Tuesday 2 November 2021

Global Big Day Birding in Bocas Del Toro

As I mentioned in the previous post, Laura and I had plans to visit Bocas del Toro province in northwestern Panama. Most tourists who visit this region do so for the white sand beaches, turquoise waters and nightlife. While we also anticipated some quality beach time, we were more interested in some of the "other" nightlife like snakes, spiders and moths. The birding in this province can be quite good as well. Many of the recent additions to the Panama bird list are from Bocas del Toro and I was looking forward to adding several species to my Panama list. 

Our preferred kind of nightlife

We had a few options for lodging in Bocas. Most birders who visit from other countries stay at the Tranquilo Bay Ecolodge, located on the archipelago. This was way out of our budget, though I have heard that it is quite nice (and with a canopy tower as well). There were other cheaper options on the archipelago, but since we had a rental car we were more interested in staying on the mainland. It looked like our options would be limited to cheap hotels in the city of Changuinola, but our friend Carlos Bethancourt recommended the property of a friend of his, Miguel Ibarra. Called the Snowy Cotinga House, Miguel's property is located near the town of Charagre and surrounded by forest and woodland, with a river running nearby. Miguel is still in the process of readying the property for guests but he was happy to allow us to stay for three nights. 

Snowy Cotinga House - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The house suited our needs, with a fully equipped kitchen (and stocked fridge thanks to Miguel), spacious bedroom and bathroom with air conditioning, and a hammock on the porch outside. I strung up my moth light outside as well. 

We had an absolute blast staying here. The eponymous Snowy Cotingas were noted on several occasions in fruiting trees in the yard, some of the 100+ bird species we encountered on the property in just a couple of days. Miguel has cut a small trail system in the forest behind the house, perfect for night-hikes (which were quite productive, too!). And of course, birding and hanging out with Miguel was a lot of fun as well. He knows the area better than anyone and was happy to provide tips on exploring nearby. If anyone reading this is planning a birding trip to Bocas del Toro, the Snowy Cotinga House comes highly recommended by us. Reach out to me and I can put you in touch with Miguel.

Entrance road near Snowy Cotinga House - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

October 9, 2021

Each year, eBird coordinates a Global Big Day that takes place sometime in early May, while during the last few years, eBird has also organized a Global Big Day during October. This autumn, the day fell on October 9.

The goal of the Big Day is a coordinated effort in which birders around the world upload their sightings to eBird from a set 24-hour time period. As the day progresses, one can see the sightings roll in, in real time. The last Global Big Day was on May 8, 2021 and over 50,000 participants submitted over 140,000 checklists, representing 7,331 total bird species! As Laura and I had the full day free to explore in Bocas del Toro, we tried to see as many species as reasonably possible. 

Passerini's Tanager - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Several other teams of birders were participating in Bocas del Toro province. Laura and I set off on our own and we were pretty pleased with how our day went!

We ate breakfast at dawn, had a short delay while the skies opened with heavy rain, but by 7 AM were exploring the road near Snowy Cotinga House. Sightings came in hot and heavy and included many of my targets for this region of Panama: Pale-billed Woodpecker, Black-cowled Oriole, Bronzy Hermit, Olive-backed Euphonia and both Crimson-fronted and Olive-throated Parakeets. 

Pale-billed Woodpecker - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

As I binned a flock of Pale-vented Pigeons in a bare tree, a strange looking bird revealed itself as a female Snowy Cotinga. Like some of the above-mentioned species, Snowy Cotinga is a Bocas del Toro specialty for Panamanian birders. 

Snowy Cotinga - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Luckily, the rain held off. After an hour or so of birding towards the river, Laura and I retraced our steps and continued to explore down the road in the other direction. 

The road near Snowy Cotinga House, Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

We passed Snowy Cotinga House and then the small village of Charagre, adding a bunch of open country species including our first Morelet's Seedeaters of the trip. Our list was approaching 80 species. 

Short-tailed Hawk (dark morph) - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

We birded along a gravel road that ascended into some low hills just outside of town.  The eBird hotspot for this road is titled "Camino a Carbón". Laughing Falcon, Northern Bentbill and Piratic Flycatcher were some of the additions here, though we dipped on the Band-backed Wren that Mario Ocaña had tipped us off about. Still, it was great to meet Mario and chat for a few minutes about birds.

Baleja flavoguttata - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The sun was coming out and with it, a whole bunch of neat insects. I kept birding when I could, though there were frequent distractions with the insects that Laura was bringing to my attention! Some neat ones, for sure...

