Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Cerro Punta - Central American Cloud Forest Birding At Its Finest

From Boquete we traveled south and then west, skirting to the south of Volcán Barú. To kill some time during midday we stopped in at Birding Paradise in Paraíso. This is a must-visit spot; I would encourage you to check out the blog I wrote about our time there

Fiery-billed Aracaris - Paraíso Birding Paradise, Chiriquí, Panama

We continued onwards, passing through periods of rain as we headed west and then north, up the other side of the volcano. We pulled into our accommodations in Cerro Punta during the late afternoon. Laura had found this absolute gem of a spot on AirBnB; a small cottage fully equipped with everything we needed, and a short walk from the cloud forest. We took it easy that evening. Anticipation was high for what the next few days would have in store. 

October 5, 2021

We awoke at dawn the next morning. Already the local Lesser Violetears had begun to call; their incessant, steady chipping would continue unabated until sunset. We loaded our daypacks with provisions, rain gear and umbrellas, and headed out on foot. Our elevation was 2100 masl which was higher than any elevation we had reached in Boquete. The resulting bird species mix was different. Indeed, our first mixed flock contained a few new trip birds in Slaty Flowerpiercer and Volcano Hummingbird. These species would prove to be quite common throughout our time in the Cerro Punta area. 

Slaty Flowerpiercer - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

Mountain Elaenias are one of the more common sounds in the forest at this elevation. 

Mountain Elaenia - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

Our plan this morning was to hike up to the western terminus of El Sendero Los Quetzales. This is the trail that links Cerro Punta and Boquete, passing along the north side of Volcan Barú through ancient, pristine montane forest. You may recall the name of this trail from a previous blog post. I had mentioned that it was closed for maintenance, and thus, we could not explore it during our time in Boquete. However, I had heard that the park rangers at El Respingo (the ranger’s station at the western terminus) had been accommodating to some birders, allowing them to walk the first stretch of Sendero Los Quetzales. This was our plan for the day: hike up to El Respingo and try to convince the ranger to let us walk the trail. Even if he said no, the walk to El Respingo passes through some nice forest and we could make a morning of it.

For the first section of our walk, the road passed through agricultural areas interspersed with forest patches and houses. We noted a singing Eastern Meadowlark, the local Cattle Egrets heading off to the fields, and more Rufous-collared Sparrows than you could count, plus some other common birds of the countryside. 

Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

This group of dogs in a nearby field looked like they were posing for their next album cover. 

A flash of brilliant green beside the road materialized as a male Resplendent Quetzal. After viewing a female in Boquete it was nice to connect with a male sporting full tail streamers. Just a ridiculous looking bird, and a great example of the concept of runaway sexual selection. 

Resplendent Quetzal - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

The road quality deteriorated as it headed upwards through a nice patch of forest. We were met by a different group of birds - Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-thighed Brushfinch, a calling Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Northern Emerald-Toucanet. We heard a Rough-legged Tyrannulet in this stretch, but could not locate it.

Northern Emerald-Toucanet - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

A larger agricultural area was next. This mountainous region of Panama produces much of the vegetables for the country due to the good quality soils, frequent rainfall and moderate temperatures. The steep topography does not appear to pose too much of a problem; many of the fields exhibit a 30 or 40 degree slope.

Yellow-faced Grassquit - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

We left the farmland behind and re-entered forest. This time the trees were much older, and the forest would remain this way until we reached the ranger's station, El Respingo. 

Oxeoschistus euriphyle - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

We slowly added bird species to our list, one by one. A large mixed flock added a whole bunch at once, including our first looks (in Panama) at Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher and Large-footed Finch.  

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

The manicured grounds of El Respingo appeared as the gravel track levelled out. We heard voices drifting from the main building. After exchanging pleasantries with the ranger, we inquired about accessing Sendero Los Quetzales. He was a little reluctant but agreed, provided that we were not gone too long and would check in with him afterwards. Not a problem, and we took off down the trail. 

 Estación El Respingo - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

The first stretch of trail was in decent shape, though we could tell that it had not been maintained in some time. My main interest in exploring along here was to search for a few birds that are only found in the most pristine montane forests in western Panama and Costa Rica; namely, the Ochraceous Pewee, which I had heard calling once in Costa Rica, and the Silvery-throated Jay, which I had never encountered. I played the tape occasionally as we hiked, though without success. The clock was ticking as well.  

 Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

Though the pewee and jay eluded us, we sifted through a large mixed flock. It contained a number of interesting species including Buffy Tuftedcheek, Ruddy Treerunner,  Flame-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, and a bunch of hummers: Fiery-throated, Volcano and Talamanca Hummingbirds, and White-throated Mountain-gem.  

Large-footed Finch - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

Buffy Tuftedcheek - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

We returned back to Cerro Punta. I guess the Silvery-throated Jay and Ochraceous Pewee would have to wait for another day...

Veery - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

One final surprise was in store in the last forest patch before we returned to Cerro Punta. A small hawk high up in the tree.

It took some time for us to figure out just what we were looking at, but we eventually decided that it is a male Bicolored Hawk. This species of Accipiter is generally rare throughout its range, and I have only seen it on a handful of previous occasions.

Bicolored Hawk - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

Laura and I visited Las Lagunas Volcán that afternoon and again the following morning. Located about a half-hour from where we were staying in Cerro Punta, these lakes are located at a much lower elevation with a mostly different set of species. I will write about our visit to these lakes some other time. 

October 7, 2021

Typically when Laura and I travel, we explore on our own without hiring any guides. This is for several reasons: to save money, to be able to experience the thrill of discovery on our own, to go at our own pace, and to have less people walking on a quiet forest trail (that being said, many of the guides that we have encountered in Latin America are excellent - top-notch naturalists and birders with the requisite planning and people skills). We are certainly not opposed to hiring guides at times, but we would run out of travel funds very quickly if this was a frequent practice of ours. 

Sometimes, though, a tricky species or two might encourage us to reach out to a local guide and to inquire about hiring them for the day. In this case, I was interested in some assistance with my quest for the Silvery-throated Jay. A local birding guide in Cerro Punta was recommended to me - Genover Santamaría, who goes by Ito. He has been guiding for years throughout Panama, but the Cerro Punta area is his backyard and he knows its birdlife better than anyone. 

We arranged October 7 as the big day. In addition to the Silvery-throated Jay, there were two other species found in the area that would be potential lifers for me: Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Ito had a beat on both species, and I was optimistic at my chances of adding a couple of new birds to my life list. 

 Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

Our first stop was El Respingo, the ranger's station that Laura and I had visited earlier. This time, however, we took Ito's birdmobile - a high clearance, 4WD Toyota that was perfect for rumbling up rough mountain roads. 

The forest ranger was not on duty that morning but Ito's company, Tamandua Tours, has an arrangement with the national park. We were allowed to walk the first two kilometres of Sendero Los Quetzales. The landslides which instigated the trail closure are located a little past that area. 

We spent an absolutely glorious morning walking along the serene trail, marvelling at the forest and listening for birds. Our pace was quick since we wanted to reach the best area for the jays relatively early in the morning. 

 Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

Long story short, the jays did not want to play ball. We heard a distant bird far down the hillside, but it was not interested in checking us out. We tried in several spots, but the heard-only Silvery-throated Jay was all we would get. 

 Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

While at our furthest east point in the walk, we were standing still and playing tapes of the jay. I thought I heard a distant pygmy-owl and brought it to our collective attention. It was, and the sound grew closer over the next few minutes. Suddenly, a tiny owl-torpedo-shape landed nearby. The pygmy-owl!

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

Ito had brought his scope along and quickly trained it on the owl. Though the lighting was not great for photos, the views in the scope were excellent. Laura and I were pretty excited!

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

An additional great sighting along the trail included a cooperative Wrenthrush. This species is, as the name suggests, kind of like a wren but somewhat like a thrush. As it stands, it is the sole member of the family Zeledoniidae. 

We also enjoyed nice views of a male Resplendent Quetzal.

Resplendent Quetzal - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

We tried for the Ochraceous Pewee as well, but did not even hear a peep from one. That's birding! 

Back at the ranger's station I managed my best ever photo of a Slaty Flowerpiercer. 

Slaty Flowerpiercer - Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Chiriquí, Panama

We jumped back in the Toyota and traveled down to Tamandua Tours' office in Cerro Punta for lunch. The hot chocolates we indulged in were some of the best we have ever had!

