Seasonal rarities & new additions!

In preparation for my trip to Tranquilo Bay I’d been scouring bird lists & cross referencing eBird reports to see what species occurred there. Living on the gulf coast of South Florida and with over a dozen past visits to Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador, I knew there would be many familiar species. Ranging from common Florida “yardbirds” to species I’d only encountered once or twice, but I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of species listed that I’d never seen (Bocas del Toro region has a high incidence of regional endemism). Whether familiar or brand new species, I’d long since determined that every sighting and wildlife encounter always brings a chance for new discovery, and I was thrilled at the prospect of returning to the tropics after a few years away and refreshing my memories of these seldom seen species! 

In my research, I was not surprised to note comparatively few June eBird reports from the Bocas Del Toro region (June is likely the least birded month in most areas with the fewest reports). On a phone conversation, I’d told owner Jim Kimball that I was looking forward to birding during this comparatively unexplored season, hoping we might turn up some surprises and add some meaningful local sightings. Jim replied that he was equally excited to get out and do some exploring, mentioning that he had “feathered fiends” on the mainland he hadn’t seen in over a year. At that moment, I knew Jim and I would get along just fine. It also reminded me that the many wildlife guides and lodge owners in the tropics, had been locked down and struggling over the past 16 months as well.

As expected, Luis Gles (a professional bird guide & researcher from SE Florida) and I encountered an amazing assortment of tropical birds and wildlife over our first two full days at Tranquilo Bay. Some were “old friends” & some new acquaintances, but none of these had been truly unexpected sightings. On day three, we set off early making our way across glassy calm waters toward the “Snyder Canal”. The golden morning light reflected beautifully off the water as we sped along passing perched Frigatebirds and a lone Brown Noddy. Numerous Black Terns in non-breeding plumage were bounding along the protected channels between mangrove islands throughout, and Brown Boobies glided low over the water with their bills gleaming brilliantly in the morning sun. Sharp-eyed Luis picked out an extremely pale Parasitic Jaeger lifting off the water and flying a short distance before lighting again. 

(Over our all too short week here we would photo document three distinctly different individual Parasitic Jaegers and count dozens of Black Terns, leading me to assume these non-breeding birds over-summer in these rich tropical waters in their first years rather than risking arduous migrations until they were ready to breed.)

Our friendly guides Jim, Natalia & Ramon had educated us on the local wildlife species and had shown us loads of species that we had little to no experience with. However, when we motored into the broad, tidal expanses of the Changuinola River mouth this changed a bit as the birding took on a very familiar feel. As the wide river opened-up before us, we began scanning the many sand flats and grassy edges noting birds we knew well from our South Florida homes. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Royal Terns were abundant on the exposed sand bars and Ramon picked out a pair of locally uncommon Black Skimmers roosting among them. There were less than a dozen reports of this species locally in total and this was only a third summer report for the region.

While documenting this locally uncommon sighting, Natalia spotted a bird standing against the taller grasses behind. I recognized the bird’s unique shape and color immediately as a favorite from home, and nonchalantly stated, “Limpkin”. Apparently, this species had only been detected on a couple past Tranquilo Bay trips ever and this was a first summer report on eBird for the entire region, making the sighting even more significant. We continued idling upriver scanning the flats and adding more unseasonal bird sightings:  a distant, Black-necked Stilt was the first June eBird report for this species in the region, and we added over-summering Spotted Sandpiper and Sanderlings (again both first June reports for the province) as well as a second individual Limpkin… We were on a roll!

Our next sighting would prove our MOST significant though, when a floppy-winged raptor pumped lazily three times and glided low and slow over the grasses on broad, bowed wings landing on a low snag on the distant shore. Another familiar South Florida specialty, I immediately called this “Snail Kite”. For the only time on the trip, I found myself in the extremely unique position of having more experience with a bird than my local guides. Snail Kite was not only a new addition to the all-time TB bird species list, but it had never been recorded (at any season) from the province nor western Panama as a whole! Jim had already turned the boat around and we were speeding toward this rare bird to get some images for documentation. When we got closer the motor speed was reduced and Luis and I began digiscoping images of this still somewhat distant juvenile bird from the bow of the still drifting boat. 

