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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Bocas del Toro and the Western Highlands

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our long-awaited return trip to Western Panama began with several days of birding in the beautiful Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Our base was the very comfortable and well named Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge; a small facility tucked into the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos and bordering the national park. This base allowed us ready access to the many islands of the archipelago and to the nearby mainland. The lodge ground and trails revealed charismatic male Golden-collared Manakins, busy flocks of Scarlet-rumped Tanagers in the clearings, more reticent pairs of White-flanked Antwrens and bathing Crowned Woodnymphs in the understory, an array of hummingbirds in the flower gardens including several cooperative Bronzy Hermits 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. Perhaps the chief prize here though was the adult Three-wattled Bellbird that Natalia picked out of a tree as if by magic on our first afternoon.

Off the main island we spent a few days exploring the coastal forests where species like Pale-billed Woodpecker, a male Snowy Cotinga, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Northern Jacana, Slaty-tailed Trogon 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 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, Slaty-capped Flycatcher and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper. Along a rushing rocky creek we had good views of a perched Torrent Tyrannulet, and near the top of the highway we located a huge squad of Black-faced Grosbeaks, a pair of Gray-breasted Woodwrens, some flowering shrubs that were attracting Green-fronted Lancebills and some passing raptors including Hook-billed Kite, Short-tailed Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.

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 several minutes 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, White-ruffed and Blue-crowned Manakins grabbing berries from fruiting trees, a ridiculously tame Lesson’s Motmot sitting in the sun at very close range, 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 female Veraguan Mango, 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, Savannah Hawk, Wood Stork 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 2021 trip we found 341 species of birds (narrowly a record for us on the tour) and 14 species of mammals in just a short 8 days, including an impressive 35 species of flycatchers and species of 29 tanagers. It was a fantastic trip, and I can’t wait to return next year.

IN DETAIL: Our flight out to the Bocas Archipelago from Panama City was at 10am, but due to some logistical issues in 2021 we were not staying at our normal canal-side hotel that has extensive and excellent birding on the grounds. Instead, we were mid-town in Panama City, so we simply met up in the morning for our transfer to the airport. Check in was a breeze and we found ourselves with a little bit of extra time, so we walked out of the airport terminal and across the road, where a cement-lined drainage ditch shaded by some very large trees kept us occupied for a half-hour or so. A small fruiting tree held our first Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, and a pair of gleaming Yellow-crowned Euphonias, as well as some more familiar species to an American birder such as Yellow, Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers, Northern Waterthrush and Summer Tanager. Along the ditch we found Great Blue Heron, Great Egret and Neotropical Cormorant, as well as several Common Basilisk lizards that showed off their water-top running skills to good effect when the Great Blue flew past. A pair of Red-crowned Woodpeckers hammered away in the canopy above, while up in the air a steady trickle of Black and Turkey Vultures and Gray-breasted Martin tricked through. All in all it was quite a productive way to spend waiting for the security line to open up for our flight. I wish all airports were so conducive to birding!

Our flight left just a couple of minutes after its scheduled time, and as we flew to the East we passed over extensive closed-canopy forest with little to no visible development before briefly crossing the open Caribbean Sea and descending towards the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. These near coastal islands are fringed with red and white mangroves. Larger islands are heavily forested with impressively large trees, with the occasional small clearing or seaside settlements. Around the islands from the air it is easy to see the many coral reefs, white sandy flats and brilliantly coloured water that make this area so attractive to residents, ex-pats 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. We paused to admire a group of Black Terns that were skittering along the surface in a sheltered bay, with wheeling Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans out over the deeper water.

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 into 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 the local biologist and guide had managed to locate a male Three-wattled Bellbird the previous day we headed nearly straight out into the field to try to repeat the sighting before the birds quieted down for the late afternoon. This large and bizarre species is a wet-season migrant to the lowlands of Bocas, traveling up into the largely inaccessible mountains during the rest of the year. The males loud and very distinctive resonant call can often be heard near the lodge during the months of August through early December, although they typically are vocal on sunny days. We took a back (and rugged) trail out to where Natalia had seen one the day before and once we reached the tree we were disappointed to not hear any calls coming from the canopy. While we stood around a bit scanning Natalia, through some superhuman scrying picked out an adult male high in the tree almost overhead. We were able to watch it at length in the scope, initially only seeing its back and tail and a bit of bill occasionally as he looked around. Happily though, the bird turned around for us, showing off his stocky chestnut body, snow-white head and three truly bizarre fleshy wattles that dangle from its gape like an elongated and asymmetrical fu-manchu moustache. Flush with success, as finding a male without hearing it first is a real stroke of good fortune we picked our way off the back trail system, stopping briefly for some views of furtive White-flanked Antwren and two young male Red-capped Manakins and a flyby Common Black Hawk flying through the understory. As it was still fairly early in the afternoon we stopped in at the benches along a tiny spring in the woods, where we spent about 40 minutes watching male Crowned Woodnymphs (a dazzling forest hummingbird clad in royal purple and emerald green) as they came in to bathe in the water, splashing down like tiny high divers and then preening from nearby perches.