We briefly checked out Ito's hummingbird garden as well. Despite its small size, it has attracted quite a few birds over the years (nearing 100 species), and is set up very well for bird-photography. There is even an area designed for a multi-flash setup for photographing hummingbirds, if that is your thing. 

White-throated Mountain-gem - Cerro Punta, Chiriquí, Panama

I am drawn to purple hummingbirds, and the Violet Sabrewing is one of my favourites. 

Violet Sabrewing - Cerro Punta, Chiriquí, Panama

Tropical Mockingbird - Cerro Punta, Chiriquí, Panama

Lesser Violetear - Cerro Punta, Chiriquí, Panama

Clay-coloured Thrush - Cerro Punta, Chiriquí, Panama

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird - Cerro Punta, Chiriquí, Panama

The afternoon plan was to visit a tomato tree farm, located up a very rough, rocky path just outside of town. Ito had discovered Maroon-chested Ground-Doves here a couple of years ago, and to his surprise, they have become regularly observed here. 

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove habitat? - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

All the field guides will tell you that the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove is a rare species that is typically found in bamboo stands in montane forests. It is generally considered one of the "bamboo specialists" that appears in an area whenever bamboo is seeding en masse (which only happens every few years). But here, the Maroon-chested Ground-Doves appear to be feeding on the seeds of the tree tomato fruits which have fallen onto the ground. This place has become so reliable that Ito has even built a trail and covered viewing platform alongside the field. Though with birding, nothing is guaranteed...

Fortunately, luck was on our side this time. After a tense wait, a blue ground-dove-shaped object flew quickly into a tree, allowing looks with binoculars. Ito was on it with the scope and seconds later, I was staring at a stunning male Maroon-chested Ground-Dove! After a short but satisfying look, I quickly tried for some digi-scoped photos. It had moved slightly, so my photos ended up being worse than I thought they would be...

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

The male Maroon-chested Ground-Dove is actually quite a beautiful bird: deep blue-gray with a maroon chest, and white head. We waited around for a while more, and while we heard two birds singing, we would never get another view of it. Still, we felt lucky!

Volcano Hummingbird - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

A male Golden-browed Chlorophonia also provided exceptional views. It was strong candidate for Bird Of The Day, but ultimately, the Costa Rican Pygmy Owl won out for both Laura and I. 

Golden-browed Chlorophonia - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

Golden-browed Chlorophonia - Cerro Punta area, Chiriquí, Panama

We had a really enjoyable day with Ito. If you are looking to bird the Cerro Punta area of Panama, you would be in great hands by hiring Ito! He speaks excellent English, knows the birds as well as anyone, and has all the soft skills that are needed in a world-class bird guide. 

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Boquete Birds

Boquete is a town set on the eastern flank of Volcán Barú, at an elevation of roughly 1200 masl. It is situated along the Río Caldera, surrounded by productive coffee plantations and above them, montane forest. Boquete has become a sort of haven for retirees from North America and Europe. Approximately 14% of its 19,000 residents are of foreign origin, according to Wikipedia. It also attracts backpackers and other tourists who wish to get their fix of ziplining, jungle trekking, coffee/chocolate tours, river rafting and similar activities. 

Laura and I booked three nights each in Boquete and Cerro Punta, which is a small town on the opposite, northwestern flank of Volcán Barú. We enjoyed our stay in both places, in no small part due to the excellent accommodations that Laura found online in each town, and due to the abundant bird life in the nearby hills.

Boquete, as seen from our AirBnB property

One benefit of traveling at this current time, as tourism is finally reopening in Panama, is the relative lack of crowds in typical tourist locations. Laura and I enjoyed our time in Boquete and went on several nice hikes. But we could envision that in typical times, the area would probably be a little overrun with tourists. In hindsight we should have booked two nights in Boquete and 4 nights in Cerro Punta since we absolutely loved the latter locale, but we still managed to have a great time in Boquete, regardless. 

One word of caution - the roads are quite steep in Boquete...

