Sunday, February 28, 2010

Birding Feb 18, 2009

18 February 2009
Another early rise at 5:30am as today was going to be an all day birding extravaganza. After a quick bowl of cereal for breakfast we departed the Albrook Inn a little after 6:00am and headed toward Soberania National Park. Our first port-of-call was the Ammo Dump Ponds where we tallied 32 species, four of which were lifers for me: Hook-billed Kite, American-Pygmy Kingfisher (see blog banner), Greater Ani, and Green Kingfisher. On several occasions I tried finding Green Kingfisher in Arizona, near the town of Patagonia, but came up short each time. So today, seeing this emerald jewel in its more familiar haunts, was a pleasant surprise.

In 2008 I travelled only with my binoculars, and relied either on my skills at identifying distant birds at 8x magnification, or the use of a scope that was provided by the guides. Generally speaking most birding in Panama can be very rewarding without a scope, particularly in the forest. And if you don't care much for the heat and humidity, you almost certainly won't care much for carrying the extra weight of a scope and tripod. The scope does however have its advantages, even if it is just for specific locales that may in total only comprise a very small percentage of your birding time. The Ammo Dump is one such place where a scope can be useful, which is why in 2009 I brought my scope and tripod; and let's face it, if a bird is on the far side of the wetland complex, getting closer on foot is not an option.

Initially the scope provided excellent views of the Hook-billed Kite (far side forest edge) and Green Kingfisher (on twig in middle of wetland), but it also revealed a skulking Rufescent Tiger-Heron and two Muscovy Ducks, both of which Joanna had never seen before. We were also able to get great looks at Blue Dacnis and Great Kiskadee, as well as a half-submerged Capybara, the largest rodent in the world.

From the Ammo Dump Ponds we proceeded to the start of Pipeline Road, located only about five minutes away. We began by birding the forest margins and grassy areas prior to passing through the entry gate and in a matter of minutes the species list was growing rapidly. Our first sighting was of a Violaceous Trogon perched next to the car. That was followed by a few common species such as Gray-breasted Martin, Pale-vented Pigeon, and Mangrove Swallow, which were immediately followed by another lifer, the Gray-headed Chachalaca, a rather ungainly chicken-like bird with a long tail and a tendency to live in trees. As we made our way toward the gate we continued to see a good variety of birds including Golden-collared Manakin, Rosy-thrush Tanager, Yellow-rumped Cacique, and Lineated Woodpecker.

Beyond the gate, which was notably unmanned and thus presently exempt of an access fee, we began finding some of the more typical forest species. A Masked Tityra sat on an exposed branch above the trail and a Dot-winged Antwren and Western Slaty-Antshrike foraged in the dense undergrowth. Further along we spotted both the Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled toucan, followed by an excellent look at a Great Crested Flycatcher, a species that had previously alluded me on several birding trips in Canada and the United States.

We arrived at the Rainforest Discovery Centre at about 11:30am, desperately in need of a cold drink which we purchased from the small kiosk on the main platform. We sat at the edge of the railing and watched the hummingbird feeders while cooling off and having a small snack. On two occasions we were approached by staff of the Centre inquiring as to whether we were going to pay the $15 fee for use of their facilities, which apparently included sitting on the main viewing deck, using the restrooms, hiking additional trails, and visiting their canopy tower. We indicated that we did not wish to use the trails or the tower, but this did not seem to deter from the fact that they wanted $15 per person. So, on principle alone, we left the centre somewhat disappointed by the fact that it seemed unusually expensive to sit on a bench and look at birds.

Before making our graceful exit (as Canadians do) from the viewing platform we did manage to see a few species, most notably the hummingbirds. In the past I have seen little else other than White-necked Jacobins, which to be fair, still dominated the feeders. This time however we managed to spot three other species, two of which were lifers. The first lifer was a Long-billed Hermit, appropriately named for its incredibly long bill (but not the longest among hummingbirds). I tried to get a photograph, but in the two brief attempts that I had, all I got was a blur of wings. The second lifer was a Little Hermit, so-named in Ridgely's Guide but not in the Panama checklist. With a little post-Panama research I learned that this species, formerly at the subspecies level and now elevated to full species status, was the Stripe-throated Hermit. The third hummingbird, which I had seen on previous trips, was the Violet-bellied Hummingbird.

On the way back to car we spotted a few more new species for the day, including Purple-throated Fruitcrow which I had missed twice in 2008 by only seconds, and a Black-throated Trogon which permitted a so-so photo before disappearing into the forest.Once back at the car it was about 1:30pm and our next stop was Gamboa Park, about a 10 minute drive back toward Panama City. We didn't see any lifers at Gamboa, but we did find a good selection of waterbirds including Purple Gallinule, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, American Coot, Wattled Jacana, and Great Blue Heron. We also found a Common Tody-Flycatcher in the exact same tree as in 2008, and a Rusty-margined Flycatcher perched in a tree that contained a small and active Yellow-rumped Cacique colony.

We returned to the hotel at about 3:30pm both in need of cool shower after being thoroughly covered with a days worth of sweat. At about 5:00pm we went for dinner at the attached restaurant, compiled the days notes, and updated our respective checklists. As the sun went down and dusk turned to dark we tallied eight bird species from the patio, including our first (and only) Merlin. We were also treated to a showy display of fireflies and four very active Agoutis. By 8:00pm we were in bed, resting for the big day tomorrow where we would visit Achiote Road on the Atlantic (Caribbean) coast.

Total number of species seen today = 83
Total number of lifers seen today = 11
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 119
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 14
Number of species seen at Pipeline Road today = 44
Number of species seen at Ammo Dump Ponds today = 32

Friday, February 26, 2010

Birding Feb 17, 2009

17 February 2009
Our first day of birding in Panama together, and to ease into things gradually we began with the locally productive Metropolitan Park. We departed the hotel at 6:30am and made the 10-minute journey via Corredor Norte. On the way we spotted a Snowy Egret at the Marcos Gelabert airport, but didn't see much else as we focused on getting to the park in one piece, without an accident. Driving in Panama City is not for the faint of heart. Road markings seem mostly decorative rather than functional, and the honking of horns, which all sound the same but apparently communicate different messages, were endless. Any time spent sitting in traffic is also especially disgusting as fumes bilge from exhaust pipes in clouds of blue-black smoke. I realized early as a passenger in 2008 that driving in Panama City would probably be stressful for the visitor, and so for this trip we had deliberately picked a hotel on the outskirts, and opted to pay toll-road fees where traffic volumes were notably lower.

We arrived at the park, and not to sound too much like a broken record, we paid the $2 entrance fee and proceeded to bird the grassy field and forest margins behind the visitor center. The usual suspects were present: House Wren, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Great-tailed Grackle, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Variable Seedeater, and Clay-colored Thrush to name a few. Our plan was to do the big loop (El Roble, Mono Titi, and La Cienaguita trails) and once we finished scouring the area around the visitor centre we entered the forest and headed toward the lagoon and nursery. Just as we entered the opening near the lagoon I heard something rustling in the undergrowth, and with a bit of patience and several fleeting glimpses of something feathered, we were rewarded with an excellent look at a White-breasted Wood-Wren, my second lifer for the trip.

The remainder of the morning at Metropolitan Park was incredibly productive, and it was exciting to share the time with Joanna, who like me in 2008, was experiencing for the first time the incredible diversity of a tropical forest community. Some of the notable highlights, for both us, included Fasciated Antshrike, Rosy-thrush Tanager, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Green-shrike Vireo (two almost at eye-level!), Squirrel Cuckoo, Blue Dacnis, Rufous-breasted Wren, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Orange-billed Sparrow, and Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher. On our return walk, between the visitor centre and lagoon, a pair of female Golden-collared Manakins were an added bonus at the end of the hike.

We returned to the car at about 12:30pm and headed back to the hotel for a shower and some lunch. At about 3:00pm we went to the Miraflores visitor center, which when using your own car allows for a few extra birding opportunities along the way. After turning off Av Gaillard to head toward the parking area you will soon cross a bridge over a water diversion channel. Stopping on the bridge is not permitted, but immediately on the west side there is room to pull over and scan the channel and overhanging wires for birds. Several Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets were foraging in the channel, and another lifer, two Ringed Kingfishers, were sitting on the wires. The visitor centre was again an interesting place to visit, and in the comfort of air conditioning, a great place to view Magnificent Frigatebirds, Laughing Gulls, and hundreds of vultures.

We returned to the Albrook Inn for about 5:15pm and had an outdoor dinner at the attached restaurant. Together we compiled our independent Panama Checklists that we had printed from the Panama Audubon Society website before we departed. Additionally, we had a great time just relaxing in the warm evening air as we watched several species of birds occupy the nearby trees or go sailing overhead, including Pale-vented Pigeon, Plain-colored Tanager, five Wood Storks, and several Short-tailed Swifts. In a small palm tree adjacent to the swimming pool a pair of Tropical Kingbirds attended a nest with four young. As day turned to night we had a delicious dinner and contemplated what we might see tomorrow on our first full-day birding trip to Pipeline Road, Gamboa Park, and the ammo dump ponds.

