Sunday, May 13, 2018

Panama - Day 6: March 24 - Anton, Juan Hombron, and Santa Clara

Sandwich and Royal terns at Santa Clara

     Our final full day of birding in Panama will take us from our quarters in the Canopy Lodge down to Anton, around Juan Hombron, and on to the seaside village of Santa Clara.  It promises to be a full day ending up back at Panama City for our final evening in this most beguiling country.

     We'll begin by traveling down Highway 71 south with numerous stops along the way to find specialties we have not yet viewed in our first 5 days of birding.  Our team of the Bakers, Patsches, Fitzpatricks and Anthonys along with our guide John Coons are in for another day of amazing new species which Panama still has in store for us.

Wedge-tailed grass finch
     One of the first birds we come upon is another which we swear John has tethered to a tree the evening before.  Site loyalty plays a big part in finding these birds as well as a thorough understanding of the preferred habitats of the individual species.  Such is the case as we pull over to the side of the road to search for the Wedge-tailed grass-finch.  These are one of those species that are generally heard more than seen, being secretive in deep grasses.  The males will occasionally hop to the crown of a shrub to sing loudly, however, and this was the case with this fine specimen.  All of were able to see the bird and in spite of early morning overcast lighting, I was able to capture an image of documentary quality if nothing else.

      The site of the grass-finch also afforded us with a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.  We were traveling through the Central Mountain Range of Panama and around each corner, each vista seemed to be more spectacular than the last.

Central Mountain Range of Panama
Striped cuckoo
       Scanning the horizon at our next pull-off, we spotted a new cuckoo for our check-list.  The Striped cuckoo was once again distant, but with the help of the scopes and a 500mm lens bounced up to 750mm on a "DX" camera
 body, the bird was easily viewed on its open perch.

     The Striped cuckoo has a wide range extending all the way from Mexico to Argentina and yet, the bird is notorious for being much easier to hear than to spot.  Not so in our case as the bird chose to sit out on an open bare branch affording us very nice looks.  Once again, we were blessed to find yet another of Panama's charismatic icons.  That being said, the bird is one of those "dreaded" brood parasites, but for some reason he seemed so much more affable than our home-grown Brown-headed cowbirds.  Familiarity breeds contempt  as the old adage goes.

          Our next new species was again found along the roadside by our sharp-eyed and all-knowing guide John.  The Rufous-browed Peppershrike can be difficult for new visitors to Central American inasmuch as it has wide geographical variations in plumage.  Cornell's Lab of Ornithology description of the Peppershrike's plumage mentions this variation but goes on to say ,"yet most subspecies are to some extent white below, olive above with rufous lores and supercilium".  Our subspecies had a bit more extensive yellow on the underside, but the facial features certainly fit the bill.

Rufous-browed Peppershrike
White-tailed kite
One of the true "Hot Spots" of Panama's birding venues is Laguna de Juan Hombron.  After birding in the mountains these past five days, we are now at an elevation of 12 feet above sea level.  With so many wonderful birds found in this area, I suggest you go to eBird's hotspot finder for Panama and check out our check-list for March 24 for a complete list with photos of the birds we saw here on this day.  I will highlight just few here.  One of my favourites was the White-tailed kite.  It's markings are distinctive and in the bright sunshine of the day, the bird literally glistened as it hovered over the grasslands in search of small mammals.
Savanna hawk
 raptor of note was the Savanna Hawk.  The Savanna is a wide-spread hawk of open country lowlands throughout Central and South America.  This hawk's long legs and cinnamon plumage are distinctive.  It is one of those rare birds which basically says, "If it moves, I'll eat it". This bird has a very diversified diet and has even been observed walking behind grass fires picking out and eating roasted prey!  Now that's a bird with exquisite taste.

Lesser Yellow-headed vulture
     A bird with less discriminating taste is the vulture.  Back home in the states, we commonly find the Turkey vulture and the Black vulture.  Down here in Panama, there are two more varieties, the King vulture and the Lesser Yellow-headed vulture.  While the King vulture is found throughout Central and South American, it is sparsely distributed and therefore difficult to find.  We did not see any Kings, but we did see plenty of Lesser yellow-headed vultures in the area of Laguna de Juan Hombron.  These vultures closely resemble Turkey vultures in their manner of feeding and locating food by smell, but they rarely soar high up in the air as do the Turkey vultures.  Identify these birds was quite simple as you only need to look for a vulture with a yellow-head (really?)

