Panama Trip - Part 1

Just after midnight on the morning of February 22nd (I couldn't really sleep due to preflight jitters/trip excitement, so to me it was still the evening of the 21st), Alessandra and I got picked up by Michael Butler and Martha Allen at the end of our road and made our way down to Pearson International Airport. 6 hours later we were sitting on our flight waiting to take off, after doing the whole security/10 kilometer trek through the airport. Our destination? Panama, where our friend and fellow Bruce birder Alfred Raab had offered us a place to stay and get our feet wet with tropical birding. As is the case most of the time on flights, I had trouble falling asleep, and as a result only really got around an hour of rest by the time we began our decent to Rio Hato. 

- descending in Panama

 On the flight Alessandra and I had been debating what our first lifer of the trip would be, and as it turned out we didn't have to wait very long to get the answer. Just after wheels hit pavement on the runway, we peered out the window and saw a large bird with black wings, white wingtips and a light tail with a dark band at the end... a Crested Caracara! It was nice that our first bird was an easy identification, a species that I had long hoped to encounter while birding around Ontario (we do have a few records!). Compared to the airport at Panama City, which is quite busy and involves navigating intense traffic after you get out, Rio Hato is a very small airport which is basically just one hanger-sized building that only receives 1-2 flights per day. The intense heat hit us as soon as we stepped out of the plane, along with the blue skies and intense sunlight, all things that we had not encountered back home for quite some time. After an hour long wait to get through customs, the airport experience was behind us and the trip could begin in earnest. Alfred met us with his car in the parking lot, then after driving to the rental place and waiting for Michael and Martha to pick up their rented car (they had a slightly different itinerary than us and we couldn't really fit 5 people and luggage in one vehicle) we began the hour long drive back to Alfred's house in Atlos del Maria. Birds were everywhere along the drive, mainly Black Vultures, Cattle Egrets and Great-tailed Grackles, but also some lifers too. Tropical Mockingbird and White-tipped Dove beside the road, Gray-breasted Martin in the grocery store parking lot and Yellow-headed Caracaras flying over the vehicle at several points. 

Exhausted but still running on first-day-of-the-trip energy, once we arrived at Casa el Raab we unloaded our stuff and headed out to Alfred's back porch for a bit of late afternoon birding. When I write back porch, I really mean a large terrace that wraps around 2 sides of the house, equip with an eye level feeding station for birds and mammals, several chairs and tables for relaxing and prime wildlife viewing and also a great view of the rainforest on his property. From just sitting there, watching the feeders and the birds moving past, I got 17 lifers in the span of a few hours! Most of these were expected birds here, such as Clay-colored Thrush, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Thick-billed Euphonia and Chestnut-capped Warbler. 2 species of motmot (Lesson's and Rufous) briefly visited the fruit feeder, but spent most of their time obscured behind leaves and branches, tick-tocking their tails back and forth at us. We enjoyed several flyovers as well, including lifers Short-tailed Hawk and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, as well as some familiar birds from back home, Turkey Vulture and Broad-winged Hawk. The most unexpected bird of the evening was a White-chinned Swift that I photographed flying over, a first for Altos Del Maria on eBird! Later in the evening a group of Geoffory's Tamarin visited the feeder right beside us, my first monkey of the trip, I was shocked by how small they were. Before we knew it the sun had set and our first day in Panama was over! Finally able to catch up on some rest, I passed out immediately after reaching my bed.

- Rufous Motmot
- Lesson's Motmot

- White-chinned Swift

- Gray-headed Chachlaca

- Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift

Geoffory's Tamarin

- Birding on Alfred's porch

February 23

Alessandra and I woke up at 6am, surprisingly rested and ready to go after the lack of sleep the previous day. We met up with Martha, Michael and Alfred out on the porch, where we spent a quiet morning watching the sun come up, having breakfast and trying to wrap our brains around all the new birdsong (well, not Alfred). If I was birding in my yard back home, after 1 day I would have seen the majority of the expected species, and save for flyovers may add 1-3 species the following day that would be new. This was not the case in Atlos, and for the remainder of our time there not a single day passed where we didn't get at least 3 lifers just around Alfred's neighborhood.  After 2 hours of birding from the porch, I had seen 9 lifers and even more new birds for our trip list! Crimson-backed Tanager and Yellow-backed Orioles stood out as highlights, as well as a female Lance-tailed manakin that perched right beside us in a tree for several minutes (this species of manakins leks in Alfred's backyard, how crazy is that?!). 

