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2014 Gunnison Sage-Grouse Days Recap

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, April 24, 2014 

This years Gunnison Sage-Grouse days kicked off with some Friday night owling at Devils Canyon Campground by a few participants who were not able to track down any owls.  Jeff Bilsky and I arrived a few hours later and tried for ourselves, and although we had no vocalizations, an tiny NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL cruised through camp, visible in the beam of my headlamp.

It rained most of the night and by 5:30am Saturday at our meeting location it was hovering around 40 degrees.  Our group of 11 met in Monticello and after packing into 3 vehicles were off in the dark headed to the northeast to look for grouse.  We slowly drove the road int he dark making sure that if we came across any grouse we didn't disturb or worse, hit them.  We arrived at the lek just as it was starting to get light, but couldn't see any grouse where they had been in past years.  Based off a tip from someone who checked the area out the previous week we moved a short distance ans soon found ourselves looking at 7 GUNNISON SAGE-GROUSE--5 males and 2 females in the distant shrubsteppe.

2 Gunnison Sage-Grouse on Hickman Flats

We watched the birds with binoculars form our vehicles for 15 or so minutes before we opted to set up to scopes on the back sides of the cars so the group could get a better look at the distant birds.  The scopes were set up and and we had folks slowly get out of the cars and move behind one vehicle to line up and see the birds.  The first few people got through looking when all of the sudden the birds took flight and disappeared into the sage flats to the west.  I was a bit dismayed.  The group had been quiet and we were a great distance away, taking precautions as not to disturb the birds.  The previous year at another lek we had been much closer and out of the vehicles with even more people and the birds didn't even seem to notice us.

View of the Abajo Mountains in the distance

I wasn't frustrated that everyone in the group didn't get to see the bird through the scopes--everyone got to see the birds.  I was more frustrated with our impact on the species, that more than likely will be listed as endangered in the next month. Part of our reasoning for hosting this event was to shed a little bit more light on this fascinating bird for locals.  If the states DNR would actually be willing to talk with us and help with the event we could do a better job at making sure this type of thing doesn't happen.  But thus far our attempts to reach out and open a dialogue have been met with resistance.  I plan on forwarding our experience this year to them in hopes that some change might be triggered.  After the grouse flushed we checked a few more fields unsuccessfully, before starting east towards Colorado to bird the rest of the area and look for a few other shrubsteppe specialties.

Utah Birders scanning for birds in the sage

It remained cold and although the buzz of BREWER'S SPARROWS, was accompanied by the songs of WESTERN MEADOWLARKS, SAGE THRASHERS, and VESPER SPARROWS, there wasn't as much visible activity as in past years.  We came across a GOLDEN EAGLE perched along the road and had plenty of HORNED LARKS zip across the road, occasionally landing for good looks.

Horned Lark perched along the fence

We made a stop in an area where Burrowing Owls previously "burrowed", but couldn't pick any out.  We did spot a very distant FERRUGINOUS HAWK which we made our way towards for closer views for the group.  We also drove a few side roads we hadn't in the past that looked good for Sage Sparrow--we didn't find any...

Ferruginous Hawk composite take-off

Back along the main road it wasn't long before a tiny falcon zipped by and landed on a post just up the road--it was a stunning little MERLIN.  Although many people think these birds are gone by now, they are found throughout April in Utah and many persist into May.  Straggling migrants from further south are probably the majority of these birds.  We stalked this individual allowing great looks along the edge of the road.

Merlin on Hickman Flats

Our usual route took us past ponds and springs where the usual suspects were present, but no unexpected waterfowl or shorebirds popped up.  For the life of us we couldn't find a Sage Sparrow, but managed to pick up every other species of expected sparrow out here, as well as SAVANNAH SPARROW.

Savannah Sparrow trying to hide in the grass

MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS are common here and they brightened up the dark morning.  We had several STELLAR'S JAYS a few few miles form where they are expected to be, but foraging here in the Pinyon-Juniper they gave good looks.  While we stopped to look through a flock of a CHIPPING SPARROWS a small raven caught our attention in the distance-it appeared to be a crow at first sighting, but the bill was a tad too large.  Before we could get scopes on it, the bird took flight leaving us wondering--had this been a Chihuahuan Raven?  Instead we settled on CRAVEN--ambiguous enough to cover all three corvus possibilities.

The "Craven" on Hickman Flats

We had magpies, and juncos, and robins--all the usual stuff. The group added TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE, BEWICK'S WREN, and JUNIPER TITMOUSE.  AS we drove we heard BUSHTITS in the sage brush along the road.  We stopped and all around us was a small flock of these entertaining little species.  I got the best photo I've ever managed of this species, so I was pleased.

Bushtit posing for its close-up

The birds were starting to be a little more cooperative, and it was warming up a little bit.  Checking out another road, we were unable to turn up anything new.  Eventually we ended up at a location that was inundated with woodpeckers the previous year.  This year it was limited to a few NORTHERN FLICKERS, a DOWNY WOODPECKER, and a HAIRY WOODPECKER.  We did snag a WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH, saving us a stop later in the day for the species.

