Panama Trip Report - November 21, 2008 - December 3rd, 2008
We had the opportunity to visit Panama in November and early December of this year (2008). The following is a trip report in (more or less) chronological order. I have tried to do this report more as a daily recap of the highlights from each day, areas visited, species seen, etc. In order to keep this somewhat short (it will still be huge) I have only listed the first time we saw a species in the highlights for each day. We saw many species several times such as the Violaceous Trogon, White-necked Jacobin, etc. but I only mention it the first time it was seen. Also, many of the more common species that were seen virtually every day are not specifically mentioned either – this would include species such as Great-tailed Grackle, Tropical Kingbird, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Palm Tanager, Black Vulture, Clay-colored Robin, etc.
Overall the trip was a success in terms of species of birds seen. I was disappointed in the reptile and amphibian count but I think that was largely a factor of the consistent bad weather throughout the trip. Also, as you will read below, there was a bit of a tragic twist to the trip as well which somewhat put a damper on things in general but I am getting ahead of myself here.
I stayed in two different locations, the first part of the trip (8 days) at the world-famous Panama Canopy Tower (http://www.canopytower.com) and the second part (4 days) at the Panama Canopy Lodge (http://www.canopylodge.com) both of which I highly recommend for anyone interested in Panama wildlife and in particular birding. Both locations cater to birding enthusiasts, the Canopy Tower is more “hard core” in terms of the accommodations and location while the Canopy Lodge, while still a prime location for those interested in birding is a bit more luxurious and newer in an slightly less isolated area. The Canopy Tower is located just east of the Panama Canal and north of Panama City, it’s about a 1 hour drive (due to traffic) from the airport to reach there. It’s located in the middle of a National Park and close to most of the world-famous birding and herping locations in Panama such as Pipeline Road, Old Gamboa Road, Summit Ponds, The Ammo Dump, etc. The Canopy Lodge is located about 1.5 hours Southwest of the Tower in a village called El Valle de Anton, on the side of an extinct volcano and at a higher elevation. Both are owned by the same person (Raul Arias) and deliver a true “turn-key” package for those who wish to have everything taken care of. They will literally pick you up at the airport, take you to the lodge or tower, provide expert guided tours/walks twice daily and give you three great meals a day, all inclusive. Check out the websites linked above for a lot more info on the locations and their operations.
I had never done a tour like this before, preferring to be much more “free-lance” so the structure took a little getting used to but not much. In fact, if you are someone that has no experience in the tropics, this is a perfect way to get familiar with all the aspects of it, the weather, the terrain, the animals, etc. Also, having an expert guide reduces the amount of time you spend looking for a specific species or trying to identify some of the more cryptic species and gives you more time to see more. They also were all extremely adept at calling in birds that they heard, all had great ears and were able to pick up many hard to find species by hearing their calls and then calling them in either with their own voices or with the aid of the good old iPod and recorded bird sounds.
We had several great guides that we worked with including Jose Soto, Jose Perez (who was great on Pipeline Road), Alexis Sanchez, and Tino (at the Lodge), all of whom were first class, top notch, expert-level guides that spoke very good English and were very accommodating. Typically there were 2 guided walks a day, one in the early morning and one in the afternoon around 3:00, the morning trip was usually the longer and more extensive of the two although we had great success on either trip when the weather would cooperate. And that brings me to the weather…
We went at the very end of the “wet” season, fully anticipating some tropical systems to soak us occasionally, which isn’t a bad thing in the heat of the day in the tropics by the way. However, as luck would have it, most of our trip was impacted by a stalled low pressure system over Central America that brought days of torrential downpours, major flooding and disaster to many areas of Panama. We heard while we were there that the Panamanians lost over 30,000 homes to flooding during our stay. We had rain every day for the first 9 days of our trip, heavy rain many times and it impacted several of our tours and probably the species count to some degree but it was still a fantastic trip. As I stated earlier, I think the reptile/amphibian activity was more impacted by the cool, wet weather than the birds.
For most of the tour we paralleled a large group of birders from the WINGS tour group led by a very sharp American guide, Gavin Bieber. They had 12 people in their group and were pretty much independent from the rest of us. The capacity at the Canopy tower is only about 20 people and for most of the days, we had a very small group usually consisting of 4-5 people and our guide. We spent almost every day with a couple from The Netherlands (Toon and Linda) that had booked almost the same tour as I had, offset by 1 day and I think they stayed two days longer than I did but for the most part they were our tour companions every day.
I’ll fill in some more info as I go through the daily reports below so, without further ado, on to the trip report…
Friday, November 21, 2008 – Departure Day
We left very early in the morning for Los Angeles international airport, we were flying to Panama City through Miami and the flight from LAX to Miami left at 6:30 AM. Since there are no flights out of San Diego before 6:00 AM we had to drive up there, left at 2:00 AM and got there on time, no issues. In fact, other than it being a very long day, the trip down to Panama City was uneventful and we were in our hotel by the airport by 10:00 PM that evening and looking forward to getting picked up and taken to the Canopy Tower, our first stop, the next day.