- Yellow-backed Oriole
- Crimson-backed Tanager

Just after 9am, Alfred drove the 4 of us up the mountain, for a change in elevation and habitat to look for some new birds. Along the way we stopped at several scenic lookouts, where I got my first Double-toothed Kite and Keel-billed Toucan of the trip. After another short drive we arrived at a small gravel road, where we spent the next 3 hours hiking up to the peak of a mountain and back. My body was slightly in shock coming from a cold Canadian winter and being plunged into 25 degree heat, and since the heat of the day and bright sunlight are my natural enemies, that didn't exactly help things! Once the long trek to the peak had been complete and we climbed onto a small observation tower it was all worth it though. Sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean were in front of us, and in the other direction more scenic mountains. Scanning the valleys below us, I picked up a White Hawk in my binoculars, a species I was really hoping to see during the trip. It was too distant for photos, but we spent several minutes watching it soar above the treetops. All white with black flight feathers and a rather short looking tail, the White Hawk doesn't resemble anything that we get in Ontario. Crowned Woodnymph and Green Hermit were some of the more cooperative hummingbirds of our walk, both posing for photos. Our raptor luck got even better on the decent down, when we heard an unfamiliar call and saw a Black Hawk-Eagle fly overhead. A rather uncommon and infrequently seen species found primarily in the mountains, the Black Hawk-Eagle was another bird that I was hoping to see in Panama. As it would turn out, that would be the only one we saw all trip, something that was repeated with a lot of other species.

- Crowned Woodnymph

- Green Hermit

- Black Hawk-Eagle

- White Hawk

-Mountain View

- Bird hunting

Hike complete, we drove down the mountain a few kilometers and had lunch beside a small man-made lake, where a cooperative Green Kingfisher perched right in front of us. We spent the afternoon walking on trails around the lake there, where we encountered several new birds including Northern Black-throated Trogon, Long-tailed Tyrant, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and White-throated Spadebill, the latter being quite uncommon in Panama and only reliable at a few locations. Another highlight of the walk was hearing a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles calling back and forth above us, though we never did get eyes on them. This species is rare across Panama and is one of the more sought after birds by visiting birders, so getting a pair on only our second day there was amazing.

- Northern Black-throated Trogon

- Scarlet-thighed Dacnis

- Long-tailed Tyrant

- Southern Lapwing

- Green Kingfisher

- White-throated Spadebill
- Lakeside birding (lacks the cold windchill and gulls
compared to lakeside birding back home)

Our day wasn't done there! On the way back, Alfred took us to the house of one of his friends, where we spent some time watching the bounty of birds coming to her fruit and hummingbird feeders. 7 species of hummingbirds buzzed about the feeders, including several new & exciting species including Green Hermit, Brown Violetear and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. At one point the fruit feeder was covered in tanagers, including over 10 Silver-throated Tanagers, a gorgeous species that would turn out to be quite common during our trip. Beside the house Green Honeycreeper and Golden-hooded Tanager foraged in the trees, adding even more new birds to our list. 

- Crowned Woodnymph

- Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer 

- Green-crowned Brilliant 

- White-necked Jacobin

- Silver-throated Tanager

- Green Honeycreeper

- Golden-hooded Tanager

- Bananaquit

Moving on from the feeder, we birded a bit further down the road at an abandoned quarry, where long grass, shrubs and as we would later discover, chiggers had taken over the hillside. This was a perfect location to spend the evening, as we just had to stand in one place and watch feeding flocks of birds move by along the edge of the hill. It didn't take long to rack up 30 species, including some new ones like Brown-headed Parrot, Flame-rumped Tanager, Black-striped Sparrow and Mistletoe Tyrannulet. We also saw another uncommon and range restricted bird here, the Bran-colored Flycatcher. About as brilliantly plumaged as the name suggests, this flycatcher resembled the empidonax flycatchers from Ontario, but instead of being gray-green above it was a light shade of brown. Not the most exciting bird when compared to an Ornate Hawk-Eagle or Keel-billed Toucan, but I quite enjoyed it's subtle tones and the departure from the normal small flycatcher color scheme.

- Black-stripped Sparrow

- Bran-colored Flycatcher

Before we knew it it was already 6:30pm and our stomachs were beginning to growl, so we piled back into the car and headed back to Alfred's place. The meals for the first few days were comprised of basically whatever was available in the kitchen, partly due to our poor meal planning and being out birding all day/not wanting to spend time cooking. That said, Martha's “beet, veggie and rice surprise” tasted great! Always fun trying new things and experimenting with food when travelling. When we went over the eBird lists for the day, I was shocked to find that I had seen 60 life birds! Something I have never done in a single day since I started birding.

