Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hungry birds

The exposed mudflats, mangroves and beaches of the Upper Bay of Panama are a very important feeding station for both migrant and resident waterbirds and waders year-round.  The simply amazing numbers of peeps and other shorebirds that spent most of their lives here are prove of that.  But this time, I want to highlight that almost during every visit I witness a waterbird catching/eating large catfishes... like this Great Egret in Costa del Este.
Great Egret
The habitat is just ideal for the catfishes, so I guess they abound and are quite easy to catch. Sometimes, the birds just take them from the mud... or, in the case of the Magnificent Frigatebirds, are stolen from other birds.  This is a repetitive scene in Panama Viejo (where I took the next photos): a lucky bird catch a fish just to be harassed by these feathered pirates... and who can resist those bandits?
Magnificent Frigatebird
The Magnificent Frigatebird is a specialized kleptoparasite... parasiting by theft.  However, as it usually happens, this frigatebird was not the only one patrolling the site and soon another individual tried to steal the prize.
Two Magnificent Frigatebirds after the fish
Seeing those two frigatebirds in the air is fun.  The large birds are extremely agile in the air, and elegant... even when they chase each other.
Agility in the air
Eventually, the catfich fell to the floor... after all, nobody knows to whom is working... the birds spend 10 minutes disputing the catfish just to give it to a cat that was just passing by.
What can I say?  Some are luckier than others!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Bird of the Month: White-rumped Sandpiper

The White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis) is a small to medium-sized shorebird, one of the largest peep species, that occurs rarely in Panama during its fantastic migrations.  Think about it... a bird that barely reach a length of 7 inches, a weight of 2 ounces and that breeds in Artic Canada and Alaska flies 15,000 km every year TWICE to and from its wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego.
White-rumped Sandpiper
After leaving their breeding grounds, these birds fly out above the Atlantic Ocean to northern South America, where they start a trans-Amazonian journey to their wintering grounds.  During the northbound passage, they reach central North America via the Caribbean.  That's why they are so rare in Panama, which is not on their usual migration route.
White-rumped Sandpiper
The slender profile is due to the elongated wings, an adaptation to their long-distance migrations.  The slightly larger size and longer legs compared to other peeps sandpipers make them easily spottable  when mixed with other species while feeding or resting.
Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers
Among the peeps, it is the only one with white upper tail coverts (the "rump"... in fact, it is dark-rumped), a field mark mostly visible when the birds flies, but sometimes while feeding or preening.  Is particularly useful if you inspect a tight flock of peeps in flight.
White-rumped Sandpiper flying
For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the White-rumped Sandpiper as our Bird of the Month!As I mentioned earlier, it is a rare transient migrant throughout Panama, always in small numbers.  It has been recorded in both coasts along the Canal Area and western Bocas del Toro.  During this last spring passage, it was recorded in the Pacific side of the Panama Canal (where I took all these photos) and Bocas del Toro... a remarkable set of reports for this species in Panama (we saw at least 15 different individuals in one site).
At least five White-rumped Sandpipers in this shot
For these, and many other reasons is why we chose the White-rumped Sandpiper as our Bird of the Month!
White-rumped Sandpipers
Literature consulted:
1.  Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Pres 1989.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010
3.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds.  At

Monday, May 18, 2015

Roosting Owls in Metro Park

Just a VERY short note.  By now this should be past news; anyway, if you have 30 minutes free and are close to the Metropolitan Natural Park in Panama City, be sure to visit Los Caobos trail (behind the bonsai shop).  A trio of roosting Black-and-White Owls has remained for several days in the same place, virtually ignoring hikers, birders and photographers.  I found two of them last weekend... immutable as ever.
Black-and-White Owls
Finding owls as their day roost is always a treat, especially if it is as beautiful and attractive as this species. So, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lifer next door

