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Panama expedition diary 2019

2019-05-11 - 7:47 p.m.

May 1

My alarm went off at 2:30 which is a half hour before it was meant to, and I'm still bitter about that. Since I was staying at the airport hotel, I simply hauled everything to the lobby, got on the shuttle, and was at the airport before the durn employees were. And yet a line had already formed, only to evaporate in front of me when they did, since I was the first and perhaps only first class customer already there.

As per the holiday usual, I had Baileys & Coffee on the flight to Miami. During my super-brief club visit in Miami, I tried a Latte Machiato. On the flight to PTY, I had the chicken wrap & some more Baileys. Nothing too exciting.

The shuttle wasn't there to pick me up. It arrived an hour later, minutes after the other guy arrived. I suspect they decided to wait and save themselves a trip...

There was still time for a brief swim before I met the rest of our intrepid crew in the bar.

May 2

My first Palm Tanager peeped in my window to hustle me. So far the birds of Panama are the usual kettles of Black Vultures, boisterous Great-tailed Grackles, a singing Tropical Mockingbird, some unidentified Amazona, Clay-Colored Robin, Feral Pigeon, my first tanager, the Palm Tanager.

Today we hit the road in earnest in search of the mysterious Plumbeous Hawk at Bubayar Lodge near the San Blass Hills, whose nest has never been found or described. Despite its ghostly reputation, I would say maybe 90 minutes into the search, we heard the call of the bird responding to the playback. At one point or two, we actually heard two birds, but one bird emerged to show itself quite well, although it did like to keep a branch or a twig between us in order to kid itself we didn't quite see the bird. When it was best revealed, eventually a Keel-Billed Toucan bopped along to drive it back under cover again. It went deeper in the weeds, but it was still there and not hard to see.

I'm thinking the mysterious and unseen nest in question is not far away and that a second bird was sitting on it, but we may not be able to get deep enough in the weeds to spot it...The guide helped me get a decent phone digiscope & I also got a couple grabs with my own camera although they may be blurry. Will have to check later.

Swallow-tailed Kites put on a good show. At times you felt they were close enough to touch. We also encountered the Plumbeous Kites which are expanding their range into this forest.

Four hummingbirds were spotted at the feeders-- Crowned Woodnymph, Blue-Chested Hummingbird, White-necked Jacobin, & Snowy-Bellied. At least four more are possible...

May 3

We revisited the rare & mysterious Plumbeous Hawk. There are definitely two birds-- one who lets himself be seen and a second (unseen) who kept calling. (At one point they did indulge in a bit of dueting.) I still suspect a hidden nest.

The bird of the day was the fine Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle who perched with a good show of crest & then flew over thanks to the mobbing efforts of a trio of angry Swallow-tailed Kites.

After dinner, we indulged in some owl calling, and a Mottled Owl came in, perched, and stuck around. Impressive.

May 4

I was awakened at 5:30AM by the song of the Common Potoo. I tried playback for a while but couldn't get it to emerge into view. Later I learned it was the international Big Day, & a team of birders was already in the field. Was I fooled by playback?

We made a last try for SemiPlumbeous Hawk at Burbayar & then hit the road. One of the most delightful sights along the way was a Pearl Kite being mobbed by Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Spirited small birds with tail ribbons represent!

At lunch, we ate at a hummingbird feeder & garden festooned place where zillions of hummingbird individuals of at least seven species were contending for the territory-- Rufous Tailed Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, SCALY-BREASTED HUMMINGBIRD, Sapphire-chested Hummingbird, Snowy-Bellied Hummingbird, White-necked Jacobin, and Long-Billed Starthroat.

As soon as we arrived at Darien Canopy Camp, we bagged RED-THROATED CARACARA. Easy, easy lifer!  More hummingbirds at war. Here we've added White-vented Plumeleteer & PALE-VENTED HERMIT.

May 5

Today had an odd start-- a pesky Capuchin Monkey tipped over the bird feeding table, which then encouraged others to sneak forward to grab food. Did they think they were being subtle?

We rode to the end of the Pan-American Highway to Javisa and caught our so-called dug-out boat to the Crested Eagle site. Along the way we spotted... wait for it... an extremely big and beautiful adult female Harpy Eagle. Just sitting there perched with the wind playing in her crown...

Since Harpies do not soar, it is very rare to spot them away from a nest.  To spot one just sitting there waiting and smiling and giving us all prolonged looks... well... let's just say finding my life Harpy Eagle is way, way easier than finding the alleged Ornate Hawk-Eagle!

And our luck continued. Moments, maybe seconds, after we arrived at the nest site, alarmed to discover the chick was not visible, the male Crested Eagle arrived carrying prey we later identified as some kind of baby anteater. This bird was incredible. He called and went from tree to tree in a circle around the territory for two hours before he (and we) discovered the hungry Crested Eagle fledgling.

“Look, Pa, I can fly now!  But you still gotta bring me food!”

This was a special day. The guides themselves have rarely spotted Crested & Harpy Eagles on the same day. And to arrive at such an intense moment in the Crested Eagle family's life... words can't describe.

In the evening, we heard some news that the river to the closest Harpy Eagle nest had been blocked by fallen logs or some such-- I'm afraid it isn't entirely clear to me what happened-- but we voted to stick closer to camp tomorrow & see if the path to the Harpy cleared the day after.

May 6

As we enjoyed our breakfast, a fledgling Thick-billed Euphonia quietly left the nest under the encouragement of its attentive parents-- especially the watchful father. I couldn't help but take this as a positive sign.

