Thursday, 14 October 2021

Foothill And Wetland Birding: Altos De Campana, Ciénaga De Las Macanas

Two days in Panama City were enough for Laura and I, and by mid-morning on September 30 we had picked up our rental car from the Albrook domestic airport. Many visitors to Panama rent their vehicles from the Tocumen international airport, and I have in the past without issue, but everything you read online details the horror stories of having to pay for scratches that were already there, being up-sold insurance, etc. We rented from National at Albrook and our experience has been great so far (as was the price). 

Laura and I have rented the car for 19 days, giving us ample time to explore numerous areas in western Panama. First on the agenda: six nights in the western highlands, staying three nights each in Boquete and Cerro Punta. The Talamancan range, shared with Costa Rica, provides outstanding birding and naturalizing opportunities, as well as fresh mountain air. I'm not sure which of the above we were more excited for after a week in the humid lowlands.

Rufous Mourner - PN Altos de Campana, Panama

To break up the drive west we overnighted in the basic but inexpensive Hotel Carisabel in the town of Aguadulce. That way, we would be within shooting distance of a fantastic wetland called Ciénega de las Macanas, a location which is occasionally visited by Panamanian birders but rarely by international visitors. 

On September 30 we had a few hours free during the midday during our drive to Aguadulce. We chose to stop at the conveniently located Parque Nacional Altos de Campana, ostensibly to search for birds but also to break up the drive. Even though the trails are only in the foothills, the temperatures were noticeably cooler than the lowlands; a welcome relief.

A forest track at PN Altos de Campana, Panama

Parque Nacional Altos de Campana was a site that I had never visited before but I can highly recommend it for anyone visiting this part of Panama. While it doesn't hold many of the "high-target" species that visiting birders target in Panama, it has a solid trail system through beautiful forest and the birding can be quite excellent. We did not come across any other people during our visit, and in a mere two hours (at midday) we tallied around 60 species. 

White-ruffed Manakins were common, a group of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers passed by, and mixed flocks were frequent. At one point we saw both Long-billed and Tawny-faced Gnatwren only a few metres away, while a little while later a Middle American Leaftosser was spotted, tossing leaves beside the quiet forest trail we were on. 

White-ruffed Manakin (female) - PN Altos de Campana, Panama

At one point I heard some commotion in the trees above and, after some patience, saw the telltale yellow spectacles of a Yellow-eared Toucanet peering back at me. I went up the slippery hillside after the two toucanets (fourcanets?), while Laura stayed back at the road and enjoyed crippling views of Black-chested Jays. I was successful in my endeavour and managed to obtain better views (and some record shots) of the toucanets. Success.

Yellow-eared Toucanet - PN Altos de Campana, Panama

Other highlights included Northern Schiffornis, a circling White-tailed Hawk, Plain and Spot-crowned Antvireos, a calling Black Hawk-Eagle, and Collared Trogons. In this part of Panama the male Collared Trogons have orange bellies (not red), and for a while they were considered a separate species called the Orange-bellied Trogon. In recent years the authorities that be have determined that these are better classified as a subspecies as Collared Trogon. We saw one female and heard a few individuals during our short foray into the park. 

"Orange-bellied" Collared Trogon - PN Altos de Campana, Panama

A big mixed flock near the end of our walk included Northern Schiffornis, Rufous Mourner, Rufous Motmot and a nice variety of ant-things. 

Rufous Mourner - PN Altos de Campana, Panama

With a bird list well over 300 species, Altos de Campana is certainly a place worth visiting. If we had more time, or had visited at a better time of day, perhaps Black-crowned Antpitta or Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo would have been possible.

October 1, 2021

Laura and I arose at 0 dark 30. We were in the lowlands, after all, and a very early start is necessary to fully maximize the birding opportunities before the heat of the mid-morning shuts things down. As Yogi Berra allegedly said, it gets late early out there. 

Ringed Kingfisher - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

Our morning's excursion was to El Ciénaga de las Macanas. This wetland complex is located around 30 minutes to the southwest of Aguadulce, near the mouth of the Río Santa María. Local farmers are allowed to draw water, while regulated fishing also takes place here. But for naturalists, the wetland is an important area for large numbers of ducks, herons, rallids, and other species. 

 Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

We arrived not long after dawn and walked from the parking area for a short distance to where a small boardwalk had been built at the edge of the marsh. Some of the more obvious species were quickly tallied - Wattled Jacanas, Purple Gallinules, and skeins of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks overhead. 

Wattled Jacana - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

 Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

We tallied most of the expected heron-types, as well as few slightly more unusual species such as Wood Stork, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Striated Heron. Several Limpkins provided great views in the marsh, while a nice diversity of raptors were present: Common Black Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Osprey, White-tailed Kite among the numerous Snail Kites. 

Osprey - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

A Spectacled Caiman kept the jacanas and gallinules on their toes. It glided up to one jacana, though its cover was blown at the last second. It is not easy being a plump marsh bird in a caiman-filled wetland!

Spectacled Caiman - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

During the winter months, Ciénaga de Las Macanas can be a treasure trove of waterfowl with scarce northern species searched for among the masses of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. We were a little too early in the season; the only other duck I tallied was a slightly early Lesser Scaup.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

Low flocks of Brown-throated Parakeets buzzed by. An attractive bird when properly lit by the morning's rays. 

Brown-throated Parakeets - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

While our attention was mostly focused on the wetland birds, the scrubby edges also held a number of species. Highlights included a locally scarce (but range-expanding) Mourning Dove, a vocalizing Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, a flyover Dickcissel, and a nice look at a Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Red-crowned Woodpecker is a common species on the Pacific side of Panama, but they were fun to watch through the scope at very close range. 

Red-crowned Woodpecker - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

Even a young Magnificent Frigatebird effortlessly cruised by overhead. They always seem so out of place when an ocean is not visible in the immediate vicinity. 

Magnificent Frigatebird - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

The super common birds deserve some love, too. This Black Vulture was looking particularly sinister, drying its wings of the morning dew from a tall snag. 

Black Vulture - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

A Cattle Egret, on a horse. 

Cattle Egret - Ciénaga de las Macanas, Herrera, Panama

We had lingered long enough and with a long drive ahead of us, Laura and I hit the road. Next, the highlands...

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