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Panama Birding: Rainy Day Birding at Cerro Azul
We'll weather the weather whatever the weather whether birds like it or not
We enjoyed great, sunny weather in Panama (see Part 1 and Part 2) though it was the rainy season, but day 2 of touring with White Hawk Birding brought quite the downpour! Despite the weather, we made our way to Cerro Azul—an area about an hour and a half east of Panama City in the foothills. It’s a great place to see birds like the Blue Cotinga, White-ruffed Manakin, and hummingbirds like the Green Hermit. Cerro Azul is also an area for wealthy Panamanian’s vacation homes whose popularity has waxed and waned over the years, meaning, in addition to birds, there’s an interesting mix of very large, stately mansions and large, abandoned ones rapidly being consumed by the jungle.
Cerro Azul is at the foot of Chagres National Park, home to tropical rainforests and the Chagres River, the most important river in Panama. It not only supplies much of the water needed to operate the Canal, but also is the source for most of Panama City’s water supply.
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Panama has (what was to me) a surprising amount of land and sea marked for protection. About 25% of Panama’s land is protected as either national parks or other protected area, and about 30% of Panama’s oceans off its border. Considering how small the country already is, that’s quite a bit of land and ocean to preserve!
Rain clouds were already firmly situated over Cerro Azul when Jenn came to pick me up, but it still was the best destination for us that day and our time of departure. When we arrived, we birded from a patio to shield ourselves from the pouring rain and constantly refreshed the weather radar to see where it was moving, and if we could head out to other locations in the area. We spotted a number of colorful residents including a Scaled Pigeon and Golden-Hooded Tanager, less colorful residents like the Plain-colored Tanager (an apt but rude name) Palm Tanager (also pretty plain-colored if you ask me).
But perhaps the most abundant birds from the morning session were the migrant species on their way south to their non-breeding grounds. And because of Panama’s central location, we saw a number of migrant species making their way down the Atlantic flyway who I would not typically see! A sunny yellow warbler brightened up the scenery by hopping behind and in front of the large leaves of the cecropia trees, and a black-and-white warbler creeped up and down the trees’ limbs and branches. A blackburnian warbler, whose breeding plumage can put many tropical colors to shame, also made an appearance. A male and female Baltimore Oriole also peeked out of the rain to look for food too.
The rain did finally let up, and we made our way to a second location. The surrounding trees burst with life when the rain stopped, with birds starting to call and sing from all around, and many of them emerging from hiding in the bushes to perching on wires and the tops of trees. Now, for whatever reason, I think because I didn’t want my camera to get wet… I didn’t take my camera out with me when the rain first broke. As a result, I missed some great shots of all the birds emerging from their hiding spots, including many more tanagers, hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and a Chestnut-billed Toucan. I try not to kick myself too much about this, since the experience is seeing the birds, not just getting photos of them… but sometimes, it’s hard (for me, at least) to not feel like it’s a miss if I didn’t get a picture.
While I didn’t get my camera out in time for that first burst, some other cooperative birds stayed and posed for photos including a Streaked Saltator, a brilliantly vibrant Green Honeycreeper, and some cooperative tanagers like the Hepatic Tanager, Golden-hooded, and Bay-headed Tanager.
Birds weren’t the only ones hiding from the rain and happy that it finally broke. On our drive over to a third spot, we found my first sloth of the Panama trip! A male high up in the tree trying to dry off from all the rain.
Despite the weather, we ended up with about 70 species of birds counted. It was probably the worst weather I’d ever birded in since starting the hobby, and it was a reminder of the patience and persistence needed for the hobby and the rewards of those virtues. And while I’d like to add more and more endemic species to the list, I am also still in awe of bird migration and the distance these tiny things travel every year. Sure, I can see yellow warblers at home–but it is amazing seeing familiar faces in a very different place.
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