Saturday, November 22 – Canopy Tower and Ammo Dump Ponds
We arrived at the Canopy Tower around 9:00 AM after being picked up at our airport hotel by a driver sent by the tower. After checking in and settling down we started to look around a bit. The first bird that I took a picture of was this Red-capped Manakin who was in the canopy not too far from our room window. We also spotted a Lesser Greenlet and a Yellow-margined Flycatcher from the balcony outside our room. It also started to rain, which would be a fairly consistent theme over the next week or so.
All of the meals at both the Canopy Tower and the Canopy Lodge are included in your stay and are served in a buffet style with family-style seating. A buffet style can be very accommodating if you maintain a certain diet, such as vegetarian or a Medifast diet. There were basically 4 or 5 tables with place settings for six at each and you just got your food and found somewhere to sit down. This was a great way to meet the other folks that were staying at the tower and to share experiences, etc. We had our first meal there at lunch time, were informed to be down stairs at 3:00 for the next tour which was to be at the Ammo Dump ponds. After our meal we walked around the grounds a bit and although it was raining we were still able to find some more critters including the first herp of the trip which was a Yellow-headed Gecko. These are one of the few Geckos that are diurnal in nature (active during the day). Most of their relatives are strictly nocturnal animals. We also saw our first Green Honeycreepers, both a male and female that were always present in the garden during our stay there.
One of the many, many beautiful butterflies we saw...
Green Honeycreeper (female)
After our stroll around the grounds we went back to our room to get ready for our first outing. I was sitting outside looking at the foliage when I detected the movement of a larger sized animal moving about. Soon we were joined by a small group of Geoffroy's Tamarin monkeys. They stayed around for a while foraging in the trees right around the Canopy Tower before moving on. As they left a small flock of Collared Aracari (a Toucan relative) took over the foraging. We also were able to see our first male Violet-bellied Hummingbird, one of the true neon-light type hummingbirds that are really something to admire in the right light...
We left the tower right around 3:00 PM and headed to the "Ammo Dump" ponds. This area is dominated by a large, fenced military facility, I believe they store unused munitions here and it's one of the many old US military facilities around Panama that were abandoned when the US pulled out of Panama. It started to rain while we were in the area but we still managed to see quite a few birds as well as a family of Capybara that were on the hillside, you can actually see one in the photo below although you would not be able to make it out as anything more than a brown blob, it's right next to the tree line straight above the left most fence post in the picture...
We're all checking out a Common Basilisk Lizard that was sitting on a log. Toon and Linda from The Netherlands are in the foreground, our guide for the day Alexis and me, trying to take a photograph of it... Lynn however was in much better position and got the shot below.
Streaked Saltator from Ammo Dump area
Common Tody Flycatcher - picture taken at the Ammo Dump - one of the more consistently seen birds of the trip.
Highlights of the day* included: Rufescent Tiger Heron, Yellow-headed Caracara, White-throated Crake, Greater Ani, Western Long-tailed Hermit, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Black-breasted Puffbird, Collared Aracari, Red-capped Manakin, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-tailed Flycatcher, Mangrove Swallow, Northern Waterthrush, Crimson-backed Tanager, Streaked Saltator, Green Honeycreeper and Yellow-backed Oriole.
Sunday, November 23 – Old Gamboa Road (Summit Ponds) and Gamboa Resort Gardens
Today we started out before breakfast on the observation deck on the top of the Canopy Tower - which, in case you didn't check out the link I mentioned earlier, is an old US Radar Tower that was converted into a lodge, you can read more details if interested here: http://www.canopytower.com/content/blogcategory/29/90/lang,en/ The morning started out nicely with an overcast but light sky and quite a bit of activity in the tops of the rain forest canopy. I added a warbler to my life list right off, this was a very interesting phenomena that would stay with us the entire trip. All of the wood warblers that we are used to seeing in the US in the Spring, Summer and Fall spend their winters in the tropics, many of them in Panama. I saw three different warbler species for the first time during this trip, ones that I would normally have been looking for in the US, including this Bay-breasted Warbler pictured below. We also saw another familiar bird during our brief session on the top of the tower, that was the Yellow-throated Vireo seen below as well. Palm Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis and a very cooperative Black-breasted Puffbird filled out this mornings list. It was then on the breakfast and off to Old Gamboa Road.
View of Panama City from top of Canopy Tower
Looking down toward the Panama Canal from Canopy Tower
Semaphore Hill, road leading from the Tower
We left for Old Gamboa road shortly before 8:00 AM and ran into a family of White-nosed Coati moving across the road, I was able to get a photo of one of them. They turned out to be regular sightings just about every time we moved down the hill from the tower, several times we saw groups of 6 or more including young foraging along the sides of the road. We also were fortunate enough to see a small flock of Purple-throated Fruitcrows as well.
We arrived at Old Gamboa road which was only a short drive of 10 minutes or so from the Canopy Tower, parked the "Birdmobile" and immediately started spotting some interesting birds. The weather cooperated for most of the morning with just an occasional drizzle however the lighting due to the heavy and bright cloud cover made the photography somewhat challenging. For those of you that don't do a lot of camera work, one of the worst conditions to work with is to try to take pictures of objects against a bright, white background. The object you are trying to photograph is usually washed out or appears very dark due to the camera trying to compensate for the bright background, the phenomena is called back lighting and it can make it quite difficult to get good pictures, in particular of objects where the clouds would be in the background. Anyway, you have to go with the cards you are dealt and make the best of it so we did just that! We saw quite a variety of species this morning including many new "life" birds for me - when I say "life" birds or a new bird for the life list or "lifer" that simply is referring to the first time in my life I have seen a particular species. Many people keep a list of the animals they have seen, I keep one for birds and one for reptiles and amphibians and a lot of people even keep them for specific areas as well. In any event, we saw Trogons, Motmots, Woodcreepers, Antshrikes, Ant-Tanagers, Spectacled Owls, Cuckoos, Bat Falcon, Kingfishers and quite a bit more, it was a nice morning, a few highlights are below.
