05 - 06 July 2001
by Bill Porteus
Following my quick trip to western Panama a couple of weeks ago I have just spent two days on Cerro Azul about 20Kms northeast of Panama City. The birds are still busy with their own stuff, and the birding is still slow, but the contrast with the western highlands was impressive.
I consider myself a very fortunate individual in many respects, but the respect that concerns me here is that my good friends Rosabel and Karl let me stay, from time to time, in their house in the private estate on Cerro Azul. Rosabel and Karl's house sits in the forest, on the end of a spur, at 800m altitude, which is a highly strategic location through which pass the birds that want to get from one side of the spur to the other. Many of the roads in the estate have trails off them that access the forest at various altitudes. All in all, it's a wonderful spot for a few days relaxing birding, isolated, quiet and with a near perfect climate. So on with the tale......
Thursday 5th July, 2001
Having dropped my wife Indra at the airport for her morning flight to Costa Rica I head up the hill to Cerro Azul, arriving about 10 o'clock. I decide not to go out until after lunch, so I spend a couple of hours on the back porch, watching the comings and goings. There's not a lot of activity, but the customary White-tailed Hawk drifts past and a little flock has a pair of Bay-headed and a pair of Rufous-winged Tanagers plus a family of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.
After lunch I head for the Rio Mono trail where going down is easy but coming back up is rather more difficult. Here, things are really very slow, few species being added, but it is the middle of the afternoon after all. Back at the tractor, hot and sweaty, I have almost decided to pack it in until later when no less than eleven Brown-hooded Parrots fly into a tree at close range and convince me to stay out a while longer.
I move on to the Calle Maipo trail where there is a little more activity. A pair of American Swallow-tailed Kites are hunting low over the forest and the Green Hermit lek is where it was last time and very active; do those guys ever let up from one year's end to the next? Star birds, however, are a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets at point blank range by the side of the trail. On the way back a Scaled Pigeon on a dead snag gives nice views.
In the evening, back at the house, I am sure I am finally going to see the resident Mottled Owl, frequently heard but never seen, but he's one tree too far away, I am too eager with the lamp, and he disappears into the night again. Oh well, he's not going anywhere and I'm learning, so it's just a matter of time, but for this trip he stays on the "heard only" list.
Friday 6th July, 2001
I'm back on the Calle Maipo trail at first light, but by 8 o'clock I am sure I'm NOT going to see either of this morning's target birds, Tawny-faced Quail and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. I do get some great tape of the dawn song of Olive Tanager and I'm surprised by its quality, complexity and volume; Olive Tanagers tend not to sit still for long enough to sing anything!
If I'm not going to see my targets I'm going to do some birding, so I head up the hill to the Vistamares trail which starts in elfin forest on the ridge and passes into taller, humid forest a little way downhill. Going downhill there's not a lot to see except a couple of Violet-capped Hummingbirds, but on the way up there is more activity. A big mixed flock goes through, but it's being led at an alarming rate by a huge mob of Olive Tanagers, and I don't see much in it; Russet Antshrike, Three-striped Warbler and a few other odds and ends. A sound I don't immediately recognise high in a tree turns out to be a Striped Woodhaunter. There's a pair of them and I get some good tape of that as well. A Pale-vented Thrush in a fruiting tree and a small lek of White-ruffed Manakins add interest.
Back at the road, I get in the tractor and move to where the forest is a little taller. As soon as I get out there's a pair of Tacarcuna Bush-Tanagers carrying nesting material and giving great views. This is about as far west as this very range-restricted endemic gets, and it's nice to see them attempting to breed. There's a pair of Black-and-yellow Tanagers as well, but the rain starts about midday, curtailing my activities. It gets really heavy, and I decide to get off the dirt road before it becomes too slippery, so it's back to the house for lunch.
I decide not to go out again, but to spend the afternoon on the back porch, and it's an inspired decision. Flock activity picks up after the rain, and a tanager flock has a nice pair of Emerald Tanagers. As the tanagers move out no less than three Black-striped Woodcreepers fly in, and give stunning close views as they forage in epiphytes and on branches. Later, another very local species, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, shows up briefly, and, just before it's time to go and pick up Indra, Crested Guans call in the valley and a pair of smart Spot-crowned Barbets come in to feed on fruit at the very edge of the garden.
Some Comments on Geography and Diversity
Before I came to live in Latin America I had a hazy impression of Panama as a country with a north - south orientation, an impression based, no doubt, on the other misconception that the Canal, which joins the Atlantic (or, better, the Caribbean) to the Pacific, must run east - west. Wrong, and wrong; Panama is orientated more or less east - west and the Canal runs north - south.
The distance from Cerro Punta, where I was two weeks ago, to Cerro Azul is about 350Km, almost due east as the crow flies. Cerro Azul, which is nearer to South America, is, in fact, slightly north of Cerro Punta, which is nearer Costa Rica, and the aforementioned crow would have to fly out over the Caribbean in order to achieve his straight line. I wonder how many of you will now look for a map, certain that I'm talking rubbish!
At Cerro Punta, two weeks ago, I saw 48 species in three days; at Cerro Azul I saw about 70 in two days. The latter is at a lower altitude, 700 - 1000m as against 1800 - 2500m at Cerro Punta, and this will largely account for the difference in diversity. At Cerro Punta, high in the mountains, endemism is very high; at Cerro Azul, less so, with only a sprinkling of birds endemic to the two eastern Panama EBAs but with a number of other hard-to-get species as well, such as Spot-crowned Barbet.
