- 23 March 2005
by Richard Carlson
HOW TO SEE 460 SPECIES IN TWO WEEKS
We just returned from an amazing two weeks in Panama: the trip was fabulous. The group of 13 saw (or heard) about 460 species in 14 days of birding. Many of us actually saw over 400 species including 44 Tanagers, 30 Hummingbirds, 5 Cotingas, 8 Trogons and 5 Manakins. This was a trip for real birders, not a pampered procession of wealthy wannabes. We used local guides, ate with the locals and stayed in hotels as close as possible to the birds – whether that meant a tent cabin or a 4 star spa. As a result, the total land cost, including all meals, tips and drinks was about $2000 each – that’s less than $5 a species.
The trip was organized by David Trently of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and Guido Berguido of Advantage Tours. There aren’t enough superlatives for Guido’s guiding and organizing skills. The trip went off without a hitch. We had both Guido and a local bird guide at nearly every site. Guido knew exactly where to stop and used his iPod to call in the recalcitrant. (Note: We only used the iPod a few times a day for the really hard to locate birds; this electronic wonder can be overused.) Best of all, his network of birders, guides, friends, and ranchers continually gave us tips throughout the trip. The guy should write a text on networking.
Panama overall is a superb birding site. We’ve been to Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize and Guatemala. Panama beats them all, hands down. Our two-week Panama list nearly beat our total 9 trip, 16-week list to all those other spots combined! Panamanian birds are so wondrously diverse and so accessible. San Jose, Costa Rica is a get-out-of-town-fast spot, but it takes most of a day to escape. Panama City is ultra-modern, clean and safe and has antbirds IN-TOWN at their incredible Metropolitan Park. Pipeline Rd is only 45 minutes away. Panama’s Caribbean slope is 1 ½ hours away on a good road while getting from San Jose, CR to the Caribbean slope required the scariest drive of our lives, dodging bouncing boulders in pea soup fog. We vote for Panama!
Panama’s environmental (and economic) blessing is the Panama Canal. From 1914 on canal authorities protected the canal’s vital watershed by restricting development and logging. They knew that development would mean erosion into the canal and more expensive dredging. The military agreed; they saw jungle as the best and cheapest defense from any invasion. The result was a Canal Zone and adjacent watersheds that were left as mostly unsettled jungle. The military had a few bases and training areas, most of which have been abandoned. Even the live fire training areas have been blessings; Achiotle road remains wilderness because it is littered with deadly live shells. Birds don’t care, but humans do. Now all this territory has become a series of national parks.
Day 1 Tuesday March 8. NEVER plan to travel on Monday, something disastrous always happens on the weekend. This time my wife got badly sick and we had to wait to see a Dr. on Monday. Having been delayed a day, we were forced to buy new tickets. These routed us from Phoenix via Newark where we skated down an icy runway in a blizzard. What a send off! In Panama City, Guido, our devilishly handsome guide, met the flight and we went to the Country Inn. The hotel was comfy and inexpensive, and we could hear the birds from nearby Metropolitan Park -- B+ for comfort but A+ for location.
Day 2 Wednesday March 9. We were counting birds in the dark by 6 a.m. After a quick bkfst., we headed off to our day’s adventure – an Embera village in Chagres Nat’l. Park. Our 25-passenger van was more than adequate for the 15 of us. This was an introductory “non-birding” day, but we picked up 67 new birds and one lucky soul even saw a Jaguarundi. While waiting for our dugout canoes we watched Snail Kites and Southern Lapwings. Once seated we chugged off into the wilderness – outboard on the back, loin-clothed Embera poling from the front. The village re-defined sensory overload: birds and kids everywhere, the village women’s costumes trying to out-dazzle the birds, parrots squawking, flutes playing and a King Vulture soaring serenely above the chaos. Some of the birders, my wife included, were torn between the handicrafts and all the birds. The rest of us just chased the birds back and forth across the village, moving like a Rugby scrum. We saw 10 tanagers here, including spectacular Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped. We had a leisurely lunch in the heat of the day and then took a short hike where our first feeding group overwhelmed us. Poor Guido, there were so many birds that each of us were watching a different one, with many asking, “What the heck is this.” This was the one time we had only one birding guide, and the trail was narrow to boot. The more experienced birders helped sort things out, but it was a frustrating experience for the novices. We birded all afternoon, picking up White Hawks, Blue Ground-Doves and Golden-Collared Manakins. On the way back, we shot down the rapids we had poled up, with our captain handling the 40-ft dugout like it was a 6-ft. Kayak. We returned to the hotel, happy, sunburned and exhausted.
