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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Bocas del Toro and the Western Highlands

2022 Narrative

Our 2022 trip to Western Panama began, as always, with several days of birding around the beautiful Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Our base was the very comfortable and aptly named Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge; a small facility tucked onto the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos and bordering the national park. This base allowed us ready access to the many islands of the archipelago and to the nearby mainland. The lodge ground and trails revealed an array of hummingbirds in the flower gardens including several cooperative Bronzy Hermits, daily Purple-crowned Fairies, an out-of-range Blue-throated Goldentail and a Band-tailed Barbthroat. In the forest surrounding the lodge we found busy flocks of Tawny-crested Tanagers, both Black-crowned and Masked Tityras, and a wonderful mix of wintering warblers including seemingly inexhaustible numbers of Prothonotary and Tennessee. The canopy tower allowed us to view the daily parrot and pigeon commute at eye-level, with excellent views of Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrots, Short-billed and Pale-vented Pigeons, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts and both Lesser and Short-tailed Nighthawks.

Off of the island of Bastimentos we spent a few days exploring the coastal forests and foothills on the mainland where species like Pale-billed Woodpecker, a male Snowy Cotinga, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Northern Jacana, Slaty-tailed Trogon and Pied Puffbird call home. A few miles offshore we stopped in at an idyllic island with breeding Red-billed Tropicbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies. On another day we visited the lone trans-continental highway that winds up and over the mountains through a low pass at roughly 4000 ft in elevation. In these cooler and smaller statured forests we had an amazing run of luck, with point-blank views of the scarce Rufous-winged Woodpecker and generally hard to see Green-fronted Lancebill and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush. A massive mixed flock kept us entertained for well over an hour, with nearly the full array of possible tanagers including the dazzling Emerald, Speckled, Rufous-winged and Black-and-Yellow. That same flock also produced an amazing encounter with foraging Sulphur-winged Parakeets, a nice study of Slaty-capped Flycatcher and a pair of circling White Hawks.

For the second half of the tour, we were based out of the town of Cerro Punta, a small agricultural town tucked in on the slopes of the impressive 11,400-foot-high Baru Volcano. Surrounded by well-forested slopes and two large national parks this highland haven offers excellent access to the full suite of Talamanca endemics shared by Panama and Costa Rica. Declared by international organizations as an avian diversity hotspot these mountain ranges harbour nearly 40 endemic species of birds, and a wealth of specialized plants and other taxa. Here we explored via truck and foot, finding birds like Ruddy Treerunner, Prong-billed Barbet, the enigmatic Wrenthrush (which we saw extremely well this year), quirky pairs of Yellow-thighed Finches, the dazzling Violet Sabrewing, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers and, of course, the exquisite Resplendent Quetzal. Perhaps the rarest species that we enjoyed this year was Maroon-chested Ground-Dove; an enigmatic bird that we were able to watch for several minutes out in the scopes near a small farmhouse on the slopes of Volcan Baru.

On our final day of the trip, we dropped down to the pacific slope lowlands, where encountered a new suite of birds. At a small waterfall on the southern slope of the volcano we were thrilled to find a huge fruiting fig, with dozens of tanagers, a group of Fiery-billed Aracaris and a pair of Black-chested Jays picking on the ripe fruits. Here too we encountered a (rare in Panama) Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner in a small mixed flock, and enjoyed a female Smoky-brown Woodpecker, our 9th species of woodpecker on the tour as she foraged on some small vines dangling down from the canopy. A trip to a nearby private reserve resulted in excellent views of Orange-collared and White-ruffed Manakins grabbing berries from fruiting trees, a ridiculously tame Lesson’s Motmot sitting in the sun at very close range, Spot-crowned Euphonias eating papaya and a wealth of hummingbirds swirling around on feeders just feet in front of us. We finished the trip up in the rice fields and pastures around the town of David, where we located a female Veraguan Mango, marveled at a huge flock of Wood Storks and herons that were feeding in a recently harvested rice field and found a few birds more common in the open dry savannahs, such as the tiny Pearl Kite, Savannah Hawk, and Orange-chinned and Brown-throated Parakeets.

The trip offers an amazing array of habitats and landscapes all conveniently close to one another and using only two quite excellent lodges. On our 2021 trip we found 330 species of birds, as well as 14 species of mammals in just a short 8 days, including an impressive 29 species of hummingbirds, 25 new world warblers and species of 31 tanagers!

IN DETAIL: Our flight out to the Bocas Archipelago from Panama City was in the mid-morning, and once we had checked-in we still had a bit of time to spare before we had to head through security. Being birders, we decided to wander across the street from the airport, where a large drainage canal was shaded by some huge spreading trees. Although the area is certainly not a candidate for turning into an eBird hotspot we still managed to drum up some interesting species, such as Wood Stork, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Spotted Sandpiper and Northern Waterthrush along the canal, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Black-throated Mango in the shrubs, and a few Yellow Warblers and Thick-billed Euphonias up in the trees. A large Common Basilisk with a full crest was an impressive sight here too, and all things considered it was a great way to pass 15 or 20 minutes of sitting at an airport gate. Our short 50-minute flight went by without a hitch, and those with window seats were treated to views of a lot of closed canopy forest with little to no visible development before we briefly crossed part of the open Caribbean Sea and began our descent over the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. These near coastal islands are fringed with thick stands of red and white mangroves. The larger islands are heavily forested, some with small clearings and seaside settlements, but most covered in intact forest. Around the islands from the air it is easy to see the many coral reefs, white sandy flats and brilliantly coloured water that makes this area so attractive to residents and tourists alike.

We landed, collected our luggage, and were met by the staff of Tranquilo Bay who ushered us into a waiting bus for the short ride over to the dock. Birding, and indeed any travel in the region is primarily accomplished by boat. Bocas town serves as the capitol of the province of Bocas del Toro, and is home to somewhere between 5000 and 10000 people (censuses here are highly imprecise as they have no mail service and the counting is done door to door). The town fringes the Southeast corner of the island, and the main road parallels the coast with every building having docks and multiple boats behind. The Tranquillo Bay Lodge has a small fleet of craft of various sizes and capabilities, and we experienced our first taste of island life by taking one of these craft on the nearly half-hour journey south. Along the way we passed countless small mangrove islands, small shacks and large houses on stilts or tucked into the mangroves, fishermen paddling in small dugout canoes, and tourists manning sailboats in the bay. The people of Bocas seem to lead a semiaquatic life, with the sea being the primary source of entertainment, nourishment and travel. Our base for the first half of the tour is the modern and very comfortable Tranquillo Bay Eco-lodge that is nestled in the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos and adjacent to a National Park. We pulled in to the dock and walked up to the main lodge house, where we were met with refreshingly cold drinks, a short introductory meeting and lunch. From the top deck of the main lodge building, we spotted Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds coming into the feeders, a passing Short-tailed Hawk and a few Tennessee and Prothonotary Warblers. Over lunch the banana feeders on the deck were raided by a small but persistent gang of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys who seemed determined to take every last banana in the building with them.

After lunch we took a bit of time off, planning to meet up for some local birding at 3:15. Unfortunately the weather seemed to be paying attention to our plans, as at 3:10 it suddenly changed from sun to heavy cloud, and at 3:18 the heavens opened in a quite impressive, if awkwardly timed, downpour. We lingered on the deck, enjoying views of warblers, Bananaquit, and Clay-coloured Thrushes picking over the bananas during gaps in the rain. Eventually the sky brightened, and after watching a few pairs of Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots crossing overhead and Short-billed and Pale-vented Pigeons arriving to feed in some fruiting melastome trees we decided to brave the very light drizzle and bird a bit in the gardens and clearing around the cabins. Even with the less-than-optimal conditions we turned up a few nice birds, like male Masked Tityra and Baltimore Oriole, a busy little flock of Plain-colored Tanagers and a foraging Purple-crowned Fairy before the rain once again took hold. Our local guide here, Roger, also managed to find a small Brown Vine Snake that was just off the path. It’s an amazingly thin and long species, with an angular head and dark mouth linings (which it shows off to good effect when it feels threatened). Somewhat remarkably this was the first species of snake ever for the tour! Apparently, the region has been largely dry for much of the wet season, making the timing of this particular downpour even more remarkable. Over dinner that night we conducted our introductory meeting and enjoyed views of a Crab-eating Raccoon that was up in the canopy just off the deck.