White-breasted Nuthatch on Hickman Flats

A few minutes later an empid popped up and sang, it was a DUSKY FLYCATCHER.  The bird provided great looks allowing those who were close enough to see the bird to admire its tiny bill and yellow-olive wash as it perched in a snag.  It flew off a few moments later and continued to sing from the woods.

Dusky Flycatcheron Hickman Flats

A few miles down the road we came across another one, this time the bird was in someones yard and was flying from perch to perch providing more good looks in the open.  A 2nd DUSKY FLYCATCHER morning here in April was a good sign.

The 2nd Dusky Flycatcher on Hickman Flats

The convoy rolled back into town and refueled, stocked up on snacks, and took restroom breaks before continuing on our way to Lloyd's Lake just southwest of town.  On the way we added AMERICAN CROWS in town.  At the reservoir we had a flyover OSPREY and a few ducks and geese.  The most notable birds however were 5 COMMON LOONS, a WESTERN GREBE, and a HORNED GREBE on the water.

Poorly digi-scoped Horned Grebe on Lloyd's Lake

The group continued west into the Abajo Mountains to see what was hanging around the Dalton springs area.  We spent about an hour there allowing the group to wander, and Jeff took a number of people into the forest while others remained back near the cars soaking up our first sun of the day and checking out the birds there.  We added the typical chickadees and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, as well as kinglets and WESTERN BLUEBIRDS.  A highlight for most of the group was a BROWN CREEPER--several more were seen on Jeff's walk. A number of RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS came by, while PINE SISKIN, SHARP-SHINNED and COOPER'S HAWK were all added to the day list.

Utah Birders in the Abajo Mountains

This stop is always rewarding but failed to turn up and Wild Turkey this year.  We headed back into town and allowed everyone to scatter into their own vehicles to head south to Devil's Canyon Campground.  By the time we go there the sun was out in full force, the temps were rising, and the bird activity was at a lull.  Although we did add our target PYGMY NUTHATCH and CASSIN'S FINCH, we didn't turn up any of the other unusual mountain species normally found here.  A RED-TAILED HAWK kept watch on us while we watched an AMERICAN KESTREL try to take out a WESTERN BLUEBIRD.  We did have what seemed like an early GRACE'S WARBLER singing here, and added BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD at the campground host site as we left.

Red-tailed Hawk soaring over Devils Canyon

Our next stop was Recapture Reservoir just down the road where things were very active.  There were COMMON LOONS on the reservoir emitting their eerie call--also lots of waterfowl including REDHEAD, LESSER SCUAP, BUFFLEHEAD, and NORTHERN PINTAIL.  Along the shore and in some of the surrounding trees the birding was really good.  A  RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER near the boat launch was unexpected.

Red-naped Sapsucker at Recapture Reservoir

This area was also teeming with songbirds including the usual ROCK WRENS and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS.  More notable were several GRAY FLYCATCHERS and BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLERS.

Gray Flycatcher at Recapture Reservoir

Near the inlet there was an interesting mix of sparrows that included CHIPPING and LARK SPARROWS, as well as a single BLACK-THROATED SPARROW--the only of the trip.  After getting our fill of the area we dropped out of the mountains and into Blanding to visit the always interesting waste water treatment ponds on the south end of town.

Blanding WWTP is the spot for birding in Blanding

Right off the bat we spotted a GREAT EGRET on the nearest pond--this was a new county bird for me.  There were a few birds on the near pond but not as many as usual--the other highlights included a pair of BLUE-WINGED TEAL and we could hear calling FRANKLIN'S GULLS.

Digi-scoped Great Egret at the Blanding WWTP

We moved to another vantage point where we could see into another pond and could now see a flock of 14 MARBLED GODWIT lounging on the shore.  While we watched them a lone BONAPARTE'S GULL came and circled the near pond.  In the fields to the west there was a decent flock of WHITE-FACED IBIS as well as several GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES.  Along the fence lines around the pond SAGE THRASHERS occasionally perched as well.  These ponds always fascinate me--here in the middle of the desert they are THE birding hot spot between Bluff and Monticello in my opinion.

Utah Birders at the Blanding WWTP

At this point we bid farewell to the group, the trip had officially come to an end and despite the weather and flushing of the grouse, we had seen a good number of birds.  We missed a few things that were expected but that's birding.  Stephanie Greenwood, Jeff, and I decided to keep on birding heading south to Bluff.  The 25 miles drive was quick and when we got there it was 77 degrees outside-quite a nice difference from the morning--but it also meant the birds weren't to active.

Navajo Twins in Bluff

We headed to Navajo Twins Ponds where it was very quiet.  WHITE-TRHOATED SWIFTS and VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS twittered along the cliffs above--WESTERN KINGBIRD and SAY'S PHOEBE patrolled what remained of the ponds, which are in far worse shape than last year when they were already in poor shape.  Pretty soon this will be Navajo Twins dry ponds...

