Friday, March 18, 2016

Panama - Coclé to the Canal

Feb 27

Once again, sleeping (or not sleeping, as it were) in the car provided us with a quick escape in the morning, but not before getting 3 owl species from our 'camp' site! After a quick stop in Penonome for breakfast, we were in the grasslands proper right around sunrise. In the guidebook it mentions a good road south of town - we took the right (gravel, less travelled) fork for the morning. Birding in the open country was a nice change of pace from all the forest birding I'd been doing recently, and the new birds piled up as a result. Crested Bobwhite, Wattled Jacana, Grassland Yellow-Finch, American Kestrel, Aplomado Falcon, Savanna Hawk and Northern Harrier were all noted over the savanna, and further down the road some scrubbier/treed habitat netted us Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Northern Scrub-Flycatcher.

A side road through the grasslands

A pair of cooperative Aplomado Falcons

After this hot and dusty adventure, we headed to our next stop - the Juan Hombron road. This seemed to be a reliable spot for Veraguan Mango, a Panama near-endemic that was high on our target list. As we weren't sure exactly where on the road the hummers were (previous trip reports and eBird locations were pretty vague), we basically just slowly drove the road, getting out at likely-looking flowering trees and stopping to check out interesting-looking birds. The road here is pretty straight and passes through many of the same habitats as the road we took in the Cocle grasslands, with a bit more forest, and with the added bonus of actually making it to the coast! There was also a very nice wetland/rice field somewhere along a side road which added to our totals. Despite spending 3.5h in the baking sun (it was over 40ºC) and checking every flower we found, we didn't turn up a mango amongst the five hummingbird species we did see. We did however find 2 Straight-billed Woodcreepers near the coast, which I had forgotten about a little later in the trip, leading us on a grand adventure; more on that later. Other additions to the trip list were Yellow-crowned Parrot, Prothonotary Warbler, Streaked Saltator and Glossy Ibis. Having missed our main target it was once again time to cut our losses and make tracks for Gamboa, where we had a hotel booked for the next few nights (Mateo's B&B).

Crossing the Panama Canal

Having checked in to our enormous room (more like a condo, sleeps up to 5 people), showered and unpacked a bit, we drove to the airport through insane traffic in the dark (it was near Carnival) to pick up the third stooge - Josh Vandermeulen. On our way back Steve hooked up a spotlight on a long wire to the car's cigarette lighter, and Josh and I spent the drive up to Gamboa hanging out the windows spotlighting every tree we saw. It was all to no avail though, not even a sloth or something to brighten up the evening!

Josh got started on a trip report of his own, with far better pictures than mine and a more in-depth look at our day-to-day activities - for a different perspective on the same trip (from here on), check it out:
Running trip total: 677
Panama: 261

Feb 28

After a late night catching up with Josh and making a game plan for the Canal Zone, we were up and at 'em early this morning, with Josh and I chomping at the bit to get on with birding the infamous Pipeline Road. Steve had been here just before he picked me up in the Chiriquis, and had already seen a good number of the common birds, but he had his own targets in mind! A quick Google search will tell you more about the road than I can, but suffice it to say it's an old oil road that was cut through some excellent habitat, and most of it remains untouched (other than the road, obviously). Adding in a canopy tower, hummingbird feeders and some streams makes it a birder's dream.

Pipeline Road

We parked at the very start of the road right at dawn, hoping for a stunning dawn chorus. It was not to be, however, as this year was incredibly dry. I'd noticed this in Costa Rica as well, and this theme carried on with us for the rest of the trip. No rain = few birds, but great birder weather. Anyway, that was about the only disappointment of the day as once we got rolling the new birds came thick and fast. Despite having already spent a month in Middle America, I managed 34 trip birds, with 29 of them lifers on the day, showing just how different central/eastern Panama is to the rest of the region. In the morning we walked along the road, stopping here and there to check out a mixed flock here, a cool bug there, some kind of reptile or another, and any weird bird calls we heard. As Josh had just come from frigid Ontario where the February bird diversity is pretty low (and almost nothing is vocalizing), he was visibly a little overwhelmed! After a while you get used to seeing 100+ species in a morning though! By late morning, we'd made it out about 6km down the road when we ran into a jaguar researcher who was working as a guide for the day, and his birding client. They'd just found a Great Jacamar, a pretty good bird for the area, and gave us some directions. We went right to the spot and looked around, played a tape, and got no response. Another try and we heard a call off in the forest that sounded like it! We found a bit of a trail and went in, but couldn't locate it. At this point Steve went crashing off into the forest while Josh and I stayed back and looked around where we thought we'd heard it. After a few minutes Steve called us over, and using his laser pointed through a tiny gap in the foliage to a green speck about 50m away through the undergrowth. It was the bird! Josh and I had no idea how he'd seen it but we were very glad he did! Other highlights along the road up to this point included Cinnamon Woodpecker, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Rufous-crested Coquette, Pheasant Cuckoo, Violaceous Quail-Dove and quite a number of more common species. Elated with our Jacamar success, we now had a quandary. The jaguar researcher had also mentioned that one of Steve's most-wanted target birds had been re-found back at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre, a spot we had passed on the way in, near the start of the morning. If we went back for it, we wouldn't have enough time to get any further down Pipeline, and this would be our only day on the road. If we didn't go back for it, we almost certainly wouldn't see it later in the day when we passed by the centre again. After a bit of hesitation, our twitching instinct got the better of us and we made a mad dash (relatively speaking, as it had taken us over 5 hours to get only 6km in) back to the centre. Once we got there we discovered it was going to cost $30 per person to get in, and Josh and I hesitated a bit before discovering there had been a miscommunication. The person working the till took us for locals and charged us the 'local price' of $10 each, and once again the twitch was on. Heading down the road we found the parked ATV which marked the spot, walked off into the forest toward what sounded like a swarm of activity, and quickly spotted a girl slapping her leg, and two rather large birds off in the undergrowth. Success!!! Putting the bins up, one of the shapes morphed into a rather striking, velociraptor-esque avian being - a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo!

The ground-cuckoo - more pics in checklist

Looking back with an additional trip to the tropics under my belt, I am 100% ok with our decision to twitch this bird, as they can be ridiculously hard to find unless there's a giant army ant swarm and you happen to be near it. We spent quite a while following the bird around, taking pictures and observing its behaviour. It had been around for a few weeks prior to our trip but had disappeared about a week earlier. In that time some of the PRDC workers had been feeding it, and using leg slaps to imitate the loud bill snaps which the birds use to communicate. After this adrenaline rush we were content to just chill out by the hummingbird feeders for a while before wandering some of the trails and climbing the canopy tower, adding several species of swifts, hummingbirds and parrots for the trip. After 12 straight hours on Pipeline and with darkness settling in quickly, we made our way back to base, exhausted but thrilled with our first day in the Canal Zone!

View from the top of the Canopy Tower

This little guy was enjoying the view as well
Running trip total: 711
Panama: 343

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