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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Bocas del Toro and the Western Highlands

2018 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; 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 trails revealed a male Three-watted Bellbird sitting in a high fruiting tree, noisy groups of Tawny-crested Tanagers and more reticent pairs of Chestnut-backed Antbirds and Slaty and Dot-winged Antwrens in the understory, bright Golden-collared Manakin, Green Honeycreeper and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers in fruiting shrubs, 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. Off the main island we spent a few days exploring the coastal forests which species like Pale-billed Woodpecker, Snowy Cotinga, 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. Although this year’s tour encountered more rain than we would have liked we were still able to get out and visit all of our planned sites, with little impact on the overall species count. 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 at flocks of tanagers including Silver-throated, Emerald, Spangle-cheeked and Speckled. This year we also located a pair of handsome Band-backed Wrens, visible Black-headed and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes, a flock of Black-faced Grosbeak and two flashy White-bellied Mountaingems.

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, Black Guan, 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. On our final day of the trip we dropped down to the pacific slope lowlands, where Black-hooded Antshrikes called from thickets, Orange-collared Manakins grabbed berries from fruiting trees, a Lesson’s Motmot sat in the shade and a wealth of hummingbirds swirled around on feeders just feet in front of us.

The trip offers an amazing array of habitats and landscapes all conveniently close to one another and using two quite excellent lodges. On our 2018 trip we found 330 species of birds and 9 species of mammals in a short 8 days, including 27 hummingbirds and 28 species of 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 right after breakfast we took taxis to the small and easily navigated domestic airport and were soon on our way for the short 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. 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 just as a light rain began to fall. By standing under the awning of one of the rooms we were able to scan out over the gardens, finding Bronzy and Stripe-throated Hermit, Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and a few passing pairs of Red-lored Parrots. The rain cleared up about a quarter-hour later and a short walk around the garden revealed our first Prothonotary, Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Chestnut-sided Warblers as well as a few species less familiar to the average American birder such as Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper and Montezuma Oropendola. 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). Soon after entering the forest we located a very vocal flock of Tawny-crested Tanagers along the trail, and with some maneuvering were able to see many of the handsome Black and orange males and brownish females as they busily foraged overhead. Travelling with the tanagers were our first antbirds, with a pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes, several White-flanked Antwrens and a single Chestnut-backed Antbird. Further down the trail we went out into some more open pastureland, where the local guides have been hard at work planting a wide array of fruiting trees and garden vegetables. Here we were thrilled to find a flock of Scarlet-rumped (here of the Passerini subspecies) Tanagers in a small Melastome bush. Again it began to rain but happily Natalia and Ramon had recently completed the upper roof of their house, conveniently located next to the fruiting tree and fully sheltered.  From the sheltered comfort of their top deck we watched a parade of birds coming in to browse on the fruits. Bay-breasted Warbler, Green Honeycreeper, Bananaquit and Blue Dacnis were nearly constant customers, and over the course of the 45 minutes or so we also spotted a pair of Buff-throated Saltator, small numbers of Scarlet-rumped and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and a male Golden-collared Manakin. Nearby banks of flowers were attracting several Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and some mud puddles below the deck held the interest of a foraging Northern Waterthrush that unfortunately seemed to be missing one foot. In the adjacent grassy pasture we picked out a perched Roadside Hawk and several Groove-billed Anis. While scanning for the anis we also noticed two Empidonax flycatchers that were foraging around some isolated shrubs. Any empid is scarce on the island, but with some careful scrutiny and a few photographs we decided that the birds were a Yellow-bellied (scarce on the islands, but regular in the close by foothills) and a Willow (a generally scarce passage migrant across much of the country). We walked back to the lodge, getting a bit muddy in the process and most participants elected to head back to their various cabins in preparation for dinner. The rest of us made our way up to the top of the local canopy tower, where we amused ourselves for some time watching pairs of loud Red-lored Parrots and a few Pale-vented Pigeons fly by right past at eye level. Small flocks of Cattle and Little Blue Herons 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 found a couple of Green Ibis perched up in the mangroves. A nice flight of the highly attractive Montezuma Oropendolas (which are happily very common in the region) put in an appearance here as well. Just before we descended the tower we spotted a few Lesser Nighthawks flying high in the sky, and heard a bit of calling from the resident Short-tailed Nighthawks but couldn’t spot them against the rapidly darkening backdrop.

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. We had a bit of rain on the way over, but by the time we reached the dock it had cleared up and although the skies remained overcast we largely avoided birding in any appreciable rain all day. When we docked we discovered that a distant traffic accident had closed one of the main roads, causing a delay in the arrival of our bus. This proved not as much an impediment as one would imagine as the mix of cleared pasture land, shrubby thickets and tall patches of forest that line the road between the coast and the highway provide an excellent mix of species. Right at the dock we found a pair of small and boldly marked Common Tody-Flycatchers, our first Ruddy Ground-Doves and a small mixed flock which included migrants like Red-eyed Vireo and Yellow Warbler alongside Blue-Gray and Palm Tanagers. The grassy pastures produced Groove and Smooth-billed Ani, some furtive Olive-crowned Yellowthroats, many Thick-billed Seed-Finches and Morelet’s Seedeaters and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Scarlet-rumped Tanagers. The walk also produced several species that are generally restricted to Bocas state in Panama. A beautiful pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers were hammering away at some tall palm trunks, staying quite low in the tree and showing remarkably well. In some fruiting low bushes we stopped to look at a Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Gray Catbird that were grabbing berries and instead wound up focusing on a pair of Grayish Saltators that were lurking further down in the same bush. Some of the fields were partially flooded and in the wetter parts we watched a dozen or so Northern Jacanas (here very close to the southeastern edge of their range) strutting around in the grass. Attractively marked with a coppery back and jet-black underparts these birds definitely liven up a cattle pasture! Here too were several Green Ibis, a bulky and short-legged ibis that generally prefers forest edge habitat, a gathering of Purple Gallinules and a perched Common Black-Hawk.

