Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Back from Chile and Argentina!

After an overnight flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago to Toronto, I am back home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, re-acclimating to southern Ontario winter (though the temperature has been equivalent to parts of Patagonia, reaching 15 degrees recently). The trip was a lot of fun, as Adam Timpf, David Bell and I explored the deserts, mountains, coast, steppe, grasslands and pampas of southern Chile and Argentina.

mountains near El Yeso, Chile

campsite under the stars near Torres del Paine, Chile 

On my previous two birding trips to the tropics (Panama in 2014 and Colombia in 2015) I was limited to two weeks. To pack in as much as possible we had a vehicle/driver with us for almost the entire tim for both those trips. Argentina and Chile can be expensive countries to travel in, especially for Canadians due to the current weak Canadian dollar. Combined with the long distances we traveled and somewhat longer itinerary than the Panama/Colombia trips, we tried to save costs when we could by using public transportation. Fortunately our longest stretches of travel occurred during the night, such as an internal flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, or with the myriad of overnight buses. This allowed us to wake up in a new place, ready to bird all day, but we learned several times that the bus schedules don't always line up and inevitable "travel days" occur. Relying on public transportation without booking accommodations in advance can be less expensive, but more time is needed when delays or mishaps occur. In several locations we rented vehicles for 1-4 days. This allowed us to thoroughly explore hard to access areas, as well as cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

Many-colored Rush-Tyrant - Maipo river mouth, Chile

Some of the allure that draws birders to this part of the world is the number of unique or iconic species found nowhere else in the world. What Patagonia lacks in diversity it makes up for with quality! We succeeded in finding most of our big targets, including all 8 (9?) Chilean tapaculos, Greater and Lesser Rhea, Magellanic Plover, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, all five sheldgeese, Snowy Sheathbill, Humboldt Penguin and King Penguin, among many others.  

Diademed Sandpiper-Plover with jewelery - El Yeso, Chile

There are approximately 222 species which are restricted to the "Southern Cone" area of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and parts of southeastern Brazil, southern Bolivia and Paraguay. Of these 222 species, 4 are limited to the Falkland Islands, 3 are only in northern Chile and/or southern Peru, 4 are only in the Juan Fernandez Islands, and 61 additional species we did not have a shot of, mainly because they are found further north in Argentina than where we would visit (while I only had just over a week in the southeast part of the country). This left 150 Southern Cone specialties that we had a shot at given our route. Of these, we came across 133, so a pretty decent ratio! Many of our misses are easier to find elsewhere in Argentina and beyond, though a few still sting (Pincoya Storm-Petrel, Creamy-rumped Miner and Rufous-tailed Hawk come to mind). Since Dave and Adam are still in Argentina they will pick up many of the additional species that I didn't have a shot at.

sunset in Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire

Seabirds, cormorants, penguins, etc were not in short supply on this trip and we were treated with birds more-or-less restricted to the Humboldt Current (Peruvian Diving-Petrel, Humboldt Penguin, Inca Tern, Peruvian Booby, etc), species found in the far south of Patagonia and beyond (King Penguin, Magellanic Diving-Petrel etc) and a wide variety of other interesting birds, such as Southern Giant-Petrel, Salvin's and Black-browed Albatrosses, and various shearwaters and other tubenoses. Our pelagic off of Quintero, located just north of Santiago, was relatively slow but still provided an abundance of awesome sightings including our first albatrosses. 

Salvin's Albatross - pelagic off Quintero, Chile

As far as its birdlife is concerned, tapaculos really help put Chile on the map. Eight species (or nine depending on your thoughts on Magellanic Tapaculo) grace Chile's borders, including some of the most interesting members of the tapaculo family. We managed to find all of them, though Chestnut-throated Huet-Huet remained "heard-only". While endemic to a small part of Chile, Moustached Turca proved to be reasonably common in the right habitat and instantly become one of my favorite birds!