For our first full day in Bocas, we departed Tranquillo Bay early bound for the mainland. This roughly 45-minute boat ride is quite scenic, passing through countless mangrove islands and tiny settlements before reaching the mainland. As we rounded the south end of Isla Bastimentos heading south, we were pleased that the 11,000-foot-high ridgeline of the sierra was not shrouded in clouds. Apart from a passing sprinkle at the continental divide, and some rain just as we were wrapping up our time in the mountains we had an entirely rain-free day. We arrived at the small dock in Punta Robalo in good time and started birding even before disembarking the boats. Old dock pilings along the shore were acting as perfect perches for a nice array of birds including our first Sandwich Terns mixed in with Royals, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons perched in the coastal mangroves. We spent the first two hours of the day birding along the road from Punta Robalo to the main Bocas highway. This road passes through a mixture of pastureland, forest, banana plantations and a few very small villages, offering excellent access to a wealth of birdlife that prefers more open habitats. In the pastures, which were all partially flooded due to the season we located a single Wood Stork among the throngs of Egrets and Herons, some foraging Green Ibis and our first Northern Jacanas. The grassy fields and scattered bushes were hosting an impressive number of species, with displaying Blue-black Grassquits doing their cute aerial displays, Morelet’s and Variable Seedeaters, Groove-billed Anis, Buff-throated and Cinnamon-bellied Saltators, bright Red-breasted Meadowlarks and a responsive Olive-crowned Yellowthroat each admired in turn. Likely the most memorable grass-based bird though was Slaty Spinetail. We encountered two of these smartly marked dark gray and rufous spinetails and were thrilled when one of them clambered well up into a roadside tree and sat out in the sun atop a large tangle of vines. In one muddier field we chanced upon a Melodious Blackbird (a write-in for the tour, and a recent colonizer from Costa Rica) sitting on some low branches. Nearby we spotted a Solitary Sandpiper foraging around a small pond, and a few Northern Waterthrush and two nationally rare Palm Warblers in a wet grassy field. About midway through our walk down the road we found a large mixed flock of tanagers bouncing around in some fruiting trees. Most were Red-legged Honeycreepers or Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, but we teased out Shining Honeycreeper, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Golden-hooded, Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers and a few hangers-on, like Common Tody-Flycatcher, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Cape May (a truly rare bird for the country) Warblers and our first Great Crested Flycatcher and a busy headed Yellow-bellied Elaenia.

In the larger trees lining creeks and hedgerows along the road we picked out perched Blue-headed and flyby Red-lored Parrots, as well as a furtive group of Brown Jays, and our first Olive-backed Euphonias, Cinnamon Becard, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Boat-billed Flycatcher and Black-cowled Oriole. This little flock also attracted the attentions of one of our principal target birds for the area; the stunning and large Pale-billed Woodpecker. This imposing black, crimson and white woodpecker is at least as large as a Pileated but is more closely related to the presumably now extinct Ivory-billed. Our views were excellent as the male responded to tape and flew in to hammer away at a large trunk just a few meters off the road. As is often the case in open tropical lowlands we found a few raptors during the walk down the road, with perched Roadside and Broad-winged Hawks and passing Short-tailed Hawk and Yellow-headed and Crested Caracaras.

Since the skies were still cloud-free the temperature started climbing by mid-morning, so we elected to leave the Punta Robalo Road behind and to drive inland to a petrol station at the junction with the trans-continental road for a comfort stop. Since it’s hard for a group of birders to exit the bus without looking around, the stop turned into a bit of a birding location. Behind the building in a rather skuzzy looking vegetated pond we found a couple of Boat-billed Herons roosting in the dense trees, looking like somewhat grumpy dwarves with oversized noses and a perpetual downward glare. The pond also played host to several loafing Spectacled Caiman that seemed quite content to be sunning or swimming around the rather suspiciously green tinted waters.

We then began ascending the Atlantic slope side of the mountains, eventually reaching the continental divide at a bit over 4000 ft in elevation. Before reaching the crest, we stopped at a curve in the road that has, over the years, proved to be an excellent location for mixed flocks. Within a minute of exiting the vehicle we were surrounded by birds, so many in fact, that at times it was difficult to know where to look. We first noticed a group of Dusky-faced and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers bouncing around in the dense roadside vegetation. While remarking on these two dissimilar species (in fact the Dusky-faced isn’t even a tanager) we noted more birds moving higher up in the trees. Before we knew it we were surrounded by a feeding flock of frugivores. The bulk of the birds were tanagers and warblers, but the diversity of both groups was frankly astonishing. The tanagers were particularly well received, with a parade of colour crossing in front of us. Perhaps the Speckled Tanagers, with their black spotting and turquoise and yellow plumage were the snazziest, although the dazzling Emerald, blue and black Golden-hooded, multicolored Bay-headed and Scarlet-rumped could all have a case in the who’s the fairest local tanager of all competition. Also attracted to the fruit was our first Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, a smattering of Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided and Tennessee Warblers, Tropical Parula, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Summer Tanager and multiple Tawny-capped Euphonias. The bird activity here seemed to be attracting passing raptors, and we enjoyed overhead passes from a pair of ethereally pale White Hawks, a young Broad-winged and a dark-morph Short-tailed while we worked the flock.

From here the road climbed steeply up to the continental divide, where a short side road along the ridge leads to a tall telecommunications station and offers access to some patches of higher forest. A huge pacific storm hit this area particularly hard a few years ago leaving large sections of the ridgeline forest heavily damaged with torn and twisted trees down and most of the leaves stripped from the trees that stayed upright. In the intervening years many of the trees had recovered fairly well, though the understory was still very tangled and there seemed to be a general lack of flowering shrubs and fruiting trees along the ridgeline. We started off with a picnic lunch along the quiet road, and afterwards spent some time walking along the road to check the flowering bushes for hummingbirds and to listen for any sign of roving mixed flocks. The small pink-flowering shrubs along the more open slope proved attractive for a nice mix of hummingbirds including several Green Hermits, a female Purple-throated Mountaingem, a male Black-bellied Hummingbird (yet another write-in species for the tour) and a very cooperative Green-fronted Lancebill; a scarce mid-elevation species with a remarkably long and straight bill.

Initially we found the area to be a bit quiet, with small passing wisps of fog and the occasional mist. Generally, these weather conditions are excellent in cloud forest, with the cooler and more overcast skies promoting birds to be more active. It wasn’t until near the turn-around point in our walk down the hill that we detected any forest bird movement at all. A roadkill Cocle Caecilian was an interesting find though; as these legless amphibians are rarely encountered due to their largely fossorial nature. A bit further downhill we could hear some birds calling from the understory. A calling Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush actually hopped out into a bare (but very well shaded) section of the forested slope in response to tape. This attractive dark grey thrush sports a bright red/orange bill, legs and eyering and a pale grey iris. They tend to lurk in dense and wet forests and are often the most difficult of the local Nightingale-Thrushes to see, so we felt fortunate to have one out in the semi-open. While watching the thrush a second bird briefly appeared which proved to be a female Zeledon’s Antbird, a scarce, large and pretty species that unfortunately was only seen well by the guides. Shortly after the thrush we picked up a mixed flock led by a noisy and sprightly group of Common Chlorospingus, an attractive sparrow that often forms the nucleus of mixed flocks in the area. Along with the Chlorospingus were a Red-faced Spinetail, a perched up Golden-bellied Flycatcher, several Hepatic Tanagers, here of the montane central American subspecies that bears scant vocal or visual connection to the northern birds that reach parts of the United States, a female Golden-winged Warbler and our first Slate-throated Whitestart.