We spent the bulk of the afternoon though 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 farm we watched as 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. Brightly coloured Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, busy little Bananaquits, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, satiny Blue-black Grassquits and our first Groove-billed Anis were all along the edges of the field. Flowering shrubs were attracting Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and Bronzy and Stripe-throated Hermits which all busily foraged just a few feet away from our group. We bade farewell to Ramon and Natalia’s property, and their pet rooster and headed back to the lodge. After a cold drink most of the participants opted to climb up to the top of the small canopy tower that offers sweeping views of the south end of the island and its fringing mangroves.

From our perch atop the canopy tower we amused ourselves for some time watching pairs of loud Blue-headed, 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. A bare tree below the tower held a very acrobatic male Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth that seemed quite content as it hung out in mid-air from one back leg, contemplatively scratching its various itchy spots. In another bare tree we spotted our first Palm Tanagers and a bright pair of Blue Dacnis, as well as a nice selection of migrant warblers and both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers. At one point we even enjoyed an eye-level flyby from a migrating Merlin! Just before we descended the tower we spotted a single Lesser Nighthawk flying high in the sky. For what was basically a travel day the bird list still took quite some time to go over!

For our first 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. Some old dock pilings along the shore were acting as perfect perches for a nice array of birds including our first Sandwich and sitting Royal Terns. 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 smattering of Green Ibis, Northern Jacana, Southern Lapwing and several species of herons foraging in the watery filled channels. In the larger trees lining creeks and hedgerows along the road we picked out perched Blue-headed Parrots and a beautiful Pale-billed Woodpecker, as well as our first Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari – both species that definitely make you feel like you are birding in the tropics. A set of fruiting shrubs held a wealth of birds, including Palm, Plain-colored, Blue-gray, Scarlet-rumped and Golden-hooded Tanagers. While watching these birds bouncing around and grabbing fruit we picked out some more subtly coloured birds in the trees as well, including a perched male Blue Ground-Dove, a Yellow-bellied Elaenia and a Cinnamon-bellied Saltator. Roadside wires and treetops held loafing Pale-vented Pigeons, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher and a single Gray-capped Flycatcher. It was, perhaps, the seeding grassy sections of the roadside edge that held our interest the longest, with species such as Morelet’s Seedeater, Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Black-striped Sparrow and Slaty Spinetail all admired in turn.

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. Here too was a small flock of Brown Jays, a species which barely enters Panama near the Costa Rican border. 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. When we arrived a brief rain squall passed through (our only rain of the day) and most elected to wait it out on the bus. After only a couple of minutes the rain stopped and almost immediately we were surrounded by a large mixed flock that unfortunately went upslope and away from us before we were able to come to grips with the diversity. Many did see a handsome Bay Wren in the understory and a cooperative Black-cheeked Woodpecker up in a bare tree. A pair of White-crowned Parrots wheeled around a few times overhead, giving their clipped calls and as they looked for a good place to land. This species is closely related to the more numerous Blue-headed, and sadly seems to be getting increasingly scarce in the region. We then moved down the road a tad in order to look down on the rushing rocky creek from the highway bridge. Here we spotted a perched Black Phoebe and a beautiful little Torrent Tyrannulet that was sitting on a creekside log right next to a stretch of rushing water. The trees close to the bridge were not in fruit though, so we headed a bit further uphill to another small pullout closer to the continental divide. Almost before we disembarked the bus we were surrounded by birds, with new species popping up in almost all directions seemingly at once. It was a bit bewildering, and with the birds on the move in the dense foliage seeing everything was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, we amassed an impressive diversity of sightings. In general, it is the tanagers that most folks cue in on first, and here we found our first Black-and-Yellow, White-shouldered, Emerald and Speckled Tanagers and many brilliantly hued Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Green Honeycreepers in the fruiting trees. In a shorter tree a female White-ruffed Manakin was plucking fruit like its life depended on it, while both Olive-striped and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers played hide-and-seek in the lower branches. A female Dot-winged Antwren, clad in its customary coppery-brown and black plumage showed well as it clambered around in a viny thicket above the road. The flock held a surprise or two as well, with two species that were new for our Western Panama tour. The first was a distantly soaring dark morph Short-tailed Hawk; a species that I was surprised to have missed on the tour to date. The second though was a real treat, with a female Rufous-winged Woodpecker hiding amongst a large cluster of dead leaves. This species has a very limited global range, extending from about where we were to just into Nicaragua.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from the area, after a very loud truck employing its air breaks around the bend seemed to chase most of the flock further upslope. 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 about four 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 few trees that managed to stay 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, 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. Near where we parked we found two small flocks, one led by a group of Common Chlorospingus, an attractive sparrow that often forms the nucleus of mixed flocks in the area and the other with some Black-faced Grosbeaks, an attractive species clad in sunny yellow, grey and black that is often tricky to encounter. Two Green-fronted Lancebills were jousting in the forest understory, with their long and straight bills looking remarkably like a knight’s lance as they sparred face to face around some looping vines. Here too we managed to actually spot a pair of Grey-breasted Wrens that were bouncing around near the edge of the road, and several participants got onto a couple of Tawny-capped Euphonias including one sharp looking male. We strolled down the road for about a half-mile, finding much of the forest to be quite quiet. The skies above though held a steady stream of Turkey and Black Vultures and while scanning we picked up a passing Hook-billed Kite, a circling Sharp-shinned Hawk (quite scarce in Panama) and lots of fast-moving White-collared Swifts. Just as we were ready to turn around we located one more flock, this time mostly consisting of warblers, with Blackburnian and Tropical Parula likely the highlights, although the Mountain Elaenia, Mistletoe Tyrannulet and Yellow-faced Grassquits seemed to elicit a bit more excitement.

