Choppy seas – a Panamá Pelagic trip

10 July 2014

By late spring wayward seabirds were showing up far north of their typical distributions, presumably due to el Niño like conditions further south. With reports of Waved Albatross and Inca Tern already in from Costa Rican waters, with the results of the last pelagic from Pedasí in mind (http://janbirdingblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/pelagic-off-punta-mala.html), and with the continental shelf only a few miles off shore, the only thing to do was to head out to sea and see what could turn up. The list of possible seabirds in this underexplored area is extremely inviting. Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrel, Galapagos Shearwater, Brown Noddy, Brown Booby, Sooty, Bridled, and Black Tern are probably the most common species. However, many more species are possible and more pelagic exploration will probably prove that species such as Nazca Booby and Wedge-tailed Shearwater maybe more common than realized. The real draw, for us, though, was certainly the possibility of a southern vagrant such as an Inca Tern, Waved Albatross, Galapagos or Juan Fernandez Petrel, or a Peruvian Booby, or perhaps one of the other more interesting tropical seabirds such as a Tahiti Petrel or Christmas Shearwater. With so many seabirds possible and with the cost of a boat charter a bit high, we needed help spotting seabirds, so we put out the call to the Panamá birding community and were fortunate to find George Angher and Bill Adsett eager to join. Josh made arrangements with Jeff Hopkins to charter a 30 ft sport fishing boat for 8 hours. Nice! Now we were all set to go minus one key ingredient – CHUM! Oh lovely chum, the best way to attract seabirds but also the best way to test the strength of your stomach. Josh wanted to be certain that there would be plenty of stinky chum to attract seabirds from Colombia and further south so he went around to all the fishermen and grocery stores in town. Imagine the response from a grocery store owner when some gringo waltzes into the store and asks for fish guts and meat trimmings… um what?! After several minutes of explaining why we needed fish guts and meat trimmings the clerk amusingly agreed to save some scraps for the crazy gringos over the next couple of days. Josh also rounded up enormous quantities of delightfully stinky fish guts and chopped up anchovies from the local fishermen.

Now that we had all the chum lined up, we need to find a place to put the chum until the morning of the pelagic. We hunted around town for decent buckets with lids but none were to be found. What the heck were we going to do with loads of chum? Put it in the truck? NO WAY! The only thing we could find were plastic garbage bags so loaded up bags, poured in a couple gallons of corn oil, and had a smelly leaky mess on our hands. Eventually we triple bagged the chum, and set two 50+ lb bags of the foulest concoction on earth atop the truck. It truly smelled, well, god-awful. Even tripled bagged, the chum still reeked and we were parked behind a small hotel with the chum stinking up most of the block! I spent the entire night worried about what we would see in the morning. I imagined that every stray cat and dog as well as a few hundred black vultures would be on top of the truck ripping the bags to shreds and we would have one nasty mess to clean up! Fingers crossed we went to bed.

In the morning I rushed around getting ready for the pelagic and sent Josh outside to check on the chum. Thankfully both bags were untouched despite the smell that permeated the entire area, we felt quite guilty with regards to the poor hotel we were staying at. With the chum safe it was time to head to the beach, but there was no way we were going to put the bags of chum in the truck where we sleep, so we drove very slowly down to the beach with bags of guts on the roof of the truck.

We arrived at the beach just in time for a beautiful sunrise over what looked like very choppy seas.

Sunrise at the launching spot in Pedasí

Sunrise at the launching spot in Pedasí

Uh oh! We were not at all expecting choppy seas in the middle of summer in the Pacific. The pelagic forecast was for calm seas but these were not calm seas! Gulp! Apparently a strong north wind had come up overnight blowing up some miserable short-period wind chop. In Pedasí, a north wind is an offshore wind, which is never good for pelagic birding as it blows birds further out to sea instead of in towards land. Phooey. The captain of the boat had spent the night anchored off shore because tidal conditions prevented a morning departure from the little harbor, so we needed to take another small boat (panga) from shore in order to jump on the fishing boat. The waves tossed the panga violently, such that even getting into the panga in knee deep water, and then out through the surf, was a good bit of fun. Somehow we all managed to get into the panga and we made our way to the fishing boat.  Getting into the panga had been challenging enough, but now we needed to go from one moving object to another moving object and the seas were not cooperating. Jeff, the captain, was holding onto the panga and yelling “one, two, three, jump on the boat now.” The jerking motion of both boats made for some very interesting landings. Let’s just say that nobody arrived on the boat gracefully. Thankfully no one was hurt and we made it onto the boat and headed on our way.

We headed straight out for deep water and the continental shelf edge, hoping to find some life and seabirds. The seas continued to toss the boat from side to side. It was nearly impossible to hold your binoculars with both hands as one hand was needed to hold onto the boat throughout the day. The boat rocked and rocked and with it so did I. I immediately started regretting my decision to not put my motion sickness patch on the night before. Two hours into the trip I lost my battle with my churning stomach and did my own chumming. “Oh No!” I thought, this was going to be a very long and very unenjoyable day. But thankfully I recovered quickly and was able to enjoy the choppy seas for the rest of the day.

We stopped at a few spots that looked promising, chasing depth breaks and seamounts as well as chasing down flocks of terns that were feeding. At each promising location the mate started opening the bags of chum. Talk about a stench! Every time a bag was opened nearly everyone had to fight to keep breakfast down. The stench was unimaginable and was impressively persistent given the strong wind that should have kept it out of our faces! But the chum and it’s impressive stench worked like a charm and birds caught the scent and came in to check out the source. A good number of  Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels came in along with one or two Black Storm Petrels. Unfortunately the conditions made it nearly impossible to identify the majority of individuals, there were possibly some more interesting Storm-Petrels in there but it was impossible to say for certain. We managed positive IDs on many of the larger birds, thankfully, which included Brown Noddies, Sooty Terns, Bridled Terns, a couple Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and one Galapagos Shearwater. The best bird of the trip was one Nazca Booby. Distribution of Nazca Booby is not well understood, they are theoretically a southern species but they can be hard to separate from Masked Booby unless seen well. There are not very many Panamanian records but we saw two in two boat trips in Panamá. They have also been recorded from Costa Rican waters this year and have shown up as far north as Southern California where one was photographed off of Los Angeles. So Nazca Boobies may well be more regular off Central America and Southern Mexico but there is so little coverage of those waters so it is hard to say. On the whole, across the day, we actually saw quite a number of birds, but conditions unfortunately meant that we could not identify the majority nor could we get any photographs. But we also had an amazing dolphin show during the trip.