As the afternoon was beginning to wane and the fog beginning to thicken along the ridge, we decided to head a bit back downhill, stopping at a well-known (in birding circles) location named after the property owner who attempted to build a small ecolodge along a creek just off the road. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, but some of the trails off the highway are still extant, and the properties old gardens can still be excellent birding. With the high water in the rushing creek, we decided to stay out on the road, standing on the bridge which offers a great makeshift canopy tower and an excellent view of a wonderfully forested valley. Before walking out on the bridge, we spotted a wheeling mass of swifts coming down the valley in front of the thickening clouds. Most were White-collared Swifts, an impressively large species with a namesake white collar and a flight style reminiscent of a sickle-shaped stunt kite. We also picked out a pair of Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts and about a dozen Grey-rumped Swifts, making for quite a nice species mix. While watching the swifts a small flock of parrots came in and landed across the road. We quickly got them in the scopes and were pleased to find that they were White-crowed Parrots, a smaller relative of the Blue-headed that is uncommon in mid-elevation and foothill forests along the Caribbean and Pacific slope near the Costa Rican border. The birds took off in the company of some passing Blue-headed Parrots, giving us an unusual mixed species flock of Pionus. Once out on the bridge we were surprised to see a bunch of birds busily bathing in some quiet pools on the edge of the rocky creekbed. Our elevated vantage point was far enough away that the birds didn’t seem to mind our presence, and we were able to watch as a stream of birds came down for a mid-afternoon splash in the puddles. Palm, Blue-gray and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers formed the bulk of the birds, but we picked out a few Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Chesnut-sided and Tennessee Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, and our first Red-eyed Vireo, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, and Black Phoebe as well. As we started back to the bus it actually started to rain on us, but by the time we had dropped out of the mountains we were back in the sunshine. Our drive back to the dock was punctuated by a few impromptu stops where we picked up our first Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras, some strutting Southern Lapwing, dozens of Montezuma Oropendolas, and some perched Keel-billed Toucans. As a bird watcher it can be hard covering ground in such a bird-rich countryside! The boat trip back to the lodge was blissfully dry, and we arrived just a bit before dusk, tired but very happy with a great day in the field. Dinner was a relaxed affair, punctuated with some particularly fine key lime pie, and a visit on the outer deck by a small group of Western Night-Monkeys that came in to pull the remaining bananas off the fruit feeders.

On our second full day of the tour, we spent the majority of the day birding directly from boats. The United Fruit Company developed the Bocas lowlands as a site for large-scale banana plantations and to that end also hand dug a 7-mile long canal a bit inshore so that they could transport bananas by barge between the Changuinola River and the town of Bocas without dealing with the stronger ocean waves. Though the canal is no longer used for fruit shipments it is kept open by locals as a throughfare. Over much of its length the forest has regrown, with large overhanging trees, and the roughly 25-foot-wide canal offers excellent access to this roadless area. By lashing two boats together and very slowly motoring or coasting along, stopping wherever bird activity dictates it makes for quite a unique and very productive birding area. ON the way over to the canal mouth we paused just a bit off the shoreline of Bocas Town, where some foraging Royal Terns were attracting the unwanted attentions of several Parasitic Jaegers that were milling about and generally causing mischief. Here too we noted a passing Common Tern, which was a write-in species for the tour. Once we reached the canal we found the first few kilometers of the canal were quite rich in birds. Right at the canal entrance we were treated to very close views of perched and flying Mangrove Swallows, a pretty green and white swallow of the tropical lowlands. Around the entrance there are several large, cleared areas with dense bushes and grassy patches and a few large trees. Here we were successful in locating a perched male Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, a local specialty that in Panama is best found at the canal. A few Thick-billed Seed-Finch were nearby, which allowed for a nice comparison of these two similar species. Also in the weedy clearing were a couple of sunning Groove-billed Anis, foraging Bronzy and Stripe-throated Hermits, another Mourning Warbler and a skulky pair of Bay Wrens that eventually showed well as they lingered back in the shadows of a large thicket. It’s a shame that such an attractive species of wren, clad in copper, black and white generally chooses to stay deep in shadow rather than showing off its good looks. The canal is often excellent for Kingfishers, and over the course of the morning we noted multiple Amazon, Green, Ringed and Belted Kingfishers; giving us an impressive four of the six species of new world Kingfishers in one morning. We found a couple of busy mixed flocks along the canal in the morning, containing our first Northern Barred and Cocoa Woodcreepers, a tiny Plain Xenops doing an excellent impression of a woodpecker as it clambered around upside down on some bare branches, Lesser Greenlet, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, a responsive Brown-capped Tyrannulet and a host of migrant warblers including good numbers of Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, and Prothonotary. A pair of Squirrel Cuckoos, with their streamer-like rusty tails showed particularly well as they clambered around in the trees and eventually flew over the canal right past our boats. Another flock held some chucking Red-throated Ant-Tanagers lurking down in the shadowy depths of a patch of forest with thick understory vegetation and a Streak-headed Woodcreeper. The open sky above the canal was often filled with birds, with passing pairs of Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots and small flocks of Pale-vented Pigeons regularly crossing in front of us. A few Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts put in appearances as well, occasionally flaring their deeply forked tails as they banked just above the canopy. Throughout the morning we were repeatedly amazed at the spotting abilities of our boat captain Alvaro, who somehow managed to find a roosting Great Potoo sitting high up in the canopy, followed in fairly quick succession by roosting Lesser and Short-tailed Nighthawks!

By mid-morning we reached a purpose-built dock with an outhouse on it, perhaps a unique structure? Many participants got a chuckle when we pulled out a white toilet seat to carry into the shack, though the resident Lesser White-lined Bats that roost under the dock seemed slightly less enthusiastic about our arrival. We covered the western half of the canal at pace, so that we could reach the Changuinola River with time to bird before lunch. The open grass and hyacinth patches near the river held plenty of Northern Jacanas including several with white-breasted young, and impressive numbers of Green and Little Blue Herons and calling White-throated Crakes. A few Gray-breasted Martins were soaring around over the open marsh, and as we reached the junction with the river, we found our first Tricolored Herons and Snowy Egrets and a few trees that were heavily laden with dozing Brown Pelicans. Arriving in the wider Changuinola River, we turned upstream and slowly motored about a mile or so up, scanning the heavily vegetated riverbanks that are choked with floating mats of hyacinth and lily, with patches of reeds and open sheltered bays. It’s a perfect habitat for marsh-loving birds, and we soon tallied an impressive number of new species including Common Gallinule, a few American Coot, Black-necked Stilt, American Wigeon, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and Blue-winged Teal. The heron show here was quite diverse, with large groups of Great and Snowy Egrets flushing off the riverbanks at our approach. As we moved upstream, we spent a bit of time slowly cruising along a small, cleared paddock. Here we located several Red-breasted Meadowlarks and Groove-billed Anis, some Strutting Southern Lapwings, a perched Common Black-Hawk and flyby Yellow-headed and Crested Caracaras. Further upstream near where we stopped for a picnic lunch, we were thrilled to spot two Roseate Spoonbills perched up in a large tree. This is generally a scarce species in Panama, although in 2022 a few birds seem to have moved into new locations. It was a write-in species during our prior tower trip, and now was one for the western tour as well. Lunch on the riverbank was a cheery affair, with good food, a patch of flowering milkweeds that was hosting Monarch and Queen butterflies, and a stunningly beautiful perched male Gartered Trogon that was glowing purple, green and yellow in the sun as it sat in view for several minutes.

