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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Bocas del Toro and the Western Highlands

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: We began this year’s Western Panama trip with several days of birding in the beautiful Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Staying at the very comfortable and well named Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge which is situated near the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos and adjacent to the national park allowed us ready access to the many islands of the archipelago and to the nearby mainland. The lodge ground and trails revealed lots of charismatic male Golden-collared Manakins, busy flocks of Scarlet-rumped Tanagers in the clearings, more reticent pairs of Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Black-crowned Antshrikes and White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens in the understory, an array of hummingbirds in the flower gardens including several cooperative Bronzy Hermits and two male Green-breasted Mangos and a daily commute from Red-lored, Mealy and Blue-headed Parrots and the impressive Montezuma Oropendola which pass by the observation tower at close range. Off the main island we spent a few days exploring the coastal forests where species like Pale-billed Woodpecker, a male Snowy Cotinga (with a bit of effort this year), Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Northern Jacana, Bat Falcon and Pied Puffbird call home. Along the coast we found Collared Plover, and a few miles offshore we stopped in at an idyllic island with breeding Red-billed Tropicbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies. On one day we also visited the lone trans-continental highway that winds up and over the mountains through a low pass at roughly 4000 ft in elevation. In these cooler and smaller statured forests we marveled we found the weather to be a bit too good, as full sun tends to depress bird activity in cloudforest. Nevertheless we had some excellent finds including a wonderful experience with the scarce Lattice-tailed Trogon, a huge mixed flock where migrants such as Red-eyed and Philadelphia Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler and Baltimore Oriole joined more “exotic fare” including Speckled Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper. Along a rushing rocky creek we had good views of a family group of Torrent Tyrannulets, and near the top of the highway we located a huge squad of Black-faced Grosbeaks and some flowering shrubs that were attracting Purple-throated Mountaingems and Green-fronted Lancebills. 

For the second half of the tour we were based out of the town of Cerro Punta, a small agricultural town tucked in on the slopes of the impressive 11,400 foot high Baru Volcano. Surrounded by well-forested slopes and two large national parks this highland haven offers excellent access to the full suite of Talamanca endemics shared by Panama and Costa Rica. Declared by international organizations as a avian diversity hotspot these mountain ranges harbour nearly 40 endemic species of birds, and a wealth of specialized plants and other taxa. Here we explored via truck and foot, finding birds like Ruddy Treerunner, Prong-billed Barbet, the enigmatic Wrenthrush (which we saw extremely well this year), quirky pairs of Yellow-thighed Finches, the dazzling Violet Sabrewing, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers and, of course, the exquisite Resplendent Quetzal. Perhaps the rarest species that we enjoyed this year was Maroon-chested Ground-Dove; an enigmatic bird that we were able to watch for over a minute out in the open near a small farmhouse on the slopes of Volcan Baru. 

On our final day of the trip we dropped down to the pacific slope lowlands, where encountered a new suite of birds. A trip to a private reserve resulted in excellent views of Orange-collared Manakins grabbing berries from fruiting trees, Lesson’s Motmots sitting in the shade at very close range, a pair of cooperative Spot-crowned Euphonias eating papaya and a wealth of hummingbirds swirled around on feeders just feet in front of us. We finished the trip up in the rice fields and pastures around the town of David, where we located a couple of Veraguan Mangos feeding on flowers, marveled at a huge flock of Blue-winged Teal and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks out in the rice paddies, and found a few birds more common in the open dry savannahs, such as the tiny Pearl Kite, colourful Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and Orange-chinned and Brown-throated Parakeets. 

The trip offers an amazing array of habitats and landscapes all conveniently close to one another and using only two quite excellent lodges. On our 2019 trip we found 335 species of birds (narrowly a record for us on the tour) and 11 species of mammals in a short 8 days, including an impressive 29 species of hummingbirds and species of 29 tanagers. It was a fantastic trip, and I can’t wait to return next year. 

IN FULL: Our flight out to the Bocas Archipelago from Panama City was at 9am, so we elected to have an early breakfast so that we could make a short birding stroll around the grounds of our hotel, which is situated right along the Panama Canal at the base of the Amador Causeway. The grounds are well vegetated, with open clearings, hedgerows and large fruit bearing trees lining the roads. This habitat mix proved an excellent introduction to the birds of the central canal zone, as over the course of almost an hour we recorded about 40 species including such colourful and quintessentially neotropical birds such as Keel-billed Toucan, Yellow-crowned Parrot and Crimson-backed Tanager. Some, like the nearly ubiquitous Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Blue-gray Tanager and Clay-coloured Thrush would over the course of the tour become like old friends. But a few species, like the couple of foraging Garden Emeralds, female Barred Antshrike or the pair of Rusty-margined Flycatchers would be birds that we would only see on this early morning walk. Along the pacific entrance to the canal we watched as huge container ships started the nearly half-day journey across to the Caribbean, with a few Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Royal Terns escorting them northwards. Fruiting trees along the path held tropical species such as Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonias, Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet along with some migrants from the north; including several Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers and even a perched Broad-winged Hawk. In short it was just a great start to the tour, and whetted the appetite for our journey through the western reaches of the country.  

After the short walk we took taxis to the small and easily navigated domestic airport and were soon on our way for the one-hour flight to Bocas. We passed over a lot of closed canopy forest with little to no visible development and then briefly crossed part of the open Caribbean Sea before beginning our descent over the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. These near coastal islands are fringed with red and white mangroves. The larger islands are heavily forested, some with small clearings and seaside settlements, but most largely intact. Around the islands from the air it is easy to see the many coral reefs, white sandy flats and brilliantly coloured water that makes this area so attractive to residents and tourists alike.  

We landed, collected our luggage, and were met by one of our hosts who ushered us into a waiting bus for the short ride over to the dock. Birding, and indeed any travel in the region is primarily accomplished by boat. Bocas town serves as the capitol of the province of Bocas del Toro, and is home to somewhere between 5000 and 10000 people (censuses here are highly imprecise as they have no mail service and the counting is done door to door). The town fringes the Southeast corner of the island, and the main road parallels the coast with every building having docks and multiple boats behind. The Tranquillo Bay Lodge has a small fleet of craft of various sizes and capabilities, and we experienced our first taste of island life by taking one of these craft on the nearly half-hour journey south. Along the way we passed countless small mangrove islands, small shacks and large houses on stilts or tucked into the mangroves, fishermen paddling in small dugout canoes, and tourists manning sailboats in the bay. A small pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins caused us to stop briefly, and while watching the dolphins surfacing in front of a small mangrove cay we picked out a small flock of Black Terns skittering along the surface in a sheltered bay.  

The people of Bocas seem to lead a semiaquatic life, with the sea being the primary source of entertainment, nourishment and travel. Our base for the first half of the tour is the modern and very comfortable Tranquillo Bay Eco-lodge that is nestled in the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos and adjacent to a National Park. We pulled in to the dock and walked up to the main lodge house, where we were met with refreshingly cold drinks and a short introductory meeting. After checking in and getting a bit organized we ate lunch, and then, as it was quite hot in the early afternoon decided to take a short break before reconvening for the afternoon’s birding at 3pm. A few folks elected to take the time off by snorkeling off the dock, where there are coral heads just offshore and a nice array of marine life. Some others wandered around the cabins checking out the thickets of flowers and finding territorial Rufous-tailed and Blue–chested Hummingbirds to be common here, still others took a short nap. 

