Two new species to Ecuador: Panama Flycatcher & Dwarf Cuckoo

Panama Flycatcher BOn 14 December 2012 I left Quito for a four-day-trip to search for rare birds around San Lorenzo and La Tola in Esmeraldas province, northwest Ecuador. During the trip I was lucky to find two new species for Ecuador within 24 hours!

In addition, I recorded the highest number of Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata and Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias (both rare migrants) for mainland Ecuador. This probably tells us that there is more to be found in this fairly under-birded area of Ecuador. We just need to be out there looking!

San Lorenzo, 16 Dec 2012
I left the San Lorenzo port around 06:30 with a small motorized boat to search for Humboldt’s Sapphire Hylocharis humboldtii and Yellow-backed Oriole Icterus chrysater at Las Islas San Andres del Manglar. Neither sapphire nor orioles were found at the old plywood factory, so I continued exploring. Heading up the obvious hill behind the factory, the trail went by some low patches of mangroves and scrubby vegetation. Suddenly, a pair of flycatchers flew by and perched in the open c. 20m away from me. It was a Myiarchus! I quickly grabbed my iPod and searched for playback of Panama Flycatcher Myiarchus panamensis. Luckily, I had recently downloaded Scott Olmstead’s recording from I pressed play and instantly one of the two flew right towards me, passing by low over the ground, about a meter away, and then landed in a tree behind me. I pulled out my video camera and started to film the bird for about 20 minutes. I also got two recordings of its call.

Panama Flycatcher AMyiarchus flycatchers are some of the most difficult species to identify in the Americas, so I was not yet cheering out loud! Fortunately, I had brought a small library with me and hence could consult both volumes of Birds of Ecuador plus Birds of Colombia. The Panama Flycatcher is found all the way south to the Ecuadorian border along the pacific coast in Colombia (mainly in mangroves). However, the very similar (both in morphology and vocalizations) Sooty-crowned Flycatcher M. phaeocephalus has been reported just outside the city of Esmeraldas, some 100km southwest of this spot.

The recordings I obtained perfectly matched with Scott Olmstead his recording of Panama Flycatcher from Costa Rica (XC45131). It sounds somewhat different from Sooty-crowned, being faster and less drawn out. Also, the crown of the bird I observed was uniform grayish brown, not showing any dark feathers in the rear crown, and the birds were generally pale on the upperparts. Another thing I noticed was that the birds had a fairly obvious pale area around the eyes, like a broad, diffuse pale eye-ring.

Later on, checking photos on the web I realized that most of the available photos of Panama Flycatcher on the internet showed the same pale area around the eyes that I noted and captured on video. Sooty-crowned does not show this feature nor does Short-crested Flycatcher M. ferox, a species formerly considered conspecific with Panama Flycatcher. So far, I haven’t found this detail being mentioned as a field mark for Panama Flycatcher. In any case, with this extensive documentation, I now feel quite confident that my record will be accepted by the Ecuadorian rarities committee (CERO).

Most likely the Panama Flycatcher breeds within Ecuador’s borders as they are not known to be migratory. Also, it has most probably been overlooked in Ecuador. Especially, since the species is difficult to identify in the field. A few years ago Alejandro Solano observed a Myiarchus in mangroves near La Tola, of which he thought, was Panama Flycatcher. Unfortunately, documentation got lost and he was not able to confirm the record. Hopefully future observations can tell us more about the species occurrence in Ecuador.

Somewhat confusingly Myiarchus panamensis has been called both Panama Flycatcher and Panamanian Flycatcher. SACC uses Panama Flycatcher, while IOC uses Panamanian.

After this adventure I continued towards Las Peñas and La Tola and arrived at the wetlands just north of Las Peñas around 16:00. I had a nice afternoon light and soon I had counted five Great Blue Herons. This species is fairly common on Galapagos (a resident subspecies) but there are only a few records from mainland Ecuador. Great Blue Heron had been recorded before at this wetland by others (Brinkhuizen & de Bruin, 2010) but five individuals together is probably the highest number recorded on the mainland. I shot some video of two individuals from a distance.

Shortly after, I found a large flock of Northern Shovelers resting on the shore at one of the ponds. I counted about 25 and got some video. The next day I was able to make a precise count of 26 individuals, which to-date is the highest number ever of the species in Ecuador!

Las Peñas, 17 Dec 2012
Dwarf Cuckoo largeIn a very good mood after yesterday’s success I left Las Peñas around 07:50. Driving along a dirt track outside town I noticed a medium-sized bird in an Acacia tree. My first thoughts were Collared Antshrike Thamnophilus bernardi or Long-tailed Mockingbird Mimus longicaudatus, but it didn’t feel quite right, and those two species shouldn’t be this far north. Consequently, I stopped the car and got out to look for it. Soon I relocated the bird and when it turned I nearly choked. A rich rufous chest, a Plantcutter or what!? Then I saw the head and the rest of the underparts and directly realized that I was looking at Ecuador’s first Dwarf Cuckoo Coccyzus pumilus! I ran back to the car and pulled out my video camera with shaking hands. Luckily the bird stayed around for another 5 minutes and I managed to get some video proof before it disappeared. Wow, an amazing record of an absolutely gorgeous bird! A life bird for me and this one was easy: no need for further confirmation apart from a quick look in Birds of Colombia.

It remains to be seen if the Dwarf Cuckoo actually breeds in this area. It is a resident species but this individual might have been a wanderer. The bird felt rather restless and it was not vocalizing. The species’ known breeding range along the Pacific goes as far south as the Valle department in western Colombia.

On my way back to Quito I briefly stopped at Laguna Yaguarcocha, just outside Ibarra, and observed an adult Franklin’s Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan in non-breeding plumage. According to Roger Ahlman there are only a handful of records of this species away from the coast in Ecuador. A truly unforgettable trip!

Jonas Nilsson       Back to the News

Aves Ecuador by Dušan M. Brinkhuizen