Tuesday, February 12, 2019

They are here to stay!

And that is for sure!  I'm talking about the Carib Grackles.  For some reason, this species colonized Panama unnoticed more than one and a half year ago from Colombia, where it showed an explosive expansion of its natural range.  In fact, the first record was mere 40 kms to the east of Panama City.  
Back then, I noticed this rather small adult male grackle with a huge group of normal-sized Great-tailed Grackle... nothing rare, just unusual... until I heard it!  This small grackle had a different voice!
Carib Grackle.  Finca Bayano, Panama.  August 15th, 2017
I hurried to take photos of this grackle, and managed some (like the one above)... but soon concluded that it had to be some dwarf or anomalous individual or something like that.  After all, there were no previous records in eastern Panama of this conspicuous species, which I already knew from South America.  But for some reason, I did not erase those photos.  Just a few weeks later, while birding some fields close to the town of Chepo with some fellow birders including Venicio "Beny" Wilson and Rolando Jordan, I noticed again these small grackles accompanying normal-looking Great-tailed Grackles... but this time there were no doubts... those were Carib Grackles!
Carib Grackles.  Near Chepo, Panama.  September 9th, 2017
Since then, the grackles were recorded in several hotspots to the east of the first records and into Darien province.  In fact, there are some regular spots where the birds are almost guaranteed, like the river near the town of Torti in eastern Panama province.  There have been reports of juveniles birds there, although we have not yet found a nest so far.  I went to this site in my way back from Finca Los Lagos after my twitch for the Bare-faced Ibis.  As soon as I got there, I noticed the Carib Grackles at the bank of the river.  They were vocalizing and I managed photos and sound recordings this time, that I included in my eBird checklist for the site.
Carib Grackles. Torti, Panama. February 3rd, 2019
Carib Grackle. Torti, Panama. February 3rd, 2019
Its similarity to the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackles certainly had something to do with its "sorpresive" colonization... simply no one cared to check the grackles before!  Several reports have been of birds in association with Great-tailed Grackles, and almost all the birds have been found associated with water.  I wonder how far will they reach into western Panama, but something seems sure... they are here to stay!

Friday, February 8, 2019

A Visit to Finca Los Lagos (aka Ibis-Land)

The news spread like fire!  A Bare-faced Ibis returned to the same area where it was seen for the first time in Panama last year.  As you heard it, the Bare-faced Ibis found in Darien province (eastern Panama) by Pepe Castiblanco and Erasmo De Leon was the last addition to our national list of birds, but after the first few sightings, it disappeared... until now.  It reappeared in the same general area last month, and since then, several twitchers have found it with the help of Erasmo.
Finca Los Lagos, Darien
So, last Sunday I decided to try for it.  Erasmo's nephew, Jean, showed me the way through pasture land and dry riverbeds until we reached Finca Los Lagos, property of Erasmo's parents, at first light.  It was evident why it attracted so many birds... the surroundings were extremely dry due to the harsh dry season, but the place holds a lake with marshy vegetation and other wetlands that attracts tons of life.  Also, the property borders an extensive forest too... a nice combination.  We did the first try before breakfast... and I'm going to kill the suspense right away because the very first ibis we saw mere 100 meters from the house was THE ibis!
Bare-faced Ibis with Blue-winged Teals and a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
The ibis was not a lifer for me to be honest... but it was the first time ever I see one in Panama!  With its growing number in South America, I wonder why this species have not yet "invaded" our country. It was quite shy and I only managed distant shots... but hey, I got my target and I was just starting!  With the ibis in the bag, we decided to bird along the forest border in direction to a nearby wetland.  As you can imagine, we found several other species... but as suggested by the title, I was impressed with the diversity of ibises species.  In quick succession we saw Glossy, Green and White Ibises feeding on the wetlands!
Glossy Ibis
Green Ibises
White Ibises (immatures)
I don't recall any other site in Panama where you can see four different species of ibises at the same time (the Panama list of birds have seven species of ibises, with the other three extremely rare, just as the Bare-faced), indicating the quality of the habitat at the site.  The ibises were not the only one attracted to these wetlands, the ducks were well represented with large numbers of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Blue-winged Teals, plus at least 150 Muscovy Ducks, which are hunted in other sites.  Even a beautiful drake American Wigeon posed for photos!
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks
Muscovy Ducks
American Wigeon with Blue-winged Teals
We saw hundred of herons, egrets, jacanas and other aquatic birds... but there were other specialties too.  The flycatchers were well represented with several species, including Cattle Tyrant (in spite of its preferred habitat, it is still scarce and erratic in Panama), Pied Water-Tyrant, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Great and Lesser Kiskadees, Tropical and Gray Kingbirds, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tyrant, and many more!  A female Golden-green Woodpecker also showed well, specially considering how difficult to find usually they are, and by the river, the nominate subspecies of Boat-billed Heron (with white-ish- breast and face) was resting in the open.
Cattle Tyrant
Long-tailed Tyrant
Golden-green Woodpecker (female)
Boat-billed Heron
In the way back, Jean took me to a little marsh where he thought the Bare-faced Ibis liked to wander.  Using some bushes as hides, we managed to approach very close to the marsh.  Effectively, the ibis was there... and this time I managed some great shots and even tape-recorded it guttural vocalization, which you can heard from this eBird checklist.
Bare-faced Ibis
What a great way to end a twitch!  My four-and-a-half-hours drive back to Panama City was definitely more bearable with the feeling of mission accomplished!  I greatly recommend contact Erasmo for a visit to this private property in eastern Panama... write him at ecotourdarien@gmail.com or through his page at EcoTourDarien.  Happy Birding!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Chucanti: Birds and Experiences!