At three we met in front of the cabins where we began by birding the open gardens around the base of the lodge’s canopy tower. Flowering Verbena shrubs were attracting a few Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and in the denser bushes we picked out a few Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warblers and Bananaquits. An Olive-sided Flycatcher was briefly perched up in the high canopy, but in uncharacteristic fashion, it quickly departed and failed to come back to its perch (like a proper pewee is supposed to). We then set off on the forest trail behind the lodge, where most of the walk was on a well-drained gravel pathway (though we certainly did find some muddy sections near the back). Near the trailhead we located a very vocal flock of Tawny-crested Tanagers along the trail, and with some maneuvering were able to see a couple of the handsome Black and orange males and brownish females as they busily foraged just above the ground. We found the forest interior to be fairly quiet, although a pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes were a nice find along a shallow creek. Perhaps the most noteworthy sighting in the woods was not a bird at all, but rather a small troupe of extremely vocal White-faced Capuchin Monkeys that were crashing around in the trees above the trail, pausing to glare and chitter down at us from various angles. We even saw a couple of smaller monkeys walking along on the forest floor, providing really excellent views. We spent the bulk of our time out in a section of more open pastureland, where the local lodge guides, Ramon and Natalia, have a small property that is liberally stocked with fruiting plants and flowers. From the sheltered comfort of Natalia and Ramon’s top deck we watched a parade of birds coming in to browse on the fruits. Perhaps the most conspicuous species was Golden-collared Manakin, with several males zipping around the cabin and grabbing small berries from the surrounding bushes. Some dazzling Scarlet-rumped Tanagers put in a good showing here too, as did Red-eyed Vireos, a female-plumaged Red-capped Manakin, Black-cheeked Woodpecker and a few Masked Tityra. Out in the grassy field adjacent to their property we picked out a cooperative Olive-crowned Yellowthroat that was singing quite well in the late afternoon sun. A couple of Acadian Flycatchers, and two Yellow-bellied Elaenias were bouncing around some larger bushes out in the grass, providing some more subtle colours in contrast to the adjacent tanagers. Also out in the shrubs we picked out a nearly adult male Green-breasted Mango; a quite large and showy hummingbird that sports a bright purple tail. This is a bit of an enigmatic species in Bocas, occurring mostly in the wet season and then simply vanishing for parts unknown in early to mid-November. In our previous WINGS tours we had missed this species by about two weeks, so it was a happy surprise to see one this year.  

We returned to the lodge grounds in the early evening, and part of the group elected to climb up to the top of the local canopy tower, where we amused ourselves for some time watching pairs of loud Red-lored and Mealy Parrots and a few Pale-vented Pigeons fly by right past at eye level. Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts also showed well, zipping by just a bit overhead and clearly showing their white throats and flanks. Amongst the Swallow-tailed Swifts we picked out a couple of more robust and almost square tailed all dark swifts which proved to be Black Swifts; a scarcely encountered species in Panama. Small flocks of Cattle Egrets passed by underneath us heading to roost, and as the sunset began to liven up the western skies in a wonderful palette of fiery orange we saw a couple of Green Ibis fly out to an isolated patch of mangroves. Just before we descended the tower we spotted a single Lesser Nighthawk flying high in the sky, and a few participants walked out past their cabins just after dark to find a Short-tailed Nighthawk cruising over the treetops. For what was basically a travel day the bird list took quite some time to go over, with a remarkable 85 species over the course of the day! 

On our first full day of the tour we spent the majority of the day birding directly from boats. The United Fruit Company developed the Bocas lowlands as a site for large-scale banana plantations and to that end also hand dug a 7-mile long canal a bit inshore so that they could transport bananas by barge between the Changuinola River and the town of Bocas without dealing with the stronger ocean waves. Though the canal is no longer used for fruit shipments it is kept open by locals as a thoroughfare. Over much of its length the forest has regrown, with large overhanging trees, and the roughly 25-foot wide canal offers excellent access to this roadless area. By lashing two boats together and very slowly motoring or coasting along, stopping wherever bird activity dictates it makes for quite a unique and very productive birding area. On our way over to the canal we encountered a bit of rain just before Bocas Town, which thankfully eased off and then ended just as we reached the canal mouth.  

The first few kilometers of the canal were quite rich in birds. Around the entrance there are several large cleared areas with dense bushes and grassy patches and a few large trees. Here we were successful in locating a perched male Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, a local specialty that in Panama is best found at the canal. A pair of Thick-billed Seed-Finch was nearby, which allowed for a nice comparison of these similar species. Also in the weedy clearing were a couple of perched Dickcissels, an annual but somewhat scarce migrant in Panama. Pairs of Red-lored and Mealy Parrots (and the occasional Blue-headed Parrot) flew overhead, and at one point a few Olive-throated Parakeets whizzed by before wheeling around and landing on the top of a bare tree for us to enjoy. Throughout the first few hours we heard the unmistakable wing snaps of displaying White-collared Manakins (here of the largely yellow Almirante race), which unfortunately (apart from one male that flew across the canal) largely stayed stubbornly back in the vegetation. The canal is often excellent for Kingfishers, and over the course of the morning we noted multiple Amazon and Green Kingfishers and singles of Belted, Ringed and American Pygmy; giving us an impressive five of the six species of new world Kingfishers in one morning. A fruiting fig tree along the canal bank kept us busy for a while, as we watched Grey-headed Chachalaca, Clay-coloured Thrush, Grey Catbird and Olive-backed Euphonias coming in to snatch away the small red fruit. The best bird near the fig though had to be the immature White-crowned Pigeon that was perched across the canal from the fruit. These large navy-blue pigeons are highly seasonal in a couple of isolated sections of the Panamanian Caribbean coastline. It had been several months since Natalia and Ramon had seen one in the area, and was the first time we had ever recorded the species in Panama on a WINGS tour. With the short burst of rain in the early morning a lot of birds were perched up in the increasingly sunny mid-morning in an attempt to dry out. We picked out over a half-dozen Roadside Hawks, a few Common Black-Hawks, lots of Pale-vented Pigeons and several soggy groups of Groove-billed Anis as we cruised along the canal. As the air dried out we witnessed a small lift-off of migrant Turkey Vultures heading east towards Colombia, and with them picked out a few more Lesser Swallow-tailed and several Grey-rumped Swifts, as well as dozens and dozens of migrating Barn and foraging Mangrove Swallows.  

We stopped at the midway point at a purpose-built dock with an outhouse on it, perhaps a unique structure? Many participants got a chuckle when we pulled out a white toilet seat to carry into the shack, though the resident Lesser White-lined Bats that roost under the dock seemed slightly less enthusiastic about our arrival. Likely due to the bright sun and lack of any wind or cloud cover the bird activity definitely dropped by late-morning, so we covered the back half of the canal more quickly, reaching the marshes near the mouth of the Changuinola River before lunchtime. The open grass and hyacinth patches near the river held our first Northern Jacanas, as well as lots of Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and calling White-throated Crakes. Just before we reached the actual river we stopped to admire an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron that was perched in the shade a few feet in the woods. Typically, this species occurs only along the Pacific coast of the country, but a few individuals seem to frequent this canal on the Caribbean side. Often these birds are quite shy here, but this individual remained sitting for several minutes as we maneuvered the boats around for clear photographs.  

Arriving in the wider Changuinola River we turned upstream and slowly motored about a mile or so up, scanning the heavily vegetated riverbanks that are choked with floating mats of hyacinth and lily, with patches of reeds and open sheltered bays. It’s a perfect habitat for marsh-loving birds, and we soon tallied an impressive number of new species including lots of Common Gallinule, a few American Coot, Anhinga, Black-necked Stilt, Pied-billed Grebe and Blue-winged Teal. The heron show here was quite diverse, with Tricolored and Great Blue Herons joining the throngs of Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets and a few Green Herons and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. The grassy verges of the riverbank supported impressive numbers of Groove-billed Ani, but by carefully looking at all the black birds sitting in the shrubs we eventually found one Red-breasted Meadowlark. Further upstream near where we stopped for a picnic lunch we found an unusually large group of Glossy Ibis, a perched Black Tern which allowed us a quite close approach, our first Osprey, and a small flock of Lesser Scaup, as well as distantly perched Peregrine Falcon and Crested Caracara. It’s a testament to the remoteness of the area that the coastline west of the river has only a few scattered farms in it, and only one road with little to no agriculture along the roughly 17 mile stretch to nearby Costa Rica.  

After lunch we motored downstream to the river mouth, where a good-sized flock of Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls were milling around in the frothier water where the river met the sea. In the calmer water just upstream from the mouth we stopped to admire a foraging Gull-billed Tern (a scarce bird on the Caribbean coast of Panama) before we pulled up to the beach to get off the boat for a bit and stretch our legs. Along the sandy beach we tracked down a nice assemblage of waders, with Collared Plover the definite standout. We found several of these long-legged and elegant plovers, happily in their full breeding plumage complete with chestnut patches on their crowns and with nearby Semipalmated Plovers for ready comparison. Little groups of Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone ran along the shore, and we picked out Black-bellied Plover, Least Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet and Spotted Sandpiper as well. On the opposite bank of the river we found a single Marbled Godwit sitting in with a group of Neotropical Cormorants, and amongst the Royal Terns we picked out a single Caspian Tern. The walk was punctuated with some interesting beach combing, with various people in the group finding everything from pretty snail shells and sprouting coconuts, to glossy multi-coloured seeds and even a fairly sophisticated high-heeled shoe.  

