White Pelican – a New Year’s Surprise

New Species Bocas del Toro

American White Pelican, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. Photo: Ann Fleck

On the first of January we had a great site, while we were birding at the Snyder Canal, two American White Pelicans were resting near the mouth of the Changuinola River. This is the first time the species was observed and reported on this side of the country.

In Panama, the species is vagrant, with a few reports on the Pacific coast of Panama, in Herrera and eastern Panama, and recently one single bird has been observed, for over 3 years, at the Bay of Panama.

Birding Panama

American White Pelican, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. Photo: Ann Fleck

These birds are the heaviest flying birds in the world; they feed on fish and other aquatic organisms, dipping their beaks into the surface of the water. They do not dive like Brown Pelicans do. Almost the entire plumage is white, except the primary and outer secondary feathers are black.

This species often travels long distances in large flocks. They are common and abundant in North America; breed at inland lakes, rivers or marshes, in Canada and United States; and migrate during winter to southern coastal areas.

Hummingbird or insect?

Nature is full of incredible adaptations – today I want to review one of many curiosities of nature, a moth that looks like a hummingbird. Known as Hummingbird moths, Bee Moth, Hawk Moth or Bee Hawk Moth, just to mention a few common names, this group of Sphinx moths, are an abundant group, with over 1200 species around the world.

Sphinx moth Pic. Sphinx moth (Aellopos titan) feeding.

The moths have received their name because they have many similarities to hummingbirds:

  • feeding in similar species of flowering plants
  • efficient pollinators
  • the shape of their bodies
  • the tip of their tail opens into a fan
  • some species have bright colors
  • the skill to fly sideways and backwards.

At this point sounds like they are very similar, and it will be hard to tell them a part, but there are also differences between those two sets of creatures – the hummingbird moths, are smaller, have antennae, and are not as aggressive as hummingbirds!

Stripe-throated Hermit Pic. Stripe-throated Hermit (Phaethornis striigularis) feeding.

If you are a new garden observer, be patient, and in a little bit of time you will be able differentiate one from the other.

Collared Aracaris – Colors of the tropics

Birding Panama

The colorful Collared Aracaris (Pteroglossus torquatus), feeding on the side of the road, during a birding trip to the mainland.

The toucans are a family of birds, characterized for its colorful, long and “heavy looking” beak. Probably many of us think in the tropics when we think in this family of birds, a very acquired thought, because they are only found in the neotropics. Aracaris and Toucanets are also members of this family of beautiful birds

Today I am going to tell you a little bit about the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), this species can be found in a wide variety of different habitats: primary and secondary growth forests, forest patches, and plantations.

As easy as they are to spot when they are flying, the are likely just as hard to find when they are quietly feeding in the mid-storey of a tree. When they feed, they swallow the entire fruit and then regurgitate several times, with the intention to get all the pulp from the fruit.

These birds usually move in groups, roost and nest in holes of trees. This species is not found on Bastimentos Island, but can be seen in many of the different locations where we go birding, mostly on the mainland.

A case of range expansion through the Birds of Panamá guidebooks

Birding PanamaIt seems that the wanderer likes Bocas del Toro:  A case of range expansion through the Birds of Panamá guides

The geographical areas occupied by bird species are not jails, that confine them through history and they can never leave, in fact, in many cases they change through time. The change in a bird’s range can be signaling an important change in their own habitat and also they might have important consequences in the communities of the habitats that are invaded. Nowadays, with technology and increased public interest in birding we have an extraordinary tool to see the changes in range expansion of bird species at almost real time.

I would like to expose a recent case of range expansion that happened in Bocas del Toro, Panamá, just by checking what they say about a particular bird with the different authors through time, in their bird guides of Panama.

The bird that I am going to write about was once described, by Alexander Wetmore in 1968 in his Volume 2 of his The Birds of the Republic of Panama, as “Small, long-tailed parakeet; green above, with a prominent blue band in the wing.” When he described it, it was only found in the “Tropical Zone of western Bocas del Toro. known only from Almirante, and the Río Changuinola”. At that time, the bird was called Aratinga astec astec, and the common name was Aztec Parakeet. Now we call this bird Olive-throated Parakeet and it´s scientific name is Aratinga nana aztec.

As a curiosity, “ the first specimen of this bird taken in Panamá was collected at Farm 3 on Río Changuinola April 15,1927, by Austin Paul Smith. This bird is in the Havemeyer collection in the Peabody Museum at Yale”. There were other specimens collected, all the same year, two males by Rex Benson at Almirante and a female by Hasso von Wedel at Changuinola. With very few historical records, he wrote: “ It is suggestive to note that the four specimens recorded to date (1968) from Panamá were taken between April and October in the same year. Possibly they were wanderers from further north.”

Some years later, Robert Ridgley, in the second edition (1989) of his A Guide to the Birds in Panama with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras wrote, in the status and distribution section: ”Rare in lowlands of western Bocas del Toro (Almirante-Rio Changuinola area) where known from only six specimens, all taken within the April-October period (four in 1927; one 1961; one in 1963). Perhaps merely an irregular wanderer from Costa Rica; It´s too difficult to see why this species has not settled and even spread eastward along Panama´s Caribbean slope.”

