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.