Saturday, March 20, 2010

Birding 20 Mar, 2010

20 March 2010
Today we were up at 4:50am and on the road by 5:30am heading toward Achiote Road on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. We arrived at Gatun Locks at 6:30am, thanks in large part to the new two lane highway that has opended since last year. After a short 20 minute wait at Gatun Locks we were soon birding the Caribbean coast. Along Achiote Road we spent most of our time at the two main bridges near the small village of Achiote. At about 10:00am we drove to Pina, an even smaller village on the coast. From there we turned around and went back to Achiote and did another scan around the main bridges for birds.

At about 12:15pm we began travelling toward toward Fort Sherman and Fort San Lorenzo. That meant returning to Gatun Locks and taking another road that paralleled the coast to Fort Sherman, at which point we turned southwest to visit the old ruins of Fort San Lorenzo. We departed Fort San Lorenzo at about 2:00pm and returned to the hotel at 3:30pm. After a quick shower we headed to Albrook Mall in search of gifts and failed miserably; the mall is essentially a conglomeration of box stores that offer nothing remotely local or cultural. We returned to the hotel for dinner and concluded the evening by packing for the long journey home tomorrow. We might spot a few birds on the way to the airport; and I have a few extra hours to waste between dad's flight and mine.

Mike's highlights: Montezuma Oropendola, White-necked Puffbird, Piratic Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Flame-rumped Tanager, Bay Wren, Red-breasted Blackbird.

Dad's highlights: Green Kingfisher, Geoffrey's Tamarin, Red-breasted Blackbird, Montezuma Oropendola, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, visit to Fort San Lorenzo, and entry of ship into Gatun Locks at 6:30am that was again seen at Miraflores locks at 3:30pm.

Complete story to follow...

Total species seen today = 65
Total lifers today = 0
Total cumulative lifers for trip = 23
Total species seen at Achiote Road = 49
Total species for trip = 214

Friday, March 19, 2010

Birding 19 Mar, 2010

19 March 2010
Today we visited Metropolitan National Park on the outskirts of Panama City. We arrived at 6:35am and birded the main loop, which included the mirador (viewpoint), and returned to the hotel by 12:00pm. Birding was very good at the park today, especially along the lower trails.

After a shower we went to Albrook Mall for lunch at Popeye's Chicken (a sinful, yet tasty treat). We then checked out a few electronics stores before heading to Ancon Hill, and then to Punta Culebra, a marine exhibit presented by the Smithsonian Institute, located along the Amador Causeway. We concluded the day by attempting to tour Old Town Panama City but got hopelessly lost in the maze of traffic and ended up returning to the hotel by 5:00pm. Last day tomorrow and an early rise for the drive to Achiote Road on the Carribbean side - can't wait.

Mike's highlights: 1 lifer includes Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet; other highlights inlcude excellent looks at Collared Aracari and Keel-billed Toucan, as well as great looks at Purple-crowned Fairy, White-bellied Antbird, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Yellow-backed Oriole, and Blue Seed-Finch.

Dad's highlights: Collared Aracari, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow-backed Oriole, Geoffrey's Tamarin, Jesus Christ Lizards (running on water), view from Ancon Hill, Punta Culebra marine exhibit, and Orange-billed Sparrow.

Complete story to follow...

Total species seen today = 78
Total lifers today = 1
Total cumulative lifers for trip = 23
Total species seen at Metropolitan Park = 69
Total cumulative species at Metropolitan Park = 83
Total species for trip = 204

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Birding 18 Mar, 2010

18 March 2010
Today was a late rise at 5:30am. We were on the road by 6:10am and arrived at Old Gamboa Road at 6:30am. The birding was excellent here today, and despite being told to leave the area by a very nice Panama Canal Authority guard, we did manage to hike almost all of what I had planned to do. Once back at the car we went to Plantation Road, and although the bird activity was substantially lower than Old Gamboa Road, we did manage to find some good species. From there we went to Ammo Dump ponds, then to Gamboa Park. Overall the species tally was going very well, and so we decided that after a quick shower we would try and target a few more spots.

At 2:15pm we left the hotel for round two - although fully-scaled back and more sight-seeing than anything. First we went to the Smithsonian Institute to visit the bookstore and purchase a few gifts; I got a good deal on Howells' Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico. From there we tried to go up Ancon Hill but it closed exactly when we arrived, at 4:00pm - we'll visit tomorrow. After that we went out on the Amador Causeway, then returned to cross the Bridge of Americas and visit Playa Bonita. We then returned to the Amador Causeway for dinner and watched grackles steal food off our table (actually, we let them take it). We returned to the hotel for 7:00pm, ready for another early night - tomorrow we visit Metropolitan Park as dad didn't get to go on Sunday because of his flight delay.

Mike's Highlights: 2 lifers including Bran-colored Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cacique; other highlights include Black-striped Sparrow, Boat-billed Heron, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Common Black-Hawk, Barred Antshrike, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and Red-capped Manakin.

Dad's Highlights: Blue-crowned Motmot, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Green Kingfisher, Summer Tanager (male), Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Greater Ani.

Complete story to follow...

Total species seen today = 90
Total lifers seen today = 2
Total cumulative lifers = 22
Total species seen at Old Gamboa Road = 60
Total species for trip = 190

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Birding 17 Mar, 2010

17 March 2010

Today we were up at 4:55am and on the road by 5:30am and headed to El Valle, a small village nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano. We hiked two trails: Cerro Gaital and Cara Iguana. Cerro Gaital was quite steep in places, but the view was spectacular - we were literally on the rim of the volcano looking down at the village below. Overall, birding was rather slim today - both trails were relatively quiet; the best birding was on small dirt road about 300m long where we say at least 20 Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds. We departed El Valle at 3:30pm and arrived back in Panama City at 5:30pm.

Mike's Highlights: 6 lifers including Black-faced Grosbeak, Plain Antvireo, Tawny-crested Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Rufous-crested Coquette (very small hummingbird), and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Other highlights include finding my very fisrt Coral Snake - not certain of species and I wasn't about to pick it up.

Mike's Un-highlights: at least 5 species "got away"; one was almost certainly a new species - 99% certain it was a Sabrewing Hummingbird, but the 1% error won't let me count it!!!

Dad's Highlights: view of El Valle from crest of Cerro Gaital trail; birding along unnamed road with lots of birds, especially the abundant Snowy-bellied Hummingbird; Scarlet-thighed Dacnis; Tawny-crested Tanager; Lance-tailed Manakin (mostly because dad found it on his own and I didn't see it), Smooth-billed Ani.

Complete story to follow...

Total species today = 54
Total lifers today = 6
Total cumulative lifers = 20
Total species for trip = 171

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Birding 16 Mar, 2010

Today we were up at 5:45am and on the road by 6:15am and heading toward Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. Upon arrival I decided to head directly to the Rainforest Discovery Center, where, based on advice from Mae of Panama Birding tours, the Blue Cotinga was most likely to be seen in the early morning, from the top of the 30-m tall canopy tower. After the tower we walked about 2 kms of the Pipeline Road, and then made our way back to Ammo Dump ponds, followed by Gamboa Park. After a long day of birding we arrived back at the hotel by 3:15pm, got cleaned up, and went for an early dinner.

Mike's highlights: Four lifers including Blue Cotinga (a brilliant male), Moustached Antwren (formerly Pygmy Antwren), Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, and Yellow-green Vireo (a pair building a nest). Other noteworthy sightings include Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Black-chested Jay, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Crane Hawk, Great Tinamou, Green Shrike-Vireo, Hook-billed Kite, Limpkin, and Rufescent Tiger-Heron.

Dad's highlights: Black-chested Jay, Blue Dacnis, Blue Cotinga, hummingbirds at the feeders, Black-striped Woodcreeper, White-faced Capuchin, Western Slaty Antshrike pair building a nest, Yellow-tailed Oriole.

Complete story to follow...

Total species seen today = 84
Total lifers today = 4
Total lifers for trip = 14
Total species seen at Ammo Dump Ponds = 19
Total species seen at Pipeline Road = 49
Total species for trip = 155

Monday, March 15, 2010

Birding 15 Mar, 2010

Today's visit was to Cerro Azul. We made three stops: 1) Los Nubes, 2) Birder's View, and 3) Tagua.

Cerro Azul is at approximately 800m elevation and is noticeably cooler and less humid than Panama City and the Canal area. Part of Cerro Azul is a private, gated community, and among the three places we visitied, only Birder's View was within the gated area.

Mike's highlights: 10 lifers including Boat-billed Flycatcher, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker (endemic to Panama), Yellow-eared Toucanet, Bay-headed Tanager, Violet-headed Hummingbird, White-ruffed Manakin, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Emerald Tanager, White-collared Swift, Shining Honeycreeper.

Dad's highlights: Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Three-toed Sloth mother with baby, Violaceous Trogon, Emerald Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, Hepatic Tanager, Crimson-backed Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Red-legged and Shining Honeycreeper, Keel-billed Toucan, Yellow-eared Toucanet.

Complete story to follow...

Total species today = 59
Total lifers today = 10
Tota cumulative species for trip = 106

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Birding 14 Mar, 2010

14 March 2010
First day of birding and who knows what surprises lay ahead. I departed the hotel at 6:30am and was at Metropolitan Park by 6:45am. The fee was still $2, which I paid at the visitor center and began the usual route - birding the fields and forest margins behind the buildings, then off to the lagoon, past the nursery and up to the Mirador. From the Mirador I returned via Cieneguita trail.

The usual suspects were behind the visitor center - Social Flycatcher, House Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and Tropical Flycatcher. In addition I also spotted a Yellow-bellied Elaenia building a nest and two Geoffery's Tamarins moving through the trees. After that I enetered the forest, where after being bitten by two mosquitoes, I made a hasty retreat back to the car for my bug dope.

Now, back to business. Upon approach of the small lagoon I flushed to species I was very familiar with from the breeding grounds in northern British Columbia - Northern Waterthrush and Solitary Sandpiper. There was also a good variety of Panamania species, including Crimson-backed Tanager, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Blue Seedeater, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, and Blue Dacnis. Continuing along toward the information kiosk I spotted a nice-looking male Rosy Thrush-Tanager, a male Red-throated Ant-Tanager, and a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet. My personal highlight for the day was the sighting an Olivaceous Flatbill, my second observation, the first of which was with Mae and Joanna during a tour on Plantation Road.

