Thursday, 31 July 2014

Panama, Day 2 (March 1, 2014)

The plan for our second full day was to bird Old Gamboa Road which is located at the edge of Soberania National Park. This used to be the main road into Gamboa but it is no longer being used. The southern end of the road is very productive for birding as it passes through dry forest and scrub, grassy areas and creek valleys. We were hoping to find some of the target birds found in the dry scrub/forest habitat, such as Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Jet Antbird and Lance-tailed Manakin. 

Lesser Kiskadee

Quite a few birds were active as we arrived early in the morning. Flycatchers such as Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and Rusty-margined Flycatcher were present along the roadsides, and Summer Tanagers, various warblers and tanagers were in the treetops as well, while several species of wren (Black-bellied, Rufous-and-white, Buff-breasted, House, and Rufous-breasted) called from the undergrowth. 

Great Kiskadee
 The calls of several trogon species and Whooping Motmots echoed from back in the forest as the sun rose. With it only being my second full day in the tropics, I was still getting used to seeing a crazy looking bird like a Whooping Motmot on the side of the road! Just a few days earlier the only birds I was seeing were European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Ring-billed Gulls...

Whooping Motmot

We stopped by at the Summit Ponds, located at the start of the south section of Old Gamboa Road. This can be a great spot for wading birds and is usually pretty reliable for Boat-billed Heron, which is nocturnal and not always easily seen. I was pretty happy to see a few of them across the pond. They are basically a Black-crowned Night-Heron with a massive bill!

Boat-billed Heron
We also had a flock of Greater Anis here and a few new trip birds (and lifers for me!) such as Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Lesser Kiskadee, Mangrove Swallow, etc.

nesting Mangrove Swallow
The south end of the road was no longer in use and was slowly being reclaimed by the forest in sections. Other parts were open, and for the majority of its length it was very easy walking, leading to awesome birding! While we missed Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Jet Antbird we did see many of the other dry scrub specialties. Species that stood out to me for whatever reason included Blue-black Grosbeak, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Fasciated Antshrike, and Buff-throated Saltator.

female Fasciated Antshrike
While we were walking and birding I almost stepped on a small turtle, just sitting in the middle of a road. It was a Mud Turtle! Ibelieve it is Kinosternon leucostomum, the White-lipped Mud Turtle.

Kinosternon leucostomum

Kinosternon leucostomum
Mud Turtles are notorious for being really shy when encountered making them a tough photo subject! I waited for about 15 minutes for it to come out of its shell but it was quite wary, retreating if I was within "shooting" range. Very cool turtle, though!


Kinosternon leucostomum
After a solid morning of birding we reached the south end of the road with a day list around 100 species. It was now mid morning and the sun was getting high in the sky. The morning flight of vultures began, and it wasn't long before we picked out Swainson's Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Plumbeous Kites flying as well. The highlight though was a brief flyby of a Black Hawk-Eagle, a species that had been seen occasionally along Old Gamboa Road. Luckily I had my camera on me and managed a few poor record shots of the awesome bird.

Vulture kettle
Black Hawk-Eagle
Raptor migration can be pretty incredible in Panama since the shape of Central America concentrates the birds. Without really trying too hard we managed 9 species of raptor/vulture in about an hour!

Several fruiting trees along the south end of the road had attracted a variety of honeycreepers and hummingbirds, such as this Black-throated Mango.

Black-throated Mango

I photographed a few insects, including this bad-ass caterpillar. Wow!




By late morning we returned to the start of the road. The temperature had, not surprisingly, risen to about 30 degrees Celsius, just what we expectedfor the lowlands. While songbird activity quieted down we had a cool experience with a raptor.

This Crane Hawk was working its way along the trees adjacent to the paved section that sees vehicle traffic. This species reminds me of an Accipiter somewhat - almost like a melanistic Cooper's Hawk . Luckily for us, it did not seem to mind our presence, allowing us to approach closely for photos! The lighting at this time of day was obviously not ideal making it a real challenge to expose the image properly.