The beginning of Old Gamboa Road
Looks like we found something. Me, Toon, Linda, a red hat and Alexis from font to back...
Trogons will always hold a place near and dear to me in terms of bird watching. The Trogon is really the bird that first got me interested in birding long ago when I was on a field trip to the mountains of southeastern Arizona looking for reptiles. There happened to be an Elegant Trogon (at that time I think it was called a Coppery-tailed Trogon) in the campground where I was staying in the Chiricahua mountains. I know this because I ran into a large group of birders that were frantically searching for it and asked me if I had seen it. I hadn't but asked them what it looked like and one of them showed me a picture from a field guide which got me interested enough to join in their search. We found the bird a short time later and I was amazed at how beautiful the bird was. Trogons are one of my favorites and this trip was great in that I got to see six different species of Trogon that I have never seen before including the beautiful Violaceous Trogon below.
Our guide knew right where to look inside a large grove of bamboo and was able to point out a pair of Spectacled Owls. I didn't get any good shots of them at the time but when we came back through the same area on the way back to our truck I was in luck as the sun had come out and one of the owls was active and interested to see who was trudging around near it's roost and I got one good shot, below.
I was quite happy to see my first Cuckoo species of the trip, this very cool looking Squirrel Cuckoo which stayed put just long enough to allow me to get a few good shots of him before he continued his morning foraging.
We also saw a wide variety of Woodcreepers while in Panama, this was the only Olivaceous Woodcreeper we saw on the trip.
Me, in front of one of the Summit Ponds. We saw many interesting species here including Boat-billed Heron, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Lesser Kiskadee and Greater Kiskadee
This is what it looks like on Old Gamboa Road
Quite a bit of rain made the road a bit "difficult" in some areas...
We barely beat a large thunderstorm back to the Tower where we grabbed a nice lunch and a little bit of down time before heading back out in the afternoon to the Gambo Resort for some more exploration. The weather pattern actually cooperated with us for the first part of the trip albeit that it was nearly always raining a bit, it was the torrential downpours that were more concerning, in particular with all the camera equipment and the fact that it's very hard to do serious bird watching in heavy rain. Usually it would rain at night and the again in the early afternoon and by 3:00 or so you'd get a brief respite from the rain. That was the usual pattern, however there were some exceptions...:o) In any event, we walked the grounds of the Gambo Resort in the afternoon, it's a very large compound with many hotel rooms, an orchid garden, tennis courts, etc. Despite it being well traveled with quite a few folks milling around it was still quite "birdy" and we saw some good birds there. We also ran into another Capybara which was close enough to get a shot of, seen below.
Female Flame-rumped Tanager
There was a hummingbird feeder at the end of the trail we were walking which ended at a gondola ride. We added a couple of new hummingbird species there. We also saw our first Blue Cotinga of the trip but unfortunately, this was one of the cases where the bad lighting and back-lit skies made it impossible to get a good photograph.
Lynn got this Blue-crowned Motmot at the Gamboa Resort
It started to rain again as the sky grew dark and it was time to get back to the Canopy tower to clean up for dinner and then a good nights rest.
Highlights of the day included: Boat-billed Heron, Bat Falcon, Southern Lapwing, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Blue-headed Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Spectacled Owl, White-necked Jacobin, Blue-chested Hummingbird, White-tailed Trogon, Violaceous Trogon, Amazon Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Blue-crowned Motmot, Broad-billed Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Blue Cotinga, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Blue-crowned Manakin, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Cinnamon Becard, Buff-breasted Wren, Black-chested Jay, Yellow-throated Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, White-shouldered Tanager, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Flame-rumped Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Streaked Saltator, Yellow-rumped and Scarlet-rumped Cacique.
Monday, November 24 – Pipeline Road and Gamboa Resort
Pipeline road is one of those places that I had always heard about and was "going to get to someday". Well, today was finally that day and as it turned out, the first of three times I would visit this wonderful area during my short stay in Panama. Pipeline road is famous among bird watchers and is also a favorite destination for herpers as well so it was with great anticipation that we departed from the tower around 7:00 AM on Monday morning for our first adventure there. The WINGS group also was visiting pipeline road today but a different area, we were doing the first part of the road, walking from the entrance of the park to a little ways past the first bridge, probably about a 3k walk. We saw a great variety of birds during the morning including one of my targeted species, the Great Tinamou. The picture below is the most "doctored" picture of the entire trip, it flew across the road way ahead of us and someone, I think Lynn, said that it looked like a chicken... well, it's not too bad of a description. The bird sulked low in the dense and dark vegetation below the road. I took several shots of it and this was the one that came out the best.
As I said, there was a great variety of birds, not large quantities but many different species ranging from Toucans and Aracaris to a variety of Antbirds, Antshrikes, Antwrens, Woodcreepers, Tanagers, Flycatchers, etc. Here are some highlights below.
