Friday, August 15, 2014

Bulletin 204 - Panama #12 - Tanagers

The Tanagers are a large (370 species) diverse family (Thraupidae) of colorful new world birds, especially in the genus tangara. They are most common in the tropics. Some of the species inhabit offshore islnds besides the Caribbean Islands. The so-called Darwin Finches of the Galapagos Islands are in this family. As well, I saw at least one of them is on the Falklands Island chain off Argentina. What is more surprising is there are 4 endemic species in the Tristan da Cuhna archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. These islands are 2100 miles from South America.

The familar birds in North America called tanagers (scarlet, summer, western, hepatic) are no longer in this family, but were moved to the cardinal family. Also, another that we photographed in Panama is now moved to the sparrow family and we will see it in a later bulletin.

Not all tanagers are brightly colored as we saw with the Puerto Rican Tanager last year. I will start with the dull ones and work to the more colorful. The sexes are similar unless noted.

The Plain-colored Tanager (Tangara inornata) is a 4.5" plain gray bird with dark wings and a blue shoulder patch that is usually hidden when the bird is perched. One can just get a peek at the blue shoulder patch in this photo.

Plain-colored Tanager
The Palm Tanager (Thraupis palmarum) is a 6" pale gray bird with a yellowish wash on the head and neck.

Palm Tanager
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
Several of the tanagers were black with some white on the wings. The White-lined Tanager (Tachyphonus rufus) is 6.5" long. The male is black with a fine white line on the shoulder. You can just see a few white dots in the photo. One almost would think this is some member of the blackbird (icterid) family.

White-lined Tanager - male
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
As the Latin name suggests, the female is rufous colored and lacks the line on the shoulder and to my mind is prettier.

White-lined Tanager - female
The White-shouldered Tanager (Tachyphonus luctuosus) is smaller (5"). It is all black with a wide white shoulder patch.

White-shouldered Tanager
The Sulphur-rumped Tanager (Heterospingus rubrifrons) is a 6" overall gray bird with white tufts at sides of breast that are visible at the wing edge. The sulphur rump is usually only visible in flight.

Sulphur-rumped Tanager
 A moment later he flew to another branch and fluffed his feathers, showing the rump color.

Sulphur-rumped Tanager
The very similar Flame-rumped Tanager (Ramphocelus flammigerus) is 6.5" long. The male is black with the bright yellow rump. Lisa got the only photo of this male.

Flame-rumped Tanager - male
Photo by Lisa-Kelly-McDonald

The female is olive with yellow underparts and rump. She responded to the tape and posed nicely. He never showed up.

Flame-rumped Tanager - female
One can see with all these similar colored birds, why using a guide is essential for me.

Seedeaters are a single genus, sporophila, with 33 species in Latin America. They are also included in the tanager family. We photographed 3 species.

As these are  tiny 3.5" to 4" somewhat plain birds, I will just give you the link to the photos as this bulletin is very long anyway.

The Variable Seedeater (Sporophila americana) is 4". The male is black with a white rump and belly. The female is dull ochre.

The Ruddy-breasted Seedeater (Sporophils minuta) is 3.5". The male is brown with a ruddy underparts. The female is plain brown.

The Yellow-bellied Seedeater (Sporophila nigricollis) is also 4". The male has a black face and throat, olive back and yellowish belly. The female is plain brown.

The 3.5" Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus) is an olive bird with the male showing black and yellow facial pattern. I had photographed this species in Texas in 2011 when one showed up near Corpus Christi on the Texas coast.

Yellow-faced Grassquit - male

The female lacks the black and has just a little yellow on the face.

Yellow-faced Grassquit - female
The Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) is a common bird throughout Mexico and Central America. Surprisingly, I never saw it on this trip and I was surprised to see Lisa got a photo of one when I was looking through her photos for this bulletin. It is pale gray with bright blue wings and tail.

Blue-gray Tanager
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
The male Blue Dacnis (Dacnis cayana) is a small (4.5") turquoise bird with a black back, red eye and pink legs. We didn't see the female, but she is green.