After an hour or so our bus arrived 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 served as a breeding colony for Cattle Egrets and Great-tailed Grackles, with dozens of nests in the low trees around the margin of the water. Here too we found several perched Blue-headed Parrots, a Streak-headed 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. The trees around the bridge were simply alive with birds, as several were in fruit. Several pairs of dazzling Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and a few Black-faced Grosbeaks were foraging across the creek from us. Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans perched in larger trees halfway up the slope and a dozen or so Plain-coloured Tanagers and Olive-backed and Tawny-capped Euphonia fed just overhead. Below the bridge we spotted a couple of Long-tailed Tyrants sitting up on the tops of some bare branches. This is an attractive black and silvery-gray species that sports two massively elongated uppertail covert feathers that sprout from a rotund almost manakin-like body. In the dense shrubs lining the rocky creek we found a pair of Black-striped Sparrows and along the creek itself spotted a perched Black Phoebe and a beautiful little Torrent Tyrannulet that was busily building a delicate nest on the side of a small cliff face above the whitewater.

A few kilometers further up the road we stopped at a traditional curve that seems to regularly host mixed species flocks. We were not disappointed! A small but quite active flock was foraging along the road edge and we happily watched our first Tropical Parula, Blackburnian Warbler, Cinnamon Becard, diminutive Mistletoe Tyrannulets and a vocal pair of Gray-capped Flycatchers flit around in the open trees over a small and abandoned shack. Some fruiting trees along the creek were covered in small purple berries. A group of Speckled and Golden-hooded Tanagers and several Green Honeycreepers were attempting to fully strip the tree of fruit.

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 last year 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 year 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 while watching Broad-winged Hawks and White-collared Swifts circling through the billowing patches of fog above us. After lunch we made a short walk along the forested section of the road, and at a spot with good quality forest below down both sides of the road we found a hive of activity as a mixed flock came up one side of the slope to the road edge. Higher elevation forest in the neotropics often host a staggering diversity of species but with relatively low and dispersed numbers of a large majority of the birds. Along with several species of tanager that we had previously encountered further down the mountainside we located a pair of reflective and boldly patterned Spangle-cheeked Tanagers here (a regional endemic restricted to the highlands of western Panama and adjacent Costa Rica). A busy group of Common Chlorospingus, several bright male Tawny-capped Euphonia, a male Golden-winged Warbler and a vocalizing Gray-breasted Wood-Wren filled out the flock. With the clouds closing in we made a short stop at the hydroelectric dam just over on the pacific slope to use the restrooms. Here we also spotted a Snowy-bellied Hummingbird feeding in a pink flowering shrub and sampled an array of traditional Panamanian snack foods.              

As we descended back towards the Caribbean lowlands we stopped at another generally productive bend in the road for what we thought would be a quick check. It seemed quiet at first but soon we heard the flutlike song of a Nightingale-Thrush from a little down the road. Initially we were not certain which species of thrush was involved, with the repeated phrases not matching any of the recordings that we had on hand. By recording the singer and using some playback we were eventually able to determine that it was a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, an uncommon bird of dense foothill forests. As we walked back to the bus a fast-moving flock came pouring towards the road. Dozens of birds were in few at once, with a few new species such as a stunning male Emerald Tanager, a pair of White-shouldered Tanagers (here of the western Panama race that is quite different to those from the canal zone), and a female Shining Honeycreeper. A bit further down the mountain we stopped to admire a pair of perched Bat Falcons that were sitting up on the top of a roadside snag. We then returned to the Atlantic slope lowlands and headed for the boat dock, stopping again along the entrance road to the dock in a section of more open pastureland. In addition to many of the same species that we encountered on the road during our morning walk we picked out a few bright Red-breasted Meadowlarks sitting in tall clumps of grass, and some flyover Giant Cowbirds that landed on a distant tree. As it was late afternoon the parrots were moving, and we watched several dozen Red-lored Parrots, a few Blue-headed Parrots and some flocks of fast moving Crimson-fronted Parakeets as they headed to their evening roosts. Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras were sitting up along the road here too, and a small group of Swainson’s Hawks joined the steady trickle of Barn Swallows that were passing overhead to their wintering grounds in South America. We arrived back at the lodge a bit before dinnertime, thrilled with a day list well in excess of 100 species.

The next day was reserved for largely 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-kilometer long canal a bit inshore so that they could transport bananas by barge from the Changuinola River without dealing with the stronger ocean waves. Though the canal is no longer used for commercial fruit shipments it is kept open by locals as a throughfare between Bocas town and the Changuinola River. 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. Unfortunately for us our enjoyment of the canal was tempered by the weather.  Early in the morning the rains began to fall, and the morning remained quite wet until about 10am. We delayed our departure a bit and then broke the boat ride out to the canal with a stop back in Bocas town, where a check of the weather radar revealed that there would be no dodging the rainclouds, as a continuous band of rain actually stretched from just east of New Guinea across the Pacific, through Panama and northern Colombia and out to almost west Africa! While we obtained this happy news we did spot a Parasitic Jaegar off the dock. A few of these piratical birds spend the winter around the archipelago, likely chasing Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls around and generally causing havoc with the resident seabirds.

