Wildlife photos from Panama's tallest mountain, Pt. 5 - Featured species: Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius ridgwayi)

Back to the heights

As explained on our previous post, we returned to Volcán Barú’s summit a couple of weeks ago, on October 14th to be exact. This time we were invited by our contributor and correspondent in Boquete, Rafael Gutierrez, to join a team of local guides and volunteers who where going to make a cleaning journey.

Honestly, to us it's very sad to have to clean up others' mess for their lack of consciousness, and we do not use to endorse this kind of activities because we feel they do not promote a change of attitude on those who litter. However, we decided to join and  kill two birds with a stone (in figurative language of course). One: finally document with photographic material the presence of the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius ridgwayi) in Panama, and two: accomplish a social and environmental responsibility work, and show it on this space to create awareness.


The trip: cleaning day

The journey was organized a couple of weeks in advance by Plinio Montenegro, a local guide from Boquete. He had the support from the local guides association, 4x4 Volcán Barú trucks, Department of Environment (MiAmbiente), Civil Protection (SINAPROC), and other volunteers. Our correspondent was part of the staff, so he confirmed Panama Birds & Wildlife Photos support and participation in the journey since Siu was traveling to Chiriquí on those days, coincidentally. All we have to do was procure our food and camping gear, and be present with our photographic gear. 

The day arrived, and we all met in Boquete where instructions were given by staff members to volunteers. The trucks took volunteers to a specific point on the road to the summit of the volcano, where a part of the participants started the walk to the summit, picking up trash with extreme caution e.g. using gloves. The trash was placed in bags, once a bag was full it was closed and left beside the road to be picked later by the trucks that constantly travel the trail.

Volunteers getting ready to start the walk to the top

Part of the staff and volunteers (we included) went to the summit on 4x4 trucks stopping at the area known as "Los Fogones” (the stoves), a camping area that due to the use given to it was very dirty.  There, a lot of trash was picked up and put into bags too.


Cleaning Los Fogones



Trash from the road going back to Boquete

Once in the summit, we walked around the surroundings picking more garbage. The plan was to stay overnight and finish cleaning the slopes of the summit the following day before descending, and so we did. We pulled several bags full of trash from the slopes to the summit.


In the summit Siu, our Director, while cleaning made a pause to photograph a Volcano Hummingbird



Cleaning the slopes


Staff and volunteers by the end of the journey with the bags of trash collected solely at the summit and its slopes



In the end, the cleaning was successful, and we expect this area of special touristic interest remain clean for the following months but please: always remember that you brought trash with you so you can take it back with you too, do not litter on beaches, trails, lakes, rivers or forests, and take care of nature.


“Trash does not go back on its own" 

Siu and his mascot owl (fake) Taky spotting the sunset at 3,450 m altitude


You can see a summary of the journey on this video by Scross Nx

 

Our next target: the owl

The night was approaching and we were getting ready. As it was planned, Rafael procured a LED flash light (loaned by Jason Lara, another local guide), playback recordings, and speakers, all of which we were going to use to find the owls. We were only required to have our photographic gear ready. Then, we talked to our friends of 4x4 Volcán Barú who by the way drove us on our previous trip, and they agreed to take us down the road, because we didn't  expect the owls to be at the highest points past the top of the trees, rather some hundred meters of altitude below.

Our home for the night

After dinner, and with a temperature of 3º C (37.4º F), we decided to take a nap until it was time to leave in search of the owl. Past 10:00 pm Siu was awaken, got ready with his gear, and hopped into one of the Jeeps along Plinio Montenegro, Rafael Gutierrez, Raul Velasquez (another local guide), Antonio Paniza (owner of the Jeeps, and our driver for the foray), and his collaborator.

On our first stop, and about 3,350 m (11,000 ft) altitude, we were not able to find the owls. After a significant waiting time we decided to try at a lower altitude, so we moved on. We decided to stop at another location where we thought they were more probable to be found.

Bingo! we found them, yes... them. They were at least three different individuals, we could tell by the callings coming from different locations. It was at about 3,200 m (10,500 ft), and near an area know as “La Nevera” (the fridge), and they responded very fast to the playback, as a matter of fact we used two recordings because Rafael and Raul had different ones. However, finding and hearing them was not enough, we wanted to see them and document them with photos, a really difficult shore because the birds favored tangled vegetation, and were even heard at low level were the tickets didn’t allowed us to observe them.

Bingo again! Rafael spotted one of them which was making a different call, a feline-like screech. Later we learned it is a territorial call done by males, which is very well studied and documented in Costa Rica, it makes sense since we heard at least two individuals doing that call, maybe disputing the territory. Unfortunately, the owl was far and looking backwards, so we had to call its attention to be able to make the shots. Then we decided to avoid the use of flash for the photos, allowing all the participants to appreciate the bird in full only lightened by the LED light (our past experiences with flash are not 100% positive, and we didn’t want to flush the bird), we made pictures, as well as Raul, and Rafael recorded a video. The bird collaborated with us turning its head to us intermittently for 10 minutes, we started making pictures at 11:45 pm and by 11:55 pm we were done when the bird  flew away. Disregarding our desire to get a better picture, we decided to call it quits and leave the birds alone, returning to our campsite at the summit.