     Of course, the hummingbirds were still quite the attraction.  With so many varieties, it was hard not to study each new individual to see if it was a repeat or something new for the life or year-list.  Among today's newbies were the following......

Veraguan mango

Sapphire-throated hummingbird
     Sadly, one of the most sought after hummers, the White-tipped Sicklebill, was not photographed by yours truly.  Although seen clearly on the final day for a total of about 5 seconds by all of our group (after a minimum of 5 hours of watchful waiting!), the vision was so fleeting that none of our number recorded the desired image.  You can see by looking at this 1911 lithograph by William Dwight Witney that the actually seeing this bird was certainly worth the wait. Guess we'll just have to revisit Central America to get another chance at capturing a good image of this gorgeous specimen.

White-tipped sicklebill
Fork-tailed flycatcher

     Among the last of our Panama beauties was the Fork-tailed flycatcher.  This flycatcher is migratory in Panama and is a resident only as far south as southern Mexico.  It loves to sit on high conspicuous  perches from which it makes its sweeping efforts to catch passing insects on the wing.  We watched this individual repeatedly lurch from its position, seize an unsuspecting victim from the nearby airspace and return to its perch once again.  It made for wonderful entertainment (providing you were not on the menu).

     Our luncheon stop was a stunning setting to say the least.  The owner of the lodge where we had spent our week owns a beach house on the Pacific in Santa Clara and it was here that we had a "working lunch", birding and dining at the same time.  The most predominant bird on the beach was the Sandwich tern as seen in the opening photograph of this blog.  Magnificent frigatebirds continually soared overhead and out on the far islands, Brown pelicans and boobies could be observed.  Truly a wonderful place to wrap up our journey before heading back to Panama City where we enjoyed yet another wonderful meal in the company of some wonderful friends and fellow-birders.  All good things must come to an end, but I hope these last half dozen or so blog entries have allowed those in the group to relive some of our most wonderful memories. And for those not fortunate to have been with us, I hope you had the chance to bird vicariously with our number on our fantastic birding trip to Panama.

Our final night in Panama

Friday, May 4, 2018

Panama -Day 5: Rio Indio

Down the Jordanal Road
      What an exciting day as we travelled along the "unimproved" roads of the more natural parts of Panama (if that's possible).  Our destination is Rio Indio and the Jordanal Road.  We'll be traveling in 4 wheel drive vehicles today as some of the roads we'll traverse are steep, rutted, and quite slippery the wet.  Today the roads we traveled on promised to be all three.

Cinnamon becard
   We set out early with a forecast for potentially stormy weather later in the day.  We'll cross that bridge (or in the case today - "ford that stream") when we come to it.  Not long after heading out onto into the field, we spot our first bird of note, the Cinnamon becard.  Our personal driver, Moyo, spotted this bird as we were driving in our caravan of three FWDs.  Moyo wants to get you on the birds, so if it means stopping right there and letting the others go ahead, so be it.  We'll catch up in time. He pulled over and pointed out the new life bird to us and allowed me to get as many chances at a decent shot as I cared to take.  No rush....we'll catch up with the group later!  These passerines are fly-catchers and will feed on larger insects and spiders.  Really can't tell whether this individual is a male or female since the species shows little sexual dimorphism.

     Birding along these country roads is a real look into the culture of this part of Latin America.  The people live modestly to say the least and were generally curious and happy to see us enjoying their little corner of this beautiful country.  We often found ourselves on the grounds adjacent to private farms and homes where no-one seemed to mind our incursions.  The photo shown here is of a typical mountain dwelling.  In this case, we were looking to get good sightings for one of the birds of the day

Barred puffbird
the Barred puffbird. Found only in Pamana, Ecuador and Columbia, this species is uncommon throughout its range and we were therefore more than excited to see and capture and image of this bird.  As it so happened, we did find several more individuals throughout the day.  This bird is noted for being a tough one to see since it often prefers to hang out in dense foliage and then occasionally come out for a quick foray to grab a passing insect.  Some of the birds we were introduced to in Panama I found confusing when it came to distinguishing one from the other (Kiskadees, Social flycatcher,  Boat-billed flycatcher and others for example), so it was kind of nice to have a bird like the Barred puffbird which was really quite distinctive!

