Saturday, January 24, 2015

More rarities showing up in Panama Viejo!

The mudflats and mangroves of Panama Viejo (Panama City) are exceptionally good for shorebirds and other water birds.  The list of specialties and rarities found in this site is quite extensive... and this season, many have been reported so far.  After seeing several reports of rare gulls in the social media, I did a quick visit some days ago.  As soon as I get to the site, I checked the huge flock of Laughing Gulls resting in the mud behind the Museum and Visitor center... and this guy immediately caught my attention!
Herring Gull (1st winter) with Laughing Gulls
The immense size and brownish plumage of this first-winter Herring Gull made it very conspicuous among the Laughings.  It moved occasionally to preen, paying little attention to the surrounding gulls.
Laughing and Herring Gulls (1st winter)
Except for one.  I noticed that this Herring Gull started to walk towards a sleepy gull in the middle of the flock... I thought it was a random gull, but a closer look revealed its yellow legs and bill.
Laughing, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls (and two Sandwich Terns)
Yes, an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was hanging around too!  Both species are rare, but regular, winter visitors to Panama, an any of each can make your day... but both of them in the same frame?  Simply great!  The Lesser Black-backed Gull was not comfortable with the closeness of the gull, so it walked away from it ... approaching me and allowing some nice shots.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Three gulls species was not bad... so I started to search the flock looking for another different species.  Eventually, I saw a distant adult Franklin's Gull flying by the mangrove island.  I took some record shots.
Franklin's Gull (winter adult)
Four species in a single spot in Panama... that is remarkable.  However, my personal record is SIX species in Costa del Este some years ago (all these plus Kelp and Ring-billed Gulls).  I don't know if more species have been seen the same day in a single site for Panama, but both Costa del Este and Panama Viejo seems to be very special places for this to happen, specially if you consider that other species have been reported in these sites (Belcher's, Gray, Gray-hooded, Bonaparte's and Sabine's Gulls).  So... want to break this record?  Check the mudflats at Panama Viejo!
Brown and American White Pelicans
P.D.: Bonus American White Pelican still at the rocks behind the mangrove island!
Brown and American White Pelican

Monday, January 5, 2015

2014's CBCs: Pacific & Atlantic

The Pacific and Atlantic Christmas Bird Counts were conducted on Sunday 27 December and 4 January (2015) respectively, organized by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS).  I'm summarizing both counts in this post, in part because my assigned areas for both counts are rather similar: coastal habitats with a variety of vegetation, from mangroves to patches of secondary forest and open areas.  In the Pacific CBC, my counting area is the west bank of the Panama Canal... from Farfán to Veracruz.  Our meeting point was the pond at Farfán, where some rare ducks have been reported in the previous week.  There, Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck and I met Alfred Raab, who joined us this year.
Let's count some birds!
Thanks to Alfred's scope, we where able to quickly identify the distant ducks in the ponds, including a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, more than 40 Blue-winged Teals (but not Cinnamon Teals), a pair of Northern Shovelers and a single male Lesser Scaup.
Lesser Scaup
The last two are rare for the count circle (and for Panama); in fact, the Lesser Scaup needs full documentation... that's why I took this digiscoped photo with my phone.  After Farfán, we drove to Veracruz beach, looking specially for shorebirds.  We found some fine species, including some  Sanderlings resting in the same rocks that a group of terns... including a Common Tern, also rare for the count (and deserving full documentation as well).
Royal, Common and Sandwich Terns (and some Willets)
We got many more interesting species, like Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black Terns and a pair of American Oystercatchers back in Farfán.  In fact, the oystercatchers were the last birds we saw for the Pacific CBC before lunch.  One week later, I was in the other extreme of the Panama Canal, this time in Colon province for the Atlantic CBC with my friend Rafael Luck.  Our assigned area was Galeta Point, a reserve that holds a marine laboratory of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  The weather forecast was not good... large waves would hit the coast all morning.
Those were bad news for the shorebirds, our main objectives.  We did not see a single shorebird species that day... but saw several Sandwich and Royal Terns, some Laughing Gulls, a distant Parasitic Jaeger and one Common Tern, a rare sight as I mentioned before.
Common Tern
The inland part of the site was well covered by dozens of researchers and students in the morning, so we kept birding the coast.  However, in the afternoon, we birded the main road and the mangrove forests along it... we were lucky enough to find some specialties previously reported and some new birds for the count.  I really liked the warblers: Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Magnolia and Prothonotary Warblers were quite easy to see.
Prothonotary Warbler
But the real highlight was a female Northern Parula accompanying them, allowing some photos and great views.  We were unable to relocate two rare species seen the day before (Praire Warbler and Ovenbird); although I don't know if any of the other groups working Galeta saw them.  The Northern Parula is a rare, but regular, migrant to these mangrove forests.
Female Northern Parula
Female Northern Parula
My personal highlight was not a warbler.  While seeing them, a large bird flew into the mangroves.  The soft plumage, slim profile and bandit mask make it unmistakable: a Mangrove Cuckoo.
Mangrove Cuckoo
After many years counting birds in Galeta, this is my first Mangrove Cuckoo for the site.  So, as you can see, there is always something new in the CBCs surprising you.  I still don't have the official numbers of these counts, but I'm glad to participate and contribute in this activity...  see you in Christmas for the next counts!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Bird of the Month: American White Pelican