Crane Hawk
 We birded the area for another hour or two, slowly adding species by ones and twos. By noon we had seen 119 species which might have ended up being our top morning for the entire trip. By early afternoon however we were ready to head back to Gamboa to rest up for a few hours during the heat of the day.

That afternoon we were relaxing in the room drinking some beers and checking out our photos. Before long though we were distracted by the Geoffroy's Tamarins which had descended upon a feeding tray in the backyard of our hosts. They would come out of the nearby woods and take pieces of fruit by hand from us and were pretty comical to say the least...





I only had my long lens on my camera, making it difficult to fit them in the frame. Check out that face...


Or this one!



That afternoon we decided to drive over to the Ammo Ponds, located just outside of Gamboa. These ponds, across the road from the Panama Canal, are fantastic locations to find interesting herons, rails, and ducks. While we did not come across anything too rare during our visit, there were some interesting things to see! The afternoon clouds had rolled in making for comfortable birding.

Yellow-tailed Oriole was one bird that I was really hoping to see, and we found our first ones at the Ammo Ponds including some which likely had a nest nearby.

Yellow-tailed Oriole

Yellow-tailed Oriole

The Banded Orange Heliconian is a common species that can be found from Brazil all the way to the United States, and they are reasonably common in Panama. A few were patrolling the plants along the edge of the road near the Ammo Ponds.

Banded Orange Heliconian

Banded Orange Heliconian

Since we were right next to the Panama Canal several species of seedeaters were feeding in the open areas. Yellow-bellied was the common one though there were a few Variable Seedeaters mixed in.


We decided to walk along the beginning of Pipeline Road for the hour or two before dusk. At one point I found a Brownish Twistwing, a rather drab, dark brown species that is named for its behaviour of lifting each wing in succession over its back and down again. Another bird I was looking forward to seeing after reading about it in field guides, even though it wasn't the flashiest.

Steve and I came across this very photogenic Black-crowned Antshrike which was foraging close to the road. This species is rather common in many areas and often accompanies antwrens, warblers, tanagers, woodcreepers, and antbirds in mixed flocks.


Later that evening after eating dinner, Dave and I decided to take the rental and drive down Pipeline Road, while Steve stayed behind to organize his stuff. For the first few kilometers the road was drivable, and we stopped periodically to listen to owls. A major highlight occurred when a Northern Tamandua crossed the road right in front of us. Not only that, but a baby was clinging on to its back.

Eventually we reached a spot where we couldn't continue and walked down the road. I kept an eye out for reptiles or amphibians, but with the dry conditions not much of anything was around.

As we walked down into creek valleys, owls suddenly became apparent. The majority of the ones we heard vocalizing were Crested Owls and Mottled Owls, though Tropical Screech Owls were also in a few spots. It seemed that every creek valley had an owl or two calling and eventually Black-and-white, Spectacled, and Vermiculated Screech Owls were all heard. A few Common Potoos also called, a first for me!

While on the long walk back to the car, Dave and I found an interesting looking opossum on some waist-height vegetation, which turned out to be a Water Opossum, the only species in its genus, Chironectes. This is a pretty secretive species that is usually only seen at night, so I've read.

When it was all said and done, Dave and I had heard:
12 Crested Owls
8 Mottled Owls
3 Tropical Screech Owls
1 Spectacled Owl
1 Black-and-white Owl
1 Vermiculated Screech Owl

Earlier in the day we had also seen a Striped Owl flying across the Panama Canal at dusk, making it a 7 owl day. A great finish to an awesome second day in the canal zone!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Panama, Day 1 (February 28, 2014)

During the first few days of our Panama trip we were planning on birding the Canal Zone. Steve and Dave had had a very successful trip to the Western Highlands, seeing many of its target species while also having some close calls with sketchy people (and wildfires) in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 AM.

