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Birding Panama pt. 2 - El Palmar

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, April 9, 2014 

Our first morning waking up in Panama I was out of bed before sunrise, ready to go see what I could find in the gardens and surrounding neighborhoods. El Palmar is one of many small towns just south of the Pan American Highway along the Pacific Coast between Punta Chame and the town of Anton.  The tourism business is booming in this area, and the beautiful beaches and warm water are not only an attraction for foreigners, but also for middle class Panamanians escaping the hustle and bustle of Panama City on weekends.  Many of these once quiet towns are now side by side with large westernized resorts, or soon to be completed resorts.  Think Cabo or Playa del Carmen, but with fewer people.  The skyline is here is increasingly becoming dotted with these resorts and hotels that see the future of this industry here.  Anyways, back to El Palmar, where one main dirt road marked by a tiny sign takes off the highway towards the ocean.  The first ½ mile is tree lines second growth that will undoubtedly be developed sooner or later.  The last ½ mile is quiet neighborhoods where retirees and expats from America and elsewhere live the easy life by the sea.  And in the morning the bird activity is booming.

Magnificent Frigatebird to start off the day

As I emerged from the room the first sighting of the day was a stream of 40 some odd MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS heading along the coast.  I  walked the yard of the lodge, along a fence line and a Mangrove lined river that flows into the Pacific.  TROPICAL KINGBIRDS were busy calling from nearby, while BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS and CLAY-COLORED THRUSH zipped through the yard, singing and calling from various trees.  In the Mangroves, a GREEN KINGFISHER was fishing while a WHITE IBIS fed on the opposite shore. I heard a staccato call  coming from nearby that reminded me of a Screech-Owl, but mid-morning and in Panama, the sound didn’t match up.  I started mimicking back and immediately two beautiful BARRED ANTSHRIKE flew in to see what I was.

Lifer Barred Antshrike peeking through the leaves

Before Panama I had struggled at finding “ant-birds” of any kind, despite trips to Costa Rica and hello, the Amazon in Peru.  I had seen 4 “ant-birds” in Costa Rica, and shockingly, did not see a single one in Peru--only an audible for Ornate Antwren.  In my mind these birds were hard to come by, so getting an Antshrike so easily seemed like good luck--and just the tip of the iceberg for this trip.  As I sat in the trees mimicking the antshrike other birds came in to see what the ruckus was.  First was my first new tanager of the trip in a CRIMSON-BACKED TANAGER--one of the most common species here, and utterly beautiful.  Next were a pair of YELLOW-GREEN VIREOS that seemed to follow me around most of the morning.

Great pose from this Yellow-green Vireo

I walked from the yard towards the main road.  PALM TANAGERS were zipping from tree to tree, while a small flock of BRONZED COWBIRDS perched in a palm above. On the main road there were several TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRDS and the ubiquitous GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES.  I walked over to the beach where high tide brought the water so close you couldn’t walk fown the beach further than 50 feet either direction before hitting seawalls.  The water was literally 20’ higher than the day before-and incredible shift in tide. No beach, meant no beach birds, so I headed to the road again.

A view up Calle Hacia in El Palmar towards the Pan Am Highway

The first empty lot on my left was full of RUDDY-GROUND DOVES, along with a pair of PLAIN-BREASTED GROUND-DOVES.

Palm Tanager showing off those subtle yellow tones

The trees lining the field were full of activity too--as GREAT KISKADEE called, and a pair of BOAT-TAILED FLYCATCHER made a racket.  There was an alley lined with flowering trees so I decided to walk it. Here I picked up my first GARDEN EMERALD of the trip and watched a BLACK-THROATED MANGO feed.

The only shot I managed of a Black-throated Mango

RED-CROWNED WOODPECKERS came and went--they appeared to have a nest in one of the trees.  The PALM and BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS were coming and leaving the trees in a hurry--a constant flurry of movement, hard to keep track of what was new, and what I had already seen.  I flushed a WHITE-TIPPED DOVE along the path and by the time I got to the end I was at the top of the seawall overlooking the ocean. Here a SPOTTED SANDPIPER was bobbing a few feet down the wall--it would soon be headed back towards us.

Spotted Sandpiper on the sea wall in El Palmar

I headed back towards the main road where the birds were much of the same.  I had gotten most of the common yard-birds for the area, so was hoping for something less common to pop up--no such luck.  I did spot a couple PALE-VENTED PIGEONS perched in the tree tops.  Back at the main road a CRIMSON-BACKED TANAGER appeared in the open, letting me get a nice posed shot of this beautiful species.

Crimson-backed Tanager in El Palmar

I headed back towards the beach when I heard the familiar call of a falcon and looked up--a PEREGRINE FALCON came gliding by landing on a radio tower a the beach.  I headed to the other side of the tower so I could see the falcon in good light and take a picture.

