02 March - 12 April 2002
by Dave Klauber
Click HERE for the trip list.
From March 2 through April 12 I was in Panama. Some of this time, especially initially, was spent visiting, with intermittent birding. Most birding was solo, but I did do two trips with the Panama Audubon Society, who do some interesting and relatively inexpensive field trips on a regular basis. I had worked in Panama in 1997-98, and spent 5 days in Chiriqui with Dennis Rogers, so I had some prior experience with Panama’s birds and the Canal Zone areas. In the trip report I will omit most of the non-birding days
I used the Ridgely and Gwynne Panama Field Guide, which is quite good. Bird finding information was written in the late 80’s, so I tried to supplement this with trip reports found on Blake Maybank’s website birdingtheamericas.com. Dave Sargeant’s booklet Specialities and Less-visited Sites was useful for El Real, but overall is probably not worth buying. I also used Dennis Rogers Site Guides Costa Rica and Panama book, which also has good checklists at the back. For some odd reason the ABA does not carry it, but LA Audubon does.
For accommodation I used the Let’s Go Panama book, since I couldn’t find the Lonely Planet book. In general I prefer the Panama Lonely Planet guide. I had an old 3rd edition of International Travel Maps of Panama, but this does not have the new roads that have been built in the last 3-4 years, especially the road to Changuinola on the northwest. Bus service is good and cheap in Panama, and will get you to many areas – but not all! The one car I rented was in David through Budget. It cost about $32 per day with 3rd party insurance, for an economy automatic with AC. It was adequate for my trip in Fortuna and Chiriqui Grande.
I used a cheap $40 Panasonic tape player to keep notes and record birds that are nearby. The player was new, but often wouldn’t work in the humidity – buy something else.
The Panama Audubon does field trips on a regular basis. They are also a source for information. Rosabel Kaufmann in particular is knowledgeable about birds and is a keen birder. The phone number is 213 – 9344; office hours are 8:30-5:30 M-F, 8-2 Saturday. The Kaufmanns also rent out their house in Cerro Azul, I believe for about $60 a day. It has a beautiful view and has most mod cons. Rosabel could be contacted through the Audubon. The e mail address for Panama Audubon is: email@example.com
MONEY & LOGISTICS
Panama uses the US dollar for their currency, although they call it the Balboa. Both Panamanian and US coins are used, of the same size and denominations. I brought cash and traveler’s cheques, American Express, US dollars. The cheques can be difficult to change outside major cities or tourist areas, and you are charged at least 1% even though it’s the same currency. There are cash machines in large cities – I didn’t look for them, so am not sure of their availability. Getting change of anything bigger than a $10 bill can be difficult. Many stores and businesses say they will not accept bills in $50 and $100, apparently due to counterfeits from Colombia. In El Real, which is basic and poor, even getting change for a $5 was tough – bring lots of singles.
Gas is more expensive than in the US. Gas prices ranged from about $1.80 a gallon in the Canal Zone to $2.20 per gallon near Chiriqui Grande in the west. I generally stayed in moderate to low budget hotels. Room prices ranged from $10-$25, with the exception of Los Quetzales in Cerro Punta.
Internal air service is pretty good and relatively inexpensive. The flight to David from Panama City is $112 return; there are 3 daily.
A highly recommended taxi driver is Vitelio de Gracia. He only charged me $13 each way for Summit area (Plantation Road, Old Gamboa Road, Semaphore Hill / Canopy Tower) and $15 each way to Pipeline Road. He is reliable, punctual, and a very nice guy, but he speaks little or no English. His cell phone number is 650-0531, and the work office number is 277-3514. Cell phone is best.
I recommend buying a telephone card to use in Panama (and most of Latin America). They are sold in many shops in multiples of $5, $10, and up. Some phones will only accept cards, even for toll-free calling card calls.
El Real is a hot, small town in the Darien lowlands that holds little interest except for some good birds. It is not visited by many birders. It can be very buggy, although it was OK while I was there, and very hot and humid. Electricity exists but often goes out for long periods at a time. There are several pay phones that work throughout the town. The main attraction for birders is a few species that can only be found here. Black Oropendula, Black Antshrike, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Black-capped Donacobius, and Spectacled Parrotlet are some that are either only found here, or it’s the best place in North America for them. A few Cerro Pirre birds like White-eared Conebill and Double-banded Graytail have been seen here.
The Aeroperlas flight from Panama City is $77 return, but oddly you can only make the return reservation in El Real. Try to do this when you arrive, since it will be in the middle of the day anyway, bad for birding. Flights are Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in the morning, and take about an hour, depending on how many stops are made en route. There is only one hotel, which is supposed to be a dump, but I found a guesthouse that is very basic but adequate, with a flush toilet, shower, and fan in the room. Contact is Narciso Bristan – his phone is 299 – 6566. There are several small shops which stock soda, snacks, fruit juice and water. It is not recommended to drink tap water there.
