Sunday, February 7, 2016

And talking about colorful migrants...

Just a short note.  After incidentally finding my friend Osvaldo while birding in Metro Park yesterday morning, he agreed to show me the city park where his son first found a wintering American Redstart some weeks ago.  It was almost noon, and the place seemed quiet... just a city park in the middle of a nice residential area in Panama City.  At first, just the most common species were evident: Blue-gray Tanagers, Yellow Warblers and Yellow-crowned Euphonias.
(Northern) Yellow Warbler
I followed Osvaldo to the spot where he relocated the redstart, finding some seedeaters, grassquits and two Summer Tanagers in the way.  Of course, the colorful migrant I'm talking about was not the Summer Tanager... but it was a nice bonus.
male Summer Tanager
After some pishing, a curious male American Redstart showed up.  The contrasting orange patches were quite conspicuous of course.
male American Redstart
This is not a rare species in Panama, but having one wintering right in the middle of the city is worth the effort.  Thanks Osvaldo for the tip!
male American Redstart

Cute and colorful migrant!

At this point, most of you are aware of the vagrant Painted Bunting that showed up in Brooklyn, NY and all the media frenzy it has generated... but you know that the same is happening down here in central Panama?  The report of several Painted Buntings, including a stunning male, at the Summit Ponds passed unnoticed for some days... after all, it is not the first time the species is reported for the place and usually are seen only once.  But then, the colorful male was reported repeatedly from the same spot several days in a row... and some awesome pictures by my friend Rafael Lau simply attracted attention to the rare migrant (see this eBird checklist and you'll see what I'm talking about).
"Just for tourists"
So, I went to the Summit Ponds in order to find the little bird.  The "Just for tourists" sign didn't intimidate me and I jumped the fence to reach the exact place where it has been hanging around (just joking... the sign is at the entrance of the Summit Ponds trail, but it refers to a portable bathroom that is long gone and the place is open to the general public).  The Summit Ponds are a favorite birding hotspot, so I started to find some nice species... including the local Jet Antbird, a specialty for this place.
This is how you usually see Jet Antbirds
My friends Osvaldo (Code Name: Green Kingfisher), Rafael Luck (CN: Crested Caracara) and Itzel (CN: Green Heron) where already waiting for the bird (just in case you're wondering, my code name is Cinnamon Woodpecker).  It was close to 3:00 pm and I decided to walk a little more into the trail, since the bird had been religiously seen around 4:00 pm.  I found several common residents and it was quite entertaining... a male Purple-crowned Fairy and three different species of euphonias were the highlights... but it soon was time to check for the bunting.
Purple-crowned Fairy
A little bit before 4:00 pm, I noticed a little bird flying low behind my pals.  A quick glimpse with my binoculars confirmed my suspicion: the expected male Painted Bunting!  I hurried to call my friends who were able to watch the shy bird... it was a life bird for all of them.
Painted Bunting 
Painted Bunting
My pictures are just for record purposes, of course... the bird was a little far for my lenses and didn't allow us to approach (it was very shy as I mentioned before), so we decided to left him alone.  What a magnificent little bird... so deliberately colored!  We didn't see the females reported before, but I'm sure there were at least two adult males because the next day I was able to see them just seconds apart.
Painted Bunting
It was not a lifer for me... but trust me that this is a species don't you want to miss in Panama if you got the chance!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Birds and... sea bass!

Last weekend I visited the famed Pipeline Road (central Panama) with my friend Osvaldo and the visiting birders from British Columbia: Gary, Mary, Paul and Lucille... I guess the warm weather and the promise of tropical lifers are a good excuse to escape the winter!  Our walk started at the first bridge, the Juan Grande creek.  We were not after specific rarities... just enjoying the exuberant forest and its inhabitants.
Male Black-throated Trogon (file photo)
Of course, Pipeline Road did not disappoint us... toucans, aracaris, caciques, puffbirds, fruitcrows, four different trogon species (of 5 possible), including a Black-throated Trogon calling just above our heads, and lots of antbirds kept us  entertained... a single mixed flock had three antwrens species, plus antshrikes, flycatchers and so on...  We also were quite lucky with some hard-to-see species; however, one species in particular stole the show.  One guide friend of us (Pipeline was crowded, for Panamanian standards) told us that a Streak-chested Antpitta was displaying in the "open" some meters ahead.  The clear and characteristic song was louder and louder... and eventually, the cute ball of feathers materialized in front of us.
Streak-chested Antpitta
What a show! No matter how many times I see it, it is always amazing.  My photos doesn't do it justice... you need to see it yourself!  After all the excitement, we decided to left the place (reluctantly); however, Osvaldo had a surprise for us.  He had booked lunch at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center... and what a lunch!
What a great way to end a day at Pipeline Road.  I have to say that it was weird to enjoy a fresh fried sea bass while hearing Black-striped Woodcreepers and Black-breasted Puffbirds... but I can get used.
Lunch in the rainforest!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

