Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Panama Audubon Photos

Panama Audubon hosts a Christmas pot-luck dinner every December where the upcoming bird counts for the season are described. Cindy and I are in our third year of enjoying the Christmas Bird Counts here in Panama.

We've already completed the Pacific Count which must have been the best ever, at least for us. Our assignment was to walk the Old Gamboa Road to the north, which has been off-limts due to the canal operations. With our authorization letter in my pocket we walked the forested road to more open habitat.

There were a couple of houses and some barking dogs which didn't mind us as we counted birds. There was nothing rare to report, but it was an excellent, mild day (it had rained the entire night before) and we finished with 93 species. Our companions were Alfred Raab from Altos del Maria and Paul Roth (search for his name in this article) from Switzerland. They are both top-notch birders and the four of us made an efficient team. This area of Old Gamboa Road holds a lot of allure for us and we hope to return.

Back at the pot-luck dinner earlier in the week, this year's winners of the annual photo contest were introduced. As you would guess, they are all active birders and talented field photographers. The winners are:
1st Place - Jan Axel found a Cinnamon Woodpecker foraging on a fallen truck and got the image.
2nd Place - Ralph Dessau captured a Scintillant Hummingbird on a nest.
3rd Place - Rafael Luck stopped the wing stretch of a Royal Tern.
Honorable Mention - Celeste Paiva took a short pause with a Volcano Hummingbird.

All are wonderful photos and we want to see more. In fact, I am lobbying for there to be a gallery showing of all the submitted photos for the year. That would make for a fine evening!

The video below gives a "taste" of the dinner and the awards.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Poisonous Ants

Cindy and I don't get to Pipeline Road as much as we said we wanted to and vowed that we would. Our yard in Los Altos de Cerro Azul is too enjoyable. But, we made a date on a day trip to the city. The afternoon was for errands and recycling, and the morning was for BIRDS!

At the ammo ponds, Smooth-billed Anis were a welcoming sight. As always, we heard the descending, rattling chuuurrr call of the White-throated Crake. Near the entrance to Pipeline we spotted Nando, the former caretaker of Birder's View, now a guide for Canopy Tower. He was guiding two women from New Mexico and they were looking at a White-tailed Trogon.

For something different, we didn't drive all the way to the closed gate on Pipeline Road, but stopped at the always-open entrance gate and walked the first two kilometers. There is always plenty to see in this stretch. Several Western-Slaty Antshrikes made their usual appearance - they're always very cooperative. And I was able to audio record the "caw" call we hear them also make in our yard. Today was filled with common birds, but still held some surprises, including the hand lettered sign seen above.

We assume the sign poster was concerned about Bullet Ants. There were none visible for us that day. A column of leaf cutters was at work a short distance down the road. The "soldiers" had large mandibles and very light-colored heads. I couldn't resist trying to video their activities. The speed of the little critters is very impressive and, as you will see, makes it very difficult to keep them in the frame.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Turkey Vultures
Birders keep a lot of checklists.  We put little check marks next to bird names in a huge variety, such as life lists, yard lists and bucket lists. Well, perhaps we don't all have bucket lists, but there are birds we are dying to see. One of those wouldn't normally be the Turkey Vulture. But, after a day trip to Lake Bayano I feel like starting a bucket list and putting a big check next to TV migration.

One of four species of vultures in Panama, large numbers of TVs move through Panama in October and November and again in February to April. The birds are concentrated in an area of the country that can be as narrow as 36 miles. On the 27th of October 2011, the hawk watch on Ancon Hill in Panama City logged a new one-day record of 893,783 raptors!

We have seen Turkey Vultures in California, of course, and they are a feature of the Kern River Valley AUTUMN NATURE & VULTURE FESTIVAL. One of many facts I've learned is that a group of Turkey Vultures roosting is called a Wake.

The birds over Lake Bayano weren't waiting around to have a name put on them. They were making time! The video shows them climbing up the thermals and heading towards South America.  A very few Swainson's Hawks were sprinkled in the flocks.

The best intro to the video would be by Robert Ridgely in A Guide to Birds of Panama. "A masterful flyer, soaring for long periods without a flap, tilting from side to side to take advantage of every favorable air current....large (sometimes tremendous) flocks of migrants breeding in north pass overhead, providing the observer who is in the right place at the right time with a breathtaking spectacle..."

Monday, November 7, 2011


White-tipped Sicklebill is a much sought after species here in Cerro Azul, although it also inhabits other areas of Panamá, Costa Rica and northern parts of South America. So, it's not one of the 12 or so endemic species in Panama, but still a prize.

