Friday, June 4, 2010

Plantation road

Plantation road is a nice 7 km-long trail inside the Soberanía National Park (central Panama) that shares its entrance with the world-famous Canopy Tower. It used to be the access road to a now-largely-overgrown cacao plantation, hence the name. It is located very close to the Continental Divide (which is not so high in this part of the isthmus) so the possibilities to find species typical of the Caribbean slope are high and is one of the premium sites for birdwatching during the Pacific CBC. I decided to visit this trail yesterday's morning just to see if I could find some new birds for my year list. The place was a little quiet, surely because of the clouded day. Right by the entrance a Blue-crowned (Whooping) Motmot welcomed me, flycatching a huge insect in front of me. There were not other cars in the parking lot, so I supposed that I was going to have the trail only for me... and I was right. That is why I found so many wildlife during my walk; not only birds, but also herps, mammals and all sort of critters. I did some trekking since I was not actively searching the birds... I stopped by any activity only long enough to take a picture or to identify the birds. The first birds I saw inside the forest was an active pair of Dot-winged Antwrens. These birds are easy to spot, but not so easy to photograph due to its warbler-like behavior. Antwarbler should be a better name for these birds since they move restlessly searching every leave and little branch for insects. The female, with its chestnut-red underparts, was more attractive than the male, which remained still for two seconds... barely enough for taking the photo that accompany these lines. Not far from the antwrens were two females and a male Spotted Antbird away of army ants. They were searching low in the understory very antbird-like. The handsome male is unique among our antbirds because of its contrasting black dotted collar and the cinnammon wing bars. The trail was very dark, there were not many holes in the canopy to permit sunlight to reach the forest floor, which was full of fallen trunks covered in moss and mushrooms. I know that Gloriela really like mushroom photos, so I took some during my walk, only a little sample of the great variety found during it.
The trail follows a little creek, the Masambi Chico "river", which is always worth the effort to check. I was constantly inspecting it because it holds Sunbitterns, which are occasionally reported nesting. I did not have luck with the Sunbitterns, but saw many mammals close to the water, including a White-nosed Coati, many Central American Agoutis and a pair of Red-tailed Squirrels feeding with some kind of fruit. In two different places, close to the creek, I felt the characteristic smell of a group of Peccaries that I'm sure I missed only for a couple of minutes. Trust me, you never forget the smell of a Peccary! To complete the list of mammals I also saw several troops of Howlers Monkeys and one little troop of White-faced Capuchins along the trail. Eventually, I found many birds, most of them shy inhabitants of the forest interior. Despite the darkness, I was able to have great views of those rarely seen birds like Song Wrens, White-breasted Wood-Wren, several Black-faced Antthrushes (seen and heard), Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Golden-crowned Spadebill (first detected by its low-pitched trilling call), and many more. Both Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots were singing everywhere, allowing only some distant and dark photos. The differences between these two species are very obvious in the field (despite they look so similar in the plates of the fieldguides), specially when considering their very different calls! Can you tell apart each species? In one section of the trail it was so dark that a Rufous Nightjar was hunting from the ground of the trail, but it flew inside the forest when I approached. I found the old cacao plantation (marked only by some very old pilasters and many cacao fruits growing wild... I understand then that the squirrel was precisely eating cacao). In one section of the trail, I saw a movement in one side. Trying to have a better look, I walked toward it when suddenly a Great Tinamu took off with such noise and impetus that it scared me to death!! Alone in the trail, I just recovered my heart rate when, after a few steps, a pair of Gray-chested Doves flew almost from my feet, also making a loud noise with their wings and almost hitting me in their desperate attempt to scape from this now-very-scared birder... WOW! When walking alone you have many more chances to have these close encounters with nature. I reached a grassy field more or less at 4.5 km. In its edge, a termite nest had a big hole in the middle of it. It looked like a trogon's nest and shortly before I had listened both Black-throated and White-tailed Trogons in the trail. I waited and waited but nobody appeared, so I decided to keep moving and check it in the way back. I did not last long in the trail because it was getting hot, and the forest after the grassy field was not as old, with smaller trees and many palms trees. It was also very quiet. Only 2 km farther in the trail it ends, merging with the historical "Camino de Cruces". In the way back, I checked the nest as planned and there it was: a female White-tailed Trogon readily identified by its light-blue eye ring and blue back. Some publications consider the population west of the Andes (including Panama) a separate species from that of the Amazon. Back in the trail, I was really impressed by the quantity of herps that were taking advantage of every sunny space on it. Most of them were Whip-tailed Lizards (Ameiva sp.), but also were frogs, toads, anoles and young Green Iguanas (by the way, feel free to comment if you know the specific i.d. of the next creatures).
Close to the entrance, I found a distant dark-gray raptor with short orange legs, one white tail band, an expressive red eye and, when flying away, lot of white under the wing. A Plumbeous Hawk!!! a very rare resident of these forests, and also a new year-bird for me. I was so happy with my finding that I almost left unnoticed the group of birds feeding in some berries very close to me. A quick check with my bins revealed both Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, males and females. The males of both species are gorgeous if you are lucky enough to have prolonged views. As you can see in my photos, I was lucky enough... I even saw the particular yellow thighs of the male Red-capped that usually are concealed. The last birds I saw were feeding together in the same flock: Checker-throated, White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens. They didn't bother by the HUGE nearby wasp (?), but I did, so I left the Plantation road, very happy with all the birds and wildlife that I was able to watch and with the 9 km that I walked in total.

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