Western Kingbird at Navajo Twins Ponds

Through town we drove to Sand Island a few miles west along the San Juan River.  Opting to avoid the crowded campground we instead drove to where the highway crosses the river heading south to Mexican Hat and birded west of the bridge.  A nice sized flock of CEDAR WAXWINGS were in the trees here, as were a few SPOTTED TOWHEES and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS.  We finally picked up a couple LUCY'S WARBLERS for the trip as well.  As we sat along the bank of the river trying to psyche each other out, joking about seeing birds that weren't really there, I quipped, "Look, a Black Phoebe--there it ISN'T!" Stephanie new to the game fell for it but Jeff just shook his head--until I said, no really, right down there, there actually appears to be a BLACK PHOEBE.  Just about 100 yards down river one was flycatching form the bank--too bad we couldn't have willed something a little more far fetched!

We drove back across town and out the east side towards Aneth along Mission Road.  There are agricultural fields here that occasionally have water in them.  This day instead they had large flocks of Ravens in them.  One of the first groups we looked at had what appeared to be a crow with them--but upon closer looks it was obviously a raven--a very small raven.  I reached for my camera and the flock took flight.  I managed a couple flight shots as the bird left the scene.  Jeff followed it but if flew a long ways out of sight.

Possible Chihuahuan Raven in Bluff

Continuing east we came across more ravens, as well as a flock of WHITE-FACED IBIS where there was some water in the fields.  We also came across one NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD on the power lines along the road.  Eventually we turned and headed back towards Bluff where we stopped to check out a flock of ravens much closer to the road.  Again there was a small crow-sized Raven with the group--this time I had my camera and snapped a bunch of shots to show the obvious size difference.

Possible Chihuahuan Raven with Common Raven in Bluff

There is some known size variation in ravens--as with all birds--but I believe this is clinal, so it would odd seeing such distinctly small birds in an area where the average is much much bigger.  These birds also had bills that appeared to be slighter than the other ravens--as well as long nasal bristles.  In my opinion they looked like a good match yet again for CHIHUAHUA RAVENS in this part of the state.

Possible Chihuahuan Raven in Bluff

As it was starting to get late we headed back to Blanding and then up towards Devil's Campground to camp where we had the previous night.  This time though we set up tents just in case.  After it got dark we walked from about a 1/2 mile above the campground down to the campground and through the loop on the right, and then back to our camp without eliciting a single hoot from a Saw-whet Owl... Utterly strange.  Back at camp I fell asleep entering eBird checklists via my phone--I was exhausted and slept through the night.

Bilsky emerging from his tent

Easter morning I awoke to singing RED CROSSBILL, PYGMY NUTHATCH, DUSKY FLYCATCHER, and CASSIN'S FINCH.  It was sunny, and looked like the makings for a beautiful day--a singing GRACE'S WARBLER seemed to agree.  After packing camp we headed towards the Acorn Woodpecker spot to see if we might get lucky and pick one up for the trip--no such luck.  We decided to drive Hickman Flats one more time to see if we might pick up some of the birds we missed the day before--we didnt--but the birding was good.  I got some decent shots of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD, VESPER SPARROW, SAGE THRASHER, GRAY FLYCATCHER, and BREWER'S SPARROW along the way.

Mountain Bluebird on Hickman Flats

Vesper Sparrow on Hickman Flats

Sage Thrasher on Hickman Flats

Gray Flycatcher on Hickman Flats

Brewer's Sparrow on Hickman Flats

We did find a small group of peeps in one of the spots we checked the previous day--it was comprised of 5 WESTERN SANDPIPERS and 1 LEAST SANDPIPER.

Western Sandpipers on Hickman Flats

Least Sandpiper on Hickman Flats

We also had a very cooperative NORTHERN HARRIER near the end of the drive that I caught landing in the sage from behind--turned out pretty cool.

Northern Harrier on Hickman Flats

After this we headed back towards the north, stopping in Green River for our now annual post Grouse Days jaunt to Ray's Tavern. And by early evening we were all home.  It was another great trip to a very under-birded part of the state.  Where Washington County sees the most action form birders up north, San Juan County remains the place where you can really make discoveries in birding in Utah.  With vast amounts of land and places where no one looks for birds the possibilities seem endless.

Bacon Cheeseburger at Ray's in Green River

814 miles later, we managed 113 species, a few less than last year, but also a full day less of birding. And it gives us a target for next years Gunnison Sage-Grouse Days!

Checklists from this trip:
Hickman Flats Road
Lloyds Lake
Dalton Springs
Devil's Canyon CG
Recapture Reservoir
Blanding Treatment Ponds
Navajo Twins Ponds
Sand Island CG & Bluff Road Bridge
San Juan River & Mission Road
Devil's Canyon CG
Hickman Flats Road

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Birding Panama pt. 4 - El Chirú & Juan Hombròn

posted by Tim Avery at
on Friday, April 18, 2014 

The day after my birding trip in El Valle I took it easy.  We relaxed on the beach, in the pools, in the room, and just took it easy.  It was hot early, and cooled off later when clouds covered the sun.  The typical beach birds were ever recent including FRANKLIN'S and LAUGHING GULLS, ROYAL, COMMON, and SANDWICH TERNS, BROWN PELICANS, and lots of frigatebirds.  Shorebirds were scarce, but a WILLET was seen a couple times.  OSPREY came and went up and down the coast, while the GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES were never in shortage around the pools, and dining areas.  The dining area is actually open air, so the grackles made themselves at home while you ate.  The resort had tried to tackle the issue by placing fake plastic owls all over, but the grackles weren't fooled.