Typically in November if it rains it rains heavily for a portion of the afternoon and then ceases sometime in the late afternoon or (worst case overnight). For us though this was a slow and steady morning rain, and one that we, shall we say, fully experienced. Thankfully the weather and the rain were warm, and although we were wet it was possible to maintain good spirits. The first third of the canal was still under the rains, so it was likely almost ten o’clock by the time the rains eased off enough for birds to reemerge from their various hiding places. We were glad to have persevered though, as the middle of the day was actually quite pleasant and generally rain free. Although we saw a few birds near the entrance to the canal including our first Ringed, Belted and Green Kingfishers and a furtive but vocal Bay Wren that popped into view a few times along the bushy vegetations lining the canal it was not until we reached nearly the midpoint of the canal that the birding really picked up. We stopped at the midway point at a purpose-built dock with an outhouse on it, perhaps a unique structure in the world. Of additional interest around the outhouse were several large and colourful crabs that were walking on the outer wall of the structure and a bat who was flying under the toilet and dock, likely disturbed by our various activities in the dunny. A good- sized flock of Olive-throated Parakeets and both Common Black and Roadside Hawks were perched up nearby, and just a few hundred meters down the creek a fruiting Cercropia was attracting a very cooperative troupe of Collared Aracaris.

For the rest of the morning we slowly motored back towards the Changuinola River, stopping wherever bird activity seemed to warrant it. A couple of mixed species flocks came along the canal, each one bringing a couple of new species to our waiting binoculars. Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts occasionally flew overhead, sometimes flaring their deeply forked tail as they rapidly changed direction. A pair of Great Kiskadees were putting the finishing touches on their bulky grassy nest that overhang the river, with a pair of Social Flycatchers looking on at their construction. Perhaps the most exciting morning find for us was the pair of Black-cowled Orioles that put in an appearance in one of the mixed flocks. This is a handsome yellow oriole with a striking black head and back and one that is restricted to the western Atlantic slope in Panama. Two separate American Pygmy Kingfishers appeared through the morning, although (as is often the case) they did not tarry long once discovered. With a flyover Amazon Kingfisher seen as well we managed to detect 5 of the 6 new world Kingfishers over the course of the morning!

We eventually reached the end of the canal where it meets the mouth of the river, and after admiring the sitting Black-necked Stilts and Northern Jacanas as well as a perched Yellow-crowned Night-Heron we disembarked to have lunch at the beach. The waves were quite rough and with the recent rains the river was running at a high clip, making for a frothy mix of waters just offshore. Along the beach we picked out a massive flock of Snowy Egrets, with a nice selection of waders including little groups of Sanderling and a few Ruddy Turnstone along the shore, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet and Spotted Sandpiper on the far bank of the river. A loafing flock of Royal Terns contained a few Sandwich and a single (rare for Panama) Forster’s Tern as well as many Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans. As we scanned the river mouth’s turbulent waters we were surprised to spot a pair of Bottle-nosed Dolphins repeatedly surfacing in the river, likely being much more successful in their fishing efforts than the two locals in a dugout canoe just upstream were. A single male American Wigeon and three Lesser Scaups were paddling around just upstream from the dolphins, providing a bit of an interesting simultaneous sighting.

Normally we would pull the boat around and take a short ride upstream on the Changuinola river after lunch, but given our loss of a portion of the morning due to rain we decided to take our time going back through the canal, and to stop at a nearby dock where we could access the beach and do a bit of birding on foot. The walk was quite productive, as around a set of buildings used by a local team of sea turtle researchers we found some fruiting trees that were attracting an amazing density of Bay-breasted Warblers, as well as another Black-cowled Oriole, a female Black-crowned Tityra and a Scarlet Tanager.  From the buildings, we walked out to the beach where 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. On the walk back towards the boats we heard the unmistakable wing snaps of displaying White-collared Manakins (here of the largely yellow Almirante race). Though it took a while eventually we managed to get a few of these attractive and somewhat shy manakins in view as they bounced around in a small patch of sea grapes growing along the forest edge. On the return trip through the canal we stopped for a successful bid to find a Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, a local specialty of the area in Panama, and an attractive species, with an all-black plumage and large and bright pink bill.

In the late afternoon, we exited the canal back at the Bocas end, with the winds largely abating and the sea flattening out decided that we should have no issues taking the nearly two-mile journey out to sea to visit the nearby Swan Cay. This large sea-stack island off the shore of Isla Colon serves as a breeding colony for dozens of pairs of elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds and good numbers of 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. It was a thankfully short journey, and as we drew near to the largely still waters on the leeward side of the island pairs of streamer-tailed Red-billed Tropicbirds began to appear. 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. Hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled above the top of the island like chocolate chips in a food processer. Several more were perched on the islands vegetation, including at least one male with a partially inflated red throat sac.  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. We stayed in the lee for some time, soaking in the view and photographing the boobies and tropicbirds, but eventually took note of the worsening weather conditions behind us and took the short ride back to more sheltered waters, picking up our dry gear and the participants who elected to bird on the roads near the dock rather than make the trip out to Swan Cay. The ride back to the lodge was much like our ride out to the canal, with warm saltwater spray coming up from underneath and warm rain falling from above. The lodge’s generator room was quite useful for drying out clothes and shoes overnight, and I think all of the participants (and the leaders) remarked that the day was noteworthy for two main reasons. The first reason was for the diversity of birds that we found; roughly 100 species was truly amazing given the weather, and the second was the rain itself, as the day was surely one of the wettest days of birding that most of us had experienced.  

