4 - 13 September 2001
by Cagan Sekercioglu
Between September 4-13 2000, I was in Panama Canal area to present my paper on the effects of forest fragmentation on south Costa Rican insectivorous birds (abstract on: http://jasper1.stanford.edu/~cagan/abstracts.htm) at the Mesoamerican Conservation Biology Conference. During and after the conference, I had a few days to bird in the famous Canal area, including Achiote road, Pipeline road, Cerro Azul/Jefe, Gamboa and Smithsonian research station on Barro Colorado Island.
Despite the brief time, the birding was great, especially thanks to Darién Montañez (http://www.geocities.com/xenornis/) one of the best birding guides I have ever met. The only thing we missed was the Pale-eyed Pygmy-tyrant (Also Tacarcuna Bush-tanager and Stripe-cheeked woodpecker when I was on my own on Cerro Azul, but I was not expecting them anyway) which I hope to get when I come back for to head to the Darién, hopefully with Darién Montañez again. Darién is a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide and he leads bird walks for the Panama Audubon Society on a regular basis. Because we were both interested in birds, because I was a student like him and because I had emailed Audubon society about the possibility of joining any local birding walks, he went with us for the fun of it and did not charge us, which was very generous of him. However, please note that he is a student who needs the income and he is a completely professional guide that will deliver the best bang for your buck.
For my first birding day in Panama, I headed to Metropolitan Park (Sep. 5, 2000), right in the city and easily accessible by public transport, which is what I did. You can also take the taxi there for two dollars (Panama uses U.S. dollars which they call balboas). I was hoping for Lance-tailed manakin and Rosy thrush-tanager, both lifers that are hard to see in Costa Rica where I do my research. Metropolitan Park delivered. I found a Lance-tailed manakin lek on the “La Cienaguita” trail and managed to see and videotape 2 males calling and a female. Within 20 meters I also saw male and female Rosy thrush-tanagers, a Kentucky warbler and an impressive Crane hawk, which I also video-taped. The other highlights were the White-bellied antbird and Violet-bellied hummingbird, both lifers, and a Keel-billed toucan. I could not have asked for a better first day, and it was a promise of the great birds to come.
The next day (Sept. 6) I checked out the promenade running along Avenida Balboa, but it was not very impressive, with hardly any waders. Wednesday night I rented out a Kia from Budget, very reasonably priced at $33/day including insurance, and on Thursday (Sept. 7) headed to Cerro Azul with a Guatemalan biologist. Unfortunately, it was pouring in the morning and we did not have a chance of getting to the top of Cerro Jefe in our little car, although we tried. The Kia gave up on a steep muddy slope, we started sliding back and decided to give up. Due to the discouraging weather, we took the trail at the end of Avenida de Los Nimbos, as is recommended in the Birds of Panama. The highlights were Violet-capped hummingbird and Scale-crested pygmy-tyrant and there was not much else. On the way back we stopped by Tocumen marsh most of which was developed. We did manage to see Buff-breasted wren and Plain-breasted ground dove, but it was past noon and there was not much activity, so we headed back to Panama City.
Friday morning (Sept. 8), we headed to Pipeline Road, one of the best birding sites in Panama, with Oliver Komar, Jacobo Araúz and Katya Gorrichátegui. Unfortunately, we did not have the key to the gate (which can be obtained from Panama Audubon Society sometimes) so we left the car at the gate. In any case, because of the recent rains, the road was very muddy and we would have gotten stuck in the first kilometer. We were lucky to get a lift with some of the employees of Soberania National Park, which comprises Pipeline Road, and we got off at the sixth bridge (Mendoza) near KM6. The best forest is supposed to start after KM6 so we never got into the prime eastern Panama foothill forest. After all my expectations, it was somewhat of a disappointment, especially since I got very sick that day and after three hours, I just wanted to get out since I had a fever and was feeling really sick. The highlights I remember were Rufous motmot, a Black-faced ant-thrush chick, migrating Missisipi kites, a pair of Black-tailed trogons (good video and photos), Red-capped manakin and Royal flycatcher. A group we met told us they saw Agami heron and Tiny Hawk. I cannot wait to go back in the dry season and do the Pipeline road justice by driving all the way, camping for a few days and walking the streams for the specialties such as Agami heron and Sapayoa.
Saturday (Sept. 9) was our first day with Darién , and not surprisingly, my best birding day in Panama. We headed to Achiote road to look for some of the specialties such as White-headed wren, Spot-crowned barbet, Black-chested jay and others and we had amazing success, mainly thanks to Darién ’s skill in finding the birds.