As I began the climb to the mirador I glimsed a quick look at a drab olive-green bird with a bright red crown flitting through the undergrowth. I quickly scanned the field guide thinking this was an easy bird to identify, but was disappointed when I couldn't find it. The bird would have to remain a mystery unless I could spot it again.

A little further along and I stopped to look at a pair of Dusky Antbirds making their way through the vines and lianas. Above them was a Green Honeycreeper, followed by a small flock of White-shouldered Tanagers. When I was about 1/3 of the way up the hill I heard a call I wasn't familiar with (but let's face it, I'm not familiar with most species' calls in Panama) and so I made a quick recording from which I would attempt to identify later from the songs I downloaded to my PSP. But, just as I was about to walk away the bird appeared - a gorgeous male Lance-tailed Manakin. Shortly after a female appeared and low-and-behold this drab olive-green bird had a red-crown, not something shown in the field guide. Upon reading the text, however, it was revealed that females occasionally sport this feature.

At the mirador was a cacaphony of birds and in the first few seconds I spotted two Yellow-backed Orioles, one Blue-crowned Motmot, a Checker-throated Antwren, and a Long-billed Gnatwren. Then, all of a sudden, everything went quiet and in came an immature Gray-headed Kite calling loudly as it alighted on a tree directly above me. The bird remained for about 10 minutes - but it was too far away and the light was poor for a photograph.

As I made my way back it was generally quiet, although I did bump into a reasonably good-sized flock of birds that had great potential until a dozen loud people came along and scared near-everything away. Among the species I did see were Squirrel Cuckoo, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Slate-colored Grosbeak, and Orange-billed Sparrow. Back near the visitor centre I spotted a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher just as I was leaving the forest, and a Common Tody-Flycatcher in a lone shrub in the middle of the main field.

I arrived back at the car at 10:30am and against my better judgement I decided to hike the Momotides trail on the opposite side of the road. My instincts told me that it was too hot and windy for the bird activity to still be good, and my instincts were correct. After walking the trail I discovered only one new species for the day - Cocoa Woodcreeper. I returned to the hotel by 11:30am, had a quick shower, and began to tally the mornings field notes.

At 1:00pm it was finally time to pick-up dad from the airport, and at 1:45pm it was mission accomplished - he had finally made it. To salvage the remainder of the day we went back to the hotel, dropped off his bags, and went to the Miraflores visitor centre for 3:00pm. We spent just under 2 hours there, and while the ships were fascinating, so too were some of the birds. Upon departing the locks we spotted at least nine Gray-headed Chachalacas in the trees next to the parking lot, and dad also got a good look at a Crimson-backed Tanager. As we left the locks I stopped briefly at the main bridge and spotted a Ringed Kingfisher, two White Ibis, and a Cattle Egret.

We returned to the hotel at 5:15pm, and after scoping a Fork-tailed Flycatcher from the hotel room window, we headed to dinner at the Garden's Restaurant at the Albrook Inn. Just before we got into the car I spotted a Yellow-crowned Amazon (parrot) sitting high up in a tree, although dad was not convinced that it had a yellow crown. At the Albrook Inn we spotted a pair of Variable Seedeaters and a Tropical Mockingbird foraging on the manicured lawns. Dinner was good, but it was like eating in a sauna; eventually we asked to have the air-conditioning turned on, and regret having not asked earlier.

Just as we were about to leave the restaurant, Carlos and Mae from Birding Panama tours walked in with a group that they had just taken to Pipeline Road. After a brief reaquaintance with Mae, because we were going out with her tomorrow, we returned to the hotel for 8:00pm, and lights out by 9:30pm.

Total species today = 67
Total lifers today = 0
Total species seen at Metropolitan Park = 45
Total species for trip = 67

Saturday, March 13, 2010

2010 Trip Begins

13 March 2010
Today I really was up early, at 4:45am, so that I could catch the hotel shuttle at 5:20am in time to clear US Customs and security for my scheduled departure at 7:40am. At 5:15am I called Dad to confirm that his flight was on time, and indeed it was. However, at 6:09am he called me, when his flight should have departed, to say they were de-boarding due to a faulty engine fire extinguisher switch.

In all truth this was actually the second flight problem for the trip. The first occurred about four weeks ago when Continental Airlines decided to change their flight schedule. Initially I had about 1.5 hours to spend in Houston (Dad had 3.5 hours) waiting for my connection. This seemed reasonable when considering that any number of problems could cause a delay, but when the change reduced my layover to 32 minutes, this seemed preposterous. I called Continental immediately, asking for a variety of solutions, such as different flights, different connections, even different days, but there was absolutely no way they were going to change, even after I offered to pay a change of flight fee. From a legal perspective the connection was in fact acceptable - I suspected that 30 minutes was the cutoff, so 32 probably seemed entirely reasonable to them; at least it wasn't 31! So, for a few hours, both my Dad and I were at the mercy of the airlines.

Now back to today. I was on-board and on my way to Houston, and after a somewhat uncomfortable flight, we landed 5 minutes early. By the time I got off the plane I had 20 minutes to get to the next gate, and in my mad rush to get there I could I hear my cell phone buzzing, probably Dad telling me where he was. I checked the message and it was worse, much worse. Dad's flight didn't end up leaving until 10:35am, meaning that he wouldn't arrive in Houston until 3:30pm, one hour after the scheduled departure. So, one way or another, Continental managed to hose us.

I boarded my flight on-time, and we departed about 20 minutes late. Three hours later and I was in Panama, where after having a fairly rough day I was greeted by a one hour Customs line up, and after that a 20 minute baggage screening line up. Renting the car was easy, but I missed my first turn out of the airport and ended up taking the slow route to the hotel. Also, as I approached Panama City, I made another wrong turn that ended up costing me three toll road fees totaling $2.00! Eventually I arrived at the hotel at 9:30pm, 12 hours and 45 minutes after waking up in Vancouver.

I checked e-mail as soon as I got in. Dad was staying at the Houston airport hotel and was confirmed for the 9:00am departure. Joanna had also sent me an e-mail confirming her safe and timely arrival in England - little Amelia apparently did well on the trip, and even went to sleep in the bassinette (or body bag as Joanna described it) provided by the Air Canada. To save time for when dad arrives tomorrow I went to the local grocery and bought various supplies: breakfast cereal, milk, water, Gatorade, etc...).

I finally crashed at 11:00pm, with alarm set for 6:00am to go birding at Metropolitan Park, although it won't be the same without dad.

Friday, March 12, 2010

12 March 2010

What a busy week it has been. In preparation for the trip to Panama I downloaded numerous birdsongs from Xeno-Canta to my PSP (for portable playback), photocopied various pages from the Bird-Finding Guide, and confirmed the various reservations we had made. I even bought a netbook so that I could keep up with my blog while I was in Panama, and of course that needed setting up to be of any use.

12 March 2009
Joanna and I were up early - but what's new. I finished the last of my 2009 blog postings and rapidly packed my suitcase and carry-on backpack. I also had to write a letter giving permission to Joanna to take Amelia out of the country without me (has it really come to this?), and I had to call VISA to let them know we were going to be using our cards out of the country. By 12:00pm it was go-time, as Joanna needed to check-in at the Victoria airport by 1:00pm for her 3:30pm flight. After doing that we went for lunch at a nearby restaurant and at 2:15pm I dropped Joanna and Amelia at the airport, kissed them both profusely, and wished them a great trip.

From there I went straight to Swartz Bay, where BC Ferries would take me to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal from which I would catch a coach to the Vancouver airport, and then a shuttle to the hotel I was staying in before flying out early Saturday morning. And that's where I am now - typing live and up-to-date from my hotel room.

Out of habit I documented all of the birds I saw on my trip from home to the hotel, and although they won't count toward the Panama Birding tally, they are useful, if not now, certainly later.

It is now just 10.5 hours to departure. See you on the other side.

25 December 2009

In an anticipation of our trip to Panama, Dad was treated to some atypical (for him) presents for Christmas. First, I gave him a pair of light hiking shoes and some breathable socks. My sister gave him a pair of light nylon field pants and a breathable, wick-away t-shirt. I also gave him a book on the history of the Panama Canal, because he likes that kind of stuff.

Also during the Christmas holidays we sorted out the final details of our trip. One thing Dad had to do was go through the process of getting his various shots before travelling. We were now just ten weeks from our trip and his excitement hadn't waned, although I was a bit concerned that he wasn't studying the Panama Bird Field Guide at every moment! I had a sneaking suspicion that I was going to have to do most of the bird finding and identification.

Late November 2009

Well, who knew it would be this quick - an opportunity has arisen. Joanna, with baby Amelia in tow, has decided to visit her family in England in early 2010. Her plan was to go for about 5 weeks, which meant I would stay behind because I didn't have five weeks to spare from work. My plan however was short-lived, as after I rethought things, at least for a good 10 minutes, I decided that I would go to Panama for a week on my own. Over the next week or so Joanna and I booked our respective flights, hers departing on March 12th, and mine on March 13th.

About a week after booking my flight I was talking to my parents about my upcoming trip, and the long and short of it was that Dad seemed really keen on going, although he knew he would never have the opportunity to go because Mom hates the heat and humidity. So, being the good son (huge bonus points here people!!!) I invited Dad to come along, warning him well in advance that this was a birding trip - not a sleep-in and lounge-about trip.

Despite the gory details of having to wake up very early EVERY morning, and despite telling him that we would be doing quite a bit of hiking in disgustingly hot and humid conditions, I actually believed he was genuinely excited about going. Thus, with the quick swipe of a VISA card, he was ready to go, and in doing so we have now come full circle, as this is how my Blog began, as a docu-diary of my Dad and I travelling to Panama to do some birding.

As you can see the Blog has obviously metamorphosed into something much bigger, but that's just me. I felt I wasn't doing enough by just documenting this one trip, as so many parts would appear disjunct given my previous experiences. Therefore, I decided for perspective, and as a service to fellow Panama birders, that I would describe the where, when, what, why, and how of my Panama birding adventures. Subsequently, I've spent the last month blogging frantically to get caught up, and here I am.

In late November my Dad booked his flight from Calgary and arranged it so that we would meet up in Houston for the connecting flight to Panama on March 13th. After that the rest was easy: book a car and hotel, decide where to go birding, and make any additional arrangements as necessary, which included booking a one day tour to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe with Birding Panama tours. Below is our final agenda. All we had to now was wait.