On our way back down the slope we stopped at the same stretch of road that had been so productive in the morning. Again, we found a flock to be present, but the species composition was quite different. Some chattering Dusky-faced Tanagers crossed the road and when we walked up a bit to get better views of them we were soon surrounded by another heady mix of birds. A Rufous Motmot perched well below the road showed well for most, and this time everyone managed to study the green, sky-blue, and rufous tones of a pair of Bay-headed Tanagers that were plucking fruit off an eye-level branch. We tracked down a calling Laughing Falcon that was perched in a dead snag not too far upslope. As the afternoon was by now definitely waning we departed the magical corner and headed back towards the boat dock at Punta Rabalo. The boat trip back to the lodge was blissfully dry and punctuated by quick stops to look at a foraging Brown Booby and a high flying Parasitic Jaegar, and we arrived just at dusk, tired but very happy with a great day in the field.

On our second 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 throughfare. 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 day. The trip out to the canal was choppy, but we generally enjoyed excellent weather for the entirety of the morning and early afternoon – always a bonus when out and about in open boats!

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 this canal. Pairs of Red-lored and Mealy Parrots (and the occasional Blue-headed Parrot) flew overhead, and at one point a Bat Falcon made a quick looping pass overhead before disappearing out over the treetops. The area is particularly good for kingfishers and within our first hour or so along the canal we connected with 5 species, including multiple Amazons and a truly showy American Pygmy that splashed down in the water about a half-dozen times as we watched before sitting on a low shaded branch. The canal shores hosted a steady parade of Green and Little Blue Herons, Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes. Fruiting trees punctuated the trip, with each cluster of trees yielding a few new species of birds. Some, like Great Crested Flycatcher or Swainson’s Thrush were doubtless migrating along the coast, but resident birds such as White-browed Gnatcatcher, Collared Aracari, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Squirrel Cuckoo, Black-cowled Oriole and Streak-headed Woodcreeper were decidedly more tropical.

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, but I’m sure it was appreciated! A nearby tree stump out in the canal was serving as a roosting site for a colony of Lesser White-lined Bats, which were amazingly camouflaged against the muticoloured bark. Also near the dock we managed to coax a pair of Olive-crowned Yellowthroats out of the thick canal-side grasses. A bit further along we were very happy to have lengthy views of a large flock of Olive-throated Parakeets, many of whom had just bathed in the canal by the looks of their sodden feathers. Likely due to the bright sun and lack of any wind 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 several Northern Jacanas, as well as lots of Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and calling White-throated Crakes. 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 single Common and Purple Gallinules, a few American Coot, Anhinga, Black-necked Stilt, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Lesser Scaup and a surprising number of Muscovy Ducks. A small sandbar in the river hosted an impressive raft of loafing Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls, as well as at least one Franklin’s Gull and Black Skimmer. Of particular interest upriver were the nearly half-dozen Snail Kites that we found perched on islands in the river. This species has apparently recently colonized the area, perhaps arriving soon after the local population of introduced apple snails took hold. On the grassy verges of the riverbank we eventually found several dazzlingly red and black Red-breasted Meadowlark sitting out in the field and on short fenceposts.

After lunch we motored downstream to the river mouth, where a good-sized flock of Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans, Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls were milling around in the frothier water where the river met the sea. 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 a few Black-bellied Plover and Spotted Sandpiper, and single Ruddy Turnstone and Least Sandpiper were out among the rack lines as well, and right at the point we found a perched Caspian Tern. We started the trip back into the canal, making a stop in at a Sea Turtle Conservation site where Natalia used to work on Leatherback Sea Turtle nest protection. Here we found a small mixed species flock that held mostly migrant species, with our first Philadelphia Vireo and Magnolia Warbler likely the highlights. Our main goal here though was to get a look at one of the male White-collared Manakins that lek near the conservation office. The birds here are of a distinctive race, dubbed the “Almirante” Manakin, and have been regarded as either a subspecies of White-collared or a hybrid population between White-collared and Golden-collared. Whichever they are, the males; with their bright yellow throats, breasts and mantles are a definite stunner. It took quite some time for everyone to get on to one of the males as they were displaying quite far back in the viny understory, but with some patience they revealed themselves. The drive back through the canal was accomplished much more quickly than the way in, with a brief stop to look at a Northern Tamandua that was swimming across the canal; a very odd way to spot an anteater!