Total number of species seen today = 71
Total number of lifers seen today = 2
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 76
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 3
Number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 58

2009 Trip Begins

14 February 2009
Five months - that's how long we've been waiting for this trip (actually, I've been waiting since the day I returned from the last trip, but we booked our tickets five months ago), and now the day of departure has arrived. As mentioned earlier, our first day of travel was short, really short, as all we had to do was travel from Victoria to Vancouver. We caught the 5:00pm ferry, enjoyed our dinner in the Pacific Buffet, and arrived at the hotel in time for an early night, or correspondingly, for an early morning. We kept track of the birds we saw during our short trip from home to Vancouver (15 species), but these won't count towards our "Panama" tally. As far as predicting how many species we would see in Panama, we set our sights high and decided we would try to get 300 species - nearly twice as many as I saw on the first trip.

15 February 2009
We awoke at about 7:30am, had a light breakfast in the hotel lobby, and caught the hotel shuttle to the airport located just 5 minutes away. We checked in at 10:00am and the first leg of journey was on-time. As we taxied along the runway we spotted seven Northern Harrier's hunting over the adjacent grassy fields before we were whisked into the sky. A short 3.5 hours later and we were in the Los Angeles International (LAX) airport where we had interesting outdoor shuttle ride from one terminal to another. We had a 6-hour layover at LAX before our connecting flight to Miami. Like so many other airports we didn't see many birds from behind the glass, but the sighting of a Red-shouldered Hawk was our first "new" bird since leaving home. Again, however, such sightings won't be added to the Panama tally. We departed LAX on-time and arrived in Miami at the very early hour of 5:00am - we barely slept on the plane, and all we had to look forward to was a 7-hour layover in the Miami terminal.

16 February 2009
We both tried sleeping on the floor or on benches, but as the morning progressed and the airport got busier, sleeping became increasingly difficult. I tried to pass some of the time by resorting to "birding through the windows", which again was generally unrewarding with the sighting of a few Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls, Common Grackles, and Mourning Doves. Our flight to Panama was on-time and at 12:30pm we were on our way. A few hours later we landed at Tocumen International Airport, and after paying the $5 tourista fee and passing through customs, we proceeded to rent our car. Everything went very smoothly - we even had an English speaking customer service representative at the National Car Rental booth, which made everything very easy.

So now the birding begins, and although we weren't expecting a great deal during the drive to the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised with 11 species, of which three were lifers for Joanna: Magnificent Frigatebird, Tropical Kingbird, Orange-chinned Parakeet. Before checking in at the Albrook Inn we first stopped at the Esso gas station across from the Marcos Gelabert airport to pick up some bottled water and some snacks. Next to the gas station is a vacant field which I recognized from 2008 as being the one with the Southern Lapwings. I made a quick scan of the field and sure enough I spotted two of them - another lifer for Joanna. We continued on to the Albrook Inn, a quaint hotel tucked away in a semi-residential neighbourhood, but backing onto some young forest. We hadn't been there for two minutes until I got my first lifer for the trip, a Fork-tailed Flycathcer! We checked in, had a quick shower, and went to the indoor/outdoor restaurant attached to the hotel. From there we tallied another nine species, of which eight were new for Joanna.

We returned to our room for an early night. The room was generally quite clean, although a few essential upgrades were necessary. The air-conditioner was very loud, and if it wasn't for the earplugs we had brought with us, we probably would have moved to a different hotel. It was about 8:00pm when we went to bed, and although I was coping, Joanna was exhausted, especially given her delicate condition and morning sickness en route.

Total number of species seen today = 21
Total number of lifers seen today = 1
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 21
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 1

Planning for 2009 - Part 3

The final stages of planning include booking accommodations, transportation, and tour guide, as well as ensuring that our travel shots and medications are up-to-date. For the latter, Joanna had to get her Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A and B, Dukoral, and co-ciprofloxacin; I only had to get a booster of Dukoral. Joanna got her Yellow Fever shot in January, after receiving her Typhoid and first dose of Hep A and B in December. On January 21, 2009 we learned that we were expecting our first child, and while this was great news, we were both concerned about the injections, especially Yellow Fever which is not recommended during pregnancy. Fortunately, as the following months and consultation with doctors would tell, there were no complications. Unfortunately, however, Joanna was quick to show signs of regular morning sickness, which meant that this would likely factor in to how Joanna would feel in the tropical heat in a strange location. At this stage, with our trip less than a month away, all we could do was move forward and play it by ear.

We booked our accommodation in Panama City at the Albrook Inn, a reasonably-priced hotel that is used by several of the guiding companies and recommended by other birders. For our two-night stay in Boquette we stayed at the Coffee Estate Inn, a shade-grown coffee plantation with private bungalows facing Volcan Baru. The Estate owners are from New Westminster, British Columbia and although they cater to a variety of guests, they are particularly fond of birders, and offer a wealth of information on where to go birding, and what to see. As a treat, we were looking forward to their advertised "date night" dinner, a home-cooked meal prepared by the owners.

For transportation we arranged to rent a Toyota Yaris from National Car Rentals upon arrival at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama. This turned out to be the best deal as it allowed us to return the car at the Marcos Gelabert domestic airport, for only $7 extra, where we would depart for David. We flew to David on Aeroperlas, one of two major domestic air carriers in Panama. Once in David we rented a Toyota RAV4 as we had read that not only was the road to the Coffee Estate Inn a bit rough, but that many of the roads in the Chiriqui highlands were either rutted, unpaved, steep, or slippery when wet. The price for renting the RAV4 for two days was more than the cost of renting the Yaris for eight days, but we didn't want to take any chances. When we returned to Panama City we again rented a Toyota Yaris from Marcos Gelebert Airport and returned it to Tocumen International Airport.

Booking a guided bird tour was relatively simple. Initially I tried booking with Advantage Panama Tours, the same company I used in 2008. However, they were fully booked and so the next most highly-recommended tour company was Birding Panama. Birding Panama's website has a wealth of information which helped considerably in planning where to go, and once I contacted the owner, Carlos, communication and booking went very well.

So that's it. Our trip was fully booked and all we had to do was go. The only thing that remains is to wait and pack, and while the details of the contents of our suitcases are probably uninteresting to most, I thought for the sake of fellow birders, I would list the standard equipment I carry in the field when birding in Panama.

Field Pack
1) Small backpack with water bottle holder.
2) Field Guide to Birds of Panama, by Ridgely.
3) Bausch and Lomb Elite 8-42 binoculars
4) Waterproof pocket notepad with minimum of 3 pencils
5) Bug spray (I use OFF in a pump bottle for air travel)
6) 2 water bottles (0.75 litres each)
7) Camera - Nikon D70s with 70-300mm VR lens

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Planning for 2009 - Part 2

After studying the Bird-Finding Guide extensively, and considering the time it would take to either drive or fly between destinations, we settled on a relatively compact, yet very busy, schedule. Upon arrival in Panama City we decided to get our bearings by doing something light, so first on the agenda was Metropolitan Park in the morning, followed by a visit to the Miraflores visitor centre. From my first trip, Metropolitan Park had proved to be a very productive place to go birding, and new species were seen on each of the five trips.

The next several days were were going to be very busy. First on the list was Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the premier birding destinations in the world, and to not visit would be sacrilege to the world of birding. In addition to Pipeline Road, we also planned to visit the Ammo Dump Ponds and Gamboa Park.

The first new birding destination that we selected was Achiote Road, so-named for the little village of Achiote that occurs midway along the only road in the area. Achiote Road is on the Caribbean side of Panama, at the opposite end of the Panama Canal. It is about 88 kms from Panama City to Achiote, which takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to drive, depending on traffic and the length of time you have to wait for the swing bridge to open at Gatun Locks. We initially considered staying in Colon, a major trade city located on the Caribbean coast near Gatun Locks. However, upon reading several websites and the Moon and Frommer's guides, it was generally recommended that we avoid the area owing to high crime and mugging rates.

In the same general region as Achiote, several other birding destinations are recommended. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit them all in the same day, and so we planned for two trips, one near the beginning of our trip, and one near the end. The first trip would be entirely on Achiote Road as there were plenty of things to do, including the El Trogon trail and three "birding bridges". The bridges are essentially good vantage points from which birds can be viewed, and because they are associated with streams they are particularly attractive to birds. For our second trip to Achiote our plan was to spend a half-day on the road, and the other half at Fort San Lorenzo National Historic Site and Fort Sherman, a former US Army Base.

