Dec 032015

You cannot go far in Boquete without noticing the bird activity. Rufous-collared Sparrows, House Wrens and Clay-coloured Robins pour out their songs from gardens and rooftops; pairs of Blue-gray Tanagers fly in unison from tree to tree; Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds buzz about at spectacular Hibiscus and Bougainvillea bushes; Blue-crowned Motmots glean food from roadsides; while Tropical Kingbirds sit nonchalantly on overhead wires, showing no fear of passers-by. A glance skyward will usually be rewarded by the sight of Blue-and-white Swallows, Gray-breasted Martins or maybe even a Swallow-tailed Kite or Broad-winged Hawk.

Blue-gray Tanager - D. Monkman

Blue-gray Tanager – D. Monkman

As I described in my column of November 12, my wife and I had the pleasure this past March of spending five weeks in Boquete, Panama, located in the western highlands near the Costa Rica border. It is one of the most alluring destinations in Latin America for walking, hiking, rafting, birding and all manner of cultural explorations. A trip here isn’t complete without visiting one of the many coffee plantations. In fact, Panama’s coffee is now considered the finest in the world. We decided to visit Finca Lerida, located just 6 km out of town. Not only did we learn first-hand about coffee production, but the tour also included roasting and tasting. The role of the Ngöbe Buglé indigenous people, who hand pick the red berries, was also explained. Ngöbe Buglé women, clad in colourful, ankle-length dresses and always with several children in tow, are a constant presence in Boquete.

Finca Lerida coffee tour - D. Monkman

Finca Lerida coffee tour – D. Monkman

The extensive grounds, gardens, flowering hedges and forest trails at Finca Lerida make it one of the premier birding spots in Panama. Hundreds of species are present, many of which feed and nest among the shade-grown coffee bushes. After the coffee tour, I returned the next morning for a half-day of birding with one of Boquete’s most experienced guides, Cesar Cabellero. Thanks largely to his ability to find birds based on their songs and calls, we had great looks at dozens of species. Some highlights included the hyperactive Golden-crowned Warbler, the exotic Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, the surprisingly tame Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, and the iconic Resplendent Quetzal. As we walked along trails through the ancient trees, the resonant calls of the Three-wattled Bellbird and the ethereal fluting notes of Black-faced Solitaires were a constant presence. The gardens and hedges were alive with 10 or more species of hummingbirds like the Scintillant, the Green Violet-ear and the White-throated Mountain-gem. Cesar also had an encyclopedic knowledge of the numerous tree species at Lerida and what birds are associated with what trees. For instance, the guaba (Inga edulis) attracts White-lined Tanagers, the croton is popular with parakeets, and chusquea, a type of bamboo, is the place to find Peg-billed and Large-footed finches.

Three-wattled Bellbird - D. Monkman

Three-wattled Bellbird – D. Monkman

Las Lajas

One of the advantages of staying in Boquete is that you are only an hour or two from beautiful beaches on the Pacific coast. One of the longest and most attractive is Playa Las Lajas, located about 70 km east of the city of David. The huge trees lining the road that leads from the Interamericana highway to the beach form a beautiful canopy. Cattle graze in the fields and birds are everywhere. We stopped several times to admire the landscape and add species such as Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Giant Cowbird to our list. The best birding at Las Lajas, however, is at a large lagoon, which offers up all kinds of waterbirds and shorebirds. Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone and Wood Stork were just a few of the birds we found there. There are also mangrove forests to be explored.  A good selection of accommodation can be found in the area, ranging from beautiful bed and breakfasts like Casa Tao where we stayed to the relaxing Las Lajas Beach Resort.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - D. Monkman

Fork-tailed Flycatcher – D. Monkman

Rio Encantado

Because misty rains and high winds (called “bajareque” in Spanish) are sometimes an issue in Boquete, we decided to hop in our car one morning and drive 20 minutes south to a private nature reserve called Rio Encantado. Not only is it much warmer here, but the lower elevation means the mix of birds is quite different, too. Although we only purchased a day pass, Rio Encantado also offers comfortable accommodation, the highlight being an amazing tree house.The owner, Frank Stegmeier, has planted exquisite gardens and reforested much of the 100 hectares, which border both sides of the Caldera River. An hour’s walk along some of the trails produced birds such as Ringed Kingfisher, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Crimson-backed Tanager, and the lovely Lance-tailed Manakin – a species that sings constantly.