The beach at Santa Clara

The only new trip bird during the "beach-fest" was BROWN-THROATED PARAKEET which flew by in small flocks occasionally throughout the days.

Sunrise over the Pacific Ocean

On our last morning in Santa Clara Sam and I woke up before dawn and drove about 20 KM west to the village of El Chirú, an area that has only recently been noted for it's lowland Savannah and dry forest birding.  It is also a heavily farmed area, and the agricultural land provides habitat for several unique species that are otherwise hard to find in Panama.

The road north of El Chirú

There weren't a ton of great spots to pull of the road, which was a paved 2 lane that heads north from the Pan-Am.  I found a couple of locations where roads pulled into fields and used the areas to park and walk the edges.  The flycatchers were rampant.  There were several FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHERS on the power lines, while TROPICAL KINGBIRDS, SOCIAL FLYCATCHERS, and GREAT KISKADEES all took prominent perches on snags.

The only bird I photographed at El Chirú, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Both PANAMA FLYCATCHER and DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER were joined by both LESSER and YELLOW-BELLIED ELEANIA in the bushes along the edges of the fields.  The highlight for me were an SOUTHERN BEARDLESS-TYRANNULET and a MOUSE-COLORED TYRANNULET.  There was a lot of activity from the scrubs, but the actual fields were pretty dead.  A lone EASTERN MEADOWLARK sang from the middle of the tall grass letting me know there were some birds out there.  BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUITS were also in the fray, buzzing from dense patches too.

Both CRESTED and YELLOW-HEADED CARACARA flew over while I searched.  I found a pair of SCRUB GREENLETS--a lifer, and saw several STREAKED SALTATORS and a BLACK-STRIPED SPARROW.  The species I had come to look fro was the Grassland Yellow-Finch but none were in sight.  After my last stop I was turning the car around to head to our next stop when a tiny yellow bird zipped across the road and landed on a stalk.  I pulled my binoculars up and confirmed it was a GRASSLAND YELLOW-FINCH.  I grabbed my camera and the bird was gone.  Birding in the tropics!

 Juan Hombròn Road is definitely a birding hot spot

The next stop was just a few kilometers west and south of the Pan-Am, an area known as Juan Hombròn.  The Juan Hombròn Road is another location that has recently garnered the attention of foreign birders.  The habitat is similar to El Chirú but with more water, different agriculture, mangroves and some lowland rainforest .  The bird activity was impressive.  This road was dirt and meandered along farms with the edges of the roads mostly lined with trees. At my first stop the flycatchers were abundant again, with BOAT-BILLED FLYCATCHERS running the show. There were flocks of grassquits and seedeaters and I picked up two lifers in a matter of minutes in YELLOW-BELLIED and RUDDY-BREASTED SEEDEATERS.

My lifer Ruddy-breasted Seedeater

I won't name them all but I had 12 species of flycatcher in a 2 mile stretch of road, with NORTHERN SCRUB-FLYCATCHER, PALE-EYED PYGMY-TYRANT, and RUSTY-MARGINED FLYCATCHERS being the highlight.  There were numerous FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHERS here--a species I will never tire of seeing.

The best shot I managed of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher

While I was watching the songbirds I could hear CRESTED BOBWHITE calling from the fields nearby but never got eyes on them.  STRIPED CUCKOO also called from somewhere in the understory, while a few LESSER GOLDFINCHES reminded me of home--only a few thousand miles away.  I added two species of hummingbird here with the stunning SAPPHIRE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD and the endemic VERAGUAN MANGO.  There were birds everywhere you looked.  Antshrikes and grackles.  Doves and Tanagers.  There were also a few warblers including a number of YELLOW WARBLER and a surprise TENNESSEE WARBLER.  Despite thenumber of birds there weren't a ton of great photo ops, so I settled for this YELLOW-HEADED CARACARA.

Close-up of a Yellow-headed Caracara

I headed south where flooded fields provided looks at a number of waders.  I finally spotted my target bird for these fields in a WATTLED JACANA.  There were a few young birds and a parent hanging out near a GREAT EGRET on a small "island" just off the road.

A young Wattled Jacana

An adult Wattled Jacana

Both caracara's were present here as well, and a SQUIRREL CUCKOO flew across the road.  In the fields both EASTERN MEADOWLARK and RED-BREASTED BLACKBIRD flew from patch to patch of grass.  I wished I had more time but we had to get back to the hotel to enjoy a little more time on the beach before we headed inland--it would be our last time on the beach for the trip.  On the way out I stopped to admire a CATTLE EGRET--that posed nicely for me on the side of the road.

Cattle Egret posing in the morning light

I stopped again one more time on the way out where the birds were much the same as the way in.  I added RED-THROATED ANT-TANAGER for the morning as well as GROOVE-BILLED ANI and CLAY-COLORED THRUSH.  I also stopped to photograph one very messy looking BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT.  The Tanager was the 200th species of the trip.