Also of interest is Rancho Frio, a research station in the foothills that is reached by a walk of several hours. They have cold water showers, flush toilets and bunk beds, but you must bring in your own bedding, food, and water. Water here is probably of better quality than El Real. Arrangements must be made through the ANAM office in El Real. It costs $3 admission, and $5 per night to sleep in a bunk bed. You also must have a guide, for $10 a day. The phone number of the ANAM office in El Real is 299-6965, and you will need to speak Spanish. The person there is Jorge Vasquez, a very pleasant person who is a Kuna Indian. This is a poor town, and many shops don’t have change, even for a $5 bill. Bring many small notes. A $20 bill was particularly hard to change
I saw 459 species, and heard another 10, for a trip total of 469. 33
were lifers, and another 25 were new North American birds. I have
an electronic trip list in a separate Excel file. Inquiries about
species will gladly be answered at:
No birding. I met with Rosabel and Karl Kaufman, friends from a previous visit, for dinner and some updates. I stayed with a friend this week
March 5 – Colon side
Rosabel had a meeting on the Colon side, where I had not been, and agreed to drive me to Achiote Road. We left about 6 AM and did not get there until a bit after eight, when it was already getting hot. Rosabel birded with me for about an hour, then left me while she went to her meeting. A quick look at a paddle-winged raptor might have been a Gray Headed Kite, but ID was uncertain. A Black Hawk Eagle circled high overhead, calling, allowing decent looks. Panama Flycatcher and Fulvous-vented Euphonia were new for me. Rosabel returned about 2 PM, having missed her meeting due to getting stuck at the locks. She had other business to take care of, then drove me to Fort Lorenzo, a beautiful viewpoint on the river. It was already late, and we didn’t have time for much birding, but I did see Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, both new for Panama for me. I never got a chance to return to the Colon side
March 6 - waterfront
A one-hour walk on the city waterfront by the jetty past the big hotel on the water (Intercontinental?) gave me Surfbird, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Sanderlings, and a few common herons
March 7, Thursday – Plantation Road
This is easy to get to by taxi or bus. It may be tough to get there at first light by bus. I used the Taxi driver Vitelio. It takes about half an hour from Panama City. I arrived at 6 AM to find out it doesn’t get light until 6:25. It was very dry, so you could hear birds and animals walking on the ground. Coatis were common. Scaly-throated Leaftosser was new for me, one feeding with Song Wrens. Other notable birds were Spotted Antbird, both Flatbills, and singing Fruitcrows showing their purple throat.
March 9 and 10 –Panama Audubon trip to San Carlos area & El Valle
I’m not sure how to get to La Laguna, which is north of the Pan American highway near San Carlos, about an hour west of Panama City. It was very windy with less than desired bird activity. El Valle is easily reached by bus; about 2 hours I believe. The owner of the Canopy Tower owns some good forest habitat, and charges to get in (don’t know the exact price). The habitat is quite good, with Ground Cuckoo there (no, I did not, and have never seen a ground cuckoo). We did see Tody Motmot with the help of our guide’s ears and Rosabel’s eyes.
Also seen were Violet Headed Hummingbird, out-of-range Magnificent Hummingbird, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Tawny Crested and Dusky Faced Tanagers, and Rosy Thrush Tanager (the last not by me). Back in Panama City I checked into the Hotel California in Bella Vista for $20 per night (2 nights or more, $25 for only 1 night). The rooms are nice, with AC, cable TV, and a decent restaurant. The only bad thing is that you cannot leave luggage there if you want to do a weekend trip. In general the staff are very pleasant and speak English.
March 11, Monday – Metropolitan Park
On Friday I had tried to purchase tickets for Monday to El Real, but the flight was sold out, so I spent this week in Panama City.
Nothing that was new for me. I searched in vain for Yellow-Green Tyrannulet. Lance Tailed Manakins were vocal and active. Later visits were more productive
March 12 – Pipeline Road
A busy day here. I ran into Ruth and Bill Brooks, two birders I knew from New York, with Gary Rosenberg of Wings. There were also 2 other small groups and Darien Montanez with a group of Canadians. I rarely run into other birders in Panama, so this was unusual for me. If you can get a key to Pipeline, you can drive to a bridge at about kilometer 4.6, where it is roped off. I had Vitelio drop me off in Gamboa, and walked to about kilometer 8, and back – and forgot my food! A long but rewarding day. Initially I was joined by Carmen Martinez, a local woman who lives in Gamboa and sometimes guides. She had to leave after 3 hours. I had a good look at Scaled Pigeon, a North America bird for me. I saw 2 or 3 Great Jacamars.