He was very certain that the habitat conditions eastern to it´s range, were suitable for the establishment of this species and he was right, because the presence of Olive-throated Parakeet has been spreading east, passing Chiriquí Grande and, to the Islands, they are found in Isla Colon, Isla Popa and Isla Bastimentos (I have personally seen them on the last two islands).  We can find these changes in 2010 in George R. Angher´s The Birds of Panamá: A Field Guide where he describes the bird as “Common in lowlands of Bocas del Toro”.

In 42 years, the Olive-throated Parakeet has gone from being considered a wanderer to being completely established along the Bocatoranian coast and to being a common bird. We even had a nest at Tranquilo Bay some years ago.  The couple lived with us for more than a year on the grounds of the lodge. This is but only one little example how dynamic the world we live in is.

Coró-coró

The ibises have a very particular appearance overall, long and curved beak, long neck and legs and a chunky body, which makes them easy to recognize from a distance. Five species of ibises are reported in Panama, two of them have very few observations in the country, and are considered as vagrant species. In Bocas del Toro we can find the other three species: Green, Glossy and White Ibis, in this same order of abundance, with the Green Ibis the most common of the three, and the White Ibis the rarest one.

Birding Panama

Mesembrinibis cayennensis

In poor light, the Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis), may appear as a black bird, but when you get the right light and angle, the beautiful iridescent feathers on the back of its neck may be appreciated. A green ibis is a very beautiful bird. The image of the green ibis is used in one of the best online casinos in Austria, which is very popular among players. When 3 pictures with green ibis appear on the screen, this means that you have a bonus.

In Bocas del Toro the Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis) is frequently seen near the mangroves and wetlands of the lowlands, where it feeds on aquatic invertebrates (worms, snails, insects, etc.) by walking slowly and digging with its long bill into the mud, dirt, and shallow water.

Easy to recognize and locate by its peculiar loud call, they actively vocalize at dusk and down. Flying calls are a series of corocoro… sound, which explain the reason of the local name in some regions: “the coró-coró”.

Green Ibis call. Downloaded from zeno-canto (http://www.xeno-canto.org/sounds/uploaded/WNGXTLHREQ/GreenIbisDamani111028_26.mp3)

Birds are often seen in pairs or singles, but occasionally in small groups up to eight individuals (personal observations). Their nest is built with twigs, high in a tree over water, and separated from other nests of the same species.

Panama Birdwatching

Pair of Green Ibises

Typically, these birds vocalize on a high perch, in a clear area, at dusk or dawn. Notice the particular shape of these birds, it makes them easy to recognize from the distance.

Updated Bird List – Fall 2017

I recently finished updating our Western Caribbean Slope bird list, based on the August 2017 Clements List. This last version shows some significant changes, such as, removing from the Thraupidae family the Rosy Thush-Tanager (Rhodinocichla rosea) and the Dusky-faced Tanager (Mitrospingus cassinii) and putting them in to their own family, Rhodinocichlidae and Mitrospingidae respectively.

As of this update, we have a total of 522 species on our list.  It is very likely that during the year this number will change, owing to Bocas del Toro’s outstanding diversity.

One of the additions to our bird list, is the Forster´s Tern (Sterna forsteri), a rare species for the country; only one bird was observed, resting with a group of Royal Terns (Thalasseus maximus), at the Changuinola River mouth, months ago. This species is easy to recognize in its winter plumage, by the black, coma type of shape, ear patch.

Birding Panama

©Brooke A. Miller

You can download the current Clements based bird list on our Birding page.

Knowledge, beauty and art to share – Part II

John James Audubon´s Birds of America is a really valuable contribution in the form of life-size watercolors and details about the behavior of birds. These compilations of 435 species of birds, over half of the species of United States, included 25 new species and 12 new subspecies. This work was printed between 1827 and 1838. After this project, he compiled a collection of 150 hand-colored lithographs “The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America”.

AudobonBrownPelican

Audubon´s watercolor plate of the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

One of the reasons I want to dedicate this series of blog posts to his work, is because, in addition to his incredible talent as an artist, he was a brilliant writer. Reading his very well documented journeys can transport you to the adventure as he experienced it, with exquisite detail of the landscape and the behavior of the birds (available at: http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america , courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Audubon, PA, and the Montgomery County, PA, Audubon Collection). In each one of the up coming photo series, I will be posting some of his plates of our avifauna species, and quote some of his bird biographies.

Sources:
http://johnjames.audubon.org/john-james-audubon-0
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/john-james-audubon-drawn-from-nature/106/
http://www.audubon.org/content/john-james-audubon

Knowledge, beauty and art to share – Part I

John James Audubon was not the first person to collect, illustrate and record detailed information about the birds of North America, but the quality and significance of his work places his name and work as a remarkable reference of the ornithology world.

John Audobon Portrait

Image 1. Paint of John James Audubon, by John Syme (Source: http://www.audubon.org/content/john-james-audubon?_ga=1.144911732.1729398225.1484368019

Jean-Jacques Audubon was born in 1785, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti). Later in 1803 when he was immigrating to United States, he changed his name to a more Anglicized form: John James Audubon.