Once out of the canal we took a look at the weather and decided that we could make the trip out of the bay and into the actual Caribbean, bound for a large sea-stack island that lies two miles off the shore of Isla Colon and serves as a breeding colony for several dozen pairs of elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds and many Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds. The ride out was not particularly rough, but the north wind and direction of the swell made for wet going from some of the seats. Thankfully the waters here are warm, and as we can now attest, taste pretty good too… Although the island is small, it’s a stunning place, 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 40 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 sky and a few were even sitting on the cliff just a few feet above our boats. A mass of Magnificent Frigatebirds continually circled above us as well, with several males perched in palm trees and showing their fully 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. 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 and back to our lodge at the south end of Bastimentos Island.

The next day we spent much closer to Tranquillo Bay, birding on a private chocolate farm on a nearby peninsula of the mainland and on Isla Popa; the adjacent island to Bastimentos. We started with a 20-minute boat ride over to the Green Acres Cacao farm, a small privately owned farm with well-established cacao trees in the understory of largely uncut lowland forest that the current owners of the property are working hard to replant and restore with native hardwoods. Enroute, we stopped to marvel at a shallow bay that was absolutely full of nearly transparent Moon and Cannonball Jellyfish. Apparently, this aggregation occurs only once or twice a year when conditions are perfect. We stopped to boat to take some wonderfully ethereal photos of the dark green water teeming with palm-sized jellies that seemed to be floating in the night sky like lit paper kites. Arriving at the dock soon thereafter we walked up to the house to meet the owners and then set off for the short walk around the trails that wind along a ridge and along a forested creek. Just a bit behind the house we were stopped by a large mixed flock that was just overhead. Mostly consisting of neotropical migrants we also teased out quite good views of a pair of Yellow-margined Flycatchers, our first Olive-backed Euphonias and an extremely cooperative Wedge-billed Woodcreeper that lingered on an eye-level trunk for quite some time. A bit further along the ridge Alvaro, our sharp-eyed boat driver, spotted an adult Green-and-Black Dart Frog hopping around near a woodpile. These large (for a dart frog) and gaudy frogs show a bewildering array of black whorls and spots on an emerald green body, and due to their toxic nature are happy to hop around in the middle of the day fully exposed to would-be predators. When still they look almost too bright and large to be real animals, more resembling some cheap plastic facsimile of what a Chinese company might think a frog should look like. Near the end of the ridge we successfully called in a tiny Pied Puffbird, which obligingly perched up in the canopy for our scopes; calling away. Not quite as obliging was a Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, a truly small canopy flycatcher that vies for the moniker of the world’s smallest passerine. Uncharacteristically the bird was down near ground level but it still took some time before everyone managed to spot it since virtually every leaf in the woods could fully shield the tiny bird from view. A pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds bounced around in the understory along the edge of the trial, eventually slipping up and exposing their tricolored plumage to our scrying eyes. Over on the Creekside of the trail we tracked down a Slaty-tailed Trogon that was perched high up in the canopy over the water. Here too Natalia spotted a sleeping Two-toed Sloth that was balled up near the top of a small palm. By now it was late morning, so we wandered back to the house to enjoy some excellent chocolate samples as well as refreshing chocolate tea and some exceptionally good chocolate rum. We also tasted the raw fruits of the cacao plant. Most found the sweet and tangy fleshy part of the fruit to be delicious, although a few people preferred the bitter taste of the actual nut more.

We walked back down to the dock before hopping back aboard and motoring on to Isla Popa, with a short detour to admire some brightly coloured cushion seastars. This is the island adjacent to Isla Bastimentos, and at its far end it is quite close to a spur of the mainland. This proximity has meant that several species of plants and animals have colonized Popa from the mainland but been unable to reach Bastimentos. We first checked 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 (an issue we would rectify later in the afternoon). Then we headed into the forest adjacent to a small farmhouse. We were initially expecting to spend a short time exploring here, looking mainly 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, or all bronzy-green with bluish legs. It’s a fascinating biological complex and the subject for many researchers with the Smithsonian Institute, which runs several field stations throughout Panama. We did find a few frogs here, of each of the colour types but we spent the majority of the time birding along the small patch of cleared forest. Here we located a pair of Checker-throated Antwrens, which now sadly are known by the abhorred common name of Checker-throated Stipplethroat. Here too we coaxed a Brown-capped Tyrannulet down from its canopy haunts and enjoyed excellent and close views of a foraging Long-billed Hermit.