Best was a Plumbeous Hawk about a kilometer after the roped off bridge. Darien had alerted me to the presence of a Plumbeous or Semi-Plumbeous Hawk near the path, and pushing on alone, I had great looks at this lifer. Many North America migrants were active, and I saw a Cerulean Warbler along with other species. On the way back, only about 1 or 2 kilometers from the entrance, I saw an antswarm at around 3 PM, with Ocellated, Bicolored, and Chestnut Backed Antbirds. Earlier I had Spotted and Dusky Antbirds . This was a 3-monkey day, with Howler, White-faced Capuchin, and Geoffrey’s Tamarind. I also had my first and only Central American anteater (Nortern Tamandua) at close range
March 13 - waterfront
Brief AM at the waterfront hotel. Little of note besides Sandwich Terns
March 14 – Metropolitan Park
A late start got me there at 8 AM. Apparently I missed a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker near the entrance, which is a good bird for Panama. I ran into Darien and the Canadians again. They tried unsuccessfully to lure in a calling Pheasant Cuckoo. I finally got my main target bird, the endemic Yellow-Green Tyrannulet, which looks quite different from the illustration in the field guide. The eye ring is strong and distinctive, though. It was a couple of hundred yards up the trail from behind the guard’s booth – I think it’s called the MonoTiti trail, named after Geoffrey’s Tamarind, which I also saw.
March 15 – Old Gamboa Road
This is described in the field guide. Take the road directly opposite the entrance to Summit Gardens, then go left where it ends in a “T” after 200 yards or so. Don’t go into the police academy but continue straight along this path, which passes through a variety of habitats until it comes out on the main Gamboa Road after 2 miles or so. 2 years ago Darien and I saw a Jaguarundi here. Striated Heron and Greater Ani were on the pond, but I didn’t see the usual Boat-Billed Herons. Many migrating Broad Winged Hawks were rising from the bushes and trees to form groups and kettles. I also saw a Plumbeous Kite. I ran into Nigel Mann, a British researcher who was recording wrens. Nearby was a pair of Blue Ground Doves on the trail. I saw Yellow-Green Tyrannulet again, near where the path ends at the main Gamboa Road (thanks for the tip, Darien). Also seen was an odd White-winged Becard with no tail.
March 16 – Cerro Azul
I was fortunate here to spend the night at the house of Karl and Rosabel Kaufman. Karl drove me and two Field Guides leaders, John Coons and John Rowlett, to his house. We looked unsuccessfully for the Speckled Antshrike, with the assistance of Bill Adsett, a Brit living in Panama for many years. Bill took us to a place where he had seen the bird previously, but we had no luck. Other good birds were seen. John Rowlett saw a Black-eared Wood Quail, but I missed it. I only caught a glimpse of a Barred Forest Falcon. We saw Stripe-Throated Wren, usually a Darien bird. Other interesting birds were Violet Capped Hummingbird, Striped Woodhaunter, Slaty-winged Foliage Gleaner, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and Brown-billed Scythebill. Black-headed Antthrush was heard, but never seen. We spent the whole morning on a path that descended into humid forest from a ridge. We returned to Panama City mid-afternoon. I had hoped to return for a few days, but it never worked out
March 18, Monday – El Real
I caught the 9:45 flight (it left later) to El Real, via another small town. This is a small plane, seating about 15, so you should travel as lightly as possible. A friend had made arrangements with ANAM to stay at their place. ANAM is a government agency charged with looking after the environment with, I believe, varying degrees of success. I walked the 10-15 minutes from the airstrip to ANAM, arriving around 1 PM. It was very hot, so I tried to take a siesta. I had heard the El Real hotel was a real dump. Unfortunately, the ANAM place wasn’t much better. None of the lights worked except in the office, there was a broken ceiling fan, no running water, and the toilet was a hole in a raised platform in the room with the 44-gallon drum for washing. I am used to basic, but the toilet was pretty disgusting. There were two rooms, one with bunks, the other with 2 beds. No price was discussed , but I had heard that $5 was acceptable. I gave them $10.
Jorge Vasquez, the ANAM person there, is very nice and a real gentleman, but some of his information was incorrect. I spent 4 - 6 PM walking the road towards Pinogana with Jorge. Although I heard that Black Antshrike was common in the thickets, all I saw were Sirystes, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Gray-cheeked Nunlet and some migrants. There are one or two restaurants in town, and you should advise them in advance if you are going to eat there. Papito, my guide for rancho Frio, found me a restaurant that charged $1.50 for a meal. You ate what they had – no choice - but it wasn’t bad. Night at ANAM with little sleep due to constantly barking dogs. Incidentally, the shop next to the ANAM office did carry bottled water, so you do not have to bring in water, as I did.
March 19 – walk to Rancho Frio
Jorge had arranged for me to leave for Rancho Frio with Papito, the guide. I had arranged the night before for a local woman who runs a restaurant near the ANAM office to make me breakfast at 6 AM. Eggs and patacones with a can of Fresca, but OK for about $1 or a little more. This place is on the opposite side of the road from the ANAM office, just past a phone booth. Surprisingly there were several working phone booths in El Real. Make sure you have a phone card. Jorge said it was about a 3 hour slow walk – it took me 6 hours, with birding. Carry your passport, as there is a police checkpoint.
