During the first few days of our Panama trip we were planning on birding the Canal Zone. Steve and Dave had had a very successful trip to the Western Highlands, seeing many of its target species while also having some close calls with sketchy people (and wildfires) in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 AM.
The three of us planned to meet at the airport and I felt the first blast of tropical warmth as I stepped outside the air-conditioned airport. As I waited for them to show up I found my first bird species of the trip - a Rock Pigeon (the only one I would see!). Eventually they arrived and we headed to Gamboa, a small town located on the edge of Parque Nacional Soberania. This large expanse of lowland rainforest flanks the Panama Canal and associated Lago Gatun. Here in the lowlands, species from the Caribbean and Pacific slopes meet, making for some incredible birding! It was exciting driving along with the roads at night with the windows open, looking at the huge tropical trees in the moonlight, feeling the warmth, and dreaming about all the amazing things we would see in the next few weeks...
Our first day started by rising bright and early to head to Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto). In the predawn twilight at our Bed and Breakfast in Gamboa (basically a couple of bare rooms with a few beds and a washroom, quite sufficient for our needs) it was easy to hear the neighbourhood come alive as the common birds made their presence known. It did not take long to learn and grow accustomed to the first few common central American sounds - Pale-vented Pigeons, Clay-colored Thrushes (they sound kinda like a robin) and Tropical Kingbirds (they sound kinda like a kingbird). By the time we arrived at Pipeline Road we had a solid list of 30 species or so under our belts.
The morning birding was challenging to say the least. Coming in with no knowledge of Central American bird sounds, even the common ones I had to learn and those still take time. There really are only so many I can take in in one day. But luckily I had looked at my Panama field guide for several weeks prior to the trip so most of the birds weren't too difficult by sight, relatively speaking. I also had my camera with me of course which helped to document birds I wasn't sure on. The new camera body is much better at creating low-noise photos in low light situations than my previous camera. That being said, you still have to really work to take good bird photos in the tropics! Even though Steve, David and I are all photographers, the priority of the trip was birding more so than photography and so most of my photos are documentation-style, with few solid "photo shoots". If I had three or four images a day that I was really happy with, I was doing OK! And with all of our hours we were sure to put in in high-diversity habitats, the photo opportunities would surely come by...
Woodcreepers look like overgrown Brown Creepers, and we ended up seeing about about 10 species on the trip. In the Canal Zone, Cocoa Woodcreepers were pretty common, yet they rarely came close enough for a good photo, usually preferring to sit on the wrong side of the tree.
Pipeline Road travels through several relatively undisturbed habitat types including a ton of good quality rainforest - because of that it boasts a huge species list.
Every few hundred meters it crosses a small stream, and one of the first streams we checked out had this Meso-American Slider basking at the surface of the water.
One of the common and very distinctive vocalizations heard throughout the forest was that of the Southern Bentbill; a rolling trill that almost sounded like the scream made by a Fowler's Toad.
Dave birding along Pipeline Road.
As the morning wore on we came across some slow patches for birds. A lot of times birds seem to flock together but it was still common to go an hour or two seeing or hearing very little. Luckily the insects always keep things interesting! This one is a checkered-skipper of some sort and looks very similar to the Common Checkered-skipper we sometimes see in Ontario.
I happened to spot this sloth while we were birding around an area where a Great Jacamar had been seen. We did see the jacamar a bit later, a great find by Steve!
This next photo is a heavily cropped shot of a Rufous-crested Coquette we saw along Pipeline Road. This can be a difficult species to find and Pipeline Road was our best shot we we were pretty happy with it!
The highlight of the day was almost certainly the Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoos that we were fortunate to cross paths with on Pipeline Road. The ground-cuckos is a genus containing five species in the Americas. These birds are often associated with large army ant swarms, as they stir up other insects, small lizards, etc. The ground cuckoos follow these swarms and eat whatever the ants flush! Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo is a rare species throughout much of its range, appearing to occur in low densities. This was one of Steve's top target birds for the tip, and it was certainly one I was interested in going after as well. One had been seen at Pipeline Road earlier in the winter but conveniently disappearing on the day before Steve flew in to Panama! Fortunately for us, an adult and juvenile Rufous-vented Grounk-cuckoo werere-found the day we were birding Pipeline. We raced over there, managed to get in to the Rainforest Discovery Tower trails by paying the local's price, and within 10 minutes we were shown the bird by one of the staff who was keeping an eye on the birds. We crept up to the birds as it foraged; the adult disappeared quickly, but the juvenile became quickly accustomed to our presence. Other ant swarm birds were active as well, including several woodcreepers, antbirds, antvireos, antshrikes, and antwrens. But the Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo was the star of the day!
It was really interesting watching it hunt, as its reflexes were so quick as it bounded after a scurrying lizard. A lot of the time, it would sit back and wait, eventually grabbing something that came within striking distance. What an awesome, prehistoric looking species!
One more shot of the bird, as we stood about 5 meters from it. An incredible experience! I took a bunch more, but that will be for a later blog post!
Of course the road was filled with dozens of other species and I kept tallying new species left, right, and center. When it was all said and done I had 56 lifers, the second most I've had in a single day with the most being 57 lifers, also at Pipeline Road (January 12, 2010). That single day at Pipeline Road in 2010 was pretty much the only birding I did on that trip.
Here are a few of some of my more notable lifers from the our first day at Pipeline Road...
-Slaty-backed Forest Falcon
-White-breasted Wood Wren
Of course one couldn't help but notice all the other fauna that was all around us.
At one point we checked some hummingbird feeders at the center since we had paid our admission anyways, and it was a nice break from all the walking! David kept track on his phone how many kilometers we walked each day, and it was usually well over 15 and I think we had some days close to 30.
Luckily, the hummingbirds were quite fearless and wood approach closely to feed, allowing for some neat macro opportunities. The White-necked Jacobins were the easiest photo subjects.
It always was a bit of excitement when coming across a mixed flock of songbirds while out on the trails, and picking out the Green Shrike-Vireos, migrant warblers, greenlets, flycatchers, woodcreepers, and antwrens. At one point I was watching this Dot-winged Antwren struggling with an insect when it flew down to a branch at eye level. Check it out in action!
|female Dot-winged Antwren|
|female Dot-winged Antwren|
While walking a trail near the Discovery Center, I noticed this cool anole just chilling on the side of a tree. What an awesome species! I posted it earlier but thought I would post it again. It was perhaps 25 cm SVL, and super elusive! I tried catching it but it was having none of it...I think it is Anolis frenatus but if anyone thinks otherwise please let me know.
This was also an opportunity to really test out the new camera. Deep in the forest and later in the day the lighting was very low - I think I went up to ISO 3200 to grab the shots. With a little noise-reduction software they came out alright!
|Giant Green Anole (Anolis frenatus)|
Last but not least are these photos of a Slender Anole, one of the most common herp species along the trails. I played around a little with exposures for these ones (second is with flash).
|Slender Anole (Norops limifrons)|
|Slender Anole (Norops limifrons)|
Needless to say we ate well that night, as we paid our hosts to cook dinner for us as well. After a long tiring day in the field, a big plate of chicken, beans and rice is pretty damn good....
Day two to follow, where we checked out Old Gamboa Road plus a night drive/hike on Pipeline Road.