Thursday, 2 October 2014

Panama - Day 5 (March 4, 2014)


We awoke at Alfred Raab's place in the foothills of Altos del Maria. I was up around sunrise and explored the wooded area down the slope from his house. Birds such as Blue-crowned and Whooping Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, Yellow-green Vireo, and Rufous-breasted Wren were calling right away. I had my first looks at a White-vented Plumateer as it furtively visited one of Alfred's hummingbird feeders. A pair of Rosy Thrush-Tanagers make the scrubby areas on the slope behind Alfred's house their home. This secretive thrush is bright pink underside, but is rarely seen as it creeps in the underbrush - it kind of reminds me of a pink Varied Thrush. The song is loud and emphatic, composed by both the male and the female simultaneously. This was one of Steve's most wanted trip birds. We all heard the Rosy-Thrush Tanagers that morning, but despite a thorough search none of us was able to glimpse one.

As the sun crested the hills the hawks began flying. Some sort of observation tower had been built right night to Alfred's property, and he was pretty much the only person to use it. It was conveniently located not only to have a panoramic view of the sky, but to also view passerines in the treetops.

Among the raptors were several Short-tailed Hawks, Turkey and Black Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and our first Gray-headed Kite of the trip.

Gray-headed Kite - Altos del Maria, Panama

Short-tailed Hawk - Altos del Maria, Panama

The four of us soon headed up the mountain, Alfred volunteering to show up around for the day. We made a quick stop at a tree known as "the oropendola tree" due to the number of nests from a colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas. A couple of Giant Cowbirds were soon found creeping around the nests of the oropendolas. Much like their northern relative the Brown-headed Cowbird, Giant Cowbirds are also parasitic, though preferring to lay their eggs in the nests of species such as oropendolas. As you can imagine, the oropendolas do not take too kindly to seeing a Giant Cowbird and chase them off once they detected one.

Chestnut-headed Oropendola - Altos del Maria, Panama

Giant Cowbird - Altos del Maria, Panama

Chestnut-headed Oropendola - Altos del Maria, Panama

We soon began our descent up the mountain and the vegetation changed drastically. The bird life also changed noticeably as we ascended higher up into the "cloud forest" and the lifers came fast and furious!

Orange-bellied Trogon, my 6th trogon species for the trip - Altos del Maria, Panama

Tufted Flycatcher - Altos del Maria, Panama

Tufted Flycatcher - Altos del Maria, Panama

Other lifers that morning included Green Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit, Snowcap, Barred Forest-Falcon, Spotted Barbtail, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, and White-throated Spadebill, among others.

Without a doubt the day's highlight came in the mid-morning. We ascended to one of the highest locations in the mountains surrounding Altos del Maria; a tower above the trees overlooking the mountain range. From here it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Not only that, but the hawkwatching can be incredible. It did not take long until a great bird soared into view - a Hook-billed Kite! Alfred had never recorded this lowland species in Altos before. By the time I got my camera on it, the bird was far away in poor lighting.

Hook-billed Kite - Altos del Maria, Panama

But the fun did not stop there. At one point I looked to the right and saw a large raptor cruising by just below eye level. The other guys also got on it right away and within a few seconds we realized that we were staring at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, coming straight at us! Luckily we had our cameras on us and fired away as it cruised around, making at least three passes. This  impressive and ornately patterned raptor was one of the birds I was really hoping to see on this trip, and to experience a bird at that close of a range was just incredible.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle - Altos del Maria, Panama

Ornate Hawk-Eagle - Altos del Maria, Panama

Nothing could top that moment as the days single highlight, though a few other sightings came close. One of which was a group of Blue-fronted Parrotlets that Dave first identified by their vocalizations. This secretive and cryptic species was also very rare for Altos del Maria and certainly not one I expected. 

Blue-fronted Parrotlet - Altos del Maria, Panama

We birded all afternoon, exploring a variety of habitats and seeing species such as Red-faced Spinetail, White-ruffed Manakin, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Tawny-crested Tanager. I finished with exactly 40 lifers for the day.

One of the highlights was exploring a man-made lake up in the hills above Altos del Maria. It appeared to be a great spot to congregate migrant passerines and the flocks of warblers and tanagers moved in the trees around the perimeter while large flocks of swifts flew overhead. The place looked fantastic for vagrant birds, and sure enough we spotted a Little Blue Heron roosting in a tree along one side of the lake. This is another species that is found in the lowlands and rarely seen in the hills. 

immature Little Blue Heron - Altos del Maria, Panama

We made a friend here at the lake, and he followed us around for a good hour...

El perro - Altos del Maria, Panama

The following are a few more photos I took on our first day in Altos del Maria. It was certainly one of the best birding days I can recall!

Dusky-capped Flycatcher - Altos del Maria, Panama

Black-striped Sparrow - Altos del Maria, Panama

Anole species - Altos del Maria, Panama

Anole species - Altos del Maria, Panama

Anole species - Altos del Maria, Panama

That evening we went on a night-hike along a river not far from Alfred's home. The night was warm and dry and we were unable to turn up any snakes. However a few neat species of amphibians were easily found. 

These large Huntsman spiders were abundant on the rocks near the water's edge, and had an armspan of a good 7 inches.

One of my favorite of the rain frogs is the brightly colored Pristimantis gaigei, common around streams in dry forests.

Pristimantis gaigei - Altos del Maria, Panama

The infamous Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), famous as an invasive species in Australia, is actually  native to central America.  Rivers such as this seem to be a preferred habitat as we saw well over a dozen big ones.

Bufo marinus - Altos del Maria, Panama

We finished the day with 122 species of birds, bringing our trip total to 294 species. The next day was planned to be another full day in the hills surrounding Altos del Maria!

Total bird species so far: 294


  1. We have a home in Altos and will be moving there soon. Thanks for these photos!

  2. I am more than just a little bit jealous - have fun!