Sunday, January 6, 2008

Panama Trip - Day 11 & 12

November 27, 2007

We left early again this morning, heading southwest of El Valle for the Pacific lowlands and "dry" forest near El Chiru, an area that has been little explored by birders. Of course it was raining lightly when we arrived, but it soon stopped. The group that came here yesterday had sunny weather, but for us it was cloudy. Good thing, because it was plenty hot without the sun! As expected, among the common birds were more Groove-billed Anis.

There were no hummingbird feeders in the area, but we had several Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds. Only this one female was cooperative enough for photos.

Perched right next to the road at one point was a nice Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. An old name for this species is Savanna Vulture, which makes a lot of sense although I've also seen them in large marshy areas.

In an open field we saw and heard the resident subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark. This bird sounds at least as different as Eastern and Western Meadowlarks do from each other, so maybe someday it will be split? I will be posting my recording of this song onto the Xeno-canto website in the coming weeks. A Streaked Flyatcher flew into a large dense tree at one point, carrying food, and it quickly came back into view without the food. We did not locate the nest.

We birded a Eucalyptus plantation for a while and got good looks at Brown-throated Parakeets, and worked an adjacent hedgerow and cane field for quite some time before getting good looks at two shy and skulky Crested Bobwhites. We also had a good look at a Panama Flycatcher here before moving along to our next destination. We returned to the Pan American Highway and started down a long, long, bumpy, potholed road toward the Pacific coast and Playa Juan Hombron. At one point, Tino spotted a hummingbird perched in a tree. It turned out to be a Panamanian endemic, a Veraguan Mango! This was the last (of 7) of the world's mangos I had left to see, and it was also my 11th life bird of the trip, my 185th (of 339) hummingbird and my 3700th life bird!

This species was formerly lumped with Green-breasted Mango but as the photo above clearly shows it lacks any black on the underparts. Luckily, this was one time when a photo taken through Tino's scope came out well (it was difficult to do without my photo adapter). The Veraguan Mango had been seen at this locale several times, which represents an eastward range expansion from what is currently known, but this photo is the first solid proof of its occurrence there.

We finally arrived at the beach at Playa Juan Hombron, where we stayed and had lunch. Far offshore there were a couple of fishing trawlers that had hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds following behind. Try as I might, I could not spot any boobies or other unusual pelagic species. There were some shorebirds on the beach, like these two at opposite ends of the size scale.

The Sanderlings were nervous and flighty, while the Whimbrels seemed quite unconcerned and allowed close approach.

A group of Willets spent most of the time sleeping and it wasn't easy getting a photo of an active one.

One of the Whimbrels wandered between a couple of Willets, allowing me to get a photo I like to call a WWW photo (Willet/Whimbrel/Willet)! Or, perhaps this could be called a Whimbrel Sandwich!

And speaking of Sandwich, it was the terns that held our attention the most as we noted five species here, including of course, Sandwich Terns.

Several Gull-billed Terns were seen flying offshore, and were a life bird for Tino. But none of them landed on the beach, and the few Common Terns flying out over the Pacific did not approach us either. The expected large, orange-billed tern here is, surprisingly for the Pacific coast, the Royal Tern. Oddly, we saw only one Royal Tern on the beach, here with a Laughing Gull and sleeping Willet. Ther were, perhaps, a couple more flying far out over the water.

We had plenty of discussion about all the other orange-billed terns on the beach, and flying out over the water. They just didn't look right to us for Royal Terns. The bills looked too thin and curved, and the eye was not set off on the face, and many of them had shaggy black crests.

As we got closer, and had better views, it became clear that ALL the other orange-billed terns on the beach were in fact Elegant Terns.

There were at least 15 of them on the beach, and perhaps just as many flying offshore. It was interesting to see the color variations in the bill. Field guides often state that the bills of Elegant Terns are more yellow than those of Royal Terns. But this photo shows two pretty different bill colors on birds that show bill shapes and head patterns that are clearly Elegant Terns. Obviously there's a bit of variation, and bill color should not be considered a reliable field mark.

Elegant Terns are rather uncommon anywhere in Panama, as their migration route along the Pacific takes them from their west Mexican (and SW U.S.) breeding grounds to their South American wintering grounds by a more direct pelagic route. Panama's Pacific coast runs east-west here so it is not exactly on the flight line. Our group of 20-30 Elegant Terns is probably one of the largest ever recorded in Panama.

In fact, it is possible that Elegant Tern may have been photographed in Panama very few times, if ever. Juvenile Elegant Terns have red legs, and rarely an individual will retain this color long after it leaves the nest. One such bird was among those on the beach here. As the bird opens its wings to preen, it is quite evident it is retaining some juvenal plumage.