When many people participate in a massive birding event, as last Global Big Day, it is inevitable that some rare or exotic species will be reported.  While reviewing the Panama numbers (620 species, so far!), I noticed three rare species reported for the Canal Area and Panama City that were potential life birds for me.  One of them was reported very close to my home, in the exposed mudflats of Panama Viejo.  So, taking advantage of my lunch time, I grab my bins and camera and headed that way.  The first thing I noticed was the huge number of migrant Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers.
Short-billed Dowitchers 
Black-bellied Plovers
I was interested in the peeps that use these mudflats, but most of them were far away following the retiring tide.  Not enough with that, it started to rain and I had to seek refuge in my car several times due to the short showers that prevented me to review thoroughly the flocks.  Well, at least I found the continuing American White Pelican mixed in with the Brown Pelicans (can you find it?).
Brown and American White Pelicans
During one of those moments waiting inside the car facing the mudflats, I noticed a small flock of peeps approaching from the mangrove island.  I hurried to check them.  Initially, nothing out of the ordinary.  Then, one of the peeps caught my attention.  The flock included both Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers... but one of them looked "wrong".
A Western/Semipalmated Sandpiper and a...
The birds flew closer and I was able to relocate the bird, this time it was close enough to confirm my initial suspicion: a White-rumped Sandpiper!!!
White-rumped Sandpiper
Notice the slender profile due to its long wings and the more angled position while feeding compared to the other peeps.  I also noticed that the wing tips crossed each other after passing the end of the tail and the finely streaked breast and flanks.  I know these are awful photos... but it is a rare passage migrant in Panama, and a lifer for me (did I mention that already?).  The flock only stayed for less than 5 minutes in front of the Visitors Center before flying away.  When leaving, I managed some last shots of my lifer:
White-rumped Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Any doubt?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Our Global Big Day