Laura and I reached out to a couple of local guides to inquire about arranging a trip up to the rim of Volcán Barú since it is easier reached from the Boquete side. This is a great way to search for some of the high-elevation birds including Timberline Wren, Volcano Junco and Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. The road is quite rough and a specialized high-clearance 4WD truck is necessary. Unfortunately, Jason Lara (who is a highly regarded local guide) was busy during the days we had available, while another local guide, Raul, did not respond to my messages. In hindsight, we should have tried to arrange something more than a couple of days in advance. Laura and I have seen Timberline Wren and Volcano Junco previously in Costa Rica, while I had connected with Unspotted Saw-whet Owl in Guatemala, but a Volcán Barú trip would have been a cool experience (and the lister in me would have liked those birds for my Panama list!). 

October 1, 2021

During our first afternoon in Boquete we walked up the gravel road that leads to the rim of Volcán Barú, since we needed to kill a few hours before checking in to our AirBnB property. The guard at the gate turned us back, informing us that we needed to obtain permission via email from the national park to walk the road. We said that we only wanted to walk a little bit up the road to look for birds (we were certainly not planning on hiking the 14km to the summit!), but he would not budge. At least we managed to see a few Acorn Woodpeckers and some other common montane birds in the area, while we lucked into eye-level views of a female Cerulean Warbler from the car on the drive back,

Acorn Woodpecker - Camiseta, Boquete, Chiriqui, Panama

As dusk fell, I set up the bug light in the backyard. The temperatures were a little cool at this elevation, while a strong wind whipped past all evening, but by weighing down the sheet I had some success with a few moths and other insects. 

The mothing was certainly a lot less productive than our attempts had been at Canopy Tower a week earlier. None of the big flashy (or even little flashy) species appeared, but nearly everything was still something that we had never seen before. 

October 2, 2021

Laura and I visited the Pipeline Trail for our first morning in Boquete. This is, of course, not to be confused with Pipeline Road/Trail near Gamboa where we had spent so much time earlier in the trip. 

We would have liked to have walked the Sendero Los Quetzales - a spectacular trail that cuts across pristine montane forest all the way to Cerro Punta on the other side - but, as we had earlier discovered, the trail was closed for maintenance. 

Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

The Waterfall Trail is a there and back again trail, and at only ~2.5 kilometres in length (each way), it can be hiked in relatively short order. Birders, of course, are a different breed. If mixed flocks are present, one could easily spend the whole morning (and then some) at the Waterfall Trail. It begins at an elevation of roughly 1580 masl, follows the river and passes through a landscape of small agriculture plots and woodland for the first stretch. Eventually it leaves the farmland behind, entering mature forest filled with majestic oaks, elms, and other ancient trees. The trail terminates at the waterfall – a high one, but with only a modest amount of water - that if I recall was around 1830 masl at the bottom. 

Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

The birding was pretty active in the lower stretches of the trail. This is not surprising given the mixed land uses here. While mature forest holds a much greater diversity of species, the human-altered habitats give up their species much more easily in a brief visit. Among others, we noted Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Flame-colored Tanager, Louisiana Waterthrush and White-naped Brushfinch, while hummingbirds were well-represented with Talamanca and Scintillant, Violet Sabrewing, White-tailed Emerald and more. 

Flame-colored Tanager - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

A small Empidonax flycatcher caught our attention due to its prominent eye-ring; after a few photos it disappeared and we were distracted by something else. Least Flycatcher has only been recorded a handful of times in Panama. This bird had primaries that seemed a little long for that species; unfortunately, I don’t have any other photos to go on. A tricky one…

Empidonax sp. - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

We could not visit Boquete and not see a Resplendent Quetzal. After all, about half of all of the restaurants, lodgings, and tourist outfits are named after this bird. While we did not see any males at the Waterfall Trail, we tracked down a female behind the famous Mexican Elm, a massive tree with a sign proclaiming its age as 1000 years. I am not sure if this is legend or if there is some truth to it, but it is a truly awesome specimen. 

Ulmus mexicana - Waterfall Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Three of the most common species that Laura and I have seen on this trip are all very familiar from back home: Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Swainson’s Thrush. All three have annoyed us at various points due to their abundance; this Red-eyed Vireo must have caught me on a good day since I decided to take its picture. 

Red-eyed Vireo - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

The bird diversity changed as we entered the forest. A couple of mixed flocks provided some entertainment, producing species such as Yellowish Flycatcher, Spotted Barbtail, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Red-faced Spinetail, Brown-capped Vireo and both Black-cheeked and Golden-crowned Warbler. 