February 24

Since the previous morning had been so successful, we again woke up before sunrise and spent the first 3 hours of the day birding around Alfred's yard. Oh yeah, did I mention that right beside Alfred's property there's a viewing platform build atop a giant boulder, where you can view the whole valley from above the canopy?! I spent part of the morning on top of said platform, because if I see a tower/lookout point during my travels you know I have to check it out. This turned out to be productive, as I got my best views of White Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk of the trip up there, as well as lifers Yellow-crowned Euphonia and Blue-and-white Swallow. On the lower levels there were even more new birds around, including Streaked Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flatbill and Red-legged Honeycreeper (a common species in the area and a truly stunning bird, especially when the sunlight catches it!)

- White Hawk

Short-tailed Hawk

- Red-legged Honeycreeper

- Streaked Flycatcher

After our casual morning of birding the 5 of us headed out for another day trip around Altos, this time heading to a different mountain peak in hopes of spending some time hawkwatching. On the way out of Alfred's neighbourhood we stopped at a small public park, where we watched a large colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas coming and going from their long hanging nests, which coated the side of a large tree in the centre of the park. After a few minutes of watching another large bird flew in, a Giant Cowbird. This species lays it's eggs in oropendola nests, the same way that Brown-headed Cowbirds parasitize nests around Ontario. Unlike our cowbird though, this species is truly massive, looking more like a Great-tailed Grackle in size. Several more Double-toothed Kites flew over as we were getting back in the car, providing way better views than the previous day. 

- Giant Cowbird

- Chestnut-headed Oropendola

Next, we drove another 20 minutes up the mountain and parked at a small trailhead, which led to several observation platforms. It's crazy how much difference a seemingly small change in elevation can make for weather, back at Alfred's neighbourhood it was warm and totally sunny... perfect hawkwatch conditions. But at this spot the sky was shrouded in mist, with visibility so poor at times that we could barely see over the treetops. Alfred told us that fog can come and go almost instantly here, so we decided to give it a try anyways and see what happened. We spent the first hour of our walk exploring the forests near one of the platforms, picking up several new birds including Brown-billed Scythebill, Olive-striped Flycatcher and Northern Emarald-Toucanet. 

Brown-billed Scythebill

- Tufted Flycatcher

- Cool tree

Around noon the fog began to clear, so we made our way up to one of the towers and began our watch. From here we had a 360 view of the sky, and as it cleared up more we could make out the Pacific Ocean (Alfred said on really clear days you can also see the Atlantic from here). Several Broad-winged Hawks trickled by, using the lift from the mountain chain to make their way north. More Double-toothed Kites also passed overhead, as well as 2 Short-tailed Hawks (1 cool dark morph) and a Swallow-tailed Kite. When a small hawk whipped overhead I initially thought it was another broad-wing, but it seemed a bit off as it had much more white on the head and the breast had more blotching vs streaking. Looking at my photos we confirmed this was actually an immature Gray-lined Hawk, our first and as it would turn out, only one of the trip. The highlight of the day came a bit later though, when we spotted 2 large raptors flying towards us from a nearby hill... a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles! They were quite high up, barely lost in a bank of fog, but the views were phenomenal. They two birds started calling back and forth, a loud 3 note call that rose and fell in pitch and volume. A migrating broad-wing took a dive at one of the birds, making the huge size difference obvious. We watched them for several minutes as they circled overhead, their calling reaching us long after they disappeared out of sight. Alfred remarked that in all his time living there he had never seen 2 at once, which made us realize how lucky our encounter had been.

- Double-toothed Kite

- Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Gray-lined Hawk

- Dark morph Short-tailed Hawk

- View from the hawkwatch platfrom

After our hawkwatching was complete, we headed back to the car and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around a forested road nearby. Since it was the heat of the day it was rather quiet, but we still managed to add some new birds... It is Panama after all, so there are always new things around to see. The highlights for me were a Blue-headed Parrot flyover and a great view of a Tawny-capped Euphonia.

- Tawny-capped Euphonia
- Blue-headed Parrot

In the evening Alessandra and I spent over an hour on the observation platform beside Alfred's place, watching the sun set over the valley and birds fly overhead. Keel-billed Toucans called from the canopy right beside us, making it feel a cereal commercial came to life. At one point a cloud of White-collared Swifts descended overhead, sometimes wheeling as one and sometimes breaking over and diving down in smaller groups or pairs. This was one of my most wanted birds on the trip, so getting a chance to observe so many at once, and right above me, was a breathtaking and memorable experience. The tally for lifers for my on our 3rd day in Panama was 18, which was quite good since I spent the majority of the day on a tower!