Spotted Antbird (male)
Spotted Antbird (female)
This was a particularly interesting butterfly, sort of neon-pink, it was photographed from a great distance!
Definitely one of the big highlights was a very cooperative Great Jacamar that we found right before we were turning around and heading back to our vehicle. This is a spectacular bird!
Border Anole - one of the few herps I saw on pipeline road.
Another interesting butterfly of some sort...
Here's the group, I think we were looking at an antbird of some sort... Notice that we had some sunlight with us for part of the morning anyway!
Yet another butterfly that I'll get around to identifying some day...
Having an expert guide is a great asset for an area like this, both Alexis (here) and Jose were extremely helpful in pointing out some of the more cryptic species as well as calling out some of the more secretive birds.
We had a very good morning on pipeline road! It was probably the warmest day we had while there as well, it got quite steamy as we approached noon and getting back to the tower for a shower was a welcomed break in the day! It rained again in the afternoon and lightly the rest of the day but this didn't stop us from going back to another area of the Gambo resort for some more bird watching. On the way there we stopped to take a look at a roosting Great Potoo, pictured below. These are very interesting birds, similar to the Nightjar and Nighthawks but quite a bit more beefy, at least in this case.
Rusty-margined Flycatchers were seen nearly every day of the trip.
Snowy Egret - note the rain falling in the background.
Highlight of the afternoon for me was this very cool American Pygmy Kingfisher. A tiny Kingfisher that stayed well hidden for the most part. It was very low along the water edge and kept pretty tight to the shrubs along the waterline. It was also late in the afternoon when we spotted it so the light was not very good but you can see in this picture that it's a nice little bird.
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Well, this day literally flew by and we were getting soaked by another torrential rain storm as evening fast approached, waiting anxiously for what tomorrow may bring!
Highlights of the day included: Great Tinamou, Tri-colored Heron, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, King Vulture, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-lored Parrot, Great Potoo, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Great Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Chestnut-mandible Toucan, Olivaceous Piculet, Lineated Woodpecker, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, White-bellied Antbird, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Bicolored Antbird, Spotted Antbird, Golden-collared Manakin, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Panama Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Wren, Lesser Greenlet, Green Shrike-Vireo, Gray-headed Tanager, and Golden-hooded Tanager.
Tuesday, November 25 – Semaphore Hill and Summit Gardens
Well, today was one of the rainier days of the trip. Plan was to walk down the hill from the Canopy Tower and then explore Plantation Road a bit but that never happened... I photographed a White-vented Plumeleteer in the gardens at the tower and we got a Woodcreeper and Plain Xenops right outside the gate. The weather quickly deteriorated as we walked down the hill and pretty soon our guide was calling for the car to come pick us up. It did but on our way down the hill we ran into the WINGS group that had stopped on an ARMY ANT SWARM! Well, this was very exciting for me as this is one of those things that you read about in the books and accounts of the rain forest and here I was, right in the middle of it. The rain let up just enough for us to be able to keep our interest as we got inside the rainforest canopy to watch the drama unfold. I wish I could have gotten some better pictures but it was nearly impossible due to the light conditions but basically here's what was happening.... There were army ants pretty much everywhere. It didn't seem like there was any one organized column, which is what I expected but rather just a lot of little lines of ants moving through the underbrush. And all around were attending birds. You could hear them calling and you could see them flittering around quite a bit. We saw Ant-tanagers, several species of antbirds and antshrikes also antwrens, woodcreepers, you name it. Our guide however wanted to get us the difficult Ocellated Antbird and we were determined to see it. We spent the next hour and a half pretty much observing what was going on around us. Our guide cut a path with a machete down to the bottom of a steep hill with a small creek as that's where he thought the swarm was heading and we stayed put and watched. The WINGS group had given up the search and moved on to other parts so it was just the five of us (Lynn, Toon, Linda, Alexis and me) in the middle of the rainforest with army ants all around. I got bitten once and it wasn't too much fun, Toon had worn sandals as we were supposed to be walking on the road this morning, I think he got nailed several times but nobody seemed to care, it was quite an experience.
Alexis decided that we needed a better vantage point to see the Ocellated Antbird, which he had hard calling so we moved back up the hill, which wasn't easy as it was very muddy... I made it 98.5% of the way and then my boots gave out from under me and I did a bit of a face plant and slide down the hill in the mud... My only concern was my camera and lens which did get a bit muddied but I was able to absorb the brunt of the impact and the mess on my body... For some reason, it really didn't bother me all that much... Here are the few shots that I did get (below). Oh and by the way, we did see the Ocellated Antbird, actually 2 of them. I got one great view of them for a few seconds through my binoculars but never had a chance to even try to take a picture. We wrapped it up and headed back to the tower to wait out the persistent rain...
This is what you look like after you have slipped and slid down an extremely muddy hill while chasing an ant swarm and trying to get pictures of an Ocellated Antbird. Unfortunately, I didn't get the picture but at least I got to see the bird and I proved that my Canon equipment even works well after getting soaked AND muddied...
After getting cleaned up and fed, we spent some time back on the observation deck and were treated to an old friend that we had seen many times in Costa Rica...
Back at the Tower, after lunch we were distracted by this beautiful Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth...