     Since I mentioned the flycatchers as being a rather confusing group (at least for me), allow me to post several shots showing exactly what I mean.   First of all, one of the more common of the group, the Social flycatcher.  This bird was seen on all but one day during out Panama adventure.

Social flycatcher
     Next, the Boat-billed flycatcher.  We saw this bird on day 5 (this day) only.  Note the heavier bill and a broad superciliary that are barely separated on the back of the head.

Boat-billed flycatcher
     Add one more of the group, the Greater kiskadee which we saw the next day and you can see how easily it is to confuse one from the other.

Great kiskadee

     As we continued our journey north, the roads became a bit more rugged and the rains began to fall.  With the steep inclines of the roads which I mentioned in an earlier post and wet clay mud on the roads surface, it made for some interesting riding and we were not perplexed as to why the guides elected to use 4WD vehicles.  Watch the vehicle in front of us begin to slide in the video clip below.

     Occasionally, we would come across a small creek bed which crossed the roadway but is generally dry.  When you get downpours like we had today, however, the stream quickly reforms and makes for some interesting driving.  Our guide Moyo explained that this is the "dry season" and during the rainy times of year, it is often impossible to get past these streams.  If today is representative of the dry season (which it truly wasn't) I can only imagine what the rainy season in this part of Panama must be like!  Eventually, we were ready to have lunch, and our stop was fortunately under the cover of a canopy located at the local Elementary school.  Students attending here come from miles around and many must walk each day.  It reminded me of many old-timers' stories of "when I was young I had to walk 5 miles to school and back !"  Here it is a true story!  The students were all in uniform with bright white shirts.  They all seemed intrigued by the presence of all these Americans with scopes, cameras, and binoculars hanging on the shoulders.  We did have fun interacting with them despite the language difference.


  But now, back to the birds.  One of the most fascinating species we encountered was the Rufous-crested coquette.  We were not far from the school when John our leader spotted this little hummingbird.  We found these in precisely the habitat which the field guides tell you they will be...along shrubby clearings, forest edges, and Roadsides where we found this one. 
Wedge-billed woodcreeper
Rufous-crested coquette
     So many new species were found on this day, it is really difficult to pick out the most memorable for this blog entry.  I will therefore limit it to two final birds.  One, while not all that remarkable as far as plumage I will include since it was rather difficult to find.  The Wedge-billed woodcreeper is the smallest of all woodcreepers.  The individual seen here more than likely will not look similar to other individuals found throughout Panama as there are 13 subspecies found in Central America, each having a slightly different plumage.  I was very happy to be able to see and capture this little guy with my camera.  Another lifer for most of us!

     My last bird of today's entry is certainly not the last that we saw, nor perhaps the most glamorous.  But, it is among the top picks for the trip to be sure.  The bird is the Plumbeous kite.  What made this bird one of my picks-of-the-trip was its cooperative behaviour in posing at length for all of us with cameras.  We were able to walk around its overhead perch to get the best angle, the best lighting, and hopefully the best pose.  It is a beautiful bird which is known to follow primates around in the hope that their movements will stir up some insects, their food of choice.  Perhaps this is why this kite was so willing to sit around and watch us watch him.  What a way to end up and most memorable day in Panama.

     I should also add into today's sightings one of the true iconic mammals of Central and South America....the sloth.  We did have several sightings during our Panama birding travels.  Today's final shot is of the Brown-throated three toed sloth.  I mentioned how the kite was so obliging in letting us get good shots.  Well, there is probably no other mammal on the face of the earth that is easier to photograph than a sloth.  If you're looking for great video action shots, look elsewhere. But for the opportunity to capture an image of a mammal in it's natural elements, the sloth is hard to beat for ease of shooting.  Tomorrow is our final day in the field for finding new birds and mammals of this most remarkable country.  Sad how the time goes so quickly when you have such an opportunity as this.  We will always be grateful that we were able to share it with such good guides and such good friends.
Brown-throated three-toed sloth


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Panama - Day 4: La Mesa & Cerro Gaital

Short-tailed hawk
     Another early breakfast on the open air dining patio before we head back up to La Mesa and Cerro Gaital.  This morning's overcast and somewhat misty morning made for some difficult photography, but the viewing was still more than acceptable as we traveled back up to La Mesa Road.  We found our best accipiter of the day in the form of this handsome Short-tailed hawk which soared overhead.  With the advantage of having several veteran hawk watchers among our group to augment the proficiency of our guides, we did quite well in finding and identifying hawks on our trip to add to our year lists and in many cases life-lists.  