A few minutes after we started driving down the Achiote road, a large bird flew across and we immediately got out to see what it was. It turned out to be a handsome male WHITE-TAILED TROGON. As we were enjoying it, we heard and then saw BLACK-CHESTED JAYS, first lifer of the day. Soon after, we had a great look at GEOFFREY’S TAMARINS, the smallest monkeys in Central America and a life primate for me. Soon after, we found a mixed flock with FLAME-RUMPED, SULPHUR-RUMPED, CRIMSON-BACKED TANAGERS and SPOT-CROWNED BARBETS. While we were trying to sort out all the birds, we noticed a BLACK-BREASTED PUFFBIRD perched on a nearby cecropia! Then Darién took us to a White-headed wren stake-out. We failed to find the wrens but had great views of 2 male and one female GOLDEN-COLLARED MANAKINS at a lek. We then headed to another stake-out and in a few minutes, we heard the distinctive chatter of a pair of WHITE-HEADED WRENS, followed by great views. The combination of Darién ’s knowledge and our luck was very productive, but the best was yet to come. It was getting close to noon and following Darién’s directions, we drove to Skunk Hollow, a dirt road that is good for army ant followers. We drove slowly, listening for any antbirds. On the way back, Darién heard something and when we got out, we found ourselves in the middle of an army ant swarm and the attending ant followers. NORTHERN BARRED-WOODCREEPERS and SPOTTED and BICOLORED ANTBIRDS were everywhere, but the best was an OCELLATED ANTBIRD, a great life bird and one of my nemesis birds in Costa Rica. I saw it when it moved into a sunspot. It was perched on a twig 20 cm above the ground, the blue face aglow and each ocellation distinctly visible, with army ants streaming all around it. It could have been an Auk cover illustration by John O’Neill. I watched it for about fifteen seconds before it moved and just as I was getting my bins on it again, I heard Darién shout “Blue cotinga!”. It was a tough choice, but I ran out after a few seconds’ hesitation and sure enough, a female BLUE COTINGA was perched a few meters above us in a fruiting tree. As we were congratulating ourselves for our amazing luck, a pair of FULVOUS-VENTED EUPHONIAS showed up, another target bird of the day. That was one good spot. Having pretty much cleaned up our target birds of the Achiote Road, we headed back to Panama City and picked up SAFFRON FINCH on a lawn near the Panama Canal. The day came to a great end with a STRAIGHT-BILLED WOODCREEPER we saw at the mangroves around the Diablo yacht club. Other good birds of the day were GRAY-HEADED CHACHALACA, WHITE-VENTED PLUMELETEER, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, GOLDEN-FRONTED GREENLET, LESSER ELENIA and CRESTED OROPENDOLA.
On Sunday (Sept. 10), Oliver Komar, Darién and I headed to the Old Gamboa road. It was cloudy with intermittent rain, but we still managed to pick-up RUSTY-MARGINED FLYCATCHER, JET ANTBIRD, GOLDEN-COLLARED MANAKIN and ROSY THRUSH-TANAGER. We could not find a Pale-eyed pygmy-tyrant and headed to the Summit gardens zoo where we marvelled at the captive Harpy eagle.
The next day (Sept. 11), the three of us headed to Cerro Azul. On Calle Maipo, a trail in Altos de Cerro Azul, we had good looks at SPOTTED ANTBIRDS and a SONG WREN. The best bird of the day was a YELLOW-EARED TOUCANET, which is another bird I have not yet seen in Costa Rica. We then spent some time in the garden of Rosabel Miró who is another very active member of Panama Audubon and to whom I am thankful for connecting me with Darién . We had great views of some tanagers, including EMERALD, BAY-HEADED, HEPATIC and RUFOUS-WINGED TANAGERS, as well as WHITE-VENTED and THICK-BILLED EUPHONIAS. On the way back, we stopped at the new boulevard at Costa del Este and saw a good variety of waders and got YELLOW-BELLIED and RUDDY-BREASTED SEEDEATERs and RED-BREASTED BLACKBIRD at the Parque Industrial, also in Costa del Este. This was my last day with Darién and we planned a trip to the Darién for when I returned to Panama.
Tuesday morning, I left for the 1500ha Barro Colorado island (BCI) at 5AM. I had always wanted to visit this island which is well-known to tropical biologists for the extensive research that has taken place there since 1923. The island used to be a hilltop and was cut off from the mainland after the construction of the Panama Canal. BCI is natural monument and it is also the primary lowland moist tropical forest site of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (www.stri.org), to whom I am grateful for allowing me to spend time on the island. Although BCI is impoverished in its bird life compared to the mainland (the increase in the number of medium-sized predators such as monkeys and coatimundis as a result of the disappearance of large predators such as jaguars and pumas after the island was cut-off from the mainland seems to be the main reason for this), I wanted to spend some time there to look into the possibility of doing future research on the island’s forest understory insectivorous birds. The public can only visit the island as a part of a day tour, but because of my research interest, the STRI staff was very helpful in arranging a two-day visit to the island.
I was very impressed with the research facilities and the trail system. I also had a chance to climb to the top of a canopy tower with a STRI biologist. It was raining hard and there was not much bird activity. There was a wet HOWLER MONKEY at the top of a nearby tree, but my hopes of spotting the sole remaining introduced Harpy eagle (a farmer had shot the other one as it was flying over the mainland a few weeks ago) snatching the howler from the treetop were not fulfilled. The next morning I was successful at finding my main target species on BCI, the SPOT-CROWNED ANTVIREO, which is quite common on the island. Otherwise the birding was pretty slow and I spent most of my remaining time on the island photographing the abundant mammals. I got some good shots of the abundant SPIDER MONKEYS and AGOUTIS and Wednesday afternoon, I headed back to the mainland and then back to Costa Rica.
The trip was a great success, mainly thanks to Darién Montañez. Those who have some time to bird in Panama, especially the Canal area, should definitely contact him. Darién has extensive birding experience in all of Panama, with an impressive Panama list of 720 species and he can take you birding anywhere in Panama, including, the Darién. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/xenornis/. This also happens to be a great web page for those interested in Panama birds. The email of the helpful Panama Audubon Society is email@example.com and their web page is www.pananet.com/audubon.
Trip list (185 species)
Little Blue Heron
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Streak-chested Antpitta (H)