A few days ago, with our North American amigo Jorge, we visited a local heliconia grove with the hope of seeing a sicklebill. We've seen them several times at this location. Sometimes it's just a fly-by, and it always feels like a bonus if one of them hovers for even a few seconds at a flower or in front of our faces to check us out. This time, a sicklebill was sitting for several minutes on a vine just a few feet off the ground, no more than 20 feet from us. I managed some video in the shadows. Pollen is visible on the bird's crown. We watched it resting and preening, until a tree limb fell noisily behind us and the bird took flight. This interlude made our day and was a delight.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2011 Big Sit

Weather Wreaks Havoc

Cindy and I are not usually concerned about the weather affecting our activities. Our nonchalance could be explained because we haven’t been overly troubled by it, ever. Except for the blinding snow storm on a car trip to make the Denver airport and, it turns out, the last flight out. But, we made it. Weather has now made an impression.

The Bird Watcher’s Digest Big Sit was held on Oct 9, 2011. And that’s right in the middle of the rainy season in the Republic of Panamá. Last year we managed 49 species and we were hoping to better that this year. But, the weather had it’s way. The day started out sloppy and it stayed that way, with overcast skies, fog, wind, and rain. Not conducive to adding anything new.

Even seeing some of the common species proved difficult. Bay-headed Tanagers didn’t make an appearance at our well-stocked feeders. The only bird in flight against the gray skies was a Turkey Vulture. That was a very sore point for me, since I was hoping to see some migrant raptors. But, don't get me wrong, some fine birds did make a pass through the yard, including the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, seen in the video below. We also managed 6 species of wood-warblers, and one each of grosbeak and oriole.

Our confining 17-foot diameter circle was positioned to gain a look skyward, as well as to various strategically placed bananas and a couple of catastrophic seed spills. The observer must be inside the circle while seeing a bird for it to count. We took that to mean that only one foot need be inside the border. This lead to some helpful leaning, this way and that. I am reminded of the Hays Code where the unfortunate actors were required to contort their bodies while in bed and keep one foot on the floor. But, interestingly during the Big Sit, if you see a bird from within the circle you can leave it to clinch the ID. And I suppose that includes hearing a bird and leaving the circle to get the identification.

The video contains a few of the birds seen during our Big Sit. If you enjoy identifying on your own, the video captions with the bird names can be switched off and on by clicking on the red/white box in the bottom frame.

The final species list is shown below the video as a report from eBird.

Casita Naranja
Oct 9, 2011 5:45 AM - 5:45 PM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: 65-67 degrees F, breezy, intermittent drizzle, occasional light rain, fog drifting in & out, heavy cloud cover with no sun or blue skies all day
43 species

Turkey Vulture 1
White-tipped Dove 2
Squirrel Cuckoo 1 Heard only
White-necked Jacobin 3
Long-billed Starthroat 1
Blue-chested Hummingbird 1
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird 5
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird 9
Keel-billed Toucan 1 Heard only
Black-cheeked Woodpecker 3
Red-crowned Woodpecker 2
Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker 1
Cocoa Woodcreeper 1
Western Slaty-Antshrike 2 Heard only
Yellow-bellied Elaenia 1 Heard only
Dusky-capped Flycatcher 1
Red-eyed Vireo 2
Plain Wren 2
House Wren 1
White-breasted Wood-Wren 1 Heard only
Swainson's Thrush 1
Clay-colored Thrush 3
Black-and-white Warbler 2
Tennessee Warbler 7
American Redstart 1
Blackburnian Warbler 3
Black-throated Green Warbler 1
Canada Warbler 1
Bananaquit 3
Crimson-backed Tanager 5
Blue-gray Tanager 4
Palm Tanager 9
Plain-colored Tanager 4 Begging juv.
Golden-hooded Tanager 3
Red-legged Honeycreeper 23
Variable Seedeater 4
Yellow-bellied Seedeater 8
Black-striped Sparrow 1 Heard only
Hepatic Tanager 5
Summer Tanager 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1
Baltimore Oriole 1
Thick-billed Euphonia 14

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Vulture Lounge

Black Vulture
Close to the entrance to Pipeline Road is another road running along the Panama Canal. A locked gate restricts access to the road, but a small area near the gate provides interesting birding. The area is always thick with mosquitoes. Warblers come for the mosquitoes, so we come for the warblers.

One slow afternoon in the dry season, we thought to stop and see what was hopping. Craning our necks, we saw a few of the common birds high in the canopy, including Rufous-capped, Black-throated Green, Chestnut-sided, Blue-winged and Bay-breasted Warblers. Then looking lower, we found a small party of Black Vultures lounging about an old concrete bunker. They seemed content and undisturbed by our presence. I moved with speed to the car and the video camera. The video below is the result of our short, peaceful interlude. We left the birds to continue their rest.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yard Color

Palm Tanager
Colors are used by many film directors to convey moods and to say something about characters and situations. The people who manipulate the machines to match the director's vision are, in many cases, artists. Their media are the electronic pixels and zeroes and ones of computer technology. All of that is hidden behind the graphic software programs which share some common features.

Thick-billed Euphonia &
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
The first pass of correction balances the colors and sets a base look for the picture. Then there is something called secondary color correction that can be used to enhance and diminish specific colors. You've probably seen this effect many times in commercials and motion pictures. Check out this commercial for Ford Ranger to get the idea.