The three of us planned to meet at the airport and I felt the first blast of tropical warmth as I stepped outside the air-conditioned airport.  As I waited for them to show up I found my first bird species of the trip - a Rock Pigeon (the only one I would see!). Eventually they arrived and we headed to Gamboa, a small town located on the edge of Parque Nacional Soberania. This large expanse of lowland rainforest flanks the Panama Canal and associated Lago Gatun. Here in the lowlands, species from the Caribbean and Pacific slopes meet, making for some incredible birding! It was exciting driving along with the roads at night with the windows open, looking at the huge tropical trees in the moonlight, feeling the warmth, and dreaming about all the amazing things we would see in the next few weeks...

Our first day started by rising bright and early to head to Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto). In the predawn twilight at our Bed and Breakfast in Gamboa (basically a couple of bare rooms with a few beds and a washroom, quite sufficient for our needs)  it was easy to hear the neighbourhood come alive as the common birds made their presence known. It did not take long to learn and grow accustomed to the first few common central American sounds - Pale-vented Pigeons, Clay-colored Thrushes (they sound kinda like a robin) and Tropical Kingbirds (they sound kinda like a kingbird). By the time we arrived at Pipeline Road we had a solid list of 30 species or so under our belts. 

The morning birding was challenging to say the least. Coming in with no knowledge of Central American bird sounds, even the common ones I had to learn and those still take time. There really are only so many I can take in in one day. But luckily I had looked at my Panama field guide for several weeks prior to the trip so most of the birds weren't too difficult by sight, relatively speaking. I also had my camera with me of course which helped to document birds I wasn't sure on. The new camera body is much better at creating low-noise photos in low light situations than my previous camera. That being said, you still have to really work to take good bird photos in the tropics! Even though Steve, David and I are all photographers, the priority of the trip was birding more so than photography and so most of my photos are documentation-style, with few solid "photo shoots". If I had three or four images a day that I was really happy with, I was doing OK! And with all of our hours we were sure to put in in high-diversity habitats, the photo opportunities would surely come by...

Woodcreepers look like overgrown Brown Creepers, and we ended up seeing about about 10 species on the trip. In the Canal Zone, Cocoa Woodcreepers were pretty common, yet they rarely came close enough for a good photo, usually preferring to sit on the wrong side of the tree.


Pipeline Road travels through several relatively undisturbed habitat types including a ton of good quality rainforest - because of that it boasts a huge species list.

Every few hundred meters it crosses a small stream, and one of the first streams we checked out had this Meso-American Slider basking at the surface of the water.



One of the common and very distinctive vocalizations heard throughout the forest was that of the Southern Bentbill; a rolling trill that almost sounded like the scream made by a Fowler's Toad.



Crocodilians hung out in roadside pools as well, such as these Spectacled Caimans. It was good to see this species again!


Dave birding along Pipeline Road.


As the morning wore on we came across some slow patches for birds. A lot of times birds seem to flock together but it was still common to go an hour or two seeing or hearing very little. Luckily the insects always keep things interesting! This one is a checkered-skipper of some sort and looks very similar to the Common Checkered-skipper we sometimes see in Ontario.


I happened to spot this sloth while we were birding around an area where a Great Jacamar had been seen. We did see the jacamar a bit later, a great find by Steve!

Brown-throated Sloth
No visit to Panama is complete without a few sightings of Brown Basilisks. This was yet another species closely associated with the streams crossing Pipeline Road, and if you approached one too closely it would skitter off, running across the water to the far bank.

Brown Basilisk

This next photo is a heavily cropped shot of a Rufous-crested Coquette we saw along Pipeline Road. This can be a difficult species to find and Pipeline Road was our best shot we we were pretty happy with it!