Our poor weather luck continued through the early hours of the next day, with heavy rain lasting through the night and into the midmorning. 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 hour or so on the lodge upper balcony, watching eye-level Montezuma Oropendola grabbing fruits, and a procession of birds including Gray Catbird, Bananaquit and Prothonoray Warblers taking bananas from the feeding table. By about eight thirty the rains had come to an end and the ceiling, although still gray, was high and well defined. We set out to nearby Isla Popa, the island adjacent to Isla Bastimentos. At the islands far end it is quite close to a spur of the mainland and this proximity has meant that several species of plants and animals have colonized Popa from the mainland but been unable to cross the wider channel to Bastimentos. We motored slowly through a scenic and calm channel between Isla Popa and a small outlying island, happy to have drier weather and dryer clothing. The local birdlife seemed pleased with the change in the weather as well, with many species perching up in an attempt to dry themselves off. Raptors were particularly notable, with Gray-headed, Plumbeous and Double-toothed Kites all appearing in front of us. A Yellow Warbler (here of the reddish headed mangrove subspecies group) played hide and seek in the mangroves and we spotted a few Yellow-throated Toucans sitting up and drying off as well. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate any of the male Snowy Cotingas that often perch on prominent perches above the mangrove forest (an issue we would rectify later in the afternoon).

As the weather seemed to be stable we then decided to take the twenty-minute journey along the shore of Isla Popa to the Green Acres Cacao farm, a small privately-owned farm with well-established cacao trees in the understory of largely intact lowland forest.  Before we pulled into the dock Natalia spotted a perched raptor along the forest edge which proved to be a handsome, if a bit damp, Laughing Falcon. It’s an attractive and large falcon, with a buff-cream plumage and dark chocolate robber mask, and although widespread in the country tends to not be particularly common. Arriving at the dock soon thereafter we walked up to the house to meet the owners and their seemingly ever-growing menagerie and then set off for the short walk around the trails that wind along a ridge and around along a forested creek. Just behind the house our attention was diverted by some movement around the large piles of partially decomposed cacao husks, where the numerous small fruit flies were attracting numbers of beautiful Green-and-Black Poison Dart Frogs. 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 frogs should look like. Bird activity seemed sluggish, perhaps due to the rainy start to the day, but we eventually found a nice mixed flock that contained a pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds that actually slipped up and showed well for us in a dense heliconia thicket. Lesser Greenlets and an impressive number of migrant warblers fed in the bushy trees above us, and we found a cooperative male Olive-backed Euphonia that eventually dropped lower in the trees and permitted us to see its rather atypical (for a Euphonia) colour scheme of deep olive. A pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes and a single Ochre-bellied Flycatcher rounded out the cast. We walked a bit further down the small hill and along the forested creek we picked out a pair of Black-chested Jays that unfortunately scuttled away before we obtained lengthy views, and we found a very vocal Roadside Hawk perched in the canopy trying to dry out its still wet wings. Once back at the owner’s house we were treated to fresh brewed chocolate tea, a most refreshing and light drink, as well as a small sample of their homemade chocolate liqueur and various other local chocolate inspired gifts. As we bade farewell the winds were beginning to pick up and a bit later as we neared the lodge we could see that a serious squall was coming in from the west. We tried to beat the rain by squeaking in another quick visit to the mangrove-lined channel in Isla Popa. This visit proved a bit less productive than the first, and unfortunately for us did not allow us to miss the squall either. The ten-minute ride back to the lodge was again a soggy one, though we were happy to have had most of the morning rain-free and to have been able to visit all the places that we had planned to.

After lunch and a bit of a siesta the rains slacked off and for those who deigned to continue birding for the afternoon we experienced a wonderful two and a half hours in the field. We elected to concentrate first on the trail system behind the lodge, as on the previous day (while we were away) a few Three-wattled Bellbirds had been heard calling near the cabins.  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 disctinctive 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 sent Ramon out on a different trail to check some fruiting trees that had been dependable for the bellbirds within the last few weeks, while the rest of us slowly walked out towards an area where the birds sometimes call in the afternoons. We didn’t get very far before our attentions turned to a small mixed species flock that was foraging in some relatively open forest edge just a few hundred meters from the staff quarters. A male Golden-collared Manakin perched in front of us on a vine for a few seconds and then shot up towards a tree that turned out to be full of birds. Among the more common species here we found a bright male American Redstart sallying out to grab flying insects and a single Worm-eating Warbler (scarce in Bocas) digging around in clusters of dead leaves hanging in the mid-story. Just as we finished with the flock Ramon came running up to us, a little muddy and quite eager to share that he had found a male Bellbird in one of the fruiting trees. We hurried (as fast as we could) around to the area, stopping to look at a small group of Dot-winged Antwrens on the way and wondering how Ramon could have covered so much ground so quickly. On a steep and remarkably muddy slope the object of our quest revealed itself, with an adult male sitting over the trail in a tree heaving with grape-sized purple berries. The Bellbird is quite a large bird, with a 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 carefully back out of the woods and set about washing off our footgear. The skies were still clear so we pressed on with another visit to the now familiar Isla Popa Chanel. As is sometimes the case, the third time was indeed the charm, and as soon as had we arrived in the area we picked out a gleaming white Snowy Cotinga sitting in some low mangroves. 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 and we watched as this male repeatedly swooped back and forth between two prominent perches. The species is restricted to the Caribbean slope of Central America, from Southeast Honduras to the Bocas region of Panama and is hard to track down without having a staked out male. Females, which are grey with dark spots across their breasts are very rarely seen, and the biology of the species is poorly understood. It’s not every day that you get to see two such impressive and attractive contingas in a day, and we were all quite pleased with the outcome of the afternoon.