As the sea conditions were quite calm, and the small swell was running in the direction that we wanted to travel we opted to take the open water route back towards Bocas Town rather than the slower trip back through the canal. Our destination was a large sea-stack island two miles off the shore of Isla Colon which serves as a breeding colony for several dozen pairs of elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds and many Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Although small, the island is stunning, rising directly up from the sea a few hundred feet, with sea arches on the surfward side, palm trees clinging to the lower slopes and dangling vines stretching down across the volcanic cliff faces from the forested top of the hill. We estimated at least 30 Red-billed Tropicbirds swirling around the island, landing on the water in front of us or on the cliff faces, or flying close enough that we could see the individual feathers in the tail. Several pairs were circling high above and performing tandem aerial courtship flights, a truly impressive sight against the azure sky and a few were even sitting on the cliff just a few feet above our boats. A mass of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled above us as well, with several males perched nearby with half-inflated red throat pouches. Brown Boobies were plentiful, and we spotted several fuzzy white chicks perched along the shoreline rocks, looking like oversized bags of cotton balls with short bills and ungainly giant feet. As if that sensory overload was insufficient we also spotted a Peregrine Falcon that was hanging above the island and generally harassing the tropicbirds. Along with the seabirds we found a few surprises in the vegetation, with Yellow Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher perching up above us and a Green Ibis (quite a curious sighting at this location) flying over the boats and perching in one of the sea caves. We stayed in the lee for quite some time, soaking in the view and photographing the boobies and tropicbirds, but eventually we took the short ride back to sheltered waters inland of Isla Colon. Although our luck with the rain had been good, with the entirety of the birding time in the canal and river dry and even sunny we could see on the horizon towards the lodge a heavy band of clouds. Just minutes before reaching the dock we intersected the precipitation, which meant that we arrived back in the late afternoon quite soaked, and also somewhat sunburnt. After some time off we gathered for a short and successful vigil for Short-tailed Nighthawks around the cabins, and then headed down to the main lodge for dinner, stopping to admire a sitting Savage’s Foam Frog (a very large terrestrial forest frog) and a perched Red-eyed Treefrog that was sitting on some bare twigs at the bottom of the staircase to the lodge common area. Dinner was punctuated with some excellent travel anecdotes, and also a short disruption as we hastened out on the balcony to look at a family group of Crab-eating Raccoons that were in the top of a nearby fruiting tree.  

For our second full day in Bocas we departed Tranquillo Bay early bound for the mainland. This roughly 45-minute boat ride is quite scenic, passing through countless mangrove islands and tiny settlements before reaching Porto Robalo where we disembarked. As we rounded the south end of Isla Bastimentos heading south we were pleased that the 11,000-foot high ridgeline of the sierra was not shrouded in clouds. Apart from less than a minute of sprinkles in the late afternoon we had an entirely rain day. We arrived at the small dock in Punta Robalo in good time, and started birding even before disembarking the boats. Old dock pilings along the shore were acting as perfect perches for a nice array of birds including our first Sandwich Terns and an immature Brown Booby. We spent the first hour of the day along the road from Punta Robalo to the main Bocas highway. This road passes through a mixture of pastureland, forest, banana plantations and a few very small villages, offering excellent access to a wealth of birdlife that prefers more open habitats. In the pastures, which were all partially flooded due to the season we located a single Wood Stork among the throngs of Egrets and Herons, a Giant Cowbird lurking near a couple of horses, some foraging Green Ibis and an impressive number of roosting Turkey Vultures, doubtless just pausing for the night before continuing their long journey south. In the larger trees lining creeks and hedgerows along the road we picked out perched Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots, as well as a vocal group of Brown Jays, a few Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and Keel-billed Toucan and our first Collared Aracari. Part of the group spotted a distant male Black-crowned Tityra sitting up in a bare tree, but it unfortunately flew off before everyone had a chance at the scope. A closely sitting Golden-hooded Tanager, a riot of black, blue and gold, was more cooperative as it sat just above the road for a time. Out in the grassier sections we watched male Red-breasted Meadowlarks courting (and mating) with the noticeably smaller and browner females, and with some coaxing were happy to find a male Morelet’s Seedeater (a recent split of White-collared Seedeater largely confined to the Caribbean slope of Central America). As is often the case in open tropical lowlands we found a few raptors during the walk down the road, with perched Roadside and Broad-winged Hawks and a flyby from a White-tailed Kite, a wonderfully buoyant and starched-white bird with glossy black wing patches.  

Since the skies were still largely cloud-free the temperature started climbing in the mid-morning, so we elected to leave the Punta Robalo Road behind and we drove to a petrol station at the junction with the trans-continental road for a comfort stop. Since it’s hard for a group of birders to exit the bus without looking around, the stop turned into a bit of a birding location. Behind the building in a rather skuzzy looking vegetated pond we found a couple of Boat-billed Herons roosting in the dense trees, looking like somewhat grumpy dwarves with oversized noses and a perpetual downward glare. The pond also played host to several loafing Spectacled Caiman, a young Purple Gallinule that seemed intent on becoming a woodpecker as it ran up a nearly vertical tree trunk overhanging the water. A pair of Ringed Kingfishers were fishing around the pond, and in the trees we picked out a pair of Streak-headed Woodcreepers and a single Cocoa Woodcreeper, and, (it must be said) a pair of highly desirable House Sparrows around the café. We then began ascending the Atlantic slope side of the mountains, eventually reaching the continental divide at a bit over 4000 ft in elevation.  

Our first stop was at a well-known (in birding circles) location named after the property owner who attempted to build a small ecolodge along a creek just off the road. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, but some of the trails off the highway are still extant, and the properties old gardens can still be excellent birding. With the high water in the rushing creek we decided to stay out on the road, standing on the bridge which offers a great makeshift canopy tower and an excellent view of a wonderfully forested valley.  

We found the area, and much of the slope to be relatively quiet over the course of the morning, likely due to the sunshine, which conversely to the comfort of visiting birders seems to cause montane birds to run for cover. Nonetheless at our first stop we found a flock of birds coming in to some fruiting melostomes. Palm Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos formed the bulk of the birds, but we picked out a few Bay-breasted and Tennessee Warblers, Scarlet-rumped, White-lined and Blue-grey Tanagers and two quite bright Philadelphia Vireos as well. The rushing rocky creek below the bridge was hosting a couple of handsome Torrent Tyrannulets, a flashy little silver-grey and black flycatcher that forages along whitewater creeks. A little flock of Grey-rumped Swifts came over us at one point, with several birds low enough for us to discern their pale rumps against the dark green of the adjacent hills. A few kilometers further up the road we stopped at a traditional curve that seems to regularly host mixed species flocks. We found this location to be quiet as well, although we did add our first Olive-striped Flycatcher, a couple of Blackburnian Warblers and a lovely male Olive-backed Euphonia to our growing day list (and a repeat visit later in the afternoon would produce a head-spinning array of birds in a huge swirling mixed flock).  

From here the road climbed steeply up to the continental divide, where a short side road along the ridge leads to a tall telecommunications station and offers access to some patches of higher forest. A huge pacific storm hit this area particularly hard a few years ago leaving large sections of the ridgeline forest heavily damaged with torn and twisted trees down and most of the leaves stripped from the trees that stayed upright. In the intervening years many of the trees had recovered fairly well, though the understory was still very tangled and there seemed to be a general lack of flowering shrubs and fruiting trees.  

