The Hunt for Maroon September
Or finding the rare Maroon-chested Ground Dove
Some birders’ favorite bird to find is the bird that is hardest to find. That is part of the challenge and the fun of birding! Our guide in Boquete, Panamá, Jason Lara, admitted to fall into that category. During our one-day tour with him, we counted 65 species of birds—almost all of them new and exciting for us and one rarity particularly exciting for him: the Maroon-chested Ground Dove.
The Maroon-chested Ground Dove is a member of the Columbidae family (pigeons and doves) found in foothill and mountain forests of Central America and northern South America. True to its name, males have a light gray face, lighter gray body with bands on their wings and a maroon chest. As the picture above shows, though, they’re not exclusively found on the ground.
While they may look like the birds you see on the street every day, they are, in the words of eBird, “very scarce and rarely seen.” These “enigmatic bamboo specialists,” as Cornell’s Birds of the World describes them, are categorized as a species of Least Concern but are elusive and quite difficult to observe with most observations of them being of them in flight.
eBird observation counts reflect their elusiveness. There are 703 observations of the Maroon-chested Ground Dove. To compare to some species that are more commonly seen: there are 30,803 observations of the Scaled Pigeon (another Neotropical forest-dweller), 44,739 observations of Kereru (a large, endemic New Zealand pigeon), and 7,305,039 observations of our city-dwelling Rock Pigeon friends.
As a result of their scarcity, very little is known about them. Here’s the Behavior section for the bird on Wikipedia, which is just about as much as information as sources like Birds of the World has on them too:
Seemingly so familiar but actually quite the mystery! I think that’s pretty neat.
We (really just Jason) heard its “cuWOOP” calls while birding at Finca Lérida, a well-known resort and coffee estate in the area. There seemed to be two calling to each other across the valley we were in, and one sounded VERY close. We followed the calls for about half an hour or so, heading up one of the estate’s trails, peering into trees on the mountain slope.
And there it was! Perched in a tree, still calling to the one across the valley and sometimes responding to the echo of its own call. Its maroon-chest puffed up and down in a funny way with every “cuWOOP.” Jason got it in his scope, and we were able to get some photos and videos by digiscoping. (NOTE: For annoying technical reasons I can’t embed a video here, so below is a link to a YouTube short.)
I admittedly didn’t do much homework around the birds of Panama before going, and while I believed Jason about the rarity of the bird, I didn’t really appreciate how rare our sighting was until, well, figuring out if I wanted to write this. It was a very lucky sighting, and I may never see it again.
I wanted to end by again highly recommending Jason Lara if you ever find yourself in Boquete, Panama. If birding isn’t your thing, he can take you on hikes, coffee tours, and general sightseeing tours too!
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