Blue Dacnis - male

A close relative is the Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus). The breeding male of this small (4.5") species is royal blue with a turquoise crown, black wings, tail and back, and bright red legs. The female and non breeding males are dull greenish. Fortunately we saw the glorious breeding plumaged male.

Red-legged Honeycreeper - breeding male

Another day we saw a tree full of pink blossoms and these birds were feasting on the nectar.

Red-legged Honeycreeper - breeding male
Lisa first spotted this next bird, the male Green Honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza). He just glows with his coloration of bright green with a black head and yellow bill. He is also 4.5" in length.

Green Honeycreeper - male
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
The female is all bright green, but not iridescent like the male.

Green Honeycreeper - female
The Crimson-backed Tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus) is a common garden bird that we saw everyday. The male is stunning crimson with black wings and tail and silver lower mandible. I would sure love to have this bird coming to feeders in my yard!

Crimson-backed Tanager - male

The female is duller, but still crazy colored. I think she is prettier than any female bird in the USA or Canada.

Crimson-backed Tanager - female
Now for the 4 tangara genus tanagers. They are considered the most colorful of the tanagers. However, if you go back to the beginning, the Plain-colored Tanager is also a tangara. Maybe he is incorrectly labelled or else the exception that proves the rule. Mostly they occur in mountains above 1000 foot elevation.

The last morning we went into a park on the mountain top that connects parks on the Pacific slope to those on the Atlantic slope. It was windy, cold, foggy and raining. We saw 2 tangara species.

This is the 5" Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola) . The picture is fuzzy, but for me it is a special bird. It is on the cover of the Costa Rica bird book, and was the first bird I saw in Costa Rica in my 1994 trip. I yelled out to the group "There's the bird on the cover!" I was so excited to see it so soon. It has turquoise underparts, green back and chestnut head.

Bay-headed Tanager
The Emerald Tanager (Tangara florida) is 4.5" long.. They are bright green with a squarish black patch behind the ear. Also, the crown and rump are yellow.

Emerald Tanager
The 5" Silver-throated Tanager (Tangara icterocephala) is mostly bright yellow, with greenish wings and tail and back stripes on the back. The throat is silver.

Silver-throated Tanager
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
Lastly is the 4.5" Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata). It has blue on the face, wings and rump, black on back and chest and a golden hood.

Golden-hooded Tanager
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

Lisa Kelly-McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald & Lisa Kelly-McDonald

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bulletin 203 - Panama #11 - Raptors and Owl

I was disappointed at how few numbers of raptors that we saw on the 1 week Panama trip. We saw several different species, but usually only 1 or 2 individuals. Several of the really cool looking ones that I had seen on previous tropical trips were not seen at all.

We photographed 3 species of the falcon and caracara family. The smallest (9") was our familiar American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). This species is IDed by the 2 vertical black lines on the head. This is a male as he has gray wings. This is my best photo ever of this species, so I always take their photo even if I have already some good ones.

American Kestrel - male
The Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) is a large (23") raptor. It occurs throughout Central America as well as the southern USA (FL, AZ, TX). On our last day as we were driving back on the main highway, an adult was beside the road eating some carrion like a vulture. We pulled over so Lisa could get some photos. Amazingly, the bird started to walk towards our vehicle and got to within 30 feet. Here he is plucking what looks like a lizard from the grass and devours it. The adult is black with a white chest and face, and yellow legs. He looks brownish so it may be the sun on the feathers.

Northern Caracara - adult
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
Later that day, we saw a juvenile close to the road (maybe 20 feet from us). Notice he has gray legs and the plumage is brown.

Northern Caracara - juvenile
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
There was an old turtle shell on the ground that got his attention. I don't think there was much nutrition in it. LOL

Northern Caracara - juvenile

The last was the Yellow-headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima). It is smaller at 17" and is IDed by the beige head and breast with brown wings and back.

Yellow-headed Caracara - adult

Some of our hawks are migrants through Central America. We saw a couple of these. On the last day as we were driving down a mountain road, this juvenile Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) was on a bare branch at eye level not 25 feet from us. We rolled down the windows of the vehicle and took photos.