Day 3 Thursday March 10. After our warm-up day, we were up at 6 and headed into Metropolitan Park for serious birding. Our first stop was so loaded with Toucans, Orioles, Warblers, Grosbeaks and Trogons that Guido had to drag us up the hill to even cooler birds. The hike’s problem was that we could move only 50 yards before another group of birds stormed in. What do you do when one tree has a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons, another has Fasciated Ant-Shrikes, a Crimson-crested Woodpecker is on the other side and a Blue-crowned Mot-mot is downhill? This trail was wide enough, and the birds sufficiently cooperative, that we could scope many and most of us saw almost all the birds. My only problem was that my 10 power Swifts weren't wide angled enough to find the birds scooting in the dark around the forest floor – bring wide-angled binoculars to the tropics! Other highlights included Rosy-Thrush Tanager, Dot-winged Ant-Wren, Western Slaty Ant-shrike, and Plain Xenops. At the top, we were rewarded by seeing a group of Tamarind Monkeys. In migration, there would be thousands of hawks. This was a long-hot and very productive hike. Wear the coolest clothes you have. One could see a great many of these birds on one’s own, but you’d never match what you’d see aided by Guido’s eyes, ears and wondrous iPod.
Metro Park was just the beginning. We stopped for a quick lunch at Guido’s one sin on budget trips, Nikko’s cafeteria. It’s quick and cheap, but you know the whole menu by the third time. After lunch, we did some AC bus birding seeing Black-breasted Mango (bus-driver find) and Saffron Finches. Then we headed out the causeway to a Smithsonian site. We were treated to cool breezes, hundreds of plovers (mostly semi’s but one Wilson’s), a Garden Emerald, a Yellow-Crowned Tyrannulet, and 3 Sloths.
We continued our coastal tour by visiting Panama City’s Old Town (don’t try this unescorted) and then drove to the southern beaches which had thousands of shorebirds. Altogether we had 107 species.
Day 4 Friday March 11. We rose at 5:30 and drove like mad to reach Pipeline Road by dawn. It was wonderful and frustrating. Many of the best birds skulked in the shadows. We had good looks at Black-breasted Puffbird, Great Jacamar, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant Green Shrike Vireo, Long-billed Gnatwren and 4 Trogons – White-tailed, Black-throated, Black-tailed and Slaty-tailed. A small ant swarm produced Spotted and Bicolored Antbirds and a Barred Woodcreeper. Deep in the shadows were a Chestnut-backed Antbird and a Black-faced Antthrush. The birding was great but the heat wiped us out.
After our exhausting Pipeline march, we had lunch at Guido’s home in Gamboa. It was a perfect stop – eating lunch while White-necked Jacobins, Blue-crowned Mot-mots, Crimson backed Tanagers and Coatimundi came to the feeders. After a leisurely lunch we went to some nearby ponds where we saw Boat-billed Herons, Yellow-margined flycatcher, and a Lesser Kiskadee.
Day 5 Saturday March 12. After another night in Panama City we returned to Gamboa and famous Plantation Rd. This was more comfortable birding because the higher canopy meant more shade. The most exciting find was a pair of Sunbitterns walking up a mostly dry series of pools and cascades. We all watched these amazing birds through the scopes. We even had scope views of a cooperative White-whiskered Puffbird, Fruit Crows and a Blue-crowned Manakin. We also saw White-flanked and White-bellied antbirds, an Olivaceous Flatbill and a Yellow-tailed Oriole.
After Plantation Road, we drove
up the hill
to the Canopy Tower. This is a lovely
facility, if expense is no issue. It’s
perfectly located and you can bird from your window.
