Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blood Moon

I know you have seen tons of photos of yesterday's Blood Moon in the social media... and this photo has the intention to show you some more!  Yes... I also set the alarm clock at 2:15 am to witness this wonder of nature.  By that time, the moon was already of a reddish tone due to its passage through the Earth's amber shadow.  It is red because of the same reason why our sunsets are orange: tiny particles in the atmosphere that scatter the light  (the Tyndall effect).
This is the first lunar eclipse of a series of four that will occur in 2014 and 2015 (a tetrad) at approximately six months interval.  My image is not that sharp because of the low shooting speed needed to capture the image in the middle of the darkness.  I was holding the camera, so every tiny movement (as produced by breathing or heartbeat) can blur the picture.  I sharpened both pictures using a commercial software... and I'm quite satisfied.  I decided to close the eyes for some minutes... I woke up 90 minutes later and the eclipse was almost done!
At least I manage this last photo.  Well, it is time to get a tripod for the next eclipse, that will occur in october 8th, 2014... point it in your diary!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Panama's Dry Arc

The coastal area of Panama's central Pacific slope is the driest in the country, receiving less than 1500 mm of annual rainfall.  The area around the Parita gulf is particularly dry, and is the middle point of an area known as the "Dry Arc" due to this condition, its xerofitic vegetation and "deserts", and the prolonged dry season (lasting up to seven months).
Last weekend, I went to this part of the country, accompanied with my pals Osvaldo and Rafael (no last names needed for these two).  After a quick breakfast in the town of Chitre, we headed to our first destination: Sarigua National Park.  This area, known locally as the Sarigua desert, is certainly the driest center of the arc.
Of course, this is not a true "desert", but a man-made one, after the indiscriminate exploitation of the natural resources since pre-Columbian times leaving only barren terrain and scattered bushes.  However, this vegetation is the perfect niche for the most localized ground-dove in Panama: the Common Ground-Dove.  This is the only reliable site to found this species in Panama, the closest population of its congeners is in central and northwestern Costa Rica!
This was one of our main target... but not the MAIN target of our trip to Sarigua.  In fact, we were looking for a rare migrant reported there last year.  We checked the very exact place where it was reported: the water tank behind the rangers' station, where a leak in the tank made a green oasis in the middle of the desert, attracting many common birds.  While waiting, I heard another specialty of the dry arc: White-winged Dove (file photo).
As the ground-dove, the closest population is in Costa Rica, but there is a record from western Panama, probably a vagrant migrant.  Then, I saw a green finch with pale bill... a female Painted Bunting, our main target!  We were not able to photograph it, but we saw it again two more times in the general area and again one more time in the road to the Parita river, certainly a different individual. The rangers advised us to look for the male in the flowering trees along the river.  We didn't find a male bunting, but this Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage entertained us (and yes, I took this photo in the "desert").
Other highlights were Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a Common Nighthawk flying high above.  I only got marginal photos of these two... they are barely recognizable.
We left Sarigua and headed to Las Macanas marsh.  In the dry arc, the water is a precious resource... and any permanent water source is a magnet for wildlife.  This marsh is just that... a protected oasis used by men and animals with multiple purposes (as the sign suggests).
By the time we reached the marsh, it was pretty hot... and the water level low.  Thousands of herons, storks, ibises and jacanas were scattered all over the place.
One of the most numerous was the Glossy Ibis, like the one pictured below.  When I started to birdwatch some years ago, this was a very rare species in Panama.  Now, it is abundant in this part of the country.
By noon, we decided to have lunch in the Aguadulce Salinas (saltflats), 30 minutes from Las Macanas.  We were not expecting huge flocks of waders due to the horrendous heat and the low tide, but we witnessed the traditional salt harvest from the drying pools.
After a delicious fried fish (an entire corvina... our own tradition when visiting this site), we checked the pools again, finding a tiny flock with Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpipers and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Well, a typical day in Panama's Dry Arc!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bird of the Month: Costa Rican Swift