A very messy looking Blue-black Grassquit

We made it back to the hotel where a WHIMBREL was just walking down the side of the road, giving me a great photo op.

A Whimbrel just hanging out on the side of the road

After spending a few hours swimming in the ocean and enjoying the sun and warm water, we packed our bags, loaded the car and headed back towards Panama City for our last 2 and ½ days--we would be touring the Panama Canal, Pipeline Road, and the Rainforest Discovery Center before heading back to the states.

17 life birds here / 75 total trip life birds / 200 total trip species

photos from post:

eBird Checklists:
Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort (3/26 - morning)
El Chirú
Juan Hombròn Road
Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort (3/27 - morning)
Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort (3/27 - day)

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Birding Panama pt. 3 - El Valle de Antón

posted by Tim Avery at
on Sunday, April 13, 2014 

The morning of our 4th day in Panama I was up at 4:45am.  I had to get ready and then drive about an hour from our hotel into the mountains and the town of El Valle de Anton to meet my guide for the day Jose Perez.   El Valle sits in the bottom of the caldera of an inactive volcano.  It is about 6 KM wide and surrounded by mountains/ridges that were once the rim of the volcano.  The area is one of the most popular birding destinations between the canal and the western highlands, boasting a list of over 500 species.  A couple trips ago I decided that on every vacation I took I would hire a guide for at least one day of birding.  Nothing beats a local with knowledge of where to find what quickly and somewhat easily.  I contacted Jose via Facebook and his rates for private guiding were a great deal.  In any event, I made the drive in the dark and got there about 15 minutes early--Jose was already waiting for me at the Hong Kong Market on the main drag in El Valle.  We dropped my rental off at his house, and then we took off towards the hills outside of town.  During the drive he asked if I was okay to do some hiking and I said no problem.  He explained that to get to the areas where a few birds I want to see are present we have to do a short hike…

The view up from the parking area

We arrived on the outskirts of town-the way outskirts--and parked the car.  Jose pointed to a road going up a hill and said, “we have to hike to the top of that”. It was a steep dirt road, but it didn’t look like it went more than a couple hundred meters--no problem!  It was early and although light, it was still not great lighting.  Birds were singing everywhere, but we didn’t stop for them.  I knew the majority sounded like Clay-colored Thrush, and Blue-gray Tanager, but there were plenty of sounds I didn’t recognize. We hit the trail and passed folks walking down it.  Jose explained that they come into town to work every day, and hike out at the end of the day to return to their homes in the hills.  The road was very steep, and it made for a tough hike.  Eventually it plateaued out and the birding started.  The first sighting of the day was a BAT FALCON screaming across the morning sky.  That was followed by a few SWALLOW-TAILED KITES circling the ridge lines nearby.  A flock of BROWN-HOODED PARROTS came in and landed in a nearby tree, but the light made for terrible photo ops.  The first lifer of the morning were a small troop of BLACK-CHESTED JAYS that flew past.  Despite seeing numerous flocks of this species over the following 5 days, I only managed a few crappy photos.  Jose pointed out a coughing sound in the distance--KEEL-BILLED TOUCAN.  Eventually we saw a couple fly across one of the wide canyons.  The road dipped down and dropped into a ravine before heading back out, topping out again, and then dropping into a wider canyon.  Here the road split in 2 and Jose pointed to the hills to our left, “that’s where we are going.”  No problem!

Making our way up the dirt road

At this point the bird activity exploded.  I spotted a MOURNING WARBLER skulking just off the road. Jose pointed out the calls of a WHITE-LINED TANAGER, then a WHITE-SHOULDERED TANAGER.  Both LESSER and YELLOW-BELLIED ELEANIA were flycatching over the road, while RUFOUS-AND-WHITE as well as BAY WREN chuckled from the understory.  RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS were singing from various trees on the hillsides.  A female SUMMER TANAGER flew past us, and a DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER landed in a tree to close to photograph.  This was tropical birding at its finest.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher checking me out

We came to a draw near splitting off from the canyon we were in and Jose pointed out the song of a WHITE-RUFFED MANAKIN.  We got several bad looks at birds flying past, and one female that posed long enough for a photo.  This was typical of my past experience with manakins--zip zip gone!

Female White-ruffed Manakin in the understory

While we were looking for the manakins a PALE-VENTED THRUSH started singing--we looked but never got eyes on the bird; strangely just moments later this was followed by a singing WHITE-THROATED THRUSH.  This bird we were able to find and digiscope some crappy shots of before it flew off.  All the while a GREAT ANTSHRIKE sang from a nearby thicket.  As if on queue to tick off the other thrush for the area, an ORANGE-BILLED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH started singing from the same thicket.  Sensory birding overload commence!