Last May 9th was held the Cornell Lab's Global Big Day around the world, and Panama was not the exception.  In fact, Cornell's Team Sapsucker did its big day in our country, with amazing results.  Of course, my wife and I participated in this great event, and instead of choosing a route along the Canal Area and Panama City (aiming to a probable list of more than 200 birds), we decided to mobilize towards the interior of the country to begin our count in the foothills of Coclé province.  We stayed at some lovely cabins the previous day above the town of El Cope, where we finalized the details for the big day.
That's Gloriela "finalizing the details"
The alarm went off at 3:30 am.  We hardly sleep last night thinking about the day that awaited us.  As we loaded the car, we heard the distinctive nasal call of a Common Nighthawk above us, making it our first species for the day!  Our plan was to drive the dirt road all the way to the General de Division Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park, best known as El Cope NP (as you can see it has the longest name for a national park in Panama), and spent one to two hours owling; however, our car was unable to climb a slippery slope almost one mile before the park entrance (then we learned that day that no one could climb the slope), so we had to walk upslope in the dark, reaching the park entrance short before sunrise (I took the next photo later, with better light of course).
The place was foggy, dark and windy... and we heard few species during the dawn chorus (and no owls).  We waited a while to walk the trails inside the park... it was too dark to see anything, so we birded by ear...  I was in charge of the identification issues, bird photography and driving; Gloriela, of annotating the species, individuals, effort data and non-bird photography.  For no apparent reason, we called our team "The Penguin Squad" (yes, I know, we were only two of us... but it sounds cool).
The foothill forests of this national park are the most beautiful in Panama, and are the extreme eastern end of the range of several western species, like Chiriquí Quail-Dove and Black-breasted Wood-Quail (both heard at dawn).  Other species are more widespread, like Black Guan, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Pale-vented Thrush and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus, among others.
A shy Black Guan
Purplish-backed Quail-Dove
The Black Guan (found by Gloriela by the Visitors Center) was the only one for Panama during the event, so far.  The day was low... and we feared we would not have enough time to find some key species; however, we found our friend José Pérez and his wife Yissel birding along the main road inside the park.  They planned to bird most of the day and to submit their sightings to eBird, so we thought the place was well-covered and decided to start our way down to the car, with roughly 50 different species for the site after four hours.  We added many more species in the way down, with mixed flocks of tanagers and honeycreepers as the main highlights.  In the way down to the dry lowlands, we picked up new species everywhere: Boat-billed Flycatcher and Buff-throated Saltator at the town of El Cope, Brown-throated Parakeets, meadowlarks and Zone-tailed Hawk at La Candelaria, tons of herons, egrets and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures at the Rio Grande savannas, and so on... eventually reaching the Aguadulces Salinas (saltflats).
A monument to the salt workers at Aguadulce
It was a little bit dissapointing... the saltflats were devoid of birds, dry and hot.  The things looked better at El Salado beach, where the exposed mudflats (part of the Parita Gulf) attracted the first waders for our day list: Whimbrels, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers and Black-necked Stilts, among others, were new for the day.  Leaving Aguadulce, we headed west along the Panamerican highway and then south, along the National highway into Herrera province... becoming the only eBirders for that province during the event.  Our first stop was the Santamaría ricefields, adding Savanna Hawk and Glossy Ibis.  Then, we headed to Las Macanas marsh.  Again, hot and dry... but at least we managed some great additions to our list, including this Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl:
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
The big lagoon was full of herons, including an absurd number of Great Blue Herons, Caspian Terns, Blue-winged Teals and two Lesser Scaups.  Several new species in that site... but we had to move.  Our next stop was the most arid and dry place visited on our trip, and protected by its own national park too: Sarigua.
Notice the barren terrain and the xerophytic vegetation in the above picture.  Probably not the first option for a bird-a-thon like this; however, because this was a nation-wide effort, we chose this place to look for a localized species.  It took some time before finding our goal.  Despite its name, this species is actually "common" only in Sarigua.
Common Ground-Dove
Yes, Common Ground-Dove!  The Panamanian population is isolated from populations both to the north and south, and probably merits recognition as a distinctive subspecies.  We found three different pairs close to the ranger station.  We also saw (and heard) several White-winged Doves, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyants and grassquits.
Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant
As expected, the place was very hot... so we headed to Chitré (Herrera province capital city), and then to El Agallito beach.   Although we reached the place late in the afternoon, the tide was just raising... and the exposed mudflats were extensive.  From shore we were able to spot hundreds of waders in the distance... so we put on our rubber boots and started to walk towards them.  And what a great place... flocks of Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and five plover species among many more were wading on these mudflats.
That's me, looking for some shorebirds
When the sun began to hide, we picked the last diurnal species along the highway back to Penonome, where we were going to spent the night (at our house, of course).  We reached Penonome at night, and after a short break for dinner, we found Common Pauraque and Tropical Screech-Owl at 9:30 pm... making it a 19-hours day of intense birding!  After traveling 300 km by car and over 5 km on foot, 14 complete checklists (and other 9 incidental sightings) and lots of cokes and snacks, we managed to record 151 species for the day!  We had a lot of fun participating in this first Global Big Day, and it seems that Panama did very well... with more than 600 species recorded for the day.  What an achievement!   

Friday, May 8, 2015

Getting ready for the Global Big Day

During last night Panama Audubon Society's monthly meeting, we had the pleasure to receive two eBird project leaders, Christopher Wood and Marshall Iliff, who talked about the next Global Big Day and eBird in general. The idea is simple... to record most of the birds of the world into eBird checklists in May 9th, 2015.  This is the first ever Global Big Day, and Cornell Lab's Team Sapsucker chose our country to tally as many birds they can in 24 hours!  So far, their scouting trips have been exceptionally successful, finding (and documentating) very rare birds for Panama and the region, like Black Swift, Jabirú, Pearly-breasted Cuckoo, among others!
Many people have shown interest in participating in this event in Panama; so far, 25 teams have signed up for eBirding along the length and breadth of our country and I'm sure this event has raised awareness about the importance of this tool for citizen science.  Personally, I'll be birding in central Panama and will try to cover as many habitats possible in the way.  Good luck to ALL the eBirders, specially to Team Sapsucker!
Chris, Jan and Marshall