It is summer time!

Time to enjoy the sun and the marine breeze!  Well, in Panama you can enjoy them anytime... as I did with my family last weekend in one of the huge all-inclusive beach resorts that abound along the central Pacific coast.

To be honest, I didn't intended to bird extensively... only during the first hours of light while the others were still sleeping, or if something curious or rare appear.  My morning checklists included more than 20 species, most of them common inhabitants of the lush gardens at the resort.  At the sandy beach, the numbers of Laughing Gulls and Sandwich Terns were impressive.  They were fairly confident ... just walking a few steps away when someone approached.
Sandwich Terns
Of course some other marine birds were present too: pelicans, frigatebirds, cormorants and even a lonely Blue-footed Booby dive-bombing near shore.  The only shorebird seen were the omnipresent Willet and Whimbrels... and a tiny group of Sanderlings too.  But no bird was as confident as a curious raptor that visited the main pool.  Some tourists, noticing my binoculars, showed me the bird, and asked me if I knew what it was.
Common Black-Hawk
I said yes, it is a Common Black-Hawk.  I know it sounded obvious... it is a hawk, is black... and certainly common if just appeared in the middle of a huge resort full of bathers.  I didn't want to deepen on taxonomic issues, but this form used to be known as the Mangrove Black-Hawk and I still call it that way when birding alone.  Well, after all the bird was a great show and people seem satisfied with my explanation, so all happy!  Enjoy the summer, and good birding!

Friday, January 8, 2016

More birds this 2016!

It is not a secret that I'm an avid birder... but during the last years my birding activities have dropped a little bit due to "lack of time".  The truth is that you don't need to organize a one-week expedition to exotic forests or mountaintops to watch birds... you can bird everywhere, anywhere!  One of my new year resolutions is to "watch" more birds... more accurately, to record more birds.  So far, I'm recording everyday the birds that I see from my home and from the office... and I have even taken the time to go to hotspots within Panama City, like Costa del Este and Panama Viejo.  In fact, today was the third day in a row visiting the mudflats and mangroves of Panama Viejo (at Panama City's waterfront).
Ruins, skyscrapers and birds mix in Panama Viejo
How can I ignore that?  This place holds a bird list of more than 270 species, with some rarities regularly recorded.  These last days, the place was filled with tons of Laughing Gulls and some shorebirds (godwits, willets, whimbrels, dowitchers and black-bellied plovers, among others).  A closer to look to the flock revealed some Franklin's Gulls too... and a Ring-billed Gull too!
Franklin's Gull
Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls
As I have mentioned on other occasions, you can expect only one gull species in Panama: Laughing Gull... so, three species is not bad at all.  But after checking eBird, I knew that at least two other species have been reported from the same site recently.  The next two days produced both of them... a first-year Herring Gull flying away and an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull today.
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed and Laughing Gulls
Rare species so close to home... priceless.  Of course, more widespread species were present too, like cormorants, pelicans, frigatebirds, lapwings and many more... ah, and don't forget the American White Pelican that continues wandering around!
American White Pelican
So, this year I hope to watch more birds, use more eBird, get some lifers and add some new species to the Panama list this year... ambitious?   I don't think so!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Bird of the Month: Red-billed Tropicbird

The Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) is a widespread resident of the east Pacific, east and south Atlantic, Caribbean and the northwestern corner of the Indigo Oceans, where it is quite sedentary close to its nesting islands.  Few birds equal in beauty and elegance the tropicbird in flight, and a flock of these birds circling close to their nesting islands is an amazing event!
Red-billed Tropicbird
In Panama, it is regularly found around the Swan Cay (off Colon Island, Bocas del Toro province), where it breeds.  In fact, all the photos of this post are from that colony.  Is very rare elsewhere in Panamanian waters.
Cay off Colon Island, Bocas del Toro (Panama)