March 13: Travel to Panama via Houston, TX
March 14: Metropolitan Park (morning); Miraflores (afternoon)
March 15: Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe tour with Birding Panama
March 16: Ammo Dump Ponds, Pipeline Road, Gamboa Park
March 17: El Valle
March 18: Old Gamboa Road, Summit Gardens, Plantation Road
March 19: Tocumen Marsh, Amador Causeway
March 20: Achiote Road, Fort San Lorenzo
March 21: Travel home from Panama

October 1, 2009

Today our daughter Amelia was born - the greatest day of my life if you don't include any of the days birding in Panama (just kidding sweetie). Tropical birding wasn't even on my mind at this moment, and who knew when it next would be. I'd just have to play it by ear, although Joanna and I have certainly talked about another visit, perhaps next time to Peru or Ecuador.

Happy Birthday baby!

Monday, March 8, 2010

2009 Trip Synopsis

28 February 2009
Our last day in Panama, and with only a few hours to get a little more birding in, we headed to the tried and trusted Metropolitan Park. We arrived at about 7:00am and decided to walk the Momotides trail on the opposite side of the main road that bisects a corner of the park. Generally we were quite rushed as we had to check out of the hotel by 10:30am, and we hadn't yet finished packing from the night before. The first bird we spotted was a Rufous-and-White Wren, followed shortly after by Rufous-breasted Wren. I’m not sure if the birding was particularly quite today, or if our species tally was suffering either because we were exhausted from 12 days of non-stop birding, or we were in too much of a hurry to bird properly.

We did spot a good variety of common species, such as Cocoa Woodcreeper, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Black Vulture. A few highlights included Scarlet-rumped Cacique, White-bellied Antbird, Bright-rumped Attila, and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. At about the halfway point around the loop trail Joanna spotted the best bird, and a lifer, a Pheasant Cuckoo, walking slowly through the sparse undergrowth only a few feet from the trail, and as it would turn out, this was my last lifer for the trip.

We returned to the hotel at about 9:45am, completed our packing, and departed at about 10:45am. We still had about 1.5 hours before we had to be at the airport, so we decided to take one last drive out to the Amador Causeway, and then wiggle our way through the historical part of Panama City. On the causeway we spotted a few of the regular species, and three new trip species: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Whimbrel, and Royal Tern. The Night-Heron was Joanna’s last lifer for the trip, and in old-town Panama City we spotted our last new trip species – House Sparrow!

We arrived at the airport at about 12:30pm, returned the car, and checked in. Now all we had to was wait for our flight, which at 1:30pm departed on time for Miami. Once in Miami we had about 45 minutes to catch our connecting flight, but first we had to clear US Customs. We proceeded through the lines and were expecting to have no problems – we couldn't have been more wrong. The US Customs official that was helping us said there was a problem, and without revealing any details we were shuffled off to a holding room with about 60 other people. Our hearts immediately sank as we thought that there was no way we would make our connecting flight with this many people in front of us. After about 15 minutes another US Customs official announced that our bags had been pulled from the plane, as these were not allowed to travel without us. Then after another 15 minutes, to our surprise, we were called ahead of about 40 people that were there waiting before we arrived. The customs official that served us said, almost jovially, “I bet you know why you’re here”. We responded seriously, saying “We have no idea”.

It turned out on our way to Panama, when US Customs took my fingerprints and photo, which at the time I thought was unusual for a Canadian citizen but figured the security rules had changed, they accidentally added my information to Joanna’s profile. Thus, when they scanned Joanna’s passport on her return entry, my photo appeared on their screen. With no word of apology they returned our passports and indicated that if we were lucky, we might still catch our flight – we had 12 minutes.

It turned out that we were lucky. We quickly checked our bags that had been yanked from the transfer and then proceeded to run to the next terminal – both exhausted, and Joanna very hungry, stressed, and uncomfortable. When we arrived at the gate the plane was about 10 minutes late, just enough time for Joanna to grab a sandwich. We departed shortly after and arrived at the Dallas International Airport at about midnight. Given our exhaustion we decided to stay at the airport hotel as our next connecting flight was not until 8:30am the next morning. Soon after entering the room were both out as fast as lights.

Total number of species seen today = 24
Total number of lifers seen today = 1
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 291
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 116
Number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 17
Total cumulative species see at Metropolitan Park = 84

1 March 2009
We woke at about 7:00am and made our departure gate on-time for our flight to Vancouver, and soon after collecting our bags we grabbed a taxi to the BC Ferries terminal for the last leg of our journey. Once on Vancouver Island we then caught a taxi from the ferry terminal to our work office where we had parked our car, and 45 minutes later we were home. We were both absolutely wiped, and with Joanna now into her 11th week of pregnancy, the trip had taken its toll.

Overall we were both extremely pleased with our trip, with the obvious exceptions being the long fragmented flights, long layovers, and the US customs hiccup. In total we saw 291 species and were only nine shy of our goal; but we weren't going to worry about it. I saw 116 new species, which was surprisingly very close to the 131 lifers I saw in 2008. We weren't sure when we would next visit the tropics as our current and future focus was on the expectation of our first child, which was due in late September. So, until next time...happy birding wherever you may be.

Trip Synopsis
Total number of species seen = 291
Total number of new species for the trip = 116
Maximum number of species seen in one day without guide = 83
Total species seen with Mae (Birding Panama) = 94
Total length of trip = 13 days
Total full days available for birding = 12
Birding destinations visited = Metropolitan Park, Pipeline Road, Achitote Road, Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, Chiriqui Highlands, Amador Causeway, Old Gamboa Road, Plantation Road, Summit Gardens, Ammo Dump Ponds
Number of days with bird guide = 1

Birding Feb 27, 2009

27 February 2009
At 6:00am our guide Mae, from Birding Panama, picked us up at the hotel. From there we headed straight to old Gamboa Road, and upon arrival I realized I had committed one of the ultimate birding sins - I had left my binoculars on the kitchen table back at the room. Reluctantly we had no choice but to go back, and although it wasn't very far, it was the peak of rush hour traffic heading into the city. It took nearly 45 minutes to drive what had only taken 20 minutes going the other way. Once at the hotel I grabbed my binocs as quickly as possible and ran back to the van so that we could get back to birding.

At about 7:30am we were back at Old Gamboa Road. We parked at the junction I described on February 23 as being the one where we didn't know which we way to go. The birding at this junction was again fantastic, and in a little over 20 minutes we had 19 species including Masked Tityra, Squirrel Cuckoo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Forest Elaenia, Southern Bentbill, Yellow-rumped Cacique, and a whole lot more. From the junction we headed south, or left, on the gravel road. A short way along and Mae stopped to broadcast the song of a Black-striped Sparrow through her iPod. Within seconds a small drab bird popped up from the dense vegetation to perch on an exposed branch that provided us an excellent view of our first lifer for the day.

As we slowly continued along the road spotting species such as Paltry Tyrannulet, Scrub Greenlet, Gray-headed Chachalacha, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager, the forest to our left opened up and the tall wetland vegetation to our right transitioned to dryer scrub. About halfway through the cleared area I found myself ahead of Mae and Joanna, and when I looked back to see where they were I saw a bird walking across the road about 20 meters behind them. I quickly called it out, and before it managed to cross the road we were able to confirm that it was a Gray-necked Wood-Rail - another new species and a tough one to see.

Just beyond the cleared area were the Old Gamboa ponds that were bisected by the road. Mae set up her scope and began a thorough search of the wetland margins. Within seconds she found a Boat-billed Heron, and within five minutes she had found three. She also spotted an Amazon Kingfisher, Northern Waterthrush, and Lesser Kiskadee. The typical aerial insect-eaters, such as Gray-breasted Martin, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, and Mangrove Swallow, were also present. Continuing further along we again entered older forest, this time on both sides of the road. Here we spotted a Broad-billed Motmot on an overhanging branch, a Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and a Spectacled Owl in a small patch of bamboo. Apparently this owl has been here for more than two years and is a virtual guarantee for anyone trying to find it.

Beyond where the owl was perched we again came into a small clearing surrounded by taller forest. All of a sudden there was a loud crashing of branches above us, and as I looked up I could see that a large bird had landed, rather clumsily. The three of us put our binoculars up, and although we couldn't see the entire bird, we could see some key field marks. First, we could tell it was a bird of prey just based on shape and size. It was also predominantly black although we could see that the tail had distinct white bars. We could also see that it had yellow legs. The key field mark was the feather-patterning around the upper part of the legs; it was fine black-and-white barring. A quick check of the field guide confirmed it was a Black Hawk-Eagle, another impressive raptor of Central America.

After being mobbed incessantly by a Yellow-headed Caracara, the Black Hawk-Eagle departed within 60 seconds of it having landed above us. Mae commented that it was quite rare to see Black Hawk-Eagles perched as most sightings tend to be of flying birds. As we continued along the road we eventually came to some rather sorry-looking forest that had obviously been cleared and left to its own demise. In one of the scraggly trees that remained a male Black-throated Mango sat perched alone, looking out over its disturbed environment. At this point we decided to head back toward the van as it was getting close to lunchtime. Near where we spotted the Black Hawk-Eagle, Mae again used her iPod to try and coax out a Jet Antbird - and it worked. This was now my 7th lifer for the day. We also saw a Gray-headed Tanager, which if you recall, Joanna had missed when we were on the El Trogon trail during our first visit to Achiote Road.

Near where we saw the Gray-necked Wood-Rail I was rewarded with another lifer - Lesser Goldfinch. This too was a species I had tried finding on several trips to southern California, but failed to achieve. Once back at the van we headed across the main road to Summit Gardens where we had lunch. Mae put out a beautiful selection of fresh veggies, cheese, bread, and juice that we enjoyed at one of the shaded picnic tables. As we told our various birding stories, as birders do when they're not actually birding, we spotted two new species: a gorgeous pair of Black-chested Jays foraging in the nearby trees, and two male Giant Cowbirds stealing food from the food dish in one of the animal pens.