Here we took lunch along the quiet road, and afterwards spent some time walking along the road to check the flowering bushes for hummingbirds and to listen for any sign of roving mixed flocks. One small flock of birds did come up to the road edge from the forested valley below, led by a group of Common Chlorospingus, an attractive sparrow that often forms the nucleus of mixed flocks in the area. Along with the Chlorospingus were an Olive-striped Flycatcher, a pair of Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens that uncharacteristically were foraging well off the ground, and Black-and-White Warbler and Tropical Parula. Further down the road our attention was pulled to an area with several pink-flowering shrubs. Feeding on the flowers we found a male and a female Purple-throated Mountaingem; a write-in species for the trip, and one of the rare hummingbirds where the female is markedly more attractive, with a copper-orange chest and bold white eyeline. A couple of dark looking Green-fronted Lancebills put in appearances here too, showing off their namesake straight and thick bill to good effect. We found a few other species along the walk, such as a calling and perched up Dusky-capped Flycatcher, a female Tawny-capped Euphonia and a pair of very cooperative Yellow-faced Grassquits, but it was not until we started driving back towards the main road that we encountered another flock. This second flock had nearly two dozen Black-faced Grosbeaks, an attractive species clad in sunny yellow, grey and black that is often a tricky species to encounter.  

By this point in the early afternoon the clouds had closed in, happily without any precipitation. The more overcast conditions seemed to spur the local birds into action and we found roadside stops to be much more productive than they had been in the sunny morning hours. A few kilometers down from our lunch spot we stopped at a wider pullout, and were happy to find a small but active flock foraging in the trees along the road. Within the flock we picked out our first Chestnut-sided Warbler and Mistletoe Tyrannulet, as well as some more colourful fare such as a female Emerald Tanager and a pair of stunning Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. In the understory we played with a White-breasted Wood-Wren that furtively scooted back and forth below us, only occasionally popping into view between the large understory leaves. We then dropped a bit further down the road, stopping again at the curve where we had seen a few birds in the afternoon. A quick check revealed a few warblers in the adjacent trees, so we disembarked the bus for what we thought would be a short visit. Instead we spent well over an hour in the presence of a very large mixed flock that was repeatedly crossing the road and feeding in the adjacent trees, with lots of birds down at eye level and in good light for minutes at a time. It was one of those amazing experiences that could not have been scripted better. Literally dozens of birds were often visible at once, and it was at times difficult to know which direction to focus on. Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers worked the trunks of the trees, with busy groups of tanagers including Emerald, Golden-hooded, Blue-gray and Speckled and several Tawny-capped Euphonias, Green Honeycreepers and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis picking fruit from the canopy. Also attracted to the fruit were a couple of Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, lots of Blackburnian, Bay-breasted and Tennessee Warblers, Red-eyed, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers and a brightly coloured male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. For those participants who enjoy more of an identification challenge we had a few canopy dwelling flycatchers as well, including our first Yellow-margined and Grey-capped Flycatchers of the trip. Perhaps the most enjoyed species in the flock though was a male Purple-crowned Fairy that uncharacteristically appeared multiple times and perched on a nearly eye level branch for several minutes. These normally busy mid-canopy hummingbirds are stunning, with a snow white undertail and belly and bright emerald green back and often views are limited to quick flight views along the edge of the canopy.  

As the afternoon was by now waning we departed the magical corner and headed back towards the boat dock at Punta Rabalo. Although we had intended on driving directly there we were sidetracked often. Along the road we found a Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth hanging on the roadside wires, looking quite out of place, but perfectly comfortable as it loafed in what can only be described as full hammock position. These shaggier sloths are less common than the Brown-throated Three-toed, and generally are more nocturnal, making this mid-afternoon sighting quite special. Back on the Robalo Road we stopped to look for Greyish Saltator, and although we were not successful we enjoyed a study of a perched Tropical Pewee, some flyby Chestnut-collared Swifts and several Thick-billed Seedfinches, Blue-black Grassquits and Morelet’s Seedeaters. A bare tree was attracting a host of birds sitting up in the early evening sun, with migrants like Baltimore Oriole joining a male Masked Tityra, a pair of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and a little flock of Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers. We promised ourselves no more stops until the dock, but a Gartered Trogon that was sitting just over the road proved too tempting. When we left the bus to look at it more closely the bird actually flew in just over our heads, sitting on the roadside wires and occasionally turning around, like a gaudily dressed supermodel showing off to an adoring crowd. The boat trip back to the lodge was blissfully dry, and we arrived just at the tail end of dusk, tired but very happy with a great day in the field. 

After two full days of excellent weather luck the next morning dawned annoyingly overcast, with a light rain starting to fall just ten minutes before our appointed meeting time in the morning. We had initially planned to bird around the lodge grounds for a bit before breakfast, and this plan held only slightly modified, as we did a short big sit from one of the cabin verandahs, finding a quite cooperative Chestnut-backed Antbird that was foraging in the open near the cabin, a foraging Bronzy Hermit, and a nice mix of birds around the flowering shrubs in the garden before we headed to the main lodge building for breakfast.  

Rather than starting the birding day with a wet boat ride we decided to wait around the lodge until the weather began to clear. We spent a pleasant two hours or so on the lodge upper balcony, watching a steady parade of birds going about their business in the rain. A couple of perched White-crowned Pigeons were well appreciated, and at one point a mixed flock with several bright Blue Dacnis (made even brighter by the grey skies), Palm, Blue-gray, Summer and Plain-coloured Tanagers and a wonderfully cooperative pair of Tropical Gnatcatchers came by at eye level. Little breaks in the rain brought Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrots overhead, and there were always a few Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds vying for nectar at the lodges’ hummingbird feeders. One of the owners sons put out bananas on the fruit tables, and we were soon looking at Prothonotary, Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers grabbing quick bites of fruit, before a large Common Basilisk Lizard jumped up and took all the remaining bits of banana, scarfing them down like he had not eaten in weeks. The undoubted star of the show though was a Double-toothed Kite that flew in and perched in a very close bare tree, sitting out in the open in the rain for over a half hour before beginning to bathe. It was interesting watching the hawk open its wings and flare out all its feathers, turning and twisting on its perch to maximize the shower. A bit below the railing we had earlier located a mating pair of Giant Red-winged Grasshoppers (the females are easily 6 inches long) sitting on a large palm leaf. We conjectured that they would make easy prey for the kite, and sure enough, just after the hawk finished bathing he zeroed in on the insects and then swept down, skimming just over the verandah railing, grabbing the grasshoppers and then perching in another nearby tree to polish off its very own breakfast.  

By this time the rains appeared to be abating, and in the late morning we decided to brave the elements, heading just across the channel to the adjacent Isla Popa. This large island is quite close to the mainland at its southern end, and it supports several groups of birds (such as Toucans, Trogons, Tinamous and Fruitcrows that are not on Isla Bastimentos). Our hoped for clearing in the precipitation never really materialized, but we continued on, first checking a small mangrove-lined channel where we were unable to locate any of the Snowy Cotingas that often perch on prominent perches above the mangrove forest (we couldn’t really blame them for not perching up in the open given the weather). A couple of soggy looking Common Black-Hawks, a perched Peregrine Falcon and a quite active Keel-billed Toucan livened up our search a bit, but after a half-hour or so of looking we decided to wait until later to try again in better weather. Since we were already at Isla Popa we decided to stop at a small farmhouse dock in the mangroves so that we could get onto the island, mainly to look for some of the colourful ecomorphs of Strawberry Poison Dart Frog that are found on the forest floor here. In a somewhat similar fashion to the famous Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos the dart frogs in the Bocas del Toro archipelago have developed into an amazing array of colours, with various morphs dominating on each island. The prevailing theory is that the female frogs choose males by colour, and thus the preferences of the founding females on each island shaped the dominant colours of the frogs in subsequent generations. On some islands (like Bastimentos) the frogs are bright orange-red, but on Popa they are either dull orange backed with green legs, all bronzy-green with bluish legs, dark olive all over or olive with bright yellow legs. It’s a fascinating biological complex and the subject for many researchers with the Smithsonian Institute, which runs several field stations throughout Panama. Apart from the frogs we picked up a few birds, including a little group of Tawny-crested Tanagers and a quite impressively large spider (which we later identified as a Bolivian Wandering Spider; a large species which can inflict a painful and potentially dangerous bite to those silly enough to handle it).  

