Friday, 25 July 2014

Panama, Day 1 (February 28, 2014)

During the first few days of our Panama trip we were planning on birding the Canal Zone. Steve and Dave had had a very successful trip to the Western Highlands, seeing many of its target species while also having some close calls with sketchy people (and wildfires) in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 AM.

The three of us planned to meet at the airport and I felt the first blast of tropical warmth as I stepped outside the air-conditioned airport.  As I waited for them to show up I found my first bird species of the trip - a Rock Pigeon (the only one I would see!). Eventually they arrived and we headed to Gamboa, a small town located on the edge of Parque Nacional Soberania. This large expanse of lowland rainforest flanks the Panama Canal and associated Lago Gatun. Here in the lowlands, species from the Caribbean and Pacific slopes meet, making for some incredible birding! It was exciting driving along with the roads at night with the windows open, looking at the huge tropical trees in the moonlight, feeling the warmth, and dreaming about all the amazing things we would see in the next few weeks...

Our first day started by rising bright and early to head to Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto). In the predawn twilight at our Bed and Breakfast in Gamboa (basically a couple of bare rooms with a few beds and a washroom, quite sufficient for our needs)  it was easy to hear the neighbourhood come alive as the common birds made their presence known. It did not take long to learn and grow accustomed to the first few common central American sounds - Pale-vented Pigeons, Clay-colored Thrushes (they sound kinda like a robin) and Tropical Kingbirds (they sound kinda like a kingbird). By the time we arrived at Pipeline Road we had a solid list of 30 species or so under our belts. 

The morning birding was challenging to say the least. Coming in with no knowledge of Central American bird sounds, even the common ones I had to learn and those still take time. There really are only so many I can take in in one day. But luckily I had looked at my Panama field guide for several weeks prior to the trip so most of the birds weren't too difficult by sight, relatively speaking. I also had my camera with me of course which helped to document birds I wasn't sure on. The new camera body is much better at creating low-noise photos in low light situations than my previous camera. That being said, you still have to really work to take good bird photos in the tropics! Even though Steve, David and I are all photographers, the priority of the trip was birding more so than photography and so most of my photos are documentation-style, with few solid "photo shoots". If I had three or four images a day that I was really happy with, I was doing OK! And with all of our hours we were sure to put in in high-diversity habitats, the photo opportunities would surely come by...

Woodcreepers look like overgrown Brown Creepers, and we ended up seeing about about 10 species on the trip. In the Canal Zone, Cocoa Woodcreepers were pretty common, yet they rarely came close enough for a good photo, usually preferring to sit on the wrong side of the tree.


Pipeline Road travels through several relatively undisturbed habitat types including a ton of good quality rainforest - because of that it boasts a huge species list.

Every few hundred meters it crosses a small stream, and one of the first streams we checked out had this Meso-American Slider basking at the surface of the water.



One of the common and very distinctive vocalizations heard throughout the forest was that of the Southern Bentbill; a rolling trill that almost sounded like the scream made by a Fowler's Toad.



Crocodilians hung out in roadside pools as well, such as these Spectacled Caimans. It was good to see this species again!


Dave birding along Pipeline Road.


As the morning wore on we came across some slow patches for birds. A lot of times birds seem to flock together but it was still common to go an hour or two seeing or hearing very little. Luckily the insects always keep things interesting! This one is a checkered-skipper of some sort and looks very similar to the Common Checkered-skipper we sometimes see in Ontario.


I happened to spot this sloth while we were birding around an area where a Great Jacamar had been seen. We did see the jacamar a bit later, a great find by Steve!

Brown-throated Sloth
No visit to Panama is complete without a few sightings of Brown Basilisks. This was yet another species closely associated with the streams crossing Pipeline Road, and if you approached one too closely it would skitter off, running across the water to the far bank.

Brown Basilisk

This next photo is a heavily cropped shot of a Rufous-crested Coquette we saw along Pipeline Road. This can be a difficult species to find and Pipeline Road was our best shot we we were pretty happy with it!




The highlight of the day was almost certainly the Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoos that we were fortunate to cross paths with on Pipeline Road. The ground-cuckos is a genus containing five species in the Americas. These birds are often associated with large army ant swarms, as they stir up other insects, small lizards, etc. The ground cuckoos follow these swarms and eat whatever the ants flush! Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo is a rare species throughout much of its range, appearing to occur in low densities. This was one of Steve's top target birds for the tip, and it was certainly one I was interested in going after as well. One had been seen at Pipeline Road earlier in the winter but conveniently disappearing on the day before Steve flew in to Panama! Fortunately for us, an adult and juvenile Rufous-vented Grounk-cuckoo werere-found the day we were birding Pipeline. We raced over there, managed to get in to the Rainforest Discovery Tower trails by paying the local's price, and within 10 minutes we were shown the bird by one of the staff who was keeping an eye on the birds. We crept up to the birds as it foraged; the adult disappeared quickly, but the juvenile became quickly accustomed to our presence. Other ant swarm birds were active as well, including several woodcreepers, antbirds, antvireos, antshrikes, and antwrens. But the Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo was the star of the day!



