Gamboa Rainforest Resort – Big Day

Gamboa Rainforest resort Panama– Big Day – 28-January 2012

During a week long vacation at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort in Panama, it occurred to me that it would be fun to see how many species of bird it would be possible to see on the site in one day, basically from dawn to dusk or exhaustion, which ever arrived first! The Big Day would take place on holiday day #5, so there would be plenty of accumulated knowledge about the site’s birds and their whereabouts. Also, I’d taken a casual three hour walk around 30% of the site the previous afternoon and scored 80!

For those who have never heard of a Big Day in birding, the object is to see or hear,  within time or geographic boundaries, as many bird species as possible. For those who have no idea what makes up the Gamboa Rainforest Resort – it is a former golf course property, now quality hotel, with rainforest as part of the grounds. Within the grounds are a mixture of cut grasslands, open woodland, the Chagres River, Panama Canal and rainforest trails and it takes a full day to cover, perhaps longer to cover it thoroughly.

The evening before I picked my way through our bird list from a previous Gamboa visit, highlighting the possibilities, and came up with a list of around 160+ species. This may seem a lot but the site list will actually be much higher, probably around the 240 mark. It should also be said that some of the species considered possible are transient in their occurrence and also that some species have rather small populations i.e. probably only one or two individuals.

The strategy employed would be to bird the edge areas until it got warm, then get into the ‘jungle’. After a short break we would then cover the other areas for the ‘easy’ birds before hitting the trails again. If we were still breathing at the end of the day we would go owling, if!. The team comprised of myself and my wife Sandra and, for the morning stint only as he was migrating back north later in the day, Len Jones. In a slight relaxation of the rules of bird racing I decided that only one person on the team needed to see or hear the species to count it for the day, provided that person was me!.

What follows is an account of the day with the species listed in order of appearance. I will tell you now that we found a high proportion of the possible species available. I will also tell you that some ‘certs’ failed to show and eve some non-contenders put in an appearance. It was a fun day but my feet and back might argue against that.

Dawn was around 06.11 and a Common Pauraque was calling away outside, species numero 1. We were meeting Len out by the historic villas just down the road from the main building, we had hit 14 species by the time we got there, with Blue-headed Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Mealy Parrot, Great Egret, Tropical Kingbird, Whooping Motmot, Clay-colored Robin, Great Kiskadee, Broad-billed Motmot, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Keel-billed Toucan and on the list. There then followed a typical early morning flurry of birds as they awoke and joined the fun and so House Wren, Southern Bentbill, Green Shrike-Vireo, Buff-breasted Wren, Collared Aracari, Band-rumped Swift, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Pale-vented Pigeon, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Thick-billed Euphonia, Short-tailed Swift, Blue-gray Tanager, and the very vocal White-bellied Antbird pushed us up to 27 species.

The period after dawn is crucial for birding in the Neotropics. The day soon heats up and many birds feed quickly before hiding and idly waiting for the heat to dissipate or, they actually retreat to an alternate universe, at least that is how it often seems when searching a seemingly empty rainforest in the heat of the day. So, we are still in the rush period and it was no real surprise to add Red-legged Honeycreeper, Social Flycatcher, Crimson-backed Tanager, Flame-rumped Tanager, Violaceous Trogon, Streaked Flycatcher, Plain-colored Tanager, Yellow Warbler, Red-crowned Woodpecker and Gray-breasted Martin all to the list and all before we got to the birdy bit, this being the road junction to Los Lagatos restaurant.

The site did not disappoint and soon we had Golden-hooded Tanager, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Bay Wren, Palm Tanager, Black Vulture, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Western Slaty Antshrike, Green Honeycreeper, Shining Honeycreeper, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Variable Seedeater, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Lesser Greenlet, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Panama Flycatcher, Song Wren, Yellow-throated Vireo, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Brown Pelican, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Gray Hawk and Chestnut-headed Oropendola, then we stepped into the forest.

At this point we had been going for about an hour and a quarter, the score was 63. We probably had as many of the species present in the immediate area as we could, we needed the deeper forest birds now. The Senderos la Laguna runs below the site access road and is perhaps just under a kilometer long. It comprises a nice damp area at the canal end, drying out as you reach the Gamboa Village access road. A steady walk with plenty of stops to look, see and listen means you can cover it in an hour or so. The number of bird species expected here was not particularly high but this was the only shot at them.

A stake out for a Buff-rumped Warbler failed to produce but we did find Orange-billed Sparrow, which was a real bonus. A White-tipped Dove ambled over the path, as they do and an Acadian Flycatcher called away above us. Overhead a Yellow-headed Caracara swept past. Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireo and Cinnamon Becard all followed before we found a flycatcher high up a vine. After changing our angle the bird’s ID was resolved as Black-tailed Flycatcher, a good and another unexpected find. As we approached the end of the trail, the Golden-Collared Manakin lek was in full swing with the over excited males wing snapping away in depths of the foliage.

Now we were back out in the open and peering into the depths of a flowering tree. Our target here was hummingbirds, preferably all of them. Violet-bellied Hummingbird was the first to make it’s presence felt, hummers are notoriously argumentative and this one was no exception, seemingly falling out with its own shadow. A Buff-throated Saltator did a good job of sneaking around and a larger, dark hummingbird was glimpsed by Len before Sandra located it sitting quietly. Close views showed it to be a Rufous-breasted Hermit, our third big surprise of the day so far. None of the other hummer species showed up so, adding just Blue Dacnis to the total of 78, we set off for breakfast and a scan from the balcony, then a second plunge into the Rainforest was required.