The first time we saw this bird, my wife and I were in the islands for our honeymoon.  We took a quick boat trip around Colon Island making several stops in the way, including the Swan Cays, where she took the next photo with her point-and-shoot camera.
Red-billed Tropicbird
Eight years it took to return to see these spectacular birds; this time both of us (plus our daughter and nephew) were able to see them in detail... including their coral-red bills, bicolored feet, bandit-like mask and, of course, the long central tail feathers.
Red-billed Tropicbird
They are powerful flyers, and feed by plunge-diving on flying fish and squids.  The birds that we saw were chasing each other and approaching the cliff edges where other birds were already resting.  They share the cays with Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebird; although doesn't compete directly for nesting sites.
Red-billed Tropicbird
For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the Red-billed Tropicbird as our Bird of the Month!

Literature consulted:
1. Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A guide to the birds of Panama. Princeton Univerity Press 1989.
2. Angehr G, Dean R. The birds of Panama. A field guide. Zona Tropical 2010.
3. Orta, J., Jutglar, F., Bonan, A., Garcia, E.F.J., Kirwan, G.M. & Boesman, P. (2016). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 1 January 2016).

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Escape to Bocas. Part III

In the second day of our stay at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge in Bastimentos Island (Bocas Archipelago in the western Caribbean lowlands), I went with my family on a boat trip to one of the hot birding spots reachable from the property: the Snyder Canal.
Gloriela, Gabrielle, Jean-Michael and Jan Axel at the Snyder Canal, Bocas del Toro
The night before, a thunderstorm hits hard the island, and by the morning a light drizzle and dark clouds accompanied us for the first part of the trip.  The bird activity was low, but Ramón took advantage of it and teached us about the canal.  The Snyder Canal, in mainland Bocas del Toro province, was the first Panama Canal in fact.  It is roughly 12-km long and runs paralleling the coast between Changuinola and Boca del Drago (in Colon Island).  It was completed in 1903 and used for the transportation of bananas (and supplies) from Changuinola to Almirante in order to be shipped to its final destination in the United States and Europe.  However, it soon became obsolete because a new railroad system eventually replaced it.
Our boatman Alvaro and Ramon showing us where the "Almirante" Manakins are usually found (I'm trying to imitate one) 
Well, obsolete depending of your point of view... the canal is still used by locals and foreigners, and is exceptionally good for birding since it cross several habitats, from pastures to forests.  Many of the regular birds found there are rare (or simply do not occur) in the rest of the province.  We enjoyed watching tons of migrants, Northern Jacanas, Purple Gallinules, four species of kingfishers, my life "Almirante" Manakin, Ruddy and Blue Ground-Doves, and so on...
male Blue Ground-Dove
We reached the estuary of the mighty Changuinola river on time for lunch.  Some rarely reported species (for Bocas del Toro province, that is) were present along the banks of the river and at the beach: Yellow-headed Caracara, Red-breasted Blackbirds, some migrant ducks and tons of shorebirds... in fact, the beaches at this site are a hotspot for migrant shorebirds... and some very rare species for Panama have been reported in the past.  I have to admit that I'm not used to see that amount of shorebirds away from the sites of the Pacific coast in Panama and Parita Bays.
Collared Plover
Semipalmated Plover
The shorebirds were not the only highlights at this place.  While my family was enjoying the beach, I followed Ramón birding the secondary growths along the coast.  For my surprise, an active warbler showed up quite low and close to us.  The bright yellow head with contrasting black eye-line caught my attention.
Blue-winged Warbler
A Blue-winged Warbler.  This VERY rare migrant to Panama was, in fact, a new addition to the list for the place and a lifer for Ramón!  For the return journey, Ramón had us a surprise.  After leaving the canal we headed north to some well-known islets off Colon Island, the Swan Cays (aka Bird Island).  Eight years ago I visited those islets with Gloriela in our honey moon.  Back then, we saw nesting frigatebirds, Brown Boobies and few Red-billed Tropicbirds... the main attraction of the visit, since these islands are the only known nesting sites for this species in Panama.
Brown Boobies nesting in Swan Cay
However, around sunset, the birds are returning to their nests and the show is sensational! Dozens of elegant tropicbirds swarm around, chasing each other, vocalizing and giving us excellent opportunities to take great pictures.  I counted 40 birds at once... but certainly many more were around!
Red-billed Tropicbird
Officially the best experience of the day!  In the way back we saw some dolphins close to the shore of Colon Island.  I thought they were Bottlenose Dolphins, the same species we saw eight years ago; however, Ramón did note that another dolphin species (genus Sotalia) can be found in these waters: the Tucuxi.  The dolphins we saw were definitively smaller than the Tursiops, but we didn't get close enough to see the critical field marks.
Bottlenose Dolphin in "Dolphins Bay", Bocas (eight years ago)
For the third and last day in Tranquilo Bay, I woke up early for a birding walk with Natalia.  She chose an open area surrounded by forest with an awesome view of the sea.  The birding activity was furious... with tons of migrants, including many almost-near-impossible-to-identify Empidonax flycatchers.  Check this one for example:
Empidonax sp.
I know... the worst approach to ID empids is trying to identify silent birds in migration.  However, notice the long primary projection, relatively short tail and big head, and almost all-dark lower mandible (less than one third of the mandible at the base is orange).  Hammond's Flycatcher is a probability... who is with me?  We joined my family later for breakfast.  Our flight back home was scheduled for the afternoon, so we still had part of the morning to enjoy one of the hidden treasures of the property.  The secluded bay is ideal for kayaking and snorkeling... and what a experience!
Jan Axel and Gabrielle enjoying the calm waters
The coral reef surrounding the bay is like an underwater garden full of life... and both Natalia and Ramón are excellent interpretative guides.  It was a whole different world for all of us, and a wonderful way to end our stay in Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.  For three days we experienced a taste of paradise at our own country, felt right at home, saw amazing birds and wildlife, and most important of all, we made good friends.  I want to thank Natalia, Ramón, Jim, Renee, Jay and their families for inviting me and my family to their piece of paradise... I'm sure we will repeat the experience soon!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Escape to Bocas. Part II