Southern lapwing
   In the first light on the day, we spotted our first Southern lapwings probing the loose soil of the grasslands for their breakfast of insects and other invertebrates.  These lapwings are more than likely residents of this area of Panama and are great at cohabitation with the locals.  As such, these members of the plover family are doing quite well and are in fact expanding their range as deforestation takes place.

Spotted antvireo
     My best bird of the morning was the Spot-crowned antvireo. This bird is endemic to this region of Panama and is usually found within several feet of the ground.  Our guides heard the bird singing and then with careful scanning of the understory were able to pick it out in the dark shadows.  Once we all had good views of the bird, I enabled the on-camera flash in a successful attempt to grab enough light to make a decent exposure. It's spotted crown and pale eye were captured nicely and the image is a great reminder of our first sighting of this handsome species.

     As we headed back to the Lodge after a good morning of tropical birding,  the sun began to break out and we were anxious to see what new visitors to the fruit feeders we might encounter.  One of our first sightings when we returned was this Green honeycreeper.  My wife Sharon had spotted this handsome tanager several days earlier when she remained back to spend more time at the feeding station while most of us headed out into the field.  The honeycreeper's main staple is fruit and as such is a common visitor to the fine feast prepared for the Lodge's avian guests.

Green honeycreeper
     Another honeycreeper which was not as common although its range stretches all the way from Mexico to Brazil is the Red-legged honeycreeper.  While not being nearly as picky as its Green cousin, it does enjoy a nice banana as a part of its diet and was hence not a rarity at the feeder.  

Red-legged honeycreeper
     Naturally when you are in the tropics, one of the most sought-after families of birds are the hummingbirds.  With close to 60 species found in Panama, you have a good chance of finding something new at anytime and at any place.  Still, one never tires of seeing old friends like this Rufous-tailed hummer.  It was a very common visitor to the many nectar rich flowering bushes found on the grounds.  It was nice to see that they spent more time at the real thing than they did at the hummingbird feeder nearby.  Always great to catch an image where the bird is in its natural element rather than situated on the red plastic perch of a feeder.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird
Giant cowbird
     Our afternoon foray lead us to two new cowbird species - the Shiny cowbird and the Giant cowbird. This cowbird is much larger than our north American but is still a brood parasite like out Brown-headed cowbird.  The bird is most commonly distinguished from the similarly sized Great-tailed grackle by a conspicuous ruff around its neck which gives it the appearance of having a relatively smaller head.

     We gather together once again at 6:30 with a glass of wine and our check-list to review the day's sightings with John.  After yet another delightful dinner, we'll sit on the patio and enjoy the mild evening breeze before heading to bed to rest up for tomorrow's new adventure to Rio Indio.  Just another day in paradise.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Panama - Day 3: Altos del Maria

Birding in Altos del Maria
       Day 3 of our Panama birding excursion will be spent touring the highlands of Altos del Maria, a 7000 acre private (yet still mostly undeveloped) community near the town of Sora.  A gated community, the locale is closed to the public, but the folks staying at Canopy Lodge and under the supervision of the local guides are permitted to use the land.  It's a real pleasure to bird these beautiful environs while staying on smooth paved roads!  This may not seem like a big deal, but wait til you see where we go on day 5 - the Rio Indio Road.  Later for that.....
Masked tityra
     We birded out way up to the gates of Altos del Maria and Valle Bonito.  After a morning of birding in the expected misty conditions, we stop for lunch which had been prepared by the folks back at the lodge and hauled up the mountain by our guides.  The setting was beautiful and productive as we could bird from the gazebo overlooking the lake situated on the grounds.  Even before we began to dine, we had great looks at Spotted sandpiper and Green kingfisher.  After feasting, several decided to have a "big sit" and bird from the gazebo while the rest of us joined Danilo and Moyo for a hike around the lake and through the surrounding forest.  We quickly found a beautiful Masked Tityra and Black-cheeked woodpecker working the trees at the waters edge.