After lunch we explored a freshwater marsh that was perhaps 100 yards from the ocean. We found quite a few Ruddy Ground-Doves here, and had good looks at Rufous-browed Peppershrikes and a pair of Northern Scrub-Flycatcher. Two Black-crowned Night-Herons were roosting in a small hammock of trees, and an unusual find was a female Common Yellowthroat.

The rain started again, of course, so we started heading back for the Canopy Lodge. Although we had been here a few days, this early afternoon trip back up toward El Valle was the first good opportunity to photograph the scenery on the way. Our driver was very accommodating, but stayed safe.

We arrived back at the Canopy Lodge in the early afternoon. I spent some time working the feeders, trying to get some last minute photos before we left Panama tomorrow. One great challenge was getting a photo of the numerous Clay-colored Robins OFF the feeder. I finally succeeded.

Just the opposite, this Black-striped Sparrow was almost never seen on the feeders.

And there were many more female Thick-billed Euphonias around than males.

The Blue-gray Tanagers continued to be numerous.

The Crimson-backed Tanagers were a little more challenging as the light wasn't great, and they didn't come in very often.

The Flame-rumped Tanagers were even more difficult, and I never managed a photo of one of the spectacular males, only this slightly blurry shot of a female.

On my way back to the hummingbird feeders, this small lizard (probably Norops polylepis) gave me a chance for a quick photo.

There were two hummingbird feeders in a sort of central court of the lodge, which was very dimly lit, and which provided easy access to the woods behind the buildings. I found that Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds liked to come to the feeders here in addition to going to the flowers along the river.

These shady feeders seemed to be the main place where the Violet-crowned Woodnymphs were hanging out, and was the only place I saw a female.

It seems odd to me that the males, bright green and purple birds, spend so much time in the shade where they look all dark.

Then we decided to walk back up to Chorro el Macho to look for the day-roosting owl that we'd missed twice so far. On the way, we saw this Spotted Woodcreeper down quite low. Although the light is poor I've included the photo here just because it is difficult to photograph any woodcreeper in any light.

When we got to the dimly lit tangle where the owl had been seen, it was in residence this time. A very nice Mottled Owl. It was a great "last bird" for the trip.

November 28, 2007
Five of us had 8:45 a.m. flights and since it was at least two hours to the airport, we departed the Canopy Lodge at 4:30 a.m. As we entered Panama City it was getting just bright enough to see a few birds, including Laughing Gulls, Royal Terns, and Magnificent Frigatebirds over Panama Bay. The tide was in so there were no mudflats, and so no shorebirds. One final addition to the trip list was a small group of Yellow-crowned Parrots in a bare tree in the middle of downtown. Surprisingly, Panama City is a very good place to see this species. On arrival at the airport, we were informed that our flight was delayed. I had late morning flights so we wouldn't have to depart so early, but the airline changed the schedule before we departed. So, the bottom line is that we ended up leaving at 11:30 anyway! Mike and Stella, who were scheduled to depart later, actually left earlier than we did. Once in Miami, we parted company with Jeff and Cheri, and caught our flight to Detroit, arriving on-time at 9:45 p.m.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Panama Trip - Day 10

November 26, 2007

We departed the Canopy Lodge well before sunrise as it was about a two-hour drive to our destination for the day, Altos del Maria. This location is in a mountainous area to the east of El Valle, requiring a drive south back down to the Pan American Highway, then east to the turnoff for the small town of Sora, then northwest back up into the mountains.

The area is cloud forest and represents one of the easternmost outposts of the Chiriqui Highlands of eastern Costa Rica and western Panama. Unfortunately, like the Cerro Azul area we visited on the first day, this is a housing development for wealthy Panamanians and construction in some areas has cleared large patches of forest. Non-native Impatiens cover virtually any area that has been cleared of undergrowth, as can be seen in the photo below taken by Jeff. While beautiful in color it is sad to see these areas so stripped bare they are almost devoid of bird life. While such large expanses of monoculture are natural in our temperate forests (such as the large beds of Trillium, Spring Beauty, Blootroot, and others), even in its native New Guinea the Impatiens aren't as invasive as they are in this altered habitat.

Fortunately, there were still good patches of intact habitat remaining, where the forest was still beautiful and all the moss-covered branches were aerial gardens with ferns, bromeliads, and orchids.

Tino pointed out an orchid high in the trees, and I was able to get a foggy photo of it through his scope.