Another much-touted birding destination near Panama City is Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, comprised of a private low-density residential neighbourhood (Cerro Azul) and an adjacent park (Cerro Jeffe). Together, these sites are probably the closest access points to tropical cloud forest habitat from Panama City, and thus have the potential of offering a great variety of species not seen in any of the lowland birding sites in the Canal Area. The unfortunate part about visiting is that you need permission to get through the gate - I'll have more on that later, as it happened.

Our itinerary was now starting to look pretty good, but what we really wanted to do was get out of the Canal Area and see something truly different. From Panama City there really are only two choices - east or west. To the east, towards Columbia, are the remote jungles of the Darien province. Home to numerous bird species, including several Panama endemics, the area is largely inaccessible and requires a specially-equipped 4x4 vehicle with a winch, a good guide, and a personal ability to cope with living in remote tropical camps. Given these requirements, we looked to the west!

The Chiriqui highlands in Chiriqui province caught our interest almost immediately. Bordering Costa Rica, the Chiriqui highlands are best known in the birding world as the home to the Resplendent Quetzal, a highly sought-after species, particularly the male, because of its spectacularly colourful plumage and excessively long tail. The area is also well-known for its famous landmark, Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama at 3,474 m (11,398 ft). Much of the Chiriqui highlands are comprised of cloud forest, which also support a good number of species not found in the Darien province or the Canal Area. It is also home to two Panama specialities, the Volcano Junco and the Volcano Hummingbird. We decided for this part of our trip we would seek solitude, so from Panama City we flew to David (the capital of Chiriqui province) and then drive to Boquette, about 2 hours to the north. Our plan was to stay just two nights, which gave us about a day-and-a-half for birding.

When we initially began planning the trip we thought we would do the entire thing on our own, as I was quite confident that I would remember most species from my first trip, and I was considerably more comfortable with getting around and birding in Panama. Additionally, Joanna is a sharp birder and the two of us should prove to be quite a team. But, with that said, there is no denying the skills of a local guide who knows just where to go, where to find certain species, and is certainly more knowledgeable of habitats and sounds than I am from a single 10-day visit. Thus, just to see how well we were doing, we booked a guided tour to Old Gamboa Road and Plantation Road for our last full day of birding in Panama.

Our complete itinerary is provided below. In the next post I will discuss the final stages of planning, and a BIG surprise that Joanna (and I) had to adjust to.

2009 Itinerary
14 February: travel from Victoria to Vancouver
15 February: travel from Vancouver to Miami via Los Angeles
16 February: travel from Miami to Panama City
17 February: Metropolitan Park and Miraflores Visitor Center
18 February: Ammo Dump ponds, Pipeline Road, Gamboa Park
19 February: Achiote Road (plus travel from Panama City to Colon)
20 February: Metropolitan Park, then travel to Boquette via David
21 February: Boquette, Culebra Trail and Los Quetzales Trail
22 February: Boquette, Pipeline Trail (plus travel back to Panama City)
23 February: Old Gamoboa Road and Summit Gardens
24 February: Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe
25 February: Ammo Dump ponds and Pipeline Road
26 February: Achiote Road, Fort Sherman, Fort San Lorenzo
27 February: Guided Tour to Old Gamboa Road and Plantation Road
28 February: Metropolitan Park (morning); travel from Panama City to Dallas
29 February: Dallas to Victoria

Planning for 2009 - Part 1

From a birding perspective, the first part to planning any trip is deciding when to go. As simple as this decision may seem there are several factors to consider, but first and foremost are weather conditions and bird activity. In Panama there are essentially two seasons - wet and dry, and depending on where you are in Panama the actual start and end dates vary by up to four weeks. In Panama City the dry season begins in early December and ends in late March to mid-April. Correspondingly, most bird activity occurs during this time because it is the peak breeding season for residents, and breeding species from Canada and the United States are wintering. It is worth noting however that although the dry season favours the best birding, there are other notable times that are likely to be very rewarding. For example, during autumn migration (September to October), witnessing the spectacular southbound migration of more than one million raptors and vultures is not likely to disappoint.

For our 2009 trip we decided to visit during the dry season. I had already been in late-February and early-March and if we chose to visit later there was a risk of encountering the onset of the rainy season. Additionally, we didn't want to visit immediately before or after Christmas, and so we settled on 14-28 February.

Now that we had our dates selected we had to pick our flights. This was unfortunately not a straight-forward process because many of the single-day flights that were available in 2008 were no longer available. Instead, every option required an overnight stay at a connecting airport either in the United States or Mexico, whereas in 2008 I was able to fly the entire trip in one day (albeit there were major delays). We eventually settled on flying with American Airlines and chose to fly out of Vancovuer early on the morning of the 15th. This meant that we first had to travel to Vancouver via ferry on the 14th, which would mark our first Valentine's dinner in the BC Ferries buffet! For the southbound trip we had two connecting flights, the first in Los Angeles with a layover of about 6 hours, and the second in Miami with a layover of about 7 hours. For our northbound flight we also had two connecting flights, the first in Miami with a layover of about 1.5 hours, and the second in Dallas with a layover of about 8 hours.

Now that we had our flights booked, we had to decide what we were going to do once we got there. Some decisions were easy, such as renting a car for greater independence and stop-and-go birding. We also had decided relatively quickly that we would spend most of our time based out of Panama City so as to minimize the amount of time spent moving from hotel to hotel. What we needed to do next was set an itinerary, and to do that, I purchased A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama by George R. Angehr, and Dodge and Lorna Engleman. The book is an excellent reference for planning birding trips to Panama, and provides numerous examples of places to go within each province, as well as a guide to highly sought-after species. In the introduction there is a full discussion of geography, weather and climate, major bird habitats, and what to bring and how to prepare for birding in Panama.

In my next post I will present our 2009 itinerary, and provide useful links to websites that helped with the planning process.

Until then, happy birding.

Post-Panama 2008

Despite having arrived home from my first trip to Panama at 1:30 in the morning, I was giddy with excitement over the adventure I had just had. And for days afterward (some would argue months) I spoke of the trip to friends and family, commenting on how fantastic the birding was and how badly I wanted to return. The urge to re-visit, without commitments to anything other than birding, was burning, and if truth be told I had already decided to return the following year, with Joanna, before getting home.

The next trip was going to be intense, and both Joanna and I wanted to maximize our birding experience in Panama in 2009. This meant that planning had to go beyond visiting Metropolitan Park five times, and that we had to be creative in our choice of destinations in order to see the greatest variety of species while staying within our budget and timeline. In the next three postings I'll describe some of the pre-trip planning for our 2009 excursion, and reveal some of the challenges that we had to overcome. I should note here that planning is a bit of a personal obsession, and while Joanna was generally interested in the trip, I'm certain that the detailed planning bored her to death (nearly).

So until the next posting, happy birding, wherever you may be.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

2008 Trip Synopsis

2 March 2008
Today was the trip home. I was up at 6:00am and had to be at the airport by 8:30am. By 6:30am it was light outside and in a last ditch attempt to see something new I was looking out the window every 1-2 minutes. I did manage to see eight species from the hotel room but none were new for the trip. After breakfast I caught a cab to the airport and along the way I spotted another seven species of which none were new for the trip. Once at the airport I had nearly two hours to wait before departing and so I sat near the window and scanned the sky for raptors and vultures. I did manage to see 11 species, and low-and-behold, two species, Wood Stork and Swainson's Hawk, were new for the trip. I boarded the plane on-time at 10:30am and arrived in Dallas at 2:30pm. From Dallas I had a long wait for my 7:00pm departure to Seattle which was on-time and arrived at 10:00pm. My flight out of Seattle was unfortunately delayed due to a flat tire, and although only a 35-minute flight away, it was not until 1:30am that arrived in Victoria. It had been a very long day, but memories of the trip were enough to keep my spirits up.

Total number of species seen today = 19
Total number of lifers seen today = 0
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 169
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 131

Trip Synopsis
Total number of species seen = 169
Total number of new species for the trip = 131
Total species seen in one day on my own = 59
Total species seen with Guido = 80
Total species seen with Kilo = 65
Total length of trip = 11 days
Total days available for birding = 8
Total birding destinations visited = 3 (Metro Park, BCI, Pipeline Road)
Birding destination most visitied = Metropolitan Park (5 times)
Number of days with bird guide = 2

Birding Mar 1, 2008

1 March 2008
Today was my last day of birding in Panama, not counting the few hours tomorrow where I will mostly be in transit to, and sitting around, the airport. Decidedly, Metropolitan Park was my destination of choice. This would be my fifth trip and although I wasn't expecting to see many new species, I was determined to exercise my new-found skills of birding in the tropics. I awoke at 5:30am, had a quick breakfast, caught a cab, and was at the park by 6:30am. This process had almost become routine and I was now feeling much more confident about getting around in Panama City.

