Monday, May 9, 2016

Rails and Crakes in Gamboa Ammo Dump Ponds

The Ammo Dump Ponds in the town of Gamboa (former Canal Zone) are probably one of the most birded sites in Panama.  It is a good introduction for the beginner and even veteran birders find it quite enjoyable... and add to this that almost every visiting birder to Panama stop by the ponds on route to the famed Pipeline road.  And with all that attention, it is amazing that some resident species of the pond are rare enough to attract hordes of birders when they decide to show up.  That is the case of the last discovery of my friend Venicio "Beny" Wilson, when he found a Yellow-breasted Crake walking exposed close to shore one week ago.  This species is known to breed there... but there are only few records from the area.  So yesterday I went with Gloriela to the ponds, looking for the elusive bird.  My friend Howard was already there when we started to search the marshy areas.  The day was cloudy and dark... perfect for the rallids (most of them are similarly elusive species), and soon I was able to see the largest of them at the opposite side of the ponds: a Gray-necked Wood-Rail.
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
It is a distant photo, but this bird is not easy to see... not to mention to photograph.  One huge rail in the bag... but we were after the smallest one recorded in Panama, and we knew it wouldn't be an easy task.  Another good sign that the day was good to watch elusive species became in the shape of a Least Bittern flying across the pond and allowing great views with the scopes... another super elusive bird in the bag... but it was not THE bird we were looking for.  Close to us, this Rufescent Tiger-Heron decided to rest quietly.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Then, THE bird materialized like a ghost in front of Howard; we were not close to him and all his efforts to invocate the bird again only attracted a group of three White-throated Crakes to the exact place where the Yellow-breasted Crake was.  I know that feeling... when a group of fellow birders are twitching a rarity but you are the only one that manage to see it... you only want that someone else find the bird too just to prove that you are not mad after all. Of course Howard was not mad... he had a photo of THE bird that we missed... that's life!  Hey, but a group of White-throated Crakes feeding exposed is a real treat!  These birds are very common by voice at the ponds, but you never see them... and let me tell you: that was the best sighting ever of White-throated Crakes!
White-throated Crake
A little bit disappointed, we moved to the Rainforest Discovery Center in order to take our lunch... a tasty fried sea bass and some cold drinks, but first we attended a talk offered by, coincidentally, Venicio Wilson.  It was nice to hear him talking about the role of birds in the ecology of the rainforests... he almost made us forget how miserably we dipped on the crake earlier... a l m o s t.
However, after lunch, many birders decided to try the crake's spot in the way out... so we joined them.  Venicio himself showed us the exact site where he originally saw the bird and we chat about a lot of themes... the time flew with them.  Around 3:30 pm, I noticed a tiny bird at the water just in front of the group.  Skeptical, I raised my binoculars ... only could say "THERE IT IS!!!"  Yes my friends, THE bird materialized again in front of the group, nobody else noticed it before... it simply was there.
Yellow-breasted Crake
The Yellow-breasted Crake stayed for close to 15 minutes walking deliberately and feeding quietly.  Then, it flew to a nearby floating island and disappeared.  Venicio thinks that he saw a different bird... I think that only few birds are so beautiful and shy that this one.  A tiny bird... but a HUGE lifer!
Yellow-breasted Crake


  1. Congrats on an awesome lifer! This year, I was reminded of how easy it is to not see that species when I was watching one at the only reliable site for it in CR. It seemed to disappear in blades of grass right before our eyes, only two meters away. Are water levels low at the ponds right now? It seems that is the main way we see them in CR- really low water levels.

  2. Great account, Jan Axel--I could feel your suspense the way we as birders feel so often, and your excitement. Wish I'd been there!

  3. Great Stuff Jan, Visited Panama just the once whilst working in 2014. managed a few hours at Gamboa and the Pipeline Rd. Happy memories. Steve Copsey, Three Amigo's Birding

  4. The water levels at the ponds are increasing now... they were unusually low during the dry season Pat... probably has something to do with the rails sightings.