Hepatic Tanager
My background has been to convey a scene as it was reproduced by the camera and altering reality further was never my goal. But, I enjoyed trying this out on some of the colorful birds visiting the yard. The unmanipulated stills here are from the video as it was shot. The video below will show my attempt to accentuate the colors of the birds and minimize the background. The tiny artist in me appreciates how the colors pop off the screen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Yo Reciclo

I Recycle.
This past week, I delivered a final video to my pal Roba Morena.  You may remember he is organizing monthly recycling events in Panama City.  This is a BIG deal.  There is a lot of demand, which is obvious when I attend the events.

Anyway, Roba will use this short presentation to explain to corporate sponsors what happens on these Saturdays.  There is a lot more going on than just recycling.  You'll get a taste by watching the video.  It's in Spanish, but then what isn't down here?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Photos by Behrstock

Karen & Bob
Our friends Karen LeMay and Bob Behrstock recently spent a few days with us. It was great fun to catch up on their activities in Arizona, USofA. We hit some of the hotspots for birds during their visit, too. Bob sent along some pictures he captured from our terrace of some common birds that bring so much color and energy to our yard.

Bananaquits have been leading a youngster up to the banana feeders, demonstrating how to hang on and get a morsel.
The national bird of several countries must have a nest close by since they stuff their bills full and overflowing before flying up and out of sight above the roof.
Clay-colored Thrush
The tiger-heron was lounging in the river a bit down the road.
Fasciated Tiger-Heron
Not every day, but frequently, we hear the calls of the Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, a very desirable record up here where they can be seen somewhat regularly.
Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker
These hummers own the yard and several of the feeders. Now as other species are increasing, they are beginning to loose their tight grip.
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tortí Tidbits

We recently drove east to Tortí for some birding with friends. Tortí is within the province of Panamá, about 2 hours from our house. Much (most?) of the forest has been cleared for grazing in this lowland habitat with rich, black, sticky soil. One of our companions, Venicio (Beny) Wilson, has been there on a few previous excursions, so he knew several excellent places to find some local specialties.

Marco was able to shoot video of several of those specialties - see the video below for two:

Friday, May 27, 2011

Snake Snacktivity

The saga continues. We last left the Boa Constrictor on his pine branch the evening of May 17th, when he went to bed hungry.

The following morning he was gone from that pine branch - but Marco and I easily spotted him a few feet higher, on a branch that was not nearly so exposed. We both thought it was a much better place for him to lurk.

After breakfast, I was inside near the kitchen sink when I heard a noisy outburst from the Red-legged Honeycreepers and Blue-gray Tanagers. I yelled to Marco, "They've found him!" We both went out onto the terrace, and sure enough - a flock of little birds was clustered around the snake, they were all chattering and scolding excitedly, flying and fluttering about. As we stood there watching the scene, worrying aloud about the young Bananaquit, who was again doing fly-bys and even landing within centimeters of certain doom, a Snowy-bellied Hummingbird landed right on the snake. It was a tremendously shocking moment - to actually be eyewitnesses to the grab was not something we expected. In a millisecond, the hummer was tightly within a coil and there was no hope for it.

For those of you who might be interested in witnessing such an event, see below. Marco had the camera rolling (I know - you've probably already jumped ahead and looked at the video.) It's illuminating to see the action in slow motion. I thought the hummer had landed well toward the rear of the snake, but the video clearly shows that the touchdown was just behind the snake's head. So much for eyewitness accounts.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dogged Serpent

The Boa is back! It was here last month, too, but the incident was a bit sad and I decided not to dedicate an entire post to it. Briefly, though, here is what happened: Early on the morning of April 28th, I was alerted to the nearby presence of one of the two Boa Constrictors who haunt the pine trees in our yard. A good-sized flock of little feeder birds, along with the Chief Sentinel and Town Crier (both titles earned and owned by the local male Hepatic Tanager), were clustered around a pine branch, scolding and chattering. I quickly spotted a Boa, the smaller of the two regulars, coiled around a bird. All I could see of the bird was a tail, part of the yellow underparts, and pinkish-orange feet, but these details were enough for me to suspect that the prey this time was a Rufous-capped Warbler.

I had been observing the scene for about 5 minutes when the snake executed a "loosen and recoil" maneuver, during which the snake usually repositions the prey and tightens the grip on it, and/or moves it into a position where he can begin to swallow it. This time, however, the Boa dropped the bird! If I had made a dedicated blog post about the incident, the title would have been "Butterfingered Boa", which is what our friend Jorge called the snake when I told him about it that day.