Pelagic birding is never easy and this pelagic trip was no exception, but Pedasí and easy access to deep water makes it a very appealing location for further pelagics and there are undoubtedly many rarities and probably many first Panamanian records lurking out there for intrepid pelagic birders. Those interested in giving it a try should get ahold of Captain Jeff Hopkins via email at pedasijeff@gmail.com, as he has the only sport fishing boat in the area, which charters for $800 for a full day. Alternatively, he can arrange a panga for something like $70 + the cost of fuel for the day. We have successfully birded from pangas several times, including photographing a Townsend’s Shearwater off Puerto Angel (http://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/pelagic-birding-off-southern-oaxaca-and-the-townsends-shearwater/). However, it is much harder to bird from a panga than from a sport fishing boat as it’s a smaller, less stable boat and you are much lower to the water making spotting birds much harder. As well, there is no shade, no bathroom and the seats are a lot harder, which adds up when you start thinking about spending 8-10 hours on the water vs 3-4.

 

The Quest for the Veraguan Mango: another hummingbird that proved to be more difficult than we anticipated

3 -5 July and 11 July 2014

Hummingbirds can sometimes be a bit difficult to track down, especially those range restricted endemic hummingbirds that are also difficult to identify. We struggled and failed for two days to pick out a Glow-throated Hummingbird, so when it came time to look for the near-endemic Veraguan Mango we thought we had this one in the bag, especially considering how frequently the Veraguan Mango is reported.  I say near-endemic because the Veraguan Mango has recently been reported in Costa Rica in the Golfito and Puntaarenas region whereas previously it was only known from Panamá. We didn’t luck into this nifty bird in Costa Rica so we were intent on finding it in Panamá!

The Veraguan Mango is frequently reported near Juan Hombrón and El Chiru in the Provence of Coclé, along the Pacific coast in dry forest. Given the number of eBird reports we thought it would be relatively easy to find the hummingbird… boy were we wrong! We spotted many Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, and a Garden Emerald, but no Mangos, while we birded Juan Hombrón and El Chiru on day one. We staked out nearly every flowering tree we could find, but turned up nothing. Further down the road on day two we finally spotted a mango while driving through El Chiru, but never managed to get good looks at it. The tricky part about the Veraguan Mango is that it is actually difficult to distinguish from the Black-throated Mango which also occurs in the same habitat. Female and immature Black-throated and Veraguan Mangos are very similar in appearance and there is virtually no information out there on how to distinguish immature and female birds. Despite what guide books seem to offer up, and despite plates that show them as distinct, there isn’t any authoritative data behind this, and it’s not clear if there are accurately labeled museum specimens anywhere. We even had the author of one of the guides tell us that he didn’t know if there were any true knowledge for field separation. There is a helpful post covering historical papers and current speculation on separating Veraguan from Green-breasted Mangos, which is a similar ID challenge in other parts of Panamá (click here). Black-throated Mango females have a black stripe down the center of their belly while the female Veraguan Mango is supposed to have a clear green stripe down the center. However in bad light (or even in good light at times!) this can be pretty difficult to judge (see photos). Immature Black-throated and Veraguan Mangos both have some rufous on the sides of the neck and breast and the color of the stripe is somewhere between black and dark green, again difficult to distinguish (note on one of the photos the belly stripe appears black but you can see a few greenish features coming in).

Near Llano Grande, north of El Chiru, we found one adult female Mango that we got really good looks at that had a clear black belly stripe with no rufous fringing. The belly stripe extended up to the base of the bill and the color of the stripe was seen well. Unfortunately we did not manage photos, but the stripe color seen well on an adult bird leads us to say that this was clearly a Black-throated Mango. We also saw a few other Mangos briefly but not well enough to identify them. Both species are believed to occur in this area, and though the majority of eBird reports are of Veraguan Mangos, so far we had one definite Black-throated Mango and a handful of mystery birds. Because of this, a small thought entered our minds – perhaps some hummingbirds are being miss-identified since nearly all of the records for mangos in the area are reported as Veraguan Mangos in eBird. Are people assuming that all Mangos in this area are Veraguan? There are only three eBird records of Black-throated Mangos in the general area. Could all of those Mangos being reported be for sure Veraguans? Perhaps not? There are almost no reports of undetermined Mango species.

On our third day of effort we finally came across a Mango in a flowering tree right along the coast near Juan Hombrón. We spent well over an hour with this cooperative bird, trying to see the breast stripe in good light and took hundreds of photos. I swear every time I picked up my bins the breast stripe appeared to be a different color… wait, I think I see a hint of green, no never mind, it looks black, now it appears purplish… ah buggers which Mango is it? Take a look at the photos and judge for yourself. There do appear to be one or two greenish feathers coming in, and it looks like the black stripe on the belly may NOT extend fully to the base of the bill, though the amount of pollen on the chin makes that hard to judge for certain. In any case, the heat started getting to us and we certainly could not determine what the hummingbird was so we left feeling dejected and headed to the next destination. Our thoughts of an easy Veraguan Mango hadn’t panned out so well…

Several days later, after relaxing on the beach in Playa Venao and birding some different terrain, we rallied for one more shot at the Veraguan Mango. Inferring a little from literature and guessing a little as well, we figured we might have a better shot for Veraguan over Black-throated closer to the coast, so we headed back to Juan Hombrón and headed to the same area hoping to find a male Mango that we might be able to positively ID. We spent a Mango-less hour or two before spotting another immature/female plumaged Mango. This bird was not quite as cooperative and disappeared on us several times. Finally we both caught a good frontal view in good light. There it was, at last, a green stripe down the center, Hooray! To make it even better, we soon saw a second individual, this one with a clearly fully green gorget coming in, but with a central belly stripe remaining below and a bit of messy rufous fringing, which we judged to be a juvenile male Veraguan Mango. Unfortunately we were not able to get photos of either of these two birds, not nearly as cooperative as our bird from a few days prior. However we were both satisfied with the views we had had and confident of our IDs, as well as being quite tired of staking out coral bean trees, so we called it a wrap and headed down the road. The Mango complex is kind of messy, particularly in Panamá, and it seems clear, after spending several days trying to pick apart immature/female Black-throated and Veraguan Mangos, that more work needs to be done to determine how to separate the females and particularly immature birds. As well, all birders in the general area should be very careful with Mango ID as we definitively saw both species in the area. In total, in 4 days of birding, we positively ID’d one Black-throated Mango, two Veraguan Mangos, and had at least 4 unidentifiable Mangos.

