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