Pipeline Road and surroundings - the best place for Panama Birds & Wildlife Photos of 2015 (pt. 1)
During the last months of 2015 we'd been visiting the Pipeline Road (http://pipelineroad.org); previously featured on this blog; trying to get better pictures of the avian species that can be found there. As usual, a lot of these species are more easily heard than seen, and if seen it's more probable you won't get a good chance for pictures than you will, so it took us several visits to make this series of posts.
One of the best chances occur when you find an army ants swarm and you can reach close to it, because sometimes access to the area is difficult trying to walk through vines and lianas with the photographic equipment, especially a tripod which is totally necessary since you will be shooting at very bad light conditions and a slow shutter speed is advisable. These swarms are followed by a plethora of opportunistic birds that otherwise would be difficult to watch. These birds do not feed on the ants but on the arthropods and small frogs and lizards that hide on the floor of the forest, in lower level of trunks and in the leaf litter, and escape from the voracious ants.
We were fortunate enough to find a couple of ant swarms, and also to find some rare bird species in this place and its surroundings but birds were not the only species we photographed, we even did some nocturnal macro tours.
In the end, we have decided to select this spot as the best place for Panama Birds & Wildlife Photos of year 2015, and saved a lot of mostly perviously unpublished pictures for these special posts while we prepare for a new year of photographic adventures.
As explained before we hit a couple of ant swarms, the first one was followed by several species that we could photograph in the understory of the rainforest and these pictures are the subject of this first part. Light is poor in this habitat, so we employed our telephoto lens with tripod, slow shutter speeds and high ISO to take as most advantage of natural light as we could while we were in the eye of the storm, literally stepping on the army ants.
Bicolored Antbird (Gymnopithys bicolor) is speculated to be an obligate ant-follower. The species has a relatively wide range, which encompasses Central America from Honduras south to Panama, then through northern Colombia south to western Ecuador. Elsewhere, the Bicolored Antbird is also distributed over upper Amazonia, from southeast Colombia to north-central Peru, and eastwards north of the Amazon as far as the Rio Negro, and this population is sometimes suggested to involve a separate species, with a proposed split between G. leucapsis and G. bicolor.
Throughout the species’ range, the Bicolored Antbird inhabits the understory of lowland forests, ranging locally into the foothills, and feeds on insects, other arthropods, and small animals. In Panama it's fairly common on entire Caribbean and eastern Pacific slopes, it's one of the most common birds at army ant swarms and only rarely found away from them.
Spotted Antbirds - female
Spotted Antbirds - male
Spotted Antbird (Hylophylax naevioides) is an elegant bird of the lowland tropical rainforests and is one of the most well-studied of all Neotropical birds. The name Hylophylax derives from the Greek words "hule" (woodland) and "phulax" (a watcher or guardian). The species name "naevioides" derives from Latin "naevius" (spotted) and the Greek suffix "-oides" (resembling). This impression that the Spotted Antbird is a "spotted watcher of the woodland" is also mirrored in Panama's Darien province where the species is locally known as 'corregidor' (mayor) for its apparent behavior of directing the activities of other birds found with it, presumably at army ant swarms. They are frequent -though not obligate- followers of mixed-species foraging flocks that track insect-flushing swarms of army ants across the forest floor, they also forage independently. Due to their small size (11.5 cm length) relative to competitors, Spotted Antbirds are low in the pecking order at these army ant swarms. In Panama it's common on entire Caribbean and eastern Pacific slopes, it inhabits lower levels of forest.
Red-throated Ant-Tanager - male
Red-throated Ant-Tanager (Habia fuscicauda) is a resident on the Caribbean slopes from southeastern Mexico to eastern Panama. It was usually considered an aberrant kind of tanager and placed in the Thraupidae, but is actually closer to the cardinals (Cardinalidae). Consequently, it can be argued that referring to the members of this genus as ant tanagers is misleading, but no other common name has gained usage. Adult males are dull dusky red, somewhat paler below, and with a bright red throat and central crown. The female is brownish olive, paler and greyer below, and with a yellow throat and small dull yellow crown stripe.