We returned to the lodge for a late lunch, and then after a bit of a siesta met up for some birding back around the grounds of the hotel. Several participants were happy to spot a perched Bronzy Hermit in a patch of purple flowering porterweed. The flowers were attracting some butterflies as well, with the large and showy Dyar’s Swallowtail likely the highlight. As far as our brief spell birding went we were quite happy with several perched Short-billed Pigeons, a foraging male Lineated Woodpecker and a little mixed flock with Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Baltimore Oriole and Scarlet Tanager. In the later afternoon we set off by boat back to the Isla Popa channel. This time a gleaming white male Snowy Cotinga was perched up in the afternoon sun, showing extremely well if distantly. Like many male Cotingas, the Snowy Cotinga has swapped a song repertoire for a visual one. Perching in 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. Unfortunately for the other boat load of birders the cotinga was flushed by a Turkey Vulture just before they pulled alongside us; though happily we were able to re-find it a little later in a different tree. As if the cotinga were not enough, we were also treated to a silhouetted flyby from a small flock of Brown-hooded Parrots and as we returned to the lodge our journey took a sharp diversion when John yelled “Least Tern!” from his seat at the back of the boat. Though a familiar bird to most American birders it is an uncommon migrant in Panama and was a life bird for Natalia! After some celebratory drinks and an excellent dinner complete with local organic chocolate ice cream 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. We awoke to a sunny dawn, and as we boarded the boats and bade a farewell to our hosts in the early morning light. 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 a perched Masked Tityra and several Keel-billed Toucans above the road. We 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 woods. The group contained a few new birds for us, such as a Smoky-brown Woodpecker, a pair of White-lined Tanagers, a Cinnamon Becard, Yellow-faced Grassquit and a single flyover Chestnut-headed Oropendola. Here too we had a nice aural experience with several calling White-throated Crakes along the road and a distantly calling Uniform Crake from out somewhere in the fields. 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 and the teacher to come out to see what we were up to. They watched bemusedly as we spent a considerable amount of time jockeying around to get views of a pair of Pacific Antwrens along the creek. The male is striking, a study in white and black and striped all over. It was the female that really got the cameras clicking away though, with her apricot coloured head and lightly streaked body making for a very smart-looking bird. After admiring a soaring White Hawk that was circling above us with a flock of Black Vultures we left the lowlands behind, ascending the highway that crosses the divide towards the Pacific, making a stop about 2/3 of the way up to the divide where we had found a large feeding flock on our first day.

This proved an exceptionally good stop, and soon our planned for 10-15 minutes stretched to well over an hour as we were treated to a massive mixed flock of birds slowly working along the edge of the road. At times the sheer number and diversity was overwhelming, with birds popping out of the foliage at seemingly every direction. Thankfully the flock made repeated swings down to our level, and many birds lingered for long enough that everyone was able to enjoy them. Over the course of an hour we counted over forty species in the flock! I imagine that everyone might have their own favorite finds, but for me the repeated views of s little group of Yellow-throated Chlorospingus, the almost belligerent Slaty-capped Flycatcher that rocketed in to the edge of the road, a tree festooned with Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreepers and Emerald and Speckled Tanager, and a few furtive species like Tawny-crowned Greenlet and Long-billed Gnatwren stood out for sure. Honorable mentions must also go out to the perched Long-tailed Tyrant on a nearby bare tree, a Purple-crowned Fairy that was foraging up a large tangle of flowering vines, the Golden-winged Warbler bouncing around in some roadside shrubs and a calling Ornate Hawk-Eagle that we spotted circling overhead just as we were returning to the bus. We finished with this immense flock and continued on up to the continental divide road, where, after a nice, packed lunch of sandwiches and freshly baked cookies we took a short walk through a forested section. Along the stroll we heard several interesting birds back in the woods, but the sunny conditions kept them from appearing by the road. A Lineated Foliage-Gleaner did show a few times as it cackled from the underbrush though, and several participants spotted a sunny yellow and white Silver-throated Tanager in the canopy before it dove down into the denser foliage.

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. We made two short stops just a bit over the divide where some good forest lines the slopes above the road. Although we were not able to replicate the giant mixed flock that we had had in the morning over on the Caribbean slope we still picked up a few new birds. Around the huge Fortuna reservoir we found a few Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds foraging in some flowering shrubs, and at another stop a bit further along we located a few White-throated Thrushes that were grabbing fruit from the canopy, a flock of Blue-and-White Swallows gliding over the road and a soaring Red-tailed Hawk. As we descended it became 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 late in the day it was still light enough to see the Lesser Violetears and Talamanca Hummingbirds foraging in some bottlebrush trees along the lodge walkway. We settled in and enjoyed an excellent dinner, ready to enjoy our first real taste of montane birding the following day.

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 led to the development of dense forests that are heavily 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.              

