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18 - 20 June 2001

by Bill Porteous

June is not the best month to go birding in the highlands of western Panama.  For one thing, finding a dry day is not easy, and, for another, the birds are mostly busy with their own affairs, with either active nests or recently fledged young.  Flocking activity is therefore at a minimum, and, when you can see them through the ground-level cloud and rain, birds are few and far between.

Having a few spare days, however, go birding in the aforementioned highlands is precisely what I have just done, so I thought I would give you all a flavour.  "Give you all a flavour", I said, not "do you all a favour", so, if you don't like this kind of thing, go no further, reach for the delete button.

Please also excuse the British spelling; old habits die hard.

Monday 18th June, 2001

I wake up in the town of David, the provincial capital of Chiriqui, having driven the 400+Kms from my home in La Chorrera the previous afternoon.  I'm in the Hotel Alcala (comfortable and very clean, a/c, hot water, cable TV, good restaurant, $20.00 single).  There's no point rushing, so I have a leisurely breakfast, then drive the last 70Km up the hill to the village of Cerro Punta, where I check into the hotel of the same name.....Cerro Punta, that is, not Alcala.  The Hotel Cerro Punta is modest, friendly, no a/c (not necessary at 2000m), hot water (very necessary at 2000m), no TV, restaurant, $22.00 single.  It's not quite as good value as the Alcala, but it's 70Km nearer the action.  It's not raining, so I get out in the field, and I'm birding about 10.00am.

I decide not to go to the end of the road at 2500m, but bird the lower section of forest just above where the asphalt ends.  It's a bit slow, but things keep appearing and the list slowly grows.  Best is probably the pair of Black Guans, but the Collared Trogon is nice too.  A Streak-breasted Treehunter stays close to the ground and probably has a nest nearby, while a decent flock has both Ruddy Treerunner and Buffy Tuftedcheek.  Black-faced Solitaires are singing and both Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes are much in evidence, as are all three of the endemic warblers, Flame-throated and Black Cheeked Warblers and Collared Whitestart.  Golden-collared Chlorophonia calls, but keeps out of sight.

I meet Juan Fernandez whose family owns 60Ha, about half of it good forest.  Juan does a bit of bird guiding at times, and we agree to spend Tuesday having a serious attempt at two difficult birds, Spotted Wood-Quail and Chiriqui (Rufous-backed) Quail-Dove.  Juan shows me what he is up to in his spare time, enriching his forest patches with seedlings of tree species that will provide fruit for Quetzals and other frugivores.  The seedlings don't survive on their own in the understorey, so he is growing them on with the help of a little chicken manure and then replanting them when they are big enough to look after themselves.

I finish the day with only 30 species, hardly a big list, but pleasingly full of species endemic to the Costa Rica - Panama Highlands EBA.

In the evening, I contemplate how, with my three years of conditioning in the warm humid tropic, I can never seem to remember how cold it gets in Cerro Punta at 2000m.  You need a good, heavy sweater in the evening.....I didn't bring one; and you need long-sleeved sleeping kit.....I forgot mine!

Tuesday 19th June, 2001

I'm ready to leave as Juan arrives, and we spend a couple of hours .....before breakfast.....  climbing up and down near-vertical forested slopes.  We have one very close encounter with a single Spotted Wood-Quail, but sadly it is not quite close enough - a blackish object glimpsed briefly through leaves - so it will not do.  While we are having breakfast the rain starts, heavy and penetrating; Juan's view is that it will last all day.  We struggle on a while in the rain, but it is getting unpleasant, and Juan says he knows of a site where it will not be raining and where there is a possibility of the wood-quail and perhaps Volcano Junco.  Mention of the junco in the same sentence as dry weather is enough for me, and off we go.

We drive about 8Km below Cerro Punta and then strike off to the left across a barren volcanic plain, the road, if such it can be called, flanked with onion fields.  At least I now know where Panama's onions come from.  We are in the rainshadow of Volcan Baru, and we are about to enter a wooded valley when the road deteriorates to the point where even my tractor is beaten, so we get out and walk.  At least it isn't raining.  In the scrub in the valley bottom is where the junco is supposed to be, and Juan thinks he hears it, but I'm not convinced, and we don't see it.  We do see a Red-tailed Hawk, resident here at the extreme southern limit of its range.  We also see lots of Scintillant Hummingbirds and a pair of Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, so the day is not a total loss.  The commonest bird in the valley is Mountain Elaenia, which surprises me, because the habitat is not at all like where I used to see it in Colombia; the birds look greyer than I remember as well.  Of the wood-quail, neither hide nor hair.

On the way back to Cerro Punta we stop at a little private valley where Juan knows the gardener, and where American Dipper is a certainty.  That would be new for my Panama list, what my wife Indra calls a "panamatic(k)", but it's nowhere to be seen.  They used to be in the main river, apparently, but Cerro Punta is the Panamanian centre for temperate agriculture, and the resultant cocktail of agrochemical runoff has killed either the birds or their food supply, probably both.  The ones in the little valley have apparently come out in sympathy.  We do find a White-throated Thrush's nest with two eggs, but they don't depend on the river for food.

So an even shorter list today, but with a few useful additions to the trip total, and I've learned a new site which might be worth going back to.