Roosting Common Nighthawk, a nice bonus bird while we were searching for Mangos

Roosting Common Nighthawk, a nice bonus bird while we were searching for Mangos

Coiba Island and the Azuero Peninsula

29 June – 2 July 2014

Coiba Island lies in the Gulf of Chiriquí several miles off of the Pacific coast of Panamá. The island’s land bridge with mainland Panamá was broken 12,000 – 18,000 years ago, creating an isolated island chain where several species diverged from the mainland populations. Coiba now supports a handful of endemic species and many endemic sub-species of mammals, birds, and more. Although technically all of the endemic birds are only sub-species per current taxonomy, two species in particular (Rusty-backed Spinetail and Gray-headed Dove) are candidates for splits in the future. The Rusty-backed Spinetail (Coiba Spinetail) that occurs on Coiba is separated from mainland populations by hundreds of miles and sounds and looks different from the populations in Columbia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The other species that is due for a split is the Gray-headed Dove (Brown-backed Dove). This dove definitely looks and sounds different from the mainland Gray-headed Dove. The back color is really obvious and quite a bit browner than Gray-headed Doves and the call is different as well, with a higher pitched and sweeter song. Unique subspecies of White-throated Thrush, Rufous-capped Warbler and many other birds also occur on Coiba Island. Upon first impression both the White-throated Thrush and the Rufous-capped Warbler also look and sound a bit different than their mainland counterparts and await further study.

Getting to Coiba Island requires a bit of leg work in terms of arranging a boat, the logistics of staying overnight on the island, and arranging someone to take you to Los Pozos trail where you can find Coiba Spinetail and Brown-backed Dove. We thought momentarily about trying to arrange all of the logistics ourselves but when we heard about the folks at Heliconia B&B, we decided that it would be much easier to go on their packaged trip as they already had one lined up we could hop in on. This turned out to be a very good choice. Loes and Kess at Heliconia B&B put together awesome overnight and two night packages to take you out to the island, taking care of the logistics and feeding you very well, all you have to do is enjoy! We arrived at the Heliconia B&B in the afternoon and were treated to an amazing homemade meal and great conversation. The next morning we woke to another yummy homemade meal and off we went to the boat with two other quests and our excellent hosts. One of the best things about going to Coiba with Kees and Loes is that you get a bonus pelagic trip on the crossing. The boat trip takes 3-4 hours depending on sea conditions. Though not venturing out off the continental shelf, the crossing does get into fairly open water and pelagic birds are certainly out there and, as opposed to going on one of the snorkeling trips from Santa Catalina, you can spend some time stopping to observe or even chasing after anything interesting you see. On the way out to Coiba we had pretty rough conditions (the water should be pretty flat throughout the northern summer), but we did see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, Common Tern, and a few more regular species. After a bit of a rough and choppy crossing, we finally neared Coiba Island and got into calmer waters.… ahhhh, clear blue water, white sand beaches, now we are talking! So breathtaking and beautiful! We arrived on the island and quickly dropped our gear, registered, and headed out for some snorkeling and birding.

We went straight for a small perfectly magical islet of white sand and coral reefs and jumped in the water. As soon as my head went under I was amazed! The number of super cool looking fish was amazing! I only wish I knew more about fish. The good news is that Kees and Loes know all of the fish and are great at helping you ID all of the cool critters. We saw Moorish Idol, King and Cortez Angelfish, Giant Hawkfish, some Parrot Fish, various Butterfly Fish, Hawksbill Sea Turtle, Moray Eel, and so many more. The snorkeling there was amazing!

After we were thoroughly water logged we jumped back in the boat and headed to the Los Pozos trail to look for Coiba Spinetail and Brown-backed Dove. Getting to the trails requires a bit of coordination with the tides as the trail can only be accessed when the tide is high. While we were waiting for the tide to come up so we watched a feeding aggregation of hundreds of Black Terns with a few Common Terns, Brown Pelicans, and other birds mixed in. We were also treated to a sighting of a perhaps 8’ long Bull Shark in all of about 18” of water! It was cool to see but I was glad that I was in the boat as Bull Sharks are apparently pretty aggressive. They normally hang out in murky waters near mangroves so coming into contact with one is not that common, since most of us prefer swimming on nice sandy beaches with clear water, but it was a good reminder not to swim or wade in murky estuaries.

The Los Pozos trail is quite short but long enough to find both the spinetail and the dove fairly readily. Despite the late afternoon heat we had great looks and managed to get good recordings of the Coiba Spinetail and the Brown-backed Dove.

Rusty-backed (Coiba) Spineteail

Rusty-backed (Coiba) Spineteail

Two of the easiest new birds we’ve seen in a while (although not technically separate species, at least yet). We also came across the subspecies of White-throated Thrush and Rufous-capped Warbler, as well as a good handful of other species and were treated to some flyover Scarlet Macaws as well. It was getting late and the tide limits time on the trail, so we headed back to the boat and to headquarters. While we all showered, Kees and Loes prepared a nice meal for us complete with wine. We spent the night laughing and sharing stories with the other guests and had a great time. The next morning we headed back on the boat for a little tour of the island in search of more seabirds. Earlier in the week Kees had spotted a Wandering Tattler (just a bit out of season; this guy should be breeding in Alaska not hanging out in tropical Panamanian waters), so we went to see if it was still around. Lo-and-behold we found not one but two Wandering Tattlers in July in Panamá! We also spotted a Surfbird on the rocks as well as Blue-footed and Brown Boobies. We had another excellent snorkeling session with numerous sea turtles, a White-tipped Reef Shark, a huge swirling mass of Big-eyed Jacks and all sorts of other cool stuff. Before we left the mainland, Kees had collected some fish guts and other savory treats, hoping to do a mini-pelagic on the way to the island. Conditions had prevented us from chumming on the way to the island, so we did a little chumming on the way back to the mainland after the pile of fish guts had plenty of time to bake in the hot sun and develop some really special odors J Our mini-pelagic was pretty successful, we had 10 Galapagos Shearwaters, 3 Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, several Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, loads of Magnificent Frigatebirds, 2 Laughing Gulls, 100s of Black Terns, 1 Bridled Tern, 1 Brown Noody, and best of all 1 Nazca Booby!

Nazca Booby

Nazca Booby

Nazca Boobies breed in the Galapagos and apparently are somewhat regular on the Pacific coast of Central America but just how common they are is not well understood. There are not many sightings in Panamá though there are generally not many pelagic trips and not much seabird observation going on. Perhaps this Nazca Booby in shallow water in Panamá would have been there anyways or perhaps it was an El Niño displaced bird, who knows? El Niño generally results in warmer water temperatures that are not as rich in marine life and hence many seabirds start moving north in search of food (for more on El Niño and its impacts click here).

Staying at Heliconia B&B is just delightful and if you are looking to go to Coiba and explore the Azuero Peninsula there certainly isn’t an easier way, and there isn’t really any other birder-friendly option that we know of beyond trying to private-charter a snorkeling boat from elsewhere. We were very happy with our trip and would recommend this trip to anyone looking to get to Coiba for the endemic birds or just for an enjoyable trip! While you are there be sure to check out Loes’s artwork. We left with a stunning painting of an Azuero Parakeet!