Tree House at Rio Encantado - D. Monkman

Tree House at Rio Encantado – D. Monkman

Birding Community

Boquete has an active ex-pat birding group, which organizes regular outings, both in town and beyond. I was able to join the group for some “backyard birding” and for a half-day excursion to a private property belonging to Linda Scott. Like Rio Encantado, Linda and her husband have reforested much of the land and created a veritable nature paradise. I could have spent the entire morning just sitting on her deck! The parade of birds coming to the feeder, gardens and birdbath was non-stop. It included everything from Purple-crowned Fairy hummingbirds to Rufous-capped Warblers. In the trees behind the house, Lineated Woodpeckers and Brown-throated Parakeets called loudly, while Roadside and Gray-lined Hawks soared overhead. Later, as we walked along the trails, a host of different tanagers – maybe my favorite group of tropical birds – provided constant entertainment. The stars were the aptly named Speckled Tanager and the multi-coloured Bay-headed. Had we arrived a minute or two earlier, we would also have seen a rare Sunbittern walking slowly along the forested stream that runs through the property.

Whenever I travel, I make a point of asking the local people whether they are noticing any changes in the climate. People in Boquete told me that it is no longer necessary to wear a jacket to work outside – something that used to be the case – and that the winds are stronger than ever. The heat along the Pacific coast is also much more intense than in the past. I also sensed that Panama still lags behind countries like Costa Rica when it comes to what tourists – and especially eco-tourists – want. As Frank Stegmeier of Rio Encantado pointed out, “North Americans aren’t coming here for the architecture or to see ancient ruins. The government needs to understand that tourists want high-quality experiences with nature. If development continues on its current trajectory and if farmers are allowed to burn their land the way they are doing right now, the country’s reputation as a nature destination will only decrease.” I hope that the Panamanian government will take Frank’s words to heart and provide greater protection to what is still a remarkably beautiful and nature-rich country.



Nov 122015

We heard the quetzals before we saw them. Their resonant yelping call notes emanated from high up in the ancient trees bordering the trail. At first, I only got frustrating glimpses of the iridescent green back and throat. The small flock was moving about in the thick foliage and feeding on the fruit of wild avocados. My guide, Jason Lara, then drew my attention to a male that had hopped up onto a branch in full view. I could barely contain my excitement. The helmet-like crest, bright red belly and ridiculously long upper tail coverts sparkled in the dappled light, showing why this species is considered to be the most beautiful bird in the world. When the quetzal flew off, I could clearly see that the tail coverts are actually longer than the body itself and trail behind the bird like the train of a wedding dress. After missing these iconic birds several years earlier in Costa Rica, the sense of satisfaction was wonderful.

Male  Resplendent Quetzal - Wikimedia

Male Resplendent Quetzal – Wikimedia

Boquete (Bajo Boquete) is located north of David in Chiriqui province of western Panama - Wikimedia

Boquete (Bajo Boquete) is located north of David in Chiriqui province of western Panama – Wikimedia

My wife, Michelle and I had the pleasure this past March of spending five weeks in Boquete, Panama, located in the western highlands of the country near the Costa Rica border. Straddling the land bridge between North and South America and subject to warm tropical sunlight and abundant rainfall, this tiny country boasts nearly 1000 species of birds, more than in Canada and the United States combined. This diversity owes much to Panama’s location at the intersection of two continents and two oceans. Many South American species reach their northern limit here, while species more typical of North America extend no further south. Millions of migrants, too, pass through or spend the winter in Panama.

Boquete is known throughout Panama for its cool climate, gorgeous mountain setting, and the flowers, vegetables, fruits and coffee that flourish in the rich soil. It is also home to several thousand expats from the U.S., Canada and Europe. Despite the many newcomers, it retains its original charm, largely thanks to the friendliness of the Panamanian people. For anyone who likes the outdoors, Boquete is one of Central America’s top destinations. People come from all over the world to watch birds, hike, raft, visit coffee farms and study Spanish. Michelle and I, too, spent part of our time studying the language. We took classes at the Habla Ya Spanish school, which I would highly recommend.

We heard about Boquete from Marni Craig, a former Peterborough resident who has lived in Panama for about 15 years. She put us in touch with a friend, also originally from Peterborough, whose condominium we rented. The condo was located on the mountainside above Boquete, nestled in among coffee plantations and streets lined with spectacular flowering shrubs like Brugmansia and Bougainvillea. Every morning we watched the sun climb over the heavily forested mountains and bathe the garden roses in sunlight. In the late afternoon, there were usually rainbows to admire – something else for which Boquete is famous. In fact, one of the neighborhoods above Boquete is called Arco Iris, which is Spanish for rainbow. The reason for the rainbows is the presence of “bajareque,” a mixture of wind and fine drizzle that occasionally forms over Boquete during the dry season. It doesn’t last long, however, and never interrupted our activities.

