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Hi Ho Silver Lining - Part 2

MV Balmoral - Barbados to San Diego - 31st January to 19th February

Panama to Costa Rica

All images are taken on the tour. Copyright Jeff Clarke Ecology Ltd  unless otherwise stated. Click on images to enlarge.

On the morning of the 5th of February we arrived in Colon, Panama. We jumped ship as soon as we could, four of us, me, Hiro, plus two passengers, Paul and Hazel, negotiated a taxi and headed for the forested area of Soberanía National Park along Pipeline Road, close to the mid-point of the Panama Canal.

It was a tortuous journey to get out of Colon and it was already late morning by the time we reached our destination. As so often with tropical forest birding it was obvious there was plenty of birds about, but seeing them was another thing altogether. Hiro headed off in pursuit of butterflies while I attempted a bit of pishing and this brought immediate dividends in the form of Black-crowned Antshrike (also known as Western Slaty Ant-shrike).

Black-crowned (Western Slaty) Antshrike © Jeff Clarke

Much to my frustration I’d always failed to find a Trogon on previous visits to suitable forests. Today was different. By the end of the day I’d seen 4 different species, Violaceous, Slaty-tailed, Black-throated and Baird’s Trogon.

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Violaceous Trogon (left) - Baird's Trogon (right) © Jeff Clarke

We hadn’t travelled far into the forest when we came across the first of many Central American Agoutis and then a short while later a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys. At dusk and dawn the latter’s blood-curdling roars echo through the forest. I imagine the first time that westerners encountered this sonic salutation they must have been scared out of their wits.

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Mantled Howler monkey (left) and (right) Central American Agouti © Jeff Clarke

Birding was initially difficult, but as we approached late afternoon, things picked up pace. We found a cluster of birds, presumably near Army Ants, including Thrush-like Mourner, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded Ant-thush and Spotted Antbird. Woodcreepers are a particular challenge, but we successfully identified three, namely Black striped, Plain Brown and Buff-throated Woodcreeper. Taking decent images in the deep shade of the forest was one thing, but taking backlit images against the bright sky and canopy, like the Black cheeked Woodpecker, required a bit of post production manipulation to bring out the detail. There were many contenders for bird of the day, including Rufous Motmot, Blue crowned Manakin and Red-capped Manakin.

Black cheeked Woodpecker © Jeff Clarke

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Red-capped Manakin (left) and Blue-crowned Manakin (right) © Jeff Clarke

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Black-striped Woodcreeper (left) & Rufous Motmot (right) © Jeff Clarke

The most obliging photographically was probably Crimson-crested Woodpecker, with three different individuals giving prolonged close views.

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Crimson-crested Woodpeckers (female left) (male right) © Jeff Clarke

In the end it was a mammal that claimed top prize. The troop of White-faced Capuchins traversing the canopy thought they would be king, but as we walked back up the track, we encountered a family group of Coati-mundi, feeding on the fruits dislodged by the capuchins. The animals were amazingly confiding in the fading light, to the point where we had to walk through the group to get back to the taxi! To finish off, as we drove away from the site, we encountered a small number of Collared Peccary emerging from the forest.

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Coati-mundi (left) & Collared Peccary (right) © Jeff Clarke

The following day we would pass this way again. This time on a ship!

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Jeff scanning Canopy alongside Panama Canal & Miraflores Locks © Adele Clarke

Transiting the Panama Canal is I’m sure on many people’s ‘I’d love to do that’ list, just for the sheer kudos and spectacle. It was also moderately diverting wildlife-wise. The locks are a marvel of engineering genius and also the most productive areas for the wildlife watchers on board. Just like us, the Magnificent Frigatebirds used the canal to transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Magnificent Frigatebird juv - Panama Canal  © Jeff Clarke

Ringed Kingfisher perched on posts at the locks and Yellow-headed Caracaras were also in evidence there. We also picked out a small handful of yellow-headed Vulture among the vast squadrons of Black and Turkey Vultures.

Turkey Vulture - Panama Canal © Jeff Clarke

The first set of locks were tackled fairly early in the morning and this coincided with the foraging flights of Red-lored Amazon Parrots. Also a Common black Hawk perched close enough to ‘scope’ on the starboard side of the locks. As anticipated a variety of herons and egrets were noted along the journey including, juvenile Little Blue Heron and Coccoi Heron.