The Azuero Peninsula, although mostly deforested, contains one of the most inaccessible parks in Panamá, Cerro Hoya National Park. Cerro Hoya National Park is the only place in Panamá to see the Azuero Parakeet, and access to Parakeet habitat used to be very difficult. Previously, in order to see the Parakeet, you had to come in from the east side and endure a pretty rough drive followed by a full day’s hike (or longer) in order to have a chance to see the Parakeet. Now, you can easily see the Parakeet at a small finca along the western border of the park, at least during the months of June and July when they come down to feed on nance fruits, almost like clockwork. The Azuero Parakeet is technically treated as a subspecies the Painted Parakeet and the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) just voted to split the South American occurring Painted Parakeet four ways, but oddly left the Panamanian taxa lumped with the nominate Painted Parakeet. However, everyone in the region still calls it the Azuero Parakeet and claims it as a Panamá endemic.

Thanks to Benny (Venicio) Wilson, Loes, and Kees, we got great directions to the farm and away we went. We arrived at the farm around 8:30 and talked to Juan Velazquez, the owner of the farm, for a few minutes. We asked about putting on gum boots and how much water to bring for the hike and he told us that we needn’t worry, the parakeets would come to us, just wait a few minutes. A bit incredulous but happy not to be putting on the rubber boots in the already scorching morning heat, we followed him to the shade of a nance tree and waited. Within just a few minutes we heard the parakeets coming waited still and silently.

Within seconds the tree was full of at least a dozen Azuero Parakeets squawking and eating fruit. Amazing! This bird was supposed to take work to see and here it is teed up perfectly, steps from the truck! We watched the Azuero Parakeets for over an hour, making videos, recordings, and taking loads of photos.  After about an hour the Parakeets grew restless and moved further off. We continued to scope them for a bit, it is hard to get tired of a bird that beautiful! Eventually they moved further off again, so we went back and chatted with Juan for a few minutes about the importance of preserving forest for birds and educating the people not to trap parrots or parakeets for the pet trade. Juan knows how important it is to protect the forest and is making a small income by preserving the forest around his farm. He charges $20 per person to access his finca and see the parakeets but this is a small price to pay to preserve the parakeet.

To get to Finca Juan Velaquez you should make prior arrangements with Juan by calling the public phone in the nearby town (Flores) and asking whoever answers to notify Juan that you will be coming to visit his farm, and when you will be coming. The phone number is 333-0956. If you don’t speak Spanish or need help getting down there and finding the farm, Loes and Kees can also help make arrangements and take you down there, or Benny Wilson could as well. If going on your own, take the only road south along the peninsula from the town of Atalaya basically to the end of the road. (Be careful in Atalaya to be on the main road though, not a smaller road that heads inland. Follow the signs, essentially, to keep heading to the towns along the road heading south). The road ends in a small town called Flores. In Flores you come to a crossroads where left, straight and right all turn to dirt roads within a few dozen meters or perhaps a hundred meters. From this crossroads in Flores, turn around and head back the way you came a short distance, watching for the first metal gate on the left side of the road (7.36787 -80.80389). Go through this gate into the cattle field. (Be sure to close all gates after you pass through them unless they were already open, generally good advice anywhere in the world!) Follow the dirt track through at least 6 fences. At one point you will pass very close to someone’s house, seemingly in their front yard, but keep going. After this and another gate or so, the track is a bit less clear, but stay to the right through this large grassy area. Finally you will come to what looks like a gate but the road actually goes around the gate. Go around the gate staying to the right and head towards the trees and the river. The first house (more of a shack, really) you come to is actually Juan’s brother’s house, but he can help direct you the rest of the way. Juan’s house is located at 7.34932,-80.78603. It’s actually not too hard to find your way, just keep going through the cattle pastures to the very end of the road, and if it’s not clear, ask at one of the houses you pass! The Parakeets are apparently most reliable in June and July, and tend to show up around 8-8:30 in the morning from what we have been told.

Cerro Santiago and Cerro Colorado, home of the Glow-throated Hummingbird and Yellow-Green Finch

27-29 July 2014

There are some really sexy birds that people come to Central America for – Resplendent Quetzal clearly tops the list and birds like Horned Guan, Pink-headed Warbler, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Three-wattled Bellbird are absolutely amazing and are instant highlights of any trip where they are seen as well.  Then there are some really striking but really difficult to see endemics that are not as frequently sought due to the difficulty in finding them – Ocellated Quail and Azuero Parakeet certainly come to mind (although the parakeet is not necessarily so hard anymore – we’ll write more about this in a future post). And then there are some honestly less exciting endemics, though many are not very hard to see – birds like Honduran Emerald, Nicaraguan Grackle, and Yellow-green Finch. But then, there is the final category – birds that are not very splashy but yet are very hard to see (and in some cases, even identify!). There are several of these birds lurking in Central America, though top of the list are probably the Gray-headed Piprites, Black-capped Siskin, Olive-backed Quail-Dove (hard to see and rarely makes a peep so if not seen well it can be hard to ID), Tawny-faced Quail, Beautiful Treerunner, Tacarcuna Tapaculo and Wood-Quail, and one final entrant on the list – Glow-throated Hummingbird. Which brings us to our current post!

The Glow-throated Hummingbird is a very poorly known bird with a not entirely perfectly demarcated range in the western highlands of Panamá, roughly from the highlands of Ngobe-Bugle and Veraguas, purportedly east of the range of Scintillant Hummingbird. Identification of adult males is fairly well understood, gorget color if seen well, or a photographed spread tail can both separate the adult male from adult male Scintillant Hummingbird. However, identification of females and immatures is essentially unknown and it is not clear at all if museum specimens are correctly labeled, nor on what basis they were originally labeled. It was previously thought that the two species did not overlap much in range, and it was presumed that the “standard area” to look for Glow-throated, which is Cerro Santiago/Cerro Colorado, featured mostly Glow-throated Hummingbirds with Scintillants being rare. Upon what basis this assumption was made or who originally made it I do not know. Unfortunately it seems that the vast majority of Selasphorus hummingbirds encountered on Cerro Colorado by all visitors are females or immatures and ultimately not identifiable with current knowledge. Adding to the confusion, Magenta-throated Woodstar occurs in the area as well and the immature and female of this species are very similar to female and immature Selasphorus, though they can be separated readily if seen well, and the adult male is very distinctive. It has since become clear that Glow-throated are certainly not the dominant species there and may, in fact, be the exception, at least as far as can be inferred from the frequency of sightings of adult male Glow-throated Hummingbirds vs adult male Scintillant Hummingbirds. Perhaps in the past adult male Glow-throated Hummingbirds were more frequently seen on Cerro Colorado and some factor has changed the distribution of the species or perhaps Glow-throated Hummingbirds are seasonal on Cerro Colorado. But it seems that these days, those lucky enough to encounter an adult male Selasphorus hummingbird on Cerro Colorado are apparently far more likely to encounter Scintillant.