This trail crosses a stream in several spots, and is probably impassable in the wet season. On the way up were Greater Anis, Black-tailed Trogon, Rufous-breasted Hermit, several Gray-cheeked Nunlets, Great Jacamar, Red-rumped Woodpecker near town, the Darien race of Bay Wren, and others. Just near the Rancho Frio station was first a juvenile, then an adult Fasciated Tiger-Heron. We arrived at Rancho Frio around 1:30. I took a siesta and afterwards it rained for about an hour. Around 4 PM I took a trail with Papito – you cannot walk by yourself, only with a guide. I saw a flycatcher that looked a lot like the Tawny-breasted, but that’s supposed to be at Cerro Tacarcuna. It looked like imminent rain, so we were only out for about an hour.
In the distance a Great Curassow was heard. The rain held off until about 7 PM. I had bought a package of rice and can of tuna, but the guard made me soup and rice. They also managed to find me a sheet, since I had no bedding. Rancho Frio is much nicer and cooler than El Real. There are actual working flush toilets and cold water showers. If I return I would be more prepared and bring food for several days, and explore Cerro Pirre, which is a day’s hike from there.
March 20 – Rancho Frio and descent to El Real
In the morning we walked some local trails for an hour or two, seeing one small mixed flock with Spot-crowned Antvireo, but little else of note. There is a field just opposite the sleeping quarters that had Orange-Crowned Oriole, a distant Red-throated Caracara, Yellow Tyrannulet, One-colored Becard, and a mystery Hermit that was probably a Long-tailed. On the way up a local told Papito that there was an active Harpy Eagle’s nest about an hour from the rancho. We walked past the stream to a house where a local Indian supposedly knew where the Harpy Eagle was. On the way Papito found me a Black Oropendula, with Cresteds and Fruitcrows. I saw another Plumbeous Hawk well.
When we got to the Indian’s house, he was out, and his wife said the nest was a long way’s away, so we gave up. Just before the house was a small antswarm, but only attended by Bicolored and Chestnut-backed Antbirds, and a Barred Woodcreeper. The descent was much quicker than the ascent, taking maybe 4 hours or less, with birding. At a large stream crossing I took a break, and was rewarded with Black-capped Tody-Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and others. We got back to El Real around 2 PM. Another siesta, then a walk around the beginning of the Pinogana road, where I didn’t find much.
I walked the airstrip and found an Upland Sandpiper and my only Spot-breasted Woodpecker, which is supposed to be common. I stayed at Papito’s father’s guest house for $8 a night. The main problem is the electricity in El Real often shuts down for no reason. This night it went out sometime before midnight and was out all night – so much for the fan. Fortunately there were very few insects, a pleasant surprise, just a bat in my room. It was also quieter here than the ANAM place, although roosters were annoying, especially in the middle of the night.
Jorge Vasquez had told me there was an active Crested Eagle nest not too far up the river, and had been there for years. He arranged with Narcisso, Papito’s father, to take me there by piroga(?), or motorized dugout canoe in the morning. A local Indian guide was going to show me the place. The kid slept in, and didn’t arrive until after 7:30. We had to descend a steep, muddy river bank to get into the canoe, the others carrying the outboard motor. They slipped in the ankle deep mud but managed to make it unhurt.
When we set out it was nearly 8, so I had missed the best hours of the morning (first light was around 6:20). When we got to the Eagle site, the local who lives there said the bird and the nest had not been there for 2 years, which pissed me off, since this was the object of the boat trip. More well-intentioned misinformation from Jorge. We went upriver anyway, and I saw Cocoi Heron, Gray Headed Kite, Black Collared Hawk, Striated Herons, and other more common species. I’m not sure whether the Black Hawks were Common or Mangrove. The trip lasted a bit over 3 hours for $35. I took a break until about 3:30. I tried to bird in the afternoon, but got stuck at the airstrip when it started raining hard, not letting up for 2 hours.
March 22, Friday – Last day in El Real
I had read that the road towards Cerro Pirre or Rancho Frio was supposed to be the best, so I set out just before first light, around 6 AM. The first 3 hours were fairly uneventful, and I was wondering where the “common” Black Antshrike was. I did see Great and Western Slaty Antshrikes, and a Rufous-breasted Hermit. After I turned around and got to where a big field started, about 20 minutes from town, I hit a small flock. I saw 3 White-eared Conebills, a singing Willow Flycatcher, Mourning Warbler, and a Yellow-breasted Flycatcher building a nest. This bird is not in the Panama book, but I had been alerted that it is locally a recent, fairly common, addition to the area. The broad bill identifies it as a Tolmomyias, and its brighter yellow, with orange near the face, separates it from the other 2 Tolmomyias.