After lunch we drove about 2 km further up the main road to Plantation Road, a trail that was formerly used as access to a Cocoa plantation that has since become abandoned. Birding along the trail was very good, although instead of running into large mixed-species flocks, most bird sightings were of individuals that seemed well-spaced out along the length of the trail. Near the start we found White-breasted Wood-Wren, Dot-winged Antwren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and Great Tinamou. Further along Mae spotted an Olivaceous Flatbill perched above the trail, and a Rufous Motmot perched just off the trail - both were lifers. For the third time Mae again brought out her iPod and broadcast the call of a bird we didn't know. Within a couple of minutes out came a Spotted Antbird, perhaps one of the most strikingly patterned forest birds I had ever seen. Its back is a wonderfully rich milk chocolate brown and its chest is as white as freshly fallen snow that is contrasted by a bold black necklace. Its head is steel blue-gray, and on its black wings is a wide brown wingbar. For such a stunningly colourful bird it was in fact very well-camouflaged, which of course was no adaptive mistake.

Further along the trail we spotted Broad-billed Motmot, Purple-crowned Fairy, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-flanked Antwren, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Checker-throated Antwren, and several common species. I commented to Mae that we were trying to reach 300 species and that one particularly common bird, the Collared Aracari, was a species we had not yet found. Her surprised response was that one was calling just a few meters away, and as we walked over it was only a matter of minutes before she found a pair sitting high in the trees. At this point it was time to start winding the day down as it was now close to 3:00pm. On the way back Joanna spotted an immature White Hawk sitting in the forest, and back at the parking lot I spotted a Slate-colored Grosbeak, White-necked Puffbird, and a Red-capped Manakin.

Today's birding was excellent as it was our best single-day tally ever at 94 species. We returned to the hotel by about 4:00pm where we settled the bill and thanked Mae for the exceptional tour. We decided to have our last dinner at the hotel restaurant, and so after having a shower and getting cleaned up we once again had dinner as we watched birds fly to their roosts in the evening light. Our trip tally was at 286 species - just 14 from our goal. Tomorrow we were going to visit Metropolitan Park one last time, but for just 1.5 hours, before we had to check out of the hotel and head to the airport for the long trip back.

Total number of species seen today = 94
Total number of lifers seen today = 13
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 286
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 115
Number of species seen at Old Gamboa Road today = 65
Total cumulative species seen at Old Gamboa Road = 80
Number of species seen at Plantation Road today = 29
Number of species seen at Summit Gardens today = 8
Total cumulative species seen at Summit Gardens = 16

Birding Feb 26, 2009

26 February 2009
Today our travels would take us back to the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal where we would spend half of our time along Achiote Road, and the other half in the vicinity of Fort Sherman and Fort San Lorenzo. We departed the hotel at 5:30am in anticipation of heavy traffic and the rough road where we would once again be bumped, jostled, jarred, and shaken while weaving in-and-out of opposing lanes trying to dodge whichever seemed worse at the moment, the potholes or the traffic. As we approached Colon without crashing the car or losing our breakfast, we spotted our first lifer for the day, a Uniform Crake, perched precariously on a powerline overhanging a small wetland. Crakes, like other species such as rails, are notorious for skulking and hiding in dense wetland vegetation, but this individual was in plain sight - what a surprise.

Just prior to taking the 'switchback' that leads away from Colon, and toward the Gatun Locks, we spotted a Common Black Hawk perched on a snag. On our previous visit to Achiote Road we saw an adult in flight, and so today it was nice to see one perched. We arrived at Gatun Locks at about 7:15am where about five cars were lined up waiting to cross the small swing bridge. We stayed in the car this time, thinking that once again we might get caught off guard when the cars start to move. Consequently, we didn't see much in the way of forest birds, although we did manage to see a good variety of common species, as well as our second new species for the day, a Saffron Finch.

After about 15 minutes of waiting the swing bridge opened and we were on our way. We didn't spend much time birding in the area of the locks as we wanted to devote most of our early morning effort to the three bridges along Achiote Road as they were very productive on our last visit. At about 8:00 am we arrived at the first bridge, and after about 15 minutes of birding we realized that it was actually very quiet. Subsequently, we drove to the second bridge, which after about one minute of birding we realized there was a lot of activity. In a matter of minutes we saw two Keel-billed Toucans, a pair of Golden-hooded Tanagers building a nest, a male Flame-colored Tanager, our third sighting of a Bay Wren, a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, and our third lifer of the day, a Double-toothed Kite. In addition to those highlights were several common species, including 10 Orange-chinned Parakeets, numerous Turkey Vultures, at least 40 Gray-breasted Martins and Short-tailed Swifts, and a slew of forest songbirds, including one of Joanna's favourites, the Common Tody-Flycatcher.

After squeezing every last drop of birding activity out of the area around the second bridge we continued on to the third bridge. Once again there was a furor of activity and among the birds were Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Thick-billed Euphonia, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Lesser Greenlet, Smooth-billed Ani, Blue-headed Parrot, Plain-colored Tanager, and a suite of common species. We continued along Achiote Road and through the town, scanning the fields, fences, and forest margins as we went along. In one field, just past the town, we spotted Red-breasted Blackbird, another new species. We continued along the road to Pina, a small village on the Caribbean coast where Achiote Road suddenly went from paved to impassable. Generally the ocean view from Pina was quite nice, but it could have been a lot better if it were not for the excessive garbage that littered fields.

On our way back to Achiote we saw a few more common species, including Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Social Flycatcher, Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Tropical Mockingbird. Before heading back to the main road, to begin our journey to Fort San Lorenzo, we stopped again at the third bridge - and how lucky we were that we did. In the small stream below we spotted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, another new species and a rather cool one at that. We had excellent looks at the bird as it carefully tip-toed along the stream in search of a meal, and as it did I went back to the car, grabbed my camera, and commenced my own stealthy approach. And the effort was worth it, as I was able to get a few photos before the heron saw me, and tip-toed off in the other direction.

Our species count for Achiote Road today was 40, of which 22 species were not seen on our first visit here. We departed the area at about 12:00pm and headed toward Fort San Lorenzo via Fort Sherman. On our approach to Fort Sherman we passed a small patch of mangrove forest - a habitat type that Joanna had never seen prior to this. We pulled over for a brief moment to have a look and I showed Joanna the spooky-looking translucent crabs that live among the mangrove branches. Also while we were there, perhaps just for 5 minutes in total, we tallied two new trip species: Hook-billed Kite and White Ibis.

At Fort Sherman we passed through a small security station where we had to present our passports in order to proceed. Once in Fort Sherman we had a quick look around the beaches where we spotted a juvenile Peregrine Falcon swoop over our car and land on one of the old US Army buildings. Soon after leaving Fort Sherman we had to stop at another gate, this time to pay a $10 fee to access San Lorenzo National Park. After paying we continued on for about 20 more minutes before arriving at the terminus of the road at the Fort San Lorenzo ruins. At the small parking area was a large Oropendola colony, but no birds. We spent about half an hour walking around the ruins that were reminiscent of what you would expect to see in a pirate movie. The birding was very lean, and while Joanna spent some time photographing pieces of history, I worked my way back toward the car hoping to spot something.

Back at the Oropendola nest tree I spotted a hummingbird perched fairly high up on an exposed branch. Initially the back-lighting was terrible and all I could see was a silhouette, but after slowly repositioning I was able to place a darker background behind the bird to reveal enough detail to identify it as a Sapphire-throated Hummingbird - another lifer. Joanna was nowhere in sight and all I could do was wait and see if the hummingbird would stay on its perch until she returned. After about 10 minutes Joanna finally appeared over the horizon and as I hastily waved her over to see the little jewel, the bird disappeared. Fortunately, about 30 seconds later, it returned and Joanna saw it too.

The Caribbean Sapphire turned out to be our last new species of the day as we decided to head back to Panama City at about 2:30pm. At 4:30pm we arrived back at the hotel where we both had a shower, and then went to the Amador Causeway for dinner. Pizza was the craving of the day, and so after a little searching we found a nice outdoor restaurant-bar where we could sit overlooking a rocky beach and ships entering the Panama Canal. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day and we reminisced over our birding adventure. Tomorrow was going to be our last full day of birding in Panama before departing for home on Saturday afternoon. Given that we were at 259 species for the trip, it meant that making our goal of 300 was going to be a challenge; but really, we weren't counting.

Total number of species seen today = 63
Total number of lifers seen today = 8
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 259
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 102
Number of species seen at Achiote Road today = 40
Total cumulative species seen at Achiote Road = 72

Birding Feb 25, 2009

25 February 2009
Today was our second visit to the Ammo Dump ponds and Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. As usual we awoke well-before sunrise, had a quick breakfast, and were on our way by 6:00am. We arrived at the Ammo Dump ponds just a few minutes after sunrise, and today there was a lot of activity.

The first thing I did when we arrived was set up the tripod and scope, as scanning the wetlands, and the forest edge on the far side, was a good strategy for spotting species that were well-hidden, or for getting a great look at distant birds. We then did a quick scan of the nearby trees and wetlands and tallied a quick list of common birds: Wattled Jacanas hopping among lily pads, Great Kiskadees flying out from branches to snatch insects from the air, and Blue-gray Tanagers busily moving through the treetops gleaning unsuspecting insects from the leaves. Once we had completed scanning with the binoculars I used the scope to carefully and systematically search the main wetlands basin. Within a minute I spotted our first lifer of the day, a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, sitting low in the wetland vegetation about halfway out. Above the duck, perched on an overhanging branch protruding from a large shrub, was a Ringed Kingfisher. I then found a Green Kingfisher and a Green Heron, but I could not relocate the Fasciated Tiger-Heron we saw here a few days earlier.

On the other side of the road, where the wetland area is much smaller, we spotted very little in the way of birds, but we did get an excellent close-up view of a Capybara. In the surrounding trees the bird life was considerably better, and among the more common species we did manage to see a female Barred Antshrike (our second-ever sighting, the first being yesterday) and a Mourning Warbler (new for the trip). We wrapped up our birding at the ponds with an impressive early morning tally of 25 species in about 30 minutes.

From the Ammo Dump ponds we proceeded to Pipeline Road and parked about 200 m from the main gate. Birding between the car and gate was excellent again, and in addition to many of the more common species, we had excellent looks at several less common species such as Lineated Woodpecker, White-necked Puffbird, Blue-black Grosbeak, and Bright-rumped Atilla. Beyond the gate we spotted a Great Tinamou quietly making its way along the forest floor as several Keel-billed Toucans flew overhead. Soon after we had a great look at a Fasciated Antshirke, and above the road, maybe only two meters above our heads, we watched a pair of Scarlet-rumped Caciques weave grasses together during the early construction of a nest.

