Friday, December 16, 2016

At the roof of Panama

The Chiriqui province, in the Pacific slope of western Panama, offers the most accessible sites to birdwatch the Talamanca highlands and all its array of endemic species, and thus, is a popular destination for national and international organized birding tours.  However, few people ventures to its highest peak, the Baru volcano, with its 3.475 meters above sea level, in order to find the specialties restricted to the highest slopes. 
Paramo near the summit of Baru volcano
The high elevation vegetation and the paramo at the summit of the volcano are unique in Panama, and is protected by the Volcan Barú National Park.  Other similar habitats are essentially unaccessible in our country.  The seriously deteriorated, pot-holed and irregular road to the summit start at the charming town of Boquete, but only highly modified vehicles  can make it to the top... it is a bumpy ride, but is better than walk the 14 km-long road to the top (if you start at the rangers station).  But apart of witnessing awesome landscapes and to experience the sight of both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean from the top, why else do you want to climb that high?  For the birds of course!  Some exciting findings at the upper slopes of the volcano came to light in the last months by the growing community of Boquete birders, including Rafael Velasquez and Jason Lara. That's why we contacted them to arrange a trip up there some weeks ago... and by "we" I mean Osvaldo Quintero, Rafael Luck, Euclides "Kilo" Campos, Darién Montañez and your host of course.
male Volcano -Heliotrope-throated- Hummingbird
We left Boquete aboard two huge trucks and started the ride around 2:00 pm.  I can swear that it felt like the vehicle was climbing a ladder!  Our first birding stop on route was at the crater known as Potrero Mulato, just above the 3.000 meters.  The birds up there where distinctively different to those found in lower slopes: Large-footed Finch, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Black-capped Flycatcher, Fiery-throated  and, aptly named, Volcano Hummingbirds started to be common sights... even a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl responded to our tapes in the distance; however, these were not the birds we were looking for... so we kept climbing.
Black-capped Flycatcher
Eventually we reached Los Fogones campsite, at 3.260 meters. The vegetation looked pretty much like the paramo in the first photo, but with taller trees.  It was Volcano Hummingbirds' heaven... we even found a female on a nest. and several males displaying.  We fail to locate one of our "secondary" targets: Volcano Junco.  Although disappointed, it did not hurt as much because the species would not be lifer for me.  More than ten years ago, I climbed the volcano with a group of friends following the path in the opposite side of the mountain.  It was strenuous, rained all day and we almost froze at night while camping near the summit... but in the bright side, a flock of Volcano Juncos (and some Sooty Thrushes) decided to feed mere six feet from me while I was still trying to warm myself in front of an improvised campfire with the first rays of the sun.  I was alone in the campsite... and I clearly remember that while I was seeing the juncos, the phrase "with birds I'll share this lonely view" rumbled in my head... mountain sickness?  Hypothermia?  Who knows... I just remember the birds in the paramo.  In conclusion: not, it would not be a lifer for me.  But the bird that Jason was attracting with a recorded tape would... soon, a Timberline Wren started to sing around us, keeping low in the bushes and allowing some nice, but short glimpses.
Timberline Wren
What a bird!  Beautiful, smart, sonorous, range and habitat restricted... and a lifer!  So far so good!  However, it was not our main target (believe it or not).  Near sunset, we reached the summit of the sleeping volcano.  We like to think in Panama that our highest peak is extinct; but is not, although it last eruption was in the 16th century and the lava flow and debris avalanche reached as far as the Pacific Ocean (ten times the area covered by the Mount St. Helens debris avalanche in 1980!).  Back then, the lateral eruption melted the perpetual snows that covered the summit, collapsing it.  Now there is no snow left... but for this sun-lover of Panama City, the 8º Celsius temperature up there was freezing cold!
Sunset at the summit of Baru volcano
Well, the Rufous-collared Sparrows and the Sooty Thrushes seemed well adapted to the dropping temperatures at the summit.  In fact, both species were quite common and active... I just was thinking on keep warm.  The birds even were actively feeding at dark after sunset... those small silhouettes in the dark hoping around felt weird.
Sooty Thrush
We took dinner after sunset and started to descend in complete darkness.  The skills of our drivers were impressive... dodging huge boulders and tilting the car almost 45 degrees from side to side to fit into narrow corridors... it was scary and exciting at the same time.  Around 3.130 meters, Raul made us to stop in the road.  It was about 7:20 pm and completely dark due to the waning crescent moon... but the clear skies let us watch the stars, a rare sight up there.  He carefully chose a patch of forest with open windows (areas free of foliage) hoping to attract our main target into to one of them in order to have unobstructive views.    We took our positions behind Raul, with spotlights and cameras ready... he then played the tape at full volume once... a response was heard almost immediately!  He then played the tape at very low volume and waited... an UNSPOTTED SAW-WHET OWL started to call very close to us!
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
We realized that the bird was below eye-level... but it quickly flew to a higher perch (right to one of those "windows") where we managed to spotlight it... and I was able to take the photos of this post.  What a sublime experience! That is a species considered extremely rare... probably it just passed unnoticed all this time due to its high elevation habitat... thanks to the fluorishing community of Boquete birders now we know a little bit more about this rare owl. The first photos from Panama were taken just this year by Raul and Miguel Siu, and the bird was re-discovered just three years ago when Jason Fidorra and Lena Ware managed to record and see a bird close to Los Fogones campsite.
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl

At the end, we heard at least three different individuals.  There were lots of high-fives and hurrays! Mission accomplished!  A little after the birds left the site, it began to rain, and we continued our descent to Boquete, where we celebrated with a round of cold beers.  Those were many emotions for a single day ... and the owl's calls were still in my head at bedtime... but I still had one day left in Boquete and did not think about wasting it... so I fell asleep to recharge batteries with the vivid memory of the rarest and cutest owl without spots!  Tomorrow would be another day... and other story, so stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Gracias por la mención. Qué bonito les posó el búho, casi de frente, y qué bonito ese wren que en mis idas por allá no lo he encontrado.