Red-lored Amazon Parrot - Panama Canal © Jeff Clarke

None-bird highlights included Mantled Howler Monkeys draped in the canopy tops, but for most on board the American Crocodiles were the most sought-after prize. The last set of locks were also a brimming with wildlife interest, with a few post-hopping Fork tailed flycatchers being a notable addition to our trip list and it was here that we also found a group of Capybara (the world’s largest rodent) utilising a small ‘stilted’ building to gain shelter from the heat of the day. As we passed Panama City we had swifts in the air that included Short-tailed and Grey-rumped Swift. We did find a few waders on route including Willet, Spotted Sandpiper and a small flock of Southern Lapwing near the last set of locks.

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American Crocodile & Capybara - Panama Canal © Jeff Clarke

Once back out in the open ocean, we had large numbers of Brown Boobies and Brown Pelicans dive-bomb feeding ‘en masse’, so it was no surprise when we had a blow on the starboard side. Sadly the whale never showed well enough to put a definitive name to it, though it was almost certainly a Bryde’s whale, as it is by far the most likely rorqual to be tropical waters in that region at that time of year. A final surprise was our first Blue-footed Booby of the trip.

Brown Pelican - Off Panama City © Jeff Clarke

On the 7th were cruising north-west towards Costa Rica. Our frustrations with the cetaceans continued with very few dolphins approaching close to the ship. For most of the day we had to content ourselves with distant views most remained unidentified but at least couple of pods of Central American Spinner were close enough to put a name to. Several times during the day we were fooled by big splashes sometimes close to the ship. We eventually got good views of the culprits. They were Mobula Rays, also known as Devil Fish, leaping clear of the waves with flapping wings before belly-flopping back into the swell.

The many Brown Boobys associating with the ship were somewhat easier and to see and photograph as they chased down the flying fish disturbed by the ship. It’s fascinating that gannets and boobys always seem to congregate on one side of the ship when fishing, usually on the side away from the sun. There must be a visual reason for this in terms of improved hunting performance.

Brown Booby adult - Pacific © Jeff Clarke

Just as the sun was setting, we finally had a pod of dolphins close to the ship, in this case they were Bottlenose Dolphins. By sundown we had actually recorded in excess of 225 dolphins but 150+ remained unidentified due to distance and the remarkable odds-defying frequency with which pods were on the wrong side of the ship in relation to the position of the sun.

Bottlenose Dolphin - Pacific © Jeff Clarke

The morning early of the 8th found us docking in Puntarenas , Costa Rica, I had high hopes for the day and I would not be disappointed.

Adele could finally go ashore as the Yellow Fever risk was much reduced and alongside Hiro, we again jumped in a taxi as soon as we could get off the ship and headed out to Carara National Park. Even the car park and ticket office area was alive with birds like Rufous-naped Wren, so we immediately felt optimistic about our chances of getting to grips with the forest denizens.

Rufous-naped Wren - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

We opted to hire a guide for a couple of hours to give ourselves a good introduction to the site, this proved to be a very useful move. The forest was buzzing with birds, even so, spotting them and more to the point photographing them, was considerably more of a challenge, one of the first species to oblige was Streak-headed Woodcreeper, there are many species of woodcreeper and you need prolonged views of many of them to get them to species.

Streak-headed Woodcreeper  - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

Shortly afterwards Adele and Hiro spotted a large pale bird flying in a gap high above the canopy, as soon as I ‘got on to it’ I felt like ‘punching the air’, it was a King Vulture, my first, a bird that had frustratingly eluded me during my Amazon trip aboard Braemar a year earlier. This bird has a remarkable ability to sniff out death and can nasally pinpoint animal carcasses on the forest floor with ease.

King Vulture - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

Shortly afterwards our guide pointed us towards the cleft of a tree buttress, there tucked into the indent were 3 bats hanging head down. These were a White-lined Bats sp.