As we still had some daylight remaining we took a short detour onto Isla Popa itself, to look for some of the colourful local 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. Unlike most species of dart frog in this species it is the female that rears the young, by providing her growing tadpoles an infertile egg to eat daily. 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 dominate colour types, which here are generally either seafoam green or orangey with green legs. After some celebratory sodas and waters and quite a bit of happy smiles we headed back to the lodge for dinner and a bit of time organizing for our move away from the coast and over to the western highlands, sad to leave this largely undiscovered Caribbean paradise, 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. The morning again dawned slowly and with rain, but with some extra precautions and a lot of plastic bags and tarps we managed to get out to the dock at Puerto Robalo with as much dry equipment as possible. Happily, the rest of the day was pleasant and dry; a condition that we did not have too much hope for given the amount of rain falling in the early morning. Once at the dock 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. At one of the creeks we stopped to look for a calling Green Kingfisher and were thrilled to find not only a pair of these little green and rufous gems but a perched Amazon Kingfisher as well! On an adjacent slope we called in a responsive male Pacific Antwren, a cute little sprite covered in black streaks. The singing Black-throated Wrens above us on another slope were less cooperative, but most participants saw their shadowy forms darting around in a vine tangle overhead. Further down the road we picked out perched Blue-headed Parrots and Keel-billed Toucans, as well as a young Broad-winged Hawk that was trying its best to dry out after the early rain.  

We then ascended the highway that crosses the divide, again stopping along the side road that leads to some communications towers. On this occasion, we found conditions were a bit more overcast than on our previous visit. As is often the case when conditions are cloudy in upland forest the area was much birdier than on our earlier visit. Swarms of 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. In some flowering Heliconias we picked out a female Green Hermit, a striking species with a deep green back and very long curved bill, and were eventually successful in calling out a perky little Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. Just above the thicket we admired a sitting Spangle-cheeked Tanager that lingered for minutes in the scope, and spotted three calling Golden-bellied Flycatchers in the tree above the tanager. On the other side of the road we were frustrated a bit by several Pale-vented Thrushes that simply refused to perch in a useful location. A male Elegant Euphonia was much more cooperative though as it fed in some fruiting mistletoe. We then walked a bit further down the road and found a second mixed flock. This one contained our first Slate-throated Whitestarts, a pair of actually visible Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and a busy group of Common Chlorospingus. A vocalizing Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush was in the dense understory under the flock and with some patience we were repeatedly able to see it perched deep in the undergrowth. For the few participants that were never quite standing in the correct spot to see deep into the vegetation the bird obligingly flew across the road right in front of us before vanishing downslope. Just before we had lunch we heard the telltale chacking of a pair of Band-backed Wrens around the next bend. We hurried over and were soon looking at these very handsome birds as they foraged in the midstory. Related to the more familiar (to North American birders at any rate) Cactus Wren these birds are decked out in tropical garb, with a polka-dotted chest, bright white and black banded back and rich buffy orange flanks and undertail. A nice packed lunch of sandwiches and freshly baked cookies was a just reward for a great morning. Before we started the drive over to the Pacific side of the country we checked out a few flowering shrubs a bit past the car and were happy to find two White-bellied Mountain-Gems feeding in and perching on a particularly dense pink-flowered bush.

The drive from the top of the divide down towards David and then west and back up to the flanks of the 11,400ft high 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. We broke the drive up a bit with an hour-long stop at the thundering waters of the Macho de Monte, a narrow canyon with an impressively loud waterfall and some dense forest along the road. As soon as we exited the bus new birds appeared. In some tall non-native pines we spotted two huge dangling Oropendola nests, as soon thereafter found their builders when two Crested Oropendolas landed on a nearby dead tree. Although about the same size as the Montezumas these birds are darker mantled, and lack the bright facial coloration, possessing a simple horn-yellow bill. The dead tree proved popular with Red-crowned Woodpecker and Lesser Goldfinch as well, providing a nice trio of life birds for many participants. Across the street we were amazed to spot a foraging Buff-rumped Warbler flitting about on the small lawn at the road bed. This is a poorly-named species, and one that seems to prove that the earlier ornithologists who dreamt up names for birds had a surprisingly poor grasp of colour shades. The rump on these long tailed and active warblers is hardly buff, and would better be described as a bright golden-apricot. Here too we battled with a very skulky Riverside Wren that reluctantly did eventually creep into the open on a large stump, though it quickly dove back into its preferred impenetrable haunts. A bit down the road and near the rushing creek we found a large fig tree that was attracting a wealth of frugivores including our first Silver-throated Tanager, the pacific form of Scarlet-rumped Tanager (once known as Cherri’s Tanager) and Spot-crowned Euphonia.  Some more familiar birds showed extremely well here too, especially the eye-level Golden-hooded and Bay-headed Tanagers and a pair of Buff-throated Saltators. A Crested Guan even flew overhead, perching too far back and in too dense a tree for us to really appreciate. For a roadside stop mainly to stretch our legs this was an incredibly productive hour! Leaving the falls behind we drove the final half-hour up to our cozy (if a bit eccentric) hotel. 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 were hosting a couple of Resplendent Quetzales. 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 near the base of the road we were successful in locating a female Quetzal that repeatedly perched in the open above us as it fed on small purple fruits in a tall fruiting tree. Although she lacks the elongated tail that makes the males so resplendent the female is still a very fine bird indeed. The same tree was attracting a Black Guan that seemed oblivious to our presence on the forest floor, and several Mountain Thrushes.  While we waited around a bit hoping that a male Quetzal might also appear at the fruiting trees we heard a calling Streak-breasted Treerunner and were soon able to see it as it crawled along some small branches along the edge of the road. This large furnarid is endemic to the Talamanca highlands, found only in the upper reaches of the mountains covered in dense forest with extensive epiphytic growth. A bit further up the road we spent some time coaxing two quite difficult birds into view as they moved around us in the understory. A Lineated Foliage-Gleaner peered out from various vine tangles around us as it flashed from tree to tree. A pair of Chestnut-capped Brushfinches lurked in the undergrowth, poking their heads up to look at us a couple of times but largely staying hidden. We had much better luck with a Yellowish Flycatcher that was sitting over the road, repeatedly giving its sharp call note.

