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Panama Birding: Journey’s End at Valle de Anton
An elusive bird, a landslide, and a boa constrictor come into a valley…
It’s hard to believe it’s already been two months since my Panama trip ended. This series could easily stretch to a few more posts including spotlights on individual birds, but “there are other worlds than these.” My day trip to Valle de Anton was my last dedicated birding day in Panama, so it feels appropriate to end here.
El Valle is a tourist town of hot springs and hiking located 600m above sea level located in, as the name hints, a caldera. This tour was, again, with Jenn of Whitehawk Birding who has a blog post on Birding in El Valle, which provides a deeper dive on the area and the possible birds to see there. El Valle is a couple hours drive outside Panama City and requires an early start to beat traffic and arrive at a reasonable time for birds. We left the city in the blue-black of early morning, and our 4AM start was rewarded with clear skies and sunshine over La India Dormida (a mountain shaped like a sleeping girl) when we arrived.
Our species count for El Valle was around 75—I say “around” because I’m not deduping across my checklists for the day. This included a good mix of Neotropical forest and forest edge species like Green Hermit hummingbirds (a shot of green flying through the forest from flower to flower), Chestnut-headed Oropendola (fun name with even nests that are even more fun), and Tawny-crested Tanagers (the sk8r bois of the bird world, in my opinion, all black with orange mohawks [crests, technically]). Like Cerro Azul, migrant birds often took center stage, with seemingly every other tree movement ending up being a Red-eyed Vireo. We also saw Swainson’s Thrushes and Canada Warblers, one of the longest-distance migrant warblers which, funnily enough, I didn’t see in Canada.
Notice I have no pictures of these. Birds are not easy subjects, and even National Geographic photographers will attest to that (making me feel better about my abilities). El Valle’s habitats are mostly forest, and thick branches and leaves make it hard to see birds let alone photograph them. After some failed attempts at capturing Bananaquits (cute little birds with a cute name) hopping around the canopy, I gave up on photos and decided to enjoy just watching the birds without capturing them on camera.
I gave up on photos, though I tried very hard to get the Northern Schiffornis. Although “drab” in its brown plumage, as eBird says, it’s an elusive bird which “tends to perch quietly and upright, then slips off like a ghost and not seen again.” It also has a “haunting song” which is “given irregulary; not steadily repeated.” All that, however, was not my experience, and with its multiple appearances and repeated song, it felt like it was calling to me specifically.
Listen to its song here: https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/82421811
On first hearing, its song is an innocuous whistle but, contrary to the eBird description, the first Northern Schiffornis we encountered did steadily repeat its song, and it was haunting, especially as it seemed to be leading us down the trail at Cerro Gaital like a small, whistling Siren. And we did see it a handful of times there, and each time, it perched for a while before disappearing and reappearing again. A second Northern Schiffornis (assuming so because it was a second location) did the same thing, teasing us with its song—perhaps the one song from Panama I’ve committed to memory—and posing briefly before slipping away. I tried for photos of both, but failed at focusing on the bird given the relative darkness of the understory and all the other brown bits that it camouflages with. Maybe it did want to be found, but it was not meant to be photographed.
Sunny skies rapidly turned gray, and rain started up after lunch at what turned out to be a great Motmot spot. Both Lesson’s and Whooping made an appearance, but we missed out on a Motmot hat trick since no Tody Motmot appeared. Rain picked up, signaling it was time to head out of the valley.
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Depending on how you look at it, our timing was perfect or a narrow miss. The rain had caused a landslide on our road out of El Valle, and we arrived shortly after it happened, it seemed. That meant we had to take a longer way out, and on the way to the other side of the caldera, we found a sizable Boa Constrictor crossing the road. I’m not a big fan of snakes, but I respect them and hope this one avoided traffic once it made it to the other side.
Two and a half hours later, we were back in Panama City, looking for one last bird that I’d heard but not seen: the Gray-headed Chachalaca. This is a common, raucous chicken-like bird that likely does not top many Target Bird lists. But! I love chickens, and I love its name. We made one last stop in the Canal Zone at the City of Knowledge, where they’re known to be found. Orange-chinned parakeets, blue-headed parrots, and red-lored parrots were all coming home to roost, but unfortunately, no Chachalacas were that evening. Still, I added a few more last minute birds to my checklist including an Anhinga (another target for me), Southern Lapwing, and some beautiful yellow Saffron Finches.
It also was a crepuscular time for other animals like a female three-toed sloth, a coati, and agouti!
And that’s my lengthy wrap on Panama. I had an amazing time, and am deeply grateful to Jason Lara and Jenn at Whitehawk birding for their expertise, time, and company (especially Jenn who graciously put up with me for many, many hours one-on-one). Without them, I would not have ended up with 211 unique species or all these areas on the map colored in. Here is my Trip Report for my entire Panama vacation, and another report of just my time with Whitehawk Birding.
The trip has also led to lots of reflection. I started this newsletter during a time when I’ve been privileged enough to take a few trips including two back-to-back international ones, but typically, I just bird around home—and I’m lucky to live near a nature reserve (more on that soon) and plenty of parks. Racking up all those birds feels like a drug. I see my eBird stats go up and parts of the map fill in, and part of me wants more. And not just more on the checklist, but more photos, more videos, and maybe even sounds! But isn’t birding be about enjoying and not collecting? Experiencing and not necessarily capturing? Do I need to share photos or newsletter posts to validate my sightings, or can I be happy knowing what I’ve seen? What do I want to be doing with this hobby—which can be prohibitively expensive, is literally inaccessible to many, and has a history of gatekeeping? Am I in this for my joy or my ego?
All questions to answer over time. For now, thank you for following along with the series and this newsletter in general!