Upon arrival, I paid the usual $2 fee and began birding behind the visitor centre. My plan was to hike the big loop (El Roble, Mono Titi, and La Cienaguita), as this seemed to cover the greatest variety of habitats and included the Mirador from which an excellent opportunity to scan for raptors is afforded. The usual suspects were in the open fields and forest margins behind the buildings: Tropical Kingbird, Social Flycatcher, House Wren, Clay-colored Robin, and Orange-chinned Parakeet. One new species, seen foraging on grass seeds, was a male Lesser Seed-Finch, and another new species, seen perched in one of the isolated trees in the middle of the field, was a Lesser Elaenia. Once into the forest some of the more typical forest species were prevalent, such as Blue-gray Tanager, Plain-colored Tanager, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and White-bellied Antwren. I continued making great efforts to scan the entire forest, from the lowest and darkest undergrowth to the highest of tree tops, and it paid off when I spotted four Scaled Doves perched high in the canopy feeding on berries - another new species.

Beyond the turtle pond and nursery I found a small flock of Rosy Thrush-Tanagers foraging in the leaf litter, and a pair of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers mixed in with a larger flock of raucus Red-throated Ant-Tanagers. Once I reached the semi-open forest just past the information kiosk I located Rufous-and-White Wren, Dusky Antbird, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, and Golden-cheeked Warbler all busily foraging. I also had a great view of a Black-tailed Flycatcher and Thick-billed Euphonia, of which both were lifers. The climb to the Mirador was largely uneventful, but once there I began systematically searching the sky for raptors in hopes of seeing something new. After about 20 minutes I thought I was going to be skunked, when suddenly a large white raptor effortlessly soared into view just overhead. I had no idea which species I was looking at so I quickly began jotting down various field marks, all the while trying to maximize my viewing time: all white body, long narrow tail, short broad wings but not buteo-like, barring on underwing at primaries, yellow legs, tail black with white bars, black vertical stripe on face. After viewing the bird for about 2 minutes against a solid deep blue sky, it didn't take long to search through the field guide to confirm the identification as an adult Collared Forest-Falcon. This was definitely the highlight for the day, and a great way to wind down the trip.

I descended from the Mirador and continued the loop trail back to the visitor centre. Highlights during the return included Dot-winged Antwren, Blue-black Grosbeak, and Geoffery's Tamarin, a wonderfully long-tailed primate primate with a rich chestnut back, black face, and white underparts. I arrived back at the visitor centre at 10:30am and as it turned out the Collared Forest-Falcon was the last lifer I would see for the trip.

Later that afternoon I visited the Miraflores visitor centre as the "visitor" section wasn't actually open during the banquet dinner. The facility has a very nice display of the history, construction, and operations of the Panama Canal, as well as an entire section devoted to the biodiversity of Panama. After picking up a few souveniers I returned to the hotel at 5:00pm and compiled my daily field notes while having supper in the hotel restaurant. Later that evening I packed my belongings for tomorrow's long trip home.

Total number of species seen today = 56
Total number of lifers seen today = 10
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 167
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 131
Total number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 51
Total cumulative species seen at Metropolitan Park = 90

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Birding Feb 29, 2008

29 February 2008
Today was going to be a good day - I could just feel it.

Kilo, our guide from Advantage Panama Tours, picked Anthea and I up from the hotel at 6:15am and we took the usual route out of town and headed toward the start of Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. As we approached the Chagres River crossing, comprised of a one-way alternating bridge, Kilo spotted a small hawk fly low over the van. He instructed the driver to pull over immediately, and within seconds the three of us were out of the van scanning the adjacent forest. Kilo spotted the bird, a beautiful Crane Hawk, which was hopping from branch-to-branch and peering into tree cavities looking perhaps for a skulking lizard or baby birds. The Crane Hawk is remarkably well-adapted to the business of reaching into tree cavities as its legs are particularly long and its body is slender rather than bulky, thus facilitating reach. This was the first new species of the day.

Once the hawk departed we got back into the van, crossed the bridge, and proceeded to the Ammo Dump ponds. I had mentioned visiting these ponds earlier with Guido, but at the time we didn't spent much time there as it was mid-afternoon and there wasn't much activity. This time we spent about 30 minutes scanning the marshes and wooded borders and the bird activity in the morning was noticeably greater than in the afternoon. In total we spotted 28 species at the Ammo Dump ponds, of which seven were new. The first new species was a female Black-throated Mango (hummingbird), which was quickly followed by the second new species, a Yellow-tailed Oriole. Many of the ubiquitous Canal Area species were also present, including Piratic Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Clay-colored Robin, Fasciated Antshrike, and Wattled Jacana. As we continued scanning Kilo spotted a Rusty-margined Flycatcher perched in the trees above where we had parked, and a skulking Rufescent Tiger-Heron which, from the far side of the marsh, required a spotting scope to truly appreciate the details. The highlight at the ponds was a fleeting glimpse of a White-throated Crake which, like most members of this large family of birds, seemed to be able to hind behind a single blade of grass. As we departed the ponds we happened upon a mixed-species flock of seedeaters which included two new species, the Yellow-bellied Seedeater and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater.

We arrived at the start of Pipeline Road at about 7:30am and parked at the bottom of the road about 200m from the gate. In the short distance to the gate we spotted two new species: Purple-crowned Fairy (hummingbird) and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. There were also several Howler Monkeys howling from the forest depths. We approached the park gate and were greeted by the gate operator. As before, I was expecting to pay the $5 entry fee, but as Kilo communicated with the guide, and then with me, it turned out that the fee was $15. I indicated to Kilo that I had just been here a few days ago and that the fee was only $5, and thus wanted to know why there was a discrepancy. Kilo communicated this to the guide, and the process of discussing the fee was repeated three or four times. Eventually, and to my surprise, we were allowed to proceed without paying a fee at all!

Soon after passing the gate Kilo spotted a Golden-fronted Greenlet in the shrubbery, and just above the trail was a Black-breasted Puffbird. While Kilo was setting up the scope for us to look at the puffbird, I caught a glimpse of some movement in a distant palm. I could see that what I was looking at was a dove of some sort, but the bird was too far away for a positive identification. I indicated to Kilo its whereabouts, and after re-positioning his scope he confirmed that a pair of Gray-chested Doves that were tending to a nest - another lifer. We proceeded along the trail and continued to get good looks at many species I had seen just once before, such as Southern Bentbill, Dot-winged Antwren, Collared Aracari, and Tropical Gnatcatcher. At about five minutes after seeing the doves we spotted a White-flanked Antwren foraging in the undergrowth; another new species of which we had excellent views.

At about 10:00am we approached the Rainforest Discovery Centre, and just as the forest opened up near the bottom of the stairs I spotted a Squirrel Cuckoo and Kilo spotted a Forest Elaenia (flycatcher) and a Cinnamon Becard (also a flycatcher). The cuckoo was gorgeous - a rich mixture of reds, pinks, and browns with a distinctly-barred black and white tail. The bird was quite active and seemed to do more running and hopping along the branches than actually flying from one place to another. After admiring all three species we proceeded to the viewing platform to watch the hummingbird feeders which were again dominated by White-necked Jacobins. A lone White-vented Plumeleteer did manage to make a brief appearance and steal a quick drink however, before being chased off. The Golden-hooded Tanager nest that I had found earlier was still active, but the Oropendola colony located almost immediately above it did not have a single bird.

We began the walk back to the car at about 11:30am and there was very little bird activity during the return. We did however manage to see a Song Wren hopping in the undergrowth, but that was about it. We arrived back at the car at about 12:30pm and we made a quick visit to Guido's research station in Gamboa. I had hoped to show Anthea the birdfeeders that were teeming with bird activity, but unfortunately the feeders were not stocked within bananas and there was virtually no activity. As a consolation, however, we did manage to spot a Panama Flycatcher in the forest behind the station, which turned out to be the last new species for the day. We were back at the hotel by about 2:00pm, which was when Anthea wanted to be back so that she and Fred had enough time to pack for their early-morning next-day departure to San Jose, Costa Rica.

As per my ritual I had a quick shower and compiled my notes while continuing to look out the hotel window every five or ten minutes. At about 3:30pm I got a phone call from Kilo from the hotel lobby informing me that he had found binoculars. I was stunned. How could that be? I never let them out of my sight, and I knew they were in my backpack, as that was where I had put them during the ride back to the hotel. I quickly looked inside and they weren't there. I rushed down to the lobby and sure enough, there was Kilo with my binoculars. I was so very grateful that he had returned them, especially given that I didn't know they were missing, and likely wouldn't have noticed until the next day. It turns our they had slipped down between where my pack was sitting and a fold-up seat in the van. I had assumed they went in the pack, but unbeknownst to me they fell behind the fold-up seat. I thanked Kilo repeatedly - the thought of having to lay out another $1500-2500 for a replacement pair of binoculars was enough to cause heart palpitations.

I had dinner with Fred and Anthea in the hotel restaurant at about 5:00pm. We discussed the conference and birding highlights and concluded that the overall trip was a success. Fred and Anthea were continuing their trip for an additional week in Costa Rica, and I had just one day left in Panama City before returning to Victoria on March 2.

