Panama – rounding up

After returning to the Decameron from our jaunt to El Valle we were a bit stuck for somewhere to go for the last couple of hours of the day. Part of our enjoyment at taking a vacation and renting a car is going exploring along lanes and tracks but with the weather in a potentially rainy phase, track driving would be ill-advised. We looked at the map and opted for a road going north-ish off the Trans Americana highway. The road was signposted to El Chirú and Sandra reckoned it would all the way to El Valle in some form. The rain started and stopped and so did we, for 20 miles or so along an excellent road.

Once we’d cleared the villages the roadside habitat improved and birds started to show. Grey-headed Chachalaca was easy, more Crested Bobwhites and various parrots. A Squirrel Cuckoo came looking and open field birds like Eastern Meadowlark (don’t sound like mine here though) and Red-breasted Blackbird abounded. The top bird for me though, and a tick to boot was Scaled Pigeon. I thought we’d seen it before, perhaps at Gamboa or the Pipeline Road but not according to my records. Eventually we got rained off but it was a place to revisit. That evening I logged on to the pricy Internet at the hotel and checked Xenornis http://www.xenornis.com/ . Under Grassland Yellow Finch was a write up about them being found on the road to El Chirú, our last day destination was set.

We were in place at dawn or thereabouts. A track off the main road down to a small cemetery. We gave it an hour, scanned from all angles and then headed off back to the Coclé grasslands. Needless to say we didn’t get the finch but had a great day along the tracks and trails. I’d be quite keen to get out there a dawn sometime too.

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Above: Eastern Meadowlark, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow-headed Caracara and a Red-breasted Blackbird a long way away.

Late afternoon after having returned the car we walked the hotel grounds and adjacent scrub. All week I’d been hearing a song that had bugged me. I thought it might be an oriole but the habitat did not seem good and we didn’t see any orioles anywhere anyway. As we trekked across the grounds the singer struck up from a small pine plantation right by the Decameron hotel entrance.  Give me a visual and I’ll usually get the bird and I did, Rufous-browed Peppershrike.

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Record shot of the peppershire.

We had rather ignored the hotel grounds and scrub, largely because we kept going somewhere better. Our evening walk was pretty good though and I added eight species to my site list. Last off nighthawks took to the wing. Calling Common Nighthawks but amongst them were birds with clearly shorter wings, white patch nearer the wing-tip and some lacking an obvious patch at all, Lesser Nighthawks.

The following morning we were to be bussed out by 09.00 for our 14.30 flight! I managed to creep off for an hour, finding another four site ticks before we finally bade farewell. As the bus pushed on towards Tocumen Airport I almost packed the bins away. In Panama City the traffic chaos meant that we stopped a lot of times allowing me to get Short-tailed Swift and House Sparrow – 183 species for the trip, a few pending me sorting out the songs that I recorded.

Of all of the Central American countries we have visited we like Panama the best (although we’ve yet to go to El Salvador!). A new airport is to be opened very near the Decameron next year; it will put birders two hours nearer Chiriquí, David and the fabulous birding of the area. As attractive as the all-inclusive vacation is I think the time is nigh for us to explore further and the Chiriquí is definitely calling.

Back home I did my records and entered everything into eBird. Inevitably it did a bit of coughing at Glossy Ibis, Caspian Tern, Common (in numbers) and Lesser Nighthawk (why?). Most surprisingly a flock of Dusky-faced Tanagers, a flock species, also seemed to discombobulate it. My Panama list now stands at 356, based on three separate one-week trips between 2009-2013. I hear that the Canopy group are contemplating opening a lodge in the Darién, now that just might be worth selling the house for.

If anyone has any questions, feel free to contact me at DennisM@videotron.ca

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Heading back downslope

Our last morning at El Valle was spent on the steep Cara Iguana trail. We arrived just after dawn again and proceeded to pick our way gingerly up the rugged track. The hillsides were ringing with calls but for how long. A new road was being constructed and no doubt houses to follow. Secondary scrub birds will still be around and some will benefit by the opening up of the habitat but it seems a shame to develop the area further, it is quite idyllic as it stands.