I had to be at the airstrip by 11:15, and it was now 10:30. I gave one last try on a side road just after (before if you are walking from town) the bridge, which passed through some dense thickets. I squeaked up a pair of Black Antshrikes finally, then made it to town and the airstrip. Aeroperlas has a rather half-assed system where you can only make your return flight reservations in El Real itself, so take care of this when you arrive there. I flew to Panama City and took the next day off
March 24, Sunday – Semaphore Hill and Plantation Road
I took an early taxi with Vitelio to Semaphore Hill, the road to the Canopy Tower, arriving at first light, about 6:15. The days were starting to get longer since my arrival 3 weeks earlier. Others had told me they saw Tiny Hawk and Slaty-backed Forest Falcon the week previous. I tried the Forest Falcon tape and got a response, but it stayed in the distance. I looked up to see a Semi-plumbeous Hawk sitting right over my head along the road. It remained even as I walked up the road. Shortly after I saw a perched Black Hawk-Eagle very close to the road. It was calling and stayed there for at least 15 minutes. This was my first look at a sitting bird, having seen it only in flight before, and it was quite impressive with its crest, size, and barring. Both raptors were seen within the first 30 minutes, and it was downhill after that. I also walked up Plantation Road afterwards, but it was already mid-morning and there was nothing new. I quit about noon, managing to hitch a ride back with an ambulance. I moved from a friend’s place to the Hotel California.
March 25 – brief shorebirds
I spent an hour at the same jetty behind the big hotel downtown. This is about a ten-minute walk from the Hotel California. Nothing much of note, but my only Black-crowned Night-Heron of the trip.
March 26 – Metropolitan Park
I spent 6:15 to 11 AM at the metro park. The cab ride is $1.50 from the hotel, and takes about 15 minutes. I took the trail behind the guard’s booth, and saw a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager scratching in the leaf litter. At the overview I heard a Pheasant Cuckoo and used a tape, but only had it call back from wherever it was. On the way down the same trail I ran into Bill and Lisa, a couple from New Orleans. While we were talking a Pheasant Cuckoo called from just behind us. A tape playback brought up a bird that flew very close to us apparently to a nearby perch. I walked up the path about 50 feet and played the tape, and there was a Pheasant Cuckoo in the open on a branch in the sun singing away. This was a great look at a longtime nemesis bird. It stayed there for 10-15 minutes, although it stopped singing after a few minutes. This was one of the trip highlights.
March 27-30 – Trip to El Chorogo near Puerto Armuelles
I went on a trip with the Panama Audubon to some land they purchased on the Costa Rican border. It is the only place in Panama for certain birds like Baird’s Trogon, Black-hooded Antshrike and Riverside Wren. It involved a 2-hour drive with 4-wheel drive, then a 3-4 hour ride on horseback. I don’t know how, or if, independent travelers could get there, and actually might not be worth it, since the birds there are found more easily in Costa Rica. We camped for 2 nights and walked the trails during the day. 2 people saw a pair of White-crested Coquettes that were not seen by the rest of us, despite extensive looking. Personal highlights were a pair of Rufous-winged Woodpeckers at a nest hole, with very little rufous evident in the wing, Bronzy Hermit, many White-throated Shrike-Tanagers, and Spot-crowned Euphonia. Saturday night we returned to David, staying at the Hotel Alcala for $20 with AC and restaurant – quite nice for the price.
March 31 – Easter Sunday, Cerro Batipa and Boquete
We went to Cerro Batipa, about 20 minutes east of David, on the land of an engineer who is sympathetic to land preservation. Yellow-billed Cotinga is often seen there, but not today. Little Tinamou was heard fairly close but not seen. Pale-eyed Pygmy Tyrant, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Rose-throated Becard were seen, as well as a Vermillion Flycatcher by Loida, our guide/leader, which is an excellent bird for Panama. I did not see it. I got a ride to Boquete in the mountains with Dan Wade, an American who has a house there. Dan, Bill Adsett, and I went in Dan’s 4-wheel drive pickup to the Alto Chiquero park headquarters, on the Los Quetzales trail. 3 Wattled Bellbirds were heard immediately, and we saw both males and females fairly well. Dark Pewee and Streak-breasted Treehunter were 2 more lifers for me. A very odd Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher was in a tree with bits of white downy fluff on its back, wings, and crest. Night at Dan’s place
April 1 - Boquete
Some AM birding at Dan’s place, then I moved into the Hotel Requete for $10 a night with hot water. Basic but nice – it was recommended by Dan. I took care of a few things like laundry, while Dan took care of truck repairs. About 10 AM I took a bus ($1) to the Los Quetzales trail. I took the trail to the left, which crosses a stream after 50-100 feet, and arrives at a box canyon with 2 waterfalls after about 3 kilometers. There were several Mountain Elaenias, a Scintillant Hummingbird bathing in the stream, Orange-bellied Trogon, Dark Pewee, Yellowish Flycatcher, and a few migrants. Boquete is a nice little town that caters to the backpacking crowd, and has several good cheap places to eat.