With documentation shots obtained, we once again continued upriver toward our picnic site. All of these rare sightings were now delaying lunch! 😉 Along the way, we spied another Limpkin perched and a pair flying together over the grassy marshes. Perhaps not wholly unexpected given the numbers of snail-eating Limpkins we were seeing but we were surprised to note not one but 2 additional Snail Kites here as well! 

Even though these were not new or unfamiliar species for me, these Kites were absolutely our most significant local bird sightings of the trip, representing new additions to the list of local avifauna in this part of Panama! Elated from the extremely successful morning of birding, we pulled the boat to the bank and enjoyed a delicious shore lunch topped with freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies and celebratory libations. As we were finishing our meals, one of the Snail Kites (a lovely adult female) perched nearby with an Apple Snail in her talons, joining us for lunch. With beer & cookie still in hand, I grabbed my spotting scope and began getting some higher quality digiscoped images and videos from land. We all proceeded to get some marvelous images before the bird took off to search of more snails and we toasted our good fortune.  I lifted the remainder of my beer and nabbed another scrumptious, home-made cookie. “Salud”! Life is good. 

Snail Kite was one of two species added to the cumulative Tranquilo Bay bird list during our trip, on the day prior we discovered and digiscoped a rare Slate-colored Seedeater (a lifer for all present)!

Itching for an Adventure

Bocas del Toro Canopy Tower View
View from Tranquilo Bay’s Tower

For years, I’d heard nothing but great things about Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, so I was excited to finally have the opportunity to visit the lodge in person and explore this wild & undeveloped region for myself. I’d birded Panama’s canal zone numerous times, as well as the Darien Province in past trips, but this was my first visit to the western Caribbean slope of Panama. After fifteen months of lockdowns without any travel, I was itching for an adventure and the thought of visiting a tropical paradise teeming with spectacular birds & wildlife seemed the perfect solution really! My friend and colleague, Luis Gles, a professional bird guide & seasonal research biologist in Miami, was available and as eager to explore this new region of the tropics as I was. 

Flying to Panama
Luis and I heading to Panama

So, on June 16th we departed Miami on an early morning flight headed south. The prospect of international travel following the global pandemic had seemed quite intimidating and in my mind, I’d envisioned (and even dreaded) the prospect of massive delays brought about by new Covid travel protocols. However, when we arrived at the airport, I was surprised at how smooth the process was. At the ticket counter we had to present negative Covid-19 test results from within 48 hours of flight time (something I’d invested 20 minutes in 2 days prior) along with our passport at check in. Within moments, the ticketing agent had tagged my checked bag and placed it on the conveyor, and then handed back my passport, Covid test results and boarding pass. “Whew, that was easy”, I thought (but was certain the worst was yet to come). 

We reached the security checkpoint but once again, we breezed right through with no real change or delays. The only difference really were that new thermal body temperature scanners that had been added, and (as with all airports and flights) all had to wear masks, a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things honestly. At the gate, there were again no different protocols and the boarding process was smooth and we found ourselves in row by ourselves so even room to spread out a bit! 

Flight Map into Panama
Flight Map Florida to Panama

Ever cynical, I was certain the major hassle would surely occur when we landed then. The flight to Panama City (PTY) itself was smooth and easy, but I still exited the plane prepared again for the worst. However, once again my self-induced anxieties and expectations seemed all for naught. Upon exiting we encountered the ONLY extra step in typical flight, a second review of the negative Covid tests Numerous officials were lined up here though at long tables and there were no lines so it literally took me longer to retrieve the document from the front pouch of my carry on than it did to verify. Again the delay was maybe a full minute at most!

