Saturday, March 19, 2016

Panama - The Canal Zone

Mar 1

Today we had our sights set on Old Gamboa Road, the old road south of Gamboa which is now partly overgrown and passes through some good dry forest habitat. This paid off as the new habitat meant new birds!

 The old Gamboa road

We started off at the north end and headed south to the Summit Ponds, quickly adding Lesser Kiskadee, Greater Ani and Rusty-margined Flycatcher to the trip list. Working our way further south into the dry forest proper, we added Buff-breasted Wren, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Lance-tailed Manakin and Tawny-throated Leaftosser. A different wren sang and eventually gave us a look - Rufous-breasted Wren. At the time I had miscounted my trip list and thought this bird was #700 for the trip - in entering my checklists to eBird I discovered I had passed that milestone the day previous on Pipeline! By the time we made it to the end of the road we'd also picked up Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Crimson-backed Tanager and White-bellied Antbird. While watching some Black-throated Mangos in the late morning heat, we noticed some raptor activity had kicked up overhead. Over the next hour we just hung out in the opening, watching butterflies and hawks, and racked up nearly 1000 individuals with Swainson's Hawk being new for the trip and a low Black Hawk-Eagle a definite highlight. While waiting I also got a brief view of a Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, the only one of the trip.

Some sort of Blue

Since it was now quite hot and activity had predictably slowed down, we worked our way back to the car, stopping to watch a rather tame Crane Hawk's antics along the way. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort's marina, adding some waterbirds to the day list but failing to turn up anything new for the trip. After a few hours of relaxing back at Mateo's and enjoying the show of Geoffrey's Tamarins at the feeding station, we decided to head back to Pipeline Road, stopping in at the Ammo Dump Ponds along the way.

At Mateo's they feed the Tamarins - they are cheeky little buggers

This provided us with some cool butterflies, a few more day birds, and exactly 0 Saffron Finches amongst the seedeater flock. This introduced species has colonized the Canal Zone but I ultimately ended up missing it on the trip! Some dusk birding along the entrance of Pipeline was fairly quiet, but did turn up one new trip bird with Brownish Twistwing, which Josh saw well but unfortunately I only had poor views of a brownish bird taking off... After a quick dinner we returned to Old Gamboa Road after receiving a tip from a local with one goal in mind: Rufous Nightjar. That didn't prevent us from seeing a Striped Owl flying across the canal on the way down though! Arriving at the road we quickly added Common Pauraque and Lesser Nighthawk for the day, before hiking in the dark for a while, stopping to listen every now and then. After about an hour of this with no nightjars (and really nothing else to look at), Steve was ready to give up and started back toward the car, while Josh and I decided to press on and give him a radio call if we found anything. About half an hour later, Josh and I were in the same boat, having heard no nightjars. On a whim, we decided to play a tape (quietly, on Josh's phone), and to our shock a bird called back not 10m away! Giving Steve a call, we got no response, and if I remember correctly we had to go fetch him after marking the spot where the nightjar was. Arriving back at the site, the bird had decided it was done calling for the night, but when we played a tape it responded by flying directly at us (in the pitch black, so we didn't see it) and grazing our faces with its wingtips. At that we decided it was time to go, and made our way back to Gamboa. Seeing as we were now in 'night-hike' mode, Josh and I were eager to try our luck on Pipeline, so we left Steve at the motel to organize his mountain of gear and headed off into the darkness. Two hours later we returned, elated with our success - 26 owls of 6 species, 3 of them new for the trip, with the added bonus of Common Potoo, Northern Tamandua with a baby attached, and a rare Water Opossum. Despite not going far from town, today ended up being my highest-diversity day of the trip, with 159 species when all was said and done!
Running trip total: 732
Panama: 394

Mar 2

In the Gamboa area there are four main roads which are free to walk and good for birding - we had already done a morning on Pipeline, a morning on Old Gamboa, and were planning our fourth and final morning to be on Achiote. That left our third morning free for the other one - Plantation Road. Compared to our previous two mornings with incredible species lists, this one was rather slow, with 'only' 64 species in our 6+ hours here. As a result we spent a fair bit of the morning watching butterflies and other bugs and generally admiring the massive trees (and craning our necks to look into the equally tall canopy). Two highlights were Gray Elaenia and Scaly-throated Leaftosser, both new for the trip. We also heard a large cat of some sort give a yowl type call early in the morning but were unable to see it (not surprisingly)!

Plantation Road

White-whiskered Puffbird

After dodging mountain bikers (the old road has been converted into a hiking/biking path) for the morning and with the mid-day heat settling in, we decided to head back to the hotel for a bit of R&R. Due to a mix-up in our initial plans, Steve had only booked us for three nights at Mateo's, and trying to book a fourth night while there had caused a bit of an issue as another group had already booked our room. After some negotiating, Steve was moved to one of the little cabins, while Josh and I retained the enormous room with one caveat - we would have to share with the other group. We decided that was fine but were a bit put-off when a miscommunication made it sound like we would be sharing the room with three old ladies who weren't birders. Imagine our surprise when three middle-aged British guys pulled up and immediately got their binoculars out! After chatting for a bit (it was their first day in Panama), we headed off to Pipeline Road and returned to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre to spend the last hour of light up on the canopy tower. This proved to be a great idea, watching parrots, swifts, and canopy-dwelling birds go about their business as the light faded. New for the trip was a White Hawk calling somewhere off in the distance. On our way back to the car (in the dark) we found a few owls and a few Panamanian Night-Monkeys, definitely a mammal highlight! Back at the hotel we talked birds and plans with the Brits (we had already been to many of the places they were planning on going and gave them some tips) until it was time to call it a night.

Sunset from the Canopy Tower

Panamanian Night-Monkey (photo of Steve's camera)
Running trip total: 735
Panama: 402

Mar 3

With a bit of a drive ahead of us (Achiote Road is on the Caribbean coast), we were eager to get going at stupid-early o'clock, but were held up a bit waiting for Steve to organize gear (again). After some need-for-speed style driving we mostly made up the lost time and arrived at the Gatun locks a little after sunrise, immediately adding Red-breasted Blackbird for the trip.

The Gatun locks

Getting on to Achiote Road, we were once again in new habitat, with new birds to be found as a result. Achiote differs a bit from the rest of the Canal Zone as it is in the Caribbean lowlands, as opposed to the divide area/Pacific slope which most of the rest of the canal lies in. The road eventually leads to the coast, but we spent the morning in the first part, between Treinticinco and Achiote, walking the road itself and exploring a few side-trails which are listed in the bird-finding guide. The overall highlights were Blue Cotinga and Spot-crowned Barbet, with other new birds for the trip being Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tyrant and Flame-rumped Tanager. A stop in the 'town' of Achiote for lunch netted us a giant plate each of fried fish and plantains, with a side of papaya - the locals here were very friendly and I think happy to have some business! Working our way back to the Gatun Locks, a quick scan of the waterfront gave me a lifer Snail Kite.

some sort of (false?) Malachite

Achiote Road

Having nailed down some good birds before the heat set in, we had some driving to do to get to our next stop - Altos del Maria. This took a good chunk of the afternoon, and we arrived at Alfred Raab's place just in time to get settled in and do a bit of birding before dinner. Alf is an Ontario birder who spends his winters in Panama, and was kind enough to show us around his winter home of Altos for a few days!

Restaurant view near Alfred's

A Giant Grasshopper on Alfred's front door!
Running trip total: 744
Panama: 416

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