A Tropical Kingbird has gotten a bite to eat
This Green Iguana was about 4-5 feet long and extremely brightly colored, in particular for it's size. It really blended in well with the foliage and would "disappear" if you took your eyes off it.
In the afternoon, we headed off to the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo. It's a nice "little" park, very close to the tower and had some great bird life. Unfortunately, again, it poured for some of the time we were there, fortunately, we were able to find some shelter and wait out the rain.
At the Summit Botanical Gardens Lynn was able to get a nice shot of a Summer Tanager
Blue-headed Parrots were around just about every day but this was the only shot that even came close to being decent, they seemed to stay far away and high up in the canopy. With the constant overcast and rainy conditions it made it very difficult to capture a picture.
These Common Tent-making Bats were found under a large palm frond...
Turkey Vultures were more common here then the Black Vultures we had seen just about everywhere.
Lynn getting some shots of a Keel-billed Toucan
This is the Harpy-Eagle exhibit, it was quite well done. They keep a captive Harpy Eagle on the premises as well in a very large aviary. There was a nice movie on the Harpy Eagle re-introduction program and the natural history of this amazing bird. They also have a film of a Harpy Eagle taking a Three-toed Sloth off a tree and carrying it away, pretty impressive!
The Canopy Tower has several of these vehicles to transport you around. It's OK when it's not raining...:o)
Highlights of the day included: Pale-vented Pigeon, Orange-chinned Parakeet, White-vented Plumeleteer, Blue-crowned Motmot, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Fasciated Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Ocellated Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, Common Tody-flycatcher, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Song Wren and Summer Tanager.
Wednesday, November 26 – Pipeline Road and Rain…
Today was our second excursion to Pipeline Road, this time we were to go about 5km inside the reserve and them walk from there. The forest is less disturbed at this area and is actually closed to most vehicle traffic. The Canopy Tower has a special agreement to be able to go in this deep with a vehicle so we made our way to the area we were going to start at and set off on our walk. We saw many of the same birds as the previous visit but also added some notable new species to the list. The weather was (again) very overcast and threatening and there was quite a bit of evidence of the heavy rainfall from the previous night. Here are some of the highlights from the mornings adventure.
This is the "other end" of Pipeline Road. We were able to go in about 5Km due to a special agreement that the Canopy Tower has with the park. You can see how muddy the road is, it was impassable with vehicle. It rained very heavily the previous night, my understanding was that we received 5.5 inches over night.
White-breasted Wood-Wren was singing constantly!
We were walking along the road when suddenly our guide stopped and started calling a bird that apparently he had heard calling. We all stood there silently for a minute as he kept calling it and it responded. Again I was amazed at the skill of these guides to call birds in, this one without the aid of a recorded call. He suggested that we move under the canopy and inside the rain forest to see if we could spot this elusive bird. We stood still as we continued to hear it get closer and closer yet none of us could locate it. It sounded as if it were right on top of us yet we couldn't spot it, high or low, left or right yet it called as if it were right next to our position. I learned later that the bird is a bit of a ventriloquist but never the less, it was right there as you could tell by the volume of the call. After a while our guide got a bit frustrated and started to move his position, he nearly stepped on the bird which apparently was right there, next to us, all along. He flushed it and it took a perch about 50 feet away from our position and we were able to get some great looks at a Streak-chested Antpitta (seen below).
Blue Morpho Butterfly
We made our way back to the vehicle as it started to rain again. The rain actually washed out the afternoon's planned activities and we spent some time taking in the hummingbirds at the tower as well as catching up on some notes, relaxing, etc. This Toucan was standing sentry near the entrance to pipeline road as we were leaving and we stopped to get some good views of it before returning to the tower.
White-vented Plumeleteer (from Canopy Tower)
White-necked Jacobin (from Canopy Tower)
Blue-chested Hummingbird (from Canopy Tower)
Highlights of the day included: Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, White-collared Swift, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Streak-chested Antpitta, Olivaceous Flatbill, Willow Flycatcher, Black-bellied Wren, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Tropical Mockingbird, Kentucky Warbler, and Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Thursday, November 27 – Thanksgiving Day, Lynn has flies home. – Howler Monkeys and Ammo Dump (and Rain)
I went with Lynn to the airport in the morning, she had a early flight so we left the tower around 6:00 AM. I made sure she got checked in OK and through customs and the driver from the Canopy Tower waited for me and then took me back. I got back after the morning tour had already left so I did my own exploration in the morning, walking down the road a ways and seeing what I could find. It was, of course, raining when I got back from the airport and the next couple of hours were pretty drizzly and foggy. However, around 10:00 AM the weather started to lift and there were actually occasional glimpses of sunlight. I made my way back to the tower in time to hear the familiar sound of a calling male Mantled Howler Monkey nearby. Boy, was it nearby! There was an entire troupe of about 30 of them casually grazing in the trees at the tops of the canopy right next to the tower. I spent the next hour taking pictures of these fascinating creatures, I won't bore you with the hundreds of pictures that I took but here are a couple of my favorites... There was also a Three-toed Sloth in the same area at the same time!