During his first years in the new country he spent a lot of his time roaming this very different territory. He was captivated by the wildlife in this new area, a passion that took him from one end of the country to the other. Through the years he saw an extensive area of the country. He changed the way birds were illustrated, “putting the spectator within the natural environment”: accomplishing an extreme similarity with the characteristics of the bird, and the environment where the scene took place. And he also developed the first recorded experiment of bird banding in America.

Sources:
http://johnjames.audubon.org/john-james-audubon-0
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/john-james-audubon-drawn-from-nature/106/
http://www.audubon.org/content/john-james-audubon

 

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Variable Seedeater Song Mimicry

Today’s post is by Scott Viola.  Our children, as some of you may know, learned all 200 yard birds we have at Tranquilo Bay for their science class last year.  Scott truly took to the birds and was especially interested in their songs and sounds.  He has learned to identify many of the birds by sound as well as visually.  Here is a report he prepared for me about a strange phenomenon he encountered.

Panama Bird Song Mimicry

I have acknowledged a phenomenon on which I can find almost nothing: the Variable Seedeater mimics other birds’ songs.

For months after learning the Variable Seedeater’s song in Bocas del Toro, Panama, it made me think of rubbing a wet window with rubber. One day around New Years, I was walking in a semi-open area less than a hundred feet above sea level and heard a string of bird songs issued back-to-back from an elevated position. I was mystified, there being nothing that I could see. I considered that someone had put a playback speaker in a tree, but that was unlikely. After a few minutes, I saw a small, black bird exit the tree, and the calls ceased. I knew what it was, a seedeater or seedfinch, but I didn’t consider that it could have been the thing making the noise. A few days later, I heard it again in a nearby location. This time, I had a clear view and identified it as a Variable Seedeater.

I took two recordings of it singing, and later made videos with text on-screen notifying what bird song it was imitating. I have observed it mimicking Red-lored Parrots, Blue-headed Parrots, something that I believe is based on the Groove-billed Ani or the Common Black Hawk, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue-gray or Palm Tanagers, Tropical Gnatcatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenias, Great Kiskadees, Boat-billed Flycatchers (probably), and Roadside Hawk, all of which are common in the area. The seedeater also has a “Brr brr Brrr” sound, and a distinctive, high-pitched “eaw.”

It doesn’t include all the birds every time it sings, but there is a loose order in which it tends to put them: parrots, the Ani or the hawk-like sound, and the rest, often with the Black-cheeked Woodpecker next to the flycatchers. The song lasts around seven to eight seconds, with 3-6 dedicated in the beginning to the parrots, the Ani-like song, and its own add-ons.

The song also changes depending on region, as can be seen on http://xeno-canto.org/explore?query=variable+seedeater. I believe this is caused by the birds it mimics, which are different everywhere. On Xeno Canto, I managed to identify a parrot in the midst of unfamiliar noises. The sounds don’t even make me think of birds; they are higher pitched and from a different place, making it sound like the song I had heard before my epiphany. The seeming randomness is stated in every Variable Seedeater resource I can find, except for one. At “The Sights and Sounds of Costa Rica” (http://www.naturesongs.com/CRsounds.html), the author wrote in the section for the Variable Seedeater that it mimics, and had two recordings that clearly contained mimicking. He was hearing the same thing I did. In them, I can tell that the seedeater mimics bird sounds. In one, I hear a Black-cheeked Woodpecker.

Introduced Species

Today, I am going to talk about a couple of birds that were introduced by humans in Panama (and other countries): House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus).

The definition of an introduced species or non-native species (plant or an animal) is that it (said species) does not naturally belong to a specific area. We, humans, have been moving plants and animals around the globe for a very long time. There are many reasons why introduced species are moved from one place to another.   To mention a few: as a source of food, to control pests or simply because its pretty. Sometimes the introduction of this species goes well, and solves a problem, but the completely opposite can happen, and it turns into a pest that messes up the order the ecosystem.

It is very well documented how the House Sparrow was introduced in to the United States, but not on the rest of the continent. Since 1850 or 1851 the attempts to introduced the species in Brooking, New York began, and in a period of about 50 years, the species was found around the entire country.

Introduced Species Panama

Native to Eurasia, the House Sparrow was brought in to North America, apparently for a few different reasons: 1) to control a pest of canker worms that was affecting the trees of Central Park, 2) to bring birds that were familiar to the immigrants, or 3) just because they are pretty. In Panama, this species is usually found in the lowlands, near humans, often in small flocks.

Escaped and released pet birds are another way that a species makes its place in a country. Now, I am taking about the Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus), a species introduced from Colombia around 1932. It was first documented at the Canal zone after 1928 (one report in 1932 by Deingnan (Wetmore et al. 1984)). Now it’s found in both urban and suburban areas.

Birdwatching Panama

This species it is not common in Bocas del Toro. We have only seen a few individual birds in over 10 years birding the province, but just a few days ago, Scott Viola (Jay’s son), told me about a Tropical Mockingbird he saw on Isla Colon, which might be the first observation on that island for the species.

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