The first part of our birding morning was very good, but over the next hour it became great, with stunning looks at Squirrel Cuckoo, Olivaceous Woodcreeper (second trip sighting), Cinnamon Woodpecker (new for the trip), a pair of Green Shrike-Vireos, a Slaty Antwren (a lifer), and a White-winged Becard (another lifer). At the junction to the Rainforest Discovery Center we decided to continue along Pipeline Road a little further to see what the road less travelled, at least by us, had to offer. Unfortunately, after walking for about 15 minutes, we were caught in a sudden rain shower that lasted about 20 minutes and put a sudden end to the bird activity. We waited out the brief storm under the cover of several large palm fronds, and when the rain stopped we were bone dry. Soon after however, as the sun broke from behind the clouds, the air became even more humid than we would have thought possible.

Within minutes of the rain ending we were approached by a Park staff member who once again, as if it were a "birding in Panama custom", presented us with paperwork and a request of $5 per person. Having paid the fee we decided to head back toward the Rainforest Discovery Centre, and after being there for about 10 minutes we were again hassled for a $15 fee. We decided not to pay and began our slow walk back to the car. However, before leaving the Center we did manage to get a few "free" birds, including my best ever tally of hummingbirds: the ever-abundant White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed Hermit, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, and a new lifer, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

We arrived back at the car at about 12:30pm and made our way to the hotel for a quick shower and a bite to eat. After that we went to Ancon Hill, an obvious landmark adjacent to the Panama Canal with a mirador (viewpoint) and Panama's national flag on top. From there we went to the Smithsonian Institution bookstore located at the base of Ancon Hill, and then we took a quick drive across the Bridge of Americas to a beach near Isla Venado. We didn't see much in the way of birds other than a few Laughing Gulls, Sanderlings, and Magnificent Frigatebirds, perhaps because the beach was geared entirely to weekenders, tourists, and vacation homeowners. After driving the area for about 30 minutes we then headed back to town and went for dinner on the Amador Causeway. We returned to the hotel by 7:00pm, watched a bit of TV, and had an early night in anticipation of our second visit to Achiote Road.

Total number of species seen today = 57
Total number of lifers seen today = 4
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 248
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 94
Number of species seen at Ammo Dump ponds today = 25
Cumulative number of species seen at Ammo Dump ponds = 43
Number of species seen at Pipeline Road today = 35
Cumulative number of species seen at Pipeline Road = 60

Birding Feb 24, 2009

24 February 2009
We woke today at 5:00am feeling much better having had a good nights sleep, and after both having a shower and some breakfast we were on the road by 5:45am. Today's birding adventure was going to be in the vicinity of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe, a higher elevation foothills area located about 45 minutes east of Panama City, and adjacent to Chagres National Park. The first half of getting to Cerro Azul was relatively quick as it was almost entirely freeway driving toward Tocumen airport. After that we weaved through several smaller roads in a residential community before climbing gradually up the hillside to the private, gated community of Cerro Azul. Getting through the manned gate was not entirely easy, but after some crude hand signals and pointing at our binoculars and bird guide, the guard called the main office to determine if in fact we could enter. After a brief chat on the phone the guard also indicated rather crudely that we were to proceed ahead about 1 km to the office and check-in. Upon arrival at the office we were greeted with paperwork and a $10 access fee; it really is remarkable just how often we had to pay to go birding in Panama, particularly in a residential neighbourhood!

Our first point of call was the Rio Mono trail, in which access was via a small dirt track that leads past a private house and ends abruptly at a sudden drop down the hillside in what can only be described as a steep, slick, mud and rock slide. The Bird-Finding guide recommends that 2-wheel drive cars park at the top of the hill, and that 4x4 vehicles should only proceed during the dry season. If this was any indication of how steep and slick the hill actually was, being there confirmed it. Heeding the books advice, Joanna and I grabbed our daypacks and binoculars and proceeded down the hill on foot. Initially the birding was relatively quiet, but after about 5 minutes we came across a large feeding flock high up in the canopy. Spotting most of the birds was rather challenging on the steep hillside, and to say that our necks were sore from looking up so much would be an understatement. Among the birds we did see were Black-throated Trogon, Violaceous Trogon, Brown-throated Parakeet, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and my first lifer of the day, Sulphur-rumped Tanager. Below the canopy we tallied two more lifers, the first being a Marbled Wood-Quail that Joanna spotted skulking in the undergrowth on one side of the trail, and the second being a pair of Scaly-throated Leaftossers doing exactly what you would expect on the opposite side of the trail.

As we continued down the trail we spotted another new species, Black-striped Woodcreeper, foraging among the lianas. Later we found two Red-capped Manakins, several White-shouldered Tanagers, Panama Flycatcher, and Plain Xenops. After about 30 minutes we arrived at a creek crossing that marked the turnaround point for how far we decided we wanted to go. There was a remote possibility of spotting a Sunbittern or Fasciated Tiger-Heron foraging along the stream, but we were not so lucky. We did however spot a Green Kingfisher.

On the walk back toward the car the birding was noticeably better than when we had walked in, especially on the lower section of the trail between the creek and the bottom of the steep hill. In addition to several commoner species, we spotted three new lifers: Short-billed Pigeon, Olive-striped Flycatcher, and Rufous-capped Warbler, the latter of which was foraging right next to the car when we returned. From the Rio Mono trail we headed toward Cerro Jefe. Initially we were going to drive to a T-junction that was mentioned in the Bird-Finding Guide, but once we left the paved road, the access to the T-junction was little more than a slick dirt track that, although it was a lot less rocky than the previous "road", it had a distinct shine from its wet red clay surface that just shouted danger. The weather was also different as heavy cloud restricted our visibility to little more than 35-50 m, and a light drizzle kept things cool.

From the start of the dirt track we proceeded on foot, binoculars and raincoat in tow. At a little less than 200 m along the road we ran into a small flock of birds, and of the four species we saw, three were new: Speckled Tanager, Bananaquit, and Rufous-winged Tanager. Further along we easily spent 10 minutes trying to coax out a singing Bay Wren, which prior to showing itself, we didn't know what it was having not heard one before. We continued along the trail to another T-junction and then headed right toward a mirador (view point). The cloud got progressively worse, and since the previous flock of birds, we hadn't seen or heard anything else. We spent about 15 minutes at the mirador, just hoping something would come along, but nothing did. On a clear day, according to the Bird-Finding Guide, we should have been able to see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but as it was we couldn't even see the forest that was just 20 m away. Deciding to cut our losses, because in a cloud forest we could have waited along time for the cloud to disappear, we headed back to the car. On the way we spotted just two other birds, Blue-black Grosbeak and Western Slaty Antshrike, further indicating that this trail was not cutting the mustard.

By now it was about 11:30am and there was just one other trail, Calle Maipo, that we wanted to hike. We traced our route back a few kilometers and eventually found the the trailhead that lead off into a dryer forest before descending steeply into a ravine. The weather here was much better and the visibility was substantially better. However, in the 1-hour we spent on the trail we didn't see or hear much except for a few common tanagers, another Rufous-capped Warbler, and a Thick-billed Euphonia. At the point on the trail where we decided to turn around I did heard a rather unusual bird call coming from the forest interior. I spent quite some time trying to pinpoint its location, and after having no success from the trail, I cautiously ventured into the forest making sure I didn't accidentally step on an army ant colony or something else equally nasty. After a bit of extra searching I finally spotted the source of the call - a Green Hermit (hummingbird) male perched on a low branch. I waved Joanna to come and see the bird, and thankfully it remained long enough for both of us to see very well.

We got back to the car at about 1:00pm and decided to call it a day. We headed down the hill and back to the highway, and upon return to Panama City we decided to stop briefly (and illegally) on Corredor Sur to quickly scan the intertidal mudflats for shorebirds. Fortunately traffic was very light, and so we had about 60 seconds to scan the area. In those 60 seconds we tallied nine species, four of which were new for the trip list: Willet, Western Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, and Marbled Godwit. After arriving back at the hotel we decided that we would a have a quick shower and visit Punta Culebra, a Smithsonian Institution marine research facility located on the Amador Causeway.

Once at the Amador Causeway our stomachs reigned supreme, and instead of going straight to Punta Culebra, we went to one of the many restaurants in the area and had an early dinner. From the open-air restaurant we had a wonderful view of Panama City on the opposite side of the bay as we watched Magnificent Frigatebirds effortlessly ride the winds up and down the causeway. After filling our bellies, we drove the 500m from the restaurant to the Punta Culebra parking area. We had a little over an hour before the exhibit closed, and so we moved relatively briskly through the small, but very informative exhibits. We initially began the tour without binoculars, but after seeing several birds flitting in the trees, Joanna quickly went back to the car to grab a pair, and thank goodness. One of the first birds we spotted turned out to be a female Barred Antshrike, a lifer for both of us. We also spotted a few new species for the trip, including Wilson's Plover (my second ever sighting and Joanna's first), Sanderling, and Spotted Sandpiper on a small stretch of sandy beach.

We ended the day by walking and driving parts of the Amador Causeway as the sun set below the horizon. It was a beautiful evening and actually quite pleasant walking in the cooler, yet still very humid, air. We returned to the hotel at about 7:00pm, watched a bit of TV, and went to sleep by 9:00pm.

Total number of species seen today = 58
Total number of lifers seen today = 12
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 240
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 90
Number of species seen at Rio Mono Trail today = 27
Number of species seen at Cerro Jeffe Trail today = 7
Number of species seen at Cerro Maipo Trail today = 7
Number of species seen at Amador Causeway today = 18

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Birding Feb 23, 2009

23 February 2009
Today we went birding along Old Gamboa Road, and then for a little while in Summit Gardens Botanical Park and Zoo, which is more commonly referred to as just Summit Gardens. We departed the Albrook Inn at about 6:30am and arrived at the Summit Gardens parking lot by about 7:00am. Access to Old Gamboa Road is via a short dirt track located immediately across from the Summit Gardens parking area, toward the canal. Neither of us had ever birded the area before, and although I had read the Bird-Finding Guide about birding this area, I hadn't committed the directions to memory. Consequently we both thought that the access road was in fact Old Gamboa Road, and therein lies the problem. After birding the approximately 400-m long access road we arrived at a T-junction. Ultimately we wanted to visit the Old Gamboa ponds at which the Bird-Finding guide indicates that one or more Boat-billed Herons commonly roost; the problem was that we weren't sure which way to go.