Edessa rufomarginata - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Macrocopturus sp. - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Agrosoma sp. - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Dyar's Swallowtail (Battus ingenuus) - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Xylophanes loelia - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Laura also spotted our first Strawberry Poison Dart Frog of the trip. The Bocas del Toro archipelago is famous for the insane colour and pattern diversity in this species, with individuals looking vastly different between some of the islands. Here in Charagre, they appeared rather typical. 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio) - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

We returned to the Snowy Cotinga House for an early lunch and brief rest. It had been a very productive morning and we were pleased with our total of 95 bird species. Feeling recharged, we headed back out around 11:30. 

While planning our time in Bocas del Toro, I realized that I had a shot at three potential life birds. The first, Three-wattled Bellbird, spends this time of year along the coast and is sometimes seen from the canopy tower at Tranquilo Bay and several other offshore locations. It is really tricky on the mainland, however, and I did not realistically think that I had a shot at it. The other two species were Canebrake Wren and Paint-billed Crake. Miguel tipped me off to a great Canebrake Wren location, and that is where we headed next. The birds cooperated right away - check!

Canebrake Wren - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The Canebrake Wren used to be called the Plain Wren, but that single species was recently split into three: Cabanis's, Canebrake and Isthmus Wrens. The Canebrake Wren is perhaps not the most exciting species, but a life bird is a life bird!

Canebrake Wren - Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

It is said that if bananas were gold, the Changuinola area would be the richest region in the world. Endless rows of Chiquita bananas grow in massive plantations, with most being exported out of Panama. Of interest to local birders, several banana dumping grounds are created for those bananas which are not up to export standards. 

Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

These open areas are akin to sewage lagoons in North America, as far as birders are concerned. The rotting bananas attract innumerable flies (and in turn, shorebirds), while the partially flooded landscape proves attractive to herons, shorebirds and ducks. 

Ruddy Turn-banana - Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

As you can see in the image below, they are not the most scenic birding conditions. In mid-day tropical heat, the smells are almost as bad as the temperatures. But in the name of Global Big Days, we put up with the conditions for the productive birding opportunity! 

Shorebirding at Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

For an hour and a half Laura and I birded a banana lagoon just west of Changuinola. It was crucial to our big day effort as we added around 30 new species. Hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were present along with a few Blue-winged Teals. Heron-types included Glossy Ibis and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron among the more common ones. Purple Gallinule and White-throated Crakes were present. But it was the shorebirds that really stole the show. 

Western Sandpiper - Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Least Sandpiper - Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

We noted 11 species of shorebirds. A reasonable showing, though even more species are possible on the best days. Three Pectoral Sandpipers tripped the eBird filter; they are a scarce migrant in Panama but October is the time of year that they pass through. 

Pectoral Sandpiper - Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

All of our scanning paid off when a crisp, buffy juvenile Baird's Sandpiper appeared. This species breeds in the Arctic and winters in southern South America, but they are an uncommon to rare migrant in Panama. Most fly right over. 

Baird's Sandpiper - Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Laura and I were melting more than a little in the mid-day sun. We scoped the shorebirds one final time before making a hasty retreat to the air conditioning of our rental vehicle. Two final additions to our Big Day appeared on the way out: a flyover Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and a perched White-tailed Kite. 

White-tailed Kite - Basurero de Finca 30, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

We retreated to the Snowy Cotinga House for a little bit in the afternoon, recharging our batteries so to speak after a long day in the sun. But with the clock ticking it was soon time to go. We headed north of Changuinola this time. Our destination was another set of banana lagoons near the town of California. 

Birding at Basurero de California, Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama

These lagoons were not nearly as productive since shorebird habitat was limited. However, since the afternoon was turning into evening, birdsong had picked up. We added Little Tinamou, Great Antshrike, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Black-throated Wren. The stars of the show, however, were the crakes. Amongst the numerous White-throated Crakes we picked out at least two Paint-billed Crakes by their purring call. Try as we might, they remained hidden in the long grass and so we had to settle for heard-only additions to our life list. 

With daylight waning, we made it to our last stop: San San Pond Sak (California). This area of pasture and wetlands is very close to the Costa Rica border, north of Changuinola and beyond the town of California. Numerous interesting birds had been reported here recently including Gray Hawk, Hoffmann's Woodpecker and Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. Unfortunately, the evening was getting on when we arrived and so we only had a short amount of time to explore here. We did not see any of the big targets, but we added almost 10 species to our Big Day effort including Gray-breasted Crake, Bat Falcon, Brown Jay and Thick-billed Seed-Finch. 

Masked Treefrog (Smilisca phaeota) - Snowy Cotinga House, Charagre, Bocas del Toro, Panama

We returned to Snowy Cotinga House in the dark. It had been a very full day, but quite a good one! Our final three additions happened during a brief night-hike: Crested Owl, Middle American Screech-Owl and Common Pauraque - all were heard-only. When it was all said and done we had tallied around 145 species of birds. As a whole, 261 species were noted from Bocas del Toro province during the Global Big Day. Congrats to all the birders who made this possible!

No comments: