Mar 202016

For years, my wife and I have wanted to explore California’s legendary Highway 1, which runs along the Pacific coast. It is one of the world’s most scenic drives. Our anticipation was therefore at a peak when we took the storied highway out of San Francisco on a two-day trip down to Monterey and Big Sur. The drive is exactly what we hoped for – only better.

Mile after mile of undeveloped coastline offered up a non-stop parade of beautiful sand dunes, unspoiled beaches and precipitous cliffs. With the added bonus of sunny, warm weather, the drive evoked classic California pop songs like “Ventura Highway”. Not surprisingly, the challenge was keeping our eyes on the road. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures soared constantly overhead, while American kestrels, red-shouldered hawks and western meadowlarks perched on roadside fences and telephone wires. Each time we pulled off onto one of the many roadside lookouts, small flocks of Brewer’s blackbirds, California towhees and the ubiquitous white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows scurried into the grass, only to reappear moments later. Monarch butterflies, too, sailed by, often in pairs. Out over the ocean, there was a steady procession of Brandt’s cormorants, western and California gulls and sea ducks like scoters and mergansers. The first plant to catch my eye was highway iceplant (Carpobrotus edulis), a ground-hugging species with succulent, three-sided leaves and large pink or magenta flowers. Native to coastal South Africa, it forms extensive mats and outcompetes native species for resources.

California coast north of Monterey - Drew Monkman

California coast north of Monterey – Drew Monkman

Moss Landing

As we approached Monterey, we entered a huge area of wetlands known as Elkhorn Slough. We stopped here to explore the Moss Landing Wildlife Area, which was teeming with wildlife. Interpretive signs explained that what were once salt evaporation ponds now provide critical breeding habitat for threatened western snowy plovers. Volunteers actually go out onto the damp mud in early spring to stomp about with their feet to create shallow impressions as nesting sites. Although we didn’t see any of the plovers, we were entertained by hundreds of western sandpipers, willets, whimbrels, black-bellied plovers, greater yellowlegs, and marbled godwits. Brown pelicans and both snowy and great egrets were also easy to spot. The high point, however, was getting leisurely, close-up views of at least a dozen sea otters. Some were floating on their backs, while others were on the beach. Sea otters  were once hunted into near oblivion for their pelts. Now, through massive conservation efforts, their numbers are rebounding. Sea otters feast on kelp-eating urchins – baseball-sized, spiny echinoderms. By keeping urchin numbers in check, the otters allow giant kelp “forests” to thrive. This benefits thousands of other species in the marine ecosystem.

Sea Otter at Moss Landing - Drew Monkman

Sea Otter at Moss Landing – Drew Monkman

I also took some time to walk the trails of the nearby 1400-acre Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. The huge slough provides a crucial feeding and resting ground for many kinds of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. One trail wound through stands of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), where I enjoyed great views of acorn woodpeckers, chestnut-backed chickadees, spotted towhees and my first ever Hutton’s vireo and Say’s phoebe. Although some of the trees had been clearly affected by the four-year drought, the early winter rains this year had greened the landscape.

Monterey – Big Sur

When we arrived in Monterey, the first thing we did was drive over to Pacific Grove, which is famous for its overwintering monarchs. The butterflies arrive here in November and remain through late February. Although many of the monarchs had already left, we were able to find several dozen clustered on the branches of some of the eucalyptus and Monterey pines. The annual census of 187 coastal California wintering sites showed an increase in monarch numbers this year. However, the population is still 39% below the long-term average. The next morning, I visited the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, which  provides information on the monarchs as well as great exhibits on nearly all of the state’s flora and fauna. Another highlight of the Monterey area was 17-Mile Drive with its shorebird-dotted  beaches – sanderlings were everywhere – and craggy rocks. At Bird Rock, we saw dozens of California sea lions.

Sanderlings on beach near Pebble Beach - Drew Monkman

Sanderlings on beach near Pebble Beach – Drew Monkman

After lunch in leafy Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town of fairytale cottages, stately trees and an upscale shopping district, we continued southward towards Big Sur. Although Highway 1 had already delivered spectacular scenery, the drive from Carmel to Big Sur was even more jaw-dropping with its cypress and redwood forests, bucolic meadows, colossal cliffs, crashing waves and elegant bridges. I kept an eye on the sky, too, hoping to see a California condor. With a wingspan of nearly ten feet, the condor is North America’s largest bird. The species nearly went extinct in the 1980s, when the population crashed to only nine wild birds. A captive breeding program was started in which the young were hand-reared to maximize reproduction. The young were released into parts of Arizona and California, including Big Sur. There are now over 400 California condors, including about 230 in the wild.

Port Reyes

The final leg of our trip took us to Point Reyes National Seashore, a 71,000-acre park preserve  located on a peninsula just north of San Francisco. Its rocky headlands, expansive sand beaches, bird-rich estuaries, open grasslands, scrubby chaparral, and upland pine forests make the park a naturalist’s and photographer’s delight. Nearly half of all North American bird species either nest, winter or migrate through here. In spring, the grasslands come alive in a spectacular floral explosion.

 California Poppies, the state's official flower - Drew Monkman

California Poppies, the state’s official flower – Drew Monkman

After we got settled in the charming cottage we rented at the edge of the park, we made the half-hour drive to the lighthouse. Raptors were everywhere as we wound our way through sweeping grasslands and green pastures, where some dairy farming is still permitted. From the lighthouse, we looked down on barnacle-encrusted rocks covered with hundreds of common murres, a penguin-like seabird. We also scanned the ocean for the tell-tale “spouts” of gray whales, which were already migrating north. These whales make one of the longest of all mammalian migrations – a 12,000 km round trip between breeding and calving grounds in the lagoons of Baja California to summer feeding territories in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

After the lighthouse, we made our way to the Chimney Rock Trail, where rocky cliffs drop steeply to the ocean. The trumpeting of elephant seals – the sound can carry for over a kilometre – emanated from the beach below. We watched in amazement as a pair of large males fought for access to females. The latter had only just finished weaning their pups!

Over the next two days, we managed to hike three of the park’s numerous trails. Abbott’s Lagoon Trail took us through coastal chaparral to a lagoon, sand dunes, beach and huge mudflats. The  shrubs were alive with sparrows and even a few brush rabbits. I was hoping to see a bobcat, which are fairly common in the park and even seen during the day. Our most interesting find, however, was a covey of California quails. One of the males, with its a striking, black and white facial pattern and  long, curved head plume,  sat perched atop a trailside shrub, resplendent in the early morning sunshine. Here and there, orange-yellow California poppies, the state flower, were already blooming.

 Tomales Point Trail at Port Reyes National-Seashore - Drew Monkman

Tomales Point Trail at Port Reyes National-Seashore – Drew Monkman

The Tomales Point Trail took us over high hills with magnificent views of the ocean and the 19 km Tomales Bay. The San Andreas Fault lies directly beneath the bay. It forms the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. Point Reyes sits on the Pacific Plate, while the rest of California is on the North American Plate. In the 1906 earthquake, the peninsula leapt nearly 20 feet northward in less than a minute! All of this is explained in detail on the Earthquake Trail near the main visitor centre. You can even see a fence that broke in two during the quake. One section now sits almost 20 feet north of the other. The Tomales Point area is also home to the Tule elk, a rare sub-species of the American elk. We watched a herd of 60 animals as they grazed on a hillside. To top off the hike, a pair of exquisite western bluebirds posed for us on the roof of an old barn.

Before leaving Point Reyes, we walked along the Estero Trail, where bat rays and sharks are often seen. Shorebirds and ducks were abundant on the mudflats of the estuary. The trail took us through some large stands of rare Bishop’s pines, draped in lichens. Pink flowering currants were in full bloom and smelled wonderful. A little pishing on my part was sufficient to coax several pygmy nuthatches into view as well as a Bewick’s wren.

If you want to visit California, I suggest you don’t wait too long. Climate change is having a profound impact on water resources, as evidenced by changes in snowpack  and river flows. The on-going drought has killed millions of trees, and the warmer waters are wreaking havoc on native fish like salmon. Unprecedented warm waters off the Pacific coast over the past two years have led fish that marine mammals feed on to move to colder waters. This has resulted in record numbers of sick and starving sea lions. Increased global temperatures also threaten the cool, moist coastal zone of the state, which could mean the end of coast redwoods. These impacts should serve as  another reminder – as if we need one  – of the need for aggressive mitigation policies such as carbon taxes.




Mar 032016

Seeing exciting new plants and animals often requires effort – maybe rising at dawn and setting off on a long hike or driving for hours to some far-flung destination. Getting easy, close-up looks at iconic species right in the heart of a metropolis is therefore quite a treat. Such was our experience in a two-week trip to the San Francisco and Monterey areas. It was heartening to see how well species ranging from sea otters and elephant seals to monarch butterflies and spotted owls are doing in such a populated area of California.

We rented the ground floor of this beautiful old Mill Valley home on the side of Mt. Tamalpais (Photo: Drew Monkman)

We rented the ground floor of this beautiful old Mill Valley home on the side of Mt. Tamalpais (Photo: Drew Monkman)

This was our first visit to the Golden State. My wife, daughter and I took advantage of a family wedding to make an extended stay and explore some of California’s fascinating nature, culture and history. For the first five days, our home base was Mill Valley, a lovely town located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and set in picturesque wooded canyons. From the house we rented high on Mount Tamalpais, we awoke each morning to beautiful sunrises over the fog-covered valley and San Francisco Bay. Ravens and red-tailed hawks soared constantly overhead, their calls an unbroken presence. Anna’s hummingbirds darted among the blossoms in the garden, stopping from time to time to perch on an orange tree, while white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows foraged on the ground. A dense forest of coastal redwoods bordered the property, providing both privacy and a sense of connection with an older, wilder California. The air was replete with the smell of the white jasmine vines that adorned the deck. The roadside down to Mill Valley was bordered by yellow-flowered acacia trees, interspersed among lofty, fragrant eucalyptus.

Sunrise over Mill Valley and San Francisco Bay (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Sunrise over Mill Valley and San Francisco Bay (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Nearby Sausalito, famous for its houseboats and upscale hillside homes, was also a delight. Harbour seals and sea lions hunted just offshore, attracting hoards of western and California gulls each time they surfaced with food. Brown pelicans glided low above the water while loons, grebes and cormorants dove for food further out in the bay. Alcatraz Island and the imposing skyline of downtown San Francisco loomed in the distance.

San Francisco

Following a great four-hour  guided tour of San Francisco to get our bearings, we returned to the City by the Bay to wander its charming neighbourhoods like Pacific Heights and Russian Hill. Everywhere we walked – often huffing and puffing on the ridiculously steep hills – the streets were bordered by beautiful, pastel-coloured houses, many of Victorian style but none exactly alike. Bushtits, white-crowned sparrows and Oregon dark-eyed juncos flitted among the shrubs and trees of house-front gardens where red-flowered camellias, magnolias, candelabra aloes, and plums were in full bloom. The parade of different scents, too, was intoxicating. San Francisco is pursuing an ambitious urban forest plan, which was evident by the huge number and variety of new trees planted along the sidewalks. Many of them had watering bags zipped around the support posts.