Total number of species seen today = 65
Total number of lifers seen today = 19
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 157
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 121
Total number of species seen at Pipeline Road today = 36
Total cumulative species seen at Pipeline Road = 77

Monday, February 8, 2010

Birding Feb 26-28, 2008

26 February 2008
Today was the first full day of the conference and there wasn't much time to get a lot of birding in. Fred, Anthea, and I awoke early to squeeze in a few of hours at Metropolitan Park, which would be their first visit, and my fourth. The goal was to try and show them as much of the local wildlife as I could, which included a previously-scoped out Two-toed Sloth and several Jesus Christ Lizards. This was my earliest visit to the park at 6:45am, and when we arrived the forest understory was still very dark, which initially made spotting birds more difficult than usual. On the plus side, however, we did manage to spot a litter toad in the deep shade.

We decided to hike the main trail to the Mirador so that Fred and Anthea could see the city from the viewpoint. Along the way we spotted many of the commoner species I had seen during each of the previous visits, such as Orange-chinned Parakeet, Social Flycatcher, Blue-gray Tanager, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. My first new species of the day was near the turtle pond, where a pair of Yellow-backed Orioles briefly perched atop an exposed branch, providing excellent views in full sun against a deeply saturated morning blue sky. My second new species of the day followed almost immediately after, when a Masked Tityra flew in and perched just overhead.

As we continued past the nursery we spotted numerous White-shouldered Tanagers, a Cocoa Woodcreeper, a small flock of Lesser Greenlets, and several other species. Near the information kiosk another new species, Paltry Tyrranulet, was seen. Each of us had an excellent view of this little flycatcher, and at the time I remember thinking that in its own special way, it deserved a better name; perhaps Gray-capped Tyrranulet, or Olive-backed Tyrannulet, but not Paltry.

Beyond the kiosk we began our climb to the Mirador - not a terribly strenuous climb, but in the tropical heat and humidity, any hike that isn't flat seems exponentially more exhausting. About half way up the hill we spotted a Coatamundi foraging on the trail, and a few feet further ahead we had a great look at a Lineated Woodpecker. Once at the Mirador there was very little bird activity, with only the usual Black and Turkey vultures soaring effortlessly overhead. After soaking up the view, we descended from the Mirador and joined La Cienaguita trail for the return trip. We saw a good variety of species along this trail, including Scarlet-rumped Cacique, White-bellied Antbird, and another new species, White-vented Plumeleteer (hummingbird).

By the time we returned to the park visitor centre we had been out for three hours. We returned to the hotel, quickly changed, and arrived at the conference for 11:00am where we spent the remainder of the day listening to the various presentations. That evening we had the conference banquet dinner at the Miraflores visitor centre, where we were able to watch ships passing through the locks at nighttime. We returned to the hotel at about 9:00pm, where I compiled the days notes and was in bed by 10:30pm.

Total number of species seen today = 40
Total number of lifers seen today = 4
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 131
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 99
Total number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 40
Total cumulative species seen at Metropolitan Park = 76

27 February 2008
Today was the conference field trip, and together with Fred and Anthea, the three of us joined about 12 other participants to go to Barro Colorado Island, also known as BCI. In its original state, BCI was not an island at all. Instead, it was the top of a hill surrounded entirely by land. When the Panama Canal was constructed and Gatun Lake was created (which at the time of completion in 1913 was the world's largest man-made lake), the hill became a 1,500 hectare island, which is now part of the 5,400 hectare Barro Colorado Nature Monument. On the island, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has a large research facility where more than 200 students from around the world visit every year to study various aspects of tropical forest ecology. To get to the island, visitors must register in advance, and arrange to take a boat that departs from the Gamboa boat dock located almost immediately adjacent to the start of Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park.

Our field trip began at 7:00am, which required travelling by bus from the hotel to the boat dock (35 minutes), and then by boat from the dock to the island (also about 45 minutes). From a birding perspective, the boat trip was generally unrewarding, although I did spot a Neotropic Cormorant among the more ubiquitous Black Vultures, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Snowy Egrets, Mangrove Swallows, and Gray-breasted Martins. Perhaps the most stunning visual aspect of the boat trip was the contrast of bright yellow Tabebuia trees in bloom against the dark green forest. When I had arrived in Panama just five days ago virtually all of these trees appeared lifeless, but during the return trip from Pipeline Road to the hotel with Guido, a heavy rain set in for about two hours. At the time, Guido mentioned that it was these early summer rains that trigger the Tabebuia trees (among others) to blossom. I didn't give the notion much thought at the time as it made perfect sense. The surprise was seeing just how quickly it happened.

Upon arrival at BCI we had to divide into roughly equal groups among three leaders, each of whom were students. Picking my leader was easy, as he was the only one studying birds, and thus for me had the greatest appeal. Each group went their separate ways, and to this day I'm convinced we took the most strenuous route. Our hike began with a climb up 187 steps to the book and gift store, which at the time was closed, but scheduled to open after lunch. From the store we walked a loop trail for about 1-km where our guide discussed various research projects and basic history and ecology of the island. Along the way he also pointed out various birds, including Crested Guan and Great Tinamou, both of which were new species for me. After the hike we returned via the 187 steps to the main building where the cafeteria was located. We enjoyed a nice buffet-style lunch in the comfort of an air-conditioned room, and then watched a short presentation on leaf-cutter ants.

After the presentation I reluctantly climbed the 187 steps back to the bookstore because I was keen to browse the book and gift collections. I arrived at the doorstep, sweating profusely, only to find that the store was still closed, so back down the steps I went, to try and find out if it would be opened. I located my guide in the main building and asked if the store was going to open, and immediately he announced to everyone that he was going to open the store now, and for just a half hour. So, back up the 187 steps again, and if you`re keeping track, that's 561 steps UP! In the end it was worth it, as I was able to purchase a beautiful iguana carving made by the native Embera Indian tribe from the wonderfully rich, blood-red, cocobolo wood.

We arrived back at the hotel at 5:00pm. It had been a great day, and an excellent learning opportunity.

Total number of species seen today = 23
Total number of lifers seen today = 3
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 135
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 102

28 February 2008
Today was another full day of conference presentations, and as a result this was the least "birdy" day of the entire trip, with only four species observed for the day: Clay-colored Robin, Rock Pigeon, Turkey Vulture, and Black Vulture. We got back to the hotel around 6:00pm, and the amount of time I had spent outside today, in daylight, was minimal. The conference was a wonderful success, and personally very rewarding from the perspective of getting to meet some wonderful people from throughout South America. For example, discussing the ecology of Swainson's Hawks in Argentina was wonderfully refreshing from the more typical North American perspective.

Back at the hotel I compiled my notes for the day, and while it only took about 5 minutes, I couldn't help but be excited for what tomorrow might have in store. Based on my previously excellent experience with Advantage Panama Tours, I had decided at the end of my last tour to book a second trip to Pipeline Road, this time with Fred and Anthea. While the tour was confirmed to begin at 6:30am, Fred unfortunately was invited at the last minute to a climate change meeting that he didn't want to pass up, and so in the end it was Anthea and I that were slated for an intense day of birding. I went to bed by 9:00pm in anticipation of a good day of birding to follow.

Total number of species seen today = 4
Total number of lifers seen today = 0
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 135
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 102

Birding Feb 24-25, 2008

Birding in the tropics is substantially different from the temperate zone, and the diversity of faunal species in tropical environments is a direct result of habitat complexity. Habitat complexity has arisen through fierce competition for resources (light, water, nutrients) and the tradeoffs that species make between ensuring propagation (survival of the species) and defending themselves against excessive predation (consumption) and disease. In Panama there are more than 1,000 tree species, 10,000 species of vascular plant (including more than 1,000 species of orchid), and an unknown number of vines, lianas, ferns, mosses, and bryophytes. This diversity has arisen by way of competetion for resources, which drives the process of speciation or niche segregation.

There are 976 bird species known to occur in Panama, and thus, in the strictest sense, means there are 976 possible habitat niches. Defining niches however is not a simple task, because it is not often possible to include all of the spatial and temporal attributes that conribute to the complexity of multi-dimensional systems. Generally speaking though, you really only need to know the 4 C's: Complete Competition Cannot Coexist.

Through competion and diversification, tropical forests are very dense, both horizontally and vertically. Unlike simple two-story or three-story forests in North America, tropical forests have the appearance of a green wall with a green ceiling. Only when a tree falls does a substantial amount of light reach the forest floor, and consequently most forest-dwelling birds tend to be in the shade. Additionally, most species are often well-hidden from human eyes by the vegetation; even the deep layer of leaf litter is capable of concealing species such as Leaftossers. Another factor that makes birding in the tropics difficult is sound. Species living in dense forests tend to have deeper sounds than species living in less dense forests, and deeper (shallower) sound waves are decidedly deceptive when it comes to pin-pointing a species location. It is both a challenge to determine how far away a species is, and from which direction it is calling due to sound waves bouncing from the dense vegetation. I learned a great deal about birding in the tropics with Guido, and today was my first opportunity to put into practice my new found skills.

