Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Discoveries at Cerro El Pital

I just returned from five days in the field at El Pital, El Salvador's highest peak (2,730 m) on the border with Honduras. I was there as part of a team of Salvadoran biologists. Our team was like a mini Noah's Ark, working in the torrential rains of tropical storm Alex, with two mammal specialists, two ornithologists, two botanists, two herpetologists, and two entomologists on board. I doubled as ornithologist and entomologist. One of the botanists doubled as 24/7 stand-up comedian. And despite the weather, we made a number of interesting discoveries. The bird at the top, for example, is a Sedge Wren, a species that until this week had been recorded only once before in El Salvador, without any kind of photo or audio documentation, at a site that doesn't have proper habitat to support the bird. That previous record may have been a misidentification, or at best a record of a vagrant.

This week, however, we found a small, local population of this species in El Pital's highland swampy areas, wet spots with lots of sedges and grasses. We photographed several individuals and recorded songs. We even saw a bird fly off with a fecal sac, and spent some time searching for its nest among the grasses and sedges.

This morning, while Carlos (the other ornithologist) was recording the songs of a couple of Sedge Wrens, a Ruddy Crake suddenly called! That's a bird normally found at much lower elevations (0 - 1500 m, according to Howell & Webb 1995) and as far as I know not previously reported from this site. We found it at 2,400 m! And this isn't even the only 'lowland' species we found here. Other examples include Grayish Saltator (0 - 1500 m, Howell & Webb 1995) and Spot-breasted Oriole (up to 1500 m in Central America, Howell & Webb 1995).

One of Central America's most charismatic birds is the Resplendent Quetzal, in El Salvador only known from two locations: Montecristo and El Pital. When Carlos and I got near the top of El Pital, well above 2,500 m, we found cloud forest that to me looked good for quetzal. So I started whistling one of their calls, and immediately four quetzals - two males and two females - came in! I got several shots of one male, apparently the first quetzal to be photographed at the site in 90 years!

Also at this same location, a bird that I had never seen before but had been reported once in the 90's at this site: Garnet-throated Hummingbird. We found an adult male. Note the quite obvious molt in the inner primaries on this bird.

King Vulture is another uncommon and spectacular Central American species. We saw one on an expedition to a smaller top, to collect orchids.

A surprise find was this immature Peregrine Falcon. The closest known breeding grounds are in northwest Mexico, although the species does winter in fairly decent numbers in Central America, usually near the coast. I suspect that June records for this species are quite rare anywhere in Central America.

This Rufous-collared Sparrow on the other hand is quite common in the highlands of El Pital, and its melancholy whistle could be heard from every yard or hedgerow. This bird ranges from southern Mexico all the way down to the tip of South America.

The iPod, by the way, was again fully operational last night, but we failed to turn up any of the target owl species. The only owl I heard calling faintly in the mist and rain was a Mottled Owl, a bird we didn't even play a tape for.

Our team has one day of rest / data entry / administrative work, before we head out to our next site, called Cerro El Tigre, on the slope of a volcano in eastern El Salvador. This area has been explored even less than El Pital, which means more possibilities for discoveries. You can read all about it here next week.

Cited literature
Howell, Steve N.G. & Webb, Sophie (1995) A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Oxford University Press

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