The Costa Rican Swift (Chaetura fumosa) is a small aerial master endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.  In Panama, this is a local species, restricted mainly to the last remaining patches of forests (and borders) of extreme western Chiriqui province, where I took the photos of this post (and where all the recent records come from).
Costa Rican Swift
This is one of those species that has become rare in Panama due to habitat destruction... it is more common and widely distributed in Costa Rica, so I actually agree with the name!  Like many swifts species, it can be hard to identify.  The best field marks are shape, pale throat and, of course, the large and pale rump patch.
Costa Rican Swift
The Costa Rican Swift was split from the Band-rumped Swift (Chaetura spinicauda) from central Panama eastward.  Martin M. (2000) proved this based on ranges and morphologic data among the so-called "pale-rumped" group of Chaetura swifts in the New World.  My friend Osvaldo Quintero photographed this Band-rumped Swift in central Panama some years ago.  Notice the chunky shape and the smaller pale rump of this bird (that actually looks like a "band").
Band-rumped Swift.  Copyright Osvaldo Quintero, used with permission.
For these and many other reasons is why we chose the Costa Rican Swift as our Bird of the Month!
Costa Rican Swift
Literature consulted:
1.  Marin M.  Species limits, distribution and biogeography of some New World gray-rumped spine-tailed swifts.  Ornitologia Neotropical 2000; 11(2):93-107.
2.  Angehr G, Dean R.  The Birds of Panama. A field guide. Zona Tropical, 1st edition. 2010.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

PAS Fieldtrip to El Chorogo. Part III.

In my previous entries, I posted photos of the specialties found in the forests of El Chorogo (western Panama, Burica Peninsula).  This post will include more widespread species, but also some non-bird inhabitants of these forests.  Two and a half days is probably not enough to discover all what this place has to offer, but we (William Adsett, Antonio Domínguez and your host) were very lucky.  For example, we saw White-crested Coquettes every single day of the expedition, including two gorgeous males feeding in white flowers at the canopy of a tree along the Costa Rica-Panama border trail (in both sides of the trail!).
male White-crested Coquette
That was my first adult male for that species.  I usually see females in the foothills.  Not a common species anywhere!  We did well with the hummingbirds, probably because we found many flowering trees, including many Inga and Salvia sp., attracting Charming, Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Long-billed Starthroat, Blue-throated Goldentail, Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermits, and tons of Crowned Woodnymphs (abundant inside the forest!).  However, our biggest surprise was this White-tipped Sicklebill that hovered in front of me for some seconds!
White-tipped Sicklebill
Although not unexpected, this is probably the first record for El Chorogo.  Always an impressive hummer to watch!  Another impressive sighting were the Great Tinamous' eggs.  Why?  Because they are of a bright turquoise color!
Great Tinamou's nest with four brightly colored eggs
This is weird because most of the neotropical ground-dwelling bird lay cryptic eggs.  Egg color is probably an intra-specific signal for others tinamous; thus, attracting several females to lay its eggs together because a large clutch is less prone to predation than a small, single female-layed clutch, according to a theory.  We found this nest after flushing the male.  We also flushed another ground-dwelling bird during one of our walks:
Marbled Wood-Quail
Yes!  A Marbled Wood-Quail, this individual decided to froze in a branch, looking at us.  It was a member of a small covey that stayed undercover.  They are frequently heard, but rarely seen this well!  Close to campsite, a boreal migrant became one of my almost-lifers: a Louisiana Waterthrush.  One individual was walking along the waterhole deep inside the forest.
My poor photo is due to the light conditions inside the forest... very dark in fact.  In spite of this, you can see the broad, white eyebrow and the buffy flank of this bird.  I also noticed the snowy white throat (with no streaks) and the chip notes that sounded slightly different to the widespread Northern Waterthrush (that we saw outside the forest).  Also close to campsite, we saw some Spot-crowned Euphonias.
male Spot-crowned Euphonia
In the above photo you can see the "spots", invisible under normal field conditions.  This was the only euphonia found inside the forest, and is restricted to western Panama... specifically to Chiriqui province.  Another Chiriqui-restricted species in Panama, although not a bird, is the Central American Squirrel Monkey.
Central American Squirrel Monkey
Central American Squirrel Monkey
In fact, this species is restricted mostly to the Burica Peninsula in Panama (see the comment section for details) due to habitat loss in its formal range (more widespread in Costa Rica).  We found several troops, some with more than 30 individuals and with many females carrying youngsters. They are very agile, roaming the treetops with grace and skill.  Of course, we were careful as we watched the canopy. The reason? The inhabitants of the forest floor, like this harmless snake about 5 feet long.
After some research by Bill, we think this was a Pseustes poecilonotus, known by many common names (like Neotropical Bird Snake, Dos Cocorites, and so on...) and highly variable.  We have no idea of the name of this species when we saw it... but had no doubts when we saw the next one:
Fer-de-lance!  This is a pit viper, the main cause of snake envenomation in Panama, where is widespread and well-known by the locals as "Equis" (meaning "X") because of the dorsal pattern resembling the letter X.  Thank God no one stepped on!  
We added more species in the way out the last day of our expedition, like Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and Great Antshrikes, and had great looks of some raptors nicely perched, like this Laughing Falcon atop a towering tree in the middle of pasture lands.
Laughing Falcon
Or this majestic King Vulture that you usually see flying high overhead.  What a great way to end a terrific trip!
King Vulture
The wildlife found in El Chorogo is the most threatened in Panama due to the destruction of all its formal extension, and we have to support the efforts of Panama Audubon Society and some other ONGs (as well as some particulars) to protect it!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