24 February, 2008
Today was my second trip to Metropolitan Park, and this time I decided to take a taxi, which admittedly I was a bit nervous about given that I don't speak Spanish. I left the hotel at 7:45am and attempted to signal a taxi; that took about 1 second. I communicated my destination and price (it is recommended that you establish the price first) as "Parque Natural Metropolitano, Dos dolares". The driver was puzzled, not about the price, but about the destination. I repeated it several times, and it was hopeless. Subsequently, I resorted to a variety of early-ancestral hand signals, indicating that he should just drive and I will lead the way. Fortunately, I had memorized the route from my first trip.

We arrived at the park at 8:00am, and the driver appeared pleased that he had driven to a new destination. My goal for this trip was to complete the trail loop that I had initially planned to do on 22 February: El Roble (0.7 km), Mono Titi (1.1 km), and La Cienaguita (1.1 km). I paid the $2 entry fee and began birding behind the visitor centre. Within minutes things were looking better than my first visit, as two of the first four birds I saw were lifers: Streaked Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. I birded the grassy area and forest margins extensively for about 30 minutes before entering the nearby forest. Immediately I spotted a bird flitting in the deep shade about 10 feet away - it was a pair of Lance-tailed Manakins - spectacular! I continued along the trail to a small opening where an artificial pond, and nursery, was present. Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were omnipresent, as were a variety of tanager species, including Crimson-backed Tanager. On the small pond were several Red-eared Sliders (a type of turtle) and Jesus Christ Lizards (Basiliscus basiliscus), so-named for the ability to run on water.

As I continued along the trail I found that I was much better at being able to spot birds in the dense greenery compared to just two days ago. I was afforded great views of Red-throated Ant-Tanager, White-bellied Antbird, Lesser Greenlet, and Checker-throated Antwren. I also found several new lifers, including Rufous-breasted Wren, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Long-billed Gnatwren, Blue-black Grosbeak, and Plain-brown Woodcreeeper. Eventually I arrived at the Mirador (viewpoint), where I gained a truer appreciation of the significance of the park in an urban environment.

Just below the Mirador and along the main trail is a steep hill that descends to the west. The steepness means that as an observer, you are in relatively close proximity to the forest canopy, a particularly broad niche where several bird species spend most of their lives. Guido had indicated yesterday that he had heard a Green Shrike-Vireo, but noted they are notoriously difficult to see because they spend the majority of their time in the canopy, often on the upper sides of leaves. They are also hard to see because, as their name implies, they're green. But as luck would have it, it was at this very spot, just below the Mirador, where I spotted my first Green Shrike-Vireo. What a magnificent bird.

I continued along down the hill and flushed a pair of Blue-crowned Motmots that were feeding at the edge of the trail. I also discovered my first ultra-obscure Orange-billed Sparrow that was so well-hidden in the leaf litter that I could only see its head. I completed the hike at 1:00pm, by which time it was very hot and humid. I flagged a taxi from the main road in front of the visitor centre and returned to the hotel for a cool shower and some lunch. At 3:00pm I met up with Fred and his wife Anthea, who had just arrived for the conference that was to begin tomorrow. I compiled my daily observations in my field notebook during supper and went to bed early so that I could squeeze in some early birding before the welcoming address of the conference at 2:00pm.

Total number of species seen today = 49
Total number of lifers seen today = 12
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 117
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 89
Total number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 44
Total cumulative species seen at Metropolitan Park = 52

25 February, 2008
I awoke at 6:00am and went through the same routine as yesterday, only this time my taxi driver understood the destination - Metropolitan Park. This was going to be a short trip, as the scheduled shuttle that would take guests to the conference was set to depart at 1:00pm. Upon arrival at the park at 6:45am I paid the usual entry fee and began birding behind the visitor centre. My plan today was to walk the El Roble trail to the junction of La Cienaguita, and then backtrack to the visitor centre via Los Caobos trail. I didn't see any lifers in the grassy area or along the forest margins, but I did spot some species familiar to be from Canada's Boreal Forest, namely Yellow Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler. My first lifer of the day was at the pond near the nursery - a Buff-breasted Wren. I continued walking to the information kiosk where a few picnic tables and some old decommisioned buildings are located. In this relatively open area I found Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and a Two-toed Sloth curled up amongst the lower branches of a tree overhanging one of the tables.

From the information Kiosk I began backtracking, but right where La Cienaguita trial joined El Roble I could here something rustling in the undergrowth. With a bit of patience, and a slow approach, I was rewarded when a Thrush-like Schifornis (previously Thrush-like Mourner) popped out onto a branch and provided an exquisite view. I continued back along El Roble and completed Los Caobos rather quickly and without seeing any new species. I returned to the visitor centre and found two more familiar Canadian breeders - Northern Waterthrush and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

I checked the time and found that I still had 30 minutes to spare. I decided to walk Los Momotides, a 900m long trail rated as easy. The forest was notably different in this region, but the sound of traffic was almost unbearable for birding. I moved rather quickly along the trail as it seemed rather quite, but nonetheless I did manage to find three new lifers: Rufous-and-White Wren, Black-bellied Wren, and Yellow-olive Flycatcher.

It was now just after 11:00am, so I caught a taxi back to the hotel, had a quick shower, and grabbed my camera, notepad, and a pen for the conference. The conference was held at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the welcoming comments were well-received. Afterward, at 4:30pm, there was an outdoor social gathering with food, music, and featured local dancers. It was a gorgeous late afternoon, and although I didn't spot any new species among the campus gardens, I did manage to tally 14 species. At about 7:00pm we returned to the hotel where I compiled the remainder of my notes for the day.

Total number of species seen today = 43
Total number of lifers seen today = 6
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 125
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 95
Total number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 34
Total cumulative species seen at Metropolitan Park = 64

Birding Feb 21-23, 2008

The day had finally arrived. My first trip to the tropics and a chance to see some amazing birds. Because there was so much to see, and so much to report on, I've broken this section into several parts. Within each part is a description of the days events and birding highlights. Some days are shorter than others, but all proved to be very rewarding in one way or another.

21 February, 2008
The journey begins. I woke at 5:00am to get to the Victoria airport for check-in by 6:00am and departure at 7:00am - first flight was on-time, and a short hop across the pond (the Strait of Georgia) and I'm at Vancouver airport by 7:20am. My connecting flight to Dallas was scheduled for 9:00am, so I just had to make the very long walk through the Vancouver airport (completely re-routed for construction) and go through US Customs. No problems so far. Birding highlights - absolutely none.

I arrived in Dallas, where I would connect to Panama, on-time and went for lunch. I tried my best to spot some interesting birds from the airport terminal but it was getting dark and all I managed to see was American Crow and European Starling - not exactly highlights. The departing flight to Panama was on-time. The plane was loaded and we taxied along the runway only to learn that very shortly after leaving the gate that one of the engines wouldn't start. We sat on the runway for an hour before returning to the terminal. Everyone had to deboard and $10 food vouchers were issued to customers. In the end, we had to wait for a replacement plane, and when that arrived, we had to wait for new staff because of some kinda Union thing. We finally departed at at about 10:30pm, 3.5 hours later than scheduled. We landed in Panama at 2:00am the next morning and by the time I got by bags, went through customs, caught a taxi, and checked in to the hotel, I fell onto the bed exhausted at 3:30am. Given the 3 hour time difference from Victoria, it took 26.5 hours to get to Panama City - it would have been quicker going to Australia!

22 February, 2008
Despite my incredibly late arrival time at the hotel I had enough adrenaline to get out of bed at 7:00am. Virtually all conference guests were staying at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was a five-star luxury hotel with all the amenities. As a birder/biologist I didn't quite fit the appearance of the typical business clientele that the hotel catered too, but that didn't matter to me - my goal that day was to get my first sampling of Panama birding. But first, a quick bite to eat at the hotel restaurant - a nice assortment of fruit and cereal, eggs fried in a copious amount of oil, and plantain - an unusually starchy banana-looking-type fruit that for me, demanded an acquired taste. With breakfast done in record time, I now needed to obtain transportation to Parque Natural Metropolitano. One look out of the front window of the hotel revealed hundreds of taxis zooming about, and one parked hotel shuttle. I asked the hotel lobby personnel for a ride to the park and within minutes I was on my way. The park was remarkably close, and took less than 10 minutes to arrive, despite what I considered to me some of the most chaotic city driving I had ever seen. I asked the driver to pick me up at 12:00pm, as that should give me plenty of time to complete a short hike at the park - boy, was I wrong.

