Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Panama Trip - Day 1

November 17, 2007

Since nearly all the trip participants had arrived in Panama City late last night, a day of birding at some interesting local sites was planned before heading to the Canopy Tower. First on our agenda was Tocumen Marsh, very close by where we were staying at the Riande Airport Hotel. But our driver, Edwin, was concerned about how muddy the road would be for our bus since it had been raining a lot recently (and it was raining this morning too). He convinced our guide, Jose Soto, who convinced us that it might not be a good idea to go in there. Instead, we opted to go straight to our next destination, Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, two peaks of the same mountain that held a number of interesting birds that we wouldn't encounter elsewhere on the trip. At the top of the "most wanted" list were two species, the Violet-capped Hummingbird and the Tacarcuna Bush-Tanager, both of which are restricted to only a few mountain tops in eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia. On Cerro Azul, about an hour's drive northeast of the airport, we headed right for the home of the president of the Panama Audubon Society where a number of feeders, including hummingbird feeders, had been set up. It was still raining so we sheltered under the roof at the back of the house where the feeders were hung, and where there was a nice view of the mountains beyond (when it wasn't raining).

The feeders provided hours of entertainment, as we observed Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers. An older name, no longer in use but certainly more descriptive is Red-footed Plumeleteer, which the photo shows quite well.

Two species of hermit, more primitive hummingbirds, were seen in the area as well. The Green Hermit frequented the feeders

The Stripe-throated Hermit (formerly named Little Hermit) only occasionally visited the feeders, but instead preferred to sun itself in the shrubbery around the house.

At one point, Jose pointed out a female Violet-capped Hummingbird at the feeders, one of our target birds! It was somewhat similar to other female hummers that were visiting, including Violet-crowned Woodnymphs and Violet-headed Hummingbirds, but this one had a bronzy color visible when it spread its tail, and we noticed that it frequently cocked its tail like a wren when it was perched. No males of this hummingbird were seen, unfortunately.

In the gardens, during the brief periods when it stopped raining, other birds were noticed including another target species, the Spot-crowned Barbet which does have spots on the crown but these are rarely observed. Spot-flanked Barbet would be a better name.

A fruiting tree (Miconia sp.?) attracted a few tanagers as well as this brilliant male Green Honeycreeper.

And visiting the abundant Verbena in the gardens, but never at the feeders, was at least one male Violet-headed Hummingbird. When the rain let up a bit more some clearwing butterflies with no English name (Ithomia diasa) became active as well.

At one point, just after lunch (an excellent traditional Panamanian chicken curry salad that our driver had made), the rain stopped for about an hour and we went down a somewhat steep and muddy trail to an area where Heliconia plants were more common. Our objective was to find two hummingbirds, the White-tipped Sicklebill and the Band-tailed Barbthroat. We succeeded in finding both, though only the Sicklebill posed well enough for decent photos (and a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer was attempting to monopolize all the flowers).

The bill of the Sicklebill is more curved than any other bird, and is specially adapted to feed on their main food plant, the Heliconias. Unlike most hummingbirds, the Sicklebills did not hover in front of the plants, but instead perched on them to access the nectar.

They are so intent on feeding that they only briefly pull their extraordinary bills out of the flowers, making it extremely difficult to obtain a photo. I was never able to succeed in this, even when one fed quite close by.

We departed this wonderful location and went upslope to Cerro Jeffe where the Tacarcuna Bush-Tanager was to be found, but not today as the place was eerily silent. The wind and rain was the likely explanation for the lack of birds. Our next destination was Parque Natural Metropolitano in Panama City, perhaps the only tropical rainforest situated in the center of a major city anywhere in the world.

The forest here was dark, as it continued to rain. Before the trip, I'd told the participants that it was the end of the rainy season and that even during the rainy season it was unusual to have an all-day rain. Well, today it rained almost all day! The abundant mushrooms and fungus attested to the dampness of the place. Jose indicated that October used to be the rainiest month of the year, but has recently shifted to November, and that all-day rain is now possible even in the middle of the dry season in February. The tour brochures apparently can't keep pace with the changes that global warming is bringing.

Despite the rain, the birding was pretty good, although photography was almost impossible. We then headed for our final destination for the day, and our home for the next seven nights, the Canopy Tower in Soberania National Park. We arrived after dark, got settled in, and had an excellent dinner. On the inside walls of the Tower an unidentified moth provided one final photographic opportunity for the day.

The eerie glow in the eyes is due to my flash, nothing sinister about this interesting moth!

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