White-lined bat sp. Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

After a short diversion, to take in the first of the Scarlet Macaw, for which the reserve is famous, the guide led us to a trail being crossed by army ants. This is what we were looking for, as this would be a key location for their camp followers, the ‘antbirds’. We could hear leaves being tossed and the odd quiet call, but the gloom of the forest floor was akin to an ‘invisibility cloak’. Gradually our eyes adjusted and a Bicoloured Antbird resolved itself. We slowly found a few other birds and thankfully a couple did actually show well enough to photograph. The White-whiskered Puffbird proved most obliging and a Black-hooded Antshrike also eventually revealed itself. We did manage to get photographs and put names to a number of other species, such as the Dusky Antbird and Dot-winged Antwren. I was happy to let the guide show us the birds but I prefer to work things out for myself. I learn far more that way.

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Bicoloured Antbird (left) & White Whiskered Puffbird (right) © Jeff Clarke

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Black-hooded Antshrike (left), Dot-winged Antwren (centre) Dusky Antbird (right) Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

As the trail was busying up with people, including a party on an official trip from the Balmoral, the guide decided to take us to a quieter trail near the river and immediately connected with a Red-capped Manakin and Common Tody-Flycatcher, the guide then pointed us to something rather special, clinging to an overhanging Palm frond was a sizeable bat, no ordinary bat, it was pure white, a Northern Ghost Bat, a scarce species, but one that does at least perch in convenient spots.

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Common Tody-Flycatcher & Northern Ghost Bat - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

Just when we thought that might be the mammal high point of the day we were engulfed in high-octane White-faced Capuchin Monkeys, more than twenty animals were capering through the branches above our head, including a mother and baby that took a pause to gaze at us with obvious curiosity. A special moment if ever there was one. We tracked the capuchin troop and we were delighted when we came upon another troop of monkeys, this time Black-handed Spider Monkey’s. they seemed equally curious about our appearance, gazing in our direction and pulling a multitude of faces. A short time later the capuchins crashed through their repose much to the spider monkey’s disquiet. After a brief stand-off the capuchins pressed on and I realized they had a favourite launch point to reach the next group of trees. After a few attempts I managed to get one pulling a skateboarder trick as it leapt through the air.

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White-faced Capuchin Monkeys - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

All this gazing into the treetops brought a few more special moments. Our only Toucan of the trip, a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, was briefly in view but unphotographable. Then a dark shape obscured by leaves slowly resolved itself and a minor adjustment of position revealed a Crested Guan in full view. A small party of Scarlet Macaws were equally obliging and I finally got decent angle to photograph them from.

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Black-handed Spider monkey (left) Scarlet Macaw (centre) Crested Guan (right) Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

A short time later we returned to our waiting taxi and the driver took us a short distance to the point where the bridge crosses the road. It was by now blazing hot, so the opportunity to get an ice-cream was bliss and then we strolled the short distance back to the bridge and joined the merry throng looking over the parapet at the gathering of American Crocodiles a short distance below. Our driver confidently stated that the more people look over the bridge the more crocodiles gather. Clearly this must be a profitable strategy, presumably every now and again someone accidentally falls off, or gets clipped by the passing traffic and knocked into the water. Thankfully we didn’t test the theory.

American Crocodile - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

We returned to the main part of the park to re-join Hiro and have a second bite at the army ant cherry. There seemed to be lots of American Wood Warblers around, most were Chestnut-sided Warblers, but I also found an obliging Northern Waterthrush. It was a local resident however that caught my eye, it sat almost motionless just a few feet from our gaze. This was a Streaked Flycatcher, it seemed oblivious to our presence. The Great Tinamou that earlier in the day had sat quietly on the forest floor now ferreted around in the undergrowth, but all my efforts to photograph it striding about came to nought. Our final unexpected treat came when the apparition of a Hook-billed Kite landed on an exposed branch under the cloak of the canopy. It sat motionless for a minute or two before swooping purposefully off and away.

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Northern Waterthrush (left) Chestnut-sided Warbler (right) - Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

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Streaked Flycatcher (left), Great Tinamou (centre), Hook-billed Kite (right) Carara Reserve © Jeff Clarke

Time had beaten us again and we got back in the taxi to head back to the ship, with a couple of stops to take in some Mantled Howler Monkeys and a grove of Cashew Trees. As far as land birds and mammals was concerned it would be the high point of our trip. A simply brilliant day!

Link to Part 1

I'd like to thank the following organisations and people for enabling and enriching this experience. My agents at Peel Talent; Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines; the crew and staff of MV Balmoral, Hiroaki Takenouchi, Adele Clarke

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