Our efforts to bird up-hill were put firmly into perspective when an older lady of about 130 years old skipped downhill in sandals. She probably made the trip a couple of times a day but, to be fair, she wasn’t trying to follow a Yellow Tyrannulet through the vegetation. The hill was very birdy and we had a good few hours sifting. At one point a Keel-billed Toucan came to check us out and call at us, something that we didn’t mind at all.

The last morning was also the brightest, clear and sunny and the bird activity slowed early. We had our last breakfast at Park Eden and headed off. El Valle is a truly delightful area with good trails and great birding. On our next visit to Panama I’d like three or four nights there just to be able to do more trails at the earliest possible hour.

Road works slowed us down on the way back to the Decameron. The road had seemed fine on the way up so I have no idea why it was being re-surfaced. Panama has better roads than Quebec but a fraction of Quebec’s financial resources. I wonder where ‘our’ road money goes to?

Here are a few shots of the Keel-billed Toucan; all taken with sub-compact cameras – my ‘big’ camera barely came out of the bag this trip. Also a photo of Cara Iguana, how do you show ‘steep’ in a photo?

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El Valle

At some point in the tropics you have to get steamy and so we headed off from the Decameron, uphill towards the little town of El Valle de Anton. A verdant collection of sumptuous dwellings and breeze-block hovels all set in the basin of a (hopefully) extinct volcano. El Valle is home to the Canopy Lodge, the birding accommodation most birders head for as part of the Panama package, the Canal Zone and El Valle, most tours go home very happy with their species haul.

Our time at El Valle was spent walking the good trails and spending the midday downtime relaxing on our little veranda at the Park Eden B & B http://www.parkeden.com/Index.htm Park Eden is pretty birdy itself with fruit and hummer feeders and a steady rotation of species through the grounds. I would not describe the place as a birders lodge or anything like that but it is reasonably prices, comfortable and well placed for the trails. On arrival it was late afternoon so we just sat and watched until the nighthawks appeared overhead. For whatever reason, we saw Common Nighthawks (plural) most evening where ever we happened to be, breeding failure in the north?

After a shopping sortie to the Hong Kong mini-mart to stock up on snacks we settled in ready for an early start. The presence of Chinese people in Panama is well documented, we met quite a few including one charming girl of perhaps 14 in a laundry that also sold cold drinks. It was quite odd to have the familiar Chinese features speaking Spanish (but zero English) to me, we got there in the end though and enjoyed our chilled Fanta in baking heat.

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Crimson-backed Tanager in a shower. White-lined Tanager without the white line, just to make it more interesting. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, aggressive little sods!

We were up with the House Wrens the next day and picked our way through the route to our first trail, the Cerro Gaital. When we got there the birds were in full vocalization mode and we peered at the unexpectedly locked gate before easing apart the wire and slipping in. The trail was all cheeps and trills and we made steady progress up the gentle slope. Noisy and active birds were everywhere including a showy flock of Tawny-crowned Tanagers, a new species for us. We got to ‘the tree’ and found a White-tailed Emerald, our target bird. I spent quite a bit of time using the iPod voice memo feature taking in the unidentified calls and songs from hidden birds, many of which remained steadfastly ‘invisible.

As the day warmed we headed back to base for breakfast and to prepare for the next venue, the Las Minas trail. It is a truth universally acknowledged that birders in possession of binoculars must be in want of more than one dawn per day (thanks Jane), sadly this is not to be had and so it was getting warm when we set off up Las Minas. The trail is actually a road but even the most adventurous 4×4 driver would find it fun to negotiate in places. The more open aspect led to species with a preference for such habitat. The first star was a flock of Dusky-faced Tanagers, last seen in Ecuador but not as well as this. Further up the hill two trogons came barrelling by. They resolved into Orange-bellied, part-hidden by foliage they did their slow-mo action, swinging their heads left and right looking for morsels.