April 2, Tuesday – Cerro Punta
Bus to David, $1.75, leaves every 25 minutes, and takes an hour. From David to Cerro Punta are minibuses every 15 minutes, rather surprising for such a small town. Fare is $2.75 and the trip takes 2 hours. I arrived at the Hotel Los Quetzales around 10:30 AM.
I had decided to try and stay in a cabin to try for owls. There is a dormitory in the hotel which is probably a much better bet for $12 a night. The cabins are about 2 kilometers uphill from the hotel; the staff drive you there. These are not cheap, especially for someone on their own. Cabin 1 goes for about $75, and the others are about $125. Since it was mid week and quiet, I got cabin 4 at the top of the road for $80 (normally $125), and stayed 2 nights. Cabin 3 is probably the best for birding. Each cabin has several rooms and sleeps 6-8 people, maybe more. There is no electricity, only kerosene lanterns, but there is hot water. Food must be brought in or ordered through the hotel restaurant, with a $5 delivery fee. I ordered 2 dinners while I was there and they totaled about $20 with 3 beers. The food was very good.
The cabins include guide service, but since they didn’t know much about birds other than quetzals, I went out on my own. Cabin 4 has the guide’s family living directly opposite which somewhat affects the feeling of tranquility, but they were quiet mostly. At the cabin were 4 or 5 Slaty Finches resident in the garden. The walk down towards the other cabins gave me Buffy Tuftedcheek, female Barred Becard, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunners, and a few others. Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers were common.
I took the path to the right of the path to cabins 2 & 3, which climbs steadily uphill. I saw Streak-breasted Treehunter and Volcano Hummingbird. I walked the path below my cabin later and saw pretty much the same birds that I had seen earlier. It rained at night, but even with the light rain I managed to tape in a scruffy, wet Bare-shanked Screech Owl a few hundred feet down the path. It was my only owl. I tried the Andean Pygmy Owl tape during the day several times, but with no response.
April 3 – Cerro Punta
At first light quetzals were heard, but I didn’t see any. I tried the path into the woods above my cabin, having received advice from the guide as to where it went (there were several forks). I got a great look at a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. After the right fork, at a clearing by a ridge, I saw a Black-capped Flycatcher. Prong-billed Barbets sang, and I saw them once. Near the end of the trail, not far from the main road, was a Fiery-throated Hummingbird at the edge of a clearing. The theme at the cabins was the same birds over and over again, with an occasional difference each day. I saw 47 species during my stay.
In general the main trails/roads were more productive than the forest trails. I returned to my cabin around noon and took a break. In mid-afternoon I walked down past the path to cabins 2&3, and was treated to a male quetzal with very long streamers – truly a stunning bird, even if you’ve seen it before. It rained a bit, so I returned to the cabin, where the usual hummingbird trio of Magnificent, Violet Sabrewing, and White-throated Mountain Gem were active. At cabin 2 was a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.
April 4 – Cerro Punta, and drive to Chiriqui Grande
I tried the forest trail above my cabin, this time taking a fork towards cabins 2 and 3 on a quest for quail doves and wood-quail. I lucked out in a large bamboo patch with first a Great Tinamou, then an excellent look at a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove for about 20 minutes. He flew onto a branch where he remained for about 15 minutes, then returned to the path. After returning to the cabin, I walked out most of the way to the hotel, seeing another quetzal in almost the same spot, just below the turnoff to cabins 2 & 3. I took the bus to David, then decided to rent a car to drive to Fortuna and Chiriqui Grande.
The bus dropped me off across the street from the Budget office, and after about 40 minutes I was driving towards Chiriqui Grande, across the Continental Divide, at about 3 PM. It’s a good idea to buy provisions and snacks in David, where you will have a greater selection. I reached the Fortuna reservoir in about 75-90 minutes. Bill Adsett said that the guards at the hydro-electric plant will sometimes let you go with them on their rounds to more inaccessible parts of the watershed, noting that Bijao was a possibility for Umbrellabird. I went into the office and asked for the engineer, who wasn’t there. Another supervisor suggested I return Monday morning at 8 AM, when they start work, since Friday they would be at a meeting and they were off weekends.