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gulls and Terns by the Beltway

Coastal Beltway
Panama City's waterfront, with its manicured gardens, wide sidewalks and cycleways, sport fields and courts and several other facilities, is a very popular site to spent some time during the weekends.  Today, like every sunday, four lanes of the Coastal Beltway became a huge cycleway (38 kilometers long!) throughout the morning.  I don't bike, but took advantage of the empty sidewalks to take some pictures of the gulls and terns (and other birds) along the route.  The inshore waters were full of pelicans, cormorants and frigatebirds.  I checked a tiny beach close to the Yatch Club, where several gulls and terns (and feral Rock Pigeons) were resting.
Laughing Gull
As you can see, some Laughing Gulls are in complete alternate plumage... it is seen just for a short period of time in Panama... the same applies for alternate Sandwich Terns.
Sandwich Tern
Both species are common year-round in Panamanian coasts, but during the passage period, they become locally abundant.  I really like the light pink tones to the breast of these two species when they are in high breeding plumage... which is seldom seen in Panama of course.  After a while, I noticed another tern species mixed in with the Sandwich Terns.  Structurally very similar, both in shape and size, this individual had a yellow-orange bill:
Sandwich and Elegant Terns
An Elegant Tern!  Notice how similar it is to the Sandwich Tern next to it (thus, quite different to the Royal Tern, also present in the site).  The Elegant Tern is an uncommon and irregular passage migrant in the Pacific coasts of central Panama, with no peak of abundance... but I'm pretty sure that by this time, most of them are farther north on route to their breeding grounds... finding one of them during such a short walk along Panama City's waterfront made my day!
Elegant Tern

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Meet Flubby

Yesterday, I contacted an old friend of mine, Edgardo Tejada, who have been posting photos of a nocturnal visitor to his house since almost two months ago: a Tropical Screech-Owl.  It has been a while since the last time I saw or heard this species, so I decided to pay him a visit to his house in Panama City.  It took me a bit because I was having dinner with my family ... and when we reach his house, Edgardo told us that the owl was gone.
Waxing crescent over Panama City
Too bad I thought, but Edgardo told me not to worry... he is a careful birdwatcher, and after two months watching Flubby (his girlfriend named it that way) he knew its routine... and assured me that the little bird would be back in 30 minutes.  So we walked along the street with a low-powered flashlight and under the light of the waxing crescent moon, catching up with our most recent birding trips and chatting, essentially, about everything.  Suddenly, Edgardo told me to look up into a Tropical Almond tree (Terminalia sp.)... Flubby was spying us quietly!
Tropical Screech-Owl (Flubby)
We were amazed, this little creature was very close... even my daughter Gabrielle was able to see it with her bare eyes without problems.  Compared to others Tropical Screech-Owls, Flubby seems to be both smaller and darker... certainly, it is more tame and confident than others individuals seen in Panama City.  We do not know if this is because of familiarity with people, youth or maybe it's a escapee pet (although this bird is so good hunting cockroaches and grasshoppers that we doubt it was a pet).
Tropical Screech-Owl (Flubby)
We saw (and photographed) Flubby for 15 minutes, more or less, until it disappeared as briefly as it appeared.  You can see in these photos the black borders to the facial disk, the short ear tufts and the herring-bone pattern in the underparts.  This is the fourth owl species I'm able to photograph right here in Panama City (the others are Barn, Black-and-White and Striped Owls), and I wish to thank Edgardo for giving me the opportunity to watch and photograph Flubby!

