Friday, October 25, 2019

Visiting Escudo and Rio Cañas

Escudo de Veraguas is an isolated island in the Caribbean coast of the Ngöbe-Bugle comarca in western Panama, re-known by its remoteness, pristine beaches, mangrove canals and rock formations.  My wife and I visited it twice before, more than 10 years ago, before it became the touristic boom it is today.  Apart of the landscapes, the island is a living lab where different species have flourished isolated from mainland relatives and, in some cases, becoming distinct species.
Lizette, Jan Axel, Gabrielle and Gloriela at Chiriqui Grande
We took advantage of one of those organized tours that ran during weekends by Machoemonte, starting at the coastal town of Chiriqui Grande.  Aboard the boat, twelve of us (including Gloriela and Gabrielle) started the adventure to the remote island.  It was not a birding trip per se, but there was another birder in the group, Lizette, who is an ebirder too!  The trip to Escudo from Chiriqui Grande takes almost two hours through both calm (at the Chiriquí Lagoon) and rough waters (after passing the Valiente Peninsula).  We reached the island close to noon since we departed late due to rain and bad weather  conditions... but by the time we reached the island the sky was blue and the heat made us jump right away to the turquoise waters.
Right at the beach we were able to watch some early migrants and common residents of the island.  I was particularly interested in finding resident White-crowned Pigeon and Escudo Hummingbird.  The pigeon is rare everywhere else... only in Escudo de Veraguas (for Panama) is almost a guaranteed sight.  The hummingbird is still considered by many authorities part of Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, but Panama Audubon Society treat it as an endemic species... one with a tiny range (restricted to the island).  Both would be new year-birds for me.  To my surprise, both were right at the first beach we visited!
White-crowned Pigeon (file photo)
Escudo Hummingbird
I know the hummingbird photo is horrible... but you only need to imagine a plumeleteer-sized Rufous-tailed Hummingbird after all!  Of course we saw more species on the island, including endemic forms of Blue-gray Tanager and Bay Wren... but I took few photos since this was more a beach trip.  After having lunch, we visited other sites around the island, including the mangroves channels and a rocky cove with an arch formation that is popular among the visitors.  It was at the mangroves were our boatman pointed out a sleepy Pygmy Sloth (Bradipus pygmaeus), endemic to the island and considered critically endangered.
Pygmy Sloth
It was a great day at Escudo enjoying the sun and the breeze, plus finding endemic birds and mammals as well, but our time there was limited.  We arranged to stay that night at the Ngöbe town of Río Cañas, in mainland comarca facing the island.  It was around 5:00 pm when we started to head that way.  In the middle of the transect, a swift black-and-white shearwater flew by the boat.  It allowed great views and I saw evident dark vent and noticed it small size: Audubon's Shearwater!  A lifer for both Lizette and me (and certainly for most of the passengers too).  There are very few records of this species in Panama, even considering that -supposedly- breeds in some rocky islets in Valiente Peninsula (close to my sighting).  My camera was inside a plastic bag deep in my backpack of course!  When we finally arrived to Río Cañas, a representative of the local women's cooperative welcomed us and guided us to our rooms.  They have a little community project to receive local and foreign tourists.  After a tasty dinner, we enjoyed a demonstration of typical dances (all inspired in local fauna) and handcrafts.  That night, away of the electric lights, we enjoyed a starred sky and profound silence... we sleep like queens and kings with all that peace!
Ngöbe women
Adult male Olive-backed Euphonia
The next morning I keep adding new year-birds to my list: Bronzy Hermit, Olive-throated Parakeet, and Olive-backed Euphonia among others.  We left Río Cañas after breakfast, heading back to Chiriqui Grande.  But first, we planned another stop along the route at Isla Tiburón (Shark Island).  The gentle sound of the braking waves invited us to relax lying on the white and fine sand of the island.  Panama really have spectacular places with potential to compete with major destinations of the world... but at the other hand, I really liked the feeling of being in a little-known corner of paradise with my family!
Cubilla family at Isla Tiburon

Friday, October 11, 2019

My "Lanceolín del Monte" experience... at last!!!