For our first full day in the highlands we opted to visit 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. Our main goal of the morning was to reach the top of the road, where our local guide, Ito Santamaria had recently located a couple of male Resplendent Quetzals coming into a fruiting tree out in a small cleared cabbage farm. 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. It took a while for a bird to appear, but we spent our time well, birding the edges of the field and finding our first Black-cheeked Warblers, Yellow-thighed Finches and Mountain Thrushes. Eventually, with the sharp eyes of Leigh, we were looking at a young male Quetzal in a distant tree along the edge of the forest. Although distant the bird glowed against the dark green background. A short while later a second bird, this time an adult male with full tail streamers flew into the close fruiting tree, and then, amazingly moved into an eye level bare tree for us to ogle for several minutes. 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, all of which showed to great effect in the morning sun. After a bit of a celebration, we started the trek back down the road, careful to avoid the muddier patches left from the previous night’s rain. About half-way down the trail we stopped to admire a perched and very cooperative Black-capped Flycatcher, one of the few species of tropical Empidonax flycatchers, and possibly the sharpest looking of the bunch. A tiny Ochraceous Wren, a small blaze of orangey brown in the canopy of a epiphyte laden tree was here too as were several White-throated Mountain-Gems and a female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. We spent a bit of time watching and then started imitating a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in an attempt to drum up some birds in the tree above us. It worked a charm, with a host of birds including our first Flame-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Slaty Flowerpiercer and Scintillant Hummingbird; four more species endemic to the Talamanca. Migrants popped in too, with Wilson’s Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo and a male Black-throated-Green Warbler likely the highlights. Also interested in the noise was an actual Pygmy-Owl, which rocketed in above our heads and lingered for a good 15 minutes, even perching right over the trail above us and giving us the occasional baleful yellow-eyed stare.

After a bit of a coffee break we walked a short distance back up the road in search of one of the most sought after and enigmatic species in the range; Wrenthrush. 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. Ito knew of a close by territory and after we were all situated and sitting quietly, under strict orders to not move around much or talk loudly he played a bit of tape. The bird answered quickly, and before we knew it we were watching it as it shimmied around in the understory, and briefly well up from the ground (giving a perfect view to those who had opted to remain on the road). The views were truly exceptional, as this species tends to remain in the background shadows, fading away at the slightest disruption.

Our final stop for the morning was a bit further up the road, where after we used the facilities and signed into the park’s official visitor log we spent some time birding around the clearing of the National Park Office. Here we located a small group of Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers perched up high in the canopy. 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. Not much detailed work has been conducted on the family, but it seems likely that Black-and-Yellow could be better regarded as a monotypic family. A little below the office we located a family group of Prong-billed Barbets that lingered overhead for quite some time. This yellowish toucan barbet is yet another Talamanca endemic, and one with a comical voice and social and engaging character. We returned to the lodge for lunch, with a short birding trip around the grounds just before we sat down to eat. The walk proved productive, as the hummingbird feeders and surrounding flowering shrubs were attracting a host of customers. In a short twenty minutes or so we added such gems as Silver-throated Tanager, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher (a truly elegant and well-dressed species), Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Violet Saberwing and Talamanca Hummingbird to what was already a morning full of excellent weather and a wealth of truly fantastic birds.

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. It proved a productive stop, with our first Red-faced Spinetails and a somewhat uncooperative Olivaceous Piculet zipping around in the canopy, Barred Antshrike and Rose-throated Becard in the midstory and Rufous-collared Sparrows and Lesser Elaenia out in the more open fields. Once we reached the forest the skies clouded over but never really threatened to drench us, which made the temperature quite pleasant but the lighting in the woods 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 big mixed flocks, but there were still lots of species to keep us entertained. Just in the parking area we admired a foraging Streaked Flycatcher that was coming down to a fruiting tree and grabbing its afternoon snack. An unusually cooperative Costa Rican Brushfinch bounced around in some vine tangles overhead. Later in the walk a small mixed flock appeared, happily containing one of our chief targets for the afternoon. A Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner, a local and uncommon species with a very small range showed well as it slowly moved through the canopy, occasionally disappearing into dark tangles. The flock also contained a furtive Eye-ringed Flatbill, and a few nice warblers including Golden-winged and Slate-throated Redstarts. Just before we headed back up to the lodge we stopped briefly in a small grassy valley where Ito had discovered a small population of White-throated Flycatchers. The winds picked up and the clouds descended on us, making the birding conditions less than ideal, so after we spent a bit of time looking we decided to head home to the hotel, where they had prepared a special Thanksgiving meal for us, complete with two huge turkeys and a tropically dressed ham!

We spent our second 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. We climbed into our three 4X4 pickup trucks and made the rocky ascent to the ranger station, which sits about 2000 feet above the town at an elevation of 8300ft. The cleared area and gardens around the rangers house proved a productive first stop for us, with a flock of Band-tailed Pigeons, our first Flame-colored Tanagers, and a nice selection of hummingbirds which included several diminutive Volcano Hummingbirds 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. Here too we were able, with a bit of patience, to coax out both Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes from the garden edge, and our first of many Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, which replaces Common Chlorospingus in the higher elevation forest.