We cleared the rest of the customs process in Panama City with ease, and then were shuttled over to the regional airport where we hopped aboard the short, one hour Air Panama flight carrying us west over the extremely scenic Caribbean coastline of Panama. Before I even knew it, we’d landed in Bocas Del Toro, leaving the hustle & bustle of the big cities behind, and started birding immediately. It was just after 2 PM as we walked from the tarmac into the small terminal building excitedly calling off the common tropical species, “Blue-black Grassquit, TK (AKA Tropical Kingbird), Kiskadee, Melodious Blackbird, Gray-breasted Martin…”. There was even a favorite bird that feeds in the flooded ditch in my front yard, but one that (until that moment) I’d never seen in Panama, a Tricolored Heron! 

Luis Gles heading out to Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge

Soon after, we were gliding across the glassy-calm, crystalline Caribbean waters toward Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge with a drink in one hand & binoculars in the other. At that moment, the last of my self-induced anxieties and unwarranted, intimidating fears of international travel just melted away and I smiled to once again be in the American tropics!

Mangroves Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro Mangroves

Our guides were relaying local information as Magnificent Frigatebirds winged gracefully overhead, and Pale-vented Pigeons flashed rich magenta hues as they flew between mangrove islands. As a boat owner that gets to regularly cruise mangrove-lined backwaters in Florida, I still found this scenery breath-taking, so I could only imagine how wonderful this must seem for other that aren’t able regularly enjoy habitats like this. Before I could give it a second thought though, we pulled up to the Tranquilo Bay docks and were greeted by singing “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers and Bananquits as well as our  hosts, Jim & Renée Kimball who met us with wide smiles and gracious hospitality!

“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler

Adding Birds to the List

Cape May Warbler feeding in one of the feeders, next to a Bananaquit.
Photo credits: Ramón Fernández Francés

Year by year, we are adding bird species to our Western Caribbean Slope Bird List.  It is always very exciting to find new ones, because it is a challenge that keeps getting harder with time. In the last month we added two winter Warblers: the Cape May and the Prairie Warbler.  

The Cape May Warbler was first seen by Scott Viola, having a feast of bananas, on one of the birdfeeders he designed and set near the tower. The bird became a regular visitor for almost 2 weeks, then he relocated himself to another birdfeeder at the main building.  It has brought a lot of joy to all of us bird-lovers to see this rare migrant several times.  This bird stopped breakfast on more than one occasion so that we could all enjoy it before it departs to the north.

The other new bird, a lifer for me (first time I have seen it), is the Prairie Warbler.  It was a nice surprise, during a birding trip I completed on the mainland a few weeks ago.  This Warbler is also a very rare winter migrant in Panama as they usually spend winters in Florida or the Caribbean.  However, this year we were fortunate to find it feeding in the lowlands of Bocas del Toro.

You may download the latest bird list below.

Fate to the winds: Fall Migration at Tranquilo

Fall is upon us again, as the birds from our temperate northern latitudes of United States and Canada fly south for the winter to spend the long months (and thus, the majority of the year) in the tropics. A combination of photoperiod, the tilt of the earth, genetic predisposition, temperature and food availability determines this period of mass departure.

Migration Birdwatching
Hooded Warbler, Florida, Fall 2019

After a short spring and summer packed with staking out new territories (or returning to ones claimed in previous years as is the case with various warblers that return to the same nesting territory year after year), the birds find a mate, build nests and raise the next generation of migratory birds. These hatch-year birds, upon fledging, join the southward-flowing river of migrant songbirds, waterfowl and raptors to wintering grounds they’ve never seen before, yet once occupied by their ancestors.

Eastern Kingbirds Birding Panama
Eastern Kingbirds pausing in the treetops off Tranquilo Bay’s deck. October 2019

The birds funnel down the vast continent of North America where they finished out the breeding season to the narrow stretch of Central America, some residing here for the winter while others continue to fly as far as South America.

Birding Migration
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Maryland Fall 2019

So why would a bird care to make such a journey? Throwing its fate to the wind and relying on abundant yet sometimes uncertain resources that provide a bird’s fat stores to fuel the tiny little muscles that can project a tiny sprite across wide open seas, country borders and continental divides?