When you mention Chucanti, most people don't know what you are talking about.  Chucanti is the highest peak of the Maje mountain range in eastern Panama with its 1439 meters.  In fact, it is at the limit of Panama and Darien provinces in the Pacific slope, isolated from other mountain ranges like the Cordillera Central and the Pirre ranges.  But Chucanti is way more... it is a successful story of conservation and perseverance, a story of how only one person can do a lot!
Chucanti (as seen from the Base Camp)
Almost two weeks ago, I went to this place with Gloriela and fellow birder Mario Ocaña.  The road to the mountain changed a lot since my first visit in 2005.  Back then, I accompanied my friend Guido Berguido, who only the year before had found the way to the top of it while inquiring for new places for birding, as he is a passionate birder. He was immediately impressed with the forest, but also recognized how critically endangered it was. With each visit, the logged and burned areas surrounding the forest were increasing on a vertiginous rate... so he was absolutely convinced that he had to do something to stop that devastation.. and he did. He bought the first few hectares of forest and declared it a private natural reserve. That is how it started (you can read more about its story HERE).
This time, the former gravel road from Torti to Pavo (the nearest town to Chucanti) was completely paved and in excellent conditions.  It used to take 45 min to 1 hour... now it takes 15 minutes.  Soon we were in Pavo.  From there, we used to ride horses for four hours to the base camp... they are still needed during the rainy season, but now (in the middle of the dry season), you can make it in an hour on an all-terrain vehicle.  It is easier than before... but still not an "easy" trip... you still need to be prepared for everything.
The road up to Chucanti cuts through a variety of habitats where you can find many species of birds and other wildlife.  In fact, we recorded several species that we didn't find at the reserve itself.  We even saw a troop of Brown-headed Spider-Monkeys that are more often found inside the reserve.  In fact, we saw by the end of that day four different species of monkeys, including a troop of Geoffroy's Tamarins right at the base camp.
The road to Chucanti
Brown-headed (Black) Spider Monkey