It was really interesting watching it hunt, as its reflexes were so quick as it bounded after a scurrying lizard. A lot of the time, it would sit back and wait, eventually grabbing something that came within striking distance. What an awesome, prehistoric looking species!



One more shot of the bird, as we stood about 5 meters from it. An incredible experience! I took a bunch more, but that will be for a later blog post!



Of course the road was filled with dozens of other species and I kept tallying new species left, right, and center. When it was all said and done I had 56 lifers, the second most I've had in a single day with the most being 57 lifers, also at Pipeline Road (January 12, 2010). That single day at Pipeline Road  in 2010 was pretty much the only birding I did on that trip.

Here are a few of some of  my more notable lifers from the our first day at Pipeline Road...

-Plumbeous Kite
-Violaceous Quail-Dove
-Pheasant Cuckoo
-Great Jacamar
-Cinnamon Woodpecker
-Slaty-backed Forest Falcon
-Bicolored Antbird
-Black-faced Antthrush
-White-breasted Wood Wren
-Yellow-backed Oriole

Golden-collared Manakin

Purple-throated Fruitcrow

Of course one couldn't help but notice all the other fauna that was all around us.



Anole species
 






At one point we checked some hummingbird feeders at the center since we had paid our admission anyways, and it was a nice break from all the walking! David kept track on his phone how many kilometers we walked each day, and it was usually well over 15 and I think we had some days close to 30.

Luckily, the hummingbirds were quite fearless and wood approach closely to feed, allowing for some neat macro opportunities. The White-necked Jacobins were the easiest photo subjects.

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

It always was a bit of excitement when coming across a mixed flock of songbirds while out on the trails, and picking out the Green Shrike-Vireos, migrant warblers, greenlets, flycatchers, woodcreepers, and antwrens. At one point I was watching this Dot-winged Antwren struggling with an insect when it flew down to a branch at eye level. Check it out in action!

female Dot-winged Antwren


female Dot-winged Antwren

While walking a trail near the Discovery Center, I noticed this cool anole just chilling on the side of a tree. What an awesome species! I posted it earlier but thought I would post it again. It was perhaps 25 cm SVL, and super elusive! I tried catching it but it was having none of it...I think it is Anolis frenatus but if anyone thinks otherwise please let me know.

This was also an opportunity to really test out the new camera. Deep in the forest and later in the day the lighting was very low - I think I went up to ISO 3200 to grab the shots. With a little noise-reduction software they came out alright!


Giant Green Anole (Anolis frenatus)

Last but not least are these photos of a Slender Anole, one of the most common herp species along the trails. I played around a little with exposures for these ones (second is with flash).

Slender Anole (Norops limifrons)

Slender Anole (Norops limifrons)
 Finally, as we were walking down the road we came across this White-whiskered Puffbird on the road at dusk. Just one of many cool things seen when a full day is spent walking the road!


Needless to say we ate well that night, as we paid our hosts to cook dinner for us as well. After a long tiring day in the field, a big plate of chicken, beans and rice is pretty damn good....

Day two to follow, where we checked out Old Gamboa Road plus a night drive/hike on Pipeline Road.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A winter trip to the wilds of Panama (intro)

Last summer I began my first full-time consulting job, and during the busy spring season I was lucky to bank a number of weeks of overtime. I took some time for trips to Nova Scotia, Scotland, Portugal, and James Bay, but I still had two weeks left over which I wanted to devote to a trip somewhere warm. I can't take these Ontario winters like I used to....

As the fall approached I began to formulate plans with several others, and when it was all said and done, I had a rough itinerary to Panama with David Bell and Steve Pike. David I had known since second year at the University of Guelph, and in the years since we had birded a lot together, with a highlight being finding a Barn Owl in Stoney Creek. In February 2011 I accompanied him and two others to a Reading Week trip to the southwestern US, which you can read about here. Steve is a birder/naturalist in Windsor who I have birded with quite a bit in the last four years. He usually does at least one big trip a year.

David was taking two months in the winter to do some solo travel to Central America, starting in Mexico and birding his way south. Steve, who had been to Costa Rica earlier in the winter, was planning on flying down about 5 days before me, to bird the Western Highlands in Panama with Dave. I flew in on a Thursday evening, and the plan was to bird the Canal Zone and work our way east, culminating in a few days hiking and camping in the mountains of the Darien Province.

Here is a Google Map showing some of the locations we visited, with the lighter colored baloons representing locations further west and the darker baloons representing location in the Darien. While I was limited mostly to the central and eastern parts of the country, I did get one day in at El Cope, in the western foothills (White Baloon) which is being hidden in the legend.


The next posts will be daily recaps of our time traveling, birding, herping, insecting, and mammaling in sunny Panama. Here is a sneak peak...

Crane Hawk - Old Gamboa Road


Golden-collared Manakin - Pipeline Road

Anolis sp. (frenatus?)