Moustached Turca - Embalse El Yeso, Chile

Of course no trip to Patagonia is complete without visiting one of the many Magellanic Penguin colonies, some of which also contain small numbers of the similar-looking Humboldt Penguin. In recent years a King Penguin colony has grown in number down a long dusty road two hours south of Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego. We saw three species of penguins on this trip, and it would have been four if not for the inclement weather shutting down our boat trip to the Southern Rockhopper Penguin colony near Puerto Deseado, Argentina mid-journey. The King Penguins, located at the very furthest south location we visited, instantly became a favorite.

King Penguins - Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Reptiles and amphibians were in short supply during this trip, as it was a birding-centric adventure with most herps found incidentally while on the trail of a bird. Some of the most interesting species for me included Argentine Black-and-White Tegu in Buenos Aires, Jewel Lizards (Liolaemus tenuis) in central Chile, and this Chaco Tortoise in southeastern Argentina. 

Chaco Tortoise - Las Grutas, Argentina

The same caveats about reptiles and amphibians also apply to mammals. We were still able to observe some pretty interesting ones, including the world's largest animals - Blue Whales. While scoping the seabirds off Isla Chiloe in central Chile we were surprised to see some distant Blue Whales spouting from the horizon. This is a popular summering spot for Blue Whales and despite the distant views we were pretty excited to have glimpses of this enormous cetacean. One day I will have to get in a boat to view them from close range! 

We also identified three species of dolphins, including Commerson's, Chilean, and these Peale's Dolphins. Some of the other interesting mammals we came across include Patagonian Mara (think of a weird hybrid between a rabbit, antelope, capybara and kangaroo), Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk, Coruro, and of course the ubiquitous Guanaco (precursor to the domesticated Llama), common throughout southern Patagonia. 

Peale's Dolphin - Porvenir, Chile

Our last two days were spent in the hot, humid and busy environs of Buenos Aires before I said goodbye to the guys to catch my flight back home, while they continued northward in Argentina. We were finally at the edge of the forested areas after several weeks predominately in grassland and Patagonian steppe. The lifers came hot and heavy at Costanera del Sur near downtown Buenos Aires and we racked up close to forty in a day and a half. 

Guira Cuckoo - Buenos Aires, Argentina

After a short layover in Canada I am off to Cuba on Monday and I likely won't have internet access during that time, so additional photos from Chile/Argentina will have to wait until March. I hope to put out a series of posts detailing the trip sometime this spring. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

Panama - Day 17 (March 16, 2014)


Steve, Andrew and I birded the Parque Natural Metropolitano for a few hours in the morning - the last of our Panamanian adventure. We were hoping to add a few final target species at the park, such as Yellow-green Tyrannulet, one of about 12 bird species that are endemic to Panama.Steve only had a short time in the park before he had to leave for the airport, while Andrew and I birded the park until 9:30 AM.

The 265 acre park is an oasis within an urban area; not only popular with dog-walkers, runners and cyclists but also birders. It consists predominately of lowland deciduous forest and boasts a huge species total (the eBird hotspot for the park has 373 species).

Our time here was relatively birdy, and highlights among our 71 species included several Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Olivaceous Woodcreeper (a new one for me), my long-overdue lifer White-lined Tanager, and the big highlight: a Yellow-green Tyrannulet providing excellent looks for Andrew and I on a bare branch right above the trail.

Crimson-crested Woodpecker - Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City

Crimson-crested Woodpecker - Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City

Whooping Motmots are not necessarily a shy species, but they rarely forage on the ground only a few feet away from people. This individual must have been much more acclimated to human presence since it did not seem to mind the people walking past.

Whooping Motmot - Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City

Whooping Motmot - Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City

Whooping Motmot - Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City

This Squirrel Cuckoo was also providing rare, unobstructed views.

Squirrel Cuckoo - Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City

My flight did not depart until early in the evening meaning I had all day to join Andrew in doing some birding. We made the decision to head back to Old Gamboa Road where we would meet up with Jenn for a few hours.

It was quite warm during our late morning excursion here, putting a damper on bird activity. I was happy to add Tawny-crowned Greenlet to the list, along with a wide variety of species that we had observed earlier in the trip at Old Gamboa Road.