The most fascinating aspect of all this, however, is that, when I do "Compare Lists" in Bird Recorder, I find that the ONLY species that is common to both lists is Grey-breasted Wood-Wren! In a distance of 350Km the bird community has almost completely changed, the fauna in the highlands in the west being Central American and the fauna in Cerro Azul having South American affinities.
This just goes to show that nobody should come to Panama expecting to do all ones birding on Pipeline Road and see a representative selection of Panama's birds!
H = Heard only
E23 = Endemic to EBA 23 (Darien Lowlands)
E24 = Endemic to EBA 24 (Darien Highlands)
|COMMON NAME||SCIENTIFIC NAME|
|Great Tinamou||Tinamus major H|
|Turkey Vulture||Cathartes aura|
|Swallow-tailed Kite||Elanoides forficatus|
|White-tailed Hawk||Buteo albicaudatus|
|Crested Guan||Penelope purpurescens H|
|Grey-necked Wood-rail||Aramides cajanea H|
|Scaled Pigeon||Columba speciosa|
|Short-billed Pigeon||Columba nigrirostris|
|Brown-hooded Parrot||Pionopsitta haematotis|
|Mealy Parrot||Amazona farinosa|
|Squirrel Cuckoo||Piaya cayana|
|Mottled Owl||Ciccaba virgata H|
|Green Hermit||Phaethornis guy|
|Violet-headed Hummingbird||Klais guimeti|
|Violet-capped Hummingbird||Goldmania violiceps E24|
|Rufous-tailed Hummingbird||Amazilia tzacatl|
|Rufous Motmot||Baryphthengus martii [ruficapillus]|
|Spot-crowned Barbet||Capito maculicoronatus|
|Yellow-eared Toucanet||Selenidera spectabilis|
|Keel-billed Toucan||Ramphastos sulfuratus|
|Chestnut-mandibled Toucan||Ramphastos swainsonii [ambiguus]|
|Black-cheeked Woodpecker||Melanerpes pucherani|
|Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker||Piculus callopterus [leucolaemus] E23|
|Plain-brown Woodcreeper||Dendrocincla fuliginosa|
|Black-striped Woodcreeper||Xiphorhynchus lachrymosus|
|Spotted Woodcreeper||Xiphorhynchus erythropygius [triangularis]|
|Striped Woodhaunter||Hyloctistes subulatus|
|Western Slaty Antshrike||Thamnophilus atrinucha|
|Russet Antshrike||Thamnistes anabatinus|
|Plain Antvireo||Dysithamnus mentalis|
|Black-faced Antthrush||Formicarius analis hoffmanni H|
|Red-capped Manakin||Pipra mentalis|
|White-ruffed Manakin||Corapipo altera [leucorrhoa]|
|Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant||Lophotriccus pileatus|
|Dusky-capped Flycatcher||Myiarchus tuberculifer|
|Panama Flycatcher||Myiarchus panamensis [ferox]|
|Masked Tityra||Tityra semifasciata|
|House Wren||Troglodytes aedon|
|White-breasted Wood-wren||Henicorhina leucosticta|
|Grey-breasted Wood-wren||Henicorhina leucophrys|
|Southern Nightingale-wren||Microcerculus marginatus|
|Pale-vented Thrush||Turdus obsoletus [fumigatus]|
|Clay-coloured Thrush||Turdus grayi|
|Tawny-faced Gnatwren||Microbates cinereiventris|
|Long-billed Gnatwren||Ramphocaenus melanurus|
|Tropical Gnatcatcher||Polioptila plumbea|
|Green Shrike-vireo||Vireolanius pulchellus|
|Three-striped Warbler||Basileuterus tristriatus|
|Tacarcuna Bush-tanager||Chlorospingus tacarcunae [ophthalmicus] E24|
|Black-and-yellow Tanager||Chrysothlypis chrysomelas E23|
|Olive Tanager||Chlorothraupis carmioli [olivacea]|
|Hepatic Tanager||Piranga flava|
|Crimson-backed Tanager||Ramphocelus dimidiatus|
|Yellow-crowned Euphonia||Euphonia luteicapilla|
|Tawny-capped Euphonia||Euphonia anneae|
|Plain-coloured Tanager||Tangara inornata|
|Emerald Tanager||Tangara florida|
|Silver-throated Tanager||Tangara icterocephala|
|Bay-headed Tanager||Tangara gyrola|
|Rufous-winged Tanager||Tangara lavinia|
|Golden-hooded Tanager||Tangara larvata [nigrocincta]|
|Scarlet-thighed Dacnis||Dacnis venusta|
|Green Honeycreeper||Chlorophanes spiza|
|Shining Honeycreeper||Cyanerpes lucidus [caeruleus]|
|Red-legged Honeycreeper||Cyanerpes cyaneus|
|Black-striped Sparrow||Arremonops conirostris|
|Variable Seedeater||Sporophila americana|
|Thick-billed Seed-finch||Oryzoborus funereus|
|Yellow-faced Grassquit||Tiaris olivacea|
|Chestnut-headed Oropendola||Psarocolius wagleri|