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!  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Birds migrate, eBirders count!

And it is again the time of the year where some impressive flocks of migrant birds can be seen in the sky on their annual southbound passage to South America through the Panama isthmus.  This is certainly true for the daylight migrants, like the raptors.  Since yesterday, some impressive flocks of both Plumbeous and Mississippi Kites have crossed Panama City's skies... although few Panamanians are aware of that.  For me, it was kind of special because I recorded for the first time a flock of Swallow-tailed Kites from my balcony.
Swallow-tailed Kites
Swallow-tailed Kite
Yes, now my balcony list stands at 118 species!  Just second before I recorded a huge flock of Plumbeous Kites that were new for my list too.  These birds approached from the southwest, took the thermal current very close to my apartment (thus I was able to see the black tails with white bars and the rufous primaries) and leave it very high flying eastward.
Plumbeous Kite
However, today was truly spectacular... at first, a little flock of 50 Plumbeous Kites flew low enough to see the same field marks I witnessed yesterday; then, a second group follow them with some Black Vultures... however, this were congeneric Mississippi Kites.  Notice the pale heads and pale secondaries of these birds.
Mississippi Kites and Black Vultures
While seeing this second flock, I noticed some "tiny spots" in the background.  After focusing it properly, I realized the these "tiny spots" were thousands of kites very high in the sky... too high to ID properly to species.  They were Ictinia kites for sure.  Immediately, I started to estimate the number of individuals in this Mississippi/Plumbeous Kites flock.  First, I quickly counted 100 individuals, got a sense of the proportion of the flock they take up and then extrapolated by hundreds the rest of the flock.  My estimation was 6000 birds.  It sounds straight forward... but it needs some practice; however, after a while you will make it automatically.  A very interesting article about counting birds can be found in the eBird main (or just click HERE).  Of course, to use this method you need a fairly uniform flock of the same species/group.  For example, this photo shows approximately one third of the flock I saw today:
All those dots are Mississippi Kites, with at least three Black Vultures mixed in (you may need to enlarge the photo)
For purely educational purposes, I divided this photo into four equal parts and counted individuals in one of these parties (which represent 1/12 of the original flock).  Do not pay attention to the size and shape of the red circles ... I only drew them for not count the same individual two or three or ten times!
533 Mississippi/Plumbeous Kites (and a Black Vulture); thus, a flock of 6396 individuals (533 x 12)
I did the same with the next picture, which I took with a larger zoom, and representing approximately one tenth of the flock:
Many Mississippi/Plumbeous Kites
578 Mississippi/Plumbeous Kites; thus, a flock of 5780 birds (578 x 10)
Using both estimates, I calculated an average: 6,088 Mississippi/Plumbeous Kites in that single flock (6396 + 5780 / 2).  That's why I wrote down that number in my eBird checklist and not my first estimate of 6000 birds... although they are pretty similar!  So what are you waiting for... it is time to practice and to look up for migrant flocks of birds!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bird of the Month: Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

The Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma tethys) is a relatively small member of the Hidrobatidae family (the Northern Storm-Petrels) that breeds on the Galapagos islands (nominate tethys) and on islets off the central coast of Peru (ssp. kelsalli).  This is the commonest storm-petrel species in Panamanian waters, present year-round, but commoner from May to November.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (Panama Gulf)
It is sooty brown overall (sooty black when fresh), with darker flight feathers and tail and pale upperwing panel and conspicuous white uppertail coverts.  There are slight differences among the two different subspecies, with kelsalli being smaller, shorter winged, shorter tailed, with smaller white "rump", slighter bill and with relatively long tail projection and more forked tail than nominate tethys.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (Panama Gulf)
Like other storm-petrels species, it have a steep forehead due to the large olfactory bulbs that facilitates a keen sense of smell, which is very important to locate food and for social interaction at its colonies.  Also like many other storm-petrels species, it can be seen pattering its feet on the waves while fluttering over the water.  This behavior is why it is call "Paíño Danzarín" in spanish (meaning "Dancing Storm-Petrel").
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (off western Azuero Peninsula)
They are usually seen as small and dark little birds flying swiftly over the water among the waves, but they can be attracted by chumming to a boat, where you can have nice and prolonged views of these feathered marvels.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (Panama Gulf)
About specific ID to subspecies, more studies are needed to separate both subspecies in the field.  Presumably, all the photos in this post pertain to the kelsalli subspecies.  Notice the short arm, long tail projection beyond the white uppertail coverts, the forked tails and the small size noticed at sea.  We can not be 100% about the IDs, since both subspecies have been recorded in Panama and all these noted differences depend on wear, shape, angle of sighting, light and so on; however, some references indicate that the form found closer to shore is kelsalli, while nominate tethys seems to be more pelagic in general (more than 100 km from shore).  For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel as our Bird of the Month!
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel (off western Azuero Peninsula)
Literature consulted:
1. Ridgely R, Gwynne J. A Guide to the Birds of Panama. Princeton University Press 1989.
2. Angehr G, Dean R. The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010.
3. Howell SNG. Petrels, Albatrosses and Storm-Petrels of North America.  Princeton University Press 2012.
4. Carboneras, C., Jutglar, F. & Kirwan, G.M. (2014). Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel (Hydrobates tethys). 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 September 2015).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whale watching trip to the Pearl Islands

Last weekend, I went with my family on a private tour to the Pearl Islands, the heavenly archipelago within an hour and a half from busy Panama City.  My friend Mario Ocaña organized the trip and was a terrific host, and my whole family is impressed by his professionalism and camaraderie.  Our objective was to watch whales... but it was an open itinerary, and we included some time to enjoy the beaches (as in plural!), to have lunch in Contadora island and to visit some seabirds colonies.
Ready for adventure!
In fact, the first attraction was close to the dock.  Few minutes after leaving the marina, we were admiring hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies and other seabirds resting at the Peñón de San José, a rocky islet to the south of Flamenco Island.  However, the main attraction there were the three Peruvian Boobies resting on the rocks among the Blue-footed Boobies.  They are irregular visitors to Panama (only under abnormal conditions, like El Niño).
Peruvian and Blue-footed Boobies
Blue-footed Boobies
Brown Booby
As you can see, I'm including also a photo of a Brown Booby seen later and another pic of the Blue-footed Booby, both from Pachequilla island, the first of the Pearl Islands that we visited that day.  The sight of several hundreds of seabirds on the rocks made us feel like in a Nat Geo documentary!  A little bit after leaving Pachequilla, we encountered our first pair of whales: mother and calf Humpback Whales!
Mother and calf Humpback Whales
These warm and shallow waters are perfect for the whales to raise their young.  Soon these beasts will engage on an epic transequatorial journey to their feeding grounds around Antarctica.  The second whale appeared shortly after the above pair close to Contadora island... as Mario says, the harder whale to find is the first one!
Humpback Whale (Contadora island in the background)
With the whales in the bag, we decided to enjoy the white-sanded beaches of both Mogo Mogo and Chapera islands... the Survivor: Pearl Islands sets.  We had the whole beaches for us, and the little ones enjoyed it most (specially Gabrielle, after her slight disappointment after realizing that whales were not purple, as her toy whale).
In our way to Contadora island, we saw some Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  For most of the participants, they were little dark bat-like birds flying swiftly and in zig-zag among the waves... this photo shows that they are delicately patterned in brown and buffy, with contrasting white uppertail coverts.
Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel
And of course we saw more Humpback Whales!  Several more, including pairs of mother and calf, solitary adults and even a distant group of adults flapping their flippers and jumping out the water!  The show was amazing and soon we were joined by several other boats admiring the whales as well.
Noisy blow
The ride back to Panama City was a bumpy one, but we were more than happy after enjoying these nature marvels so close to the big, busy city.  While we were having a sunny day at the islands, a huge storm system was whipping Panama City... but we made it without experiencing any rainstorm at all!  I want to thanks Mario for the excellent trip, and hope to repeat it soon my friend!