We returned to the lodge for lunch, and since the rains were still lightly falling spent a bit of down time. Some participants opted to snorkel out on one of the nearby reefs, returning of tails of bright corals, tubeworms, urchins and fish. Others birded from around their cabins, finding Stripe-throated and Bronzy Hermits at their flowers, or perhaps just relaxing in the proffered hammocks. By the late afternoon the rains had slackened further, although not quite ceased. We decided that we would just have to scrap our planned journey to the south end of Isla Popa to visit a local chocolate farm and the adjacent forests. Making the most of things though, we decided that the forest interior would be fairly dry (although muddy). About half the group elected to walk the trails, where we were soon successful in finding a single bright orange-red Strawberry Dart Frog hopping about on the forest floor. The frogs are poisonous, although not particularly so, obtaining the chemicals needed to produce their toxin by ingesting ants, a plentiful food source in the tropics. The walk produced a few new birds for us as well, with a couple of midstory flocks containing our first Dot-winged and White-flanked Antwrens, Lesser Greenlets, and American Redstart, as well as better views of a calling Black-crowned Antshrike, complete with its vibrating tail that seems to serve to pump it up for its bouncing vocalizations. We returned to the lodge in the early evening, stopping to admire some Flag-footed Bugs (Anisocelis flavolineata) that were sitting on the side of a trailside tree trunk. They are impressive bugs, with huge flanged flags on their hind legs that they apparently wave around in an intricate pattern to attract mates, like the insect version of a Marvelous Spatulatetail. When we arrived back at the lodge it had virtually ceased raining, so we elected to take a second attempt at Snowy Cotinga back at Isla Popa. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived there it was misting again, and although we improved on our views of Keel-billed Toucan and Common Black-Hawk, and added visuals of Lesser Nighthawk and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, and audio from a distant Laughing Falcon and a Little Tinamou we could not turn up any sign of a Cotinga. After dinner several participants spotted a Four-eyed Grey Opossum along the trail back to the cabins, providing a bit of mammalian excitement to the day as well. For an uncharacteristically wet day (it rains often at this time of year, but typically only for a brief spell rather than for all day) we managed to pack a lot in, and I think the mix of relaxation, a few new birds and a host of sealife and frogs kept everyone amply entertained. After some celebratory drinks and an excellent dinner we found ourselves a bit sad to leave this largely undiscovered Caribbean paradise and our gracious and excellent hosts, but eager to see what the mountains had to offer. 

Although the next day is largely a travel day we made the most of the mornings birding time by exploring some spots in the lowlands near Chiriqui Grande. Unlike the day before we awoke to a sunny dawn, and as we boarded the boats and bade farewell to our hosts we made a snap decision to make another attempt at finding Snowy Cotingas back on Isla Popa. This time, with more favorable weather, we were successful. A gleaming white male Snowy Cotinga was perched up in the morning sun, occasionally switching perches but showing extremely well. Like many male Cotingas, the Snowy Cotinga has swapped a song repertoire for a visual one. Perching in very obvious spots the male advertises to potential mates his fitness by being so intensely white and readily spotted. Restricted to the Caribbean slope of Central America, from Southeast Honduras to the Bocas region of Panama this species is often hard to track down without staked out males. Females, which are grey with dark spots across their breasts are very rarely seen, and the biology of the species is poorly understood.  

Once at the dock at Punta Robalo we met Ito Santamaria, our local leader for the highland portion of the tour and headed to the base of the mountains for a short and easy walk along a quiet road that leads to a small native village. The road passes through a mixture of cleared pastures, forest patches and creeks, offering a nice mix of habitats. We stopped under one of the thicker stands of trees, and were happy to start finding new birds right above the bus. A pair of Boat-billed Flycatchers were sitting up in the midstory, with some Black-crowned Tityra and a small group of boldly patterned Black-chested Jayes feeding a few trees away from the flycatchers and a wonderfully cooperative male Pale-billed Woodpecker hammering away on a small trunk just on the edge of the road. We then walked about a half-kilometer down the road, stopping wherever bird activity warranted. Along a shallow creek with large riparian trees we found a small but busy flock working the edge of the trees. A pair of vocal Cinnamon Becards were a nice treat as they foraged just a few feet in front of us. Up high in the same tree we picked out a pair of diminutive Pied Puffbirds sitting on a short bare branch, surely one of the most objectively cute birds in latin America. Several Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and Streak-headed Woodcreepers worked the main branches of the tree, and a nice selection of migrant warblers were feeding in the outer branches. In the thickets on the other side of the road we managed to coax a singing Black-throated Wren into full view, a feat that is not often achieved with this often very retiring Wren. The road ended at a small school, where our arrival caused the attending kids to come out to see what we were up to. We were soon surrounded by a few dozen eager kids, who were pointing out warblers overhead to us as we waited for our bus to pick us up.  

We then ascended the highway that crosses the divide towards the Pacific, making a stop about 2/3 of the way up to the reservoir where we initially thought that there was little activity. A calling Long-billed Gnatwren played hide and seek with us for a while, bouncing back and forth between two dense tangles and occasionally appearing in the open. A bit further down the road we found a small flock forging in some short trees, and we enjoyed excellent views of a male Green Honeycreeper and a pair of Checker-throated Antwrens (now confusingly called Checker-throated Stipplethroats) among a few Mistletoe Tyrannulet, Blue-gray and Emerald Tanagers and a male Olive-backed Euphonia. While watching the flock we heard a singing Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush across the street. As is often the case with this retiring species it took a little while to coax the bird down towards us, but eventually most in the group enjoyed good views as it bounced around in the shadows at the base of the hill. As we walked back to the bus things really became interesting, when a trogon flew in from somewhere downhill. We jockeyed for a good vantage point and were soon thrilled to see a Lattice-tailed Trogon staring down at us from the edge of the forest. This large and exquisite trogon is more commonly encountered in the Costa Rican portion of its tiny world-wide range, and is an exceedingly scarce species in Panama. After some hearty congratulations all around, and a bit of time spent watching a foraging Wedge-billed Woodcreeper that seemed oblivious to having ten pairs of binoculars trained on it from only a few feet away, we headed a bit more uphill, again stopping along the side road that leads to some communications towers.  

On this occasion, we found conditions were again unseasonably warm and sunny, but much as on our first visit we encountered a nice mix of birds. A few sickle winged White-collared Swifts were coursing along the ridgeline, often skimming just over the short trees along the road. We walked along one stretch of good forest, soon finding a very nice mix of birds in the roadside trees. A male Collared Trogon, here of the recently lumped Orange-bellied subspecies, Yellowish Flycatcher, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Spotted Woodcreeper and a Pale-vented Thrush joined a little group of Common Chlorospingus. Lurking in the understory we teased out a pair of Costa Rican Warblers, a cute species that looks like it is wearing a rugby helmet, and had quick views of a Grey-breasted Wood-Wren. Pink flowering shrubs were again attracting a few hummingbirds including a couple of Green-fronted Lancebill and our first White-tailed Emerald and White-bellied Mountaingem. Perhaps the most exciting find though occurred just close to our parked bus, when a slow-moving bird popped into view atop one of the adjacent trees. Its golden-yellow belly, navy blue-black throat and back, red eye and largish bill cinched the identification as a Blue-and-Gold Tanager; a rare mid-elevation species endemic to the Talamanca Mountains. After a nice packed lunch of sandwiches and freshly baked cookies we started the drive over to our highland hotel. A brief stop near the huge Fortuna Reservoir allowed us to top up on cold drinks and bags of locally produced (and delicious) plantain chips. 

The drive from the top of the divide down towards David and then west and back up to the flanks of Volcan Baru takes about 2.5 hours. As we descended it became quite obvious that the pacific flank of the continental divide has a more gradual slope, with wide valleys between the ridges. This makes the land easier to clear and cultivate, and in contrast to the steep forest-clad slope of the Atlantic side here we passed lots of open fields, housing developments (some quite modern and gated) and villages. Extensive orchards with orange and lime trees appeared as we began to ascend towards the volcano. Our base in the highlands is in the tiny town of Guadalupe, an agricultural town tucked onto the slopes of the impressive 11,400- foot high Volcan Baru. The volcano dominates the landscape, and the rich soils around the base of the main caldera are well suited to the growth of a wide array of fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee and wine. Our hotel is positioned near the center of the town and sits on a large plot of land that backs on to a rushing rocky creek and has several big fruiting trees and an array of hummingbird friendly feeders and shrubs. Though we arrived fairly late in the day it was still light enough to see the Lesser Violetears foraging in some bottlebrush trees along the lodge walkway, and to look at the stream of Cattle Egrets coming in to roost in the back of the property.  