Magnolia in full bloom (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Magnolia in full bloom (Photo: Drew Monkman)

At Telegraph Hill, a famous San Francisco landmark and site of the Coit Tower, California towhees fed on the ground, while Wilson’s warblers and western scrub jays called from the iconic  Monterey cypress trees. At one point, a flock of red-masked parakeets (also known as cherry-headed conure) passed noisily overhead, making me wonder if I wasn’t somewhere in South America. Native to Ecuador, these birds were released in San Francisco decades ago – probably by frustrated pet owners – and are now reproducing on their own.

On Pier 39, at busy Fisherman’s Wharf, we got close-up looks at a colony of California sea lions, a fixture here since 1989. The Marine Mammal Store and Interpretive Center monitor the sea lion population each day, and educational information is provided to tourists. Sea lions can be distinguished from seals by the presence of external ear flaps and their ability to walk on land. Seals only have ear holes and move on land by flopping on their bellies.


Golden Gate Park

The crown jewel for exploring nature in San Francisco is Golden Gate Park. At five kilometres long and a kilometer wide , it is 20 percent larger than Central Park in New York. We spent an afternoon touring the park by bicycle. In addition to native trees like coast redwoods, Douglas fir and Monterey cypress, numerous non-natives like eucalyptus border the streets, pathways and meadows. It was hard to bike very far without stopping to take a picture or to grab our binoculars. The park contains a chain of lakes where we spotted a  variety of waterfowl, including ruddy duck, American wigeon and bufflehead. Wading birds like green herons and both snowy and great egrets were common, too. Along the trails, black phoebes, Brewer’s blackbirds, chestnut-backed chickadees and the ubiquitous white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows popped up continuously.

A must-see for anyone visiting the park is the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Gardens. We spent most of our time exploring the California Natives and rhododendron sections, where dazzling pink and white magnolias were in blossom. The California section provides a great overview of the state’s flora and was our introduction to species such as manzanitas, madrone, live oaks, Ceanothus, California buckeye, and California bay laurel. We also enjoyed  an interpretive trail that takes you through the story of plant evolution, from the spore-bearing plants of the Devonian period to the flowering plants of the Eocene.

Monterey Cypress in Golden Gate Park (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Monterey Cypress in Golden Gate Park (Photo: Drew Monkman)

At the end of the trip, I also spent several hours at the California Academy of Sciences. It is one of the largest museums of natural history in the world, housing over 26 million specimens. Completely rebuilt in 2008, the museum is at the forefront of environmentally friendly design. Most impressive is the  two and a half acre  green roof, which is planted with over a million California native species. A huge glass dome encloses a living rainforest, and the aquarium section includes a living coral reef, tide pool and the underwater ecosystems of the California coast. The Africa Hall has a fascinating exhibit on human evolution, while the earthquake section explains how seismic activity and plate tectonics has shaped both California and the world. There is also a superb exhibit on the role colour plays in nature, a naturalist centre, and docents to answer questions and provide hands-on experiences with many species. Along with the botanical park, the museum serves as a great introduction to the natural history of the state.

Muir Woods

Before we left Mill Valley, we paid a much-anticipated visit to nearby Muir Woods National Monument. The park protects 554 acres of old-growth coastal redwood forest. The trees are often  shrouded in  fog, which provides up to half of their water needs. Related to the giant sequoia of the Sierra Nevada, many of the trees are over 200 feet tall and between 500 and 800 years old. Other common trees include California bay laurel, bigleaf maple and tan oak. The forest is also home to northern spotted owls, which appear to be thriving.

Walking through the towering redwoods of Muir Woods (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Walking through the towering redwoods of Muir Woods (Photo: Drew Monkman)

By arriving early on a weekday, we had the trails mostly to ourselves and could enjoy the calls of Steller’s jays and the remarkably long, tinkling trills of the Pacific wren. The forest  floor was carpeted with horsetails, ferns and blooming redwood sorrel, interspersed here and there by Western trilliums, fetid adder’s tongue and  vermillion cap mushrooms. We were also fascinated by the eight-inch banana slugs that glided across the forest floor.