Here we added
Woodnymph and Blue-chested
hummers at the feeders. The hoped for hawks did no materialize, so we
Guido’s for lunch. We then birded a
nearby marsh where we stumbled on one of the trip’s most fascinating
sights – a green tree snake devouring
Golden-hooded Tanager nestlings. The
snake had climbed 30 ft. up this skinny tree and paid no attention to
adult’s ineffective scolding. The
Tanagers even drove off some other birds that tried to attack the snake. Nearby we saw Wattled Jacana, Yellow-tailed
Orioles and a Rufescent Tiger-heron. We
then visited the waterside restaurant at Gamboa Rainforest resort. This was a lovely spot to sip a cold beer
and watch River Otters.
Day 6 Sunday March 13. We flew to Bocas del Toro island and caught a boat out to Swan Cay. The flight and multi-modal transfers worked without a hitch, amazingly. After a short boat ride, we were dodging squawking Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies. It’s a beautiful spot. We then circumnavigated the island and stopped at a local restaurant. It was a fine stop, with Common Black Hawk, nesting Green-breasted Mango, Banana quit and cold beer. After a quick snorkel stop we went to lovely Solarte Inn. We were greeted by a swarm of Purple-Crowned Fairies. After a fine lunch we wandered around to see Montezuma Oropendola, Passrini’s Tanager, White-crowned Pigeon, Black-cowled Oriole and best of all, red poison dart frogs! We had to tear ourselves away to buzz our way to the mainland, where we quickly escaped Panama’s ugliest port city. We stayed that night in Changuinola at the Golden Sahara, probably the best place in town, but basically a Spanish Motel 6. Next door we had a surprisingly good meal. When in doubt, in a strange place, go for Chines food!
Day 7 Monday
March 14. Next day, the purpose of
staying in this unattractive banana plantation town became clear: it
only way to get to the birding places early enough to see anything. Staying on Bocas would have been lovely, but
you’d miss most of the birds. Up at
dawn we chugged through endless banana plantations until we finally got
jungle. The place was hopping with
Striped Cuckoo, Olive-Crowned Yellowthroat, Gray-capped Flycatcher,
Wren and numerous seed
finches. As we walked along, huge
kettles of Broad-winged Hawks, Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites
overhead. At this point I earned what I
feared was Guido’s everlasting enmity when I looked behind the group
shouted, “Snowy Cotinga.” (The best
birds are always flying behind the group.) This rarity zoomed by before
could see it. The Cotinga would have
been a long-sought life bird for him.
Finally, as the heat became more intense, we found Olive-backed
Yellow-crowned Euphonia along with a delightful Band-backed wren and a
fascinating Long-tailed Tyrant. We then
drove to the end of the road where we scoped a Violaceous Trogon and
saw both a
rare White-collared Manakin and a White-breasted Wood-Wren. The heat finally drove us to turn around and
we went back to town for lunch. We then
drove up into the foothills, making several stops.
Just over a low pass, we stopped to look into a tall Ceiba
tree. (It looked just like all the
other Ceiba trees.) Fortunately, this
Ceiba had the Snowy Cotinga; Guido forgave me for my morning’s sighting! On the other side was a tree full of
parrots, and a pretty house where the owner invited us to use a very
bathroom. The next stop produced Chestnut-collared
and Pale-billed Woodpeckers. We stayed
until dark and then drove to Willi Mazoo camp.
We arrived exhausted in the rain and had to drag our bags 100
the shelter. This was a LONG day. Willi Mazoo is a tent camp with about 8
tents under a large shelter. It’s not
fancy, but it’s the only place in this great habitat.
Food and beds were fine for one night for our old bones.