If that doesn’t get you excited to go looking for this species, perhaps the remote location, lack of facilities, and continuing deforestation will! Ok, in reality, it’s not that hard to get up to Cerro Colorado, though it is a bit out of the way. The road is fine until the village of Entrada de Hacha aka “Acha,” beyond which you will want a pickup or other vehicle with good clearance, and if it’s been raining or you don’t have good tires, 4WD could be desirable. Alternatively you could leave your vehicle at Acha and hike a few kilometers beyond to access the better forest (which is necessary to find the endemic Yellow-green Finch, though perhaps NOT the best strategy for Glow-throated Hummingbird, but we’ll get to that later). Directions and some up to date information are available in both the Bird-finding Guide to Panamá and the recent update/supplement to it which is available online here.

We birded the “traditional” best area for Glow-throated, from km 4.5 to km 9.6, still before the village of Acha, for the better part of two days. This area consists of forest patches, second growth, scrub, and agricultural clearings (and apparently more and more of the latter). The Bird-finding Guide suggests that the road improvement project pushed the birds further from the road, making the Yellow-green Finch harder to find here, but I would suggest that the clearing of the forest for agricultural plots and houses is a much greater impact than the road paving. In any case, we didn’t find Yellow-green Finch here (the lower stretch before Acha). We did find many, many Selasphorus hummingbirds, but all of them female/immature plumaged. We got great photos of many including spread tail photos and perhaps someday in the future, with better understanding of the two species, we can review our photos for an armchair tick but in the meanwhile they all went down as Selasphorus species. While in the area we pulled off the road into a deep little pull-off in a draw and camped with no problems other than a ferocious windstorm and some rain!

A bit disheartened by our lack of luck, we decided to try further up, so we could at least get a better chance for the purportedly easy Yellow-green Finch. Arriving at the village of Acha, we spoke with the locals briefly and were quickly introduced to the Cacique (village leader, perhaps chief is the best translation?) who was happy to have us bird the area and told us we could sleep where ever we wanted in our vehicle as long as we were off the road. After a brief conversation we headed on past Acha on the road to Raton. The forest is still fairly disturbed and there are numerous new clearings for houses through the first few kilometers but after about 3km or so you finally enter into much better cloud forest. Upon arriving here, it was not long before we found a flock and some activity and had great looks at a group of Yellow-green Finches! Finally we found one of the two endemics we were looking for! We birded the road until quite late in the evening, and again for a full morning. We found Yellow-green Finch a few more times, so this is certainly the place to look for it these days. We also found several Selasphorus hummers (though not as many as the more disturbed areas below). We also finally found a male Selasphorus, who luckily was very cooperative and very close, as the conditions made viewing very hard with moderate wind and thick fog swirling around. We never really saw the gorget light up very well but we did get photos of it as well as the tail and both confirm what we though in the field after about 10 minutes of watching him – it was indeed a male Scintillant Hummingbird and not a Glow-throated. With the weather deteriorating we headed back down to the first areas we had tried, and refound several of the same female/immature plumaged birds in the same locations we had found them in the preceding two days, but still failed to turn up any males.

There are some other nice birds in the area, particularly further along the Acha-Raton Rd where the forest improves. Among the more noteworthy species we found up there were Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Black-faced Solitaire, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and Elegant Euphonia.

A bit disheartened, and a bit tired of the wind (which had been blowing fairly nonstop for our 3 days up there), we had a quick pow-wow and decided to move on down the road, leaving a door open to perhaps revisit Cerro Colorado on this trip (though we did not end up being able to do so). Perhaps not our most exciting bit of birding of the trip but not everything is as exciting as the Tufted Jay preserve, El Triunfo or Parque Nacional Darien. We do still hope to return and track down the Glow-throated Hummingbird in the future, and we also hope that agricultural expansion in the area doesn’t completely eliminate its habitat in the (apparently) only known location to search for the species!

For more information on the identification of Glow-throated Hummingbird, and for some thoughts from William Adsett, who has spent a good bit of time in the area looking for them, we recommend the following links:

http://www.xenornis.com/2012/02/birding-cerro-colorado-report-by-bill.html
http://www.xenornis.com/2013/08/cerro-santiago-and-cerro-colorado.html
http://www.xenornis.com/2011/06/cerros-colorado-and-santiago-report-by.html
http://janbirdingblog.blogspot.com/2013/08/cerro-santiagos-selasphorus-hummingbirds.html

 

Migrating north for a short while

We have been on the road for over 13 months birding nearly every day from Mexico to Panama. Our trusty truck has taken us to many beautiful places but living out of a Toyota Tacoma can be challenging at times, especially when it’s raining or when the bugs just don’t stop. So today we sold our home for the last year and tomorrow we are flying back to the states to visit family and friends and prepare for the second part of our expedition in South America. We will be outfitting a 4×4 van to take us around South America and hope to be back on the road in style in a few months. Stay tuned for more stories, photos, and videos from our birding adventures in Central America as we will be catching up on blog posts, photos, and more while at home. Enjoy some of our favorite birds and birding memories.

Bienvenidos a Panamá

Bienvenidos a Panamá (oh come on … sing it with me Paaanamahaa …oh yeah Van Halen)

In 2012 we spent one month in Panamá, hitting many of the birding hotspots. We loved every minute of our Panamá experience and, returning now, were excited to see some places we missed the first time. We decided not to revisit many of the destinations we birded in 2012, but brief synopses of the destinations can be found on our blog (just click Panamá on the right side bar). More information on tons of great birding destinations can also be found in the Bird-Finding Guide to Panamá by George R. Angehr, Dodge Engleman, and Lorna Engleman. There is also an update to the Bird-Finding Guide available for download online.

After a more painful than normal three plus hours at the border we were more than ready to see birds rather than concrete and idling semis so we headed straight for the Fortuna area after a resupply in David. The road from Chiriqui to Bocas del Toro crosses the continental divide, passing through the Fortuna Forest Reserve and the Palo Seco Protection Forest. In the past, birding right along the road was excellent, but now that the road is paved traffic has increased dramatically and birding from the road is frustrating. Cars whip by at high speeds and there are few areas to pull off the highway safely. The best place we found to bird is the road that goes to the communication tower at the top of the continental divide (8.79421, -82.20719). Only 1 or 2 trucks passed along the road and we saw some great birds right along the road.

The forests around Fortuna

The forests around Fortuna

While enjoying breakfast we were treated to the calls of a Costa Rican Pygmy-owl, not a bad way to start the day. After breakfast we heard a calling bird overhead that sounded like an Accipiter and whipped our bins up just in time to get looks at a Bicolored Hawk! We had brief looks but there was no question, that was a Bicolored Hawk, a raptor that is actually pretty difficult to find, and one we had been seeking for a long time. Along the road we also spotted Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Azure-hooded Jay, Chestnut-collared Swift, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and more (see full eBird list). There is also a foot path that is described in the Bird Finding guide along the road but the trail is currently a bit overgrown. We started down the path, ever hoping to turn up the rare Black-banded Woodcreeper, which has been reported in the area in the past. While we were walking down the trail I was thinking to myself the overgrown trail is a good place for snakes to be hiding under foot, we should be careful. But the thought passed as we spotted a few birds along the trail and we headed merrily on our way. Later on down the trail I looked down and shouted “SNAKE!” as Josh proceeded to walk right next to a snake.