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Dusky-faced Tanager, Las Minas trail, Orange-bellied Trogon.

Soon enough it was time to head back for a siesta. Mad dogs and Englishmen (people) we may be but we also know that the birds are not there to see when the sun blazes. Lunch and a porch vigil restored us and we were ready for trail three of the day, the Las Zamias. We walked the birdy hill up into the gallery forest with predictable results. There were lots of birds to see on the way up, not much happening amongst the big trees though. The overcast sky meant that colour could be seen, useful when a group of Chestnut-collared Swifts went over. A paddock held our one and only Becard for the trip, a White-winged, and Whooping Motmots whooped. In the gallery forest we did get to see Keel-billed Toucans well, we also heard Scaly-breasted Wren amongst other things. When we descended back to the car the birding improved once again and we enjoyed the early evening feeding frenzy of Band-rumped Swifts at eye level.

Photographic opportunities had been few and they day had only given us 67 species but some quality ones at that so no complaints. Our visit to El Valle would be over by late morning the next day but we had one more trail to walk before heading back to the all-inclusive land of the Decameron.

A bit of wet

As a birder weaned on gravel pits I will happily admit to having a certain comfort zone when faced with that habitat type. The options for such sites in the tropics are usually mangrove, lakes and mud flats. Lakes seem to be few and far between in the bit of Panama that we were currently decamped in but by heading a few miles past Penenomé we suddenly had a choice. The Las Macanas lakes complex and the defunct salt pans of Aguadulce. Both sites were likely to be just one visit places given the time constraints and distances involved and so we decided to quit the grasslands and go and take a look, it proved to be a good choice.

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Roadside Hawk from the grasslands.

First off was Las Macanas. The bumpy track to the site went past wet fields holding Glossy Ibis, rare in Panama. The vast lagoon held not a single duck and the watch tower had lost a complete flight of stairs making it defunct.  The site had lots of wildlife watching potential and must have been really nice the day after it opened. Unfortunately, like so many sites we have visited without a well-funded conservation industry, it was in need of TLC. We did see some birds though including lots of Snail Kites, a Green Heron and at least 70 American Black Terns in non-breeding plumage hawking the many bugs. We didn’t see a single duck or grebe on the watery expanse although the mass of herons in the margins meant that there was always something to wade through. We were musing on the scarcity of new species for us on the trip when a Crested Bobwhite stepped out onto the track to improve things. We slewed the car to a stop and watched him as he wandered about in and out of the grassy edge. A movement in a roadside tree caught my eye, it was a Mangrove Cuckoo – two ticks in three minutes, you just couldn’t make it up!

Below a record shot of the bobwhite and better one of the cuckoo.

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Our second site was on the way back ‘home’. The town of Aguadulce pays homage to the salt workers of the area with a nice statue. Of more interest to us were the old salt pans that spread out either side of a causeway that eventually ran to the sea. The first few pans had Black-necked Stilts and nothing else but as we ventured along the birds appeared. A flock of Black Skimmers containing around 210 birds sat on a spit. Three Caspian Terns (rare) four Gull-billed Terns joined them and virtually all of the open water herons were present except for Little Blue. The prize amongst the herons was a blue-phase Reddish Egret, again rare in Panama; the several pink Roseate Spoonbills were also unexpected. Shorebirds were also present and in larger flocks that I’d expected. Willets, all three ‘peeps’, Semipalmated Plover, both yellowlegs and even four Whimbrel. We also saw our only White-winged Dove of the trip. Our short visit to Aguadulce meant that the trip list had climbed quickly and that our day list of 93 species became a trip best.

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Views of the salt pans

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Crappy skimmer skimming shot. White-winged Dove, Tri-coloured Heron, Black-necked Stilt and a view of Black Skimmers with two of the three Caspian Terns on the right and the Gull-billed Terns about central.