Insular Guna Yala

Guna Yala is an autonomous territory extending along Panama's eastern Caribbean coast including a 373 km strip of mainland and approximately 365 islands and cays, home of the Gunas and a real paradise on Earth!
Pelican Island, Guna Yala
In fact, these paradise islands are a major touristic attraction for both nationals and foreigners, who visited it seeking for white-sand beaches and sun.  We were not the exception, and some days ago I went with my family to Carti, the town at the end of the El Llano-Carti road (where we birded some days later with Guido Berguido and Noah Strycker), where we boarded the boats towards Perro Chico Island, our destination for the rest of the day.
Gloriela and Teresa (with their molas)
On route to the island, our boatman suggested to visit a natural marvel, a sandbank barely submerged known as "natural pool" because the depth is only a few feet terms... ideally for both kids and grown ups!
Cubilla-Caballero-Gómez-Hilton family!
From the natural pool we were able to see the coralline reef in the distance protecting these islands, the reason why these waters were so calm and peaceful.  Coralline in origin, these low-lying islands and cays are covered in palm trees (important for the Gunas) and surrounded by multicolored waters.  The avian diversity is quite low, but I managed to find some pelicans, terns and even an immature Brown Booby fishing close to Perro Chico island.
Brown Booby
We had a great day on the island; the little ones were who enjoyed it most, playing on the fine, white sand and diving in the warm, crystalline waters.  
Kevin, Analía and Gabrielle
I'm sure we will enjoy these waters again in the future... after all, it is only 2-hours from Panama City.  That's one of the reasons why I love Panama... you can live facing the Pacific Ocean, and to enjoy the warm Caribbean in the same day!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Some nemesis bite the dust!!!