Rainbow over Boquete - D. Monkman

Rainbow over Boquete – D. Monkman

Fruit feeder

A highlight of staying at the condominium was sitting outside – a cup of exquisite Panamanian coffee in hand – and watching the multi-coloured array of birds feeding on the oranges and bananas we put out. These included outrageously coloured Red-legged Honeycreepers, blue and yellow Thick-billed Euphonias, robin-like Clay-colored Thrushes and wintering North American “snowbirds” like Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles and Tennessee Warblers. The birds that stole the show, however, were the tanagers. About the size of Red-winged Blackbirds, tanagers form the second-largest family of birds in the world and about 12% of neotropical species. Some look like they were painted by a mad artist, bent on decorating the males in every colour combination possible. Among the species that graced our feeder were the Blue-gray, Palm, Cherrie’s, Flame-colored, Silver-throated and White-lined Tanagers. Some of the local hotels like the Boquete Garden Inn put out fruit for the birds every morning to the great pleasure of the guests eating breakfast only metres away.

Male Red-legged Honeycreeper feeding on a banana - Drew-Monkman

Male Red-legged Honeycreeper feeding on a banana – D. Monkman

The hummingbird feeder in our garden was also a source of delight. Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were almost always coming and going. Violet Sabrewings dropped by from time to time, too. The male’s glittering violet plumage and white tail tips make it one of Panama’s most spectacular hummingbirds. A real treat, too, was the tiny Scintillant Hummingbird that came to the flowers of a small lemon tree. It is found nowhere else in the world but the highlands of western Panama and eastern Costa Rica.

Go with a guide

My full immersion into Panamanian bird life, however, was thanks to Jason Lara, a young and talented Boquete nature guide. We spent a wonderful morning on the Quetzal Trail, one of Panama’s most famous birding destinations. As we drove up to the trailhead, we stopped briefly at a roadside stand of Cecropria trees. The branches were laden with hanging tendrils of achene-type fruit (as in a strawberry) that were an irresistible magnet to birds. Over the course of 20 minutes, we watched a non-stop parade of different species flying in and out of the trees. Among them were Silver-throated Tanager, Cherrie’s Tanager, White-throated Thrush and Gray-headed Chacalaca – all of which afforded us close up views and great photo opportunities. Gray-headed Wood-rails called in the distance, while Elegant Euphonias and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises flitted about in the tall trees behind us.

Silver-throated Tanager in Cecropia tree - Drew Monkman

Silver-throated Tanager in Cecropia tree – D. Monkman

Arriving at the Quetzal Trail, Jason heard the quetzals almost immediately. Like so many tropical birds, knowing the calls was key to finding them. The Resplendent Quetzal was once considered divine and associated with the “snake god”, Quetzalcoatl by Pre-Columbian civilizations. After enjoying the quetzals for at least 15 minutes, we were soon treated to a pair of duetting Prong-billed Barbets, whose loud, distinctive “cwa-cwa-cwa” call is unmistakable. The cool, wet, moss-festooned forest also offered up everything from Golden-browed Chlorophonias to Blue-throated Toucanets. The resonant “clangs” of Three-wattled Bellbirds and the ethereal fluting notes of Black-faced Solitaires were a constant presence, as well. Over the course of the morning, we saw or heard nearly 50 species, most of which were life birds for me. Jason then took me to his home to meet his family and practice my Spanish, something I’m always searching out opportunities to do.

During our stay in Boquete, Michelle and I spent many days hiking other spectacular mountainside trails just outside of town. On the Pipeline Trail, we came upon a pair of quetzals excavating a nesting hole in a dead tree. We watched the birds for at least a half-hour as wood chips flew in all directions. The most scenic walk, however, was the Three (Lost) Waterfalls trail. Although some sections are quite steep and muddy, the waterfalls are breathtaking and the views spectacular. American Dippers and Torrent Tyrannulets are a common sight on the rocks in the stream alongside the trail. Returning to the Quetzal Trail, we were treated to the amazing sight of thousands of Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks soaring overhead – almost like a river of birds – and making their way northward to breeding grounds in Canada.

Boquete, Panama - nestled in the mountains - D. Monkman

Boquete, Panama – nestled in the mountains – D. Monkman

Broad-winged (smaller birds) & Swainson's Hawks over Quetzal Trail - D. Monkman

Broad-winged (smaller birds) & Swainson’s Hawks migrating northward over Quetzal Trail – D. Monkman

Should you decide to visit Panama, I would recommend purchasing the “Birds of Panama” by George Angeher and Robert Dean. I also used the excellent Panama Birds – Field Guide App by Michael Mullin and Pat O’Donnell. It includes images for more than 830 species as well as songs and calls for most of them. To get a better sense of the avian delights awaiting the visitor, visit Lloyd Cripe’s site of digiscoped photos of Boquete Panama Birds at On December 10th, I’ll tell you more about Boquete and birding opportunities along the nearby Pacific Coast.