After lunch we motored downstream to the river mouth, where a good-sized flock of Royal Terns and Laughing Gulls were milling around in the frothier water where the river met the sea. Within the flock we picked out a few Willet and Short-billed Dowitchers, a few Caspian Terns and two Black Skimmers. The skies out to see were beginning to look very foreboding so we elected to not take our customary walk along the sand in search of Collared Plovers. Instead, we motored along the calmer stretch of beach inshore from the tip of the river mouth, finding a few Black-bellied Plover, Western Sandpiper and a few more Willet and Spotted Sandpipers. A Neotropical River Otter surfaced a few times nearby, rolling over on its back before diving back down for some tasty snack. We were able to see it surface three or four times before it dove and simply vanished. After the river mouth we returned back through the canal, making a few stops to look at perched Collared Aracari and a seemingly out of place Peregrine Falcon that was sitting in the midstory of the forest edge. As we neared the east end of the canal it started to lightly rain, so we lingered rather than driving through it. This proved an excellent choice, as we intersected with another canopy flock. Among the many Plain-colored Tanagers we picked out a pair of Golden-hooded, as well as a female Shining Honeycreeper, Tropical Pewee and Yellow-bellied Elaenia, a furtive Black-striped Sparrow and, perhaps best of all, a cooperative Black-throated Wren. The shower soon passed, and when we reached the end of the canal the weather was dry and surprisingly calm. As the sea conditions were also quite calm, and the small swell was running in the direction that we wanted to travel we opted to take the trip out to a large sea-stack island that sits roughly two miles off the shore of Isla Colon and serves as a breeding colony for elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds, Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Although small, the island is stunning, rising directly up from the sea a few hundred feet, with sea arches on the surfward side, palm trees clinging to the lower slopes and dangling vines stretching down across the volcanic cliff faces from the forested top of the hill. We estimated at least 70 Red-billed Tropicbirds swirling around the island, landing on the water in front of us or on the cliff faces, or flying close enough that we could see the individual feathers in the tail. Several pairs were circling high above and performing tandem aerial courtship flights, a truly impressive sight against the azure sky and a few were even sitting on the cliff just a few feet above our boats. A mass of Magnificent Frigatebirds circled above us as well, with several males perched nearby with half-inflated red throat pouches. Brown Boobies were plentiful, and we spotted several fuzzy white chicks perched along the shoreline rocks, looking like oversized bags of cotton balls with short bills and ungainly giant feet. We stayed in the lee for quite some time, soaking in the view and photographing the boobies and tropicbirds, but eventually headed back to the sheltered waters inland of Isla Colon and on to the lodge, stopping for a perched Parasitic Jaeger that was sitting on a small floating log along the way.

After some time off we gathered for a short and successful bit of late afternoon birding around the lodge gardens and canopy tower. The flowering porterweed and various flowering trees were attracting Stripe-throated Hermit, Purple-crowned Fairy and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, as well as both Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, and Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. The tower top view of the surrounding coastline of Isla Bastiamentos was well worth the climb up even if we failed to record a single bird. Birdlessness was not a concern though, as from the vantage of the canopy tower, we were treated to eye-level flights of Red-lored Parrots and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts, and a perched Laughing Falcon sitting on a distant bare treetop. A couple of larger and darker swifts passed by as well, but our views were not good enough to cement an identification. As dusk began to fall a couple of Lesser Nighthawks were jauntily flying over the canopy and, for those that lingered long enough, we found a trio of Short-tailed Nighthawks flying below the upper deck of the tower; chasing each other around a large tree at a dizzying pace and giving their rapid staccato flight calls.

The next day we spent much closer to the lodge, with breakfast at the decadent hour of seven o’clock. We departed a bit after 7:30 and made the short twenty-minute boat trip over to a private chocolate farm on a nearby peninsula of the mainland. This farm has a few acres of well-established cacao trees in the understory of largely uncut lowland forest that the current owners of the property are working hard to replant and restore with native hardwoods. We were surprised to find that the normally thick palm thatch over their large dock was completely stripped from the dock, with workers wading around in the water gathering up the soggy roof that must have very recently blown off in a microburst. The debris made our disembarkation a bit more complicated than usual, but we made it up to the house in good order. Normally the caretakers come out to greet us, but on this day, they were not home. A large and very vocal troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys were hanging out in the larger trees by the house, and we certainly felt welcomed by their loud and raucous greeting. A male Gartered Trogon supplied our first bird sighting on the property; an auspicious start to the day! We then spent most of the morning slowly birding along the short ridgeline trail just behind the house clearing. Within minutes of starting along the trail we spotted a couple of adult Green-and-Black Dart Frogs hopping around near a pile of discarded roasted chocolate pods. These large (for a dart frog) and gaudy frogs show a bewildering array of green whorls and spots on a black body, and due to their toxic nature are happy to hop around in the middle of the day fully exposed to would-be predators. When still, they look almost too bright and large to be real animals, more resembling some cheap plastic facsimile of what a Chinese company might think a frog should look like. We found a second species of dart frog nearby as well, the tiny Talamanca Rocket Frog, which makes up for its drab outfit of cream and brown with its persistent and perky calls, which form an auditory backdrop for the forest during the wet season. While tracking down the rocket frogs we startled a pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds which subsequently posed well for us; with one bird sitting up on the buttress of a tree and flicking its tail around in a vaguely annoyed manner as it called back to our tape. This marked the first species of antbird for a few of the participants, and it’s a nice species to start with given its rich chestnut and black body and pale blue eyering and lores. We soon followed it up with antbird species number two, with a pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes bouncing around in a thick tangle of brush just below the trail. This same thicket also hosted an eventually cooperative Long-billed Gnatwren, a sprite of a bird that seems to awkwardly be constructed of only bill and tail. Along the ridgeline we also found several flocks that largely consisted of neotropical migrants, with Prothonotary and Tennessee Warblers being particularly numerous. Among the warblers though we were happy to spot a couple of tiny Pied Puffbirds, which obligingly perched up in the canopy for our scopes, as well as a sitting Lineated Woodpecker and a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers that were hammering away at a dead branch high up in the canopy. As we walked back along the ridge our sharp-eyed driver Alvaro called us over to look at a perched Slaty-tailed Trogon up in the canopy, glowing like a deep crimson beacon against the green leaves.

Over on the Creekside of the trail we were amazed to find a very large swarm of army ants that were actively hunting over a surprisingly large patch of the forest floor. As we approached, we admired the streams of ants that were heading up the ridge carrying dismembered insect parts; here a grasshopper leg, there a beetle thorax, and over there a piece of what appeared to be a lizard tail. We quickly gave thanks that ants are as small as they are, for if they were cat-sized it is likely that none of us would have made it back out of the forest. We could hear a lot of bird activity below the ridge and around the hunting ants but it took everyone a bit of time before we found an ant-free patch of understory so that we could start to look around the surrounding forest. Antswarms are not terribly common along the coasts of Bocas, and undoubtedly due to our luck in finding this swarm we detected a locally rare Bicolored Antbird that showed a few times briefly before slipping over to the other side of the creek, where it called for several minutes from a dense patch of understory. This sighting marked the first time the bird had been recorded by the Tranquilo Bay based birding tours; a list that stretches back 18 years! The ants were also attracting the attention of a couple of Plain-brown and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, some cooperative Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and some Black-chested Jays that simply refused to come down from the canopy; likely because they were too busy chasing a White Hawk that was perched near the ants. A common misconception for first-time visiting birders is that the bird attending the antswarm eat the army ants. In actuality the birds are watching from above the swarm for insects or small vertebrates that are trying to escape from the marauding swarm. It was quite a show, and after not finding any active ants along Pipeline Road this year I was really glad to be able to show off this phenomenon to the group.

By now it was late morning, so we wandered back to the house to enjoy some excellent chocolate samples as well as refreshing chocolate tea and some exceptionally good chocolate rum. After denuding the store of most of their wares we hopped back aboard the boats and on to a small mangrove-lined channel at the southern end of Isla Popa. This is the island adjacent to Isla Bastimentos, and at its distal end it is quite close to a peninsular spur of the mainland. This proximity has meant that several species of plants and animals have colonized Popa from the mainland that have been unable to cross the short open water channel over to Isla Bastimentos. Our primary goal was to look for one of the Snowy Cotingas that often perch on prominent perches above the mangrove forest (an issue we would rectify later in the afternoon). A few birds were about in the sunny midday heat, with a perched Peregrine Falcon, some Scarlet-rumped Tanagers that flashed across the channel in front of the boat and a Blue-headed Parrot that was sitting up in a tall Cercropia tree. Leaving Popa behind we returned to the lodge for lunch, and then after a bit of a siesta met up for some birding back around the grounds of the hotel. This proved to be an excellent choice, as in a little more than an hour of birding around the edge of the forest we turned up a good-sized flock of birds led by a noisy flock of Tawny-crested Tanagers. The handsome males are satiny-black and sport a shaggy and very bright orange-brown crest. Along with the tanagers we turned up another pair of cooperative Black-crowned Antshrikes, a female Shining Honeycreeper, two female Golden-collared Manakins that were grabbing fruits down at eye level and showing off their bright orange legs to good effect, and a wintering Acadian Flycatcher. It was the hummingbird diversity though that really shone, with good views of Bronzy and Stripe-throated Hermit, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and a perched-up Blue-throated Goldentail that sat under the canopy for quite a while, allowing us to find an angle that we could study its red bill and namesake blue throat. We spent a bit of time staking out some flowering heliconia plants, where we found a foraging female Crowned Woodnymph and a quick view of a Band-tailed Barbthroat that was foraging just a few feet from our binoculars before dashing away with a sharp flight call. The flowers in the garden were also attracting several showy butterflies, with Dyar’s and Thoas Swallowtail likely the highlight.