Mantled Howler Monkey
Mantled Howler Monkey
Three-toed Sloth interested in the some new, tasty foliage
View of Panama City from the Canopy tower (taken with 600mm lens)
Western Long-tailed Hermit
We went out in the afternoon with the goal of checking out the lower portion of Pipeline Road and the back end of the Ammo Dump ponds (which are right next to each other) however the weather did not cooperate. We were hit with a torrential downpour at the entrance to Pipeline Road and when it finally let up briefly we decided to walk the road by the Ammo Dump, that lasted for all of 10-15 minutes before the skies opened up again. It rained hard the rest of the day and night. I was able to add one bird to the portfolio with this Thick-billed Seed Finch.
Thick-billed (Lesser) Seed Finch
Friday, November 28 – Pipeline Road and Gamboa Resort
Friday marked my last full day at the Canopy Tower as I was moving to the Canopy Lodge on Saturday to end the trip over there. As luck would have it, the planned activity for the morning was to visit Pipeline Road again. There were a few new faces now at the Tower and the departure of some old ones so as the guest list was changing they started to revisit some of the places I had already been and Pipeline Road is someplace that I would not tire of easily! The weather also broke for a while on Friday and it was probably the nicest morning that I had encountered so far on the trip. While it was still overcast there were signs that the cloud layer was thinning and one could even make out the bright glow of the sun behind the clouds. We had a good morning on Pipeline seeing several new species and getting good views of others that we hadn't seen so well before. There were a good number of Antbirds, Flycatchers, Becards, many Trogons, Toucans and Aracari and good variety of other birds as well, here are a few highlights.
Female Yellow-headed Gecko
In the afternoon we revisited the Gambo Resort area again and it was quite productive (again). We saw several interesting birds including a Northern Waterthrush and a Palm Warbler to go along with the Tanagers, Seedeaters, various shore/wading birds, Kingfishers, etc. Here are a few highlights...
As I mentioned earlier, it was quite a trip to see all of the warbler species that we saw here in Panama, most of them are common residents in the US however I added 3 new warblers to my life list that I had not seen in the US including the Protonotary Warbler (below). We saw Yellow Rumped, Yellow, Black-throated Green, Golden-winged, Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Palm, Bay-breasted, Black-and-White, American Redstart, Prothonotary, Northern Waterthrush, Kentucky, Mourning, Canada and Rufous-capped Warblers during our stay in Panama!
Saturday, November 29 – Travel day – move to Canopy Lodge in El Valle
Today was moving day for me, I was going to the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton for the final 4 days of my trip to Panama. Spent the morning getting packed and then just hanging out looking around the canopy for birds to photo. The morning was again a rainy one but it was said that the weather pattern was finally breaking down and the low pressure system was starting to move off and Panama would be returning to more normal weather patterns, all of which was great news to me! I got the following shots out various windows from the top floor of the Canopy Tower.
Tropical Kingbird after a heavy thunderstorm...
Apparently the days of relentless rain had really started to have an impact on some of the roadways around Panama and our driver was late picking us up for the transfer due to horrendous traffic conditions in several areas. There were quite a few mudslides and traffic was snarled in some areas, there was another couple heading to the Lodge and the driver picked them up along with me around 3:00 PM, we arrived at the Canopy Lodge around 5:00, enough time to unpack and have a great dinner. Most of the people there were already known to me, in fact, all of them, as the WINGS tour that had been at the Tower was now at the Lodge as were Toon and Linda from The Netherlands, both of which had arrived a day earlier. After dinner we were all watching some bats that were feeding from the hummingbird feeders. I have seen this behavior before in Arizona but there were quite a number of bats here so I decided to get my camera and flash and see if I could get lucky. Luckily the bats didn't have any concern about me being in their vicinity so I was able to stand right next to a feeder and take shots as they would come in for a drink, here are a few that came out OK...
Orange Nectar Bats at the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton
Orange Nectar Bat..
Sunday, November 30 – El Valle areas
Sunday was my first fill day at the Lodge and it was a great day (all of the days were great days actually and again I'd like to reiterate that the operation that they have going there is top notch, first class and well run!) We started the day watching the fruit feeders, they put out oranges and bananas on a number of tables and the birds just go crazy. We had quite a variety of birds in the morning including Flame-rumped Tanager, Crimson-backed Tanager, Palm Tanager, Blue-Gray Tanager, Dusky Tanager, White-lined Tanager, Summer Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, House Wren, Streaked Saltator, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Rufous Motmot and probably a few more I am forgetting at the moment... Not to mention several species of Hummingbirds busily feeding on the flowers including Garden Emerald and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds.
After breakfast, our guide, Tino, took us to the back side of town and we hiked down some residential streets before ending up on a nice mountain pathway that led along the side of a mountain. We nailed quite a few new species this morning including some great birds such as Tody Motmot, Lineated Woodpecker and Lance-tailed Manakin... Here are the photographic highlights.
Crimson-backed Tanager (female)
Flame-rumped Tanager (female)
Flame-rumped Tanager (male)
The itinerary at the Canopy Lodge was similar to what I had experienced at the Tower, there were usually two guided trips a day with a break from lunch time to about 3:00. While we got rain here as well it was much more what I have been accustomed to experiencing in the tropics, typical early afternoon thunderstorms rolling through and that's pretty much what the experience was like here as we entered December. The afternoon trip on this day was also to a few areas around El Valle de Anton, we picked up a pair of nice Tropical Screech-Owls and a variety of other birds to fill out a great first day here on the side of the volcano. Here are a few highlights from the afternoon.
