Birding with the Experts

Panama Birding

I never get tired of birding my home patch with an expert, I also happen to be very lucky in terms of where that is.  The Western Caribbean Slope of Panama happens to be home and the wildness of this area is starting to attract some of the best Neotropical bird specialists.  When you’re in the field with someone highly experienced, they consistently see and point out things that my eye passes over as normal.  Sometimes, in an area that I bird regularly, I find myself unconsciously looking over places that don’t normally hold birds.  Or only checking common birds at a glance that are possibly similar but rare birds and should all be checked.  That Nicaraguan Seed-Finch might be on the same perch as last week, but maybe not.  A fresh set of well-seasoned eyes, with a broad range of experience, is a great way to make new discoveries in your own backyard.

On our recent birding tours in Panama, we have added several new species to our list for the Western Caribbean Slope.  On almost all counts, a visiting expert assisted in identification or in some cases by spotting the bird.  As a local guide, I am constantly looking for what should be there, or what has been there before, but not always for the unusual.  It can be easy to make a bad identification when your mind is thinking of what is common for the area.  We have seen hundreds of Groove-billed Anis but only listed Smooth-billed once or twice.  According to distribution, the Smooth-billed shouldn’t be here, but now that we know they are, we should check every Ani.  Someone who has never birded the area might check that upper mandible without even thinking about it.  Fresh eyes in a new birding hotspot don’t know what to expect and are often looking for a surprise as their mind is set for the unknown.

Neotropic Cormorants are a very common bird in Bocas del Toro, Panama, but we had never listed Anhinga.  So when Jim Dazenbaker of Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris called out, “Anhinga” on a recent birding tour, I was sure he meant Neotropic Cormorant.  I looked at Jim and he had his binoculars pointed straight up in the sky, when I looked up, there it was soaring beautifully overhead.  Thanks Jimbo, new one for the Tranquilo Bay bird list.  Jim found the Anhinga while scanning soaring Vultures, just like we all should.  Just last week Jeri Langham, while leading a Panama birding tour for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, (VENT) asked our driver to pull over while we were in the Talamanca highlands.  We hear White-throated Crake almost everyday all over the Western Caribbean Slope of Panama, but this one sounded a little different to Jeri and Natalia.  As he checked his list for possible Crakes at that distribution and altitude, there were only a couple of choices.  Jeri chose to play a recording of Gray-breasted Crake, not only was it a match for what they both heard, but then the bird started responding.  We never saw that bird, but thanks to Jeri’s astute knowledge of birdcalls, we now know where to find Gray-breasted Crake in our area.

As a local guide, I tend to learn most of the birds calls and songs from experience gained during my time in the field.  Hearing the bird and then locating and studying it, locks it into your brain like looking up a word in the dictionary.  You don’t always get it on the first time, but sometimes you do.  Most of the time if I haven’t seen the bird in the field, or been introduced to the call by an expert, I am not familiar with it.  Really good Neotropical birding specialists study birdcalls because it is one of the most affective ways to find birds.

We recently added Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant to our list thanks to the incredible ear of leader Lena Senko with Field Guides.  To me the call was completely inaudible and after 25 minutes of extensively scanning an area just under the top of the canopy, we finally found that little ping pong ball.  Keith Hansen helped us rack up Northern Parula for our list.  I wouldn’t have even known what I was seeing because they are not supposed to be this far south, but it was something normal for him.  Being in a new area, where he had never birded before, Keith was scanning those trees for anything and everything.

With the opportunity to bird with so many great birders, my skills have improved drastically, however, the most important lessons that I have taken away from these experiences are strictly fundamental.  We should always be expecting the unexpected, even when the area is as familiar to you as your own backyard.  Furthermore, we need to study the field marks, songs and calls of birds that don’t commonly visit our area or possible vagrants that have visited on rare occasions past.  Not only will this make you a better birder, but furthermore, you might just add that missing rarity to your yard and life lists.

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