This Peregrine Falcon frequented this radio tower in town

I headed back to the lodge to relax for a little bit.  The day time brough mostly the same birds.  As it warmed up the swallows started to show up--mostly SOUTHERN ROUGH-WINGED and MANGROVE SWALLOWS.  GRAY-BREASTED MARTINS were also in the fray and a couple CLIFF SWALLOWS passed by-they as well should be headed north soon.  Eventually Sam and I headed to the beach as the water started to recede.  The same shorebirds as the previous day were present while gulls and terns started appearing out over the water. 2 OSPREY flew along the coast, while 1 VAUX’S SWIFT passed overhead.  It was hot so the birding gave way to swimming in the warm waters here.  But it’s hard not to notice those birds--a small swarm of BARN SWALLOWS came by heading to the west (which leads north), hopefully on their way back to Utah!

Pale-vented Pigeon from our room at the Manglar Lodge

The afternoon was mostly relaxing at the lodge.  The PALE-VENTED PIGEONS frequently stopped by a snag just outside our room, allowing for photos.  As the evening came to we headed to walk the beach again.  The water had started to come back in and was starting to cover the rocks.  The shorebirds were hopping around making them easy to spot.  Lots of SPOTTED SANDPIPERS and one RUDDY TURNSTONE were seen.  One of the WHIMBREL from the previous day was perched on a rock in great lighting for photos.

Whimbrel in the rocks on the beach

Flocks of ROYAL TERNS passed just off shore, while a CASPIAN TERN and ELEGANT TERN each passed by as the sun started to dip.  there were quite a few LAUGHING GULLS along the beach, including one eating what looked like like a dead catfish along the shore--the lighting, and the water set up a great photo op before dark.

Laughing Gull picking at a dead catfish?

After dinner we headed to our room but a TROPICAL SCREECH-OWL singing from somewhere in the neighborhoods along the mangroves caught my attention. I hate just hearing owls, but the AC units kept kicking on and try as I might, I couldn’t whistle the bird in.

"The Manglares" from the Manglar Lodge

The following morning I birded the neighborhood in the same fashion but only added one new trip bird in a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH in the Mangroves.  The rest of the morning was spent relaxing and walking the beach looking for shells before we headed to our next destination just 10 miles down the road in Santa Clara.

El Palmar Beach almost at high tide

The only issue is we had 4 hours to burn before check in--so we decided to head to El Valle de Anton, where a local market would give Sam a chance to shop, and provide a little relief from the heat on the coast.  The drive up was 26 kilometers on a windy, narrow, 2-lane road.  “The Valley” as it is often referred to is beautiful, and it would be the setting for a whole day of birding for me the following day.  But this day we visited just one site outside of town--a waterfall called El Macho.

El Macho Waterfall in El Valle

After the waterfall we snagged lunch at a pizza joint on the main drag called Carlito’s that had killer empanadas--the best I’ve ever had and only $1.50 each.  We stopped in at the market and surprisingly Sam didn’t buy a single thing--me on the other hand, I had a few things I had to grab, like an authentic rice serving dish carved from a tree, and a smaller version painted with a couple birds on it to hang on the wall. Sam did finally find some stuff at a shop near the end of town--I found an amazing carving of a Harpy Eagle that I wanted, but couldn’t bring myself to fork out the $155 to buy it, and worry about trying to get it home in one piece.

Harpy Eagle carving I wanted to buy

In the heat of the day, the birds were far and few between, but I did add SCARLET-RUMPED CACIQUE flying across the road in town, and just outside of town a pair of GOLDEN-COLLARED MANAKIN darted across the road bring me to a break slamming stop.  I grabbed for my camera but like most manakins, they didn’t sit still long, and disappeared into the jungle.  We timed it perfectly arrive in Santa Clara at the resort we’d spend the next 3 nights at.  There was a golf course here that in the 3 days we were there, never saw a single person playing--however a large flock of BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCKS and a couple SOUTHERN LAPWINGS took advantage of the ponds here.

Gray-breasted Martins out our window in Santa Clara

Our room overlooked the ocean, pools, and a forest on the edge of the resort.  I watched SQUIRREL CUCKOO and BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS in the trees.  A RINGED KINGFISHER made a pass out over the pools, as did a LAUGHING FALCON--I’m sure I was the only person here to notice either. The GRAY-BREASTED MARTINS must have caught a good draft off the building here, because they were constantly gliding above the building.  Just before sunset 2 perched just outside my window at eye-level--the best look I’d ever had at this species, and the last bird of the day! Tomorrow things were going to get serious...

6 life birds here 9 total trip life birds / 70 total trip species

photos from this post:

eBird Checklists:
El Palmar (3/23 - morning)
El Palmar (3/23 - day)
El Palmar (3/23 - evening)
El Palmar (3/23 - night)
El Palmar (3/24 - morning)
El Valle de Anton
Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort

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