Wednesday 20th June, 2001

My alarm woke me to the accompaniment of a heavy rain squall, so I turned over.  By the time I did get up, around 7 o'clock, the weather seemed to be improving a little, so I had a swift breakfast and headed uphill.  The road ends and the best trail begins at the El Respingo ranger station of Volcan Baru National Park at an altitude of 2500m, and that's where I left the car.  The cloud was coming and going at ground level, but at least it wasn't raining, so I went out on the trail.  It's a long trail, leading to the neighbouring village of Boquete, and I've never walked it all, but there's usually good birding on the first Km plus.

This morning it's very slow.  All three endemic warblers are out and about with recently fledged young, which is good to see, and little groups of Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, also with young, pass through from time to time.  It's interesting to note that they recognise my poor imitation of what I think Mountain Pygmy-Owl sounds like, and they don't like what they are hearing.  The owl is clearly around, and will need looking for.  There's a Black-capped Flycatcher at the point where the trail starts downhill in earnest, and Silvery-fronted Tapaculos are singing all over, although they are about as easy to see as little mice.  I think it's the way they can move about without moving the vegetation that sets them apart!

The undoubted highlight of the morning, however, is that Chiriqui Quail-Dove is out having his morning stroll, and accompanies me on the trail for a while.  That's a lifer!  Perhaps Orni thinks I have invested enough time and money and can therefore be allowed to see the bird for myself.  I generally think that Orni is rather like Loki, behaving badly and playing tricks on people, but maybe he sometimes rewards persistence as well.

The rain starts as I turn back.  Back at the "car park" a little group of Sulphur-winged Parakeets flies through, and there is a Sooty Thrush bathing in a puddle.  At that particular moment he could have chosen any one of a million or so similar puddles anywhere on the mountain, but, bless him, he chooses the car park one, and he's a panamatic.  A lifer and a panamatic in a couple of hours makes a successful morning.

After lunch I go out again in the rain, but it proves to be a waste of time, and I abandon ship at about 2.00pm as the rain gets heavier.  I have seen a very short but high quality list of 21 species, 15 of which are endemic to the EBA.

And that's it!  Thursday morning woke up wet and I headed for home.  This little report just goes to prove that, at certain times of year, you can go to a great site and not see very much.  I could have seen more; Dusky Nightjar, Resplendent Quetzal, Silvery-throated Jay and Wrenthrush are all there and fairly easy to find with tape, but I wasn't after numbers and decided against gratuitously molesting breeding birds.  What impressed me most, though, was that I, who spent my entire working life without touching a computer keyboard, kept my daily lists in Pocket Bird Recorder on my Palm handheld, and uploaded the whole trip into Bird Recorder 32 on my PC when I got home.  You can teach an old dog new tricks, but I will keep trying not to spell like you good people in the north.


IST: "E" indicates endemic to the Panama - Costa Rica highlands
American Black Vulture  Coragyps atratus
Red-tailed Hawk  Buteo jamaicensis
Black Guan  Chamaepetes unicolor E
Band-tailed Pigeon  Columba fasciata
Ruddy Pigeon  Columba subvinacea
Mourning Dove  Zenaida macroura
Rufous-breasted Quail-dove  Geotrygon chiriquensis [linearis] E
Sulphur-winged Parakeet  Pyrrhura hoffmanni E
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird  Amazilia edward niveoventer
White-throated Mountain-gem  Lampornis castaneoventris
Magnificent Hummingbird  Eugenes fulgens
Volcano Hummingbird  Selasphorus flammula E
Scintillant Hummingbird  Selasphorus scintilla E
Collared Trogon  Trogon collaris
Emerald Toucanet  Aulacorhynchus prasinus
Acorn Woodpecker  Melanerpes formicivorus
Hairy Woodpecker  Picoides villosus
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper  Lepidocolaptes affinis
Pale-breasted Spinetail  Synallaxis albescens
Ruddy Treerunner  Margarornis rubiginosus E
Buffy Tuftedcheek  Pseudocolaptes lawrencii [boissonneautii]
Streak-breasted Treehunter  Thripadectes rufobrunneus E
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo  Scytalopus argentifrons E
Mountain Elaenia  Elaenia frantzii
Yellowish Flycatcher  Empidonax flavescens [difficilis]
Black-capped Flycatcher  Empidonax atriceps E
Blue-and-white Swallow  Notiochelidon cyanoleuca
Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher  Ptilogonys caudatus E
Grey-breasted Wood-wren  Henicorhina leucophrys
Black-faced Solitaire  Myadestes melanops [ralloides] E
Black-billed Nightingale-thrush  Catharus gracilirostris E
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush  Catharus frantzii
Sooty Thrush  Turdus nigrescens E
Mountain Thrush  Turdus plebejus [ignobilis]
White-throated Thrush  Turdus assimilis [albicollis]
Yellow-winged Vireo  Vireo carmioli E
Yellow-bellied Siskin  Carduelis xanthogastra
Flame-throated Warbler  Parula gutturalis E
Slate-throated Whitestart  Myioborus miniatus
Collared Whitestart  Myioborus torquatus E
Black-cheeked Warbler  Basileuterus melanogenys E
Sooty-capped Bush-tanager  Chlorospingus pileatus E
Flame-coloured Tanager  Piranga bidentata
Golden-browed Chlorophonia  Chlorophonia callophrys E
Rufous-collared Sparrow  Zonotrichia capensis
Yellow-throated Brush-finch  Atlapetes gutturalis [albinucha]
Large-footed Finch  Pezopetes capitalis E
Yellow-thighed Finch  Pselliophorus tibialis E
Slaty Flower-piercer  Diglossa plumbea [baritula] E

Bill Porteous

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