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