White-throated Thrush digiscoped

We came to a split in the road, where one road meandered off to the right.  To our left a road set off straight up the mountainside.  There was a lot of activity here where a yard left for an open area between the forest.  Tanagers were shooting left and right across the opening.  Jose pointed out a FLAME-RUMPED TANAGER that flew off before I could get a picture.  A LESSER GOLDFINCH started singing, and within a matter of minutes we had BUFF-THROATED, BLACK-HEADED, and STREAKED SALTATOR for the 3 species saltator sweep.  Then Jose pointed up the road and says, “are you okay to go up there? That’s where the birds are.”.  At this point all I could say was, “sure, no problem!”.  After all, the birding had been great thus far.

Male White-ruffed Manakin trying to hide

So up we went.  It wasn’t long till Jose spotted a WHITE-RUFFED MANAKIN male sitting in a bush on the edge of the road.  While we hike a MISSISSIPPI KITE flew over and past.  The next 200 meters seemed bird-less though.  It was just up, up, straight up. Eventually an OLIVE-STRIPED FLYCATCHER sang from the trees nearby, but that was it.

The tanager section of the trail

We came to a flat area lined with some type of fruiting trees.  Jose said, this is where we could get some of the specialty forest tanagers.  It was quiet as we walked.  For about 100 meters there were no birds, then the road started up the mountain again--straight up.  Jose explained that this road was no longer used--It used to connect the road from Altos del Maria to El Valle, but a mud slide a few years ago took out the road.  Now it was used by very few people, and was a great road for birding because of this. All of the sudden Jose stopped and pointed into the forest, BLACK-EARED WOOD-QUAIL!”, he exclaimed.  They were singing in the forest.  As we kept walking another started singing.  We stopped and realized we were between two birds singing on either side of the road.  Jose started whistling--his talent for mimicking birds of the jungle was amazing.  Where I would have to use an iPod, he had memorized and could mimic almost every bird we heard and saw.  The whistling battle was intense.  Jose would whistle, then a quail here, and another there--they were getting closer.  I was able to get a pretty damn good recording of this species--there are only a 1/2 dozen in Xeno-Canto, so it was a good capture:

All of the sudden one popped out of the bush on the opposite side of the road--as soon as it saw us it jumped back into the woods.  The birds singing from the near side got closer and closer, until it was only a dozen or so feet away.  We could see it in the understory kicking around, but when it saw us, it ran off down the hill.  Jose said he figured the bird on our side would cross the road to try and get to the other male--it wasn’t even 30 seconds later when the bird on our side flew out and across.  I snapped one picture as it went into the bush--somehow catching it in the frame--albeit dark and blurry.

Bad record shot of a Black-eared Wood-Quail in flight

Jose was stoked that we were able to see the quail.  He froze in his steps when another odd sound came from the jungle--PURPLISH-BACKED QUAIL-DOVE!”, he said with an excited look.  The road kept going up and eventually we got into a small flock that included SILVER-THROATED TANAGER, GOLDEN-HOODED TANAGER, COMMON CHLOROSPINGUS (formerly the Bush-Tanagers), and TAWNY-CAPPED EUPHONIA. That latter a lifer. There were also a few birds from up north still around, including 2 BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER, and a BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER.

Silver-throated Tanager feeding

About this time a HEPATIC TANAGER flew across the road and landed on some exposed branches.  I told Jose this was my current nemesis bird.  I had not see it in America, Mexico, Costa Rica, or Peru, and finally had one in my binoculars.  I grabbed my camera and started to lift it up when Jose exclaimed, SNOWCAP!!!.  My focus was re-shifted--this was one of my top 10 birds for the trip.  Jose pointed out the sound they were making and said there were 3 or 4 birds in the understory.  Eventually we saw the movement and then the birds.  They were tiny and zipped by quickly.  We were at a lek site that Jose said seems to be active at random, and often moves to different spots along a 200 meter section of road--today the birds were active and close.  I finally got some okay shots when a bird landed in the trees--it wasn’t great but it was a lifer and a brilliant bird.

Best bad shot I managed of a Snowcap

As we stood enjoying this show, one bird flew too close to even photograph.  It hovered in the flowers nearby for 30 seconds giving outstanding looks before disappearing.  It was amazing.  Over the next ¼ mile we had no less than 10 SNOWCAPS, and possibly more.  We also picked up some other great hummingbirds like: BLUE-CHESTED and SNOWY-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRDS, WHITE-TAILED and GARDEN  EMERALD, and GREEN HERMIT.  I had already lost count of lifers for the morning.

The not-so Snowy-bellied side of a Snowy-bellied Hummingbird

We kept on hiking and eventually got looks at a SLATE-COLORED GROSBEAK singing from a tiny tree on a cliff above us.

A RUSSET ANTSHRIKE was singing from the forest at the edge of a clearing near the cliffs.  We walked to the edge here to try for a few birds and were rewarded when a SCALE-CROWNED PYGMY-TYRANT flew in and sat in the open for a few minutes.

Scale-crest Pygmy-tyrant trying not to be seen

Jose pointed out a calling ORANGE-BELLIED TROGON from the forest, so we headed up the road to get closer.  Eventually we found both a male and female sitting right above the road.  The female was much more obliging, but eventually the male emerged and sat out on a limb doing his thing.  My love of trogons is second only to tanagers, and this was one of those great birding moments.