The Unspotted Saw-whet Owl 



Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius ridgwayi)

Why is this record so important for us in Panama? you might ask. Well, the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius ridgwayi) was known for Panama due to a sole specimen collected in Volcán Barú in year 1965 at 2,300 m (7,550 ft), then the species was never recorded again, let alone photographed, until 2013,  when Ronny Gutierrez (Rafael’s brother) observed one, and then the search for the owl commenced with different excursions organized by Rafael himself, and by others. 

From 2013 to the day of our trip only 2 other records are found on Ebird, and only on this localition:
  • On the night of December 10th, 2013, Jason Fidorra and Lena Ware observed one individual at the camping site. The morning after, they heard and recorded audio of what was presumably the same individual. 
  • On February 2nd, 2016, Jason Lara observed for about one minute an individual on the ground at about 3,000 m (9,850 ft).
Our recent observation may indicate that the current status of the species is not compromised, and maybe very few observations are due to the difficulty of getting into the location, and the lack of enough study or follow up.

Disregarding its very rare status in Panama, this species is a resident breeder in the highlands ranging from southern Mexico south to Central America and in Volcán Barú in western Panama. It inhabits mainly above 2,500 m (8,200 ft). It’s nocturnal, and breeds in open mountain forests, in both the cloud forest and the higher oak woodland, laying its eggs in a tree hole. It takes rodents, shrews and other small mammals for prey, but will also feed on birds, bats and insects.

The unspotted saw-whet owl is a small, dumpy, short-tailed and broad-winged owl, 18 cm  (7 in) long. It is dark brown above with white markings on the wings. The underparts are unstreaked buff, becoming darker on the upper chest and facial disc. The head is large, with yellow eyes and a white-edged facial disc

The voice is a series of rhythmic toots and it's very similar to that of its sister species the northern saw-whet owl, some say it sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetstone, hence the saw-whet's common name in English.


The scientific species name of Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius ridgwayi) is for the American ornithologist Robert Ridgway.


Knowledge of the natural history of Unspotted Saw-whet Owl is very limited; very little is known about its abundance, habitat use and population trends. Although, we understand in Costa Rica it was broadly studied. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists this species as Least Concern, although in Mexico recently it has been listed as in peril of extinction. This conservation status in Mexico was determined because, it is an endemic and restricted distribution species, because there is little ecological and biological knowledge about it, and because the montane habitats for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl have been severely fragmented. It is important for us in Panama to look at Mexico's experience to avoid being in the same position. Fortunately, the Volcán Barú is a protected area, and the habitat of this species which appears to be a restricted altitudinal belt is hardly accesible. This supposes a safeguard from habitat loss and fragmentation but there are still risks associated to human activities that should be avoided.


More than an owl

The owl was not all, during our trip we were able to photograph more wildlife subjects even if we were not actively looking for them. Keep in mind this was not a wildlife watching trip so we didn't make any stop for that. However, during the stop at Los Fogones, and during our stay at the summit we were able to capture the following pictures.

Small flower and beetle

Small shrub's flower


    Sooty-capped Chlorospingus (Chlorospingus pileatus)


    Large-footed Finch (Pezopetes capitalis)

    Without a doubt the bonus stars were the male Volcano Hummingbirds (Selasphorus flammula), which were numerous in the area, they posed for great shots, and one in particular at the summit was not shy at all. We guess that's due to getting used to human presence and activity on the summit, besides being really focused on defending his territory from other conspecific intruders. Below, just a taste of the shots we were able to get of this species.




    Volcano Hummingbirds (Selasphorus flammula) - males


    Special thanks

    As a closing note we would like to thank the following persons that made this account possible in several ways:
    • Plinio Montenegro for your dedicated efforts to keep the volcano clean for all us visitors,  accepting us on this trip, your pictures, and providing the food (no se me olvida esa deliciosa crema de macaroni & cheese).
    • Rafael Gutierrez for the invitation, setting everything for us as a good correspondent should do, and most importantly for spotting the owl.
    • Raul Velasquez for the Abuelo 7 Años and Aguardiente Antioqueño shots. 
    • Antonio Paniza and 4x4 Volcán Barú for getting us to the owl. We highly recommend their services.
    • Canon Latin America Professional Services for lending us an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II lens for the trip. We made the flower shots with it, and later used it for frogs (but thats’s part of another post).
    • Scross Nx for allowing us to use his video for this report.
    Thanks to you all!

    The End