Panama: Bocas del Toro Archipelago Mar 21—30, 2014

Posted by Jeri Langham


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 14-page journal for the March 2014 tour.

After landing on Bocas del Toro Island, we were soon loaded in Jim’s boat and headed toward Bastimentos Island, home of Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge. On the way we picked up Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, and Parasitic Jaeger. Once on the porch of the main building we were treated to cold drinks and a wonderful breakfast. The best part of our morning walkabout was the time we spent in the Golden-collared Manakin lek and where we also saw Tawny-crested Tanagers. On the afternoon walk in the forest to “pineapple hill,” we picked up Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, a perched Roadside Hawk, a tiny Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, and glimpses of White-flanked Antwren. On pineapple hill we added Short-billed, White-crowned (best), and Pale-vented pigeons, Purple-crowned Fairy, Crowned Woodnymph, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Blue Dacnis, Groove-billed Ani, Green and Shining honeycreepers, and Passerini’s and Blue-gray tanagers. I especially enjoyed the White-faced Monkeys who were breaking branches to show their disapproval of our presence. We returned to climb the new six-story-high observation tower near our cabanas that is big and strong enough to hold all of us on the observation deck. The view is superb and is great for watching birds fly to and from their evening roosts.

Soon we were at Chiriquí Grande, an old oil town on the mainland. Before we got out of town, we saw three Southern Lapwings—a species not shown to be here in the field guide map, Northern Jaçanas, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Purple Gallinule, Brown Jay, and more.  At the Texaco station we saw several Boat-billed Herons. While walking on Rambala Road we saw a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail run across the road. There are only two other records for that bird in this part of Panama. Farther up the road, we saw a Pied Puffbird and a Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Back on the main highway, we cruised up the river valley and at one bridge stop we picked out a Torrent Tyrannulet and a Buff-rumped Warbler. At Café Isabel we ate our picnic lunch and they prepared patacones (plantains) for us. The best birds here were Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Olive-backed Euphonia, and White Hawk. After lunch a Black Guan was seen by a few, and we saw a Bat Falcon, Short-tailed Hawk, and Common Black-Hawk. Our best bird at the Continental Divide’s side road was an Orange-bellied Trogon, and we added an Elegant Euphonia and Red-faced Spinetail.

After an hour, we arrived at the mouth of the Soropta Canal. Our big target bird today was the difficult-to-find-elsewhere Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and we managed to see four males. For the first hour or so the activity was great; sometimes there were several birds being called out at the same time. Other nice birds were Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Squirrel Cuckoo, Black-cowled Oriole, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, several Common (Mangrove) Black-Hawks, Lineated Woodpecker, a Green-breasted Mango on a nest, and Peregrine Falcon. As we cruised up the channel, we saw two Brown-capped Tyrannulets and two Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths, and coming back we saw a Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth with a baby. On the river, we hit pay dirt with Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Blue-winged Teal (50+), Muscovy Duck, five species of herons/egrets, and best of all, 12 American Coots and a Least Bittern, neither of which had been seen on my other four tours. We ate lunch on the boat in a nice shaded area not far from where we would get out and walk the beach. About 10 Collared Plovers were the prize of the lot. Next was our visit to Swan’s Cay where Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies nest. Once 30 yards from Swan’s Cay, we spent about 45 minutes just floating 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. Best for me was seeing my first Brown Noddy in Panama. It sure was difficult to leave. After dinner and completion of the day’s checklist, we learned we had identified 111 species of birds. Among the best were four of the six possible kingfisher species.

I could not resist the usual stop prior to the Continental Divide, and it produced Tropical Parula, Emerald and Spotted tanagers, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and Long-tailed Tyrant. At the curve in La Fortuna, we had a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks migrating north. Blue-throated Toucanets were a big hit along with the Prong-billed Barbets I called down from the hillside. We also saw White-throated Thrushes, a Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Acorn Woodpecker, which always seems out of place to me in Panama since I have them in my backyard at home. After our roadside picnic lunch we walked a stretch and added a Garden Emerald, a gorgeous male Elegant Euphonia, Paltry Tyrannulet, and three Red-tailed Hawks (another species never seen on my previous four tours here). As we returned we made several stops and had a tremendous Ornate Hawk-Eagle along with Common Bush-Tanager and White-collared and Chimney swifts. Slate-throated Redstart was the star. It was another great day in the Neotropics.

It was a calm, smooth-as-glass ocean morning as we headed to Isla Popa, an area where a male Snowy Cotinga performed for us for about 20 minutes. It would fly off one perch, swoop down, and then fly up to another perch. Farther down the island, we added Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and even better, I called in a Mangrove Cuckoo that also perched for photos. Our next stop was Green Acres Chocolate Factory. On the walk up to the ridge, we got to see Green-and-black Poison Dart Frogs (bright green frogs with black circular spots). I managed to call in a Bright-rumped Attila, male Pale-billed Woodpecker, a Black-chested Jay, two Purple-throated Fruitcrows, and a male Slaty-tailed Trogon. We also had a great encounter with a Kinkajou and heard a distant Mantled Howler Monkey troop.

After lunch there were various options for the afternoon. One headed for the bat cave with Ramón, while another tried snorkeling and loved the diversity of the corals. The rest joined Natalia and me for a trip into the forest where we added Scarlet Tanager, White-throated Crakes, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds to our list.

At Valle Risco we reached an unpaved road that descends slowly down the side of the mountain, offering many views of the valley floor below. We had more migrant raptors here, Little Tinamou was heard, and we saw Streak-headed and Cocoa woodcreepers, Keel-billed Toucan, Rufous Mourner, Black-throated Wren, Black-cowled Oriole, Rufous Motmot, and both tityras. A few saw the Long-billed Starthroat that was new to this tour. On the way back to La Escapada, we stopped at a bridge and Natalia found her lifer Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

Today we stopped at “Two Tanks Road.” We had to work hard to get the Slaty Spinetail to show itself, but had great views of a pair of Crimson-fronted Parakeets at a nest hole and a pair of Plumbeous Kites building their nest. Back on the main road I was not able to ignore the fruiting fig tree. We had a perched Double-toothed Kite here and an incredible number of clearwing butterflies. From the bridge, most got on the Cinnamon Becard pair and, even better, the diminutive Black-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Panama’s smallest passerine. At another stop, many of us got a quick glimpse of a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle before it disappeared behind the ridge. Farther up the road we added Spangle-cheeked Tanager, but only Ramón and Jim saw the Silver-fronted Tapaculo.

After our picnic lunch near the Continental Divide, we found a pair of Green Thorntails, a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren responded to my tapes, and near the stream I was able to get Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush to come close enough for most to see.

For our last morning we met up on the observation deck of the tower at around 6:15 a.m. Montezuma Oropendolas, several White-crowned Pigeons, and many parrots, including a Blue-headed in the scope, kept us entertained. After breakfast I met the group on the porch and headed for pineapple hill where we finally saw a male Black-crowned Antshrike and added Stub-tailed Spadebill and Dot-winged Antwren to our trip list.