The highlight of the day was almost certainly the Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoos that we were fortunate to cross paths with on Pipeline Road. The ground-cuckos is a genus containing five species in the Americas. These birds are often associated with large army ant swarms, as they stir up other insects, small lizards, etc. The ground cuckoos follow these swarms and eat whatever the ants flush! Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo is a rare species throughout much of its range, appearing to occur in low densities. This was one of Steve's top target birds for the tip, and it was certainly one I was interested in going after as well. One had been seen at Pipeline Road earlier in the winter but conveniently disappearing on the day before Steve flew in to Panama! Fortunately for us, an adult and juvenile Rufous-vented Grounk-cuckoo werere-found the day we were birding Pipeline. We raced over there, managed to get in to the Rainforest Discovery Tower trails by paying the local's price, and within 10 minutes we were shown the bird by one of the staff who was keeping an eye on the birds. We crept up to the birds as it foraged; the adult disappeared quickly, but the juvenile became quickly accustomed to our presence. Other ant swarm birds were active as well, including several woodcreepers, antbirds, antvireos, antshrikes, and antwrens. But the Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo was the star of the day!



It was really interesting watching it hunt, as its reflexes were so quick as it bounded after a scurrying lizard. A lot of the time, it would sit back and wait, eventually grabbing something that came within striking distance. What an awesome, prehistoric looking species!



One more shot of the bird, as we stood about 5 meters from it. An incredible experience! I took a bunch more, but that will be for a later blog post!



Of course the road was filled with dozens of other species and I kept tallying new species left, right, and center. When it was all said and done I had 56 lifers, the second most I've had in a single day with the most being 57 lifers, also at Pipeline Road (January 12, 2010). That single day at Pipeline Road  in 2010 was pretty much the only birding I did on that trip.

Here are a few of some of  my more notable lifers from the our first day at Pipeline Road...

-Plumbeous Kite
-Violaceous Quail-Dove
-Pheasant Cuckoo
-Great Jacamar
-Cinnamon Woodpecker
-Slaty-backed Forest Falcon
-Bicolored Antbird
-Black-faced Antthrush
-White-breasted Wood Wren
-Yellow-backed Oriole

Golden-collared Manakin

Purple-throated Fruitcrow

Of course one couldn't help but notice all the other fauna that was all around us.



Anole species
 






At one point we checked some hummingbird feeders at the center since we had paid our admission anyways, and it was a nice break from all the walking! David kept track on his phone how many kilometers we walked each day, and it was usually well over 15 and I think we had some days close to 30.

Luckily, the hummingbirds were quite fearless and wood approach closely to feed, allowing for some neat macro opportunities. The White-necked Jacobins were the easiest photo subjects.

White-necked Jacobin

White-necked Jacobin

It always was a bit of excitement when coming across a mixed flock of songbirds while out on the trails, and picking out the Green Shrike-Vireos, migrant warblers, greenlets, flycatchers, woodcreepers, and antwrens. At one point I was watching this Dot-winged Antwren struggling with an insect when it flew down to a branch at eye level. Check it out in action!

female Dot-winged Antwren


female Dot-winged Antwren

While walking a trail near the Discovery Center, I noticed this cool anole just chilling on the side of a tree. What an awesome species! I posted it earlier but thought I would post it again. It was perhaps 25 cm SVL, and super elusive! I tried catching it but it was having none of it...I think it is Anolis frenatus but if anyone thinks otherwise please let me know.

This was also an opportunity to really test out the new camera. Deep in the forest and later in the day the lighting was very low - I think I went up to ISO 3200 to grab the shots. With a little noise-reduction software they came out alright!


Giant Green Anole (Anolis frenatus)

Last but not least are these photos of a Slender Anole, one of the most common herp species along the trails. I played around a little with exposures for these ones (second is with flash).

Slender Anole (Norops limifrons)

Slender Anole (Norops limifrons)
 Finally, as we were walking down the road we came across this White-whiskered Puffbird on the road at dusk. Just one of many cool things seen when a full day is spent walking the road!


Needless to say we ate well that night, as we paid our hosts to cook dinner for us as well. After a long tiring day in the field, a big plate of chicken, beans and rice is pretty damn good....

Day two to follow, where we checked out Old Gamboa Road plus a night drive/hike on Pipeline Road.