As I mentioned in the first part (you can read it here), I spend an extraordinaire weekend with my family in Bastimentos Island in the Bocas Archipelago (western Caribbean lowlands).  Our friends at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge still had some surprises for us.  After the great success in our first walk through the property's trails, Ramón and I decided to show them to the rest of the family... so Gabrielle, Gloriela and Jean-Michael took their hiking shoes and joined us.  However, our main objective were not the birds... this time we were looking a colorful forest jewel.  After some search, we finally found a pair of Strawberry Poison-dart Frogs (or, as they are known in Bocas, simply Red Frogs).
Strawberry Poison-dart Frog
This very same species (Oophaga pumilio) is present in eastern-central Nicaragua and Caribbean Costa Rica (where it look more or less uniform in appearance), but it is in northwestern Panama where several color morphs arose due to isolation and sexual selection.  Notice how this form, which is orange-red with little white in the underparts and few black spots in the upperparts, differs from the individuals found in the same island farther west (check this post about Bocas' Herps and scroll down until you find the frogs).  The forms in the other islands are strikingly different... Ramón and Natalia have a nice photo gallery of these forms found in different parts of the archipelago (and the mainland) posted in the TB Blog... check it out!
Jean-Michael showing what NOT to do if you find a pixbae palm in the forest
The trail crossed several habitats, like forest, pasture, secondary growths, gardens and old plantations of cacao, pineapple, banana and pixbae (among others), reminiscent of the past history of the property before becoming a private reserve.  The activity inside the forest was great, with several mixed flocks of migrants taking advantage of the Miconia berries and resident hummingbirds taking a bath at a known site at a tiny creek.  The walk ended at one of Tranquilo's main attraction: the 100-feet high canopy tower.
From the tower, the views of the surroundings areas are spectacular and you can have close encounters with wildlife.  In fact, we saw dozens of Red-lored Parrots up-close flying to their roosting sites, pewees, dacnis and tanagers feeding at the canopy, and migrant swallows passing by.
Red-lored Parrot
While checking them, I noticed a pair of large swifts circling above us... evidently larger than the Barn Swallows and the Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts flying nearby, with long tail and long wings.  They were Cypseloides swifts, a difficult genus to ID to species in the field, and at least two species were probable with that size.  I managed to take a marginal photo of one of the birds that, after editing it, showed dark throats and frosty white above and in front of the eyes: a Black Swift!  I included the photo in the eBird checklist of the day.  That was the last LIFER for me for the day... and what a lifer.  After a delicious dinner in the common area, we retired to our cabin to have some sleep and to prepare for the next day.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Escape to Bocas. Part I