Our largely dry days came to a sudden end when a tropical downpour made the drive back more exciting but by and large we found the rural Panamanian drivers courteous and competent, not terms that you would use to describe the loonies in Panama City. It had dried up by the time we hit the Decameron. The next day we planned to go to the hills, Altos de Campana in the morning, El Valle in the afternoon. Time to dust off the bug spray?

 

Coclé calling

The ‘jungles’ of Panama can be fantastic but they can also be a monstrous disappointment sometimes. The grasslands can be pretty similar, especially when the object of your desire proves very elusive. The difference is that grasslands will have lots of other birds to see whereas the ‘jungle’ often just has ‘jungle. Grasslands also lack the claustrophobia that can creep in when you are subjected to day after day of hearing but not seeing the birds well, or even at all.

Grassland Yellow Finch is exactly as it sounds, a finch that lives in grasslands and is mostly yellow. They have a patchy distribution from Mexico to somewhere in South America; they are also a speciality of the Coclé grasslands west of Panama City. After picking up the zesty Toyota Yaris and at a very reasonable price, we headed out past the town of Penenomé which for me is a town with one to many n’s and e’s. Roads radiate south, good roads and tracks, criss-crossing the farmed grasslands and all with the potential for holding the finch, they didn’t.

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We went out looking on four days at different sites and the finch wasn’t to be seen but lots more was. Some years ago, sat on a windswept hillside in Ecuador, we saw an Aplomado Falcon, it was our second ever and much like the first, sat in a field in Brazil, was not that inspiring. In the Coclé grasslands e made up for that, seeing a total of eleven birds although perhaps with some duplication. The first sat next to the road, was photographed stealthily and then less so as it allowed us to get out of the car and walk right up to it. The light was a bit gloomy and backlit but the views through bins were spectacular.

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Grasslands hold grassland birds, it’s a given, and the fields we looked in had the usual compliment of Yellow-faced and Blue-black Grassquits, Variable Seedeaters and the dapper Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, a tick. Rain had produced wet pools and many had Wattled Jacana territories, one pair had made a nest right next to the track, unperturbed as heavy trucks came past but seemingly distraught at the thought of being seen by birders. Sandra got a great shot as the incubating bird stood up. The tracks also had plenty of fly eaters. Tropical Kingbirds are omnipresent and Yellow-bellied Elaenias were also very common. Most showy were the many Fork-tailed Flycatchers, around 30 at least around one area.

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We may not have scored with the finch but there was plenty to keep us going, even right into the midday period. Even he vultures kept us on our toes with Lesser Yellow-headed joining the Black and Turkey Vultures picking clean the roads for the recently unfortunate. Caracaras abounded, both Yellow-headed and Crested although whether they are ‘Southern’ crested or not I’m not sure. The Yellow-headed seemed boldest, often allowing us to stop alongside for snaps.

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In the wetter areas of grassland we came across typical open country species such as White Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and abundant Cattle Egrets.

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Using ‘A Bird-finding Guide to Panama’ by Angehr, Engleman and Engleman we were able to find just about all of the sites in the area bar a patch of dry forest that sounded most interesting but had no directions. As well as the finch we didn’t find (nor really expect to find) the endemic Veraguan Mango (hummingbird, not fruit) but we did come across a few Crested Bobwhites, both around the southern Penenomé fields and from the El Chirú road, but more of that little gem later.

Incidentally, I’ll be writing a more formal trip report when I can so if you want one, a Word version, let me know. Alternatively you can just copy it from the tab at the top of the page when published.

Back in Panama

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have oft espoused the attraction of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort in Panama as a birding vacation destination. On the tabs at the top of the page are the illustrated trip reports from our previous two visits backing up my enthusiasm for the site. When Sandra said she needed a break then where better to look than Panama? The only drawback was that June was ‘green’ (but read ‘wet’) season and we had been wet season birding in the tropics and had ended up getting, well wet!