The bird fell to the ground in a spot where I could easily retrieve it, which I did, and sure enough - it was a Rufous-capped Warbler, a young of the year. I was sad because it seemed like a waste of a perfectly good warbler, although I realize the invertebrates would have done their work on it. I left the bird on the terrace so Marco could see it; he was out picking up Gonzalo for some gardening. Then we left the bird on the terrace railing for several days until finally something ate it, leaving only the rectrices and a few fluffy flank feathers scattered on the ramp.

The Boa remained on the same branch, in almost the same position, through May 5th. It never did appear to be lumpy during that time, so we don't think it caught anything.

Our friend Dennis helped Marco put up a clothesline about two months ago, not for clothes, but for another Cerro Azul Bird Feeding System®. They strung it from a pine tree near the terrace to a pine well down the hill toward the creek. It has pulleys so we can reel it in and out, with three feeders hanging from it: a small hummer feeder, a standard suet feeder stocked with bananas, and a shallow plastic basket also stocked with bananas.

Our hope is that by placing the feeders way out there, some of the more wary species (who don't like coming to the feeders near the house) will be brave enough to make an appearance at them.

This month's incident began before breakfast on May 16th. We heard the birds being all excited, and saw them gathered on the clothesline. We both gave the birds and the area a quick glance , but didn't detect the cause for their alarm. A few minutes later, while we were enjoying breakfast on the terrace, Marco noticed that the smaller Boa was toward the far end of the clothesline, stretched lengthwise along it, within inches of the suet feeder. We interrupted the meal while Marco spent a few minutes maneuvering the clothesline back and forth, shaking it, removing and replacing feeders. Eventually, the Boa gave up its grip and fell to the ground. All was then calm, and we and the birds had our breakfasts.

The next morning when we opened the kitchen door we saw that the Boa had returned - not to the clothesline this time, but to a small stub branch that comes off the trunk a couple feet below the pulley. It would be interesting to know how long it took him to climb up that pine trunk and settle on the new perch.

The Boa stayed in position all day - the birds knew he was there, and they would occasionally remember or rediscover him, flitting around the branch to investigate. The young Bananaquits make us especially nervous - their curiosity is so extreme that they get waaaay too close to the snake for our comfort.

Marco has assembled some footage of the day, a time-lapse series that shows a few of the birds as they keep a watch on the Boa:

To be continued . . . . . . .

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cutest Kite

West of Panamá City as we were driving toward the Chiriqui several weeks ago, we decided to keep a sharp eye out for Pearl Kites (Gampsonyx swainsonii). We had seen only 2 of them ever, first in Trinidad and then in Panamá on our 2008 visit. In A Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Hilty & Brown, they refer to the Pearl Kite as "Pygmy-sized" and that it is.

Deforestation in northern Colombia has permitted the species to range into Panamá during recent decades, where it has begun colonizing. Still, it's not a common species, and the cuteness factor makes seeing them a special treat for us. We saw three along the way. Marco shot some video of one perched on a cable right next to the Interamerican Highway. This individual does not have its rufous leggings yet, and the rectrices are still growing in. But it was out there hunting for its own meals.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


No, it's not time for another visit to the barbershop. This post is about one of the several Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) who attempt to dominate all the feeders in our yard. Ridgely, in "A Guide to the Birds of Panama" describes the species as, "Perhaps even more active and pugnacious than most other members of its family." He nails it. We have so many of the obstreperous little fellows that it's difficult to determine who's who. They all want to rule, and there are more than one who stake out a twig or wire from where they keep a watch on all the feeders within their view. When anybody else flies in for a sip at any of those feeders, the watcher makes a beeline for the sipper and tries to dispel him or her. There is a pecking order - sometimes the sipper is routed, and sometimes not. The Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer stands his ground in all dust-ups, as do most of the White-necked Jacobins most of the time. The little Blue-chested Hummingbirds always surrender and fly off, squealing as they go. The tiny Stripe-throated Hermit goes low, sometimes hiding behind our shoulders or even below a chair, or in the terrace bathroom. It waits just a few seconds for the attacker to be distracted by someone else, then sneaks back to the feeder and has a drink.

The past few days, one of the guardian Rufous-tailed Hummers has made a peculiar buzzing sound when he flies. The sound is due to extreme molt of the tail and wing feathers. It couldn't be considered catastrophic molt, such as penguins and elephant seals undergo, but Buzz is not in his best-ever shape. His tailfeathers are varied lengths, the lengths are not bilaterally symmetrical, and it seems that his wings barely have enough feathers to get or keep him airborne. Have a look and a listen at his condition in Marco's video below. Since we have recently been able to pick out his particular flight sound, we've been impressed by the number of attacks and warning flights he makes in his frequent attempts to rule his little patch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

View From the Barber Shop

When Marco gets his hair cut, he never knows what he might see during the snipping process. Sometimes it's just a nice view of the wooded hillside across the creek. Sometimes it's a few birds at the feeder. On a recent day, it was a Squirrel Cuckoo enjoying the morning sun. The barber and the cuckoo both waited for Marco to set up the camera so video would be available for this post. Watch for the brief appearance of a Lineated Woodpecker in the background.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Yeah, the title is the Spanish word for recycle. The 3 Rs here are:
- Reutiliza -
- Reduce -
- Recicla -
Enough Spanish.

