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