Bird activity along the access road was typical for the region, although notable highlights included Gray-headed Chachalaca (our second sighting), Chestnut-rumped Oropendola, Keel-billed Toucan, Lance-tailed Manakin, and my first new species for the day, Blue-headed Parrot. Where the access road joined Old Gamboa Road the birding was excellent, owing largely to the mix of habitats that occur here. In a matter of just 30 minutes we spotted at least 20 species, including Streaked Saltator (our second sighting), Streaked Flycathcer, Great Kiskadee, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Bright-rumped Attila, Squirrel Cuckoo, Green Honeycreeper, and several others, including an excellent look at an adult Crane Hawk perched high on a dead limb.

After thoroughly birding the junction we made the decision to head west, or to the right, along Old Gamboa Road. We later learned that this was not the way to the ponds, but in the end it really didn't matter as we were having a great time and would be returning here in a few days with a guide. The section of road that we did walk was about 1 km long before ending at a small farm with a horse corral. Along the way we spotted mostly common species that we had seen several times before, but one surprise, and a new species, was a White-whiskered Puffbird that Joanna spotted perched on a low branch in the deep shade overhanging a small wet area. Among the four puffbirds that occur in Panama, this is the one that looks least like the others.

As we returned to Summit Gardens we spotted a number of additional species we had not seen on the walk in, including Carmiol's Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, Masked Tityra, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, and Crimson-backed Tanager. At about 10:30am we entered Summit Gardens at a cost of $1 per person. For a fully maintained botanical garden and zoo with several trails, public facilities, and flora and fauna, it was remarkable that it only cost $1. From my limited experience, extreme differences in value-for-dollar were common in Panama. Summit Gardens was one of the best deals, whereas the hotel shuttle that cost 20x more than a taxi for the same journey in 2008 was the worst deal. The cost of birding along Pipeline Road was the most variable (free, $5, or $15) and most suspicious.

We walked around most of Summit Gardens in a little over an hour and visited most of the animal pens and botanical displays. The largest avian pen was for a pair of Harpy Eagles, the largest bird of prey in the world and one of the most endangered. As part of a joint conservation effort, Summit Gardens cooperates with the Peregrine Fund to captivly-rear and reintroduce Harpy Eagles into the wild. Despite several species being on display (i.e., caged), Summit Gardens boasts a large variety of species that are free to come and go as they please. Undoubtedly the park is attractive to a good number of bird species because of both the botanical gardens and the promise of food scraps either in the animal pens, or left behind by picnickers. As we made our way around the park we tallied a number of common, free-roaming, species, most notable of which was Great-tailed Grackle. We also spotted a Streak-headed Woodcreeper, an adult Gray Hawk, several Golden-hooded Tanagers, a pair of Shiny Cowbirds, and the most spectacular bird of the day (and perhaps the trip), a gorgeous Ornate Hawk-Eagle (photo to right) that landed high in a tree but afforded us excellent views before flying away.

At about lunch time we decided we would eat in the park, but after thoroughly searching we discovered that food was not available, and so we decided to head back to the hotel, have a shower, and visit the Albrook Mall (ugh, how touristy!). Albrook Mall is the mall-of-malls for Panama City - it is as big as any I have ever seen, perhaps bigger. The best part of the mall was that it was air-conditioned, and it was just as well as Joanna and I were beginning to feel a bit run-down with the long days and intense heat and humidity. We treated ourselves to some Popeye's Chicken for lunch, and despite this not being the healthiest choice, it certainly was tasty.

We browsed the mall for about an hour, which like other malls, was comprised mainly of clothing stores. In the storefronts were manakins (not the feathered variety), which for one very obvious reason, caught our eye more than usual. All of the manakins were female, and very chesty, in the order of DD or bigger, with small wastes and hips. These were not the 'normal' manakins of North American malls, and the contrast was extraordinary. After buying a few small souvenirs we decided to go back to the hotel and rest. I was beginning to feel particularly tired, and in fact had developed the chills. What we both needed was a good rest, and by 7:00pm we were asleep, hoping to be refreshed for tomorrows visit to the cloud forests of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe.

Total number of species seen today = 52
Total number of lifers seen today = 3
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 219
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 78
Number of species seen at Old Gamboa Road today = 41
Number of species seen at Summit Gardens today = 9

Birding Feb 22, 2009

22 February 2009
Today was going to be "less birdy" than usual as we had arranged for a private tour of the Coffee Estate Inns' shade-grown coffee plantation from 8:00-10:00am. Prior to the commencing the tour we began our day by enjoying breakfast on the patio and watching the sun rise on Baru Volcan. The birds also enjoyed their breakfast of sliced banana and orange, and as the sun came up over the hill behind us I was able to get a bunch of photos of the various visitors (in order of appearance below, Flame-colored Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Summer Tanager). As the morning progressed, and the coffee tour ensued, we tallied a total of 23 species for the grounds. The tour ended in the main house with a coffee roasting demonstration, from which we couldn't resist purchasing a pound of beans to take back to Canada with us. The coffee was wonderfully smooth and flavourful, and truly was the best coffee we had ever tasted.

After the tour we arranged to leave our packed bags at the main house while we went for a short 2-hour hike up Pipeline trail. Yesterday's hike in this area was just too brief, and we didn't feel we had spent enough time to properly see what else might be around. As we began the trail the usual suspects were present: Black Vulture, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and Silver-throated Tanager. A little further along and we saw our second-ever Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Elegant Euphonia, and Black-faced Solitaire that were followed shortly afterward by our first new species of the day, a Blue Seedeater. Initially the Pipeline trail passes through some agricultural lands, and then a small soccer pitch, before entering denser forest. Once in the forest, species such as Scintillant Hummingbird (lifer), White-throated Mountain-Gem, Philadelphia Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart, and Golden-winged Warbler were more common. We also spotted our first-ever Golden-crowned Warbler in a mixed-species flock that had Black-and-White Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler. We also saw our second Red-faced Spinetail and a small group of Common Bush-Tanagers.

After about two hours of birding it was time for us to return to the Inn to collect our belongings and drive back to David to catch our return flight to Panama City. We knew as early as yesterday afternoon that we should have planned for more time in the Highlands, but there was nothing we could do now but say we would re-visit at another time, and for a longer period. As we hiked briskly back to the car we spotted a few other species such as Flame-colored Tanager, Yellow-throated Euphonia, and Yellowish Flycatcher, as well as two new species, Dark Pewee and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet.

On our way back to the Inn we spotted a Passerini's Tanager (formerly Flame-rumped Tanager) in a residential garden, another lifer that was absolutely gorgeous. Once back at the Inn we collected our belongings, bid our farewells, and began the drive back to David. The return route was purposefully different than our arrival route as Barry and Jane warned us in advance that today was the height of Carnival, and that we were likely to be subject to various pranks and celebrations as we passed through a couple of towns between Boquette and David. Carnival is a country-wide event that is similar to the Mardis Gras of New Orleans, but perhaps even wilder as the locals would have us understand it. Our "alternate" route would have us bypass party-central and visit the more scenic, and perhaps birdier, Caldera Dam and Gualaca area.

The area around Caldera dam was indeed quite scenic, although the birding left little to be desired. Soon after leaving the Highlands the temperature increased substantially and before we knew it we were back to 30+ degrees Celsius. We spotted several Great and Cattle Egrets near the dam, as well as numerous Turkey Vultures and a few Barn Swallows. From that point on we saw little else, except for the occasional Great-tailed Grackle and Fork-tailed Flycatcher. The entire area was noticeably deforested, consisting largely of crop plantations of some sort. What was once very likely a diverse and complex tropical forest community was now an homogenized monoculture of fields supporting little else than those species that have managed to eek out a living in this biologically sterile environment.

As we approached David, Joanna and I were badly in need of pee and given that we wanted to avoid spending any time in the city, we decided to visit nature, or what was left of it. We pulled over onto a small dirt track that bisected two fields, and along the road were a few trees that had been spared by the axe (or chainsaw as it likely would have been). After relieving herself Joanna spotted two dark birds perched in one of the trees about halfway down the road; it was a pair of Crested Caracara's, a species I had tried finding in southern California, Arizona, and Florida, but came up short each time. As we admired their cartoon-like appearance, a noisy flock of Brown-throated Parakeets, another lifer, landed in the trees just ahead of us. After enjoying a good look at these two species, and realizing that we had to get to the airport, we acknowledged that there are benefits to outdoor bathroom breaks other than just instant bladder relief.

We entered David from the east on Carretera Interamerican Route 1 and while crossing a bridge over a river between Los Lomas and David we spotted our last new species, a White-tailed Hawk, for this part of Panama. From there we proceeded to the airport, returned the car, and awaited our flight. At 5:30pm we departed David on-time, and thankfully the cabin temperature was much cooler than when we travelled here. As we made the quick flight back to Panama City we enjoyed watching the sun set over the clouds, from white, to orange, to pink, to twilight, to darkness.

We arrived in Panama City at about 6:45pm and after collecting our baggage a National Car representative met us at the airport to take us to the downtown office to pick-up our car. Because it was Sunday the office at the Marcus Gelabert airport was closed, and although our hotel was less than 5-minutes away, we had to take a 25 minute ride downtown, get our car, and make the 25 minute drive back. At the hotel we had a light supper and went to bed early - I think the intensity of the trip was starting to catch-up to us, but sometimes you have to dig deep. We were in bed by 9:00pm, a relatively late night for us, but tomorrow we were birding locally, about 20 minutes away.

Total number of species seen today = 57
Total number of lifers seen today = 9
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 210
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 75
Number of species seen at Coffee Estate Inn today = 23
Total cumulative species seen at Coffee Estate Inn = 29
Number of species seen at Pipeline Trail today = 27
Total cumulative species seen at Pipeline Trail today = 34

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Birding Feb 21, 2009

21 February 2009
I woke at 5:15am without an alarm, and after lying in bed for about 10 minutes listening to the early morning sounds of birds just outside our room, I got up to begin the day. Joanna followed shortly after as I began to prepare breakfast - a bowl of cereal with fresh fruit and coffee.