PAS Fieldtrip to El Chorogo. Part II

As mentioned previously, William (Bill) Adsett, Antonio Dominguez, and your blogger host, went to El Chorogo (western Panama in the Burica Peninsula) during the carnival festivities.  I already posted some bird photos from the access road to El Chorogo.  After several hours riding our horses, we finally reached the forest and set our tents in the usual campsite close to a waterhole frequented by bathing birds in the evening.
Entering the forest
The activity is slow in the forest interior, but the birds found there are quite special, and difficult to get anywhere else in Panama!  Actually, I got many almost-lifers... birds that I had seen only once before.  That's the case of the White-throated Shrike-Tanager.  A pair was constantly close to the campsite, and we found several more with mixed flocks during the hikes along the trails of El Chorogo.
male White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Other almost-lifer was the Rufous-winged Woodpecker.  My only previous sighting was 11 years ago exactly in the same site (above the waterhole near campsite)!  This is a rare species anywhere in Panama!
male Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Awakening in the forest was fabulous. The dawn chorus was just terrific with more Great Tinamous and Short-billed Pigeons than you can imagine.  Common voices of this chorus were Riverside and Scaly-breasted Wrens, Northern Schiffornis, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner and three species of trogons, including my almost-lifer Baird's Trogon, a species restricted in Panama to Burica Peninsula!
male Baird's Trogon
We spend two and a half days in the forest, walking the trail that runs along the Panama-Costa Rica border.  We found several mixed flocks that were simply spectacular!  There was always at least one pair of Russet Antshrikes within these flocks, some migrants warblers, two different Rose-throated Becards, antwrens, tanagers, and so on...  I took the next photos of  White-ruffed Manakin and Black-hooded Antshrike in one of these mixed flocks.
male White-ruffed Manakin
male Black-hooded Antshrike
Inside the forest, we only found a pair of Golden-naped Woodpeckers (contrasting with the several pairs we found in the way up outside the forest).  I promised you better photos, remember?
male Golden-naped Woodpecker
female Golden-naped Woodpecker
The third woodpecker species was one restricted to western Panama, and also an almost-lifer for me: Pale-billed Woodpecker.  We found several pairs along the trails and in the campsite.  This impressive species is quite large and noisy!
male Pale-billed Woodpecker
At this point of the trip, I already had two lifers in the bag (Painted Bunting and Costa Rican Swift)... but one key species was missing, one that I missed in my last trip to El Chorogo 11 years ago: Tawny-winged Woodcreeper.  This species is rare in Panama, and my only chance was to find an antswarm, because the woodcreeper frequently follow the army ants.  Bill and our local guide Armando knew a place where it was likely to find an antswarm.  After a while, I heard the calls of several Bicolored Antbirds and Gray-headed Tanagers, both ant-followers.  Soon we were in the middle of an antswarm... with two Tawny-winged Woodcreepers attending!
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
They looked superficially similar to the more common and widespread Plain-brown Woodcreeper, but they were slightly smaller, with buffy throat and narrow superciliary... ah, and of course, with contrasting tawny flight feathers with dark tips.
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Third lifer in the bag!  I still have more photos and stories about this trip to share, so stay tuned for the third part of this post!