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus) is a heavy-bodied bird with characteristic long bill that supports the unmistakable large bare throat pouch.  This species is a typical member of the Pelecanidae: large, mostly white with black flight feathers and with preferences for freshwater habitats.  At this point, you may notice that this description does not fit our usual species in Panama and Latin America, the Brown Pelican (nor the Peruvian Pelican, sometimes considered conspecific).  But the truth is that, worldwide, most pelican species fit very well the above description.
American White Pelican
In Panama, the American White Pelican is a very rare vagrant.  With only three confirmed previous sightings, the appearance of one mature individual right here at the Panama City waterfront two weeks ago was huge news.  Since then, many local and visiting birders have seen the magnificent beast almost daily, making this sighting the most documented in Panama so far.
American White Pelicans
At first glance, the difference are quite obvious.  This species is appreciable larger than the common Brown Pelicans, and the obvious different plumage and soft-parts colors make it to glow!  Other differences are less obvious.  This species does not feed by plunge-diving; rather, they feed cooperatively driving the school of fish to swallow water, where they scoop-them easily...  It makes me wonder about the fate of a single individual; however, the Panamanian bird have been seen feeding alone, scooping little preys along the surf.
American White Pelican
In their usual range, these are freshwater birds; in Panama, all the records have been in the coast or very close to it (as seen in the photo of the two birds seen in Punta Chame -central Panama- in 2011).  There is no clear pattern of vagrancy for this species in Panama... we are quite far from their usual winter distribution, so we must seize every opportunity to see this bird in our country!  For these, and many other reasons, is why we chose the American White Pelican as our Bird of the Month!
American White Pelican
Literature consulted:
1.  Angehr G, Dean R. The Birds of Panama. A Field Guide. Zona Tropical 2010.
2. Family Pelecanidae. In: del Hoyo J, Elliot A, Sargatal J, Christie DA & de Juana E (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Editions, Barcelona (retrieved from on 01/01/2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My last Year Bird!