We then boarded our trusty boats and once again visited the quiet mangrove lined channel at the tip of Isla Popa. This time a gleaming white male Snowy Cotinga was perched up in the afternoon sun, showing extremely well if distantly. Like many male Cotingas, the Snowy Cotinga has swapped a song repertoire for a visual one. Perching in very obvious spots the male advertises to potential mates his fitness by being so intensely white and readily spotted. Restricted to the Caribbean slope of Central America, from Southeast Honduras to the Bocas region of Panama this species is often hard to track down without staked out males. Females, which are grey with dark spots across their breasts are very rarely seen, and the biology of the species is poorly understood. We were able to watch the bird flying down and back up between its chosen perches for some time, even managing scope views from the boats. After our cotinga show we divided up, with some participants landing on the island for a short excursion to look for poison dart frogs.

In a somewhat similar fashion to the famous Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos the dart frogs in the Bocas del Toro archipelago have developed into an amazing array of colours, with various morphs dominating on each island. The prevailing theory is that the female frogs choose males by colour, and thus the preferences of the founding females on each island shaped the dominant colours of the frogs in subsequent generations. On some islands (like Bastimentos) the frogs are bright orange-red, but on Popa they are either dull orange backed with green legs, or all bronzy-green with bluish legs. It’s a fascinating biological complex and the subject for many researchers with the Smithsonian Institute, which runs several field stations throughout Panama. We found a few frogs rather easily here, despite their tiny size. Most were olive-green backed with bluish legs, but we found some orangey-backed and yellow backed frogs as well. The frogs didn’t take too long, and after getting a selections of color morphs on camera that group rejoined the other boat who had tracked down a pair of Yellow Warblers, here of the quite different appearing mangrove race. Although the birds are visually distinctive, they do not seem to recognize any vocal distinctions within the greater Yellow Warbler complex, as they respond vigorously to songs of birds from the arctic. After spotting a perched up Common Black Hawk, and listening to the distant quavering tones of a calling Great Tinamou we headed back to the lodge for the last time, enjoying some celebratory drinks and an excellent dinner in the company of our gracious and excellent hosts.

We departed Tranquillo Bay just a little after dawn, after bidding farewell to our hosts (and hearing a calling Mottled Owl as we walked up to breakfast). Once at the dock at Punta Robalo we met Ito Santamaria, our local leader for the highland portion of the tour and headed uphill, where we spent a good part of the morning birding along a few spots back up in the Caribbean slope foothills. The day was clear and sunny, not the best conditions for birding up in the mountains, where the birds seem to prefer overcast conditions. Nevertheless, we found a very impressive mixed flock at one of the upper bends in the road. Soon after leaving the bus, we heard the nasal calls of a calling Rufous-winged Woodpecker, which thankfully responded quickly to tape and perched up on a nearby tree for several minutes. This species has a very limited global range, extending from about where we were to just into Nicaragua. Nearby we tracked down a calling Slaty-capped Flycatcher that was perched below eye-level in a position that we could readily see its namesake gray cap. While watching the flycatcher a small flock of parakeets zipped up the road near eye-level. We could see a lot of yellow in their wings, cementing their identification as Sulphur-winged Parakeets; a montane species that is never common. To our great surprise the birds actually landed in some fruiting trees along the road, and we were treated to lengthy eye-level views of several birds in good light, with their scarlet ear-covert patches flashing in the sun. Here too was a parade of tanagers, with better views of Rufous-winged and our first Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, as well as a few more Emerald, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded and Speckled. The area also gifted us with a perched Broad-billed Motmot, which was a write-in for the tour, and a bevy of nice butterflies including several clearwings and a Spot-banded Daggerwing.

Higher up we stopped briefly back at the road along the continental divide, where the sunny conditions persisted and we found the woods to be quiet. A few birds were around, but after admiring a male Tawny-capped Euphonia, a pair of Hepatic Tanagers and a single Common Chlorospingus we decided to push on towards the pacific side of the ridge. A brief stop near the huge Fortuna Reservoir revealed some flowering bushes that held a territorial Rufous-tailed Hummingbird that rather annoyingly was intent upon chasing a couple of White-tailed Emeralds that were occasionally coming in to feed. With some patience we managed good views of the emeralds though, despite the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds persistence. As we began to drive around the pacific side of the reservoir we spotted a pair of Bat Falcons sitting on some bare Cercropia branches virtually over the road. Despite the traffic, and our bus parked literally underneath them the two birds remained perched, providing amazingly good looks and photographs. Bat Falcons are widespread in the new world tropics, but most sightings are of distantly perched or flying birds. As one participant remarked as we finally pulled away, “I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to any species of falcon anywhere!”

Shortly after crossing the ridge, we stopped on the equally sunny Pacific slope, where we enjoyed a packed lunch of sandwiches and freshly baked cookies, we decided that our time would be best spent making our way directly to our base in Cerro Punta and birding the grounds of our hotel and the adjacent gardens. The drive from the top of the divide down towards David and then west and back up to the flanks of Volcan Baru takes about 2.5 hours. As we descended it became quite obvious that the pacific flank of the continental divide has a more gradual slope, with wide valleys between the ridges. This makes the land easier to clear and cultivate, and in contrast to the steep forest-clad slope of the Atlantic side here we passed lots of open fields, housing developments (some quite modern and gated) and villages. Extensive orchards with orange and lime trees appeared as we began to ascend towards the volcano. Our base in the highlands is in the tiny town of Guadalupe, an agricultural town tucked onto the slopes of the impressive 11,400-foot high Volcan Baru. The volcano dominates the landscape, and the rich soils around the base of the main caldera are well suited to the growth of a wide array of fruits, vegetables, chocolate, coffee and wine. Our hotel is positioned near the center of the town and sits on a large plot of land that backs on to a rushing rocky creek and has several big fruiting trees and an array of hummingbird friendly feeders and shrubs. After checking in and getting organized we met up and crossed the road to spent a very productive hour or so birding around Ito’s family property. Over the past several years he and his family have set up a quite remarkable garden, filled with pollinator friendly plants, and banks of fruit and hummingbird feeders. Bird activity at the feeders was constant, with lots of White-throated Mountain-Gems, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, Talamanca Hummingbirds and Lesser Violetears constantly jockeying for position at the feeders and the best perches. Initially we spotted a couple of hulking Violet Sabrewings that were quietly sitting up in the shade behind the feeder arrays, glowing deep purple even in the shadows. As the skies became a bit more overcast, they too became active, shooting around like giant violet missiles and flashing their long white tail corners as they wheeled around the feeders. Along with this heady list of species we enjoyed a few Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds that were feeding on the edge of the fray. A beautiful little Scintillant Hummingbird showed well here too, feeding mainly around the porterweed bushes, but occasionally zipping in for a quick sip at the feeders. The yard was hosting some other species as well, providing excellent views of Rufous-collared Sparrows and Slaty Flowerpiercers (which specialize in ripping holes in the bottom of the floral nectaries, largely bypassing the stamens), as well as one very portly Red-tailed Squirrel that was busily stuffing his face with as much papaya as it could muster. Out in the small agricultural fields next to the building we spent a bit of time picking out Lesser Goldfinches and Yellow-bellied Siskins that were feeding in some seeding grasses by the fenceline. It was a great way to cap our travel-day off, and I suspect that many a camera card was full of new photos by the time we headed back over the road to our hotel for dinner.