Female (top) and male (bottom) Orange-bellied Trogons

While we watched Jose pointed out a couple of calls from the trees--one was of the TUFTED FLYCATCHER.  A really colorful little guy.  Despite being a base gray, the subtle yellows, oranges, and reds give it some character.  It was hard to photograph deep in the forest, but I managed a distant shot.

Distant Tufted Flycatcher in the forest

More notably, was a bird that was very close to the road that was hard to find--a NORTHERN SCHIFFORNIS.  It was singing, and with a little help from my phone it flew over us once, then back again.  The second time it landed in a small opening, where I was able to snap a shot before it scampered off.  Another plain bird, that was covered in subtle yellows, oranges, reds, and also greens.  The most surprising thing about this species is for some reason I always thought it was the size of an empid, when in reality it was the size of a kingbird.

Subtly colorful Northern Schiffornis

The road opened up and I could see what looked like a summit ahead.  It was.  From here I could see down into another valley and a gravel road in good shape. Jose pointed to the right and said, “this is Altos del Maria”.  You can actually drive here, but I guess it's a paint in the ass now, something about a permit, and permission, and by the time you get up here its too late for the birding.  The peak above us could be reached by a trail that was another ? of a mile long.  He asked if I wanted to go to the top--and of course I said, "yeah".  How could I not want to hike to the top when I had already come all this way?

Me just below the summit of the hike

Through the forest the trial was basically cement stairs that led up and up and up.We eventually hear both BLACK-CROWNED ANTPITTA, and BLACK-FACED ANTTHRUSH.  The latter we spent probably almost 30 minutes trying to get a look at.  The birds was no joke within 15’ of us the entire time but due to it’s secretive style walking on the forest floor, we managed just 2 seconds of actually seeing the bird.  I fared much better recording its song.

As we continued up Jose stopped me and pointed to a call off in the trees--EMERALD TOUCANET!  This was another top 10 species for me.  I pulled out my phone and played the call a couple times and the bird flew in.  It wouldn’t come any closer than about 50’ and stayed high up in the trees.  The fleeting glimpses were less than satisfying.  I headed up the trail to see if I could get to a better vantage point.  I was about 75’ higher up and had a better view into the canopy below where the bird was.  I played the call again and almost instantly it landed on an open snag in good view about 30’ away.  I snapped two pictures, before it lifted off, flew right over me and down the other side of the hill--it was gone just like that.  The photos turned out super dark, but with a little Photoshop magic everything turned out okay.

Heavily Photoshopped shot of an Emerald Toucanet

An interesting side note is that it has been suggested that the Emerald Toucanet actually could be split into at least 7 species.  There is some disagreement on the treatment, but in general there seems to be strong evidence that there are 7 distinct species.  In central Panama there is some disagreement about which sub-species actually occurs--currently it is listed as Blue-throated Toucanet, but according to George Angehr, author of The Birds of Panama, it is possible toucanets from central Panama actually are closer to the Purple-throated sub-species.  As our science gets more and more advanced it seems that more and more species are going to be “discovered” as they are split out or suggested to be split out like this group.

Looking back down the stairs through the jungle

As we continued up the trail was got into a small group of SPOTTED BARBTAILS.  We could hear them calling but only ever got good looks at one.  There were much fewer birds up here than below, but they were some high quality species.  We soon emerged from the forest onto wooden steps that skirted the cliffs and let to a boardwalk and finally a viewpoint above the trees.  The view was incredible.  On certain days during the year I was told you can see both oceans form here--but the moisture-filled air below kept us from seeing the Atlantic side.  We did however have an amazing view back to El Valle.  We had hiked 3 miles up from where we parked and gone up almost 1,500’ in elevation.

The view of El Valle de Anton below

We watched BROAD-WINGED HAWKS soaring above the mountains and snacked on licorice then headed back down, down, down.

Soaring Broad-winged Hawk

The trip down didn’t take long and soon we were back at the main road where the closed road started.  Jose told me that there was a guy who would drive us from just below here back to the car--but when we got to his house, he wasn’t home… So we walked all the way back.

Jose ahead of me headed back down the road

We did add SHORT-TAILED HAWK for the day, and got a good look at a soaring BLACK HAWK-EAGLE which Jose heard calling way up in the air before we ever saw it.

Black Hawk-Eagle high above us

By the time we got back to the car my legs were destroyed--the down, down, down was brutal on my quads, and this was my first hike of the year--but it was well worth is as we tallied 97 species and I snagged 39 lifers.  I downed two bottles of water and then we ate what I can honestly say was the best Pineapple I’ve ever had--seriously amazing.  I ended the hike with a stellar photo op of a RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER, and a joke from Jose.  He told me that as a kid they played soccer with the kids from the village we had hiked down from.  He said every game, every year, all the way through school  they never beat them once.  He said it wasn’t till the first time he hiked over here to look for birds that he understood why! We watched the current group of kids making their way up the hill and back to their village--probably getting ready to beat the local kids from El Valle in a soccer match :)

Obliging Red-legged Honeycreeper

We headed back into town, made a couple stops, and then headed off to our next spot to look for birds.  We pulled off the road and a guy emerged from the a trail with 4 people.  One of the guys was obviously a guide while the other 3 were American birders--they didn’t bother to say hello and went on their way.  This is so typical of most American birders I see outside of the states--for god sakes people, have a little personality, and try to be friendly when you see other birders--we have a common hobby, and it wouldn’t hurt to put the anti-social awkwardness aside for a bit.  The other gentleman was a Panamanian and he had a machete--he also happened to be friends with Jose and the next little bit of our trip included some staged birding--and some very lucky birding.  As we walked down the path a couple STREAKED FLYCATCHERS flew past and landed for good looks.