The Talamanca Highlands spread across western central Panama and on into Costa Rica. This highland area has been long isolated from the mountainous areas of central America to the west and from the various ridges in far eastern Panama which carry on into the Andean range. The region experiences high annual rainfall, extensive cloud cover and cool temperatures, which has lead to the development of dense forests that are often laden with epiphytic growth. The regions isolation, combined with the complicated topography, amazingly diverse plant life and large land area has resulted in a startlingly unique avifauna. Just over 40 species of birds are endemic to this highland massif, making this one of the biodiversity hotspots in the new world. We spent our first full day in this highland wonderland exploring the top section of the Los Quetzales trail, a park service trail that is maintained between the ranger station above Guadalupe and the Boquette station about seven kilometers away on the other flank of the volcano. Although the trail in its entirety is quite steep and rigorous the first kilometer or so is comparatively flat, and offers excellent access to the higher elevation forest that is so crucial to many of the bird specialties of the region.  

Before we reached the trailhead though we stopped near the base of the hill up to the ranger station, where some large fruiting trees in a quite opulent garden had recently been hosting a male Resplendent Quetzal. This exquisite species is a signature bird of the highlands here, and the males, with their filamentous bright green tail feathers are often mentioned on short lists of the world’s most spectacular birds. During the hour or so that we lingered in the garden we found a wealth of new birds. Small flowering trees and shrubs were attracting several Slaty Flowerpiercers (which specialize in ripping holes in the bottom of the floral nectaries, largely bypassing the stamens), a few lovely Yellow-thighed Brushfinches; a striking talamanca endemic that is largely black with bright yellow pantaloons. Flame-coloured Tanagers and elegant looking Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers were perching up at the edge of the gardens, and feeding in the flowers just in front of us were several Scintillant Humminbirds and Lesser Violetear. Out on the open grass in the gardens were a few Yellow-faced Grassquits, a somewhat retiring Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush and our first Rufous-collared Sparrows. We were even able to observe a pair of Red-faced Spinetails at close range as they zipped back and forth among the bushier trees. As is often the case at elevation wood warblers were quite prominent, with lots of Black-throated-Green, Chestnut-sided and Wilson’s, a locally rare Hermit Warbler, and a beautiful trio of tropical residents; Slate-throated and Collared Whitestarts and the aptly named Flame-throated Warbler. The latter two species are endemic to the highlands, and are arguably some of the most attractive new world warblers. After an hour or so though the new birds had begun to taper off, and it was just then, with the sunlight hitting the treetops that a male Quetzal flew through the garden, appearing to disappear into the denser patch of woods downslope. Luckily for us though the next-door neighbor was watching out for Quetzals as well, and he saw the bird come in to the trees at the back of his property. He called Ito and we hurried down to his house, stationing ourselves at the edge of his cabbage garden. The Quetzal occasionally changed perches, but remained in view for over a half-hour, with its incredibly long tail dangling down like a gleaming emerald icicle in the sun. It’s hard to argue that trogons are fancy birds, that the Quetzals are the fanciest trogons, and that the Resplendent is the best of the lot. Apart from the elegant silhouette and incredible tail the bird sports an intensity of colour that is hard to believe; a rich scarlet chest and belly, luminescent emerald body and golden-green crest.  

Eventually we climbed back into our three 4X4 pickup trucks and made the ascent to the trailhead and ranger station, which sit about 2000 feet above the town at an elevation of 8300ft. While enjoying a mid-morning snack and restroom break we found our first diminutive Volcano Hummingbirds, including several perched males with their delicate lavender gorgets on full display. A few Talamanca Hummingbirds, a recent split from the more northern Magnificent Hummingbird, were buzzing about as well, providing quite a contrast in hummingbird sizes. WE signed in at the ranger station, and then set off for a morning walk down the Los Quetzales Trail, that winds around the valleys of the volcano through Volcan Baru National Park joining the towns of Guadeloupe and Boquette. The first hundred meters or so of the trail pass through some open hedgerows and gardens, and here we enjoyed close studies of Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, a pair of furtive Large-footed Finches, our first of several Mountain Elaenias and a busy little flock of Sooty-capped Chlorospingus which replaces Common Chlorospingus in the higher elevation forest. An attractive Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatcher appeared as well, spending several minutes just above the trail. Unlike the other three species in the family, which are thin, long-tailed crested birds that often perch up high on prominent perches this species is quite chunky and short tailed, spending a lot of time in the mid and understory.  

 Once in the forest, which here is tall and epiphyte laden, with a complex ground cover and a bewildering diversity of plants, we found the sunny and hot conditions to be depressing the normal mixed flock activity. Even without the customary roving flocks of birds though we encountered a lot of interesting species as we walked out the first half-mile or so of trail. The highland forests here support a particularly diverse group of ovenbirds, and over the course of the morning we found several of these often cryptic but fascinating birds. Perky and brightly coloured Ruddy Treerunners greeted us almost as soon as we entered the woods, clambering around on some trailside trees. A bit further down the trail we heard the telltale rattle of a Buffy Tuftedcheek, and with a bit of playback we were soon looking at a pair of these large and well-patterned ovenbirds as they moved around in the vines above the trail, often with their namesake cheeks flared out. A few small flocks contained some more highland specialties such as Yellow-winged Vireo and Fiery-throated Hummingbird, as well as a mix of wintering warblers and vireos. Near the farthest point in our walk we heard a Silvery-throated Tapaculo calling fairly close down the slope below us. We arranged ourselves appropriately and after a bit of patience about half the group saw the bird pop into view in a trailside tangle, pausing for almost a full two seconds and then vanishing into its own shadow. A little further down the trail, right where we had decided to turn around we found the bird of the morning. From well downslope we heard some unmistakably jay-like noises, and soon a pair of Silvery-throated Jays came up from the valley below, coming right up to the trail, and repeatedly showing well. This is a fairly rare and often very difficult to see upland jay that is endemic to highland forests in the Talamanca range. A deep navy blue in colour, they sport a bright silvery-white throat patch and eyebrow, making for quite a striking bird. WE made our way back to the ranger station, where we spent a bit of time looking at a distantly perched Bat Falcon, and then drove back to the hotel for lunch. 

After a brief siesta, we left in the mid-afternoon, driving up an incredibly rocky road that leads to a small private farm. The owners specialize in growing tree tomatoes, and after sampling a few of these tart but rich fruits I think most of the participants would have been happy to see these shiny orange or red fruits on the aisles of their home supermarkets. Our reason for the visit though was not to denude his trees of fruits, but rather to spend a bit of time (on comfortable chairs) watching the dozen or so hummingbird feeders that he has put up just below his house. Bird activity at the feeders was constant, with lots of Volcano and Talamanca Hummingbirds, White-throated Mountaingem, and Lesser Violetear constantly jockeying for position at the feeders. By carefully watching the birds we picked out a couple of Scintillants and one Stripe-tailed as well, and many a camera card was soon full of new photos. While we were watching the feeders, Ito was a bit further uphill, patiently searching for one of the more elusive montane species; the somewhat enigmatic Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Over much of its rather limited Central American range the species appears wherever large blocks of bamboo is seeding in the foothills and mountains as if by magic. Around the Volcan Baru area the species seems to be a scarce resident, occurring in fluctuating numbers but never completely disappearing. Sightings of this strikingly beautiful (perhaps the most attractive of the ground doves) bird are generally very brief and only in flight. Our luck was with us on this day though, when Ito spotted two flying into a thicket behind the feeders. We quickly rushed over and then quietly sat down in a nearby field, watching the thicket intently. It took about a half-hour but our efforts were rewarded when the two birds fluttered into view and perched a few feet off the ground for almost a minute before once again vanishing into the leaves. Apparently this property supports a small resident population (numbering fewer than 10 birds) that have learned to eat the fallen tree tomato seeds and larger grass seeds in the brushy fields on the slopes around the farm.  