I drove a bit past the reservoir where I heard some activity, and saw a Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. The rufous is not easy to see, but the gray cap and the facial pattern are distinctive. Sulphur-winged Parakeets flew by fairly close. A tanager flock had Emerald, Bay-headed, Silver-throated and a Tawny-capped Euphonia. I drove to Chiriqui Grande, basically a dump of a town. I stayed in the hotel on the left at the road junction. The sign is on the left where there is a parking area next to an open sewage mini-stream. The hotel people work in a shop around the corner. The hotel cost $12.50 with AC and hot water. They even had a washing machine that they let me use for $1 – it was much needed! On the way down towards Chiriqui Grande I stopped at Willie Mazu, and Isabel Martinez, the caretaker, told me I needed to call the office in Panama City to make a reservation.
April 5 – Oil tanks road, Changuinola Road, Fortuna
I set out before dawn for the road to the oil tanks, easily visible from the main road, and about 10-15 minutes from town. Dennis Rogers and I had seen Lovely Cotinga there 4 years ago, but this morning there was nothing new for me. Montezuma Oropendulas were active and common, and I saw a Cinnamon Woodpecker. I drove along the Changuinola highway to about km 55. At the junction of this road (km 0) is a 24 hour restaurant and a gas station. There is a lookout at km 28 where I was told Snowy Cotinga had been seen, but this was not my day (or trip) for Cotingas.
The road is in good condition and has a few areas where there are indigenous trails into the forest. It gets hot after 9, and I didn’t see too much, except a Pied Puffbird and a Bat Falcon at km 41-42. This might warrant a day or two to explore all the way to Changuinola, with possible side trips, but I decided to concentrate on Fortuna. I returned to Chiriqui Grande around 1:30, and the shop was closed with nobody in the hotel, so I left my key in the room where the night boy sleeps. I called Panama City and got clearance to stay at Willie Mazu. The phone number in Panama City is 225-7325.
I checked into Willie Mazu mid-afternoon. There are mattresses in tents underneath a covered area, with hot water (sometimes) and electricity (for a while) with generators next to a mountain stream. Isabel Martinez cooks good meals. It was $25 a night with meals. The location is in the lower foothills, so it is neither too hot nor too cold at night. I drove to the Verragossa trail at km 63. This trail goes down into humid forest for about 2 km, where it ends. There was a large treefall that had to be negotiated on a steep section. Nightingale-thrushes were singing, and a Black-headed Antthrush was calling, but not close enough. A female White-crowned Manakin and Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager were the best birds. Near 6 PM it got colder as fog started rolling in.
April 6 - Fortuna
Bill had told me the trail in back of Willie Mazu was good, and Lanceolated Monklet had allegedly been seen there. Unfortunately the trail has not been maintained for a while. After sweating up and down the first slippery hill, I saw the next section had vegetation that was 5 feet high, so I gave up. I did see Spot-crowned Antvireo and Slaty-capped Flycatcher there. I went to the continental divide, which is a driveable gravel road at the point where there are signs marking the boundary of Chiriqui and Bocas de Toro. I didn’t know where the trail was, and instead took a steep downhill trail at a sharp curve about 2 km up the trail. Further on there is a steep section where I barely made it back up due to loose gravel – not recommended in a normal car, which I had.
The steep, wide trail apparently goes to open pastures. I only walked down about half an hour or less. I heard a sound in the distance like someone blowing over a bottle, which I later realized was the Umbrellabird. Yellow-thighed Grosbeaks (one feeding the other), White-bellied Mountain Gem, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant were along this trail. I returned to the Verragossa trail from about 10-12, seeing a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush.
Next stop was a path near the reservoir that quickly opens up into a wide field by power lines at km 54. By the highway I finally saw a Blue-and-Gold Tanager. I went to the Smithsonian Cabin, which is a little past the hydroelectric headquarters, and walked their trails for an hour, then tried unsuccessfully to find the Quebrada Aleman trail. I returned to the Continental Divide area at 4:30 and heard another Umbrellabird, distant Bellbirds, and saw a female Black-and-White Becard. I birded in back of Willie Mazu and saw a Louisiana Waterthrush and a few tanagers. Isabel’s husband Onel set me straight on the Continental Divide trail as well as a few others. Willie Mazu is owned by Willie Martinez, a long-time bird guide, who was away and spends little time there now. He has trained Isabel a bit, so she and her husband are aware of some of the birds sought after by birders, and where to find them.
April 7 - Fortuna
I got to the Continental Divide trail around 7 AM. This is about 1.5 – 2 km along the gravel road, with a noticeable dirt trail that cuts back to the left. It goes along a ridge with some uphill and downhill sections, but it isn’t too tough. I took it to a stream, two hours walking and birding. Right away I was treated to 2 Tiny Hawks in a treetop, an adult and a rufous immature. Purple-throated and White-bellied Mountain Gem, 3 Striped Warblers, Blue-and-gold Tanagers, and Pale-vented Thrush were here, and a small antwren flock gave me a good look at a Rufous-rumped Antwren.