Last weekend I attended the second monthly recycling event hosted by Roba Morena. He is a musician, artist, and clean environment proponent. Roba is also a friend of mine since we worked together on a video last year for the annual beach cleanup at Costa del Este in Panamá City. Because my Spanish wasn't up to the task of interviewing the beach cleaners, Roba elicited exciting comments from participants. Also, he brought his unique brand to the hosting duties, making for an entertaining program. We hope the DVD will be scheduled in Panamá Audubon's upcoming school education programs.

This most recent event featured more than recycling, which is a testament to Roba's power to influence the people around him. Many companies and organizations take part to inform and entertain the public about the ecosystem and our place in it. There were booths and exhibits showcasing animal adoption, organic food, clean printing and many others to boot. And this is in addition to the regular recycling event, accepting plastics, glass, aluminum, paper, toxics, etc.

Below is a mere highlight of the recycling and education day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bathing Beauties

There are few things cuter than a bird taking a bath, whether the bird is a Cooper's Hawk standing in the middle of a stream soaking his feet and fluffing now and then, or a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird sitting on a twig with his bill pointing up into a rainstorm.

The dry season here in Panamá is coming to a close, but we still have many days without a drop of rain. On the dry days, whenever we water plants in the yard, the birds seem joyful about their bath time, so we make a point of drenching the large leaves of the Dracaena ("corn plant") and banana trees for the bathers. Marco's video below shows some Red-legged Honeycreepers using leaves on a banana tree as water slides:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Old Friends and New

In February we met up with our old friends Keith Hansen and Patricia Briceño (from Bolinas CA, U.S.A.) while they were on a tour of Panamá with their friends Bob and Doreen Schiro (from San Geronimo CA.) The four of them stayed their first few nights at Ivan's B&B in Gamboa. Marco and I stayed one night at our friend Guido Berguido's guest house in Gamboa - just a 2-minute stroll from Ivan's - so we could enjoy a relaxing and delicious dinner together at Ivan's before rising early the next morning for a long walk on Pipeline Road.

We were waaay too busy birding for Marco to shoot much video, but he did get a few seconds (below) from our Pipeline adventure. Isn´t it just perfect how Keith appears on the scene emerging from deep within the jungle?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Finca Hartmann

Ratibor Hartmann, Cindy & Dinorah
On our way to Costa Rica a few weeks ago we made a short detour to Finca Hartmann, in the Chiriqui province of Panamá. We had not been there since our first visit to Panamá in December 2008, and have wanted to return ever since. On that first visit, we met Aliss and her parents Ratibor and Dinorah. Aliss was not present during our recent visit, but her parents were.

We arrived in mid-morning, not the most productive time for birding this location. But Dinorah said we were welcome to take a walk around the property if we wanted, and she would make coffee and hojaldres for us when we returned. Three of their several friendly and enthusiastic dogs accompanied us along the trails through the forest and amongst the coffee trees. Marco shot some video of the property as we walked, and also of some beautiful birds and beans.

In the mid-20th century, Ratibor and his brother, Armagedón Hartmann, worked as guides for Alexander Wetmore during his annual scientific expeditions to Panamá. As we drove up, Ratibor was sitting on his porch with a 3-foot high stack of nature books at his side. One can only try to imagine the contribution he has made to ornithology. He and Dinorah were thoroughly engaging and pleased to describe the work that has been done on their land to create their shade-grown coffee. We hope to return soon for more of the delicious coffee and hojaldres, and of course to spend more time birding.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Two Toes Are Enough

Suzanne and grandson Eric

Our excellent friend Suzanne Cogen, from Occidental CA, visited us at Casita Naranja a few weeks ago. During her stay, we ranged around Cerro Azul and the Panamá City area showing her some of the birds and any other wildlife that happened along the way.

Rufous-crested Coquette
She also went with us to the house of our pals Bill and Claudia one afternoon, where a female Rufous-crested Coquette was coming to one of their feeders.

Rainforest Discovery Center

See Suzanne's photos of a few highlights below.

Panamá City

While relaxing on the terrace, Suzanne was often distracted by some of the birds at our feeders.
Blue-gray Tanagers

Golden-hooded Tanager


Two-toed Sloth
We also went to the visitor's center of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on the Amador causeway, where a family of Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloths (Choloepus hoffmanni) was lounging in a tree in the middle of a busy walkway, within arm's-reach of the passers-by. Marco shot some footage of one of the sloths as it scratched and groomed its long blonde fur. Having tourists walk by so close must not have seemed like a threat to this animal. According to the text in "A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico" by Fiona A. Reed, "If the vines around it are disturbed while it rests, it will advance and slash with the forelimbs or attempt to bite savagely." Admittedly, nobody disturbed the vines or limbs around it, but if the smile on its face was any indication, none of us were in any danger.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Los Carnavales in Cerro Azul

We had been warned by those who claim to know these things that Cerro Azul is not exempt from the riotous celebrations of Carnaval. According to Wikipedia, the Panamá Carnaval celebration is the second largest in the world. Business essentially shuts down throughout the Republic from Friday through Tuesday as people make their preparations and then engage in drinking, eating, dancing and playing music at ear-splitting volumes.