Very often we say that Panama is a paradise ... so often that sometimes sounds like a cliché; However, this time you'd better believe it, because only a week ago I visited a hidden paradise with my family in the Bocas archipelago (western Caribbean lowlands).  We took the overnight bus from Panama City and arrived to the coastal town of Almirante early in the morning last friday where we took the water taxi to Bocas town (Colon Island).  After few minutes in town we met Jay, one of the owners of the Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, in Bastimentos Island... our home for the next days.
Jean-Michael, Jan Axel, Gabrielle and Gloriela at Tranquilo Bay
The boat ride to Tranquilo Bay was uneventful, and soon we reached the main dock of the lodge.  A boardwalk across a beautiful mangrove forest (full of Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes, among other migrants) took us to the main lodge, where we met Jim and Reneé, co-owners of the lodge, who made us feel like home.  I have to admit that the place impressed me immediately... the view from the upstairs balcony was superb for watching canopy-dwellers at eye-level, and the number of species and individuals of migrant birds swarming around was astonishing... soon my lens focused on these guys:
Red-eyed Vireo
Scarlet Tanager 
Eastern Kingbird and Miconia berries
The tiny berries of the Miconia trees attracted tons of birds... and these trees were all around the property, but not randomly.  Ramón and Natalia, both resident and well-experienced naturalist guides and friends of mine since some years ago, explained that the trees were planted with the intention of being natural feeders for birds and other animals when they grew... and the idea was paying off!
Jean-Michael, Ramón, Jan Axel, Gabrielle and Natalia in the dinning room
After settling into our cabin, we made our first excursion with Ramon, Natalia and other guests. After a short boat ride from the lodge, we entered a lovely natural channel between Venado Cay and Popa Island bordered in mangroves but with some mature forest in sight as well.  In spite of the time of the day, we saw many different species, including toucans, oropendolas, pigeons and a big surprise.  Atop a stand of mangrove, a glooming white bird attracted Natalia's attention: a male Snowy Cotinga!
Snowy Cotinga
This species is uncommon and restricted to the western Caribbean in Panama... and a LIFER for me, the first of the day by the way.  I know it is an awful photo, but I'm happy with it... not every day you got an unexpected lifer in a heavenly environment!  What a great way to start this -birding- trip.  Back in the lodge, it was time to enjoy the facilities.  My family stayed at the cabin, admiring the great variety of flowering bushes and plants in the garden (and a family of White-faced Capuchin monkeys and two species of sloths in the way).  The purple Verbenas were attracting many hummingbird species (including a Bronzy Hermit resting right next to the cabin)... but the colorful Hibiscus flowers stole the show.
Bronzy Hermit
I was more interested in the forested areas.  Up to 75% of the property has been left in its natural state, and Ramón showed me the trails into the mature forest behind the cabins.  Soon, some forest-dwellers started to show up, like Chestnut-backed Antbirds, White-flanked Antwren, Black-crowned Antshrikes and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers.  However, we were after a specialty of these islands... a species with a weird disjunct range because it reappear in northwestern Costa Rica and extend north into southeast Mexico.  In Panama, it is found only in the larger islands of the Bocas archipelago and adjacent mainland.
Stub-tailed Spadebill
Yes!  I'm talking about the Stub-tailed Spadebill.  As you can see, eventually Ramón heard two birds and soon we were admiring this tiny inhabitant of these forests.  The individual pictured above was very active, hopping from one site to another in the understore.  We had some nice views of this little creature; by the way, also a long-desired LIFER for me!!! In spite of the low light inside the forest, I managed these pictures.
Stub-tailed Spadebill
So many emotions and the first day was not over yet!  Later, I did another walk through the trails with Ramón and my family... but I'll left that story for the next post, so stay tuned!