This was one of my favorite trails of the trip. I went back to Willie Mazu to get Isabel, who showed me where the Quebrada Aleman trail was, along with another nearby one. She returned by bus. I talked my way into staying at the Smithsonian cabin, a pleasant place with electricity, hot water, refrigerator, kitchen and several rooms with beds. I paid $15. You normally need to make reservations through the Smithsonian. I tried the trail at the top of the next hill about half a kilometer after the Smithsonian, heading towards David. There is a trail at the end of the clearing, on the left(east) side. It first goes up then descends to a stream where there is a monitoring station for the river. Even though it was 11:30, I immediately saw a Brown-billed Scythebill and Thrush-like Schiffornis.
After that it was quiet. I spent an hour relaxing at the stream, seeing a Dipper when I arrived. Around two I started on the Quebrada Aleman trail. This starts on the far side of a bridge a little past the Smithsonian, at km 47. The trail starts after crossing the stream about 50 feet up the trail. After another 100 feet the trail comes to a junction of 3 streams, and I could not find the trail after that, so gave up. I was told later that there is a trail that starts just before the bridge, coming from the Smithsonian, that goes up a hill into good habitat. I returned to the Continental Divide trail around 4 and got a Rufous-breasted Antthrush right near the beginning, and another about 1 km in. Bellbirds were heard but not seen, as they would remain for my stay in Fortuna. I saw Azure-hooded Jays finally, and Golden-bellied Flycatcher on the drive out
April 8 - Fortuna
The Smithsonian caretaker left the lights on all night, attracting a good variety of moths and insects. In the early morning the birds get a free meal. At the cabin were Orange-bellied Trogon, Azure-hooded Jay, Golden-bellied Flycatchers, and Summer Tanagers. I walked the Smithsonian loop and saw Prong-billed Barbets and Spotted Barbtails. I went to the hydroelectric office for my 8 AM meeting. Marcos Villarreal, the “subjefe de Medioambiente”, chatted with me about trying to get someone to study migrating birds to preclude a possible windmill project, then arranged for me to go out with the guards to Bijao.
We drove to the shore, then took a 30-40 minute boat ride to the other side of the reservoir. We then walked on a path along a stream where I finally saw my first wood-quail, a pair of Black-breasted running across the trail like chickens, notably more crested than shown in the book. A bit further up was a Sunbittern feeding along the stream. The trail went to a station and hut for monitoring the water level. Rufous-browed Tyrannulets and a Blue-and-Gold Tanager were at the edge of the clearing. One of the guards, Alexis, took me up and down various hills where he had seen Umbrellabirds in the past, but no luck. I did see a male White-crowned Manakin and a pair of Spotted Barbtails. We walked back to the boat and we returned to the offices. I drove back to David and returned the car, checking into the Hotel Alcala. The next day I flew back to Panama City
April 10 – Gamboa – Ammo Dump Pond
No birding during the day. I went to the Ammo Dump Pond on the outskirts of Gamboa at 4:30 PM to try and see White-throated Crake. I finally saw 3 birds feeding together after hearing birds call for half an hour. Purple Gallinule was on the other side of the road. Common Tody-Flycatchers were active. A Yellow-billed Cacique was feeding in the dense underbrush. At dusk a Pauraque flew into the main road.
April 11 – Pipeline Road
My last trip to Pipeline Road, and one of my best. I arrived at the gates at 6 AM, and heard a Collared Forest-Falcon. I then lucked out when a German biologist picked me up after 15 minutes walking to drive me to the 3rd bridge, which was where the road was roped off, at about km 4.5. We walked probably until kilometer 11 or 12, then birded back. At the very next bridge we saw an Agami Heron in breeding plumage in the middle of the stream, about km 4.7. Further up I used a tape to get a Barred Forest-Falcon flying across the trail, but we never got a good look.
A very large bird flew off from the ground but wasn’t seen by either of us (Curassow?). We whistled in a singing Spectacled Antpitta, both on the way in and out, giving us great looks. This bird was much closer to us than it sounded. On the way back I saw a large bird fly from the ground to an obscured perch 3 feet off the ground. I was amazed to see it was a Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon. Other interesting birds were Slate-colored Grosbeak, Green, Red-legged and Shining Honeycreepers, Green Shrike-vireo, and Black-striped Woodcreeper. We returned to the car about 4 PM.
April 12 – Semaphore Hill and Plantation Road
Last day birding in Panama. I spent 5 hours on Semaphore Hill and
Road. A group of 3 javelinas were by the side of the road, and I saw
White-faced Capuchins and Geoffrey’s Tamarins. Biggest surprise was a
Forest-Falcon again. I tried to see the bird for about half an hour,
in the treetops. I then realized the sound was lower down, and it was
a perch about 50 feet away, only 8 feet off the ground in the open. The
bird had a scalloped effect on the sides of the breast and some dusky
on the upper breast. When I finally walked away it was still there, and
calling. A pair of Spotted Antbirds on Plantation Road was the only
sighting of note.
Click HERE for the trip list.