Saturday 30 October 2021

Las Lagunas de Volcán: A Magical Birding Site

Most foreign birders who travel to the province of Chiriquí in western Panama do so to search for particular species. Those are, of course, the regional specialties (shared with Costa Rica) that reside high up in the mountains, birds like Volcano Hummingbird, Silvery-throated Jay, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and the Costa Rican subspecies of Resplendent Quetzal, just to name a few of the many mouthwatering possibilities.  Many of these birders visit either the Boquete side or Volcán side of Volcán Barú, two areas with excellent hiking trails and birding opportunities. But there is much more to this region of Panama than the highland birding. With today's post I wanted to highlight a birding hotspot that receives far less notoriety than the famous highland destinations. That locale is known as Las Lagunas de Volcán, or the Volcán Lakes. 

Black-chested Jay - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Laura and I spent three nights in Boquete and three nights in Cerro Punta (above Volcán), taking advantage of the wonderful highland birding. But with most of our targets acquired and with some time on our hands, we decided to visit the Volcán Lakes to see what they were all about. 

Turkey Vulture - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

The Volcán Lakes are located within an ancient volcano crater, and at approximately 1350 m in elevation are some of the highest wetlands in Panama. To reach them, travel to the town of Volcán, and head southwest towards the airstrip which is around 3 km out of town. From here, a rough gravel track heads westwards towards the lake, passing by several horse farms along the way. Laura and I parked at the airstrip and walked down the gravel track since the birding can be very good along here. After perhaps 1 km or a little more, there is a welcome sign, and the track splits. If you continue straight, the track continues to the north side of the lakes, while if you turn left, it leads to the south side. Note that the lakes are only visible from the south side, but the birding is excellent along the north side as well. If you do choose to drive in, go no further than the above-mentioned fork in the road since both tracks deteriorate quite quickly. 

That being said, regular hiking boots were sufficient during our visits. There are some muddy spots (like the scene pictured above), but they are easy to walk around. Most areas are largely mud-free, like pictured below.

Laura and I visited on October 5 for a couple hours in the afternoon and were quite surprised with how good the birding was, despite the time of day. It was so enjoyable that we never even made it past the first stretch of forest! 

Blue-headed Parrots - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Migrant warblers were quite common and it was fun picking through them all. Our biggest highlight was a rarity for Panama. A male Connecticut Warbler hopped up out of the trailside vegetation, sat in view for a few seconds, and then flew back down. We both got it in our binoculars and I was pretty surprised to see the complete white eye ring, fully expecting it to be another Mourning Warbler! I tried following it and managed a few more partial views a little further down the track, but it unfortunately eluded my camera. 

A slim, long-tailed raptor flew past and perched within sight, near the main fork in the road that I mentioned above. I first thought it was a forest-falcon, but we soon clued in that it was actually a young Bicolored Hawk. It allowed us to take many photos (and some audio recordings) before it flew out of sight. Another quality species! 

Bicolored Hawk - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Bicolored Hawk - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Other highlights during our afternoon visit included Acadian, Alder and Fork-tailed Flycatchers and heard-only Fiery-billed Araçari and Spotted Wood-Quail. An excellent way to spend a few hours in the afternoon. 

Yellow-headed Caracara pretending to be a Cattle Egret - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

From a birding perspective, the lakes and surrounding forest are home to a number of specialty species. These include several regional endemics shared with the Pacific lowlands of Costa Rica including Fiery-billed Araçari, Chiriquí Foliage-gleaner and Costa Rican Brushfinch. The Chiriquí subspecies of Olive-crowned Yellowthroat nests along the marshy edges of the lakes, which are in turn home to Northern Jacana, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, and various duck, gallinule, kingfisher and heron species. The surrounding forests can provide excellent mixed flock birding and diversity is high at this elevation. And finally, we found the whole area fantastic for seeking out migrant species - tons of warblers and flycatchers abound at this time of year. 

Laura and I had a later start to our birding day on October 6, pulling up to the airstrip just before 8 AM. Lucky for us, the sky remained clouded over for the entire morning, extending the good birding hours until late morning. As we walked along the entrance road, Mistletoe Tyrannulets made their presence known vocally. This species would be heard frequently throughout the whole morning. 

Mistletoe Tyrannulet - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

The first stretch of gravel track passes through pasture, lightly grazed by cattle. Wet ditches and occasional shrubbery provide some habitat for birds. Various flycatchers and migrant warblers caused us to stop frequently, while the soundtrack was provided by Rufous-collared Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks and Pale-breasted Spinetails. 

Pale-breasted Spinetail - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Eastern Meadowlark - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Cattle Egrets - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

A Roadside Hawk perched on the moss-laden trees, a beautiful scene with the mist in the background. 

Roadside Hawk - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

We were already past 50 species of birds by the time that we entered the first stretches of forest. And the mixed flock birding was pretty impressive. Our first mixed flock contained Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner, Orange-billed Sparrow, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Gray-headed Tanager, Streaked Saltator, Black-chested Jay, and quite a few others. 

Warblers in particular stole the show. We noted 18 species including beauties like Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Golden-winged Warbler and Laura's first ever Worm-eating Warbler (her Bird Of The Day). At one point I was about 80% sure that I saw a Prairie Warbler (a rarity in this part of Panama), but it disappeared before I could confirm. The many migrant species were augmented by residents including Golden-crowned Warbler, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Chestnut-capped Warbler and Slate-throated Redstart. 

Golden-winged Warbler - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Worm-eating Warbler - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

My "bird of the day" happened to be Costa Rica Brushfinch. We encountered two small groups of them along the north side of the first lake. 

Costa Rican Brushfinch - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

The forest birding continued to impress, with species like Olivaceous Woodcreeper and Olivaceous Piculet, White-winged Becard, White-throated Spadebill, Crested Guan, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Plain Antvireo, Green Honeycreeper and White-naped Brushfinch. By the time that we finally reached the lake for a rest break and early lunch, our species list was over 100 for the day. 

Boat-billed Flycatcher - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

White-throated Thrush - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

The first lake has a few access points where one can scan for birds and wildlife, and it also has the better habitat, especially in the southwestern portion. Extensive marshy areas are home to gallinules and American Coots, various kingfishers (we noted Green and Ringed), White-throated Crakes, Northern Jacanas and more. The Chiriquí subspecies of Olive-crowned Yellowthroat breeds in these wetlands, though the only one I noted was in a small marshy section in the second lake. A pair of Spotted Wood-Quails were skulking in this same area, just within the forest edge. 

Masked Ducks can sometimes be found (we did not see any), while small numbers of migratory ducks from North America often overwinter here. The only ducks that we noted included a few dodgy looking Muscovy Ducks and a small flock of Blue-winged Teals. 

Blue-winged Teals - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

As the morning wore on the sun came out from behind the clouds. Bird activity diminished, but the butterflies really took off! Below are a few of the colourful insects that posed long enough for me to photograph. 

This tortricid moth was pretty incredible!

Pseudatteria sp. - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Widespread Eighty-eight (Diaethria clymena) - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

Navy Eighty-eight (Diaethria astala) - Lagunas de Volcán, Chiriquí, Panama

With the sun giving way to angry looking storm clouds, Laura and I called it a day and hiked back out to the airstrip and our waiting car. We had totalled 116 species of birds, representing our highest number on one checklist so far this trip. We had an awesome time at Las Lagunas de Volcán and highly recommend them for birders or naturalists alike. 

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.