Las Tablas, in the Los Santos province, is traditionally the most popular destination during Carnaval. Panamá City is also host to a major party, with numerous bands performing along the Cinta Costera.

But we were also told that property owners who almost never venture up here stream into Cerro Azul with tents and set up camps on their vacant lots, complete with boom boxes and car stereos. We were admonished to use extreme caution on the roads here - that the celebrants had no respect for the center line and don't know how to drive in any case. So we laid in our supplies, then battened down our hatches starting on Friday March 4th. We had plenty of food, a new package of ear plugs, and a generous supply of beverages so we could have a celebration of our own if the mood struck. We were prepared to stay close to home for the duration. Friday night and Saturday night we slept like babes. There was no music or shouting from any nearby sector. Sunday afternoon we heard a short, subdued volley of fireworks around 5 PM. We thought it might signify the beginning of something rowdier that would last until the wee hours. But we heard nothing else that night other than the Tropical Screech-Owl.

Then on Monday afternoon, the silence was broken. The Club, which is not far from us, had hired a DJ who played music using gazillion-amp speakers for a few hours. Fortunately, while we could clearly hear the beat, it was not bothersome. Our friend Picasso, who owns and runs Ginger House, a wonderful little B&B upslope from the Club, found it deafening; she said it sounded like a band was in her house. Tuesday afternoon was a repeat at the Club. But both afternoons, the music lasted only until about 5:00 PM.

Marco's curiosity sent him over to check out the scene at the Club. He enjoyed a Seco & cola served in a polystyrene cup ($3.00, which is about the cost of a whole bottle of Seco) while observing the families frolicking around and in the pool. He said he was the only gringo present. He tried not to be too obvious while shooting the video below:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Yard 'Lisk

Last week we had a new critter in the yard, or more accurately it was the first time we observed one of them in our yard. As I walked by the open kitchen door, I saw something dash past. It was a good-sized Common Basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus), probably about 2 feet in length, and it paused on the path just beyond the terrace. I alerted Marco, who went right out with his camera and caught a few seconds of video of the beast. Marco looked down at the camera to get another shot, and when he looked back, the Basilisk was gone. He saw it barreling down the hill toward the creek. Basilisks have been clocked running at up to 7 miles per hour.

The Basilisk returned about an hour later, and while I cannot prove it, I think he was eyeing the birds coming and going at the feeders. When a chunk of banana falls out of the suet feeders, one or more birds always flies to the ground (adjacent to the path where I saw the Basilisk) to grab it. If I hadn't been disturbing the peace by working in the kitchen, the Basilisk might have been able to grab a nice meal.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Second Visit to The Wilson

We returned to the Wilson Botanical Garden in Costa Rica early this year. Although we don't much want to leave home these days, we enjoyed ourselves at the Wilson. Last year's visit was during the rainy season. The weather this time was sunny, dry and quite warm. Ariadna again took us out for a morning field trip, sharing some of her extensive knowledge about the local flora and fauna. And Marco had his camera at the ready so we can share with you some beauty shots - of the area and of the local wildlife. The video of most of the birds was from the balcony of our room.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Little Ant Swarm

Bicolored Antbird
On our first try for the Blue Cotingas in Cerro Azul, late one afternoon in January, we didn't find them. But we did find a small ant swarm with some followers.

Our first clue that an ant swarm was in the vicinity was the excited calls of the Bicolored Antbirds. We have never seen an ant swarm in Panamá that was not accompanied by several individuals of this species. Ridgely, in "A Guide to the Birds of Panamá" says that the Bicolored Antbird (Gymnopithys leucaspis) is "An inveterate follower of army ants and rarely seen away from them; in such assemblages, it is usually the most numerous of the several attendant species."

My second clue about the ant swarm was being bitten on the tops of my feet by a couple of ants. I was standing at the edge of the road in my flip flops, and the ants were coming out of the forest to cross the road right across my feet. After a few seconds of foot-stomping, I returned to the truck and put on some shoes and socks. Fortunately, the bites of these army ants produced a mild stinging sensation for only about five minutes, and that was the last of the effects (except that I now look down at my feet a little more often when I'm standing still for any length of time.)