We also watched a busy Rusty-Margined Flycatcher steal potting material to build his nest. More about him later.

A hike through the woods didn't scare up the skittish Slaty-backed Forest Falcon, but we eventually found a wonderful calling SEMIPLUMBEOUS HAWK who put on a nice display of posing for all of us.

A well-hidden Great Curassow and a friendly gang of Mealy Parrots were also highlights.

Later, back at a camp, we enjoyed a prolonged visit from a curious Black Hawk-Eagle who circled around the place.

In the afternoon, we took advantage of the open-air vehicle to go out into the nearby countryside.

Sure, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture was kind of all right, but the real hero of the day was the adult Common Black-Hawk who chased a... wait for it... Harpy Eagle in our direction, which we then enjoyed for the next two hours until it got too dark to hang around. The Black-Hawk had good reason for its courage, since it was watching over a fledgled juvenile. Not long before we had to leave, we witnessed this caring bird bring in a snake of some kind.

The Harpy Eagle herself mostly spent a lot of time checking out perches and looking impressive. She was aware of the howler monkeys in the area, but they went dead silent after she flew in, and I think she was having trouble getting a bead on them, because we never saw her strike, although she often looked down as if she was considering it.

An amazing experience all around.

May 7

The fast track to the Harpy Eagle nest didn't clear, so we decided to go for a more distant park. This trip involved getting up well before dawn, traveling down to the dock to catch our open dugout boat, then by taxi for about an hour, and then another hour or maybe a bit more hiking in the forest.

The last time the nest was visited, the baby was still on it. When we arrived, this fledgling too was trying its wings, although far more cautiously and never leaving its (huge) host tree in its explorations. It had been recently fed and seldom called, but at one point it did kind of screw-up its landing, and it pretended that it hurt its wing-- the whole nine yards of holding it at a weird ankle & kinda limping around while crying.

Any parents who might have been expected to respond to this bid for attention must have been out hunting, because there was no response. After a while, bratty baby had no choice but to accept he was perfectly fine & just needed to practice flying some more.

So, so cute. Especially with his white crest feathers all playing in the wind...

On the way back, the rainy season began. Yes, while we were in the open boat. Good thing I dressed for the rain forest!

May 8

Our last day. I got up early & tried to call some owls but only succeeded in attracting the attention of the local Whooping Motmots.

A true humor moment occurred at breakfast when the Rusty Margined Flycatcher male who had been working so hard on his nest lifted his crest with enthusiasm to great the female (who knew they even had crests?) and their brief copulation ensued... hilarious...

We drove on to Canopy Tower but it was a wet day with a torrential rain during lunch so not too  many birds, much less any soaring hawks. The best bird in the area for me might have been the Hooded tanager. Heck, at the gas station, I actually added Yellow-Green Vireo.

We arrived in the Anton Valley by late afternoon and snuck in an after dinner owl walk which quickly produced a determined Tropical Screech-Owl who landed in close and sang away for all to enjoy. What a little cutie with his big yellow eyes and intent expression. He didn't seem to know he was just a little guy perched between two red flowers.

May 9

I woke in time to fit in a quick before-breakfast walk which allowed me to find my life Dusky-Faced Tanager all on my own. Not a tough bird to figure out... they turned out to be big feeder fans.

It's an irony of this trip and this time of year that we had the greatest success with rare, seldom seen hawks & eagles that do NOT soar. With the rains coming in earning, we had little hope of getting the soaring birds on our list.

Some worthwhile raptors, but they took effort.

*White Hawks-- a pair & later a single

*A pair of Bat Falcons

At lunch break, I found my life Buff-rumped Warbler doing just what he was supposed to do hopping around the creek. Oh, and the Grey-cowled Wood-rail bathing in the creek was also a special treat, although it was a very bold & common bird of the area.

In the afternoon, after trying multiple territories, we found a fine pair of Grey-lined Hawks & got great looks.

May 10

Before breakfast I took a quick final look around and received a nice visit from a Cocoa Woodcreeper which chose to fly toward me and pick on a rotten trunk barely an arm's length away to give me a special moment of personal finding. 

As for raptors, we hoped the weather would clear enough to allow birds to soar, but it never did. With effort, we got glimpses & then (finally) great views of a calling Barred Forest Falcon but the elusive Barred Hawk & Ornate Hawk-Eagle give me something to shoot for on a future trip. The trip feels almost too short and leaves me hungry for more... no doubt the ideal conclusion for any expedition.

Oh, and the Mango Mojitos were pretty durn good too.

May 11

Free-flowing Baileys on the PTY-MIA flight & the so- called chateaubriand wasn't half-bad. If this diary is badly edited, blame the open bar in the MIA flagship lounge. Wheeeee.


Whelp. Everything went fine until the last few minutes of the flight into New Orleans. The pilot did land, but he came on and informed us he "almost" diverted to Houston but found a safe path to the airport at the last minute. Then we were stuck waiting 90 minutes for a gate because lightning. Seriously, dude? It lightning in New Orleans all the time, seems like you would have heard about it by now. The driver waited-- why not, the Causeway was also closed, so she couldn't go home-- but eventually we were released from our tin can and allowed to head home. I was so tired I barely recognized the right house in the dark...While talking to the driver, I realized the real reason must be because of a tornado threat, but the pilot probably didn't want to say tornadoes and scare the crap out of everybody...

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