26 February 2009
Today our travels would take us back to the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal where we would spend half of our time along Achiote Road, and the other half in the vicinity of Fort Sherman and Fort San Lorenzo. We departed the hotel at 5:30am in anticipation of heavy traffic and the rough road where we would once again be bumped, jostled, jarred, and shaken while weaving in-and-out of opposing lanes trying to dodge whichever seemed worse at the moment, the potholes or the traffic. As we approached Colon without crashing the car or losing our breakfast, we spotted our first lifer for the day, a Uniform Crake, perched precariously on a powerline overhanging a small wetland. Crakes, like other species such as rails, are notorious for skulking and hiding in dense wetland vegetation, but this individual was in plain sight - what a surprise.
Just prior to taking the 'switchback' that leads away from Colon, and toward the Gatun Locks, we spotted a Common Black Hawk perched on a snag. On our previous visit to Achiote Road we saw an adult in flight, and so today it was nice to see one perched. We arrived at Gatun Locks at about 7:15am where about five cars were lined up waiting to cross the small swing bridge. We stayed in the car this time, thinking that once again we might get caught off guard when the cars start to move. Consequently, we didn't see much in the way of forest birds, although we did manage to see a good variety of common species, as well as our second new species for the day, a Saffron Finch.
After about 15 minutes of waiting the swing bridge opened and we were on our way. We didn't spend much time birding in the area of the locks as we wanted to devote most of our early morning effort to the three bridges along Achiote Road as they were very productive on our last visit. At about 8:00 am we arrived at the first bridge, and after about 15 minutes of birding we realized that it was actually very quiet. Subsequently, we drove to the second bridge, which after about one minute of birding we realized there was a lot of activity. In a matter of minutes we saw two Keel-billed Toucans, a pair of Golden-hooded Tanagers building a nest, a male Flame-colored Tanager, our third sighting of a Bay Wren, a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, and our third lifer of the day, a Double-toothed Kite. In addition to those highlights were several common species, including 10 Orange-chinned Parakeets, numerous Turkey Vultures, at least 40 Gray-breasted Martins and Short-tailed Swifts, and a slew of forest songbirds, including one of Joanna's favourites, the Common Tody-Flycatcher.
After squeezing every last drop of birding activity out of the area around the second bridge we continued on to the third bridge. Once again there was a furor of activity and among the birds were Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Thick-billed Euphonia, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Lesser Greenlet, Smooth-billed Ani, Blue-headed Parrot, Plain-colored Tanager, and a suite of common species. We continued along Achiote Road and through the town, scanning the fields, fences, and forest margins as we went along. In one field, just past the town, we spotted Red-breasted Blackbird, another new species. We continued along the road to Pina, a small village on the Caribbean coast where Achiote Road suddenly went from paved to impassable. Generally the ocean view from Pina was quite nice, but it could have been a lot better if it were not for the excessive garbage that littered fields.
On our way back to Achiote we saw a few more common species, including Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Social Flycatcher, Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Tropical Mockingbird. Before heading back to the main road, to begin our journey to Fort San Lorenzo, we stopped again at the third bridge - and how lucky we were that we did. In the small stream below we spotted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, another new species and a rather cool one at that. We had excellent looks at the bird as it carefully tip-toed along the stream in search of a meal, and as it did I went back to the car, grabbed my camera, and commenced my own stealthy approach. And the effort was worth it, as I was able to get a few photos before the heron saw me, and tip-toed off in the other direction.
Our species count for Achiote Road today was 40, of which 22 species were not seen on our first visit here. We departed the area at about 12:00pm and headed toward Fort San Lorenzo via Fort Sherman. On our approach to Fort Sherman we passed a small patch of mangrove forest - a habitat type that Joanna had never seen prior to this. We pulled over for a brief moment to have a look and I showed Joanna the spooky-looking translucent crabs that live among the mangrove branches. Also while we were there, perhaps just for 5 minutes in total, we tallied two new trip species: Hook-billed Kite and White Ibis.
At Fort Sherman we passed through a small security station where we had to present our passports in order to proceed. Once in Fort Sherman we had a quick look around the beaches where we spotted a juvenile Peregrine Falcon swoop over our car and land on one of the old US Army buildings. Soon after leaving Fort Sherman we had to stop at another gate, this time to pay a $10 fee to access San Lorenzo National Park. After paying we continued on for about 20 more minutes before arriving at the terminus of the road at the Fort San Lorenzo ruins. At the small parking area was a large Oropendola colony, but no birds. We spent about half an hour walking around the ruins that were reminiscent of what you would expect to see in a pirate movie. The birding was very lean, and while Joanna spent some time photographing pieces of history, I worked my way back toward the car hoping to spot something.
Back at the Oropendola nest tree I spotted a hummingbird perched fairly high up on an exposed branch. Initially the back-lighting was terrible and all I could see was a silhouette, but after slowly repositioning I was able to place a darker background behind the bird to reveal enough detail to identify it as a Sapphire-throated Hummingbird - another lifer. Joanna was nowhere in sight and all I could do was wait and see if the hummingbird would stay on its perch until she returned. After about 10 minutes Joanna finally appeared over the horizon and as I hastily waved her over to see the little jewel, the bird disappeared. Fortunately, about 30 seconds later, it returned and Joanna saw it too.
The Caribbean Sapphire turned out to be our last new species of the day as we decided to head back to Panama City at about 2:30pm. At 4:30pm we arrived back at the hotel where we both had a shower, and then went to the Amador Causeway for dinner. Pizza was the craving of the day, and so after a little searching we found a nice outdoor restaurant-bar where we could sit overlooking a rocky beach and ships entering the Panama Canal. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day and we reminisced over our birding adventure. Tomorrow was going to be our last full day of birding in Panama before departing for home on Saturday afternoon. Given that we were at 259 species for the trip, it meant that making our goal of 300 was going to be a challenge; but really, we weren't counting.
Total number of species seen today = 63
Total number of lifers seen today = 8
Total cumulative species seen for trip = 259
Total cumulative lifers seen for trip = 102
Number of species seen at Achiote Road today = 40
Total cumulative species seen at Achiote Road = 72