Marco shot some video of the more cooperative individuals with this swarm:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Snake Charmers

Mexican Vine Snake
Our good friend and neighbor Dennis brought another snake to show us a few weeks ago. All three of us have been keeping our eyes peeled for Vine Snakes on vines and branches around here whenever and wherever we take a walk. No luck. But on this particular day, Dennis found a Vine Snake in the middle of the road just up from our house. It was a beautiful and delicate-looking little thing, about 4 feet long and pencil-thin, with a bright chartreuse throat and a curious eye. It was quite docile. At no time while we were handling it did it even open its mouth or struggle to escape, nor did it engage in the common snake strategy of releasing a foul-smelling secretion from its vent. It just kept watching us.

We think this is a Mexican Vine Snake, aka/Brown Vine Snake (Oxybelis aeneus). Dennis shared the following information from his field guide with us:

Here is what Gunther Kohler (Reptiles of Central America) says:
"...They are rear-fanged snakes, with mild venom that does not pose a serious threat to humans, but can lead to localized swelling and itching. Large specimens need to be handled with particular caution. When a vine snake is handled, it will react with a threatening gape, exposing the blue-black interior of is mouth; it will also bite without any warning. As a defensive reaction, this colubrid will continuously hold its outstretched tongue rigid with the two tips of the tongue pressed together. The precise adaptive advantage conferred by this unusual behavior remains a mystery to scientists.... "

Based on the docile behavior of this animal, which was contrary to information we were able to find for the species, we figure we were snake charmers for the few fascinating minutes that we spent with it. We were charmed as well. See Marco's video below:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Panamá Audubon February Meet

The monthly meeting of Panamá Audubon promised to be full of valuable information and good times. Many of the birders Cindy and I have met in the field were in attendance. And several were presenters in the evening program.

We attended earlier Christmas Bird Count organizing meetings. But, this was the first more normal program for us. We drove down with our friends Bill & Claudia Ahrens. It is a long drive from our home to the city, so that is the reason for our sparse attendance record.

The venue is the meeting room at Metropolitan Park headquarters building. A large open room with rows of chairs gave good views of the computer projection for the different segments.

Karl Kaufmann was up first with his effort of establishing eBird Panamá. This is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology database project of bird records. It will store personal lists, as well, which looks to be very valuable. Cloud computing of your information can give a bit of safety from personal disk crashes. Plus, your sightings are added to the public record. With enough time, this database can be used by scientists for on-going research.

Darién Montañez is the creative force behind the rare bird website, Xenornis. He scrolled through the new sightings on the page. And, most excitingly, told of the Cape May Warbler first found by Rosabel Miró.  Prior to the night's meeting, they had seen it again at the Panamá Audubon office.  This is quite a rarity in Panamá and was a life bird for Darién.

Jan Axel is a dedicated birder with an active blog detailing his exploits. He was the inspiration for last year's "600 Club", motivating birders to get out and try to see 600 birds in one year in Panamá. Even with 978 birds on the country's list, still not an easy task. Bill & Claudia worked throughout the year, with the difference that they BOTH had to see the bird. And they made it. They got coveted 600 Club patches and certificates.

Finally, there was a book signing by George Angher of his new "Birds of Panamá" field guide. His powerpoint outlined the differences with the earlier book we all use, while describing the layout of the new book. The impetus for the project was from a Costa Rican publisher with a guide for that country. Many of the illustrations could be used in a Panama guide. The artist for both books is Robert Dean and his work is fantastic. Plus the layout in the new guide is very convenient with art, text and maps side by side. Asked how long the writing took, George said it was three years of 3-day weekends, plus 33 years of experience! We are very pleased to have our copy and to take advantage of his hard work.

The video below will give just a flavor of the event.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Stopover in Volcan

Rufous-collared Sparrow

On a recent journey to Costa Rica, we stayed over in Volcan while we enjoyed a little birding in the Western Highlands of Panama.

We spent the night at Cabanas Reis, on the outskirts of Volcan. The owner, Marisol Miranda, was friendly and helpful and has done a lot of nice work with the rooms and grounds. The location was quiet, the rooms were clean and comfortable, there was free wifi, and the shower had hot water. A large field next door was full of singing Rufous-collared Sparrows, a species seen in Panama only in the Western Highlands.

The cabana was a two minute walk from Dalys's Restaurante, where we ate dinner and breakfast. It's an unusual restaurant with a mix of gringo and Panamanian influences and even some Irish. The menu is large in both size (see Marco's video below) and the variety of offerings.

Ruth and Peter have made this diner a hub of the community, hosting movie nights, Italian nights, rock 'n roll nights, accepting air freight deliveries for residents of Volcan, using some of their space for a book exchange and a video exchange. In addition to all the food on the menu, they sell baked goods, coffee beans, coconut oil, plants, and a number of other specialty items.

They plan to open a B&B near the restaurante. Keep on eye on their website for updates and more info soon.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ciénega de Las Macanas

We recently enjoyed our first visit to Las Macanas Marsh, in the Herrera Province of the Republic of Panamá. This marsh is a hotspot during migration, when waders stop on their way north and south. We visited in January, a quiet time, when large flocks of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are whistling at each other and young Wattled Jacanas are not yet looking much like their parents. Some of the adult jacanas we saw did not look "pure" - they were apparent hybrids between Northern Jacana and Wattled Jacana. The center of their backs was rufous, although the rest of their plumage was black. The arrangement of the facial shield elements is an important distinction. It's a subject discussed in more detail by Matthew Miller and includes an update.