Economy is the Mother of all invention, to paraphrase a well-known expression, and so I delved into the Sell-off Vacations web site to see what was on offer and came up very pleasantly surprised. The Gamboa was available at a gnats over $1,000CAN apiece, a significant reduction on the usual $1450-$1650 each that we had paid in the past. These prices are all-inclusive, flights, transfers, food and drink and some cracking birding to boot, how could we refuse. I called Sandra, told her the tidings and she gave the nod to book. Going back to Sell-off I thought I’d check the beach option and what! $690CAN each, just one flower pecking minute, more research was needed.

The Interweb is great but sh*te all in one fell-swoop. Type in ‘birding the Decameron, Panama’ and you get endless pages of hotel reviews and sites trying to sell you hats but squat about birding. I found one report but it seemed that the writers spent most of their time waddling off back to the Pipeline Road, a good two-hour jaunt from the hotel but, the Decameron was well placed for a number of sites and some of the birds present at those sites would be new for us, what to do. After further consultation we tossed the metaphorical coin and it came down on the side of economy, we were going to Panama for a week and were to be based at the Golf Decameron Hotel at Farallon. The grasslands of Coclé province shimmered before us.

The hotel is dedicated to those whose idea of a vacation is to vegetate by day,  prostrated on ground silicon while embalming their livers in alcohol and then later, making a lot of noise by night (just a warning to hotel DJs here, you will all die just as noisily come the revolution!). An escape option was needed, both to put us in a forest birding location for a few days and to offer relief from the Freds & Teds of the beach. Another web trawl found us a little bed & breakfast in El Valle called Park Eden, right in the heart of Canopy Lodge country but without the requirement to sell our house to pay for it! With the basic cost of the holiday so low it meant that we could do our couple of nights away and rent a car and still be well under the price of the putative Gamboa break.

The flight was Cattle class, naturally, but for five hours and twenty minutes you can suffer it to get to the tropics. Actually Canjet, our carrier, are pretty comfortable, efficient and we are happy to fly with them. Flying out at 08.30 was almost civilized and we were in and birding by mid-afternoon following the two hour coach transfer from Panama City, something that will change shortly when a new International Airport opens much nearer to the Decameron.

At the hotel the balcony view was pretty good. Farallon Island off-shore was easily checked through a scope revealing hundreds of wheeling Magnificent Frigatebirds, sheaves of Brown Pelicans and both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies drifting around the briny, nice. If I was to criticize the Decameron it would be for the following: No coffee maker in the room, no (noisy) fridge and a lack of free Wi-Fi, otherwise it was fine. The grounds were fairly birdy with some huge trees and we found a pair of Bat Falcons resident above one of the restaurants. We had Red-legged Honeycreepers and Yellow-green Vireos in the tree right outside the balcony and both Palm and Blue-grey Tanagers abounded. On the approach road we took note of interesting looking habitat and tomorrow we get the car, more later.

Below a few shots. Farallon Island, home to 450+ Magnificent Frigatebirds. Palm Tanager in the tree from the Balcony, a rubbish but obligatory shot of a Mag Frig and the two Bat Falcons sat in a planter, we saw them every time we passed.

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Green season in Panama

Sandra and I have just returned from a week in Panama. This visit was our third to this excellent birding country but this time we broke with ‘tradition’ and decided to take the cheaper  option of a beach hotel complex instead of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. The intention was to target some of the Pacific lowland specialities and have a vacation. It worked out reasonably well.

We found 182 species including nine lifers. We had two nights away from the hotel part-way through, stopping at a B&B in El Valle. We drove around with no issues on mostly good roads and found the Panamanians to be excellent and tolerant hosts.

Below is a shot of a much wanted species that we finally found, Mangrove Cuckoo. We have looked for it in several places, including the ultra-buggy trails of southern Florida and so it was quite ironic that we should find one in a trackside tree.  To add to the irony we had only stopped the car to view another lifer, Crested Bobwhite, as it pottered around on the dusty track, such is birding.

More photos to follow when I process them.

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