Panamania Day 5: Altos de Campana
Reunited again with our guide Saul, it was time to explore Panama’s oldest national park, Altos de Campana. Established in 1966, the 4,817 acre park is located on the western slopes of the Panama Canal and unlike other parts of Panama we’d seen so far, it is higher elevation, including the eastern-most peaks of the Talamanca mountain range that extend all the way to Costa Rica. Temperatures are cooler and views are stunning, it has steep craggy terrain, evident of volcanic activity some 200,000 years ago. And the park hosts an incredible number of birds, there are 325 species listed in eBird (and the bar charts aren’t even completely filled out!).
Saul took the best photo of my mom and I just outside the park.
There is one developed trail, Sendero La Cruz, which we didn’t have to travel on far before finding our first mixed flock of warblers, including Blackburnian Warbler and a Rufous-capped Warbler, a non-migratory resident often found in little family groups in the mountains.
We admired the “false ferns” next to the trail that Saul mentioned turn turquoise blue at the right time of year and it makes excellent wren habitat.
iNaturalist helped me identify this to the Selaginellaceae family, and I think it’s Selaginella willdenowii, (common name Willdenow’s spikemoss or peacock fern “due to its iridescent blue leaves”).
And there were wrens nearby too, the noisiest being White-breasted Wood-Wren that sounds like a broken whistle and Rufous-breasted Wren that I managed a poor photo of, you can just see the black-and-white checkered throat and rufous chest.
Farther along it got so birdy it was hard to focus on one thing, Black-crowned Antshrike over here, Hepatic Tanagers over there, a hard-to-identify flycatcher in the middle, and behind that? One of the most beautiful birds I have ever laid eyes on, a Bay-headed Tanager. It was a million colors. Sadly, it was gone before I had time to pick my jaw up off the trail so no photos of that one. Stunned, we carried on.
The weather can turn ugly here quick with fog, rain, and especially wind, but on this day there was hardly any wind at all and it was a most lovely hike.
While looking at the Bay-headed Tanager, Saul heard a call that turned out to be part of the crazy call of a Lance-tailed Manakin, and with some patience we were able to find it!
It’s a young male, he has a red cap and his needle-tail is just visible behind the branch. Adult males are black all over with bright blue down the back, a red cap, and a long-needled tail. An alpha male and his “wingman” will perform a cooperative courtship display for females. Film footage from Isla Boca Brava, Panama, where Lance-tailed Manakins have been studied since the 90’s is featured in the new Netflix documentary, Dancing with the Birds. Their dance is ridiculous, rehearsal video here. Seeing an adult male would have been cool, but I’m happy we found this guy.
Saul led us up a little side trail to an old “ruins” that was probably not really that old, but was very worn by the elements.
Here the skies opened up some, and we had good views all around us.
We saw Scarlet Tanagers.
Broad-winged Hawks in narrow-winged positions.
And I got my first good looks at Green Honeycreepers! A female and her striking male counterpart.
Honeycreepers are a great reason to go international. I was giddy, while Saul tried to turn a Blackburnian Warbler into something more exotic, then across the field he spotted a small flock of Yellow-faced Grassquit with subtle yellow accents. I think this guy was building a nest.
Back on the main trail below we found one of the high mountain specialties, Orange-bellied Collared Trogons, both a male and female.
We spent some time admiring these two. Their bright orange bellies, yellow beak, amazing banded tail, and that white smudge around her eye, classic for female trogons. The male puffed out his chest, and they called back and forth to one another. They sat and slowly turned their heads looking around. Trogons aren’t in a rush for anyone. Eventually the female flew into the forest, and the male went in after her. Spring is right around the corner.
We saw a variety of tanagers on the trail, 9 different species, including a highland specialty, the Silver-throated Tanager.
Which my photos don’t do justice.
Another tanager, a Carribean slope bird with a range that bumps into the Altos de Campana mountains is the Dusky-faced Tanager. A really interesting looking bird, but again, blurry evidence.
One tiny bird I got decent photos of also has a great name, the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant.
He has a headpiece, with black crown feathers edged in red, that he’ll stick up in the air when displaying for a female.
In one section later where it was more open with planted pine trees we found a Spotted Woodcreeper!
Here’s a fun Panama combo: Spotted Woodcreeper with a Rufous-breasted Wren (I swear there’s two birds in there).
And we saw a Long-billed Hermit almost completely obscured by the Machete (Erythrina costaricensis), named for the “machete” shaped flowers.
Did I mention there were gobs of Swainson’s Thrushes? I know, I almost don’t want to spend time mentioning them, but they took up a lot of our time on the trail (we logged 60 for the day!). We had a maybe-Mountain-Thrush moment and a single Clay-colored Thrush, but aside from that every thrush we came across was Swainon’s. It was hard not to look at them. I’ll even give them a photo because it’s interesting to see a thrush above the normally higher up Red-eyed Vireo.
It was also interesting seeing a bird I’m familiar with at home in such a wildly different habitat. Birds are incredible. Even (maybe especially) Swainson’s Thrushes. Also incredible? White-ruffed Manakins. We had quick looks at an adult male and young male (both have the white throat patch), but I couldn’t focus the camera on them fast enough. They were Manakin species #5 for the Panama trip and the last species we could see in this part of the country. Since there’s no manakin photo, here’s a consolation Rufous Motmot we saw through dense jungle vegetation.
This was a really special place, and we happened to be here on eBird’s October Global Big Day, so it was fun contributing to that from a unique location. In total we saw (and/or heard) 63 species! It was slightly bittersweet since it was our last trip with Saul, and my mom and I would be on our own from here on out. Many thanks to Saul for his patience, guidance, and excellent bird calls, he made our trip as memorable as the birds!
I love those Trogons! But then they’re all pretty amazing!