On the road back toward the highway, we saw several caracaras and vultures working the rangeland. We watched a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) soar low, then land and walk around in a field, looking for goodies. And a beautiful Crested Caracara (Polyborus plancas) perched low in a tree, his crop full enough to protrude through the feathers of his breast.

It was a pleasant detour, away from the highway and the crowds. Below is some of Marco's video of the peaceful scene.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hibiscus Appreciation Day

Since our first visit to Panama, I have been completely and irrevocably smitten with Hibiscus, a genus of flowering tropical plants in the Mallow family. They are represented here by a wide and wonderful variety of sizes, colors and forms, and to me they always say, "Tropics!" even though some species grow in the warmer temperate zones.

Our yard started out barren of anything colorful other than a few Novia (Impatiens) and begonias, and I have made it my mission to color it up. Thanks to massive assistance from Marco, Gonzalo and Arturo, the yard is now a riot of color.

The Novia and begonias help provide quick, easy color, but it's the palms, gingers, heliconias, marantas and hibiscus that please me the most. About a year ago I began taking hibiscus cuttings from hedges in the development and stuck the twigs in the ground. I also bought one small potted hibiscus. They have all begun paying off with gorgeous blossoms. The largest flower so far is pictured below - it's about 5 inches across. It bloomed just a few days ago and I was wildly excited.

Here at Casita Naranja, any day that a hibiscus is in bloom is Hibiscus Appreciation Day.

Friday, January 21, 2011

His Blueness

About a week ago we heard that a pair of Blue Cotingas (Cotinga nattererii) was being seen in Cerro Azul. We were both excited and disturbed. We were excited because we had seen this species only once previously - on our first visit to Panama in December 2008 - a pair in Summit Park. That pair was high in a very distant tree, and we have wanted better views of these beautiful birds ever since. We were disturbed because we heard about the Cerro Azul pair in the evening, and we already had commitments in town the next day, which meant we could not try for them until at least the following afternoon.

We did try that afternoon when we got back to Cerro Azul, but it was almost dark and we saw no cotingas. The next morning we tried again, and saw a female. A day or two later we tried again and saw a female. This week, on our fourth try, we hit the jackpot - we saw three males, all in brilliant, shining plumage, and they were in a closer tree than the female had been. The males were interacting with each other, seeming rivals. Was it rivalry for the female we had seen, or for the fruits on the trees in the area?

We thought we heard them calling, a trilling chittering chirpy sound. Then we got home, checked XenoCanto and read the field guides. XenoCanto has no sound recordings for the Blue Cotinga. Ridgely, in "A Guide to the Birds of Panama", says, "Cotingas of this genus apparently make no vocal sounds, but wings of males (in display?) are sometimes heard to whirr or rattle in flight." Other sources that we have consulted concur, some with question marks and some unequivocally. Yesterday we went back to try to see their mouths open as we heard the sounds, but failed. We saw only one male and one female, and when we did hear the sounds, the male was always in flight.

Marco was able to shoot video of both the male and the female, and it includes some puzzling behavior. A little less than one minute into the video of the male, the bird coughs/gags up what looks like the pit of a fruit, and he then suspends it from the branch of the tree. When we were there, we both noticed several of these pale oval objects suspended from the branch by thin strands, but at the time, we did not know what they were.

Marco was not keen on sharing his video of the female; the light was bad and she was in a distant tree. But since she also exhibited the same behavior, I convinced Marco to include video of her in this post.

We have seen many species of birds (owls, kingfishers, flycatchers and others) cough up pellets. But until now, we had not observed a bird to suspend the pellet (in this case, probably a seed or pit of a fruit) from a branch.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not Suitable for a Field Guide Painting?

Rufous tail of Violet-capped Hummingbird
Neither Ridgely & Gwynne (in A Guide to the Birds of Panama) nor Hilty & Brown (in A Guide to the Birds of Colombia) illustrate the female Violet-capped Hummingbird (Goldmania violiceps), even though the species is "Fairly common to locally common in humid forest foothills" in "Central Panama to extreme northwestern Colombia." according to Ridgely. Yes, both guides have paintings of the male, but the female looks not that similar. Sure, they describe her in the text, but when one is trying to figure out the identity of yet another small green & white female-plumaged hummer, one typically goes to the plates, not the text. We have found the hummingbirds to be a particular challenge down here, and we need all the help we can get.

This time, we showed Marco's video (below) and a still capture (above) to our friend Darien Montanez, who reeled us in and set us straight.

We still see her coming to the feeders once in a while. She has to sneak in while the Rufous-tailed boys are off chasing each other.