After congratulating ourselves over our good fortune and a bit more time at the feeders, where we also ogled a male Malachite Spiny Lizard that was sunning himself on an adjacent tree trunk we took the bumpy road back down to the valley floor and then drove around to a side road where a patch of dense forest comes up from further downslope to meet the road. Here we spent about an hour watching the forest edge, especially over a somewhat messy slope where the local farmers discard their rotten potatoes (resulting in a prodigious number of small flies). A pair of very cooperative Rough-legged Tyrannuets sat up very nicely for our perusal. It’s a poorly known species, and one that always seems to be in a state of taxonomic flux being called Zeledon’s, or White-fronted or Rough-legged Tyrannulet depending upon the year and which world taxonomy you follow. Here too were our first good views of Hairy Woodpecker, here at the southern edge of its range where its coloration and habitat bear little resemblance to the Hairy Woodpeckers that are so well known across northern North America. Another familiar but seemingly out of place woodpecker was here too; with several Acorn Woodpeckers perched up in a high tree overhead. A Dark Pewee was a nice find as it sat atop a bare snag, looking much like a Greater Pewee covered in soot, and as the day began to close we played hide and seek with a furtive Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, which provided several good flight views as it rocketed across the road multiple times, with its orangey-rust tail glinting in the late afternoon sun.  

Normally on the second highland day of the tour we spend the first few hours of the morning on the deck of one of the Los Quetzales Lodge upper cabins which are nestled in the forest a few hundred feet above the town. This year though, we opted to skip the cabins so that we could spend more time birding a few spots around the gigantic Amistad International Park (an upland forest park that stretches well into Costa Rica and protects a significant percentage of the remaining highland and Caribbean slope forest in Panama). We started along a rocky road through partially cleared forest along the parks east-most margin. As is often the case throughout the world as soon as a road appears near forest the forest is cleared to make way for individual family farms. Tall trees remain though, and the walk took us up along a small rushing stream, past large copses of forest and small farms. It was again sunny, but over the course of a couple of hours we turned up some truly wonderful birds. Perhaps the highlight for some occurred when we heard a calling Wrenthrush along a forested section of creek. We slowly walked up the road, looking for a good vantage point close to where the bird was calling that would allow us to see into the undergrowth. Neither a wren or a thrush, this enigmatic little bird is endemic to the Talamanca highlands, and can be devilishly hard to see as it prefers to remain well hidden in dense tangles. Long regarded as an aberrant wood warbler or some type of thrush the species is now placed in its own monotypic family, the Zeledonidae. Over the course of a half-hour or so we were treated to quite good views the bird as it repeatedly crossed through a fairly open section of undergrowth, even stopping once or twice and displaying its bright orange crest. A close second for bird of the morning had to be the rufous morph Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl that we spotted high up in the canopy. Our angle was excellent, and the rusty little owl was fairly glowing in the morning sun as it called repeatedly, puffing out its throat with every toot. Flycatchers were fairly common along the trail, with some undeniably cute orangey Tufted Flycatchers perched on prominent branches below the trail and a pair of Black-capped Flycatcher, a pretty highland Empidonax flycatcher that somewhat resembles a spruced-up Buff-breasted Flycatcher, sitting along the trailside fence. We did encounter one nice mixed flock which contained some very showy Sooty-capped Chlorospingus and our first Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. As we walked back down towards the van we successfully found the Black-faced Solitaire that had been giving its ethereal song for much of the morning. IT was perched quite low, allowing us to study its delicate grey, rust and black plumage and bright red bill and legs at length in the scope. As we were watching it our attentions were captured by a family group of Prong-billed Barbets that were attending a large tree cavity just downslope. This yellowish toucan barbet is yet another Talamanca endemic, and one with a comical voice and social and engaging character. Just before we reached the trucks we picked out a singing Rufous-browed Peppershrike that was bouncing around in an emergent tree. After hearing several of these giant vireos over the previous two days it was very nice to actually track a cooperative one down.  

We then moved a bit further up into the park, checking in at the ranger station where we signed the visitors book and used the facilities. The clearing around the station proved a good site in and of itself. A few dozen elegant Blue-and-White Swallows were hawking insects around the treetops, and occasionally landing on the station roof. A little mixed flock kept us entertained here as well, with Ruddy Treerunner, another Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Streak-headed and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, a couple of Yellow-bellied Siskin and some excellent views of foraging Flame-throated Warblers. We even had a noisy flock of Sulphur-winged Parrots zip overhead, showing off their yellow wings to nice effect. We then entered the forest, taking the short loop trail that takes off just behind the station. With the sunny conditions and lack of recent rain the trail was quite firm, which made navigating the short steep section near the start quite easy. On the trail we found a pair of Large-footed Finches that behaved a bit better than the ones the previous day, even showing off their namesake feet to us. Further down the trail we vastly improved on our views of Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, with two birds sitting above the trail in a tangle of vines for several minutes. Here too were several perched Mountain Thrushes, another family group of Prong-billed Barbets and a trailside Wrenthrush that popped up in view briefly while we were trying to find a calling Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. By the time we finished the loop trail it was time to head back to the lodge for lunch.  

Afterwards many participants opted to take a short walk around the margins of the grounds. Flowering bushes around the building hosted many Lesser Violetear, a few Fiery-throated and Talamanca Hummingbirds and perhaps most excitingly two male Violet Sabrewings; a very large and luminescent purple hummingbird with large white tail spots. Along the rocky creek that marks the back of the property we found a fruiting tree that was being visited by a wide array of tanagers including our first Silver-throated, several Mountain Elaenia and a Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher. Around the small horse corral we enjoyed close up views of a Black Phoebe, and some perched Band-tailed Pigeons that were sitting at the top of a bare tree along the river. We walked back to the main lodge building along the road, and on the way stopped in at the driveway leading to Ito’s family farm. Here there was a row of orange flowering bushes that were attracting several female Scintillant Hummingbirds and another bird that was noticeably paler and larger, without any rufous in the tail. A close look revealed it to be a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a scarce wintering bird in Panama. Later when we mentioned the find to Ito he said that every year in October or November he sees one or two Ruby-throats around the valley, so perhaps the area serves as a migration corridor of sorts for birds heading to the pacific lowlands to winter.  

A brief early afternoon siesta followed, and then we departed for the entrance road and trail system in the private reserve of Volcan Lakes. These two small lakes are surrounded by an island of dense forest which is in turn surrounded by a vast swath of open agricultural land owned largely by the Jansen Coffee Company. The surrounding forest and twin caldera lakes are set aside as a natural reserve and are popular with local hikers, anglers and bird watchers. On the drive into the forest we stopped for a few birds that were flying in and out of a roadside hedgerow. The flock turned out to be comprised of Yellow-faced Grassquits, but while we were watching them we picked out a couple of Rufous-collared Sparrows and a quietly perched White-naped Brushfinch as well. The skies clouded over but never really threatened to drench us, which made the temperature quite pleasant but the lighting in the woods fairly dim. We walked about a kilometer down the road that winds around the first of the two lakes, stopping wherever there seemed to be some activity. Unlike most years we didn’t locate any really big mixed flocks, but there were still lots of species to keep us entertained. We found Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes to be quite common along the walk, though it did take a while to actually spot our first one (only to find one bathing in a roadside puddle a feet hundred meters further on). A small mixed flock not too far from our parked trucks contained another pair of White-naped Brushfinch as well as some quite furtive Slaty Spinetails (a handsome coal-gray and rufous species that tends to stay under the cover of dense vegetation) and some Rufous-breasted Wrens that were actually clambering around up in the canopy. A calling Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner remained stubbornly buried deep in the understory, but while we were waiting for the bird to respond or at least move a little bit from its chosen dense hiding place we were happy to watch as a male Green Hermit came in to a small pool for a late afternoon bath. Here too we managed to obtain prolonged looks at a pair of Costa Rican Brushfinch; a scarce resident here, and one that is generally very elusive before we started to walk back to the trucks. We made one more stop near the end of the day, at an area of open grass and brush that Ito had recently found a White-throated Flycatcher. This lowland tropical Empidonax is a genuine rarity in Panama, occurring only very locally in a small section of Chiriqui province. Unfortunately, we were not successful in relocating the bird, although the perched Streaked Saltator, dazzling bright Scarlet-rumped Tanagers and Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras were certainly nice. We arrived back at the lodge just as it became dark, with some time to organize for our final day in the field a bit before dinner.  

