Panama: Bocas del Toro Archipelago Mar 22—31, 2013

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. Participants also have 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 March 2013 tour:

We had a great introduction to Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge and the areas around the cabanas before lunch. Highlights included wonderful views of Golden-collared Manakins and their leks, Roadside Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Mangrove Black-Hawk, Blue-black Grosbeak, Variable Seedeater, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Social Flycatchers building a nest, and White-crowned Pigeon. Before heading into the forest on a small trail, Terry spotted a huge, and I mean huge (we guessed 10-11 feet long) Tiger snake in one of the tall trees at the forest edge. We easily spent 20 minutes watching it move through the trees. The best bird as we walked down to the “bathing pools” was a perched Band-tailed Barbthroat that allowed long scope views. There were lots of Montezuma Oropendolas, but the best was when we visited “pineapple hill,” which was alive with bird activity. The highlight for all was seeing so many male Red-capped Manakins, but we also saw Green and Shining honeycreepers, Scarlet Tanager, Short-billed Pigeon, Passerini’s Tanager, Buff-throated Saltator, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Masked and Black-capped tityras, and many more. It was very difficult to leave this great spot, but we needed to get back to climb the new 6-story high tower near our cabanas. The view was superb. Red-lored Parrots put on a show for us. We saw several warblers, another Lineated Woodpecker, male Blue Dacnis, several bright male Shining Honeycreepers at eye level, and several White-crowned Pigeons. This new tower is great!

My top experience today involved migration like I have never seen in my life. During the entire 1.5 hours that we spent birding an unpaved side road in the lowlands, there was a continuous stream of Turkey Vultures heading north. It was like a river of birds, sometimes as wide as a six-lane highway. I cannot even begin to estimate the numbers, and the river was still flowing strong as we left to drive up the mountain on Oleoducto Highway. In with the Turkey Vultures were smaller numbers of Broad-winged and Swainson’s hawks and a few Short-tailed Hawks. We also picked up two King Vultures and a few dozen wonderful tropical species, including a perched Laughing Falcon, Red-breasted Blackbird, Crimson-fronted Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Collared Araçaris, Band-backed Wrens, both Tityra species, and many others. As we returned to the boat for the ride home, the migration had become kettles swirling as they prepared to settle down for the night.

We arrived at the mouth of the Soropta Canal, and once we were across the sandbar there was plenty of activity. Our big target bird today was the difficult-to-find Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and we managed to find four males today. For the first hour the activity was fantastic; 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! Best were five of the six possible kingfishers. Other nice birds were Bare-throated and Rufescent tiger-herons, Semiplumbeous Hawk, a pair of Squirrel Cuckoos, Black-cowled Orioles, Bay Wren, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Long-billed Gnatwren, two Common Black-Hawks, Roseate Spoonbill, Lineated Woodpecker, and Green-breasted Mango. Our last destination was to go one kilometer offshore to Swan’s Cay where Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies nest. We floated just off the cay with incredibly beautiful, elegant birds flying around us. Cameras were clicking like mad. 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.

We drove straight up Oleoducto Highway to Willy Mazú. The birding was terrific. Jan was first to spot two Torrent Tyrannulets and we followed these with Keel-billed and Black-mandibled toucans and Collared Araçaris. My biggest surprise was a Philadelphia Vireo, a species not recorded in this part of Panama. At Willy Mazú we spent over two hours trying to spot and identify birds in this great forest location. Some of the best were Spot-crowned Antvireo, Wedge-billed and Spotted woodcreepers, Tawny-crested Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, White-flanked Antwren, Slaty-tailed Trogon, and Broad-billed Motmot. From here we zoomed up to the highlands and escaped the fog and rain. My favorite stop had a male Elegant Euphonia, but we also found a few knockout male Scarlet-thighed Dacnises along with Silver-throated, Blue-gray, and Bay-headed tanagers. A female Black-bellied Hummingbird was a hit, along with a pair of Prong-billed Barbets.

We slowly drifted between two mangrove islands, picking up a few birds, and then we struck gold. I mentally cussed as I watched a Snowy Cotinga dive from its perch. Natalia spotted another that remained on its perch. We were even able to set up the spotting scope on the deck of the boat for a few to see it more closely before it too dove into the thicket. Everybody on the boat was smiling ear-to-ear.

On our drive to Valle Risco we stopped in a large, wet field and called in an Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Soon we reached an unpaved road offering many great birds. The best was clearly the Green Thorntail female that was way out of range. There was a great kettle of migrating Swainson’s Hawks. We also saw Wedge-billed and Cocoa woodcreepers, Rufous Motmot, two Band-tailed Barbthroat nests, Bay Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Araçari, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, and we heard Little Tinamou. We saw many wintering birds that will soon be nesting in the US or Canada, my favorites being Scarlet and Summer tanager males.

This morning we started on Ramballa Road. This area brought us Pale-billed Woodpeckers, White-lined Tanager, Slaty Spinetail, Black-throated Wren, and much better looks at Black-chested and Brown jays. After lunch we drove up to an overlook and I had my best ever looks at a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that scurried mouse-like at the edge of the forest before finally showing itself for all to see. We also had tremendous looks at a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren in the same little area. Our last stop was the side road to the tower at the Continental Divide. We walked along part of it on the way back…there was some hill climbing, but we wound up seeing Great Black-Hawk, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Barred Forest-Falcon, and Orange-bellied Trogon. Once again we heard the beautiful song of the Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush. It was a great way to end our high elevation birding.