Yellow-tailed Oriole - Ammo Ponds, Gamboa

Harpy Eagle - near Rancho Frio, Darien

Glass Frog species - Rancho Frio, Darien

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A typical morning in northern Ontario

Some more photos from northern Ontario - the last of them!

These were all taken one morning near Matheson, Ontario. The habitat was cleared Jack Pine plantation with several bogs interspersed. Dominant groundcover in the wetter areas included Sheep Laurel, Labrador Tea, Leatherleaf, and Bog Rosemary. In the drier areas I recall a lot of Sweetfern, Low-sweet Blueberry, and the ubiquitous Bracken Fern. Various willow species, Green Alder, and Pin Cherry (among other shrubs) had filled in most of the open areas as it had been several years since the site was last logged.

Pin Cherry

Habitat like this is perfect for Mourning Warblers and Chestnut-sided Warblers!

male Chestnut-sided Warbler
Some nice areas of spruce surrounded the logged portion of the site, and as a result I saw a few species that are closer associated with this habitat type, such as Black-backed Woodpecker, White-winged Crossbill, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, and Magnolia Warbler.

male Magnolia Warbler

Bear tracks! I ended up seeing two bears on this site, though unfortunately both took off about as quickly as possible into the woods. These northern bears are a little less tame than your typical cottage-country garbage-dump bear.

Black Bear tracks

One of most common species of wildflower in any open area - the Ox-eye Daisy, still with some early morning dew on its petals.

Ox-eye Daisy (Bird's-foot Trefoil in background)

Here is a recently fledged Hermit Thrush. Without a doubt the most common bird-song heard throughout this habitat type (or really, any open habitat in the boreal forest) is the White-throated Sparrow. Most point counts will have at least five or six different males singing, and some point counts will have up to 10. The second most common bird seems to be the Hermit Thrush, though they are more likely to be heard earlier in the morning. I found a few recently fledged baby Hermits during my travels.

fledgeling Hermit Thrush

As the morning wore on the bird song slowly decreased while the solar-powered species made their presence known. I identified about 8 species of dragonflies, however there were several others whose identification will remain unknown since I don't yet own an insect net...

Butterflies were a little more straightforward and I turned up about ten species. I photographed two common species for up here - White Admiral and Pink-edged Sulphur. Pink-edged Sulphurs are a northern species that seems to prefer open areas, as long as their host-plant Blueberries (Vaccinium species) are present.

Pink-edged Sulphur
I photographed this moth which is an underwing of some sort - any ideas?


The always abundant White Admiral during my early summer trips to the boreal forest.


That's all she wrote for the 2014 breeding bird season in Ontario! I'm already looking forward to 2015.

My next few blog posts will have something a little more interesting - the long overdue Panama photos from earlier this year! I'm not sure how many posts they will cover, but I'll probably do one post for each day of the trip. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Insects eating things and warbler nests

I am back home after another long week and a bit up north looking for birds, plants, rattlesnakes, and more! I had been taking my camera with me more often on this July trip than I had earlier in the year, as the bugs weren't quite as bad this time around. Well, I guess they were pretty bad on some sites, but the Black Flies at least had really died down. The deerflies had definitely replaced them, however. It was a common theme to take a photo of a dragonfly that had just flagged one of the fighter-jet shaped Tabanids.

Slaty Skimmer

getting a better grip...
Racket-tailed Emerald

Racket-tailed Emerald

With all the walking through shrubby areas and woodlands that I do, every now and then I stumble across a bird's nest. Some are easy, like a raptor's nest or a woodpecker's tree cavity, but other ones are more subtle.

This Black-throated Blue Warbler nest was cleverly tucked into the top of a Sugar Maple seedling at about waste height, and only visible from one angle.


My highlight of the week however was this Ovenbird nest that I located. The Ovenbird is named for it's nest that it builds - a little oven shaped nest dug into a hillside or against a fallen branch, accessible from walking in through the side. I had never found one of these before and they can be very well hidden. One afternoon, a mouse-like bird scurrying away from my feet and flying up briefly to go into a thick black berry patch caught my attention. The nest only took a second to locate, just 30 centimeters from my foot.

Ovenbird nest
Inside were four speckled eggs...


I left after a few moments so that I would not lead other animals towards the nest. Given how easily I found the nest, I wonder if her nest had failed already once previously if the eggs are this new. Most species had youngsters out of the nest already by this date.

Back to the insects eating things theme - here is a totally bad-ass Crab Spider knowing down on an unfortunate fly! I believe this is a female Misumena vatia, a species that is normally found on goldenrods (Solidago).


I thought that the pink stripe along the crab spiders abdomen was interestingly the exact same shade as the Common Milkweed flowers it was on. Interesting to think if that feature evolved due to the species close association with Common Milkweed?

I took the time to nab photos of these Dot-tailed Whitefaces. This is a common species, but I had never photographed one well before so I took the opportunity.

female Dot-tailed Whiteface
male Dot-tailed Whiteface