It occurs in thick undergrowth at the edge of forest, second growth or abandoned plantations at altitudes from sea level to 600 m. They eat insects, arthropods and fruit, and will follow army ant columns especially in lowlands. In Panama it's common in lowlands and lower foothills on entire Caribbean slope, uncommon and local on central Pacific slope.
Gray-headed Tanager (Eucometis penicillata) is the only member of the genus Eucometis. It is a lowland tanager found primarily in forested habitats from southern Mexico to northern Paraguay. Its plumage is a yellowish olive over much of its body, with a conspicuous gray head and crest. They have adapted to several different ways of life and habitats; their diet includes fruit and insects, and they are known to follow army ant swarms particularly north and west of the Andes. Usually travels in pairs and spends most of its time in the dense forest understory. In Panama it's fairly common on Pacific slope and on Caribbean slope from northern Coclé eastward, inhabits lower levels of forest, frequently following ants.
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper (Dendrocolaptaes sanctithomae) was considered conspecific with the Amazonian Barred-Woodcreeper (D. certhia), but vocal, behavioural, and morphological differences between the two support species status. Northern Barred-Woodcreeper occurs from Mexico south to western Colombia and extreme northwestern Venezuela. It's large, heavy-billed with distinct scaling and barring on the head and underparts. It feeds on arthropods, most of which are obtained as they flee from army ant swarms. It's also occasionally found with mixed species flocks. In Panama it's uncommon in lowlands and rare in foothills, occurring on entire Caribbean slope and in some parts of the Pacific slope, inhabits lower levels of forest.
Despite the Plain Brown Woodcreeper (Dendrocincla fuliginosa) is frequently observed foraging around army ants, it is not an obligate follower of their swarms, as these woodcreepers are also seen feeding alone, with other mixed-species flocks, and in association with troops of monkeys. In Panama it's fairly common on entire Caribbean slope and eastern Pacific slope, found in lower and middle levels of forest.
Rufous Motmot (Baryphthengus martii) is the second largest of the motmots. The large size, overall rich coloration and contrast between rufous head and underparts and intensely green-blue back, wings and tail contribute to the striking appearance of this species. It is nearly identical in overall coloration and pattern to the smaller Broad-billed Motmot, with which it shares a similar range extending from Honduras south to Peru and Bolivia and east to northwestern Brazil. The Rufous Motmot prefers humid lowland and hill forest where it consumes a large variety of food items ranging from various fruits to invertebrates and even small vertebrates, sometimes in the company of army ants. Considering how spectacular and common this species is in portions of its range, there are relatively few details available on many aspects of its natural history including description of its eggs, incubation period and fledging time, all of which remain unknown. In Panama it's common in lowlands and foothills on Caribbean slope, an on Pacific slope from Panama Oeste eastward, uncommon in foothills on Veraguas and Coclé's Pacific slope. Found in lower levels of forest.
Broad-billed Motmot (Electron platyrhynchum) inhabits humid forest in foothills and lowlands where it sits quietly between sallying forays for insects and other small animals. Compared to Rufous Motmot, which occurs in many of the same areas, Broad-billed Motmots may be distinguished by their smaller size, blue-green chin, and larger central chest spots. This species was not observed with the ant column but we won't be surprised if it occasionally joins as we have observed Rufous Motmot and Blue-crowned Motmot do. In Panama it's common on entire Caribbean slope and on eastern Pacific slope from Panama, rare on western Pacific slope where it occurs locally in foothills. Found in lower levels of forest.
Besides both motmots shown above, in Pipeline Road you can also find Whooping Motmots aka Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus subrufescens) but we were not able to observe them in our last visits. These make three out of the four especies occurring in Panama.
At the same ant swarm we also observed a group of Chestnut-backed Antbirds that passed by foraging but unfortunately, no Ocellated Antbirds nor Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos. Later we found a smaller ants' swarm that was being used by Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds and White-whiskered Puffbirds that were foraging fleeing insects intensively on the area. Those photos will be featured later on the continuation of this special post.