Day 8 Tuesday March 15. Next morning, Willi Mazoo showed off. Birds were everywhere. We saw Barred Hawk, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Black-bellied and Violet-headed hummers, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Buff-rumped Warbler, Tropical Parula, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Emerald and Silver-throated Tanagers, Bay Wren, Tawny-capped Euphonia and a Black-faced Grosbeak. We finally tore ourselves away to drive over the divided to the Pacific side. Out trip was soon interrupted by a huge landslide: a blessing in disguise! The landslide forced us out of the bus, so we carefully scoped the area to find a Three-wattled Bellbird and a Blue and Gold Tanager, the only ones of the trip. Once the landslide was cleared, we drove just over the pass to see Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, Red-fronted Parrotlets, Band-tailed Pigeon, White-fronted Parrot, Golden-bellied Flycatcher and Pale-vented Thrush. We then drove down the hill to a Smithsonian research station and saw Emerald Toucanets and Black Guan. (plus welcome bathrooms). It was another long day as we finally got to lovely Los Quetzales Lodge, welcome luxury after Willie Mazoo.
Day 9 Wednesday March 16. Up at dawn, quick breakfast and rough but short drive to the upper cabins at Los Quetzales. Birders heaven! Quetzals quickly showed themselves, and then they were followed by a cavalcade of Fiery throated, Stripe-tailed and magnificent Hummingbirds, Violet Sabrewings, and White-throated Mountain Gems. From the deck we saw Prong-billed Barbets, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tufted-cheek, Yellowish Flycatcher, Black-capped Flycatcher, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Mountain Robin, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, Collared and Slate-throated Redstarts, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Black and Yellow Silky-flycatcher. Lower down at the lodge were Violet Sabrewings, Green Violetears, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Yellow throated, Brown-capped and Philadelphia Vireos, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Stripe-headed Brush-finch. For the afternoon, we toured and birded the fascinating Dracula Orchid Farm. That night we walked across the street and spotlighted an amazingly cooperative Dusky Nightjar.
Day 10 Thursday March 17. Near the town of Santa Clara, we visited a shade-grown coffee plantation (Finca Hartmann). The drive itself was very productive. We made three major stops enroute. The first produced a swarm of warblers: Blackburnian, Tennessee, & Golden-crowned. The second produced a Turquoise Cotinga along with a Long-billed Starthroat. The final stop was the best: Emerald, Silver-throated, White-lined, and Cherrie’s Tanagers, Elegant & Yellow-throated Euphonias and unusual for Panama, Lesser Goldlfinch.
At the farm itself we found a real hot-spot: Immaculate Antbird, Great Antshrike, Gray-headed Tanager, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Piculet, Green Hermit, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Rufous-breasted Wren, Flame–colored Tanager, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Streaked Saltator and White-naped Brush Finch.
That night, my wife got sick. This was due to either the bug traveling around the group, or the food. We’ll never know which. I never got sick the whole trip, but I was one of a lucky few.
Day 11 Friday March 18. This was a long, but fascinating, day. We explored the forests of the Los Quetzales Trail at the Baru Volcano National Park. It was a rough ride up Volcan Baru. (Don’t try it in an ordinary car.) At the top we had more White-throated Mountain-gems, Scintillant, and Volcano Hummingbirds, Sulpher-winged Parakeets, White-collared Swifts, and an Eastern Meadowlark. Amidst the moss-covered, epiphyte-laden trees of the cloud forest we spotted Collared and Orange-bellied Trogons, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Mountain Elaenia, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Black-faced Solitaire, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Barred Becard, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and Large-footed Finch. The hike ended with a final Quetzal.
After this productive morning we drove to David, for our flight south. On the way we stopped for a Torrent Tyrannulet at Bambito Lodge. We birded the airport grounds (ponds to the south) finding Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Northern Jacana, Brown-throated Parakeet, Mouse-colored and Yellow Tyrannulets, and Streaked Saltator
At about 9 we finally arrived at Hotel Melia Panama Canal and fell to sleep, tired but happy. This was a lovely spot offering excellent food, great rooms, good access and great birds at your doorstep.
Day 12 Saturday March 19. That morning we were held up by canal traffic, finding Yellow-bellied Seedeater during the wait. Too late for Achiote road, we birded nearby jungle and found Mealy Parrot, Greater Ani, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, and Scarlet Tanager. We then explored the open fields around the Gatun Dam, finding Red-breasted Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Purple Martin, Ringed Kingfisher, and Common Black-Hawk. The shore held a Ruddy Turnstone. Finally, we had lunch at an abandoned Spanish fort overlooking the ocean. It held Crested and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and Yellow-rumped Caciques.
