Panama: Bocas del Toro Archipelago Sep 06—15, 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. I lead this tour every March and September during the height of migration and each of the four tours gets better as we discover new areas to bird. 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 15-page journal for the September 2013 tour:

As I was discussing cacao plants and their cauliflory system of producing flowers, we heard what sounded like baby birds in distress or something similar. Eventually, Ramón spotted the tail of a Tiger Rat Snake sticking out of a hole in a coconut tree stem. Sure enough, this Tiger Rat Snake was in the hole trying to eat what turned out to be two Central American Woolly Opossums and maybe some youngsters. We were entranced by the event for about 40 minutes. Pretty soon the tail disappeared into the hole, but then part of the central body pushed out as a two-foot loop. As we were trying to figure out what was going on, an adult opossum shot out of the hole and landed on the ground. Then it spotted my tripod and spotting scope and proceeded to climb up a leg and perch on the scope. The opossum soon jumped from my scope to the ground and scampered into the forest. The pitiful distress noise continued to come out of the hole. Eventually the snake poked its huge head out above the loop of its body. At one point it tried to pull the opossum out of the hole while holding the head in its mouth, but the hole was not wide enough to allow that to happen. To make a long incredible viewing story shorter, it turns out the snake could not get its body coiled around the opossums within the cavity and eventually a second one escaped from the hole and, like its mate, after recouping from the fall to the ground, it too climbed up a leg of my tripod and sat on the scope. From there it jumped back to an epiphyte on the coconut tree and started climbing toward the hole. We could not believe it was going back to the hole, but by now the 7-foot snake had emerged from the hole, climbed up the coconut tree until it found a cross branch from another tree, and sat with half of its body still against the coconut tree and the other half on the branch near the tree. The opossum kept climbing up past its hole and was about to go out the branch when it realized the snake was there and dropped out of the tree. It eventually sauntered into the forest and up another tree. I cannot believe what we witnessed.

Today we used the bigger, flatter boat with the new, quiet engine, and boy could it move on the flat waters of the archipelago. After an hour, we arrived at the mouth of the Soropta Canal, where Jim and Ramón had to get out and help push us through the shallow water over the sandbar. Once across the sandbar there was plenty of activity. Our main target bird today was the difficult-to-find Nicaraguan Seed-Finch and we managed to see five males today. For the first hour or so the activity was great; there were sometimes several birds being called out at the same time. We cruised up the 7-mile-long canal toward the mouth of the Changuinola River. My surprise bird of the day was a dainty Pearl Kite. Other nice birds were Squirrel Cuckoo, Orchard Orioles, Bay Wren, hundreds of migrating Eastern Kingbirds, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, several Common Black-Hawks, Lineated Woodpecker, Green-breasted Mango, White-necked Jacobin, and glimpses of a White-throated Crake at the outhouse dock. In addition to birds, we saw a wonderful Green Basilisk, Common Raccoon, and Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth. This year, for the first time, Jim was able to take us around the often-clogged end of Soropta Canal to where it connects to the Changuinola River. Here we found Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, five species of herons/egrets, and best of all, a Wilson’s Phalarope—a species not shown on the field guide maps to occur in this area of Panama.

There were more shorebirds than on any of my previous visits. Collared Plover was the prize here. Kent found and photographed a Pectoral Sandpiper, another species not shown to be here in the range map of our field guide. There were dozens of Lesser Nighthawks perched on logs. We cruised out the mouth of the Changuinola River and followed an offshore route to Swan’s Cay where Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies nest. About 40 minutes were spent just floating 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 and a few had juveniles visible on the nest.

We stopped for lunch just before the huge La Fortuna Forest Preserve dam. As we were eating our picnic wraps, Karen asked, “What is the large black bird with a blue head?” Several Azure-hooded Jays were crossing from one large forest patch to another. What an incredible find, another first for our tours to this wonderful corner of Panama. We also added a female White-bellied Emerald. At the Smithsonian Institute field station, it started to rain so we did not try any of the trails. A female Scarlet-thighed Dacnis along with Silver-throated and Bay-headed tanagers were all we saw while there. As we left, fog was starting to be a problem, but it did not stop Natalia from spotting a Black Guan. After our three-course dinner, we did our daily checklist and headed for bed. It was another great day in the Neotropics.

Today we were down on the dock ready to visit the Green Acres Chocolate Farm by 7:15 a.m. It was a calm, smooth-as-glass water morning as we took a side trip to an area where a male Snowy Cotinga had been seen. We slowly drifted between two mangrove islands picking up a few birds, and then a pure white, male Snowy Cotinga was spotted. With this marvelous, tough-to-find prize under our belts, we headed to the farm. After meeting the new owners and buying some of their chocolate products, we began to bird the plantation and photographed Green-and-black Poison Dart Frogs. It was quiet in the beginning, but eventually I managed to call in Cocoa Woodcreeper, two Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Plain Xenops, Black-chested Jays, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, and a Slaty-tailed Trogon. We also had a great encounter with a Mantled Howler Monkey troop.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Southern Lapwings were in the open field today, but even better, we spotted the first of two Glossy Ibis, a species not shown to occur here on the field guide’s range map. I love finding birds whose range we extend, and we have done this on every one of our four tours. We had our first Solitary Sandpiper of the tour here, too. My goal was to start in Reserva La Fortuna, the furthest area from Chiriqui Grande that we visit on this tour. What a lucky decision. We spent two hours here getting one good bird after another and also playing with a flock. Some of the best birds were the male Rufous-crested Coquette (another range extension), Golden-olive Woodpecker, Black-bellied and Stripe-tailed hummingbirds, Rufous-capped Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler, Spotted Woodcreeper, a pair of soaring White Hawks, Swallow-tailed Kites, and Tropical Parula. It was a wonderful two hours.

Because it was our last morning in this paradise location, after breakfast almost everybody chose to go snorkeling because of the stories they heard from those who went three days ago. They had a fantastic time and saw lots of wonderful fish, corals, and other goodies. As always, there also were options to go birding and kayaking.

The deluxe cabanas with air-conditioning, appetizers, and open bar before our three-course dinners, and amazing exposure to Neotropical birds, other animals, and plants, make our Bocas del Toro Archipelago tour a superb adventure. Join me next year to see for yourself.