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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!

The List:

H = Heard only
E23 = Endemic to EBA 23 (Darien Lowlands)
E24 = Endemic to EBA 24 (Darien Highlands)
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
Bananaquit  Coereba flaveola
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

Bill Porteous

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