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.
glad that you got to see the bashful little buggers
You’re correct. Until recently, the only known Mango in the central Pacific lowlands (around Panama’s dry arch) were Veraguan Mangos… so I’m pretty sure most of them were ID based only in range. Personally I had seen few Mangos in El Chiru/Juan Hombron area (supposed to be near the extreme eastern part of its usual range)… thanks God most of them were adult males! Certainly I left several unidentified… I’ll add them to my eBird records.