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 colourful Rufous-collared Sparrows bouncing around on the lawns.  Both Talamanca (a recent split from the more northerly Magnificent Hummingbird) and Fiery-throated Hummingbird were common in the flowering bushes around the clearing, and with a bit of judicious imitation of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl we enticed a small flock of birds intent on chasing away the “owl”. The flock contained a handsome Black-throated Green Warbler and a few Wilson’s Warblers as well as our first Slaty Flowerpiercers and Mountain Elaenia. 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 and Nightingale-Thrush, a pair of Yellow-thighed Finches with their namesake yellow pantaloons on full display and a stunning adult male Volcano Hummingbird sitting in perfect light just off the trail. The walk through the woods remained fairly active as the morning wore on, with several mixed flocks passing across the trail. The groups were generally led by Sooty-capped Chlorospingus which replaces Common Chlorospingus in the higher elevation forest. Small groups of the sedately marked Black-cheeked Warblers, irrepressibly happy looking Collared Whitestarts and gaudy Flame-throated Warblers were often in attendance as well. 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 Woodcreeper was the common woodcreeper here, and we found a pair of bright Ruddy Treerunners and some quite colourful Buffy Tuftedcheeks (with their pale ear coverts flashing). We continued about a half kilometer down the trail, trying a few times to coax some of the calling Silvery-throated Tapaculos into view, and stopping to look at our first Black-capped Flycatcher, a very pretty highland Empidonax flycatcher that somewhat resembles a spruced-up Buff-breasted Flycatcher (thus making it perhaps the most attractive member of a generally dull group of birds). At one point a trio of calling Prong-billed Barbets whose ringing hoots seem most unbirdlike appeared overhead, providing us with yet another pretty Talamanca endemic. When we returned to the cars we stopped to have our picnic lunch, which was interrupted when a high-flying Ornate Hawk-Eagle was spotted circling with some Black Vultures. Also while we tucked into lunch the high clouds over the ridge of Volcan Baru lifted and we were able to see the sharp ridges that frame the Eastern flank of the volcano.

After a brief siesta back at our hotel we left in the mid-afternoon, driving along a rocky road that crosses into the gigantic Amistad International Park (an upland forest park that stretches well into Costa Rica and protects a significant percentage of the remaining highland forest). We parked at the park’s main ranger station, and after signing their guest book set about tracking down a calling Wrenthrush that was just a little back along the entrance road. We walked down slowly, looking for a good vantage point close to where they were 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 of a pair that repeatedly crossed through a fairly open section of undergrowth, even stopping once or twice and flashing their orange crests. Elated with our luck we spent a bit of time around the stations carpark, spotting our first Blue-and-White Swallows and a perched Fiery-throated Hummingbird. A light rain began to fall as we started down the short loop trail that takes off from the edge of the clearing. The first section of the trail was muddier than we may have hoped, and had some short but steep descents, but the rest of the path was much easier going. A large flock of birds came into view at a thankfully wider section of the trail. A Hairy Woodpecker, here of the quite buffy southern subspecies, was busily foraging in a tall flowering tree and looking quite unlike the more familiar black and white birds from further north. Some Tufted Flycatchers were perched on prominent branches below the trail, and a male Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatcher was spotted just overhead, showing much better than the distant pair that we found in the morning. While we were watching the flock a young Ornate Hawk-Eagle, perhaps attracted by the commotion of the flock, swept in an actually landed in the back trees, providing us with good views of its pale-yellow head. Near the bottom of the trail we found a single Northern Emerald Toucanet that perched up nicely for us, and long enough for a discussion of the rather tortured taxonomic controversies that have plagued the emerald toucanet complex. Soon after leaving the toucanet behind we heard a cackling Quetzal above the trail. It took some jostling around but we were all able to see this bird (an adult male) as it flew over us with its filamentous and nearly foot long tail streamers billowing out behind it. We spent some time trying to get an angle from which we could spot it on its new perch, and were eventually (mostly) successful at getting the group into the right spot on the trail to admire the birds bright green back and resplendent (truly) tail feathers.  By this time the light was waning, so once the bird had flown further downslope we wrapped up our short walk and headed back to the lodge, simply amazed at the whirlwind of colourful regionally endemic birds that we had been privy to over the course of our first full day around Volcan.

For our second full day in the highlands of the Chiriqui we visited the upper cabins of Los Quetzales Lodge. These log cabins are set in a forested valley between Volcan Baru and Amistad National Parks. Off the grid, and placed about 2000 ft above the town and up a very, very rough rocky road they provide a wilderness retreat that is apparently quite heavily used in the spring high season. During our visit though the cabins were not in use, and our general plan was to hike up to one of the top cabins and bird from its large patio deck with a sweeping view of the forest canopy and surrounding brush, and a hummingbird feeder. The last few hundred meters of the “road” were exceptionally rough, making us wonder how on earth anyone could construct such nice cabins at such a hard to access area. Once we started up the trail to the famous (in birding circles at least) cabin number eight we were surrounded by very wet and tall forest covered with an impressive array of multicolored bromeliads, a largely open mid-story and dense undergrowth of shrubs, ferns and mosses. The round wooded two-story cabin has a wide deck on the lower floor, well situated at the height of the canopy with an excellent vantage of a wide sweep of the surrounding forest. For about two hours we stood (or sat) around on the deck, watching the surrounding trees and keeping one vigilant eye on the recently filled hummingbird feeder. A good-sized flock was milling around the trees in front of us when we arrived, with a quiet pair of Barred Becards and our first Brown-capped Vireo, as well as a much more vocal Rufous-browed Peppershrike that played hide and seek remarkably well for such a large bird.