Guido, Jan, Noah and Yari
Why so happy?  Well, not everyday you see strange, enigmatic (and nemesis) species accompanied by skilled and famous birders!  On his quest to see 5000+ birds species in one calendar year, Noah Strycker visited Panama for three full days this week (you can track his progress following "Birding without Borders").  He has a quite tight agenda, and of course had to focus on regional specialties of every site he visits, trying to balance quality and quantity of birds observed to reach his goal.  The best way to make this is by birding with the locals.  Noah is not only a lucky guy (as you can read on his blog), he also was wise enough to contact Guido Berguido, and old friend of mine and birder extraordinaire who runs Advantage Tours Panama... as he says: "birding with the local advantage"!  Guido was kind enough to invite me to join them on their trip to Nusagandi, in the wet foothills of Guna Yala in eastern Panama during Noah's second full day in Panama.
Pelican Island, Guna Yala
Guna Yala ("Home of the Gunas") is best known by its paradise islands in the Caribbean Sea and the rich culture of its people.  In fact, just few days before, I visited the archipelago with my family enjoying my last days of vacations... but that is another story!  Of course, we were more interested on the steep-sided valleys and wet ravines of the mostly-undisturbed cloud forest close to the Continental Divide.  This protected area is home of some range-restricted species... and we were after them!
Cloud forest along El Llano-Carti road
As you can see, the El Llano-Cartí road that runs through the area is in very good conditions... the days when powerful 4WD vehicles were required are gone.  So I met with them on Tuesday afternoon at the start of the road in the dry Pacific slope.  They just had an amazing day in eastern Panama province... not only Noah managed to ID his 2000th bird species for the year (Shining Honeycreeper), but also was the biggest day so far regarding birds species recorded (184 when we met... then we added Mottled and Crested Owls after dinner, making it a 186-birds day!).  Impressive, considering that it was not the intention... they started at dawn (not at midnight), birded mostly one site (San Francisco Reserve), took a long nap and Noah even managed to give an interview for a live Colombian radio show!
Noah's 2000th Year Bird (which we found later again in Cerro Azul)
We stayed in Garduk, a known restaurant with modest charming cabins just minutes away from the reserve, popular stop among those seeking the sun and breeze of the Caribbean Sea.  The huge rain storm that hit us during the night worried me... but it stopped right on time before breakfast.
Handcrafts at Garduk restaurant
Yari, our hostess, agreed to join us. According to Guido, she has very good eyes and is like a good luck charm.  I'm absolutely sure it is true!  After a short drive, we started to bird along the main road, finding almost immediately new year-birds like Black-and-Yellow and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers in the same mixed flock, and Brown-hooded Parrots perched quite close.  After a while, we entered one of the forest trails, looking for the great rarities for which this area is famous.  Another mixed flock inside the forest produced Tawny-crested and Carmiol's Tanagers, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Red-capped Manakins and Stripe-throated Wren.  Streak-chested Antpittas and Chestnut-backed Antbirds sounded in the background while we walked along the trail, eventually reaching a clear-water stream.
Crossing the stream
Shortly after our arrival, we started to hear our main target.  As we walked towards toward the calling bird, I simply could not believe I was about to see one of the most enigmatic species of New World: the Sapayoa.  The call was louder and louder... then, Guido pointed us THE bird... a lonely Sapayoa was flycatching mere three meters from us!
Its latin name says it all: Sapayoa aenigma.  This species is placed in its own monotypic family and genus, with no close relatives in the New World... in fact, it is most closely related to the Old World's Broadbills (Eurylaimidae).  It was a life bird for Noah and for me... very special due to its restricted range and uncertain affinities!  However, it was not over.  While seeing the Sapayoa, Guido told us that a Dull-mantled Antbird was calling behind us.  I replied "WHAT?¿!*`?!!!!... I don't hear it"!  In fact, I was the only one not hearing the bird... I don't know if I was programmed to simply ignore it... after all these years looking for this supposedly common (almost thrash) bird and dipping miserably, I was simply unable to hear it.  Thanks God the Sapayoa flew away after some minutes, so we were able to walk towards the stream... then I started to hear the bird, closer and closer.  Then, my nemesis materialized: a majestic male Dull-mantled Antbird was walking on the banks of the stream.
Dull-mantled Antbird!!
I managed to approach the bird very close, just few feet, to photograph it and to record its call. 
Look at those fiery red eyes... amazing!  That's the way to see a Nemesis!!!  Trust me, I wanted so hard to see this species that all my friends tagged me on their own Dull-mantled Antbird photos (yes Jose Pérez and Rafael Luck, I'm talking about you guys).  But the surprises not ended yet.  Did you hear my embed recording?  Something else was calling in the background, and Guido recognized it immediately.  While I was admiring my Dull-mantled Antbird, Guido, Noah and Yari found the bird making the call slightly above eye-level few feet from my position.  Eventually, I joined them and was able to take some shots:
Speckled (Spiny-faced) Antshrike!!!
A female Speckled (Spiny-faced) Antshrike!!!  This bird was calling spontaneously (no playback used) and alone, foraging in low and mid-levels of the forest along the stream, sometimes looking like a foliage-gleaner more than an antshrike.  This was probably the rarest of the species seen that day.  Almost endemic to Panama (barely reaching northwestern Colombia), this very range-restricted species also have uncertain affinities.  Its latin name, Xenornis setifrons, literally means spiny-faced strange bird!  This bird was Guido's nemesis... so even Guido managed to get a lifer that day!  Now you can see why the happy faces at the start of this post!  We saw these species in a 10-minutes lapse, saving us hours of search on the trails (especially for the Xenornis).  Without targets to seek, we decided to move.  After saying good-bye to Yari, we headed to the foothills of Cerro Azul, close to Panama City.  It was late in the afternoon, and time was gold, so we checked first a backyard with several feeders attracting 13 different species of hummingbird, including Brown Violetear, Rufous-crested Coquette and the near-endemic Violet-capped Hummingbird, which was a new year bird for Noah.
Brown Violetear
Violet-capped Hummingbird (file photo)
With the last rays of sun we birded Maipo, finding the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and hearing Black-eared Wood-Quail, both new year birds for Noah too.  We ended at Birders' View hearing again Mottled and Crested Owls in the distance.  Guido and Noah spent the night in the comfortable property while I returned home after a hard day of birding, finding several Common Pauraques at the entrance road.
Common Pauraque
Birding with these two guys was amazing.  And Noah is a great guy... not only smart and lucky, but humble as well, and I wish the best luck on his quest for the rest of the world!  BTW, thanks for the lifers!