- White-collared Swifts

- White-collared Swift

- Keel-billed Toucan

- Keel-billed Toucan

February 25

Again, we woke up at sunrise and spent the first 2 hours of the morning around Alfred's backyard. Similar to the previous days, the forest was alive with dawn chorus, this time with a few new songs and calls in the mix too. I added 4 birds to my life list while just sitting on the back porch and eating breakfast! White-tailed Emerald at the hummingbird feeders, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager and Cocoa Woodcreeper in the trees beside the house, and Rufous-and-white Wren singing from further down in the forest. Even after experiencing the tropics for a few days, it was still surprising to me how one location could keep producing new birds day after day.

Once everyone had made lunches and gotten ready for the day, we headed out, driving up the mountain to the same road we had walked on our second day in Panama. The conditions were quite different than our first visit though, this time being more typical for early morning at the altitude, a bit windier and so foggy that you could barely see above the treeline. Once we arrived at the steep gravel road, we walked for about 2 kilometers up and back down, which took us over two hours since we spent so much time looking for skulky birds. We didn't go all the way up to the peak this time, as the limited visibility meant there wouldn't really be much to see, plus there were enough birds lower down to keep us occupied. During the walk we'd catch the occasional view of a Swallow-tailed Kite, whenever one would dip low enough through the fog to be seen. The calls of Keel-billed Toucan rang out from the valleys below, along with a number of other species I wasn't familiar with. One of the first birds we got good views of was our rarest bird of the day, the Black-throated Blue Warbler. A familiar species back home, this striking warbler is quite uncommon this far south, with only a few records from Panama each winter. We added a few new additions to our trip list as well, including Northern Schiffornis, White-ruffed Manakin and Slate-colored Grosbeak, the latter being a big highlight as it sang right beside us for several minutes, even providing unobstructed views (a rare thing here).

- Black-throated Blue Warbler

- Slate-colored Grosbeak

Following the same schedule as we had on our second day, we headed down to the small lake nearby and had lunch there, then spent the afternoon exploring the trails alongside the lake and adjacent stream. While we were eating I enjoyed one of my favourite experiences of the whole trip, when a group of 7 Swallow-tailed Kites flew in and starting hunting right in front of us. They would circle at treetop height, then make fast dives down to the lake, skimming the water and catching insects before ascending and repeating the whole thing again. This lasted for about 20 minutes, before the group circled higher and moved on, which was probably for the best as my camera's memory card was almost full of pictures!

- Swallow-tailed Kite

- Skimming!

 Our afternoon walk turned out to be very productive and we ended with 48 species, 8 of those being lifers for me and Alessandra. Highlights included Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Masked Titya, Scaly-breasted Wren, Buff-rumped Warbler and Black-faced Grosbeak, all of which were the only ones we encountered for the whole trip. The Buff-rumped Warbler in particular stood out to me, as they reminded me a lot of the Louisiana Waterthrushes that I had spent the previous year surveying. We watched a pair of these birds walking alongside a small stream, calling and wagging their tails constantly. Unlike our waterthrushes back home, which are brown and white and are very plainly coloured overall, these birds have a bright, orange-yellow rump and tail, contrasting strongly with the grayish green body in the low light of the inner forest (almost reminiscent of a female American Redstart). On our walk out we picked up a new trogon species, this one being the Collared Trogon, with a striking orange belly and black and white barred tail. A very successful day overall!

- Buff-rumped Warbler

- Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher

- Black-faced Grosbeak

- Collared Trogon

It was starting to get quite late at that point, so we returned to Alfred's for dinner and spent the evening in his backyard. No lifers this time, but we did add a new trip bird... the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! It felt strange seeing all these species that I'm really familiar with from Ontario, but in a completely different habitat than I'm used too. It will also be weird seeing a sapsucker in April and not having it be my first of year.

We headed to bed early that night in anticipation of the long drive the following day, when we planned to head to the western part of the country near the Costa Rica border and spend 5 days high up in the mountains. I'll cover that part of our trip in my next post!

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Panama Trip - Part 1

Just after midnight on the morning of February 22nd (I couldn't really sleep due to preflight jitters/trip excitement, so to me it was s...