After paying the $2 fee and obtaining a park map, I set off to bird the following trails (Sendoro) which, when combined, made a loop: El Roble (0.7 km), Mono Titi (1.1 km), and La Cienaguita (1.1 km). I began birding immediately upon leaving the visitor centre, and to be honest, it was at first a little overwhelming. Orange-chinned Parakeets flew overhead by the dozens, Tropical Kingbirds flitted about the gardens, and the buzz and whir of hummingbirds was everywhere. It became obvious rather quickly that in this area Rufous-tailed Hummingbird was abundant, but you had to check every bird because at least another dozen potential species were possible in this area. Feeding along the forest margins behind the visitor centre was Crimson-backed Tanager, Olive Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, and White-shouldered Tanager, and in the grassy areas were numerous Variable Seedeaters - all new species for me.

Once in the forest, the roar of nearby traffic unfortunately muted many of the natural sounds, but there was enough activity to keep my mind off the road noise and on the birds. The next few highlights included Slaty-tailed Trogon, Dusky Antbird, Cocoa Woodcreeper (formerly Buff-throated Woodcreeper), and Plain Xenops, and before I knew it my time was almost up and I felt I had hardly begun. So much time was spent sifting through the field guide and absorbing every little detail that there simply wasn't time to complete all of the trails I had planned on walking. By the time I had to return to catch the shuttle I had only completed the El Roble trail and about 300m of La Cienaguita trail. In summary I saw 16 lifers and 22 species in total, and given the circumstances of a late start and early return, I was in fact very pleased. I returned to the hotel via the hotel shuttle and was shocked at the $20 fee - given what I had read in the Moon and Frommer's guides regarding transportation costs in Panama, I knew I had been taken for a ride, literally and figuratively.

I had a quick shower and spent the afternoon compiling my notes, including lengthy descriptions of unidentified lizards and butterflies (note to self: find books on reptiles and butterflies). While updating my field book I made a point of looking out the hotel window at every opportunity and in doing so I managed to spot another six lifers, including Yellow-headed Caracara, Bat Falcon, and Yellow-crowned Amazon (Parrot). I also spotted my first Tropical Mockingbird foraging on the grass poolside at the adjacent hotel, and in turn, I was spotted by sunbathers scanning the pool area of the adjacent hotel - I'm quite certain they wouldn't believe I was looking at [the feathered variety of] birds.

Once my notes were complete I went for a rather unusual tour of the city with a very eccentric local who, surprisingly, had claimed to have worked in the oil and gas sector near Edmonton, Alberta. The very speedy tour (not directed at birdwatching) yielded two new lifers: Magnificent Frigatebird and Ruddy-ground Dove. Tour highlights included Ancon Hill, an open-air market, the Presidential buildings, and the old Noriega prison. The 1-hour tour ended up costing $45 ($25 for the guide and $20 for the taxi). I later learned I had probably overpaid for that too.

By 7:00pm I was in bed because travel exhaustion had caught up to me. I also wanted to be well-rested for tomorrow's professionally-guided bird tour that I had arranged two months earlier.

Total number of species seen today = 33
Total number of lifers seen today = 24
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 33
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 24
Number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 16

23 February, 2008
Day 2 of birding in Panama was with a guide. I had spent several weeks researching potential choices, and although several operators were recommended, one in particular stood out: Advantage Tours Panama. It stood out because of two highly recommended bird guides: Guido Berguido and Kilo (who sadly, I've forgotten his last name and does not appear to be with Advantage Tours anymore). Given that I only had the one day, and that I wanted to maximize the birding time, I picked a destination that was reasonably close by - Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. Pipeline Road is aptly named because it was formerly a road used to access an oil pipeline that has long since been deactivated; remnants of the above-ground pipe can still be seen in places. Anyone researching places to go birdwatching near Panama City will soon learn that Pipeline Road is famous for its birdiness. Most notably it is recognized for having held the record for most number of species seen in a 24-hour period during a Christmas Bird Count for 19 years, with a maximum single count of 357 species. It only lost its prestige as being the best Christmas Bird Count in the world when the two most species-rich countries in the world established similar counts - notably Peru and Ecuador. Now I knew I wasn't going to see 357 species, but the place had huge potential and that's why I chose to have a guided tour of Pipeline Road.
Guido picked me up at 6:40am from the hotel and we departed immediately. We hadn't even left the city limits when he spotted a pair of Southern Lapwings (first lifer today) standing in a vacant field adjacent to the Marcos Gelabert airport, and shortly afterward he pointed out two Pale-vented Pigeons sitting on a wire (second lifer). The drive to Soberania Park takes about 45 minutes, but apparently varies depending upon how "birdy" it is along the way, and whether traffic and trains are cooperating. We arrived at the entrance to Pipeline Road at about 7:25am and parked about 200m before the semi-patrolled park entrance gate. We birded the forest margins and grassy areas around the car first, and the amount of bird activity was mind-boggling. Several Keel-billed Toucans were seen flying overhead, Red-lored Amazons announced their approach with raucous screams, and Mangrove Swallows floated effortlessly in the gentle breeze. Guido's keen eyesight and acute sense of hearing was immediately evident, and with the skill of a Jedi Knight wielding a light sabre, he used a green laser pointer to point either just below or above a bird so that I could find it. This was first demonstrated when he spotted a Golden-collared Manakin flitting in the dark, dense undergrowth.

The number of new species started to quickly add up - Social Flycatcher, Gray-headed Kite (which I spotted!), Bright-rumped Atilla, and Thick-billed Motmot to name a few. We also saw some "North American" species that I was familiar with - Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Magnolia Warbler (and ironically, Guido thought it was a Canada Warbler - so in a way we helped each other). We began our slow hike down Pipeline Road, first stopping at the gate to pay the $5 entrance fee. Guido continued to be as sharp as ever, calling out the exotic names of birds that he could hear, but that we could not see, until he brought out his iPod and external speaker pack. Throughout the day Guido was able to coax, lure, or attract several "hard-to-see" species into view, such as Spectacled Antpitta, Violaceous Trogon, Black-tailed Trogon, and Fasciated Antshrike (and yes, these were all lifers).

As we trundled along the road it was new bird after new bird with personal highlights including Yellow-rumped Cacique, White-bellied Antbird, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant (which Guido described as having a name longer than its body). Now to be clear, Pipeline Road is actually quite long (15+ km) and our plan was to walk only to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre, which was approximately 2 kms from the gate. Several cars passed us during our walk, which I learned later was an option for birders that wanted to start their birding further along the road; for my first visit I was more than happy with what we were doing. In addition to the birds we were seeing, we also saw numerous species of butterfly ( including the incredible Blue Morpho) and four species of primate: Three-toed Sloth, Two-toed Sloth, White-faced Capuchin, and Mantled Howler Monkey.

Once at the visitor centre, where I was able cool down in the shade and have a cold Coke, the hummingbird feeders surrounding the balcony were teaming with action. The most abundant species was White-necked Jacobin, which given the seemingly abundant supply of food, seemed to fight endlessly over feeding rights. The only other hummingbird species I saw was Blue-chested Hummingbird, although I'm sure I missed some as I walked around trying to take everything in. To one side of the visitor centre I was rather pleased with myself when I located the nest of a Golden-hooded Tanager, which also was a lifer. After about 30 minutes Guido took me back to the main road where he coaxed out a Spectacled Antpitta, and while we watched this funny little tailless bird on stilt-like legs, a Blue Ground-Dove flew in and landed on a branch beside us, also offering up amazing views.

As we walked back to the car Guido found a few more new species - Blue Dacnis, Blue-black Grassquit, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. I figured the tour was over, and I was very pleased with the results - I had seen 47 new species, and probably close to 70 for the day. But then I learned the tour wasn't over. Our next stop was the "ammo dump ponds", a local name for some ponds that are at the entrance to where the Panama Canal Authority stores its explosives for Canal maintenance and expansion. At the ponds we spotted Wattled Jacana, Orchard Oriole, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and Green Iguana (obviously not a bird, but cool nonetheless). We departed the ponds and drove to Guido's "research" facility, which was actually part of a semi-detached housing community in which his property borders the forest. We spent about 45 minutes at his place, sipping yet another Coke, and watching the birds at his banana-laden feeder. Thirteen species visited the feeders in the short time we were there, and two were lifers: Green Honeycreeper and Streaked Saltator. This was also one of my best opportunities to photograph some birds, as getting close was often difficult with a 300mm lens.
When we left I was convinced that was the end of the tour, but still it wasn't. Now we were on our way to Gamboa, an unofficial park on the banks of the Chagres River and Gatun Lake. We spent most of our time near the small boat launch and restaurant, and in the 30 minutes we spent in the area we saw 23 species of which 5 were lifers: Purple Gallinule, Great Kiskadee, Piratic Flycatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher, and Lesser Kiskadee.

We arrived back at the hotel at 4:15pm and after a quick shower I spent two hours over dinner compiling my notes and reviewing what I had seen. To say that the tour was amazing would be a major understatement. To this day, two years after the fact, I still vividly remember the experience, from Guido's expertise, knowledge, and professionalism to the voluminous array of technicolour species we saw. Most importantly, I was looking forward to implementing the experiences I had learned in the days to follow.