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. Spot-crowned Woodcreepers, a more robust version of the by now familiar to us Streak-headed were the default creeper here, and in a couple of the mixed flocks we also found a few perky and brightly coloured Ruddy Treerunners 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 one of these large and well-patterned ovenbirds as it moved around in the vines above the trail, often with its namesake cheeks flared out. A few small flocks contained some more highland specialties such as Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, Mountain Elaenia, Yellow-thighed Brushfinch and Ochraceous Wren. A skulky Large-footed Finch eventually crept out onto the trail and showed quite well for most of the group before darting back into cover. We had less luck coaxing any of the half-dozen or so Silvery-fronted Tapaculos that we heard along the trail to come out into view. These dark grey, almost mouse-like birds can be maddening to see well, a frustration that is often compounded by their incredibly loud voices which can be heard often. Although we tried at several locations with decently open viewing none of the birds dared to brave the patchy bright sunlight ground along the trail, and for the first time in four trips we had to content ourselves with an all aural tapaculo experience (although to be fair the most distinctive feature of most tapaculos is their voice). A male Collared Trogon, a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers (here of the southern and very dusky coloured subspecies) and some hulking Rufous-browed Peppershrikes were much more cooperative. Once back at the vans we enjoyed a snack and hot tea or coffee around the rangers house and then set off back towards the hotel for lunch. We were delayed a bit, as a small mixed flock right along the road edge contained a busy pair of Red-faced Spinetails that lingered for a bit overhead, as well as a pair of Slate-throated Whitestarts that were flashing around in the mid story like little deep yellow beacons and a very curious Yellow-winged Vireo.

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, a non-native but very popular tart fruit that is widely used throughout the tropics for juice or seasoning. 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 male Stripe-tailed as well, and many a camera card was soon full of new photos. After some time at the feeders most of the group walked up a newly constructed gravel covered pathway towards the top of the property. On the way we were treated to views of a massive flock of Yellow-bellied Siskins, our only Rough-legged Tyrannulet of the trip (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), and lots of Rufous-collared Sparrows and Yellow-faced Grassquit in the field. We were a bit disappointed to not even hear a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove calling from the surrounding fields. This enigmatic species appears wherever large blocks of bamboo is seeding in the foothills and mountains as if by magic throughout much of its rather limited Central American range. Around the Volcan Baru area it 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. Before we completely gave up we walked a little more downhill and started carefully scanning the field edges upslope. Here we located several foraging flocks of Mourning Doves, and by carefully checking each one we picked out first a female, and then a male Maroon-chested Ground-Dove! 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, but even here sightings are by no means guaranteed.

After congratulating ourselves over our good fortune 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). Undoubtedly our most interesting find was a male MacGillivray’s Warbler that was flitting about in a dense tangle of fruiting mistletoe. Oddly for this normally retiring species it was high up in the canopy and giving excellent looks at its coal black hood and bright white eye arcs. This is a rare species in Panama, with only a few individuals found in the western highlands annually. In the same little flock as the warbler we also picked out our only Brown-capped Vireo of the trip. I suspect though that our sighting of a pair of Dark Pewee, a species that looks much like a Greater Pewee covered in soot, that people appreciated the most. Here too 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.

The next day was the final full day of the trip, and we packed up shortly after an early 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 half hour in the area, covering at most a two hundred meter stretch along the road. Tanagers were a very vocal and evident part of the experience, with some high fruiting trees overhead attracting a parade of colour. Silver-throated, Golden-hooded, Scarlet-rumped and Bay-headed Tanagers and a bright male Spot-crowned Euphonia were all gobbling down small fruits from the roadside trees. The manicured lawns along the creekside 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. We then turned our attentions to the dense tangles on the opposite side of the road, where we could hear a calling Riverside Wren. It took a little while to persuade the bird to get into a position where we could see it, but eventually it showed quite well. At one point it flew across the road and lingered on a completely an open perch which allowed us to really study its boldly marked underparts and cheek. Crested Oropendolas flew overhead a few times, occasionally perching on distant treetops with their horn-coloured bill on display. The narrow chasm under the bridge is impressive, with roaring whitewater in the creek and water dripping down the canyon walls.