That afternoon several of us kayaked on the lake. One island was full of birds: Toucans, Collared Aracari, and Snail Kite plus many sloths.
That night we had excellent night birding east of the hotel. We saw several Pauraques and called in a cooperative Common Potoo.
Day 13 Sunday March 20. We got across the canal quickly and made it to fabled Achiote Road for the dawn action. We found Caribbean slope specialties like Black-headed Saltator, Pied Puffbird, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, the amazing Song Wren, and rarities like the Spot-crowned Barbet and a Blue Cotinga. On the way out, we saw a Spectacled Owl near the road.
After lunch, we drove back across Panama for some more Panama City birding, finding a shore-bird hot-spot behind a police station with Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Lesser Yellow-legs and a Mangrove Black Hawk near the airport. We then drove to Hostal Casa De Campo getting only slightly lost on the way. Our driver was a genius getting us out of one very tight spot.
Day 14 Monday
March 21. After a super
breakfast, we birded Chagres National Park.
With over 320,000 acres this is the largest protected area in
Canal Watershed. Here we found humid
forest species like Black-striped and Spotted Woodcreeper, White-ruffed
Red-capped Manakin, Olive Tanager, and
That afternoon, we went to
home of the head of Panama Audubon—Birder’s View . It was
incredible: Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Violet-headed and Violet-capped
Hummingbirds, Bay-headed, Emerald, Speckled, Golden-hooded,
Hepatic and Rufous-winged Tanagers, White-tipped Sicklebill (after a
that seemed insane until we saw the bird), and the endemic
Woodpecker. At this one spot we saw 17
different Tanagers! From our high
vantage-point, we could watch groups of Swallow-tailed Kites at eye
White Hawks and Black Hawk-eagles.
Day 15 Tuesday March 22. Next morning we birded the Cerro Jefe area, finding mountain specialties like the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Slate-colored Grosbeak, flocks of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, as well as the nearly endemic Tacarcuna Bush-Tanager. Then back for one more magical afternoon at the Audubon house. This time we added Rufous-crested Coquette and Rufous-capped Warbler.
The area is described at http://www.exoticbirding.com/panama/places/cerro-azul-jefe.html. Note that this is a gated development, so access is difficult.
For the afternoon we went back to Panama City for some shopping and tried for a few Mangrove specialties. To celebrate we skipped Nikko’s and had some great pizza. Overnight back in Panama City to the Country Inn for one last time.
Day 16 Wednesday March 23. Finally, time to leave, but we had a few more birds to pick up and get me over the magic 400. We drove to a ranch near the airport, and found some nice birds. On a pond we added Striated Heron, Cattle Tyrants were on their nest in a palm on the airport entrance road and across from the tree was a stream with Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper – 403!! We flew back via Houston instead of frigid Newark and were home by 6. What a trip!
March 9-23, 2005 in Panama ~ 402 seen
GANNETS AND BOOBIES
HERONS, EGRETS AND BITTERNS
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
IBIS AND SPOONBILLS
DUCKS, GEESE AND SWANS
NEW WORLD VULTURES
HAWKS, EAGLES AND KITES
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
GUANS, CHACHALACAS, CURASSOWS
RAILS, GALLINULES AND COOTS
AVOCETS AND STILTS
PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
PIGEONS AND DOVES
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
TROGONS AND QUETZALS
ANTTHRUSHES AND ANTPITTAS
Great Crested Flycatcher
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
CROWS AND JAYS
OLD WORLD SPARROWS
VIREOS AND ALLIES
FINCHES, SISKINS, CROSSBILLS
Black-throated Green Warbler
TANAGERS AND ALLIES
BUNTINGS, SEEDEATERS, ALLIES
SPARROWS, TOWHEES, JUNCOS
SALTATORS, CARDINALS AND ALLIES
BLACKBIRDS, ORIOLES, GRACKLES, ETC.
-------- STATISTICS --------
Species seen - 402
Full-time Birder, Biker and Rotarian
Tucson, AZ & Lake Tahoe, CA
rccarl AT pacbell.net