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.

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