The Talamanca Highlands spread across western central Panama and on into Costa Rica. This highland area has been long isolated from the mountainous areas of central America to the west and from the various ridges in far eastern Panama which carry on into the Andean range. The region experiences high annual rainfall, extensive cloud cover and cool temperatures, which has led to the development of dense forests laden with impressive amounts of epiphytic growth. The regions isolation, combined with the complicated topography, amazingly diverse plant life and large land area has resulted in a startlingly unique avifauna. Just over 45 species of birds are endemic to this highland massif, making this one of the biodiversity hotspots in the new world. About a year ago Ito and his partners secured ownership of a 106-hectare parcel of land along the ridge between Volcan Baru and La Amistad National Park. About thirty percent of the land is second growth, and roughly 60 years ago was open cattle pasture, the rest is primary forest. You’d never know it looking along the rough road leading up to the beautiful guest houses a little below the continental divide. The second-growth forest was lush, with a dense understory full of plants that we are more used to seeing in greenhouses.

As the park service has recently undertaken some substantial construction projects to repair trails and improve access (with a resulting, but hopefully temporary disruption to the birdlife) we decided to visit Ito’s property instead on our first morning. The road up was bumpy, but we made the passage in the comfort of three four-wheel drive SUVS in good time, arriving up at the cabins soon after 7:30am. Our arrival time was a bit later than expected due to our amazing success with a pair of singing Wrenthrushes that were calling along the road on our way up. Neither a wren or a thrush, this enigmatic little bird is endemic to the Talamanca highlands and can be devilishly hard to see as it prefers to remain well hidden in dense tangles. Long regarded as an aberrant wood warbler or some type of thrush the species is now placed in its own monotypic family, the Zeledonidae. Perhaps due to this area being so lightly birded the pair was incredibly responsive to our brief burst of playback, with one bird even coming right up to the road and sitting up and out of the shadows with its orange crest flashing in the sun. It was without a doubt the best showing of this often-difficult species that I have had in my five trips.

The day was a misty one, with occasional fog and drizzle, but little wind. When we arrived, we set up first on the deck of the main house, which offers a great mid-canopy vista around the small clearing in the forest. Things seemed quiet around the woods, but the hummingbird feeders were quite active, with lots of White-throated Mountaingems and Talamanca Hummingbirds feeding just a few feet from us. We moved down to the lower platform, where Ito has set up a really nice feeder array, with an excellent restroom on the same platform, and lots of room for chairs under some pop-up tents. Here we found the dazzlingly beautiful Fiery-throated Hummingbird to be common, with several birds in view at once, and often perching on the provided lichen-covered limbs near the feeders. This Talamanca endemic is one of the most colorful of all the hummingbirds, with a multicolored orange, yellow and red throat, and a body made up of a multitude of shades of greens and blues. We spent some time on the deck, happy to spot a couple of Green-crowned Brilliants around the feeders as well. On the other corner of the deck where Ito had sprinkled some rice and corn a Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush came in to grab a few kernels before darting back into the understory. A Large-footed Finch was much more cooperative, lingering for some time on the offered food, and even showing off its namesake feet as it scampered around on the deck. We heard a few calling Prong-billed Barbets that flew in and perched up in the high canopy, and then rather frustratingly bouncing out of view behind branches. We heard their raucous bouncing calls a few times over the rest of the morning, but were never able to track them down. We had a lot more success with two other very flashy Talamanca near endemics though, with well over a dozen Golden-browed Chlorophonias perched up in some fruiting trees. Their intensely bright green plumage and vaguely round body shape made the trees that they were sitting in look a bit like they had just been decorated for Christmas. In those same trees we found a few Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers with their unique gray-yellow plumage, long tails and elegant crests furthering the decorated tree motif. Here too was a very cooperative Collared Whitestart, a flashy Talamancan endemic warbler that is undeniably adorable and is always an instant group favorite.

Some Mountain Thrushes rounded out the cast around the feeder deck, so by mid-morning we decided to go for a short walk down one of the local trails. As we walked up towards the ridgeline, we paralleled the rushing rocky creek that provides much of the water for the little town of Guadeloupe. After a brief stroll we stopped when we noticed a few Collared Whitestarts up in the canopy. The brief stop stretched to nearly an hour, with small but quite diverse flock traveling through the area as we watched. As is often the case with mixed flocks in this forest, most of the birds were endemic to the mountain range. Here we were thrilled to have excellent views of Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, a couple of Yellow-winged Vireo, a Barred Becard, bright rufous Ruddy Treerunners, a little group of Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and a pair of bright orangey-brown Ochraceous Wrens that were busily investigating clusters of bromeliads up in the canopy. This flood of new birds whetted our appetites for lunch, so we wandered back up to the house where were treated to an amazingly good meal, with local veggies and coffee, and a delicious pineapple upside down cake.

In the afternoon we headed back to our hotel for a very short break and then met up for a trip down to the nearby town of Volcan, where we spent the rest of the day birding around the Lagunas de Volcan. These two small lakes are surrounded by an island of dense forest which is in turn surrounded by a vast swath of open agricultural land owned largely by the Jansen Coffee Company. The surrounding forest and twin caldera lakes are set aside as a natural reserve and are popular with local hikers, anglers and bird watchers. On the drive into the forest we stopped for a few birds that were flying in and out of the roadside hedgerows near a large patch of tall grasslands. Here we located a White-throated Flycatcher, a dusky tropical species of Empidonax flycatcher that is very scarce in Panama (with only two known current locations, both found by Ito). Perky little Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters and a lot of Yellow-faced Grassquits were foraging on the seeding grasses, and many participants were surprised to see a familiar species from home here, with several Eastern Meadowlarks sitting up on fenceposts. We also found a male Olive-crowned Yellowthroat of the local Chiriqui subspecies (that was until recently regarded as a separate species). A little further along we spotted a circling raptor which proved to be a female Sharp-shinned Hawk, a scarce species in the country, and yet another write-in for the tours ever expanding cumulative list. As we reached the forest around the lakes the skies clouded over but never really threatened to drench us, which made the temperature quite pleasant but the lighting in the woods fairly dim. We walked about a kilometer down the road that winds around the first of the two lakes, stopping wherever there seemed to be some activity. Unlike most years we didn’t locate any really big mixed flocks, but there were still lots of species to keep us entertained. It took a bit of effort but we eventually tracked down a little Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant that had been playing hide-and-seek with us in a large vine tangle. Nearby was an Olivaceous Piculet that stayed stubbornly hidden in its chosen vine tangle, revealing itself only to a few participants. A little flock of mostly wintering warblers contained our first Black-and-White warblers, as well as a couple of Tropical Parula, a single Golden-crowned Warbler and a pair of Red-faced Spinetails. On the way back out of the area the front vehicle was treated to a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail that strutted across the road in front of them. We made one final stop at an area with a patch of roadside forest, where we found a pair of Isthmian Wrens (a recent split from the Plain Wren complex) bouncing along in a hedgerow as well as a few more migrants before we headed back up to our hotel in Cerro Punta for the night. The hotel went above and beyond for us at dinnertime, with a full American-style (with a Panamanian twist) Thanksgiving feast; a much appreciated and quite tasty gesture. We have been staying at this lodge over the Thanksgiving holiday for several years, and it was especially nice to see that the owners have now opened up the buffet meal to locals (mostly expats) as well, providing a bit of a taste of “home” to travelers and immigrants alike.