Then, a little later, we found another one just above eye level. This is most likiely Elleanthus robustus, or possibly Elleanthus glaucophylla.

On a fallen log just off the side of the road, there were TWO species of orchid! The first, and most spectacular one, was this Encyclia vespa.

Once I climbed up the small hill where this orchid was growing, I noticed that on the backside of the log was this much smaller, and delicately beautiful orchid, which is most likely Masdevallia chontalensis. We had also seen one of these on the Cerro Gaital trail, but it wasn't in as good a shape as this one was.

And on a moss-covered snag sticking out into the road, this small yellow orchid was almost overlooked as Tino had to point it out to me. This one is almost certainly Psygmorchis pusilla.

Some of the other plants were quite interesting too. This pink and white flower was atop a 6-foot tall shrub that perhaps would be attractive to hummingbirds, and looked to me like it may have been in the Pea Family (Leguminosae).

Around one bend, we came upon this wall of heliconia plants, in the mist.

The birding was excellent, though difficult as nearly every bird seemed to be "on that mossy branch near the top of that tree", and there were thousands of mossy branches! The mist coming and going are one thing that I like about cloud forests, lending them atmosphere in a sensory way not just a physical way. But it makes it more difficult to see the treetops where so many birds like to hang out. Some of the more interesting species we found included Snowcap (hummingbird), Russet Antshrike, Ochraceous Wren, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Black-crowned Antpitta (heard only by most of us), and an extreme rarity anywhere in Panama, a flock of tiny Blue-fronted Parrotlets. About the only bird that cooperated for photography was this male Orange-bellied Trogon, taken through Tino's spotting scope, and the thick fog.

As usual, interesting insects were also found. This species of long-necked Weevil (most likely Brentus anchorago) is a beetle that I've found a couple times before. And, as with my prior experiences, this one allowed exactly one photo before taking flight. One of these times I'll get one that sits still for a nice profile photo!

And, even if you're not a beetles fan like I am, this colorful Chrysomelid (leaf) beetle (Platyphora boucardi) would certainly grab your attention. This particular species was even featured on a Panamanian postage stamp a few years ago.

While we were watching a mixed flock of tanagers in the mist, Tino also found a Neotropical Dwarf Squirrel, which is not often seen. We watched him closely as he climbed at eye level, then went to the top of a medium-sized tree. We were surprised a moment later to hear leaves crashing and a small "thunk" as the squirrel hit the ground. He'd fallen out of his tree! I've never seen a squirrel fall out of a tree before. He was okay and eventually hopped off into the woods. As had become tradition on the trip by now, and because he was easy to tease, we decided that the falling squirrel was Jeff's fault. Coincidentally, he'd just asked Tino if there were any flying squirrels in Panama!

Another apparently fallen creature was this large, gaudy caterpillar that was on a leaf right in the middle of the road.

We had lunch near a nice waterfall, which was very pleasant.

There were a few birds around, and this Bat Falcon flew into one of the highest bare snags in the area and sat nicely for us for most of the time we were here. It was so high up that I had to use Tino's scope to get a photo, but it didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.

In the rocks near the shelter where we were eating, this small toad came out of hiding providing yet another amphibian identification challenge. I think this one is a Granular Toad (Bufo granularis), but as always I could be wrong.

The Leafcutter Ants walking along the railing at the edge of the stream kept some of us amused for a while.

In the early afternoon, we drove back down out of the mountains, heading back for the Canopy Lodge. We stopped in the open lowlands for a little birding on the way, with Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant and Plain-breasted Ground-Dove the best finds. These Groove-billed Anis were very common in the open areas.

At the Canopy Lodge, and after dinner, I tried again to photograph the bats coming in to the hummingbird feeders. But, they weren't as active as they had been last night, so I didn't get any photos. I did notice this tree frog on a branch behind the feeder, visible on the periphery of the spotlight set up near the feeder. I believe this one is a Panama Cross-banded Treefrog (Smilisca sila).

As anyone who has been on a tropical trip with me before knows, I am always checking the walls of our accommodations for interesting insects, especially moths. This trip was not particularly good for moths as perhaps the dry season would have been better (on our Ecuador trip in 2002 I found nearly 40 species of moth!). But, this evening on the way back to my room I found these three moth species. As is usually the case, I have no idea what species any of them is, but I do have a fair idea what families they're in. Luckily, nobody saw me taking these photos, as I might have been mistaken for a stalker!

And along with the moths, I found this longhorn beetle (Family Cerambycidae) that I tentatively identified as Xenophrea camixaima, though I'm not even sure I have the genus correct.