Total number of species seen today = 93
Total number of lifers seen today = 53
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 103
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 77
Number of species seen at Pipeline Road today = 42

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Planning My First Visit

It was November 2007 when I first had an opportunity to go to Panama, to attend the jointly-hosted Smithsonian Institution and Environment Canada symposium on Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Americas. The conference, scheduled for 25-28 February 2008, meant that there wasn't much time to prepare, either for the conference itself, or for what was going to be my first chance to go birdwatching in the tropics. In a matter of a few days, my colleague Dr. Fred Bunnell and I had registered for the conference, prepared and submitted an abstract for our paper, and were well on our way toward developing a presentation. But more importantly, however, and getting back to the focus of this post, was that I had to prepare for the trip.

The first thing I had to do was figure out what I needed medically in terms of the various vaccines I might need. For this particular trip, it turns out I needed Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A and B. The latter takes 7 months to fully administer (3 doses total, with second dose one month after first, and third dose six months after second). There was an option to get drugs for Malaria, but I decided not to for three reasons: 1) Malaria is carried predominantly by mosquitoes that are active at night, and I wasn't planning on being out at night; 2) Malaria is virtually absent in the Canal Area (and has been for at least for 20+ years) and I wasn't leaving the Canal Area, and; 3) for some people, Malaria drugs can make you feel worse than if you actually contracted Malaria and had to go through treatment. The best advice I can offer with regard to injections and a trip to the tropics is to speak with a travel medical specialist. They will ask you where you're going, what you're planning to do, and make recommendations best suited to your needs. As a preventative measure, I also took Dukoral (for travellers diarrhea) two weeks prior to leaving, and carried with me a prescription dose of co-ciprofloxacin just in case travellers diarrhea hit at precisely the wrong moment (such as at the conference banquet, or on the return air flight). Apparently, water in the Canal Area is perfectly suitable for drinking, but I wasn't going to take any chances.

The second thing I had to do was get a field guide. Without one there would almost be no point in going, as the vast majority of species occurring in Panama are different from the North American species that I've committed to memory. A quick browse on Google and made the choice of field guides relatively easy - there was only one: A Guide to the Birds of Panama, by Robert S. Ridgely and John A. Gwynne. In a way it was a pleasant surprise to see just one book, as unlike North America field guides, where it seems that each trip to the bookstore reveals yet another guide promising to provide something better, the reality is that you really only need one book to do 90% of the work.

There are a few shortcomings to the Panama field guide, such as no range maps, but overall I found the book to be exceptional, especially considering that nearly 1,000 species are discussed. Of greatest importance is the accuracy of the plates, which by no small measure are excellent. The book weighs in at a hefty 1.3kg (3 lbs), but was well worth lugging around given the amount of time I had to use it.

I've heard from some folks, that in order to lighten their load they've actually cut out the colour plates, but I think there are just too many sacrifices in doing so. For one thing, all of the raptors in flight are printed in gray-scale and embedded with the text body - and like most regions, most raptors are seen in flight. Various other species are also depiected as gray-scale sketches throughtout the book, such as Tropical Mockingbird. There are numerous other reasons for carrying the entire book, but perhaps the most important is to assist with sorting out similar species. For example, Three-striped Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler are virtually identical in appearance, and only the former is shown in the colour plates (the authors acknowledge that in order to reduce the size, most North American species are excluded as they can be found in other guides). So the key to separating these species is revealed in the text, and it turns out that elevation is a very good indicator. The text is also invaluable for describing distribution and key field marks. I suggest you carry the entire book!

So now that my field guide was on its way, I had to prepare for some serious studying. And if the studying was to be effective, I had to first determine where I was going to go once I got there. In doing so, I could narrow the range of species I would be likely to see (this is where range maps in the guide would have really helped). To maximize my time in Panama with other commitments back home I was able to add three days prior to the conference, and two days at the end. Thus, my trip began on 21 February and ended on 2 March. My actual itinerary looked like this:

21 Feb: Victoria, British Columbia to Panama City (all day)
22 Feb: All day available
23 Feb: All day available
24 Feb: All day available
25 Feb: Morning only; conference reception in afternoon
26 Feb: Morning only; conference in afternoon
27 Feb: Conference field trip
28 Feb: Conference all day
29 Feb: All day available
1 Mar: All day available
2 Mar: Panama City to Victoria, British Columbia (all day)

I thought it would be useful to purchase both the Moon and Frommers guide to Panama to assist with my planning, but from a birdwatching perspective, these books turned out to be largely inadequate. At best, each book had only 2-3 pages on bird-watching, but without a sense of irony, both mentioned the two places I spent most of the time: Metropolitan Park and Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. From additional searching on the internet it became abundantly clear that for anyone planning a birdwatching trip to Panama City, these two locations are highly rated.

To summarize my plans, I decided that on the first day I would ease into things by visiting Metropolitan Park because it was local, had a variety of trails, and was touted as being the only tropical forest designated as a National Park and located within the city limits of a major metropolis (hence the name). Additionally, I decided that I would spend all available mornings at Metropolitan Park because it was close and I only had a few hours each morning. For the conference field trip I chose to visit Barro Colorado Island (more on this later), and for two of the full days (1 at beginning and 1 at end) I chose to hire a guide (more on this later, too). In the next post I'll discuss highlights of my first tropical birding experience, including the kinds and number of species seen, the value of having a guide, and the unusual experiences encountered along the way.

Until then, happy birding, wherever you may be.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


If you had asked me yesterday whether I would ever create a blog, the answer would have been a resounding NO! But yesterday is in the past, and in a continuing effort to embrace change, presumably with good intentions, I've decided to give it a try. So what does one write about in a blog - apparently everything, thus making my choice of topics infinite. But let's be realistic - I'm really only going to write about something I'm inspired to write about, and I'm not likely to commit to a particular topic, task, or event that requires daily updates for the next year or more - heck, there are other things to do in life.

So here's the plan. I'm a wildlife biologist, with early beginnings as a "birder". Yes, a birder - a fanatical chaser and lister of all things feathered (but not tarred). I began birding at age 17, and now 21 years later I still passionately endeavour to watch birds, be it in my own backyard, at the local park, or in a country other than my own. When I started birding I chased everything - rare birds, new birds, birds out of their usual geographic range - and I kept copious lists: number of species seen in a calendar year, number of species seen in a particular place, most species seen at single location, most species seen in a single day, etc... Within five years, however, this version of "birding" wasn't doing it for me anymore. What I learned was that my real interest was in understanding the natural history, behaviour and ecology of birds, and learning about how everything fits together (a kind of "why does this species live here, but not there?" thing). But this blog is not about bird behavior, ecology, or natural history. Nor is it about answering, or pondering, how everything fits together. Its about birdwatching, but not in the strictest sense of chasing rarities or trying to see the most species in a day, a week, or a year, but in a more intrinsic sense where the goal is to simply see and appreciate (and given my roots, perhaps tally what was seen at the end of the day). So what will this blog entail...

To begin, as you may have already guessed by the title, this birding blog is about an upcoming trip to Panama. Why Panama - because that's where I happen to be going. Now I've already been to Panama twice: once for a biodiversity and climate change conference in 2008, and once as a birding trip in 2009 with my wife Joanna, who is also passionate about birds. The 2010 trip is expected to be similar to the latter, except this time I'm going with my Dad, who I wouldn't describe as a birder or even someone deeply passionate about birds - but he does have a keen interest in nature, and when we first planned to do this trip in November he was excited...and I think he still is. Of immediate interest to my dad is that this will be his first major trip to the tropics - he has been to Hawaii and St. Lucias via cruise ship, but in my mind those those don't really count. This trip to Panama will be a much truer experience of the tropics - we'll be on land, away from the buffet and shops, the entire time. Deep down I know he's excited about seeing the Panama Canal, which means I will likely to have to blog something on this as well.

It is approximately 5 weeks until departure day. We are leaving on March 13 and returning on March 21. Ultimately, we have 7 days to devote to birding and various other "leisure" activities. In the days and weeks prior to departure I'm going to discuss a range of things related to birding in Panama, including insights and experiences from previous trips, descriptions of destinations and species we expect/hope to see, and the kinds of equipment and preparation that goes into planning a [hopefully] successful trip. During the trip I will be posting birding highlights from both mine and my dads perspectives, a running total of species seen, a list of "lifers" (the term that birders use to describe having seen a species not previously seen), and other highlights that may make for interesting story-telling. Along with each post will be the inclusion of weblinks and photos - maybe even a video or two.

If you want to follow along, please do so by adding my link to your favourites. If you want to share similar stories, specifically related to birding in Panama, please send a comment. A word of warning though - don't send your comments in any language other than English - I'll have no idea what you're saying.