Well, a combination of factors: the lush tropics burgeon with fruits, seeds, and invertebrates that become unavailable up north after the fall harvest is over and the cold sets in. The plentiful supply of food in the tropical south allows for our temperate nesting birds to feed shoulder to shoulder with toucans, trogons, honeycreepers and others that make up the vast array of Central and South American species of the avian persuasion.

Fall Migration Panama
The tanagers are headed this way! Florida, Fall 2019

This is an exciting time, not just for birders but anyone interested in nature– it’s hard not to get drawn in by the wildly impressive spectacle of such a mass migration!

Have you noticed changes in the birds around your home? What’s it like where you life? Who stays and who goes?

Black Terns refueling at the mouth of the Changuinola along their journey south. Snyder/Changuinola Bay Excursion, Tranquilo Bay

One of those special moments in nature

Birding Panama

Two Double-toothed Kites perched, on the same tree, can you see them?

Some time ago I was at the observation tower, looking for raptors, with a raptor specialist, and suddenly I spotted a Double-toothed Kite  (Harpagus bidentatus) near by, and we started enjoying the great views of this relatively common raptor (in this part of the country).

The name of this bird refers to the two teeth like shape structures on the edges of both sides of the upper mandible.

Then, a second Double-tooth Kite shows up, near the first one.  They were a pair – that’s not so common.  We were enjoying (even more) the time we got to spend in their presence. And a few minutes later the first bird flies down to the ground grab something with its feet.  Then it flew to another tree in front of us again which definitely made our day!

Canopy Tower Bocas

One of the Kites dive in to the ground and catch something

 

Western Caribbean Slope Birdlist Update

Fall Migration

From left to right: Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Greater Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilt.

I am happy to share with all of you the updated Clements list for the different locations where we go birding along the Western Caribbean Slope of Panama.  At this point we have a total of 541 species in our list, and for the Tranquilo Bay grounds, a total of 221 species (+1 subspecies, the Yellow “Mangrove” Warbler).  The updated bird list may be downloaded below.

One of the last additions to our list was the Red Knot (Calidris canutus), a migrant shorebird that can nest as far as the North of Canada, and pass through Panama during its winter migration to southern South America. These birds can go through distances up to 15,000 km, between circumpolar breeding areas and winter grounds in South America, Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Last fall, during birding trips, we observed this species on two occasions, but only one individual, at the same area, the mouth of the Changuinola River.

Sources:

https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/redkno/introduction

https://www.avesdechile.cl/374.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red_Knot/lifehistory

TBWCS918

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.

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.

Dwarf squirrels in Western Panama

Fossil evidence proves that there were no squirrels in South America before the formation of Panama, the natural bridge that allowed migration in both directions, of a wide variety of species, known as the Great American Interchange.

Dwarf squirrels (Microsciurus), are found in evergreen tropical rainforest regions of Central and South America. Their small size, dull coloring, shy behavior and speed make them difficult to find. These are some of the reasons why not much is known about these little mammals.

Palo Seco Protected Forest

The home of the Pygmy Squirrel, evergreen tropical rainforest, Palo Seco Protected Forest, Bocas del Toro.

In Western Panama, two species of this group can be found, the Alfaro´s Pygmy Squirrel (Microsciurus alfari) and the Western Dwarf Squirrel (Microsciurus mimulus).

Both of the species look very much a like. The best way to differentiate them, is by the white ear spots on the Alfaro´s Pygmy Squirrel. However, the ear spots are absent on the animals found in Costa Rica and Western Panama, which makes it difficult to tell them apart in this part of the world, as their distribution overlaps and both species have similar behaviors.

Panama Wildlife

Pygmy Squirrel (Microsciurus spp.) photograph in the Palo Seco Protected Forest, Bocas del Toro.

None of the members of this genus are endangered, but it is hard to know the real numbers of their populations because of the lack of information and studies related to those cute creatures.

 

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.