The park is named after naturalist John Muir who once wrote, “This is the best tree-lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.” His efforts to preserve the natural landscape of America earned him the title “Father of the National Park System.”

Later the same day, we made a short but beautiful drive to Stinson Beach on the Pacific coast. In addition to spectacular  scenery, the beach is home to overwintering shorebirds like marbled godwits and willets. As we walked along the sand, we also got great views of Heermann’s gulls, resplendent in their dark grey  breeding plumage. This area is also an overwintering site for monarch butterflies. With temperatures of over 20 C, the butterflies had already begun to disperse. We watched as dozens flew about in pairs, some stopping to mate on the grass. Instead of going to Mexico, the monarch population west of the Continental Divide fly to the coast of California to spend the winter. They cluster together by the hundreds or even thousands on the branches of pines, cypress and eucalyptus trees.

The San Francisco area was just a foretaste of the natural wonders we were to experience in California. The second week took us south to the Monterey-Big Sur area and then north again to Point Reyes National Seashore. More about these next week.



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.



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I didn’t know whether to simply stare in awe or risk missing part of the show by attempting to get the perfect picture. Swimming alongside our whale-watching boat were two enormous Humpback Whales, a 40-50 foot female and her only slightly smaller calf. The two cetaceans moved gently up and down with the waves, sometimes turning on their sides or back and swimming with their huge flippers high in the air. From time to time, they would dive deep below the surface, raising their huge black and white tails out of the water for all to see. I had to remind myself that I was indeed looking at mammals, and that their distant ancestors were actually land dwellers.
However, whales were only part of the show on this Brier Island adventure. Seabirds, too, were a constant presence as eiders, puffins, gannets, storm-petrels, shearwaters, phalaropes and gulls either flew past the boat or rested on the water. The gannets were particularly impressive as they fed by plummeting head-first into the water like avian Kamikazes. White-sided Dolphins were also visible much of the time. In fact, we witnessed the rare sight of at least 100 of these creatures churning up the water in the harbour when we returned to dock.
Whale and seabird-watching was just one of many nature adventures that my wife and I enjoyed earlier this month during a trip to the Annapolis Valley and Fundy Shore of Nova Scotia. We had the privilege of staying in a charming old house in picturesque Bear River, which is located just southeast of Digby. The house belongs to Mitch Brownstein, a Peterborough resident. For anyone wanting to discover nature in Atlantic Canada – not to mention the huge number of culinary and cultural experiences available – it’s hard to imagine a more interesting region.

Tail of diving Humpback Whale -Drew Monkman

Tail of diving Humpback Whale -Drew Monkman

Bear River
Bear River, also known as “the tidal village on stilts” is situated at the head of the tidewaters of the river of the same name. One of the first things you notice upon arriving is the abundance of Red Oaks, many of which are huge. The village was once an important shipbuilding centre but is now home to a thriving artistic community as well as several vineyards, one of which is located right next door to where we stayed. Artist studios and galleries can be found in both the village and immediate area. Mitch’s four-bedroom Ontario Gothic-style house was built in 1840 and is located just outside of the village. It overlooks the heavily wooded banks of the Bear River. A small, one-bedroom cottage is located adjacent to the house. On one side of the 20-acre property, a beautiful shaded brook with steep waterfalls tumbles down over slate bedrock and through stands of giant Eastern Hemlocks and White Pines before eventually coming out at the river. You can easily paddle down river to the Annapolis Basin and even fish for mackerel.
In the evening, we often built a fire and sat outside watching the ever-changing sky and how the fog would drift up the valley from the Bay of Fundy. On several occasions, we could even hear the snorting of White-tailed Deer as they fed in the nearby meadow. Once darkness fell, the huge swath of dark sky offered up a majestic view of the summer constellations.
Bear River is not far from Saint Mary’s Bay, which is home to a large French Acadian population. We spent an entire day exploring this area and learning about the still-thriving Acadian communities. In addition to the many artisans, the area is famous for its Kitchen Parties, the Clare Bluegrass Festival and the Acadian museum at Church Point. In terms of natural history, Smuggler’s Cove Provincial Park and Mavillette Beach are interesting destinations. The latter is home to birds such as Willets and Sharp-tailed Sparrows. There is also a program called “Living Wharves” which tells the story behind the local fishing industry. You can actually meet with fishermen (and women) at community wharves throughout the region to hear their stories and learn about their way of life.