We spent the rest of the morning at a relatively new birding site dubbed Birding Paradise; a small Bed and Breakfast in an isolated pocket of forest that has an array of hummingbird feeders and a nice selection of birds along a series of short forest trails. Thankfully the owner of the property had continued feeding the birds and looking after the property all through the visitor-less year and a half. We pulled into the rather unassuming driveway, with its now quite faded sign advertising a paradise for birders and I suspect a few of the participants were not certain we had arrived in the correct spot. After less than a minute of our leaving the bus, their fears had been allayed. Our first spot was an incredibly, almost comically, tame Lesson’s Motmot which allowed the entire group to walk right underneath it as it sat out on an exposed wire strung across the parking area. Quite a gate guard! Up on the patio we found that the hummingbird feeders were not as busy as usual, although the point-blank views of Scaly-breasted, Rufous-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin and Crowned Woodnymphs were very hard to complain about. The fruit feeders though were incredibly active, with an astonishing number of Scarlet-rumped Tanagers milling about, and excellent views of nearly a half-dozen Spot-crowned Euphonias, and dazzling birds such as Green Honeycreeper, Golden-hooded, Blue-gray and Silver-throated Tanagers popping in and out of the deck constantly. By scanning the fruiting trees around the deck we picked out female White-ruffed and Orange-collared Manakins, a Scrub Greenlet and a handsome Crested Oropendola picking small fruits from the canopy. Below the deck there were birds as well, with a very confiding Costa Rican Brushfinch coming in to devour rice that the owner spread out onto the grass. It was all a little overwhelming, and several participants commented that they could stay on the deck all day. After about a half-hour though we started wandering a bit around the property. Out in the gardens we found a perched and singing Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush that lingered for some time in our scopes. Yellow Tyrannulet and Isthmian Wren showed well here too, although it took some time for everyone to get good views.

Heading down to the creek below the building we were soon staring at a several fruiting figs along the creek line. Here we located male Orange-collared and White-ruffed Manakins, as well as a pair of Speckled Tanagers and our only Chestnut-capped Warbler of the trip. We crossed over the creek to bird the other side of the woods, hoping to locate a Black-hooded Antshrike. The area has changed a bit since my last visit in 2019, and perhaps the more cleared understory has resulted in the local loss of this species, as we heard no response from our taped queries. Not all was lost though, as we did find a quietly sitting Bright-rumped Atilla and a foraging Olivaceous Piculet. We started to check further up the creek, but the owner of the property called Ito on his cell to tell us that a Red-headed Barbet had just appeared at the deck. We hurried back up the hill and were able to enjoy this riotous bird for some time as it foraged in dead leaf clusters and occasionally gave us all an appraising eye. This sighting marked the first time we had encountered the species on the western tour, a most colourful and appreciated write-in!

We bade farewell to our gracious host after admiring a Gray-capped Flycatcher that was perched out by our bus and then drove down to the city of David for a quick buffet lunch at a local hotel. The buffet allowed us to have several hours of lowland birding in the afternoon before we had to head to the airport to catch our early evening flight back to Panama City. A bit south of town we stopped along a small road lined with wet rice fields and Gumbo Limbo filled 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 and Lesser Yellowlegs, several Northern Jacana and a single Least Grebe. Wood Storks were circling overhead, and the more open marshes were filled with groups of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Blue-winged Teal. At a second stop we were treated to good flight views of several Savannah Hawks, a hunting Pearl Kite, a passing Peregrine Falcon and a close flyby Common Black-Hawk. Some flowering shrubs along the road edge were attracting a few hummingbirds including a female Veraguan Mango and an aptly named Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. The Mango is a Panamanian endemic, occurring on only a narrow strip of the pacific lowlands.

As we had a bit of extra time this year we opted to continue south towards the Pacific Coast. We didn’t quite get to the beach, but the open fields and watery channels around the coastal fields were excellent. At one stop we were treated to a sunning American Crocodile, as well as adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Purple Gallinules and several Fork-tailed Flycatchers that were hawking insects over the fields. Nearby we located the first White Ibis for the western tour and were happy to locate a single Inca Dove (a species that is just recently colonizing the country from nearby Costa Rica) sitting on a roadside wire. At our customary last stop before reaching the airport we teased out a calling Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet from the margins of a small pond, the final addition to the tours impressive 35 species strong flycatcher list.

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. A migrant Yellow-billed Cuckoo was sitting atop a dense vine tangle in a small marshy pond, yet another write-in for the trips cumulative list. We walked along the margin of the woodland, soon finding a hive of activity around a few large fig trees. Loads of migrant warblers, a cooperative White-browed Gnatcatcher, several Red-legged Honeycreepers, some perched Orange-chinned Parakeets and 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 flight back to Panama City.

We had a bit of an unexpected adventure at the airport once we arrived in Panama, as for some reason they loaded us onto a bus rather than the jet bridge and then deposited us outside of the airport without our luggage. Apparently one of the Copa Airlines employees was supposed to have flagged out a makeshift luggage claim area, but we were nearly the first group off the bus and they waved us forward without explanation. It took a bit of time to sort out the mishap, but eventually the passengers continuing on to the Darien caught the airport shuttle, while those making their flights home went through the remarkably speedy and well run COVID testing process that would enable them to board their flights the next day. Over the course of our 8-day trip through Western Panama we experienced an amazing variety of landscapes and avifaunas, with 341 species of birds and a host of other wildlife. It truly was a joy to be back in the new world tropics after such a long time away, and the group was an exceptionally congenial one, with many a laugh shared at the dinner table.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 15 December 2021