Monday, March 17, 2014

PAS Fieldtrip to El Chorogo. Part I

Once, most of the lowlands in the western Pacific of Panama was covered in lush humid forest, with characteristic flora and fauna shared only with Costa Rica.  Today, it is gone... except for some scattered patches, most of them not large enough to accommodate its original biodiversity.  That's why, the Panama Audubon Society (PAS), and some of its members, started to buy the last remaining patches of considerable extension in the Burica Peninsula, along the border with Costa Rica, a place known as El Chorogo.
El Chorogo
I joined Bill Adsett and Antonio Dominguez in a trip to those forests, looking for those specialties not found away of the Burica Peninsula in Panama and taking advantage of the carnival free days.  Getting there is not easy.  You have to drive all the way to the town of Puerto Armuelles (at least seven hours from Panama City), and from there, to the towns of San Bartolo Linea and San Bartolo Limite.  This first part of the trip is through a considerable flat terrain and very degraded habitat, pasture lands, riverine bushes and tiny gallery forest along the 15+ river crossings.
White Ibis and Snowy Egret
This is a bird rich area, with many waders and waterbirds along the shallow rivers, and raptors and flycatchers elsewhere.  Notice for example the flock of White Ibis and the Snowy Egret feeding along the San Bartolo river (above), or the very attractive Northern Jacanas that were pretty common.
Northern Jacana
Among the waders we found several flocks of Least Sandpipers, scattered Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, some Greater Yellowlegs and, surprisingly, a pair of Killdeers too.
One (of two) Killdeer along the San Bartolo river
Eventually the road becomes hilly, away of the river.  There are plenty of flowering and fruiting trees and patches of secondary forests... and many birds too!  The species are different from those seen previously along the road, and includes some western specialties... those species that survive in these degraded habitats.  In a random stop, I heard a thrilling call similar to that of the common Red-crowned Woodpecker.  A quick search resulted in a pair of the rare (for Panama) Golden-naped Woodpecker.  My distant shots don't make them justice... I promise better photos in my next post!
Golden-naped Woodpecker (male)
Golden-naped Woodpecker (female)
There are only few records of this species from the western foothills (none recently) away of the Burica Peninsula.  Eventually, we saw several pairs in this habitat before reaching the forests of El Chorogo, and only one pair in the forest itself.  Other species that is doing well in these patches is the Fiery-billed Aracari.  They are still common both in lowlands and foothills of western Panama, but they are so beautiful that you never get tired of seeing them!
Fiery-billed Aracari
Bill left the car in a ranch at San Bartolo Limite.  From there, we took the horses.  While waiting for the horses and for our local guide Armando, I started to explore the surroundings.  The first trogon species (Gartered) was calling from the woods,  while many migrants also said present: Tennessee, Yellow, Chestnut-sided and Blackburnian Warblers, Philadelphia and Yellow-throated Vireos and several Ruby-throated Hummingbird!
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (male)
The activity was furious, and more and more birds started to appear: Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, Orange-chinned, Brown-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets, hordes of Red-legged Honeycreepers and Thick-billed Euphonias.  Then, I saw a small bird flying atop a nearby tree.  Bright red underparts and throat, blue head and green back: a male Painted Bunting!  This was a life bird for me, certainly not in my radar because is very rare in Panama.  Great way to start!  Then, we rode the horses uphill (2.5 hours to the forest), stopping at some patches of flowered Inga trees attracting tons of hummers: more Ruby-throateds, many Blue-throated Goldentails, some Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, a lonely Charming Hummingbird and the first White-crested Coquette for the trip (a female).  In one of these patches, Bill found a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar (male)
In that patch of secondary forest, the last before a huge pastureland bordering El Chorogo, Bill mentioned that they used to see the localized Costa Rican Swift.  The Costa Rican Swift, a recent split from the Band-rumped Swift, was one of my main targets for the trip (with Tawny-winged Woodcreeper) and I was about to have my first chance to find it.  So, before getting to the open, I started to search the sky through the canopy... finding some swifts flying above our heads!
Costa Rican Swift
Costa Rican Swift
I hurried to the open, where a flock of eight Costa Rican Swifts were flying and chasing each other, sometimes against the dark background of the forests of El Chorogo allowing great views.  I have to admit that it was not until I saw the whitish, large contrasting rump patch when I declared them my long-desired lifer!
Costa Rican Swift
Costa Rican Swift
Notice the body and wing shape.  This species is larger than the Band-rumped Swift (of central and eastern Panama), with a more contrasting pale throat and a distinctively shaped pale rump as you can see in the pictures.  Notice that in the area the common swift is Vaux's Swift, which we found previously and later.  Notice the cigar-shaped body and the wing shape of the Vaux's Swift.
Vaux's Swift
Vaux's Swift
Of course, none of the above birds had the contrasting pale rump of the Costa Rican!  Three days later, we were unable to find the Costa Rican Swifts again in our way back from El Chorogo, so I feel extremely lucky of having the opportunity to see (and photograph) this species in Panama.  Two lifers in the bag, and we had not even reached El Chorogo!