black Noddy!!!  We saw this bird several time feeding with the terns... you can compare it relative size in the next photo.
Black Noddy with Common and Black Terns
Then, we found a Brown Noddy in a different flock... the bird was evidently "brown" in the field, not black, and the photos show the shorter and stouter bill, the pale bar in the upper wing with contrasting dark flight feathers and the paler underwing.
Brown Noddy
Brown Noddy
The Black Noddy was considered hypothetical for Panama due to a sight record from Islas Frailes many years ago.  These photos confirm the species for Panamanian waters.  The species is not totally unexpected since it is regularly found in waters around Cocos and Malpelo Islands off the coasts of Costa Rica and Colombia respectively.  It was a life bird for me of course, and a great way to end a nice pelagic trip off western Azuero Peninsula!