Today Simon, Howard and I hired Venicio "Benny" Wilson to take us to the Lake Bayano and Nusagandi region, located about two hours east of Panama City toward the border of Darien Province. Simon had some specific target birds he was after, and this was one of the closest locations to Panama City where we were likely to get them.
To start the tour I first had to wake up at 4:00am...aye yai yai! Benny, and his driver, were to pick us up at 4:30am, but they were running a bit late and didn't arrive until 4:50am. We departed promptly after their arrival, but the vehicle they used was far to small for us all. Regardless of seating arrangements, someone had to squeeze into the back where there was no leg room and a larger cooler dug into your side. Guides really should think about customer comfort for return business.
Transportation woes aside, we navigated our way through early morning rush hour traffic and soon found ourselves on the outskirts of the city travelling at a reasonably good speed. Most of the drive was in twilight, but by 6:00am it was quite light. At Lake Bayano we passed through a security check point, which was immediately followed by crossing a large bridge over the lake where we spotted our first bird of the day, Ringed Kingfisher. Just past this large bridge was a smaller bridge that crossed Rio Mono. This was our first stop of the day, and a location I had previously visited with my dad in 2012. One of our target birds, and a very rare bird for Panama, was a Pearly-breasted Cuckoo. A nest had been found just a few meters from the bridge and we had heard of recent sightings prior to our arrival. This bird would have been a great score, but unfortunately the nest appeared to have failed and there was no indication of the birds remaining in the area. After trying to locate it, as well as a couple of other common birds, Benny announced, "Let's Get Serious"...by far my most memorable phrase of the trip...I had felt that all birding was relatively "serious", but it seemed funny to think that what we had been doing so far wasn't, but we were about to kick it up a notch.
Despite not seeing the Pearly-breasted Cuckoo we did start to see some good birds, beginning with Black Antshrike (lifer) and Bare-crowned Antbird (lifer), both of which were enticed into view using call playback...this was getting serious (apparently). We then saw White-necked Puffbird, Pied Puffbird, and Rufous-winged Antwren, but missed some key birds that I had seen at this location previously. With birding not going terribly well at the bridge, we made our way to the next stop which was a place called San Francisco, located another 20 minutes further east. The birding was very good, and many of the birds we missed at Rio Mono were found here. The first highlight was Blue Cotinga (two stunning males), followed by Black-tailed Trogon, Black-crowned Tityra, Barred Puffbird (lifer), Yellow-backed Oriole, Long-tailed Tyrant, Streaked Flycatcher (surprisingly overlooked until now), and Black-breasted Puffbird. The birding was going very well, and it continued to do so. A large mixed flock of birds that we found included Cinnamon Becard, Choco Sirystes (lifer), Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Golden-collared Manakin, and Blue Dacnis. Benny then found us a Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher (lifer; so cute!), Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Red-capped Manakin, Orange-billed Sparrow, and White-eared Conebill. We wrapped up our time at San Francisco by adding Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Tropical Pewee (lifer), White-tipped Dove, and Gray-headed Chachalaca.
Sufficiently sweaty, we all squeezed back into the vehicle and drove to the village of Torti where we had lunch in front of a few hummingbird feeders. The feeders were well-attended, and included Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (lifer), Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird. Following lunch we drove further east where we navigated some backroads that were much in need of maintenance. Here we found American Kestrel, Roadside Hawk, White-tailed Kite, and Brown-chested Martin (lifer; Austral migrant). At the end of one road we went for a short walk along some overgrown trails...this produced Gray-cheeked Nunlet (lifer), another Black Antshrike, Forest Elaenia, and a very pissed-off bull. After returning to the vehicle we headed back toward Torti and picked up Red-breasted Blackbird and Cocoi Heron along the way. At Torti we diverted onto another rickety backroad and added Buff-rumped Warbler (lifer) and Pacific Antwren (lifer).
By now it was now getting quite late (about 3:00pm) and so we made the long drive back to Nusagandi in hopes of finding Sapayoa. Unfortunately, by the time we did arrive, it was too late and despite trying to locate the bird we had no luck. The only birds we did see at Nusagandi were Swallow-tailed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, and Black-mandibled Toucan. With barely enough light to see, we began the drive back to the resort. Along the way however, we had two very interesting encounters. First, as we were about 80% of the way down the Nusagandi road, a Caiman ran out of the forest and sprinted (as much as Caimans can sprint) across the road. Our driver slammed on the brakes and narrowly missed turning the animal into a belt or pair of boots. Our second encounter, at the bottom of the Nusagandi road, was a drug inspection by the National Police. We handed over our passports and backpacks, and the inside of the vehicle was fully searched. At least the search wasn't "invasive".
We finally arrived back at the resort at about 8:30pm, completely exhausted. It was an excellent day, with 11 new species added to the life list and our trip tally exceeding 300 species. I had hit 50 lifers for the trip...10 species more than I had expected. After a quick shower I was in bed by 9:15pm...I had to be up at 4:50am to head out one last time.
2014 Panama Birding Summary
Total species today: 75
Total cumulative species for the trip: 311
Total lifers today: 11
Total cumulative lifers for the trip: 50