Broad-winged Hawk - juvenile
The other was the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus). This is a widespread bird in USA and Canada and is easily recognizable by the white rump as it flies low across fields looking for prey. The Panama bird book lists it as a winter resident, but it must be very uncommon as it was a life bird for our guide! In fact he didn't know what it was, but of course I IDed it instantly as I see it many times over the course of a year in Texas. It is a female with the brown color.

Northern Harrier - female
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
Three other raptors we saw only once and they were flyovers. Lisa with her hand held camera was able to get photos, but with my camera on a tripod, I missed them.

The first is the Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). This is a 22" bird with a white head and underparts and black back, wings and long forked tail. It is unmistakable. It is also considered one of the more graceful and beautiful of the worlds hawks. It does occur in the USA in east Texas and Florida.

Swallow-tailed Kite
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
Next is the Common Black-Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus). This is a 21" all black hawk. It has a single white band on the tail. It does occur in the USA in west Texas and Arizona.

Common Black-Hawk
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald

The last was a lifer for me. The Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus) is a 25" crested black raptor. Of course from below, the crest cannot be seen. The bird was way up in the sky, but the checkerboard pattern of light and dark on the wings makes the ID.

Black Hawk-Eagle
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
The last hawk we photographed was the beautiful Savanna Hawk (Buteogallus meridionalis). This 22" hawk is cinnamon colored.

Savanna Hawk
We did not see any new vultures, but we did see this downy baby Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) who fell out of the nest. He was on the ground and being protected and presumably fed by the parents.

Black Vulture - downy young
Lisa and I both love owls. I have only seen a single owl in my 4 previous trips to the tropics. Nocturnal birds are so difficult to find. So when the guide told us he was taking us to a house where owls roosted, it was the highlight of the trip. The Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) at 19" is the largest owl in Panama. The pair were sitting in the open several feet apart on a branch. Here is the male.

Spectacled Owl - male
A short time later, she moved over beside her mate. Lisa got the best photo with both of them looking at the camera. The female is larger and heavier in owls and hawks. She is on the left and her eyes are darker as well.

Spectacled Owl - pair
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

Lisa Kelly-McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald & Lisa Kelly-McDonald

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Friday, July 4, 2014

Bulletin 202 - Panama #10 - Trogons, Finches, Iguanas

The trogons are a small worldwide family of 43 colorful birds, 2/3 of whom are in the Americas. They are medium-sized birds and have long square tipped tails (except for a few exceptions). They tend to sit motionless on branches until they fly out to snag an insect, or pluck fruit off a branch. Two species just make it into the USA in extreme southeast Arizona.

We saw and photographed 3 species on our trip. The first was the 12.5" Slaty-tailed Trogon (Trogon massena). The male has a green back and breast, red belly, gray tail and wings, and red bill and orbital ring.

Slaty-tailed Trogon - male
The female is duller with the green replaced by gray.

Slaty-tailed Trogon - female

The 9" Gartered Trogon (Trogon caligatus) is one of 3 species split from Violaceous Trogon for those of you unfamiliar with the name Gartered Trogon. The male has a green back, purplish head and breast, yellow belly and eye ring and striped undertail.

Gartered Trogon - male

The female is similar, but the back and head are gray and the eye ring is white.

Gartered Trogon - female

On another occasion, we watched a pair of these trogons attacking a mud nest of Aztec ants. These bell shaped ant nests are in the trees. The pair flew from their perches nearby and landed on the nest. They pulled pieces off to get at the ants inside. Here is the female hanging on the bottom of the ant nest.

Gartered Trogon - female on nest of Aztec ants

The last trogon is the 10.5" White-tailed Trogon (Trogon viridis). It is similar to the gartered Trogon above, but the undertail is all white. The male has a blue orbital ring, rather than yellow.

White-tailed Trogon - male
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald

Some of the nomneclature of birds can be confusing. I find this especially with 4 families, the tanagers, finches, cardinals and new world sparrows. I suppose this arose as the discoverers of the new world species called them as to what they resembled in Europe. And now with DNA analysis, we can more closely find related species and put them in the proper relationship.

