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