Josh's new best friend - Jumping Pit Viper

Josh’s new best friend – Jumping Pit Viper

He stopped dead in his tracks but I yelled, “NO keep going!” Josh’s heart was racing a mile a minute as he came within inches of a Jumping Pit Viper. Luckily the morning was still cool and the snake did not move an inch, but boy did that give us a start! Given the overgrown trail and the snake incident we decided to turn back and bird the road instead, which I thought was a pretty good idea.

There are a few other trails off of the main highway that are described in the Bird-finding Guide but we were not able to find any of the other trails. There are also still trails apparently at the long closed Willy Mazu further down the hill that some folks still bird, though we did not explore them.

In addition to the continental divide road we also birded down the Atlantic slope to Chiriqui Grande and surrounds. We tried to stop along the highway when we found pull-offs to bird a bit from the road but the highway noise was too much and we did not really see anything. We drove down to the Two Tanks Road described in the Bird Finding Guide as well to see what we could turn up. Unfortunately we arrived in the mid-day heat and did not see too much, but it looks like a worthy birding spot. The marsh area near the Two Tanks Road that is described in the book, however, is now a hugely depressing trash dump and on our visit it was not possible to drive over/through the trash to the better marshes further in. It is a good place to get Black Vulture though if you haven’t seen one yet (tongue in cheek).

The garbage dump

The garbage dump

There are not many options for places to stay in the Fortuna area. We camped on the road that leads to the Continental Divide and spent two peaceful nights up there (but there are no services). There is a cabin not too far down the Caribbean slope that may be available and prior arrangements can be made to stay there. Check out the updates to the Panama Bird Finding Guide for more information.

 

 

The Final Costa Rica Post – La Gamba area, the Osa, and more

La Gamba, Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas, Rincon de la Osa, and Los Cusingos

14 – 16 June 2014

The Osa Peninsula and the nearby Parque Nacional Piedras Blancas are one of the great birding destinations of Costa Rica. While lacking the huge suite of Caribbean slope specialties, there are some very range restricted endemics here, the best lowland forest in all of Costa Rica, and a large number of birds that are otherwise only found in Panamá and further south.

We spent a couple nights camping at the Tropenstation ($15/person/night, a little high for camping, but the only option near La Gamba that we found). From here we birded the road that joins La Gamba to Golfito by way of Piedras Blancas National Park, as well as birding the surrounding fields a bit for a couple of specialties. Our first day out on the La Gamba – Golfito road was quite birdy. We arrived midafternoon and despite the heat stopped a couple of times for activity. Just driving slowly we heard Ant-Tanager chatter and hopped out of the truck, soon getting great looks at the very range restricted Costa Rica endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. As the afternoon progressed activity picked up and we spent a good hour or more with a huge mixed flock in which we found a couple of really good species – Long-tailed Woodcreeper, Red-rumped Woodpecker (much easier in the Darien of Panamá, this is not a common bird in Costa Rica at all!), and Spot-crowned Euphonia. We were on the prowl for the very range restricted and near Costa Rican endemic White-crested Coquette. We didn’t find this species our first day but we did turn up a lot of hummingbirds including Charming Hummingbird, another species with a very small range which is actually quite common along this road. Coming out of the forest into the agricultural lands surrounding La Gamba, we glanced a curious looking small bird in a little twiggy tree beside the road and stopped. Soon we had eye level views of a pair of Slate-colored Seedeaters! This is something of a nomadic, quite uncommon bird, that usually turns up in or around bamboo in wetland areas and river edges through the Neotropics. In the La Gamba area, however, it has turned into a rice specialist and it is easily found throughout the area. We saw it on numerous occasions without trying too hard, one rice field that was close to harvest held at least 40! Birding a bit more in the forest as dark approached yielded one more good bird we were looking for, another very range restricted species, the Golden-naped Woodpecker.

The following day we birded the road again as we were still looking for White-crested Coquette. We put a lot of attention into flowering trees, particularly Inga trees, which seem to attract Coquettes, and after about four hours patiently staking out and scanning Inga trees we finally turned up a female-plumage White-crested Coquette. As a side note, I don’t know if it’s just luck or if there is more to it but we managed to see at least 4 Black-crested Coquettes from Mexico to Costa Rica, but all were females or juvenile males. The White-crested Coquette we saw was female plumaged. However, we have seen three Rufous-crested Coquettes (between a prior trip to Panamá and our current trip, but that will be written up in a later post), and all of them have been adult males. Just something we find odd!

Back to the La Gamba – Golfito road, we did find a few other nice birds to add to our list from the previous day, including Streak-chested Antpitta, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Yellow Tyrannulet, White-vented Euphonia, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, White-throated Crake, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Bronzy Hermit, White-necked Puffbird, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Scaly-breasted Wren, Long-billed Starthroat, Laughing Falcon, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, and another couple regional specialties – Fiery-billed Aracari and Costa Rican Swift. The birding along this road really is fantastic!

On our way back to the Tropenstation, we stopped for an interesting looking bird on a roadside wire and sure enough it was a Rusty-margined Flycatcher, a recent colonist from Panamá that is fairly well established around La Gamba.

That evening we went out spotlighting and owling, driving slowly on the main road from Troppenstation out to the highway.

Striped Owl

Striped Owl

We turned up a couple of very cool frogs, a couple of Common Potoos, and after about an hour or so, a Striped Owl, perched contentedly on the roadside wires, oblivious to us and all the locals bicycling and walking past.This is a great area to look for this species, we heard another later on our drive back to the Tropenstation as well.

With the La Gamba area specialties all taken care of, it was on to the perhaps-not-really-famous-but-well-known-to-Costa-Rican-birders, Rincon bridge to look for Cotingas. In addition to the regional specialties mentioned above, the Osa is home to two very range restricted Cotingas, the Turquoise Cotinga and the Yellow-billed Cotinga. We got up very early to make the fairly long drive from the Troppenstation to the Rincon bridge and arrived around 6:30AM. We stopped a few hundred meters shy of the bridge at a spot where there is a decent vista over the mangroves. Kathi beat me out of the truck and before I could even pick up my binoculars she calls out “I have a Cotinga!” Sure enough, a beautiful male Yellow-billed Cotinga was perfectly teed up atop a mangrove snag in the morning light. Good way to start – 30 seconds into the day, 1 for 2 on Cotingas!