You must know by now that I like to make bird lists: Life List, Country/Region Lists, Balcony Lists and, of course, Year Lists. Panama is a great country when you talk about birds, personally, my year lists exceed 500 species every year (without too much effort), and up to 800 species can be seen if you try hard... and certainly many more are possible (922 bird species have been seen this year in Panama according to eBird)!  My country Year List was in 509, so I went yesterday to Panama Viejo in search of my last year-bird... a vagrant to our coast that had been reported recently by several observers (reports in Xenornis).  I succeed, but the bird was so far that I tried it again today.  This time, many local and visiting birders were after the bird... for Panamanian standards, the place was crowded!
The tide was retiring, exposing the mudflats... and many common species were scattered all along the place... but our main objective was not among them.  I went to the small mangrove island behind the museum with some other birders, including Ovidio Jaramillo and Juan Pablo Ríos.
In the way, a single Franklin's Gull and a Gull-billed Tern showed well.  Notice the white bar separating the black wing-tips from the rest of the wing in the Franklin's Gull and the general paleness of the Gull-billed Tern, which is the whiter tern of those regularly occurring in Panama.
Franklin's Gull.  Adult in basic plumage
Gull-billed Tern
Soon, Ovidio spotted our objective from the mangroves.  An American White Pelican was standing on the rocks behind the island.  The huge size, white plumage with black primaries and pink bill were clearly noticed.  The two pillars in the background belong to the expressway to the airport (the "South Corridor").
American White Pelican
After a while, the bird flew away and landed in the same rocks where I saw it yesterday, with a big flock of Brown Pelicans.  There is where it has been seen the last four days in a row!
American White Pelican
The American White Pelican is just a vagrant to Panama, with just a handful of records, including my life pair in Punta Chame some years ago.  It is so rare that it was a lifer for Juan Pablo and for my friend Justo Camargo, both experienced birders in Panama.  What a great way to end the year... my year bird # 510!  If you still need it, try for it now before is gone!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014 Central Christmas Bird Count (CBC)

Yes, it is time for Christmas Bird Counts in Panama and around the world.  This year, we started with the Central CBC last weekend, organized as usual by the Panama Audubon Society (PAS).  Eleven  groups explored the Gamboa and Pipeline road areas, with some of them using boats along the Chagres river and the Gatun lake and with one group birding in Barro Colorado island as well.  I started very early, walking Pipeline road in the dark from the Juan Grande bridge.  Walking alone in the forest give you excellent chances to appreciate wildlife, and I saw many species of birds and mammals in the first hour.  I heard first most of the birds during the dawn chorus, including a pair of Band-tailed Barbthroats perched at eye-level.
Band-tailed Barbthroat
I used flash with this bird... it was still quite dark inside the forest.  The diagnostic tail-pattern is barely visible in this photo.  The truth is that this bird is nearly unmistakable in Panama if seen well.  Its voice, however, is easy to left unidentified, contrary to what happens with the White-throated Wood-Wren.
White-breasted Wood-Wren
During my walk, I crossed several territories of this species.  Its fluid and rich song repeats a phrase several time... then it (or they... usually a pair sings antiphonally) change the phrase and start all over again.  Seeing them is difficult... and I barely manage a photo of one of these vigorous singers.  After a while, I joined the group of Carlos Bethancourt.  Carlos, and old friend of mine and senior bird guide for the world famous Canopy Tower, was heading deep into Pipeline road aboard a modified 4WD vehicle.  He was accompanied by Charlotte Elton, Mikko Oivukka, Domiciano (Domi) Alveo (another guide of the Canopy family) and Domi's wife, Angie.  Carlos needed all his driving skills to pass some mud pools in order to reach the low hills beyond the Limbo bridge.
Reaching these hills was very important because are continuous with the foothills of eastern Colon province.  Our main targets were foothills species found only in these hills in the entire count circle.  Both Carlos and Domi are very experienced birders, specially for that site.  We reached the Mendoza river and started to bird.
Mendoza river sign
The birding skills of these two guys are kind of legendaries.  Soon they started to point out bird calls, adding numbers to our list... many of them specialties for the area: Sulphur-rumped and Carmiol's Tanager, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Long-tailed Woodcreepers, among others.
Record shot of a Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Of course, we also saw many more common species along the road, including Gray Elaenia, Streak-chested Antpitta, Chestnut-backed, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds, four trogon species, Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers, Blue-crowned Manakins, etc.
Blue-crowned Manakin, female
Pipeline road is a birding hotspot with a bird list of more than 300 species... however, you need several days to make it justice, or to be very lucky.  Not only the road conditions prevented us for continue further into the forest, by noon, a torrential rain hit us hard... well, it is a rainforest after all!
My count ended just outside Gamboa, looking for some common species after the rain stops.  After 9-hours of continuing birding, I decided to return home in order to make the day list.  Now, I'm waiting the next CBC this weekend... see you there!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Debbie Ann Dance Academy presents Alice in Wonderland