The breakfast balcony is on level three and gives a great vista to scan from. Northern and Southern Rough-winged Swallows cruised past and a distant Osprey was soon joined by a second. Neotropical Cormorant, Little Blue Heron, Royal Tern and Magnificent Frigatebird were all expected, less so were the two King Vultures seen only by me, the first picked up as it dived into the forest flushing a second. After refreshing on juice, coffee, oatmeal and an artery clogging fried breakfast we added Mangrove Swallow and Tropical Mockingbird to the score and set off once more.

We checked the hummer tree again with no luck. Moving on to the Hill Trail we passed through some open, parkland type ground picking up Ruddy Ground-Dove. The trail itself was of no help whatsoever, only two days before we had heard three species of antbird, today zilch. We left the trail to emerge onto the tarmac road which climbs The Hill, noisy birds resolved themselves into Summer Tanager, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Paltry Tyrannulet, Plain Wren and Dusky Antbird, a Short-tailed Hawk sailed over and that was Len done for the day on 95.

Sandra and I continued up the hill finding a wee small flock containing Plain Xenops, Dot-winged Antwren, Tawny-crowned Greenlet and Bay-breasted Warbler, a Black-mandibled Toucan called nearby and became species 100. The sun was well up by now and the heat making things quiet, bird wise. A little flitting thing turned out to be Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, a Baltimore Oriole fed in a flowering tree and Common Tody-Flycatcher, the comedy turn of the tropics had somehow been missed earlier. A Great-crested Flycatcher being the only one seen on the trip was very pleasing to find.

Decision time, we were entering the most unproductive phase of the tropical day, we knew that our balcony would produce some birds though and we could scan for hawks etc. We resolved to head back to the room for a rest via the lake edge. As we left the hill we added Bright-rumped Attila and Rufous & White Wren. In the open area Southern Lapwing, Wattled Jacana, Great-tailed Grackle, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Lesser Kiskadee and Shiny Cowbird signed off the morning’s efforts, 112 with plenty left to go for, but not until we’d cooled our feet and replenished our water supply.

The balcony was a bit of a let down, several of the species we had been seeing daily were just not around. After 45 minutes we hauled ourselves up and headed for the Marina/Los Lagatos area to tidy up a few things, then we intended to walk the lake margin down to the La Chunga trail, it seemed that this was the hottest day of the trip so far and now a stiff breeze was building too, this would make some birds keep low.

The Marina area added Purple Gallinule, American Coot, Common Gallinule and Spotted Sandpiper. We flushed a Great Blue Heron in very fortuitous circumstances then had good views of Lesser Elaenia and Scrub Greenlet along the margins along with an Orchard Oriole. A Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet gave us the run around and a Snowy-bellied Hummingbird took to pointing out as it sat trying to ignore us, nearby Golden-fronted Greenlet performed much better. The long expected White-throated Crake finally called and a White-necked Jacobin was a relief to find, we’d expected that one to be very easy, typical bird race.

The energy sapping heat was now taking its toll. We were both walking like little old ladies, neither of us being in peak physical condition. I always find that, towards the end of Big Days I become much more reliant on seeing, rather than hearing species, I’m pretty sure this weakness, which in mitigation is brought on by sensory overload, cost a couple of species, must try harder!.  Sensing that we were running out of steam we put on the afterburners after spending some time on an Elaenia which we had to work hard to see well and was worth it in the end, it being a Greenish Elaenia. We were now entering the final leg with, we hoped, some of the staked out birds that we had been seeing in the same place each time we birded that way.

A Tennessee Warbler was a relief to find, better still was our regular Black-bellied Wren that did its duty. We still had gaps but birds were just not cooperating and dusk was starting to arrive. We plucked a Squirrel Cuckoo out of the air (not literally, that would be cruel) before finally seeing Smooth-billed Ani but we were pretty much spent by this time. We headed back to base hoping for a late hurrah and to recheck the list. We had been writing the species down as we went but it is very easy to let something slip by and we would use the master checklist later to finalise the count.

Back at the room we scanned front an back in the rapidly fading light, the day still held a few birds and a long expected Great Tinamou called its ethereal notes, a hawking Lesser Nighthawk bounced past on stiff wings and a gang of roosting Cattle Egrets were exactly where I knew that they would be. Finally the regular, marauding Bat Falcon came in late for its leathery evening snacks to round things off, that was it, we were done.

We tallied up the log and found that we had managed 134 species, not bad at all but the question after every Big Day is, what did we miss?

Leafing through the birds seen on site so far we had to ask, Barred Antshrike, where were you? I could not remember hearing one but we saw one daily otherwise, including the very next morning. Yellow-tailed Oriole was another easy tick missed and yes, they were back the next day too. No Red-capped Manakis showed, no Snowy Egrets or Tricolored Herons. Black-throated Mango had been present the day before (and after) as had Ringed Kingfisher. Fasciated Antshrike had become invisible and the ant lovers, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Ocellated Antbird and Jet Antbird all of which are normally very vocal, just were not by the time we got to their locations. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher was present every day outside our room except the Big Day and neither Masked or Black-crowned Tityra could be found anywhere. On the same day another birder saw Blue Cotinga and Rufescent Tiger-Heron and I’m sure that the staked out Buff-rumped Warbler and White-shouldered Tanager were laughing behind a mossy trunk somewhere. Add to the missing list Rufous-breasted Wren (which we almost certainly heard but it didn’t register!), Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Yellow-bellied Seedeater and Streaked Saltator and you can see that we could have done better.

In doing this Big Day we have set the bar and, hopefully shown how great the Gamboa is for birds. The resident site guide will beat the Big Day score easily, as should anyone else who gets more than one week a year in the tropics, as we do. It was great fun to do and if, or perhaps when we go back we have something to aim at. For a bit of irony, here is a picture of a Yellow-tailed Oriole!


Mark Dennis


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