This flock lingered around the cabin for much of the morning, along with little groups of Black-cheeked Warblers and several irrepressibly happy looking Collared Whitestarts and a pair of jaunty Yellow-thighed Finches. Over the course of our stay here we also enjoyed excellent views of a pair of Large-footed Finch (which had eluded us the prior day in the park) and some perched Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. These sleek and elegant birds look like the runway model version of a waxwing, with a delicate outfit of silvery-grey and yellow. Their populations move around in response to local fruiting regimes, making them difficult to consistently pin down. At one point an Ornate Hawk-Eagle flew overhead and then perched on a distant tree, vastly improving on our previous views of this most attractive raptor. We also found two male Golden-browed Chlorophonias that were foraging in some impressively large flowering mistletoe clumps. Although far from the cabins their electric green plumage was readily apparent as they shuffled around the orange flowers. The hummingbird feeder almost instantly attracted several pushy Talamanca Hummingbirds which remained poised around the cabins and ready to chase off any would-be intruders. Despite the blockade the feeder also hosted a couple of White-throated Mountain-Gems, a female Violet Sabrewing and a pretty male Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Being able to see such a marvelous array of species so easily, and with coffee, tea and restrooms just feet away was a definite treat. In the mid-morning we started back down the short trail to the parking area, but were soon delayed by a calling Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that seemed to be quite close to the trail. We positioned ourselves near a likely looking more open patch of ground and waited expectantly for the birds to creep into view. Surprisingly the Tapaculos completely ignored us, but we enjoyed close-range views of a pair of Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens and simply phenomenal views of a pair of Wrenthrush instead. The Wrenthrushes repeatedly walked into view, perching up and even flaring their orange crowns and staying put long enough for a bit of a photo shoot! Around the parked cars we stopped to admire another Black Guan high up in the canopy and a pair of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers that were busily stuffing themselves on palm fruits.

Once back at our lodge, many participants elected to take a short walk around the hotel grounds. Flowering bushes around the building hosted many Lesser Violetear, a few Fiery-throated and Talamanca Hummingbirds as well as several pairs of Slaty Flowerpiercers. 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, a Mountain Elaenia and a pair of Common Chlorospingus. It took a little bit of searching but we were also able to find an immature male Scintillant Hummingbird with its burgeoning red-orange gorget only just beginning to show. A brief early afternoon siesta followed, and then we departed for some lower elevation sites for the afternoon. At a small but very well-kept Bed and Breakfast on the way down towards Volcan we spent a bit of time watching the feeders, which were attracting several dazzling male Violet Sabrewings; a brute of a hummingbird and one that given the right light angle simply burns purple. Some fruit feeders provided excellent studies of Silver-throated Tanagers, as well as our first Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles. A tall bare snag in the center of the grounds acted as an excellent perch for an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and in some growing bananas we spotted a small flock of Thick-billed Euphonias trying to figure out how to peel the fruit without opposable thumbs.

For the rest of the afternoon we birded the entrance road and beginning of the 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. We initially stopped along the bumpy and unmarked entrance road to the reserve, where we spent a productive half hour walking along a shaded hedgerow.  Here we found a nice assortment of more open-country birds, such as Variable Seedeaters (here now white and black rather than nearly all black), Yellow-faced Grassquit, Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Southern Lapwing. In the dense parts of the hedgerow we teased out an eventually extremely cooperative Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (amazingly our 5th species of this often-tricky group) and were very happy to have close views of our first Ocellated Piculet; a bird so tiny that many in the group found it difficult to believe that it is actually a woodpecker. A bit further down the road we located all three species of Spinetail that occur in the region in quick succession. A trio of Red-faced Spinetails were foraging on the mossy limbs of a roadside tree, often hanging underneath branches like woodcreepers. Only twenty meters down the road we found a pair of coal-gray Slaty Spinetails lurking in a grassy thicket, and while watching out for them to cross gaps in the hedge found a singing Pale-breasted Spinetail perched in a small tree just off the road! Blue-and-White Swallows, and Vaux’s and White-collared Swifts crossed overhead as they foraged over the fields. Once on the forested trail system we were a bit surprised by how dark it was under the canopy; with overcast skies making the late afternoon feel more like early evening. We walked on though, and by the end of our time here were most definitely glad that we did. A pair of Collared Trogons furnished our first marquee sighting here, as they perched high up on a trailside Cercropia tree. Soon afterwards we found a small mixed flock that contained a pair of Slaty Antwrens and several Plain Antvireos, as well as a pair of Golden-crowned Warblers and a quietly sitting Slaty-capped Flycatcher.  A bit further down the trail we heard a calling Collared Forest-Falcon and were amazed when the bird swept in and perched in front of us, with its long and banded tail dangling from one side of the branch and its piercing eyes peering over the other. Although this is a very widespread species it is one that is often heard but seldom seen, and more seldom still seen so well. As if that were not enough the path had one more surprise in store for us on the walk back to the cars. A pair of beautiful Fiery-billed Aracaris were perched up on a high tree, perhaps looking around for the vocalizing Forest-Falcon. Although no birder would likely look at a Collared Aracari and think it to be dull, the Fiery-billed’s bicolored bill with a sunburst colour palette on its upper mandible is clearly the more attractive of the pair. Unlike the widespread Collared Aracari the Fiery-billed is a range-restricted species; found only on the Pacific slope of eastern Costa Rica and the adjacent southwest corner of Panama. We enjoyed lengthy scope views of the birds as they placidly stayed atop their lofty perch and then started the drive back out of the reserve. We made one more stop as we left the area, finding a singing Chiriqui Yellowthroat along the road. Long since either treated as its own species or as part of the South American Masked Yellowthroat this form has recently been lumped with Olive-crowned Yellowthroat; a situation that I doubt will be a long-term solution. A male Garden Emerald feeding along the fenceline capped off a great visit to the lakes, and we then headed back up to our lodge for a marvelous Thanksgiving feast of cooked ham, turkey and cranberry sauce!