Dark Pewee - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Yellowish Flycatcher - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Red-faced Spinetail - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

As we neared the waterfall, the fluted notes of Black-faced Solitaires lifted from the gargantuan trees. Birding was a little slow as mixed flocks did not materialize. But I was content to just gaze at the magnificent forest. We basically had the entire place to ourselves as well, crossing paths with only two solo hikers during the morning. 

Black-faced Solitaire - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

I noticed an anole near the base of a tree, and the kid in me ensured that I attempted to catch it. I have since identified it as Anolis magnaphallus (West Panamanian Anole). It has a limited geographic range in the highlands of western Panama. 

Anolis magnaphallus - Pipeline Trail, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

October 3, 2021

For our second full day in Boquete, we visited a location called Las Tres Cascadas (The Three Waterfalls), often known as The Lost Waterfalls. This is a classic tourist attraction in Boquete and I figured it would not necessarily be a birding morning when we decided to visit here. But I was pleasantly surprised. The birding and naturalizing was actually quite good, especially in the first hour or two of our visit before the weekend crowds appeared. 

Common Chlorospingus - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

The entrance fee is a little steep (8 USD per person), but the three waterfalls are beautiful and a fair amount of trail maintenance is required due to the frequent rainfall and tough topography. As one might surmise, the trail leads to three waterfalls spaced apart along a small river. The first section of trail passes by a couple of small fincas and disturbed habitat, before transitioning to high quality forest just before the first waterfall. The rest of the trail cuts up the heavily forested hillside, leading to the final two waterfalls. 

Cascada #2 - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

As we crossed the river via a small bridge near the beginning of the trail, I remarked that the setting looked excellent for American Dippers. Right on cue, one popped up beside us!

American Dipper - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

In the lower sections of the trail we noted a few nice species, including Scintillant Hummingbird, Prong-billed Barbet and various warblers. The barbets ended up being quite frequent on this day; we heard several pairs of duetting birds throughout the morning and encountered others along the trail. 

Scintillant Hummingbird - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

We chanced upon a huge mixed flock as we rounded a bend just before the second waterfall. It started with a few Collared Redstarts and Black-cheeked Warblers. Sensing that there could be more interesting things with them, I played the tape of the Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl. Pandemonium ensued. 

Gray-breasted Wood-Wren - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Spot-crowned Woodcreepers and Ruddy Treerunners flew in. Warblers of various species chattered from all around, while White-throated Mountain-gems and Green Hermits hovered beside us to see where the offending owl was located. A Barred Becard popped up, one of several new trip birds in the massive flock.  Mixed flock birding is the best.

Barred Becard - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Costa Rican Warbler - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

The other highlight occurred not long afterwards., with the chip notes of the mixed flock still faintly ringing in our ears. As we rounded a bend, a suspicious furnariid flew into a dense tangle nearby. Could it be?

Streak-breasted Treehunter - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

I played a short snippet of the bird's call, and it popped up out of the thicket to confirm my suspicions. A Streak-breasted Treehunter! 

Streak-breasted Treehunter - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

This was one of the few birds endemic to the Talamancan Range that I had never seen, and it can be a tricky species in some areas. Not only did we enjoy great looks of it, but it remained in the area for a while, causing us to finally walk away while the bird was still in view. Ovenbirds such as treehunters can be difficult to observe due to their secretive habitats, so we were thrilled to see this one as well as we did. It ended up winning the coveted Bird Of The Day award from both Laura and I. 

Streak-breasted Treehunter - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Streak-breasted Treehunter - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

This click beetle was certainly eye-catching!

Semiotus sp. - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

By the time that we had reached the ultimate waterfall, the weekend crowds started to appear. We slowly retraced our steps back down towards the entrance, dodging groups of youths who were blasting music as they walked to drown out the sounds of the forest. (Yes, I am a grumpy old man, how could you tell?)

Cascada #3 - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

We added a few more birds on the walk back down, including Philadelphia Vireo and Spangle-cheeked Tanager. We also called in a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and enjoyed (relatively) good views of it, though I was unable to obtain any photos once again. Tapaculos are tough.

One of the last species I photographed was a pair of Prong-billed Barbets near the bottom of the trail. 

Prong-billed Barbet - Las Tres Cascadas, Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Our time in Boquete was done. My next post will document our time in Cerro Punta on the northwestern flank of Volcán Barú.