Fog over the Bear River Valley as seen from Mitch Brownstein's house -Drew Monkman

Fog over the Bear River Valley as seen from Mitch Brownstein’s house -Drew Monkman

For years I had wanted to see the huge flocks of mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers that visit the upper Bay of Fundy en route southward from nesting grounds in the sub-Arctic. Over a million of these sparrow-sized birds – roughly 75% of the world’s population – move through the Fundy area each summer, before embarking on a non-stop 72 hour flight over the ocean to their wintering grounds in South America. To take in the spectacle, we drove up the Valley to Evangeline Beach near Wolfville. The birds are attracted to the huge mud flats and food resources found there – most notably the millions of mudshrimp, which crawl about on the mud surface in search of mates.
The famous high tides of the Bay of Fundy – 52 feet in Wolfville! – force the birds off the mud flats and to the shoreline. They mill about in tight, nervous flocks as people walk the beach, swim and paddle-board. These and other disturbances – such as a Peregrine we observed – cause the birds to take flight in close formation above the water. Spectacular to see, the flocks veer in all directions as if controlled by a single brain. However, these flights come at a cost to the birds, since they burn up hard-earned fuel reserves needed for the next leg of the journey.
We also did some shorebird-watching at Pond Cove on Brier Island. Small flocks of Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers and Lesser Yellowlegs fed along the shore at low tide, while we enjoyed a picnic lunch after our whale-watching excursion. Brier Island is probably the premier birding destination in all of Nova Scotia. It is also fascinating for its vegetation, which includes a wide variety of rare orchids. We easily found at least a dozen Small Purple Fringed Orchids.

Flock of mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers at Evangeline Beach - Drew Monkman

Flock of mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers at Evangeline Beach – Drew Monkman

Annapolis Royal
Another highlight of the trip was visiting the historic town of Annapolis Royal. In addition to the beautifully preserved old homes and huge mature trees – including majestic American Elms – a major attraction is the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. We spent an entire morning wandering about the 17 acres of formal and informal gardens, which includes a rose collection of more than 270 cultivars. There is also a reconstructed Acadian house representing the pre-deportation 1671 time period. The Saturday morning Farmers’ and Traders’ Market was also well worth taking in. Local farmers and artisans offer a wonderful array of quality products.
Nature-viewing opportunities are close-by, as well. The highlight for us was the wilderness trail at Delaps Cove. It winds through boreal forest where ferns of at least eight species abound. Most impressive were the large stands of Cinnamon and Interrupted ferns. The trail then follows a stunning section of coastline, festooned with Wild Rose, Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), and Seaside Goldenrod. At low tide, you can find blue mussels, kelp and dulse, which locals dry for a great salty snack! For anyone wanting to do an in-depth exploration of seashore ecosystems on the Bay of Fundy, Gael Tours in Smith’s Cove (just outside of Digby) runs an outing called “Plankton, Periwinkles and Predators”. The excursion includes collecting and observing plankton, exploring tidepools, sampling succulent seaweeds and even watching barnacles engage in a feeding frenzy.
The 1.2 kilometre French Basin Trail is also definitely worth doing if you visit Annapolis Royal. It is located right in the town and winds around a 38-acre marsh. We observed at least 100 American Black Ducks and Northern Shovelers, as well as a family of Sora rails.
If you are interested in exploring the Annapolis Valley and want to stay in Bear River, you can email Mitch Brownstein at