Sunrise in Boquette at this time of year was about 6:40am, and at this latitude, twilight is substantially shorter than it is at more northerly latitudes. We ate breakfast next to a small window in the kitchen that overlooked a small flowerbed and the main driveway through the estate. At precisely the moment where we could just make out the most basic of shapes in the darkness, activity was already noticeable as birds flitted past the window. By 6:15am it was just light enough to see, and with my breakfast spoon in one hand and binoculars in the other, we identified our first species of the day, an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. At the time we didn't we know what we were looking at, and so in addition to our breakfast dishes and binoculars cluttering the tiny table, we also had the field guide splayed out. And this turned out to be a good thing because within 2-3 minutes of seeing the thrush we spotted another new species, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, flitting along the edge of the driveway. We could see that several other birds were becoming very active, and so we quickly finished our breakfast, put on our jackets, and went to the patio to see what else was about. We were not disappointed.

The feeder that hung from a branch a few feet from the patio had just been stocked with fresh-cut banana and orange slices by Jane, and before she managed to back more than a few feet away the feeder was swarmed with Silver-throated Tanagers and Yellow-throated Euphonias. Occasionally a Blue-crowned Motmot swooped in and grabbed a piece of banana, as did Buff-throated Saltator, Flame-colored Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Great Kiskadee, Blue-gray Tanager, Clay-colored Thrush, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. Below, on the ground, a Chestnut-capped Brush Finch and a White-naped Brush Finch skulked along the hedgerow scouring for insects, but never too far from escape cover. The activity at the feeder was unbelievable and in all honesty I could have watched it all day if it were not for wanting to get into the highlands. After about 30 minutes of blitz birding at the feeder, we departed with our second batch of excellent driving instructions in-hand.

Our first destination was the Culebra Trail, located on the opposite side of the valley from where we were staying. The actual drive, about 20 kms, was not expected to take very long, but for whatever reason our ability to follow hand-written instructions were notably inadequate. Along one section of road we must have gone back and forth at least eight times before realizing that we hadn't gone far enough to recognize the next landmark. As a small consolation we did see our first Rufous-crowned Sparrow while pulled over trying to gather our bearings, but the reward somehow depreciated throughout the day as this little bird turned out to be one of the most common species in the area.

When we eventually arrived at the start of the Culebra Trail I knew instantly that renting a 4x4 was worthwhile. The entrance to the trail, which looked like someone's driveway, was a wet dirt track that went down about 50 m at an angle of approximately 30 degrees. At the bottom there was room for about two cars, and little else for turning around. The weather was exactly what we expected for a cloud forest - cloudy and cool with a light drizzle - a nice break from the heat and humidity of Panama City. After donning our rain jackets we began birding the area around where we had parked. Behind an old shed was a large flock of Common Bush-Tanagers, a Yellow-faced Grassquit, and a Slate-throated Redstart. From there, the trail went across a swinging bridge over a very rapid and noisy stream, and judging by its tilted position it seemed that this bridge's days were numbered.

After safely crossing the bridge, because birding is always worth the risk, the trail paralleled the stream but moved far enough away that it didn't detract from the excellent birding that ensued. In a matter of minutes we saw five new species in a row: Black-faced Solitaire, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Common Tufted-Flycatcher, Collared Redstart, and Black-cheeked Warbler. These were followed by a couple of familiar species, Warbling Vireo and Black-and-white Warbler, the latter which was foraging up-and-down a fencepost next to the trail. Over the next hour we birded the remainder of the 500m trail and found that the best birding was confined to the first 200m, as further up the stream was too noisy and the forest too dense. We tallied an additional 14 species, of which 10 were lifers: Red-faced Spinetail, Mountain Thrush, Yellowish Flycatcher, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Barred Becard, White-throated Mountain-Gem, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Ochraceous Wren, and Yellow-thighed Finch.

Once we returned to the car we continued along the highland road to its terminus at the start (or end depending on your perception) of Los Quetzales trail. At the trail head there is a small ANAM station, which means Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, or the National Authority for the Environment. It's also the middle four letter of Panama, but I don't think that is significant! The entry fee for the trail was $5/person, which again seemed extravagant, but at least this time we didn't feel hustled. The trail, at least for the section we walked, was actually a fairly good gravel road that cut through farmland (goats included!), recently cleared tropical forest, and some older but only slightly degraded forest. The birding was generally unproductive throughout the farmland area, although Broad-winged Hawk and Rufous-collared Sparrow were quite common. As we entered the forest we spotted a Slaty Finch at the edge, and several Collared Redstarts, two Yellow-thighed Finches, and two Common Tufted Flycatchers. Once in the forest we descended a considerable distance on a relatively steep trail. We didn't see much along this section, and after about 20 minutes of unproductive birding and the presence of three dirt-bikers, we decided to head back.

Not long after turning around we spotted a Golden-bellied Flycatcher in a riparian area, and after making the long climb back up the trail we spotted two Prong-billed Barbets perched at the edge of the trail. Also, as we crossed through the recently cleared area, we spotted a Flame-throated Warbler foraging at the disturbed forest edge, perhaps wondering what happened to its native forest. Back at the car we descended the road and followed the directions we had to Pipeline Trail - not to be confused with Pipeline Road. It took about 20 minutes to get there, and given the number of parked cars it seemed that several other hikers were also here. We proceeded to cross a makeshift log-bridge that was being used as a substitute for a proper bridge that had been washed out by the floods. The trail crossed briefly through some farmland, and then entered older forest that paralleled a small stream. Considering that it was now close to 2:00pm the birding was actually quite good, I think largely because the temperature didn't rise above 17 degrees Celsius. We spotted 16 species in about 45 minutes, of which six were lifers: Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Brown-capped Vireo, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Elegant Euphonia, White-throated Thrush, and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush.

By the time we arrived back at the car it was close to 3:00pm and so we decided to head back to our room, have a shower, and relax in anticipation of our "date night". I showered first, cracked open a Balbo Cervaza, and watched the birds from the patio. The evening was gorgeous and cool, with a beautiful view of Baru Volcan in the distance and vultures and Swallow-tailed Kites soaring in the soft light. At the feeders were all of the species that were present in the morning, and one new species, a Kentucky Warbler, that Joanna unfortunately missed. At about 5:00pm an employee of the Estate began to set up our room for dinner - candles, fresh cut flowers, and full table dressing. At 6:00pm Barry, who prepares and cooks the meals, brought dinner to our room, which was later followed by a sinful dessert. It was absolutely wonderful, and a great way to end the day. That night we both slept very well.

Total number of species seen today = 76
Total number of lifers seen today = 36
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 197
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 66
Number of species seen at Coffee Estate Inn today = 18
Number of species seen at Culebra Trail today = 26
Number of species seen at Pipeline Trail today = 16

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Birding Feb 20, 2009

20 February 2009
We were up reasonably early this morning and at Metropolitan Park (my 7th visit) by 6:45am. We proceeded along the usual route, starting behind the visitor centre, working our way to the mirador, and then returning via La Cienaguita trail. We went at a slightly faster pace than usual as we had to check out of the hotel by 11:00am, return the rental car, and await our 3:00pm flight to David from the Marcos Gelabert airport.

Despite our semi-rushed hike around the park we did manage to find 50 species, of which three were lifers for me. The first lifer was a Yellow-throated Vireo, which we spotted near the information kiosk just before beginning the ascent to the mirador. With the vireo was Blue Dacnis, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Philadelphia Vireo, Masked Tityra, Crimson-backed Tanager, Lesser Greenlet, and several other species, including only our second-ever sighting of a Rufous-vented Euphonia. As we began the uphill climb to the mirador my second lifer, a Slate-colored Grosbeak, was spotted near the canopy crane. The crane is used primarily by Smithsonian Institute researchers that require access into the forest canopy in order to conduct their studies.

A little further along we found Golden-winged Warbler, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Violaceous Trogon, Rufous-breasted Wren, and my third lifer of the day, Dusky-capped Flycatcher. At the mirador we spotted a Gray-headed Kite and the ever-present Black and Turkey vultures, but little else. Soon after beginning our descent we had a great look at a Dusky Antbird, and as we returned to the lagoon we had excellent views of White-necked Puffbird, Common Tody-Flycatcher, and Yellow-backed Oriole.

We arrived back at the hotel at about 10:45am and were checked out by 11:15am. We had lunch in the air-conditioned section of the restaurant to pass the time by before we had to be at the airport. We returned the car at 1:15pm and checked in at 1:30pm. Two days earlier we had confirmed our booking with Aeroperlas because, to our surprise, we learned that without a 2-day prior confirmation there was a risk that our flight would have been booked by someone else. Aeroperlas assumes that without a 2-day prior confirmation that you probably don't want to fly. We figured this was a very strange assumption, but heeded the advice to assure our booking.

The airport has no automated luggage scanning device and so upon check-in you are subject to opening your suitcase and having everything rifled through by an inspector. After that you are sent to a small holding room where passengers await boarding. Air-conditioning was present at the airport, but with the constant opening and closing of doors the air felt muggy at best. At 2:45pm our plane began boarding, and when we entered the aircraft it was disgustingly hot and humid. We felt like we had just crawled into a sauna cranked up to its highest setting. The aircraft vents were not working, and despite everybody's best efforts to try and get air, many of us settled on just sitting still and dripping. This was by far the most uncomfortable flight we had ever been on - thank goodness it wasn't a long flight.

Once airborne the air cooled slightly, but it was still uncomfortable. We landed in David about 1 hour 15 minutes later, collected our luggage, and proceeded to the National Car Rental booth. Everything went very smoothly, except I think the fellow renting a car in front of me had never rented a car in his life. He asked every conceivable question under the sun - at one point I thought he was going to ask if the car came with wheels!

By 5:00pm we were on our way. We followed the excellent directions provided to us by Barry and Jane of the Coffee Estate Inn, and made a brief stop at a grocery store to pick up some dinner, snacks, and water. We left David by 5:30pm and drove to Boquette as the sun went down. We didn't spend any time birding along the way as we wanted to get to the Inn as soon as possible.

We arrived in Boquette at about 7:00pm and made our first fatal mistake. We ignored the previously-mentioned excellent directions that were provided to us and instead followed a sign pointing the way to the Coffee Estate Inn. As we veered off the main road to cross a bridge we passed a small orange pylon in the center of the road and continued ahead, only to end up slamming on the brakes to avoid driving into the river bed. A few months earlier the Chiriqui Highlands had received record rainfalls that resulted in locally flooded buildings, blocked and slumped roads, and washed out bridges. We were at the location of one of those washed out bridges, and had we not stopped in time, I have a feeling our experience in Chirique would have been a lot different.