We started our second full day in this highland wonderland exploring the top section of the Los Quetzales trail, a park service trail that is maintained between the ranger station above Guadalupe and the Boquete station about seven kilometers away on the other flank of the volcano. Although the trail in its entirety is quite steep and rigorous the first kilometer or so is comparatively flat and offers excellent access to the higher elevation forest that is so crucial to many of the bird specialties of the region. Before we reached the trailhead though we stopped near the base of the hill up to the ranger station, where, in most years there is a wintering male Resplendent Quetzal. This year unfortunately, likely due to the odd rain cycle (a general lack of an actual rainy season) the appropriate trees were not in fruit and for the first time in six visits there were no wintering birds around that Ito was aware of. We checked anyway, and while looking and listening for the quetzal we bumped into a little pocket of bird activity along the forest edge. Probably the two species that will be most memorable were the tiny male Volcano Hummingbird with his lavender gorget flashing as he foraged in some low flowers and the pair of sprightly black Yellow-thighed Brushfinches with their amazingly bright yellow socks that were clambering around in a vine tangle. Here too though we enjoyed good looks at our first Mountain Elaenias and a Gray-breasted Woodwren, our only Brown-capped Vireo of the tour and a wheeling flock of Band-tailed Pigeons that must have passed us by a dozen times. Wintering birds were around as well, with good numbers of Wilson’s and Black-throated Green Warblers in particular. With no sign of any Quetzals though we soon pushed on, up to the ranger station at the ranger station, which sits about 2000 feet above the town at an elevation of 8300ft on a saddle of Volcan Baru. After a bit of organizing and gearing up for a walk we set off for a morning walk down the Los Quetzales Trail, which winds around the folding valleys of Volcan Baru National Park and joins the towns of Guadeloupe and Boquete. The first hundred meters or so of the trail pass through some open hedgerows and gardens, and here we enjoyed close studies of a busy flock of Sooty-capped Chlorospingus and a couple of Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds.

Once in the forest, which here is tall and epiphyte laden, with a complex ground cover and a bewildering diversity of plants, we found the sunny and hot conditions to be depressing the normal mixed flock activity. There did not seem to be much flowering or fruiting, likely due to the lack of recent rains and the passage of a large (unseasonable) storm that left a lot of debris on the trail and some broken or collapsed large trees. Even without the customary roving flocks of birds though we encountered a lot of interesting species as we walked out the first kilometer or so of trail. The highland forests here support a particularly diverse group of ovenbirds, and over the course of the morning we found several of these often cryptic but fascinating birds. Perky and brightly coloured Ruddy Treerunners greeted us almost as soon as we entered the woods, clambering around on some trailside trees. On our walk back we found a talkative Buffy Tuftedcheek chattering down at us from a large tangle of vines. Flycatchers seemed to be quite prevalent along the trail, and we very much enjoyed our encounter with the undeniably cute Tufted Flycatchers that perched with quivering tails out in the open for us in a recent treefall gap. A pair of Black-capped Flycatchers; a pretty highland Empidonax flycatcher that somewhat resembles a spruced-up Buff-breasted Flycatcher were chasing each other around in that same area, making for quite an excellent pair. A few small flocks contained some more highland specialties such as more chattering groups of Chlorospingus, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstarts, Ochraceous Wrens (one of which was amazingly tame and repeatedly came right down to eye level for us to enjoy in depth) and Slaty Flowerpiercers as well as a mix of wintering warblers and vireos.

About midway through our walk, we spotted a perched male Collared Trogon, here of the Orange-bellied subspecies that was until recently regarded as its own species. He was at an excellent angle, and near perfect lighting, but stubbornly refused to turn around so that we could appreciate how orange his underparts were. This sighting whetted our appetites for our main target of the morning; the trogons larger and fancier Quetzal cousin. We carried on, slowly dropping in elevation until we reached an area that had less discernible storm damage and noticeably larger trees. Here we set up, hoping that we could get a response from the pair of birds that Ito had roughly staked out on a prior visit. It took just long enough to hear our first distant answered calls that I could hear the shuffle of feet and the questions about coffee and snack that were forming in folk’s heads. All thought of food disappeared when the male flew overhead with his long tail streaming behind him. The female quickly followed, and she had the decency to land in a visible location. The Resplendent Quetzal is a signature bird of the highlands here, and the males, with their filamentous bright green tail feathers are often mentioned on short lists of the world’s most spectacular birds. We studied the female at length, and then found the male sitting quietly nearby, with his ridiculously long tail (it is actually the upper tail covert feathers which are elongated rather than the tail) draped over a parallel branch like a gleaming emerald icicle in the sun. It’s hard to argue that trogons are not fancy birds, that the Quetzals are the fanciest trogons, and that the Resplendent is the best of the lot. Apart from the elegant silhouette and incredible tail the bird sports an intensity of colour that is hard to believe; a rich scarlet chest and belly, luminescent emerald body and golden-green crest. We spent about a half hour with the birds, and then waltzed back up to the ranger station, which suddenly didn’t seem too far away. A nice late morning snack followed, and then we drove back down to town for some time off in the midday, and a buffet lunch at the hotel.

After our siesta, we departed the hotel and drove over to near the main entrance gate of La Amistad National Park. This massive highland park starts near the town of Guadalupe and extends to (and then through) the Costa Rican border. It protects a stunning amount of highland forest, and with extremely limited access and quite steep slopes offers a real haven for the full suite of plants and animals that are endemic to the Talamancas. We found the entrance gate open despite the fact that the only trail was currently closed for repairs, but our main interest in visiting the area was to check the rocky stream near the gate for its resident pair of American Dippers. Our initial pass of the bridge failed to turn up our hoped-for bird, but we had a little flock near the entrance to the park which contained nearly a dozen Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, a cooperative pair of Flame-throated Warblers, yet another White-fronted Tyrannulet (honestly they are scarce), and Yellow-winged and Philadelphia Vireos. Here too a large and noisy flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flew past, adding to our ever-growing list of flying parrots. As we drove back over the bridge a flash of gray and alerted us to the arrival of a dipper. WE were able to watch it for a few minutes as it bobbed around in various eddies in the water or sat up on larger boulders. The dippers in southern Central America are markedly different than those to the north, with a more attractive silver-gray body and contrasting blackish wings.

We then drove over to the other side of the valley, where we slowly drove up an incredibly rocky road that leads to a small private farm. The owners specialize in growing tree tomatoes, a tart red fruit that makes a pleasant snack or excellent juice. It would appear that they are switching to focus more on potatoes, which may make the area less attractive for our main target here; the somewhat enigmatic Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Over much of its rather limited Central American range the species appears wherever large blocks of bamboo is seeding in the foothills and mountains as if by magic. Around the Volcan Baru area the species seems to be a scarce resident, occurring in fluctuating numbers but never completely disappearing. Sightings of this strikingly beautiful (perhaps the most attractive of the ground doves) bird are generally very brief and only in flight. Our luck was with us on this day though, as shortly after arriving and starting the walk around the field we flushed a couple of doves who promptly tucked into some tangles but stayed in view for lengthy scope views. One of the males showed off its deep purple chest and pale silvery head to excellent effect. Apparently, this property supports a small resident population (numbering fewer than 10 birds) that have learned to eat the fallen tree tomato seeds and larger grass seeds in the brushy fields on the slopes around the farm.

After congratulating ourselves over our good fortune we spent the rest of the afternoon birding the brushy slopes of the farm and along edge of the national park. The slopes were full of birds, with our first Indigo Bunting, our first Mistletoe Tyrannulets, a pretty little White-naped Brushfinch and a showy Slate-throated Redstart. A few hummers were around as well, including Volcano and Scintillant, White-throated Mountaingem and Lesser Violetear. The birding really heated up once we hit the edge of the forest though. Here we located a pair of perched Black-faced Solitaires that were feeding on a fruiting tree a bit downslope from the trail. After hearing a few of these remarkable songsters earlier in the trip it was nice to see them so well. Here too we played a game of hide-and-seek with a Lineated Foliage-gleaner that accidentally flashed out into the open a few times as it moved along the forest edge. A trio of Prong-billed Barbets popped into the canopy for us, and in a nearby tree we picked out a male Flame-coloured Tanager singing from the treetops. Before heading back to the lodge for the night we stopped at an area with a lot of standing trees surrounded by small farms. Here we quickly drummed up two family groups of Acorn Woodpeckers which both came and then spent some time squabbling in the trees above us. At one point we counted eleven individuals, but there may have even been more. Here too was a pair of Hairy Woodpecker, here at the southern edge of its range where its coloration and habitat bear little resemblance to the Hairy Woodpeckers that are so well known across northern North America. A passing Merlin sent the woodpeckers into a bit of a frenzy and sent us packing as well.