Female Barred Antshrike
Monday, December 1 – La Mesa and El Valle - (Mud, Hummingbirds and GROUND CUCKOOS!)
Today was my next to last day of the trip... Boy how time flies when you are having too much fun! The plan today was to go up to a little higher elevation above the Canopy Lodge to an area called La Mesa. We were able to drive most of the way up there however the previous night had been quite wet with a persistent hard rain most of the evening, while the morning was just beautiful with scattered clouds and plenty of sunshine to warm everything up and make it look spectacular however, the previous evenings rain took its toll on the roads. We had to stop at a steep hill that was too muddy to pass without a 4 wheel drive vehicle, a truck was trying to make it up without much success so we decided to walk the road before taking a path that led through some secondary forest and up the side of a steep hill with a small creek running through it. We saw some great birds again this morning, adding substantially to the list, species including Orange-bellied Trogon, Mourning Warbler, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Silver-throated Tanager, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-capped Warbler, Green Thorntail, White-tipped Sicklebill, and much more. Here are some of the photographic highlights from the mornings walk.
We stopped at this small ravine that led down the hill from the road, there were several large, flowering plants and vines all sort of congregated in one small area and it was Hummingbird heaven! We say Garden Emerald, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, White-tipped Sicklebill (albeit from quite a distance, I was disappointed that I couldn't get a good shot of it, will have to come back now...), Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and a Green Thorntail (which I mistook for a beetle). All within a small area. We stayed for quite a while observing and hoping we could get more looks at the Thorntail and Sicklebill but that was not to be this morning.
Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet
Female Orange-bellied Trogon
Interesting butterfly, yet to be identified...
We finished our morning hike and got back to where we had parked the van and started heading back toward the Canopy Lodge. The plan was to make a quick stop at the Canopy Adventure park, which is a park where you can glide along guide wires high up in the canopy on a harness. There had been a Rufous Crested Coquette (a tiny, very cool hummingbird) sighted there over the past several days and we were going to give it a shot as well. However, what happened next was for me, the highlight of the trip! We were getting close to the park when Toon, who was sitting behind me in the van yelled to Tino who was driving to stop! He said he had seen a large bird just off the road in the thick bushes. Tino obliged and slowly backed up the van to take a look. "Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo"! Came the excited call from Tino! We all got a quick look at it perched deep inside the foliage, a large bird that closely resembles our American Roadrunner which is in the same (cuckoo) family. Tino decided to park the van down the road a bit so we could slowly approach without scaring him away. This is one of the most sought after birds in Panama, it's rare, it's large, it's very cool looking and it follows large swarms of army ants around as an attending bird, picking off insects as they are stirred up by the army ants. Tino explained that there had been a large swarm of army ants in the area several days ago and the Cuckoo was probably looking for the swarm which had left. We were all quite excited, this was an unexpected treat. Armed with my camera, double checked to make sure I had all the right settings we slowly approached, quietly on foot to the area where we had spotted it in the van. It was still there! We stopped across from it, Toon, Linda and Tino with their binoculars raised. I zeroed in with my camera, got a perfect focus, was pressing the shutter button down and a white flash came zipping by in front of us as a van came shooting down the road, seemingly from nowhere just as I was about to take the picture!!! As the van passed we all watched a flash of movement as the Ground Cuckoo swooped away, down below our eye level into a ravine. Despite a frantic search we were unable to relocate the bird. I was of course pretty disappointed, in particular since I actually had the focus locked on the bird, did get a great look at it and if I had had 1/2 of a second more, I am sure I would have had a clear shot but that's the way it goes. At least we all got to see it and report it, it was the only one seen during my stay in Panama by any of the groups we were in touch with. However, that was not the end of the excitement. We all walked down to the Canopy Adventure office and started looking for the Rufous-crested Coquette. I had much better luck with this one! This was another target species for me, not just on this trip but in general. I love Hummingbirds and this is one of my favorites and sure enough, about 20 minutes of waiting paid off, we saw several others come and go but we stuck it out and sure enough, this little tiny resplendently decorated hummingbird came in buzzing like a slightly-oversized bumble bee to it's favorite flowers and made the rounds for about two or three minutes before leaving to parts unknown... Photos below.
After yet another great morning trip we made our way back to the lodge for lunch and siesta time. Since my time was running short I decided to forgo any break and hiked around the perimeter of the lodge when everyone was resting up for the afternoon trip. We were joined at lunch by three new visitors from Scotland that were just starting their Panama adventure and they would be joining the rest of our excursions for the rest of my stay. I was lobbying for a trip to the lowlands tomorrow, originally I was told "no" as it wasn't part of the package but later found out that there was enough interest in doing so that we were going to make a day of it tomorrow, my last day and head down to the Panamanian lowlands along the Pacific coast. But that was tomorrow, this day was only half over. With thunderheads building over the mountains I walked around the area and took the following shots.
