Panama: Bocas del Toro Archipelago Aug 31—Sep 09, 2012

Posted by Jeri Langham

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Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

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Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge was built on Bastimentos Island adjacent to the large Parque Nacional Isla Bastimentos in Panama's Bocas del Toro Archipelago. I scouted this location in January 2011 and immediately knew it was a fantastic location for VENT tours. The owners and I designed an exploratory tour for March 23–April 1, 2012 and it was better than I anticipated. We saw 272 species and heard an additional 8 species. Participants also had opportunities to snorkel, kayak, fish, or swim in the warm Caribbean waters.

An enticing example of what awaits visitors to this marvelous birding paradise can be found in excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all participants. These are from my 13-page journal for the September 2012 tour:

Our first birds this afternoon were Lesser Greenlet and Tropical Gnatcatcher. We were distracted by a white-faced capuchin and Chestnut-backed Antbird, and then sat for a while at the bathing pools in the forest. Violet-crowned Woodnymph was the most common hummingbird here, but we also saw a male White-necked Jacobin, two pairs of very cooperative Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and a male White-flanked Antwren. We heard a Three-wattled Bellbird, but it was high in the thick canopy with no chance of seeing it. On "pineapple hill" we added Short-billed Pigeon in the scope, Green Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, Blue-black Grosbeak, and others. On the walk back, we had a wonderful encounter with Band-tailed Barbthroat, a hummingbird I rarely encounter on Neotropical tours.

As soon as the rain stopped we found a fig tree with thousands of tiny, ripe, black figs. It was a magnet for birds that kept us busy for nearly an hour. Both Keel-billed and Black-mandibled toucans, male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Bay-headed Tanager, Purple-crowned Fairy, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Shining Honeycreeper, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, and more were enjoying these tasty fruits. Further up the hill, I called in a Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush. We stopped at the turnoff for the Radio Tower and had my best bird of the day, a Blue-and-gold Tanager. I can only remember seeing this bird two other times in all my Neotropical birding. Here we also picked up Black-bellied Hummingbird and White-bellied Mountain-gem. We made one more stop on the way back to our boat and found Yellow-headed Caracara, Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and Lineated Woodpecker. The boat ride home brought us two wonderful Brown Boobies and great views of bottle-nosed dolphins. The appetizer this evening was fried yuca chips with a great dip, and dinner was highlighted by bacon-wrapped filet mignon. Great day!

We were down on the dock and ready to go to the Chocolate Farm by 6:45 a.m. Dave and Linda Cerutti bought this abandoned cacao plantation about 15 years ago. It is now a wonderful plantation with huge overstory trees and an understory with nice trails. I did manage to call in the Purple-throated Fruitcrows that gave us great looks through the scope. Dave also gave us a very special tour of his small chocolate factory. It was preceded by great looks at some white-lined bats and followed by noisy, but shy White-throated Crakes. I gave a mini lecture on cauliflory and adventitious flowers using the cacao trees as an example. We had a quick glimpse of a large spotted eagle ray on the boat trip on the way back.

The ocean water around the islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago was almost glass-smooth as we cruised the 40 minutes to La Escapada. As soon as I got off the boat, I saw a bird perched high in a dead tree up the hill. When I got my scope on it, I nearly started jumping up and down because it was the first Lovely Cotinga I have seen on this tour. We continued to Valle Risco, on an unpaved road that descends slowly down the side of the mountain offering many views. For Linda and Ron it was the best place yet, since it produced two Cerulean Warblers, the last warbler they needed for their North American list. But it also gave us two White Hawks, one Black Hawk-Eagle, Black-throated Wren, Paltry Tyrannulet, a pair of Blue Ground-Doves, and more.

Just outside of Chiriqui Grande, we encountered thousands of migrating Plumbeous Kites in kettles and streaming along the sky. It was amazing! I wanted to check the side road to Twin Tanks Road since Angehr's Where to Bird in Panama said it was excellent. How right he was, as we were kept busy for nearly two hours. Best were male and female Snowy Cotingas, and Slaty Spinetail was new to the tour, but we also picked up Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Brown Jay, Black-crowned Tityra, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Hook-billed Kite, King Vulture, Pied Puffbird, and more, including a brown-throated three-toed sloth.

We drove into the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station and met the caretaker. He let us walk a steep, recently opened trail over 500 yards long. We ran into a small flock with Silver-throated, Blue-gray, Emerald, Hepatic, and Bay-headed tanagers, Panama Flycatcher, and more. Further along the trail, we picked up Green-crowned Brilliant and Tawny-throated Leaftosser. Heading back we hit a nice flock with Tawny-capped Euphonia, Squirrel Cuckoos, and many tanager species, especially Crimson-collared Tanager. At a bridge crossing we added Torrent Tyrannulet. At Willy Mazu?, we found a Purple-crowned Fairy and a Buff-rumped Warbler.

After an hour, we arrived at the mouth of the Soropta Canal. Once across the shallow water over the sandbar, there was plenty of activity. It was early morning and there were parrots flying here and there, and other birds were actively migrating over us. There were sometimes several birds being called out at the same time and one simply did not know which to look at first, poor us! The Prothonotary Warblers had returned and were spectacular, as was the huge Squirrel Cuckoo. We saw four kingfishers; my favorite was the diminutive American Pygmy Kingfisher. Our next destination was Swan's Cay where Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies nest. We spent about 40 minutes just floating off the cay with incredibly beautiful, elegant birds flying around us. Watching those gorgeous birds gliding by with their long tail feathers swaying in the wind, sometimes so close we could almost touch them, was simply fantastic. Some even landed on their nests. It was so difficult to leave.

While scanning a muddy grass field, I found two Pectoral Sandpipers. They are not recorded for this area in the Panama field guide. I love starting the morning with this kind of range extension. At Twin Tanks Road we added Chestnut-colored Woodpecker and heard White-winged Becard. We did have an excellent flock at a large turnout with 8 tanager species including Dusky-faced, Speckled, and Black-and-yellow that were new for the tour, as well as what appears to be a lifer for me, a Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager. We had fun seeing many old friends again like a brilliant Silver-throated Tanager. It was another day with 100+ birds seen and a dozen others only heard.