Once down the trail and into the woods the other gentleman knelt down and pointed up into the trees. Jose pulled me aside to a spot where we could see the prize--a SPECTACLED OWL.  This bird was found some time ago and is apparently now a popular staked out species.  Just a few years ago this species wasn’t recognized to be found anywhere in central Panama, but this family group in El Valle broke the rules.

Gorgeous Spectacled Owl hiding in the forest

While we watched a YELLOW-OLIVE FLYCATCHER came in.  This was followed by WHITE-VENTED PLUMELETEER that were harassing the owl.  Finally, a WHITE-WINGED BECARD came in to check out the commotion.

Yellow-Olive Flycatcher striking a pose

White-vented Plumeleteer in the under story

White-winged Becard overhead

Back on the trail Jose pointed out the call of a ROSY THRUSH-TANAGER in the woods.  There were LESSER GREENLETS, CRIMSON-BACKED TANAGERS, RED-CROWNED ANT-TANAGER, and YELLOW-BACKED ORIOLE. It wasn’t long before Jose was pointing up in the trees and had a male LANCE-TAILED MANAKIN perched nicely.  We kept going and after a minute he explained this is where we could find a Tody Motmot--however the first bird we actually spotted was a WHOOPING MOTMOT.

Whooping Motmot (I missed the tip of the tail!)

We spent the next 45 minutes wandering through the woods looking for the tiny prize bird--twice we heard it calling, and the other gentleman got a brief look at it.  It was starting to see like we were not going to get this bird.  We got better looks at LANCE-TAILED MANAKIN along the way, and had another ROSY THRUSH-TANAGER.  BLACK-CHESTED JAYS moved through the trees above, while House, Plain, and RUFOUS-AND-WHITE WREN sang from the understory.

Lance-tailed Manakin showing off those colors

Jose stopped us and said the other guy had just seen the bird and was going to loop around and try to get it between us.  Within 5 minutes we were off the trail, kneeling below the limbs of trees, and looking at a TODY MOTMOT!  The tiny bird was  hard to see without binoculars in the poor light of the understory, yet the other gentleman had spotted it from 60’ away without any help.  He was a true expert of the local birds and their habits and knew how to find them.

Super rewarding look at a Tody Motmot

After enjoying the bird for a few minutes we headed back towards the car emerging in a yard.  The gentleman who had helped us was a caretaker for this weekend home for someone with money from Panama City--he also owned the land adjacent to this property where we had seen most of the birds mentioned above--it was only the smaller Motmot we added on this other property.  He took us up to the house and out on the deck where he produced a ladder and had me climb up and look down into a planter on the deck--there inside was a nesting TROPICAL SCREECH-OWL.  They had their show staged down to the details, acting surprised about these staked out birds, and then later Jose gave me the low down on them.  It’s a good show, and they were awesome guides.

Tropical Screech-Owl nesting in a planter

I tipped the guy $10 for his help and we were back on our way. From here we drove through town out a place known as Las Minas--a popular birding road a few miles from town.  By this point in the afternoon things had slowed a little bit.  I still managed 3 lifers with DUSKY-FACED TANAGER, SCARLET-THIGHED DACNIS, and CHESTNUT-CAPPED BRUSH-FINCH.  New trip birds included STRIPE-THROATED HERMIT and SHINY COWBIRD.

We had hoped for a Yellow-eared Toucanet here, but the heat of the day wasn’t helping.  We found a small army ant swarm but surprisingly no ant birds were attending.  I wondered what things were like here early in the morning.

Las Minas Trail--I need to come back here in the morning

We made a couple more stops to try for other motmots, and finished the day off at La Mesa to look for sicklebills. No new trip, or life birds, and just like that the day was over.  We headed back to town and parted ways.  I thanked Jose for his expertise and help.  Without him I would have gotten life birds and seen a few things, but I never would have known where to go to find the things we did--and I wouldn’t have added almost 50 life birds.  If you ever go birding in Panama, reach out to Jose.  He will give you a good deal and show you lots of birds.  He knows the country from east to west and can help you just about anywhere you would want to go. Of every guide I’ve had in various foreign countries, Jose was by far the most knowledgeable, and fun to bird with.

I headed back to the hotel, met Sam and relaxed for a bit before we had dinner.  It had been an epic day of birding and I was ready for some relaxation!

49 life birds here / 58 total trip life birds / 171 total trip species

photos from this post:

eBird Checklists:
Altos del María
El Valle de Anton
Las Minas
La Mesa
Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort

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