Yellow-billed Cotinga

Yellow-billed Cotinga

What followed was two days of birding the Rincon bridge and the surrounding mangroves, as well as in towards Drake’s Bay a good ways and back towards the highway, scanning hillsides, looking for fruiting trees, and generally cooking ourselves in the sun. We managed to see about a dozen Yellow-billed Cotingas in the process but completely struck out on Turquoise. Phooey. We did see scads of gorgeous Scarlet Macaws flying over, a nicely perched Crane Hawk, more Costa Rican Swifts, Fiery-billed Aracaris and a Gray-lined Hawk (distinctly less common in southern Costa Rica and Panamá than Gray Hawk is in Mexico and northern Central America). Side note: if you are looking for a place to stay near the Rincon Bridge check out Camping and Cabins Chontal (8.70268 -83.48691). There is a nice place to camp with covered cooking areas, clean bathrooms for $5 per person. They also rent out cabins although I’m not sure how much they charge but I don’t imagine it would be too expensive.

We were hot and tired and I needed to make a trip back home briefly, so we retreated to San Jose to rest up and to get me to the airport and to think over how much energy we wanted to put into looking for the Turquoise Cotinga, and where to go about it. I had a very quick (2.5 day) trip to Colorado, just long enough for my tropic-humidity accustomed lips and cuticles to crack and chap severely. In the middle of the trip I got invited to a bird count in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I even got a couple lifers – White-tailed Ptarmigan and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch!A bit of a departure from Cotingas!

Upon my return to Costa Rica, we headed to Los Cusingos, the former home of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch and nowadays a private reserve and a bit of a museum. Turquoise Cotinga is seen here regularly, so we staked out the garden area and watched… and watched… and watched… and watched. It is very birdy and is a nice spot to bird, but it’s not exciting forest birding, it’s kind of just watching a garden and the tree tops of the forest edge around it. So we watched some more… we didn’t find any Cotingas, nor much of note other than some mystery Cyseloides type swifts that were seen briefly. Spot-fronted is possible in the area but Chestnut-collared is more likely, certainly. We were debating what to do when the very kind staff at Cusingos suggested that we just camp in the parking lot so we could get an earlier start the following day (they do not open until 7) and take another whack at it. We took them up on their offer, cooked a nice dinner in a torrential downpour and conked out, setting the alarm very early so we could be out birding at first light. Staying in the reserve paid off and around 6:40 the next morning we saw well if unfortunately very briefly a male Turquoise Cotinga fly into the canopy of a tree on the forest edge. We only got about a 10 second look at it before it continued on its way but we were elated to have seen it. Essentially the last bird we had been looking for in Costa Rica, we packed up, hit the road, and despite a bit more hassle than usual at the border, were in Panamá by late afternoon and excited, after nearly three months in Costa Rica, to be moving south again!

Just for a brief recap of Costa Rica, here are some stats as I like making lists and looking at this kind of stuff!

A bit less than three months in Costa Rica
90 eBird checklists
595 species logged
235 species new for our trip
97 lifers

Our favorite species from Costa Rica (no particular order):
Bare-necked Umbrellabird
Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Lanceolated Monklet
Thicket Antpitta
Three-wattled Bellbird
Yellow-billed Cotinga
Solitary Eagle
Great Green Macaw
Agami Heron
Rufous-breasted Antthrush
Black-headed Antthrush
Blue-and-gold Tanager
Rufous-necked Wood-Rail
Rough-legged Tyrannulet
Ochraceous Pewee
Silvery-throated Jay

And the ones that got away:
Highland Tinamou (heard only)
Gray-headed Piprites (heard only, despite a month or more looking)
Olive-backed Quail-Dove (never even heard, despite a month or more looking)

There is some amazing birding to be had in Costa Rica and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. We would like to thank Pat O’Donnell and Jim Zook for giving us so much great information and making our stay in Costa Rica so enjoyable!

Gone Birding

We have been busy birding all over Panamá for the last 2 weeks and have had very little time to share our stories on our blog but we are posting quick updates on our Facebook page. You can still see our updates on Facebook even if you do not have an account just click here.

We are headed into Darien National Park tomorrow to look for all sorts of amazing birds including Harpy Eagle, Crested Eagle, Gray and Gold Tanager, Dusky-backed Jacamar, Pirre Hummingbird, Pirre Warbler, Pirre Chlorspingus and so much more. We will post an update when we return.

Happy Birding!

Josh scanning for the Turquoise Cotinga at Los Cosingos

Josh scanning for the Turquoise Cotinga at Los Cosingos

San Vito and around (Finca Cántaros, Las Alturas, and Las Cruces/Wilson Botanical Garden)

11 – 13 June 2014

To finish out our tour of Costa Rica we needed to check out some of the birding spots on the southern Pacific slope. We headed straight to the sleepy town of San Vito, picked up some supplies and headed toward Finca Cántaros, a small private reserve between San Vito and Las Cruces that makes a great place to camp. Finca Cántaros has a great garden with tons of Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and more buzzing through the garden. The trail system there is short but it’s worth an hour or two to enjoy the garden and it’s certainly worth visiting the pond a few times to check for Masked Duck. We heard that Finca Cántaros is a great place to see Masked Duck in the dry season. Since we were there in the beginning of the wet season we struck out, but we had a nice list of birds (eBird list).

