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Maria Vega, Panama's rarest bird?
(photo by Erik Westra)
It is small, barely 5 and ½ inches long, not brightly colored, has no distinctive song yet the Maria Vega may be the rarest bird on this planet. It belongs to the humble sparrow family, specifically the Rufous Collared Sparrow family, the Latin name is Zonotrichia Capensis. What makes this little bird so special is its color – almost completely white. Through some odd quirk of genetics this bird is unlike the color of any of its species. If it does mate then the chances are overwhelmingly the off spring will not be white – they will revert to being plain old sparrow-colored. So the Maria Vega is unique because it may be the only bird of this type and color in the entire world.
Named after 35, year old local amateur Panamanian ornithologist and schoolteacher, Maria Vega, this bird was discovered in the highlands of western Panama near the town of Volcan. The book, “Birds of Panama,” states there are 883 different species. In Chiriqui alone there are about 300 different types. The Chiriqui highlands boasts having the worlds most exotic and beautiful rare bird – the resplendant quetzal.
It was March the 5th 2008. A warm sunny day when local birder Maria Vega set out to visit Volcan’s volcanic lagoons. This area is rich in birds and the many multicolored species make a day’s outing always rewarding. When Maria passed a small field close to the towns airport, she caught some movement out of the corner of her eye. Two sparrows gadding about in a field on a summer’s day, is a common enough sight. But when one of the pair is white – that is unusual.
Her discovery remained a secret until March 20th when she was in conversation with her Friend Claudia Flores. Claudia is a local tour guide and asked if I would write a story on this. When we arrived at the location, I realized we were across the road from my friend Erik Westra’s house – I knew Erik had a new expensive digital camera with a long telephoto lens. Within minutes he was in the field shooting away. When the pictures were emailed to me I was stunned. The resolution and depth of field was wonderful. He had taken some pictures that could add a chapter to local bird history.
This picture was taken on the same day by David Dell. He was a hundred yards away from Erik Westra and may have caught a second bird. The significance of this is that there may be a breeding couple. We await further evidence of the second bird, even so the Maria Vega is Panama's most rare creature and may be the rarest bird in the world.
This beautiful bird always reminds me of the blue birds seen in Walt Disney cartoons. It is quite common here in the highlands of Panama.
Above, we list the English name, followed by the Spanish and sometimes its local Panamanian name and finally by the Latin name.
Photos courtesy of Canadian photographer: Ken Reid.
Female flame-colored tanager
Male flame colored tanager
Female scarlet-rumped tanager
Male scarlet rumped tanager
If you are a birder and plan to visit Panama, there are several clubs and many locals who would delight in showing you the habitats and good viewing places of our wonderful multi-colored flying friends.