The next day was the final full day of the trip, and we packed up shortly after breakfast, departing the highlands with an eye for birding the pacific lowlands for much of the day before our early evening flight back to Panama City from the regional hub of David. Our first stop was at Macho de Monte; a forested curve in the road with an adjacent small hydroelectric project and a surprisingly deep but narrow canyon with rushing whitewater. We spent a remarkably productive hour in the area. We likely only walked about two hundred meters along the road, but managed to record nearly forty species of birds! At our first stop we were happy to find a perched Purple-crowned Fairy that was sitting over the road with its bright green back glinting in the early morning sun. A pair of Buff-rumped Warblers were flouncing along on the lawn, flashing their apricot-colored rumps at us as they vanished into the creekside tangles. A little mixed flock here gave us a female Smoky-brown Woodpecker, our first (finally) Silvery-throated Tanagers, and a female Spot-crowned Euphonia. This flock also contained a rather furtive bird with a long tail and bill that was creeping about in the leafier sections of the vine tangles. It was hard to get a clear view as it only popped out of its dense hiding spots briefly. We called everyone over and slowly the birds body parts were revealed. A longish rusty tail, generally rufescent back without markedly contrasting wings, an unstreaked mantle, nape and crown, palish thin bill and a suggestion of an eyeline. It soon became evident(largely through the process of elimination) that the bird was a Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner; a quite scarce species in Panama that is generally found a bit higher upslope. We then walked a bit around the curve, stopping to admire a perched Double-toothed Kite and a sitting Blue-headed Parrot. While watching the parrot we heard the telltale chacking calls of a Riverside Wren. With a bit of playback, we were able to follow a pair of these very attractive, but always furtive wrens as they moved from tree to tree through a clearing. A few Crested Oropendolas flew by here as well, as did a small group of Fiery-billed Aracaris which we thankfully refound a little later in a huge fruiting fig upslope. That same fig held a hive of activity, and we spent about a half-hour scoping the fruits and the slope above. Here we enjoyed lengthy views of the Aracaris, a striking and range-restricted species with a multicolored red-orange and yellow bill. Lots of Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers were gobbling up the ripe fruits as well, and the buffet was also attracting a couple of handsome Black-chested Jays and a Gray-headed Chachalaca. As it was starting to get pretty warm and sunny we pressed on to our main birding area for the morning; the rather confusingly named Paraiso Birding Paradise.

This small Bed and Breakfast sits in an isolated pocket of forest surrounded by small farm fields. From the top deck patio of the main building visiting birders can enjoy the array of hummingbird and fruit feeders from the comfort of shaded chairs and a small trail that leads down to the still-forested creekline. We started on the deck, thrilled to be in the company of White-necked Jacobins, Scaly-breasted, Rufous-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and the occasional female Crowned Woodnymph. We put out some bananas and were soon inundated with a couple of dozen Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, here of the pacific slope subspecies that until recently was known as Cherrie’s Tanager. Here too were Palm, Blue-gray, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Green Honeycreepers, Blue Dacnis, a few Buff-rumped and Streaked Saltators and an impressively large Crested Oropendola. Among this hive of bird activity, we picked out a couple of female Spot-crowned Euphonias (a generally scarce pacific lowland endemic restricted to Chiriqui and nearby Costa Rica), a perched Yellow Tyrannulet and, in some fruiting Melastoma bushes male White-ruffed and Orange-collared Manakins. Both of these manakins are flashy birds, with the White-ruffed male being a deep ultramarine blue with a gleaming white throat, and the Orange-collared being an excellent combination of yellow, black and orange. After a little while of soaking in the surroundings we noticed a Lesson’s Motmot checking out the bananas. It soon flew in and started disemboweling the bananas at a prodigious pace. This attractive motmot (perhaps a redundant expression) is part of the old Blue-crowned Motmot complex, and as currently defined occurs from extreme southern Mexico into western Panama. After some refreshing coffees we had a bit of a wander around the garden, finding a nice mixed flock of warblers and vireos, a single Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and a pair of Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes that were rather uncharacteristically bouncing around on the edge of the lawn. A little group of Blue-and-White Swallows was foraging over the building, with some birds even perching up on the edge of the roof; offering excellent views. As we then walked down towards the creek we found a confiding pair of Chestnut-capped Warblers and a less cooperative pair of Rufous-breasted Wrens along the trail. We found the woods to be a bit quiet, but we did enjoy close views of a roosting Common Pauraque that we initially flushed but were able to follow as it settled back down into the leaf litter. The resident pair of Black-hooded Antshrikes were calling from deep in the woods, but they stubbornly refused to pop up for us (this pair has encountered a lot of birding groups over the last few years and has seemingly become tape wary). We enjoyed a light lunch back at the house, and then bid the spot a fond farewell, bound for the hot and sunny Pacific lowlands, and eventually, the airport in David.

We soon left the mountains behind and were surrounded by a very different landscape of small towns, rice and sugar cane fields, patches of forest and a few small wetlands. As we neared our first planned birding stop we kept an eye on the roadside wires and fenceposts. It was a good strategy, as we picked up a very cooperative pair of Pearl Kites and several elegant Fork-tailed Flycatchers which all posed well for photos. At an area with larger rice fields that were beginning to be harvested we stopped to look through the wealth of wading birds that were foraging near the combine harvesters. Most were Great and Cattle Egrets, but we found dozens of Wood Storks and a few other herons in the mix. Raptors were being attracted to the scene as well, with a pair of circling Savannah Hawks, a hunting Peregrine Falcon and several Roadside Hawks (as well as innumerable Black and Turkey Vultures) all evident. A little freshwater marsh across the street held Northern Jacanas and a few tucked in Purple Gallinule and Blue-winged Teal. Just down the road we stopped at another little wetland, where we enjoyed a mixed flock of Bronzed and Shiny Cowbirds, a perched Veraguan Mango (a large hummingbird that is endemic to the pacific lowlands of central and western Panama) and our first Orange-chinned Parakeets and Gray-breasted Martins of the trip. As we had a bit of extra time this year, we opted to continue southwards from the rice fields towards the Pacific Coast. We found the open fields and watery channels as we neared the shore to be excellent, with a young Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture quartering right along the roadside, a White-winged Dove (a recent colonizer from Costa Rica) perched along the wires, a little flock of White Ibis amongst a throng of frenetically foraging Snowy Egrets, and a small wetland that held Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs for a handy comparison.

We reached the pacific coastline at the scenic Playa de Barqueta, where we found a few small beachside restaurants and a handful of beachgoers on the very scenic beach that runs westward to the base of the Burica Peninsula (the dividing line between Panama and Costa Rica). The currents here are often fierce, with a sharp drop-off, making swimming a somewhat dangerous affair, but a few brave souls were out there splashing around even given the surf. We scoped the shore, finding a couple of Sanderling doing their customary wave dance and a loafing flock of Willet, but oddly no roosting groups of gulls or terns. The bathrooms were welcome though, and the place was certainly worthy of a few postcards. On the way back up towards David we found a motionless juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a few displaying Blue-black Grassquits and a little group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks tucked in with a larger flock of Blue-winged Teal.

Our customary last stop before reaching the airport is a set of two small lakes bisected by the road. Here we always seem to add a couple final species for the trip; this year tallying our first Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Anhinga, Yellow-crowned Euphonias and Brown-throated Parakeets. The reptile show here was good as well, with lounging Green Iguanas up in some lakeside bushes, a Common Basilisk lizard clutching onto a small tree trunk and a sunning Black River Turtle out on the far bank of the pond. We then drove the final few miles to the airport where we said our goodbyes to Ito, did some repacking and then checked in to our flight. Once back in Panama City we transferred to our hotel near the international airport and had a late dinner where we spent some time reminiscing over our tour through the west of Panama. There can’t be too many week-long birding trips where you can dip a toe into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on the same tour! For many of the participants the journey through Panama was now complete, with a wonderful array of birds (340 species recorded) and wildlife seen over the course of the eight-day trip. About half of the participants though would be continuing on to our weeklong East Panama tour to the superlative Canopy Camp, just a few miles shy of the very end of the Pan American highway.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 14 December 2022