Of all my birding anecdotes, the tale of the Lanceolín del Monte is my favorite one.  And now, thanks to my friend Christian Gernez of Isthmian Adventures, I can told you about it with a happy ending!  You may be wondering what is a Lanceolín del Monte?  Well, it is a VERY rare bird in Panama (and everywhere along its wide distribution), member of the Puffbirds and Nunbirds family: the Lanceolated Monklet.  Is so rare that it used to be known for the country by a single specimen collected back in 1926.  Then, it was "rediscovered" in the 90s at the humid foothills of Bocas del Toro province (now Comarca Ngöbe-Bugle) in western Panamá by an intrepid group of birders including, among others, George Angehr, Loyda Sánchez and the late Wilberto Martínez (who eventually bought the exact place and turned into an eco-lodge, the area is now known as "Willy Mazú").
Foothill of the Ngöbe-Bugle comarca (as seen from the Continental Divide)
For many years, that was the only reliable site for finding that species in Panama and the only site with recent records (except for an isolated and unique report from Cana, in eastern Darien province). Many years after the closure of the eco-lodge, I went with Gloriela looking for the monklet.  The humble keeper of the land and his wife immediately recognized us as birders and invited us to enter the property. Even before I explain them what we were looking for, he told me (in Spanish): "I bet you are looking for the Lanceolín del Monte".  It took me a second to know that he was talking about the Lanceolated Monklet.  I guess that was the closest Spanish name he could elucidate after hearing dozens of birders looking for the enigmatic Lanceolated Monklet! We did not see it that time, but the name was engraved deep in my memory.
Years later, in year 2000, during a Panama Audubon Society's field trip to the foothills above the town of Santa Fe (Veraguas province, central Panama), a Lanceolated Monklet was discovered along the route to the Continental Divide.  It was found by the Mulabá river for the delightedness of all the trip participants (notice the Xenornis report above).  Since then, the road improved a lot, and the Lanceolated Monklet have been reported with certain regularity.  My friend Christian (and others) saw it several times in the very exact place and in new sites but, somehow, that bird eluded me so far.  Some months ago, Christian took me along the road visiting nice birding spots and recording good species, specially mixed flocks including Emerald, Dusky-faced, White-shouldered, Tawny-crested, Black-and-Yellow Tanagers and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus.
Yellow-throated Chlorospingus
Black-and-Yellow Tanager
Tawny-crested Tanager
However, by the time we reached the monklet spot, it was quite late and hot, and I was running out of time so I decided that I would leave it for another occasion.  And that occasion came few months after that.  In my search of new year birds for my Big Year quest, I visited several sites along the central provinces of the country.  Again, I contacted Christian who was willing to show me the exact place were he usually sees the monklet.  This time the monklet was not the only target, since I was also looking for some other goodies at those elevations above Santa Fe.  I got to the site before the first light, the area between the two first bridges over the Mulaba river.  The dawn chorus started with loud Bay Wrens and Buff-rumped Warblers, while the first Tawny-crested Tanagers started to show up along the tangled banks of the river.  As soon as Christian arrived, he took me to the "usual" spot.  He looked confident and relaxed... and just told me to be alert for movement since he was about to play a recorded call just once, in order to not disturb the bird, and wait for it.  After few moments, a little silhouette approached to a nearby tree and stayed still.  Streaked underparts, white-spotted undertail, white front and lores... a LANCEOLÍN DEL MONTE!!!
Lanceolated Monklet a.k.a Lanceolín del Monte
After all these years I finally was in front of one of the most enigmatic birds of the Neotropics!  I can't describe the feeling... but I'm sure that, if you are a birder, you have felt that same sensation... when finally a nemesis bites the dust!  The monklet quietly stayed for a while at the same perch, occasionally doing sally flights to the foliage probably catching some insects.  Reluctantly decided to left it in peace to continue our targets quest... but I was so happy that was sure that the day would not get any better.
Crimson-collared Tanager
Well, as you can see, I was wrong.  My second target for the morning, the awesome Crimson-collared Tanager, took us only 10 more minutes to show up, thanks to Christian experience birding his "area". Considering the great success looking for great bird species in the foothills of Santa Fe, I decided to move to another area (200 km apart) looking for more specialties and then, drive back to Panama City, some 300 km away.  All the way, the image of that Lanceolín del Monte draw me a smile.  What a great lifer and addition to my Big Year.  Thanks Christian for show me it!
Christian and Jan Axel