     Continuing into the lakeside forest, we crossed a small bridge where Danilo heard an uncommon find, the Dull-mantled antbird.  Hearing is one thing, but seeing is another and we spent a fair amount of time seeing brief movement in the dense foliage.  Finally, however with the help of sharp eyes we found our quarry and I was able to capture a shot in the shaded setting.  Fortunately, post processing of a badly underexposed image was able to save a decent shot of this elusive bird.

Dull-mantled antbird
     A side note is easy to get so distracted when working so hard to spot a bird and inattention can be disastrous.  Fortunately, this little mishap turned out OK, but one of our number was backing up while peering through her binoculars and ending up falling off the trail and down an 8 foot steep embankment.  After a brief scare, we were able to help her back up the slope and found her to be in fine shape.  
Green thorntail

     After returning to the vehicles and continuing on our journey through the preserve, our guide Moyo slammed on the brakes and yelled out "Green thorntail!"  How he saw and identified this unique hummer while driving his 4WD vehicle down the narrow roadway is beyond me, but he is a guide extraordinaire.  Sure enough, we were all able to get good looks at this beauty and while difficult to capture as it flitted from branch to branch, I was able to capture a less than gallery quality image but one which will remind me of the capacity of our guides to find and id birds so quickly and with such proficiency.

     The day was truly a fantastic day of finding new life birds for all of our group.  Among our sightings of the day was this Barred hawk flying over head as we began our descent back down to the Canopy Lodge.  Just one more special bird added to our growing list of Panama lifers.  All this and we are only half way through our 6 days at Canopy Lodge.  Remarkable!
Barred hawk
     Tech tip - Don't be too quick to throw out those under-developed shots!  Overexposure is one thing and is virtually impossible to salvage a "blown out" shot.  Underexposed is a different case, however. Make sure you are shooting in RAW and you will capture a huge amount of data in a shot which comes out looking black.  The shot of the Dull-mantled antbird above looked totally black when I downloaded it from the camera.  By sliding the "Exposure" slider in LightRoom, the image popped right up and was more than usable.  If I had shot the picture using the JPEG format, less than optimal amount of data would be captured and saving the image may not have been possible.  

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Panama - Day 2 - La Mesa and Las Minas

Canopy Lodge to La Mesa
Golden-hooded tanager
 After a fine breakfast at the Lodge, we embark on the first of the day's destinations, La Mesa Road.  Although the cloud forest is living up to its name and the visibility is less than ideal, we still manage to find new exquisite tropical birds such as the Golden-hooded tanager.  The bird is a study in intricate patterning in plumage with golden head, black on the back and chest, and brilliant blue on its face, wings and rump.  Even in the subdued light of the early morning fog, the bird's colors were nicely captured by the digital media of my Nikon.  You can only imagine the striking view presented by this bird in clear early morning sunshine!
Piratic flycatcher

     Flycatchers are a omnipresent family in the forest of La Mesa.  The Piratic flycatcher gets its name from its habit of taking over the nests of other birds rather than building its own.  Note that the bill of this flycatcher is shorter than that of most of its flycatcher "cousins", as well as exhibiting slightly more subtle coloration.

Rusty-margined flycatcher

      The Rusty-margined flycatcher is a more brightly adorned with cinnamon edges to its secondary and proximal primaries.  The bright white supercilium (aka "eyebrow") on its brown sooty head and its yellow crown set it apart from the other large bodies neotropical tyrant flycatchers which all look quite similar.

      These larger bodies flycatchers were not the only game in town as evidenced by the much small and aptly named Paltry tyrannulet.  At 4" in length, it is among the smallest of flycatchers but is easily distinguished from the other diminutive family members by its distinctive yellowish hue along the edges of its wing feathers.
Paltry tyrannulet

     This morning also afforded us with our best view thus far of a bird we would run into on many future occasions throughout the area.  The Black-chested jay is large and bright and would be easily identified by even the most novice birder.  While it is primarily black with white underparts, it also sports radiant blue accents above and below its bright yellow eyes.  The bird was often seen in communal flocks of 6 to 8 birds.