Jenn knew the location where a Spectacled Owl roosted, and it only took u a minute or so of searching until it appeared. Awesome!!

Spectacled Owl - Old Gamboa Road, Panama

The three of us were pretty hungry after the morning of birding so off we went to a pizza place in the town of Clayton that Jenn recommended. A very tame Fork-tailed Flycatcher was hanging around the parking lot - with the hot temperatures, it was keeping its mouth open as a sort of air-conditioning! It was here I also added my last new bird of the trip - an introduced Saffron Finch on the grass beside the parking lot.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - Clayton, Panama

Andrew and I said our goodbyes to Jenn, then debated where we should spend the rest of the afternoon. There really wasn't a whole lot that I still needed from the Canal Zone, plus the hot temperatures had undoubtedly put a damper on the bird activity. We decided to drive over to Costa del Este to scan the shorebirds and gulls once more.

It was here that I began to experience quite a bit of discomfort that came on suddenly and I ended up spending more time crouched in the mangroves than actually scanning the birds. This was the first time I had ever experienced some sort of illness while traveling, but fortunately I was well-stocked with Imodium. I don't recall much in the way of bird sightings that afternoon but there wasn't much of anything that was new I don't think. Andrew was kind enough to drop me off at the airport later that afternoon and luckily the Imodium had begun to kick in, preventing what would otherwise be a very uncomfortable international flight!

It had been a wildly successful trip to central and eastern Panama with good friends. We found almost 500 bird species in 17 days, while also experiencing a range of other wildlife sightings, visiting some unique and beautiful areas, and experiencing Panamanian hospitality. It is certainly a country I will visit again in the future sometime - the western mountains and Azuero Peninsula in particular are places I would love to explore.

Total bird species: 496

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Panama - Day 16 (March 15, 2014)


We left our hotel located in the hills above Panama City and completed the short drive to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe. 

The birding was excellent and as the morning wore on the mist receded from the higher elevations. One of our target species, the Tawny-faced Quail, was quickly ticked as several were calling from the surrounding hillsides. 

Species diversity wasn't the highest at Cerro Jefe but what we lacked in quantity we made up for in quality. Violet-capped Hummingbird is practically endemic to Panama, though its range does span some of the mountains along the Colombia border. Cerro Jefe is one of the best places to find this bird, and after inspecting quite a few suitable looking flowers we were treated to decent views of two of them. Success!!

A couple of Slate-colored Grosbeaks was a new bird, but our best find was a couple of Tacarcuna Chlorospingus, a dull olive-coloured tanager found in the nearly inaccessible Tacarcuna mountain range of eastern Panama but also in Cerro Chucanti and Cerro Azul and surrounding area. We had to work hard before we finally encountered this species.

We only had a few hours in total to bird this area before having to leave to drop Dave off at the airport. As we were leaving, we ran into another vehicle carrying some birders - it happened to be the same group of Brits that we had met in Gamboa at the start of the trip! We got out to chat with them, while also observing the mixed flock of birds in the roadside trees. Suddenly, we heard a suspicious call, and seconds later a Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker flew in! This is a Panama endemic and one that we thought we were going to miss after striking out in the Darién and Nusagandi. 

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker - Cerro Azul, Panama

A total of four Stripe-cheeked Woodpeckers were in the area - quite the pleasant surprise for all of us!

Stripe-cheeked Woodpeckers - Cerro Azul, Panama

Before long it was time to go and head for the airport to drop off Dave. Steve and I still had the whole afternoon available so we decided to check out the coast near Panama City; in particular, Costa del Este. This is the location where we had observed thousands of gulls and shorebirds on our quick driveby on the way to the Darién.

Steve on the lookout - Costa del Este, Panama

Mixed flocks of shorebirds sprawled out over the extensive mudflats, probing in the mud between piles of garbage for whatever morsels they could find. It certainly wasn't the most picturesque way to study shorebirds - I have never seen so much garbage piled up high along the shore and in the mangroves.

shorebirds - Costa del Este, Panama

Whimbrel - Costa del Este, Panama

As I was scanning the big flock of Laughing Gulls a smaller, daintier bird with a lighter mantle stood out. It was a species I was quite familiar with from back home - a Bonaparte's Gull. This is a rarity in Panama with only a handful of records so I made sure to document the bird with photos.

Bonaparte's Gull (right) - Costa del Este, Panama

The most numerous shorebirds here were Western Sandpipers, followed by Short-billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets and Whimbrels.
mostly Marbled Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers - Costa del Este, Panama

shorebirds - Costa del Este, Panama

Several Southern Lapwings at close range provided some great photo opportunities.

Southern Lapwing - Costa del Este, Panama

Southern Lapwing - Costa del Este, Panama

Southern Lapwing - Costa del Este, Panama

Additional trip birds we discovered here included Elegant Tern, Caspian Tern, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Northern Scrub-Flycatcher.

Black-necked Stilt - Costa del Este, Panama

As the sun slowly began to set, Steve and I set out for an area of Panama City near the famous Parque Natural Metropolitano, a 265 hectare green oasis in the middle of the city.

Andrew Keaveney was in Panama City as well, as he had just began his adventure across the country. The three of us ended up going out for dinner with Jenn Sinasac, a friend who had relocated to Panama from Ontario and who had provided us with a lot of valuable information on our trip. Thanks Jenn!

The following morning Steve was flying back to Canada, while I was not departing until the evening. Steve, Andrew and I made plans to bird the Parque Natural Metropolitano at dawn with hopes of seeing one or two more target species. I was really hoping to encounter a Yellow-green Tyrannulet, a Panama endemic that can be found at the park. 

Total bird species so far: 490

Monday, 25 January 2016

Panama - Day 15 (March 14, 2014)


We continued working our way back west down the main east-west highway, La Carretera Pamamericana, towards Panama City. Our plan was to once again go birding in the dry forest near Lago Bayano, hopefully picking up the few species we were still missing in this habitat type. Our first stop was a single track that disappeared into the forest off of the main highway. We drove down the track for a few minutes, before exiting the car and walking along, looking for birds. The last time we were in this habitat type it was mid-day and the birds were tough to come by. 

In a couple of hours of walking we ended up with close to 50 species, including a few new ones (Golden-fronted Greenlet, Forest Elaenia). Dave also found an Olivaceous Woodcreeper which I missed.

As we were getting ready to leave, we realized that a local taxi driver had parked in front of our vehicle, blocking us in. Luckily Steve had brought a machete, and with a few minutes of work we were able to clear a path beside the taxi so we could leave!

Our next stop was at a bridge overlooking the Rio Mono, a well known birding spot. Often, small flocks of birds gravitate towards watercourses and the Rio Mono was no different. Somewhat regular vehicle traffic complicated things, but the birding was excellent with birds everywhere! Some were species we were well-acquainted with, such as this Chestnut-sided Warbler (a common breeding species in Ontario).

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Rio Mono, Panama

A Cinerous Becard was a new species for me, while this Cinnamon Becard perched out in the open for a few moments.

Cinnamon Becard - Rio Mono, Panama

Woodpeckers are well represented in central America and many species are quite colorful or with unique patterns. The Cinnamon Woodpecker is one of my favorites; one was working some of the trees below the bridge.

Cinnamon Woodpecker - Rio Mono, Panama

Often one of the most difficult aspects of bird photography is obtaining a good angle to photograph the bird. This wasn't much of an issue at the Rio Mono since most of the birds were at eye-level or lower. I took the opportunity to grab some shots of a few common species, such as Streaked Flycatcher and Dusky-capped Flycatcher.

Streaked Flycatcher - Rio Mono, Panama

Dusky-capped Flycatcher - Rio Mono, Panama

Here are a few other photos of some of the birds from the Rio Mono bridge.

Plain-colored Tanager - Rio Mono, Panama

Red-legged Honeycreeper - Rio Mono, Panama

A quick stop at Lago Bayano produced another Pied Water-Tyrant and a nice assortment of wading birds. This Tropical Kingbird provided a rare eye-level photo opportunity.