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 back at the hydroelectric dam at Macho de Monte. The fruiting fig that was had scouted out on our first visit was proving very attractive in the early morning, with busy flocks of Scarlet-rumped, Golden-hooded, Silver-throated, Palm, Blue-gray and Speckled Tanagers coming in to grab the ripe figs. We also had much better luck in securing views of Riverside Wren, with three birds creeping around along the small concrete channel and occasionally coming out into the open so that we could appreciate the dense barring on their bellies. A pair of Costa Rican Brushfinches proved a bit more elusive in a dense thicket of heliconias and vines but a few lucky partipants were standing in the right place for a quick glimpse of this often quite secretive species. A calling Lineated Woodpecker proved much more cooperative as it landed in a tall snag and showed its striking plumage off nicely. After hearing this species multiple times over the first few days of the trip is was especially nice to finally see one in the scope. A beautiful White Hawk circled overhead a few times and then obligingly perched in a pine tree a bit upslope from us. It’s a beautiful bird, with wide wings, a striking black tail band and black shoulders on an otherwise snow-white body. Just as we decided to head back to the van our attentions turned to a pair of confiding Rufous-capped Warblers that were foraging along the roadside edge. They proved to be the vanguard of a mixed species flock, and soon we were watching Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, an Eye-ringed Flatbill and a wonderfully cooperative Olivaceous Piculet all moving through the same roadside hedge.

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 20-50 birds present, of 10 species. The common species included richly coloured Crowned Woodnymph and Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds. Single Brown Violetear and Blue-tailed Goldentail were excellent finds, and we were especially happy to see several Charming Hummingbirds (a pacific lowland endemic) as well. After the rather heady showing of colour and motion on the patio we moved down to the trail system that passes through an isolated pocket of forest along the creek. A small mixed flock here held a pair of Gray-capped Flycatchers, a foraging Purple-crowned Fairy and a diminutive Olivaceous Woodcreeper as well as a nice mix of migrants including a locally scarce Blackburnian Warbler. Nearby we found a single Streaked Saltator – proof that there are indeed more than one species of this group in Panama. Perched nearby was a handsome male Long-billed Starthroat, a large hummingbird with a very long straight bill that is perfectly suited to the flowers of coral bean trees (many of which were in bloom along the creek). A singing Black-hooded Antshrike kept up its repetitive rasping call for our entire walk around the property, but unfortunately remained buried in the center of the forest patch and out of sight. While looking for the antshrike though we found another mixed flock quietly feeding in the shaded understory. Several Streak-headed Woodcreepers, a pair of Smoky-Brown Woodpeckers, a male Rose-throated Becard and a handsome Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner (a recent split from Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner and a write-in for the tour) were present and showed well as they slowly worked across a gap in the forest. As the morning wore on we headed back up to the lodge, where the hummingbird show continued unabated, with the same mix of species plus a somber coloured Brown Violetear. Over lunch the lodge owner 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 Tanagers, as well as birds like Buff-throated Saltator, Green Honeycreeper, Black-striped Sparrow and Clay-colored Thrush. The commotion perhaps also attracted a pair of Orange-collared Manakins into the flowering bushes behind the tables. Although the fiery-orange male soon zipped off into the undergrowth the more sedately coloured female lingered for quite a while in an adjacent berry-rich bush. As we readied to depart we found a quietly sitting Lesson’s Motmot in a hedge under the patio. Initially the bird was facing away from us, displaying its green back and racket-tail. Our gracious host threw some bits of banana underneath the birds peched and he obligingly turned around revealing a greenish-copper breast and belly, and turquoise brow. Our final find for the property was back at the driveway entrance, where a flock of Brown-throated Parakeets flew in and perched just over the bus, causing a mass exodus of the group that had only just begun to find their seats. All to soon we had to bid the Birding paradise adieu and continue down towards the pacific coast.

We neared the town of David in the midafternoon, 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 Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted and Least Sandpipers and several Northern Jacana. Here too was a flock of Bronzed Cowbirds and a parade of Smooth-billed Anis lined up on a fencerow. In the back of the field we found a nesting pair of Savannah Hawks, an open-country relative of the Common Black-Hawk. 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 pair of Red-crowned Woodpeckers hammering away on a dead tree, some Southern Rough-winged Swallows perching on the roadside wires, and a Fork-tailed Flycatcher that was acrobatically bathing by splashing into the lake from some emergent trees. A young Black-crowned Night-Heron and an Osprey flew by here too, and we spotted a male Anhinga perched in a low bush over the water.

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. A large kettle of vultures overhead contained a few interesting interlopers, and by craning our necks skyward we picked out a circling Wood Stork, a few Broad-winged Hawks and a high-flying Peregrine Falcon. We stopped in the shade next to a small pond that was lined with a row of Gumbo Limbo trees where we found a quite active mixed flock that included several species new for our trip; including a Scrub Greenlet, a pair of Red-legged Honeycreepers, and a Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet. We continued walking around the grove of trees, spotting our first Streaked and Panama Flycatchers, White-winged Becard, as well as a host of by now more familiar species. Eventually our birding time drew to a close and we headed back to the airport terminal to check in for our early evening flight back to Panama City.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 07 December 2018