After parking the car at the border of the reserve, a short trail took us to the base camp.  Formerly just a place to rest with rustic installations at the border of a cleared area, now the base camp offers all the facilities to have a confortable stay.  The cleared area had grown again and now attracts mixed flocks with tanagers, euphonias and many more.  The unobstructed view of the Chucanti massif reminded me of the long way up awaiting us.  Before climbing to the summit, the personnel at the base camp prepared the lunch that would later make us arrive at the refuge located at the upper camp on the ridge. Already the day before they equipped the refuge with drinking water and propane gas for cooking so that we do not have to add weight to our backpacks, something we really appreciated!
Gloriela at the base camp
Base camp
The way up to the upper camp was in a hurry.  We wanted to have more time in the stunted cloud forest of the summit ridge to have better chances for those Darien highlands endemics.  We only had one evening and the next day morning to do that!  Anyway, we stop several times to watch birds and to rest (more times than I want to admit!).  The steep climb makes you cross several live zones with different wildlife in each of them.  A nice combination of lowland and foothills species was immediately recorded as we followed the trail.  We found several swarms of army ants, always followed by a different array of birds, from usual followers like Bicolored Antbird, Plain-brown and  Ruddy Woodcreepers to more unusual ones (at least for me) like Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and even an immature Barred Forest-Falcon terrifying the smaller birds!
Ruddy Woodcreeper
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch
Although the trails are in good condition, it took us a couple of hours more than expected to reach the upper camp.  Certainly it has more to do with our physical conditions than to the steep terrain.   I just wonder how the first expeditions to this isolated mountain managed to reach it. Alexander Wetmore only reached the 630 meters mark back in March 1950 while Angehr and Christian managed to reach the very top in August-September 1996 and to record some of the Darien Highlands Endemics we were looking for.  We were not able to find the exact place where 14 years ago we posed for a photo during my third visit to the then brand-new reserve.  Mario was kind enough to took us another photo to make the respective comparisons.  What do you think?
2005      -      2019
Many things have changed right?  Trust me, many things do had changed!  Once we reached the ridge, we were impressed with the "refuge" at the upper camp... it was actually a full equipped cabin with bedspreads, tables, tools and even a gas stove (with a 25-pounds propane gas tank). It even has a closed room where we installed our sleeping bags to protect us from the low temperatures that we would surely experience at night.  After all, the cabin is approximately at 1350 meters and under the canopy of a montane cloud forest!
Ridge Cabin
Ridge Cabin
The exact moment when we decided to sleep INSIDE the room
Shortly we were installed at the ridge cabin, having lunch.  Having these facilities in this dreamed location evidence the perseverance of Guido...  after purchasing the first hectares of forest, he began to manage the purchase of the rest of the forest in danger, which eventually led to the creation of the NGO Adopta a Panamá Rainforest (ADOPTA).  Now, the Chucanti Private Reserve has 700 hectares and has been the subject of several studies promoted by Guido that have resulted in the description and / or future description of several new species of plants, reptiles, amphibians among others.  Most of these new species are found in the cloud forest, and the ridge cabin was created to facilitate the logistics of these studies to researchers thanks to the contributions of volunteers, donors and partners of ADOPTA.
Symbolanthus sp nov inedit (Chucanti)
That day we even had time to climb to the summit... and saw some of the specialties we were looking for.  The understory was dominated by Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens and Violet-capped Hummingbirds, while the canopy was patrolled by mixed flocks of Tacarcuna Chlorospingus, Slate-throated Redstarts, Ochraceous Wren and Black-and-yellow Tanagers.  It is impressive to find these species there, considering that this mountain range is isolated from all other similar ranges.  As far as birds are concerned, the affinities of that forest are more with the Atlantic and Tacarcuna range, which geographically are more distant than the Pirre range.
Tacarcuna Chlorospingus
Varied Solitaire
Our time at the summit was limited the first day, although we stayed as long as we could.  In the way down to the cabin we found several Varied Solitaires feeding on ripe palm fruits.  That is another endemic that was curiously quiet that evening.   Soon the sun went down and the temperature dropped, indicating it was time to go back to the cabin.  Watching the sunset from the cloud forest was a magical experience!  That night we went to sleep lulled by the calls of the Choco Screech-Owls surrounding the cabin.
Sunset from the ridge of Chucanti
The next morning, the loud vocalizations of the Crested Guans mixed with the ethereal song of the Varied Solitaires waked us up.  It was a chilly morning, and definitively we need some coffee to really wake up.  That was our last day in Chucanti in we were decided to find our main target of the trip... a bird that eluded me in my previous four visits to the reserve.  A constant follower of mixed flocks, so our objective was to spend a couple of hours at the summit waiting for them (the stunted forest up there make it easier to watch the canopy-dwelling flocks).
Crested Guan
The morning became quite sunny and quiet, with no fog at all.  We waited at the summit, marked by a metallic, pyramid-like structure and a monolith with a geodesic plate on it.  The sun attracted several butterflies species and other bugs... but it was devoid of bird activity, except for the occasional Violet-capped Hummingbird zipping around.
Violet-capped Hummingbird
Lipstick Eighty-eight
When it was time to leave, something happened.  A mixed flock was active just ahead on the trail.  Suddenly, a little bird materialized in front of us, creeping some tangles and vines.  The marked facial pattern and underparts was immediately evident.  Almost in unison we said "BEAUTIFUL TREERUNNER"!!!!   What a treat!   With shaking hands, I managed some decent shots... not easy considering the dark crevices this bird was checking out.
Beautiful Trerunner!
The Beautiful Treerunner (Margarornis bellulus) was a HUGE life bird for all the three of us.  It is a near-endemic to Panama, confined to the cloud forests of the higher mountains of Darien province, where it is considered rare and almost nothing is known of its natural history.   I never dreamed to be able to take a photo of it!  Ecstatic, our way back was more enjoyable but just as exhausting as the climb.  Again, we were in a hurry and had little time to bird (or to rest).  After all, this was just a weekend trip to a endemism hotspot!
I want to thanks Guido Berguido and all his partners that contribute to protect this highly threatened forest.  The place is very special and certainly still hides mysteries and new species to discover, it is in our hands to ensure that this site lasts so it could be enjoyed by future generations!