After briefly reflecting on our near miss, we turned around, noted that the orange pylon was drastically inadequate considering the circumstances, and proceeded to follow the directions we were given. This meant back-tracking about 2 kms to the main bridge and then following an extremely bumpy (due to the washouts) road to the Coffee Estate Inn. When we arrived Barry and Jane gave us a full tour of our bungalow and facilities, and to say that we loved the place would be an understatement. Our bungalow was comprised of two main rooms: a large bedroom with en suite bathroom, and a living room with attached kitchen and access to a private patio. The room also came with a basket of assorted fruit and fresh coffee beans that were grown on-site and roasted earlier that day.

Before leaving us for the evening Jane gave us a full list of trails and directions for birding in the area, including a checklist of birds seen at the Coffee Estate Inn. We knew we wanted to be up early to get our first taste of birding in the highlands, and most importantly, our first experience in the cloud forest. We both had a quick shower and flopped down on the king size bed. There was no air-conditioning in the room as it was unnecessary. Instead, a nice quite ceiling fan circulated the air as we drifted to sleep listening to the wind blowing through the trees. Tomorrow was going to be a treat.

Total number of species seen today = 50
Total number of lifers seen today = 3
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 154
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 30
Number of species seen at Metropolitan Park today = 50
Total cumulative species seen at Metropolitan Park = 80

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Birding Feb 19, 2009

19 February 2009
Today we were up at 5:00am and on our way by 5:30am. We had a fairly long drive ahead of us as our destination was Achiote Road about 88 kms away. We travelled the first half of the route in darkness along Ave Gaillard and then onto Route 3 via Chilibre. Rush-hour traffic was incredibly busy in Chilibre at 6:00am and unfortunately for us we missed a critical turn and ended up diverting through a poor residential neighbourhood, relying entirely on our GPS and sense of direction to get us back on track. One might think that getting lost with a GPS wouldn't be very easy, but one of the problems with the early version of the Panama road map software that we had was that it was not yet designed to the calibre of North American routing systems. For example, one-way roads were not indicated on the GPS, and many labels for smaller roads were absent. Thankfully, Joanna was able to navigate by zooming out and tracing roads ahead to see which road was most likely to get us back on track, and after about 15 minutes of road-wiggling and stop-and-go traffic, we were back to the "freeway".

I put freeway in quotes because this was quite possibly one of the most horrendous roads I had ever driven. The road was riddled with potholes large enough to lose the Toyota Yaris we were driving, and in many cases traffic in opposing lanes crossed the centre line and weaved back-and-forth dodging their share of divots. In some instances opposing vehicles would encounter a pothole at about the same time as us and it was literally a race between who could cross into the opposite lane and get back before being hit! This was undoubtedly the most intense white-knuckle driving I had ever done, especially considering that many of the oncoming vehicles were semi-trucks and buses. Needless to say, we didn't see any birds until we approached the outskirts of Colon, where although the traffic was no better, the roads were.

Just as we entered Colon there is a short switchback road that diverts southward toward Gatun Locks. It takes about ten minutes to drive from the switchback to where vehicles can line-up and wait for an opportunity to cross the one-way swinging bridge. When we arrived about six cars and one bus were already waiting, although this was by no certain means an indication of possible waiting time. In the eyes of the Panama Canal Authority boats and ships have first priority and it is only when there is a wide enough gap that the bridge is opened and vehicles are allowed to cross. According to the Panama Bird-Finding Guide the wait can be anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours; we had no idea how long we would be waiting.

On our approach to the Gatun Locks we saw several egrets and herons in the flooded roadside ditches, including Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Greta Blue Heron, and Tricolored Heron. We arrived at the waiting area to cross the locks at about 7:00am, and to our right was a small patch of forest in which we noticed a considerable amount of bird activity. We decided to venture out, not very far from the car, to see what we could find, and before we had a chance to tally more than two species our line of cars was moving. We rushed back to the car and just made the crossing as another ship approached the locks. We were now in new territory, an area touted as a birding mecca.

Soon after crossing the locks we travelled along a small road atop of a huge earthen dam, and then eventually a concrete dam. We had a quick look below and saw only a Spotted Sandpiper and Great Kiskadee as our focus was on getting to Achiote Road. A little further along I spotted my first lifer of the day - a flock of eight Smooth-billed Ani's perched in a shrubby patch next to the road. A little further along and the cleared area which is maintained for Canal operations turned to thick, lush forest, and about 2 kms further along is the the start of Achiote Road, although it is not obvious given that it is well-hidden and unsigned. We were not entirely familiar with where to begin birding - the book recommended driving very slowly with the window open listening for bird sound and then hopping out at each opportunity. We tried this for a little while but found that in general there were too few places to safely pull over and that despite being a small rural road, it was surprisingly busy.

The bird-finding guide makes mention of three "birding bridges" which I discussed briefly in the planning part of the trip. This is where the days birding action was expected to get exciting. We pulled our car over at the first bridge and noted a hive of activity. Overhead were numerous Keel-billed Toucans, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, and another lifer, Montezuma Oropendola. These were soon followed by a very loud songster that we could hear from the nearby shrubs, and although it evaded us for nearly ten minutes, we eventually confirmed the bird as a Bay Wren, another lifer. A second bird, which called endlessly but refused to show itself, was later identified as a Blue-black Grosbeak from a recording I made with a small digital recorder.

As we slowly worked our way on foot toward the second bridge (which is about 300-400 meters from the first bridge) we could see another group of birders walking toward us. As we drew nearer I recognized one of the fellows as Carlos from Birding Panama tours. He was leading three guys from the eastern United States which collectively appeared as a genuinely miserable bunch of birders content only on seeing new species, mentally checking them off, and moving to the next new species as the one they just saw was old news. I wasn't sure that was entirely the case, but you know what they say about first impressions.

I introduced myself to Carlos and a after a short chat we continued on with our respective days. During the chat however he did point out a White-tailed Trogon sitting across from us, and indicated that there was a lot of bird activity at the second bridge, which is where we were heading. Along the way we spotted a Little Cuckoo (another new species) and several omni-present species such as Plain-colored Tanager, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Blue Dacnis. At the second bridge the forest opened up considerably, offering a greater viewing range and more variation in site-specific habitat types. At the bridge we saw Swallow-tailed Kites (lifer), Fulvous-vented Euphonia (lifer), Carmiol's Tanager (formerly Olive Tanager), Pied Puffbird (lifer), Flame-rumped Tanager (lifer), and several others including Golden-collared Manakin, Southern Bentbill, Lesser Elaenia, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Rusty-margined Flycatcher.

From the second bridge we worked our way back to the car and proceeded to the third bridge. Here we spotted several Cattle Egrets in a cattle pen (go figure!), Chestnut-sided Warbler, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Thick-billed Euphonia, Yellow Warbler, and Scrub Greenlet. We proceeded a little further down the road to the town of Achiote and continued on a bit further to a fourth bridge. By now it was about 11:30am and the bird activity was notably lower than a few hours earlier. In that moment we decided to go back to town for a light lunch and as we approached we spotted a mostly-black bird flitting in the shrubbery across from the only restaurant in town. We quickly pulled over and confirmed the identification as a White-line Tanager, another new species.

At the same moment we pulled into the restaurant, Carlos and his birding customers also pulled up. I overheard one of them commenting on how they were disappointed in having not yet seen a White-lined Tanager or Long-tailed Tyrant and so I instantly offered up my assistance as to the whereabouts of the former. Each of the guys quickly observed the species and then reverted back to complaining how they had not yet seen a Long-tailed Tyrant. My first impression was beginning to resonate; these guys were less interested in the birds themselves, and more interested in how many check marks they could collect.

Lunch was very interesting. I wasn't all that hungry, but Joanna, who was eating for two (I sometimes thought for three or four), devoured her lunch in record time. We ordered chicken soup and rice, which was exactly how it sounded. The soup was a huge bowl of broth with an entire chicken breast and half a potato sitting at the bottom, and although it tasted very good, it was challenging eating a chicken breast (bone-in) with a spoon! The rice was also in a large overflowing bowl from which I dumped about half into the soup to add some flavour, but in the end I simply couldn't finish. It was quite literally too hot and humid for me to eat a large hot meal. At least it only cost $1.50 and my leftovers were almost certain to end up as livestock feed.

We didn't see many birds at the outdoor restaurant, although a Plain Wren sang endlessly from among some vines and lianas that were tightly wrapped around a nearby tree. From the restaurant we headed back along Achiote Road to El Trogon trail, a small path that was built by members of the local community to entice birders to visit the area. The trail is relatively short at not much more than 1 km in length. Upon entering the trail we spotted a Red-capped Manakin near the little footbridge and bumped into another birding guide with a couple from California. These birders were genuinely interested in the birds and commented on their behaviours, habitats, and appearance; they were appreciating more than a check on a list and it was nice to chat with them for awhile as a Common Black Hawk soared effortlessly overhead giving its distinctive call. The rest of the trail was generally unproductive as the heat of the day had finally peaked. We heard a few Mantled Howler Monkeys along the crest of the hill and passed a huge spider that sat in the middle of its web across the trail. As we neared the end of El Trogon we did spot a Chestnut-backed Antbird, and as Joanna was hooked on trying to spot a Geoffrey's Tamarin, I went a little further ahead and spotted two Gray-headed Tanagers (lifer) that Joanna unfortunately missed.

We returned to the car at about 3:00pm and decided to head back to Panama City. We briefly stopped at the second bridge on Achiote Road for one last scan and picked up a Green Kingfisher and a few other common species. We also spotted several more Swallow-tailed Kites as we approached Gatun Locks, but after that we didn't see anything new during the return journey. We arrived at the hotel at about 5:00pm and repeated the evening process of a having a quick shower and compiling our notes at the hotel restaurant. It had been a very long and hot day but the rewards were immeasurable. As for our goal of seeing 300 species we were nearly halfway there. Bird-wise, tomorrow was likely to be generally unproductive as we had scheduled a few hours at Metropolitan Park before travelling via Aero Perlas to David, and then by car in the evening to Boquette. We were both looking forward to visiting the highlands, notably the cloud forest.

Total number of species seen today = 73
Total number of lifers seen today = 13
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 146
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 27
Number of species seen at Achiote Road today = 50