View at Canopy Lodge
Central American Ameiva
View from the dining area at the lodge
The afternoon trip was to be to an area a dozen miles or so outside of El Valle, main target was Tody Motmot according to our guide, we now had a larger contingency with the three gentlemen from Scotland that had arrived earlier in the day so we now had six people, a driver and a bird guide along for the ride and a larger van to go with it. We arrived at our destination which was a very steep road that went down the side of a mountain. The scenery was spectacular, I took a couple of shots below. However, the rumbling of thunder in the distance and the quickly approaching dark wall told me that it was only a matter of time before we got slammed... I was able to get a shot of another cool Hummingbird however, a Long-billed Starthroat. We made it most of the way down the mountain before the storm hit, it started out as if it wasn't going to be that bad, we all had umbrellas and ponchos and that worked for a while... then it really poured, there was a river flowing down the road and we were informed that the van, which was parked about a mile or so away, at the top of the hill, couldn't make it down... No big deal for me other than I was carrying about 25 pounds of camera gear in my backpack and it got waterlogged on the way back up the hill... I was probably 50 pounds by the time I reached the van a while later, soaked from head to toe... but of course it was a tropical rain so at least it wasn't freezing cold. My gear survived intact as I had wrapped my poncho around everything to keep it as dry as possible. I have to give kudos to Canon once again for the quality of their stuff, I have really abused my equipment over the years, it's been in just about every sort of harsh environment there is and for the most part, it just keeps working. I have lost a couple of shutters during the middle of trips but other than that, it just works and that's one of the reasons I use Canon equipment... anyway, so much for the pitch. We pretty much got rained out for the rest of the day, the rain did let up and we made a couple of quick stops to chase down some grassland birds like Grasquit but nothing of particular interest.
If you look closely at the background you can see the dark, foggy area, that's the edge of a big thunderstorm, heading toward us.
The three gentlemen from Scotland are to the left, Tino, our guide is in the middle and Toon and Linda are to the right. They are looking at the Hummingbird below.
Tuesday, December 2 – The Lowlands
Today was my last day in Panama, I had to leave at 3:00 AM the next morning to catch my flight out of Panama City to Miami at 8:00 AM so it was just fantastic to me that we were going to spend the entire day out in the field in the lowlands near the Pacific Ocean with lunch at Playa Santa Clara. We had a good breakfast at 5:30 AM and we were on the road a little after 6:00. It was a 2 hour drive down to the area we were going to go to from the lodge, we all piled into the van and headed west, watching the sun rise over a bay which really confused me for a while, I kept saying to myself, rises in the east, sets in the west... in any event, after making a quick pit stop in a small town we parked at the edge of a large, cultivated area with many fenced lots, some cattle, lined with trees and lots of birds! This was our biggest count day of the entire trip, easily logging more than 100 species of birds for the day. Here are some of the highlights along with some additional comments below.
Black Spiny-tailed Iguana
The weather was quite delightful down here in the lowlands, it actually bordered on being hot, the humidity started to raise as the day went on and if you stood directly in the sun it was quite warm, however for me it was a welcome change from the last 10 days of more or less constantly overcast conditions. Not complaining at all, you can't control the weather and certainly the only thing you can do is make the best of the situation. Anyway, after we were done exploring the agricultural area we boarded the van and drove a few miles before turning down a long, dirt road that led through more agricultural areas and finally to the beach at Playa Santa Clara. Many more great sightings on this road as well including many of the lowland species such as Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Zone-tailed Hawk, Pearl Kite, Wood Stork, Black-throated Mango, Yellow-headed Caracara, Groove-billed Ani and much more. Also saw more herps than in other areas, mostly I think due to the warmer and sunnier weather, saw both species of Iguana, basilisk and a mud turtle. Here are some of the highlights.
Black Spiny-tailed Iguana
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
White-throated Mud Turtle
Wednesday, December 3 – Back Home
Today was fly home day for me. Got up very early and left for the airport at 3:00 AM in order to catch my 8:00 AM flight to Miami. Nothing special to note, no issues or delays. Did have an interesting experience however on my flight from Miami to Los Angeles. I was upgraded to first class which is in and of itself notable as it’s very seldom that my upgrade requests are honored these days with the limited number of flights and them mostly being full or oversold. Anyway, I flew back with Colin Farrell of Hollywood fame (Miami Vice/Alexander) sitting in the seat next to me, pretty cool and interesting dude, had no idea who he was until I got back home which probably made it better as we talked most of the way (when the stewardess wasn’t flirting with him) and he knew I had no clue who he was. My brush with fame if you will…
In any event, a notable trip with some exceptional wildlife viewing and photography. The weather could have been better (much better) but that’s up to the mercy of the gods as they say. I will go back here again someday, hopefully soon!
Thanks for looking! Following are a list of the species sighted during our stay in Panama, species linked to additional pictures for those we were able to photograph.
Basic Map of Trip:
FOR MORE TRIP REPORTS, CLICK THIS LINK!
PANAMA TRIP SPECIES LIST – Nov. 22, 2008 to Dec. 2, 2008
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Black-throated Green Warbler
Common Moorhen (Gallinule)
Great Blue Heron
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Little Blue Heron
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Plain-breasted Ground Dove
Southern Rough-wing Swallow
Western Long-tailed Hermit
Western Slaty Antshrike
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Central American Agouti
Central American Woolly Opossum
Common Tent-making Bat
Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth
Mantled Howler Monkey
Northern Tamandua (ant eater)
Orange Nectar Bat
REPTILES & AMPHIBIANS
Black Spiny-tailed Iguana
Central American Ameiva
White-throated Mud Turtle