Last saturday, Debbie Ann Dance Academy presented its 2014 closure act at the iconic Balboa Theatre.  Students, instructors and guests performed in several disciplines, including folklore, hip-hop, aerial and modern dance, tap and, of course, ballet.
However, the main act consisted in a ballet adaptation of Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland.  Most of the main chapters of the original story were represented by the academy's student.
My daughter, Gabrielle, with her Baby Ballet companions performed twice.  First, during "The Caucus Race and the Long Tale" (chapter three)... she was a turtle.
Then, they performed during "The Queen's Croquet Ground" (chapter eight)... they all were cute flamingos!
The play was a complete success, and we were all proud to see our little Gabrielle dancing and having fun on stage with her friends.  Do I mention that she is still 2-years old?  Yes, this is her second closure act (the first one was in february, closing the summer course).  If you want to see more photos of this act, visit my facebook photo album.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Random stops along Panama City coast

The modern and busy Panama City offers more than lush and cheap shopping, it offers the chance to watch thousands of waders and other aquatic species without much effort.  Some days ago, I visited several sites along the coast just to see what can I find.  My first stop was at the west bank of the Panama Canal, at Farfan.  This site is opposite to the Amador Causeway, where the Biomuseo is now an iconic symbol (designed by Frank Gehry).
There is a huge pond just next to the beach, surrounded by a dike with overgrown vegetation.  I was able to walk along this dike for some sections.  There were many shorebirds species, including this Lesser Yellowlegs (that was not shy at all).
Lesser Yellowlegs
I was interested in the ducks, since this site produced in the past some very rare species and this season some rare ones were reported too.  I saw several groups of Blue-winged Teals, which is the commonest wintering duck in Panama.  There were some individuals far away in the other side of the pond that I was unable to ID, but certainly they were teals too.
Blue-winged Teals
Blue-winged Teals
One of these groups of teals included seven Lesser Scaups as well... can you separate them?
Blue-winged Teals and Lesser Scaups
I also saw a weird concentration of Franklin's Gulls resting in this pond.  The Franklin's Gull is a common passage migrant, but quite uncommon as winter resident.  I counted no less than 35 individuals, including this first-winter individual.  Notice the white outer tail feathers, broad eye crescents, white underparts and pale inner primaries.
Franklin's Gull, 1st-winter
Then I moved to Panama Viejo.  The number of Laughing Gulls was impressive... and there were also some Franklin's Gulls with them.  Notice the difference in wing patterns and general shape/size of the two flying adults in basic plumage.
Laughing and Franklin's Gulls in basic plumage 
Franklin's Gull in basic plumage
I also saw a very distant Lesser Black-backed Gull among the Laughings and several terns species... too distant for photos.  But several other species were close enough to appreciate well, like this Wood Stork.  Panama Viejo is a regular spot for them in the city and, as you can see, they can be effective as pest control. What major city in the world has no rat problem?
Wood Stork (having lunch)
Nearby, a flock of elegant Black-necked Stilts was feeding in the exposed mudflats.  They are found year-round in this site and are beautifully patterned in black and white with long, pink legs.  They are even more elegant when flying.
Black-necked Stilt
But nothing compares to the elegance of the American Avocet... and a pair seems to be wintering right there in Panama Viejo!  One individual literally materialized in front of me, close enough for some shots.  It was feeding in the water.  When it flew again, I noticed something rarely seen... its curious pink toes.
American Avocet
Nice collection of birds along our coast!