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

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