The next day was the final full day of the trip, and we packed up shortly after breakfast, departing the highlands with an eye for birding the pacific lowlands for much of the day before our early evening flight back to Panama City from the regional hub of David. Our first stop was at Macho de Monte; a forested curve in the road with an adjacent small hydroelectric project and a surprisingly deep but narrow canyon with rushing whitewater. We spent a remarkably productive hour in the area. We likely only walked about two hundred meters along the road, but managed to record over forty species of birds! We started by watching some fruiting trees just a bit below the road. Here we enjoyed excellent views of Silver-throated, Golden-hooded, Scarlet-rumped and Bay-headed Tanagers and several Buff-throated Solitaires feeding on fruits at eye level, a couple of Rufous-capped Warblers and Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens foraging in the understory and a male Green Hermit feeding on some bright red coral bean flowers. Crested Oropendolas flew overhead a few times, occasionally perching on distant treetops with their horn-coloured bill on display. We then turned our attentions to the dense tangle on the opposite side of the road, where we could hear a calling White-throated Spadebill. It took a little while to persuade the bird to land on an open perch rather than in the shade behind the cascade of huge leaves on the slope. But eventually the bird sat out in the sun for us for several seconds; long enough for us to soak in its bright golden and buffy tones, whitish throat and intricate head pattern. While we were studying the Spadebill a couple of Olivaceous Woodcreepers popped into view on a larger trunk just above the road. We then walked down to the falls, stopping in a fruiting tree that held a couple of female-plumaged White-ruffed Manakins, our first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and a cooperative Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. The narrow chasm under the bridge is impressive, with roaring whitewater in the creek and water dripping down the canyon walls. The manicured lawns along the side channel supported a pair of perky Buff-rumped Warblers, who were bouncing around on the ground and flashing their apricot-tinged pale rumps to excellent effect. As we walked back to the bus we were surprised to spot a Green-crowned Brilliant feeding just over the road edge and we tracked down a Smoky-brown Woodpecker that was quietly feeding near where we had parked. A couple of Blue-headed Parrots flew in and landed in an excellent spot for the photographers in the group, which turned out to be lucky for all of us. While we waited for the photo shoot to wrap up a pair of Golden-olive Woodpeckers flew into the nearby pines, showing well, if a bit distantly. 

We spent the rest of the morning at a new birding site dubbed Birding Paradise; a small Bed and Breakfast in an isolated pocket of forest that has an amazing array of hummingbird feeders and a nice array of birds along a series of short forest trails. The patio of the small lodge building is ringed with dozens of hummingbird feeders, and at each feeder was a whirling mass of hummingbirds. We were able to stand just a few feet away from feeding hummingbirds, some coming close enough to touch. At any given time, there were likely between 10-25 birds present, of six species. We spent a bit of time around the feeders upon our arrival, finding that the common species included richly coloured Crowned Woodnymph, White-necked Jacobin and Rufous-tailed and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds. With some patience we also found a couple of Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and a single Long-billed Starthroat. As we desired to cover the property grounds before the day became too hot we didn’t tarry too long on the deck. Heading down to the creek below the building we were soon staring at a huge fruiting fig out in an adjacent pasture that was full of tanagers, thrushes and euphonias intent on eating their weight in fruit. The tree was rather dense, making the birds pop in and out of view as they foraged. Among the more common species we picked out several handsome Bay-headed Tanagers, a migrant Swainson’s Thrush, a hulking Squirrel Cuckoo and a pair of Spot-crowned Euphonia; a generally scarce pacific lowland endemic restricted to Chiriqui and nearby Costa Rica. We then moved into the narrow woodland that lines the creek, where a newly cut trail allowed us good access to the understory. Some White-tipped Doves skittled away as we entered the woods, vanishing quickly into the undergrowth. A male Orange-collared Manakin appeared above its customary display ground, but stayed stubbornly a bit higher than we would have liked, largely hiding its namesake collar from view in the leaves. While we waited for the bird to switch positions some motion in the understory revealed a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager sitting just a few feet off the ground. These brilliantly coloured birds (the male being black and bright rosy-pink, and the female black and a deep orangey-chestnut) have an odd scattered worldwide distribution, occurring along the pacific coasts of Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama and then Ecuador, and have recently been elevated to their own family. They have a scattered distribution in Chiriqui, and this sighting represented possibly the first one at this location.  

A bit further downstream we stopped when we heard a few birds in the canopy. A nice feeding flock (one of very few such flocks we found over the entire tour this year) was actively bouncing around just overhead, and we spent about a half-hour watching the parade of birds that passed by. Most were warblers or tanagers, but within the group we picked out our first Yellow-margined Flycatcher, White-winged Becard, Streaked Saltator, and a busy little group of diminutive Olivaceous Piculet. In the adjacent understory many in the group saw a Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner ripping apart an eye-level bromeliad, making up for the stubbornly reticent bird the afternoon before. After the flock passed we headed back towards the feeders, stopping for a while to look at a Yellow Tyrannulet out in the adjacent property and a more cooperative Orange-collared Manakin that was picking fruit off a short tree just downslope from the lodge buildings.  

We took a picnic lunch on the top deck of the lodge, once again surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds, often just inches away from us as they buzzed around the feeders. Over lunch Ito put out an array of fruit on small tables below the patio. On these tables were a steady parade of tanagers including many Scarlet-rumped and Blue-gray Tanagers, as well as birds like Buff-throated Saltator, Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers, and Clay-colored Thrush. The commotion perhaps also attracted a pair of Lesson’s Motmot which then lingered in the shade of the deck for quite some time, posing like some bored supermodel for the eager photographers in the group. Lesson’s Motmots, part of the old Blue-crowned Motmot complex, occur throughout much of Central America from southern Mexico through to western Panama. A pair of Spot-crowned Euphonias came in to the feeders as well, and with close scrutiny from the top deck we could just make out the vague smudges in the crown of the male that give the species its common name. 

All too soon we had to bid the Birding paradise adieu and continue down towards the pacific coast. Our journey was interrupted by a mechanical issue with the bus, but thankfully we broke down right at the Macho de Monte site that we had started the day with. We managed to spend a quite pleasant half-hour revisiting the site, even walking a bit upstream to look at the waterfalls (which were full to the brim with bathing Panamanian students on holiday). Our time here was highlighted by flocks of White-collared Swifts that ripped through the air below us, coursing just above the rushing water and flashing their collars as they zipped by at very close range. A male Purple-crowned Fairy feeding on coral bean flowers, an unusually single and perhaps even lonely Common Chlorospingus and repeat views of a wealth of foraging tanagers livened up the wait as well. A new van arrived and soon enough we were off to the lowlands, nearing the town of David in the late-afternoon and stopping along a small road lined with Rice Fields and hedgerows. Here we found a wealth of waterbirds, including an impressive number of wintering waders that were foraging in the open areas of the field. Among the Southern Lapwing and Black-necked Stilts we found a few Greater Yellowlegs, several Northern Jacana and a single (as advertised) Solitary Sandpiper. Some flowering shrubs along the road edge were attracting a few hummingbirds including several beautiful male Veraguan Mangos and an aptly named Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. The Mango is a Panamanian endemic, occurring on only a narrow strip of the pacific lowlands. A bit further to the east we stopped at a small lake where we found a few Anhinga sunning themselves on emergent trees, Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers, an Osprey carrying an impressively large fish and several small chattering groups of Orange-chinned Parakeets.  

Once we arrived at the David Airport we decided to use the bit of spare time before checking in birding around a grove of trees not too far from the main terminal. This proved to be an excellent choice as once we were comfortably in the shade of the grove the temperatures dropped and birds started to appear. Our first Smooth-billed Anis were sitting atop a dense vine tangle in a small marshy pond, while some young Purple Gallinules lurked in the undergrowth. We walked along the margin of the woodland, soon finding a hive of activity around a large fruiting fig tree. Loads of Clay-coloured Thrushes, a Yellow Tyrannulet, our first Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Yellow-crowned Euphonias and a locally rare Gray-cheeked Thrush as well as a host of by now more familiar species kept us amply entertained. Eventually though, our birding time drew to a close and we headed over to the airport terminal to check in for our early evening flight back to Panama City. For many of the participants the journey through Panama was now complete, with a wonderful array of birds (335 species recorded) and wildlife seen over the course of the eight day trip. About half of this year’s participants though would be continuing on to our weeklong East Panama tour to the superlative Canopy Camp, just a few miles shy of the very end of the Pan American highway.

-Gavin Bieber

 

Created: 12 December 2019