Because of that, we can have birds with the similar names, but they are not in the families of the that name. For example, we have birds called tanagers in both the cardinal and tanager families. We have birds called finches in the finch, cardinal, and sparrow families. There are cardinals in the cardinal and sparrow families. There are grosbeaks and buntings in the cardinal and finch families.

We saw 2 members of the finch family on the trip. Both are small bright yellow birds. The first was the Yellow-crowned Euphonia  (Euphonia luteicapilla). This is a tiny (3.5") bird. The male dark above and has a yellow breast and crown.

Yellow-crowned Euphonia - male
The female is dull yellow.

Yellow-crowned Euphonia - female

The other was the Thick-billed Euphonia (Euphonia laniirostris). It is a little larger at 4". The male is all yellow underneath and dark on top. The only one we saw was this juvenile male who has an olive back rather than black. The female is all olive and yellow.

Thick-billed Euphonia - juvenile male

One of the things that has always fascinated me as I have done more reading and research on nature is the geographical distribution of species. Animals of the same genus, tend to be close together geographically. This sort of make sense from a evolutionary perspective, if they evolved from an ancient species. Perhaps God placed these initial species around the globe and let evolution proceed from there or He placed all the different species, no one knows for sure.

To give you an example, there are 11 species of Piranga tanagers of which 5 occur in North America (Scarlet, Summer, Western, Hepatic and occasionally Flame-colored). The other 6 occur in Mexico, central America and northen South America.

The term iguana is very confusing as there is a suborder iguania that includes many primarily arboreal lizards such as chameleons in the Old World, New World iguanas, and anoles. The family iguanidae is narrowed down to New World lizards (anoles, spiny lizards, horned lizards) as well as Madagascar iguanas and a few others. Below that classifiaction is the subfamily iguaninae. There are 8 living and 4 extinct genuses in this family with a total of 47 living species. All of them are in the Americas and Caribbean Islands except for a few. There are 4 species in the Galapagos including the unique marine iguana.

Where it gets interesting is that there are 3 species in Fiji and Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. As well there were 2 more species there, that have gone extinct. These lizards are 6,200 miles from their nearest relatives and this has caused a biogeographical enigma. 2 hypotheses have been proposed to explain this distribution. The first was that some lizards rode debris from South America to Fiji on the South Equatorial Current, sort of like the Kon-Tiki Expedition.

The other is that there was an Old World precursor of the iguanas that spread across the Pacific Islands and also crossed the Bering land bridge into the Americas. However, no fossilized remains of this lizard have been found in the Old World. Also for me, I find it hard to believe a cold-blooded lizard could cross the Bering land bridge in the arctic. My theory is that God has a sense of humor and placed them there to puzzle us humans.

There are only 2 species with the genus iguana. The common Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) is a large lizard common through Latin America.

Green Iguana
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald
We saw 2 other members of the iguanidae family. The Black Spinytail Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) is a large (up to 5') lizard that is gray in color with black bands circling his body. The range is southern Mexico to northern Columbia. Of interest, the Guiness Book of World Records lists this lizard as the world fasted lizard. They can run at 21 mph. We saw this one at the top of a chain-link fence with barbed wire above. We stopped and watched, and were concerned that he may have been impaled on the fence, as he wasn't moving. We got out to help him, and took some pictures. But as we got close to him, he jumped down and ran away.

Black Spinytail Iguana

The second was the Common Basilisk Lizard (Basiliscus basiliscus). This is one of 4 similar species popularly known as Jesus Christ lizards for their ability to run short distances on top of the water. They grow up to 2.5 feet in length. They are brown with a cream stripe on the sides and another on the upper lip and throat. The adults have a dorsal fin and the males have a crest as well. They are able to run on water as they have large hind toes with flaps of skin, that open in the water to increase the surface area of the foot.

Here is a juvenile. Notice he has no dorsal fin, but one can see the flaps on his hind toes.

Common Basilisk Lizard - juvenile
Lisa crawled through some dense brush to get this photo of an adult basking on a branch. He look almost prehistoric.

Common Basilisk Lizard - male
Photo by Lisa Kelly-McDonald

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

Lisa Kelly-McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald & Lisa Kelly-McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.