Tropical Kingbird - Lago Bayano, Panama

An hour and a half later we arrived at our destination of Nusagandi, an area of humid forest protected by the Kuna people near the west corner of the Kuna Yala reservation. Nusagandi is home to many of Panama's specialty bird species, though we had seen quite a few of them by this point (Black Antshrike, Tody Motmot, Sapayoa, Black-crowned Antpitta, Black-eared Wood-Quail, etc).

Our main target here was Spiny-faced Antshrike (also known as Speckled Antshrike), a species found primarily in eastern Panama with Nusagandi one of the better places to look for it. Spiny-faced Antshrike is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, as habitat loss has led to a declining population.

Swallow-tailed Kite - Nusagandi, Kuna Yala, Panama

We birded the Iber Igar and Iber Nusagandi trails, the latter which was overgrown. Birding was generally slow since it was early afternoon, and we worked hard to find 35 species in the afternoon. Our target antshrike eluded us unfortunately, but we did have a few nice birds such as Black-and-yellow Tanager, Northern Schiffornis, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, etc. Sapayoas eluded us as well; luckily we had seen one in the Darién a few days earlier!

Our time in Panama was quickly coming to a close and we only had one more full day. Tomorrow's plan was to check out Cerro Azul for a few remaining target species before dropping Dave off at the airport.

Roadside pet spider monkey - Nusagandi, Kuna Yala, Panama

Total bird species so far: 479

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Panama - Day 14 (March 13, 2014)


We had several hours to bird El Real in the morning before our boat trip back to Yaviza, so we headed out on foot back to the El Real airstrip to search for our remaining target species here - Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Large-billed Seed-Finch. 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - El Real, Darién, Panama

It was going to be a scorcher and already by 6:00 AM the day was warming up quickly The birding was pretty good and we quickly added a few new trip birds - Mississippi Kite, Willow Flycatcher - as well as some Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters which was new for me. After some effort we located a few Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, though looks were brief. I stopped to photograph this female Red-breasted Meadowlark.

Red-breasted Meadowlark - El Real, Darién, Panama

A Laughing Falcon was calling somewhere along the edge of the airfield - another new sighting for us.

We continued on to the area where we had the parrotlets the previous evening and once again were in luck as a small flock was hanging about the area. This tiny species is not much larger than an American Goldfinch - a pretty strange sight to see! It is hard to believe but there are even smaller parrot species in the world; the pygmy parrots of New Guinea and surrounding area. Perhaps one day I'll cross paths with some of these species.

Spectacled Parrotlet - El Real, Darién, Panama

The Streak-headed Woodcreeper is one of the more common woodcreepers in lowland forests from Mexico to northern Brazil and Peru. This one was working some small trees near where the Spectacled Parrotlets were found.

Streak-headed Woodpecker - El Real, Darién, Panama

A Rufous-tailed Jacamar was also a big highlight for me. Jacamars look like some sort of weird hybrid between a hummingbird and a kingfisher, though they are most closely related to puffbirds. They perch quietly in the forest, occasionally sallying out to snag butterflies and other insects.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar - El Real, Darién, Panama

It was a school day so several groups of children passed by as we birded the roadside. This little guy liked our cameras and pretended to take photos of us...

Eventually our time was up and we walked back to the waterfront to take our "taxi" back to Yaviza.

We added one more trip bird on the boat ridge back (Yellow-crowned Night-Heron), but had a nice variety of sightings anyways. A sample of some of the sights along the river:

Black Hawk-Eagle - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Little Blue Heron - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Common Black-Hawk - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

 Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Cocoi Heron - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Meso-American Slider - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

By early afternoon we had paid Isaac and said our goodbyes, fired up the rental car and were on our way back west. We drove back to Torti, the town where we had stayed prior to driving to Yaviza, arriving shortly after 4:00 PM. 

We birded the same road that we had checked out on that earlier visit, seeing close to 70 species in two hours. I was particularly happy to find my first Royal Flycatcher, a species with a pretty ridiculous crest that it raises at times. The one we saw wasn't particularly keen to flash us its crest, so that will have to wait until another day! 

Total bird species so far: 473