A view of San Vito taken from Finca Cántaros

A view of San Vito taken from Finca Cántaros

The facilities at Finca Cántaros are really nice and we had the place to ourselves (although there is really only room for one vehicle). We made the Finca our home base and explored the wetlands just outside of San Vito to search of the Masked Yellowthroat as well as check out the Las Cruces Biological Station, the Wilson Botanical Garden, and Las Alturas. Looking for the Masked Yellowthroat took us some time, mainly because we could not figure out how to access the wetland where the Yellowthroat is usually seen. The access described in the bird finding guide is a little outdated and we could not access the marsh as described in the book. We made our way around the wetland looking for access points and failed to turn up any good access points or the yellowthroat. Thankfully we headed up a residential road on the east side of the wetland and found some folks to ask about access to the wetland and they pointed us to someone who would let us walk through their yard to access the wetland. We were happily granted access to the wetland and headed down to the water. We scanned the wetland for yellowthroats but found none and even tried playback but to no avail. After about a half hour of scanning Josh turned up a distant Masked Yellowthroat.  We only found this one male and didn’t get the looks or the recordings we wanted, but at least we were able to find one. Whether this is truly a Masked Yellowthroat is certainly open to debate. Apparently some studies have found it more closely linked to Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, and we subsequently heard that it certainly doesn’t respond to playback of Masked Yellowthroat from South America. It looks like it probably is a distinct species, and some guidebooks have already given it species status, calling it the Chiriqui Yellowthroat. At the wetlands we also heard a Striped Cuckoo calling and the owners of the property said the wetland is a reliable place to find them. To access the wetland, take the highway (613) that heads east out of San Vito towards the airport. Shortly after the airport you will see a wetland on the left side of the road. Take the first road on the left after the wetland (8.825517, -82.950348). The road heads up to a small residential community. Stop at the second house on the left side of the road (8.826387, -82.950011) and ask permission to access the wetland. They have had birders visit their house before so they are accustomed to requests. They did not charge us to visit the wetland, but we left them a small tip. Next on our checklist was the Costa Rican Brush-Finch which is frequently found at the Las Cruces Biological Station and Wilson Botanical Garden. As is our routine, we stopped by the station the afternoon before we wanted to visit and asked if we could get in early to look for birds. No problem they said, so we paid our entry fee and headed back to camp to cook dinner. We hit the trails early the next morning. Our first stop along the trails was the observation tower where we scanned for Turquoise Cotinga (apparently hasn’t been seen there in a few years) and Bicolored Hawk (which does make appearances in the forest patch below from time to time). No luck for us that morning so we continued along the Rio Java trail that heads through older forest to look for the Costa Rican Brush-Finch. The morning was passing quickly, but no Brush-Finch; we were starting to get worried when we heard faint chattering on the ground. We scanned the forest floor and found two Orange-billed Sparrows at first, but then also two Costa Rican Brush-Finches. We tried to record the Brush-Finches but the cicadas started calling and soon the sound was overwhelming and maddening. We waited around the area for a bit for the cicadas to die down, but being quiet was not what they had on their morning agenda. Drat, we missed recording the Costa Rican Brush-Finch and never managed to turn up another one. Later down the trail we came across an excellent mixed-species flock with Russet Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Red-faced Spinetail, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and more (eBird list). Along the trail we also found a perched Charming Hummingbird singing his heart our and were able to make excellent recordings. Hummingbirds can be hard to record, so any day with an opportunity to record a hummingbird is a good day. While in the San Vito area we decided to check out Las Alturas, which is described in good detail in the Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica.

View of the forest at Las Alturas

View of the forest at Las Alturas

The species list for Las Alturas in the Bird Finding Guide is mouth-watering… Turquoise Cotinga, Bicolored Hawk, Black-and-White Hawk Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Three-wattled Bellbird, White-crested Coquette, and so many more. We headed up to Las Alturas early in the morning birding along the road as we went. Las Alturas is a private working ranch where approximately 80 families live in sort of a private community. However, much of the forest surrounding the ranch is protected and a large portion is being reforested. The birding at Las Alturas is along the roads that crisscross the ranch, but there is never any traffic and the birding is really great! We saw 104 species in what was honestly a fairly casual birding day, including some real gems; Three-wattled Bellbird, Olivaceous Piculet, Bicolored Antbird (at an ant swarm), Speckled Tanager, Black-faced Antthrush, Ruddy Woodcreeper, and more (eBird list). We also stumbled across what most likely were a pair of Black-tailed Flycatchers. We heard a soft call that was similar to the Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher in a scrubby thicket in a riparian area. There were apparently two Myiobius flycatchers in the thicket calling, and they soon gave something of a soft song that matches very well a recording that Rich Hoyer made in Brazil of Black-tailed Flycatcher (if that is even the same species there?). Here is a link to Rich’s recording of the odd little soft song –  http://www.xeno-canto.org/5479. We did not get great looks at either bird, but the combination of the habitat and the vocalizations lead us to believe they were much more likely Black-tailed Flycatcher. We didn’t see any of the mouth-watering raptors but we had a great day of birding and would certainly recommend Las Alturas, we would happily return, the birding is excellent and there are some really excellent rarities possible.

Funny sign at Las Alturas

Funny sign at Las Alturas

Buenas Aires Grasslands and the hunt for the Ocellated Crake and White-tailed Nightjar

10 June 2014 and 24 June 2014

The Ocellated Crake is another one of what we have taken to calling unicorn birds … people say they exist but no one ever sees them. That could not be a more apt description of the Ocellated Crake; they are, quite literally, nearly impossible to see. Imagine trying to find a small (6”), secretive, miniature chicken like bird in towering thickets of grass. While other crake species can be frustrating to see they will often times step out into the open only if for a brief moment, crossing a bit of open ground or wandering onto a mud flat. This appears to not be the case with the Ocellated Crake, as they stay hidden in the clumps of grass and basically will not let themselves be seen by mere mortals.

In Costa Rica, Ocellated Crakes were recently documented for the first time since 1976 when one dead individual was found. In 2012, Carlos Ureña, Jose Acuña, Warner Venegas, and Noel Areñawent to great lengths to document the existence of the Ocellated Crake in Costa Rica. They spent hours and days trying to catch a glimpse of the bird and with shear persistence Noel Areña managed to photograph and take a video of an Ocellated Crake (Read the full story here). Quite an accomplishment!

When we arrived in Alto Salitre grasslands above Buenas Aires we tried playback at the first good looking spot and to our surprise we immediately got responses from all over the place out in the grass! They are here, they are here, Ocellated Crakes everywhere! We stepped off the side of the road into the grasslands, tried to pick a good spot with thick grass that we could still see into a little bit, and pressed play again and instantly were surrounded by the calls of Ocellated Crake. We spent a good bit of time trying to see them, with crakes on all sides and apparently moving around us in circles but, of course, never coming into view. We tried several different spots throughout the grasslands on two different days but never laid eyes on a crake. For me, I am just happy to know that they are there sulking around the grasslands, and we did not want to abuse playback or harass them overly.

We also were in the area to look for White-tailed Nightjar, another fairly widely distributed species that isn’t too easy to see, though certainly nothing near the difficulty of Ocellated Crake. Our first afternoon in the grasslands we had great weather while we were not seeing crakes, but just as dusk settled in it started to rain. We tried in vain to look for nightjars, turning up only a fairly wet and put-out looking Common Pauraque. Our second visit to the grasslands, we got rained out earlier in the afternoon but it cleared wonderfully an hour or two after dark so we headed back out. Once in the good grassland habitat (White-tailed Nightjar seems to be a savannah bird) we started spotlighting and driving slowly and soon turned up eyeshine. A quick glance through the bins showed a nightjar in the road that didn’t appear to be a Common Pauraque. We hopped out of the truck and soon had great looks at a White-tailed Nightjar calmly sitting in the middle of the road. Unfortunately by the time I got the camera ready it had decided that the lights were a bit annoying and moved on. We continued up the road, soon turning up a Common Potoo on a roadside fencepost. Shortly after this, the weather started to deteriorate. We kept at it a bit as the fog moved in and it started to drizzle but it was soon a lost cause and we retreated, again, having seen the bird very well but unfortunately having missed photos and having missed a real chance at the Rufous Nightjars that are also, at least seasonally, in the area.

In addition to our target birds, this is a great place to turn up a Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Lesser Elaenia, and more (eBird list).