Black-chested jay

     Of course no trip to Central America would be complete without sightings of the iconic toucan!  Our first sighting of this incredibly patterned bird was the Keel-billed toucan.  While feeding mostly on fruit, it will on occasion take small invertebrates.  Even at a distance and in the overcast foggy skies, the bird is so large and colourful that it was easy to spot.  We appreciated the fact that it remained in place for quite a while as we observed and photographed what had to be our "bird-of-the -day".
Keel-billed toucan
          Upon our return to the Lodge for an afternoon break, we could not tear ourselves away from the feeders.  Once again, they provided endless entertainment as we welcomed back old "friends" and found new ones such as this Green honeycreeper.  While it is wonderful and productive to venture out from the Lodge (and highly recommended!), those whose mobility is limited for whatever reason could easily spend the entire week in the comfort of the Lodge grounds.  The feeders, forest habitat, and local pond offer a seemingly endless pageant of some of the most beautiful and entertaining birds and mammals on the planet.  A virtual paradise to be sure!

Green honeycreeper

Canopy Lodge-Day 1 Continued


With so many strikingly beautiful birds coming to the feeders at the lodge, it was almost overwhelming.  This edition of Naturally Digital will focus on those birds and will more than likely be more photos than text.  A little more about the physical setting first, however.

     The Lodge is a birder's dream come true.  Roll out of your "open-air" quarters at the crack of dawn to the wake-up call of tanagers, motmots, chachalacas, and more.  We folks from America find it hard to find places of such tranquility.  The omnipresent "white noise" of overhead aircraft, traffic, crowd noise etc are all but absent here.  With the occasional exception of a delivery truck bringing up fresh produce to the lodge, all one hears here are the sounds of nature.  What a treat!

     As we enjoy the freshly prepared breakfast prepared with eggs and produce delivered earlier this morning from the nearby farms, it is hard not to eat too quickly so as to move over to the captains chairs lining the railing overlooking the feeders.  We help one another in our attempts to identify one new bird after another and locate each new species for the rest of our group.  With a maximum occupancy of 28 guests, there is plenty of room for everyone to enjoy the show.

Gray-headed chachalacas
     The most dominant bird of the feeder community is the gray-headed chachalaca.  While certainly not the most colourful of the visitors to the fruit-filled feeders, it is certainly the largest.  When a pair of chachalacas decides to dine at this table, the rest of the birds generally step back and wait their turn.  About the only other patrons with priority seating are the local squirrels - Red-tailed and Variegated.  So interesting to think of our feeders back home being raided and dominated by our Grey squirrels and see basically the same scenario playing back here in the cloud forests of Panama!

Variegated squirrel

     But now, introducing some of the more striking avian guests of the lodge.....

      One of the most common birds seen was the Flame-rumped tanager.  The bird is a study in contrasts with its jet black body accentuated with a brilliant yellow lower back and rump.  This is surely one of those birds which you see once and never forget its very appropriate name.  I have mentioned how tranquil this idyllic setting usually is, but as seen here, little spats over "whose banana is this anyway!" erupt.  Here, a female Flame-rump and a Clay-colored thrush voice their displeasure with one another.

Crimson-backed tanager
     Another handsomely plumaged bird which frequents the feast is the Crimson-backed tanager.  His dark body adorned with a beautiful deep red back, rump, and lower underparts is further accented by his silvery based bill.

     I've already mentioned the many varieties of hummingbirds which frequent the grounds.  One has to be on the top of your game to be able to distinguish one species from another.  The locals seem to find telling one species from another as simple as telling one of their staff members from another, however!  This beautiful Blue-chested hummer was frequently seen taking advantage of the flowers and the feeders provided at the Lodge.
Blue-chested hummingbird
Broad-billed motmot

          Last but certainly not least on today's showcase of gorgeous birds found at the Lodge will be the Broad-billed motmot.  This medium-sized motmot is generally found at the lower levels of the forest and since we will be spending much time at higher elevations during out journey, it is a great opportunity to find this bird here at the Lodge.  Tomorrow, we will begin exploring La Mesa and Las Minas - other birding venues away from the Lodge.  What a fantastic experience to be here birding the beautiful country of Panama!