As always, I have a full schedule of VENT tours coming up in the next months, and I hope you’ll take a look at each of them. Clicking on the links should take you to pages with full information about each trip, including full itineraries, photo galleries, and, most important of all, narrative reports from earlier outings, giving you a clear sense, I hope, of what you can expect at each destination.
At the moment, I want to call particular attention to a fantastic opportunity to visit some of Scotland’s most beautiful and most romantic settings on a small ship cruise this coming spring. We still have several spaces open on our wonderful 132-passenger vessel the Greg Mortimer, and through the end of August, VENT, in cooperation with our cruise partner, Aurora, is offering a very attractive discount on the remaining cabins. I hope you’ll join me in this exploration of the birds and history of the Hebrides, the Orkneys, St. Kilda, and Shetland—if those names alone don’t make your heart beat faster, I recommend a quick visit to the emergency room. Please be in touch with me or with Greg in the VENT office (email@example.com) to register or if you have any questions at all about this unforgettable voyage.
There is an ancient and venerable tradition of describing the sexes of a single kind of bird as two different species: Think of the Williamson sapsucker or the black-throated blue warbler, in which females and males are visually so different that even now, long after the puzzle was solved, it can be hard to think of the two as “the same.”
The like confusion reigned for decades in the case of a widespread tropical American bird, too, the common and familiar barred antshrike, found from Mexico to Paraguay. The gorgeous zebra-striped male—and only the male—was described in 1764 by Linnaeus, who named it Lanius doliatus, the “barred shrike.”
It took 28 years for the equally striking but very different female to make it into print, in a catalogue of South American bird specimens donated to the Paris Society for Natural History by Jean Baptiste Leblond; the cataloguers assigned her the scientific name Lanius ferrugineus. John Latham, with access to a specimen sent to England by William Bullock, renamed this female Lanius rubiginosus, again in reference to her overall rusty plumage.
Not until 1805 were two and two put together. The Spanish general Félix de Azara was posted to South America in 1781, where he was to take part in a survey establishing the border between the colonies of Spain and the colonies of Portugal. His Portuguese counterpart never arrived, however, and Azara spent the rest of the eighteenth century in Paraguay, studying the plants and animals while he patiently waited to be recalled to Spain. During his 20 years in America, Azara made the acquaintance of well more than 300 species of birds, among them the “batara listado,” both sexes of which are thoroughly described in his 1805 study of the birds of Paraguay.
And how did he know that these two so different birds were of the same species? Azara was the first European ever to observe the nest of any antshrike, and he noted carefully that the streaked white eggs were incubated in turn by a black-and-white individual and a rusty one, leaving no doubt that these were in fact the male and female of what we now know as the barred antshrike.
Arrival in Panama City was smooth for three of us, but Alison waited in Orlando for the later flight she had been assigned to at what was apparently the last minute and without notice. While we puzzled out the first hummingbirds at the Canopy Tower feeders and took an early evening stroll down the entrance road, she was on the road from Panama City; once she’d caught up with us, we settled in to our rooms with time to spare for the first “happy hour” in the dining room.
The next morning, the start of our first full day together in Panama, found us on the observation deck, at treetop level in the forest. The soundtrack started with the eerie calls of great tinamous and the bubbling pops of rufous motmots; as the sun rose over the jungle, the canal in the distance, the first mixed flocks appeared in the sparsely leafed trees of the canopy, and our first parrots arrived to look for fruit.
After breakfast, we set out with Igua and Eric for Pipeline Road, one of the most famous sites in world birding. Birds were everywhere, most of them audible well before visible, and we had our first encounters with many species that would quickly become familiar—and with others, such as the streak-chested antpitta, that rank high on the list of most birders’ most highly sought-after sightings.
Our daily rhythm was established with the return to the tower for lunch, followed by some more hummingbird watching and a visit to the Summit Ponds, on the banks of the canal. A boat-billed heron slept, half-concealed, in the foliage, and we met our first green and Amazon kingfishers. If any bird could be considered best, it was the jet antbird, an uncommon species, always shy and inconspicuous, but a pair eventually gave surprisingly good views in the trailside brush.
Our next morning’s canopy watch was if anything even more successful than that of the day before, and our confidence and familiarity with the parking lot hummingbirds increased with each sighting. We joined Igua and Eric for a walk down the entrance road, highlighted first by a tank with red-legged tree frogs in amplexu and, then, by a pair of black-and-white owls, drowsily staring back at us from their roost right next to the road.
The afternoon was time for a visit to some more open habits, chief among them the Ammo Dump Ponds, where rufescent tiger herons, purple gallinules, and smooth-billed anis were among our first sightings; the highlight here, though, was a white-throated crake, a tiny and usually maddeningly secretive rail that this time, for whatever reason, decided to emerge from the dense marsh vegetation to clamber about in the low bushes, giving unprecedentedly good views.
Our last morning at the tower was one of the best, with excellent sightings of masked tityras, blue dacnises, and white-shouldered tanagers. Hard as it was to leave, we knew that our next destination, the Canopy Lodge, would be at least as productive—and probably cooler.
First, though, we had to pass through the hot and humid lowlands, where a bathroom (and shopping) stop gave us the only saffron finches of our trip, a pair feeding unconcerned at our feet in a strip mall.
Our arrival at the lodge coincided with the beginning of what came to be the expected midday rains, but the feeders were busy nonetheless, and the welcoming party included a fine fasciated tiger heron, discovered by Mark right from the dining area. Orange-billed sparrows, crimson-backed tanagers, and snowy-bellied hummingbirds were among the new species we could watch from the comfort of the couches and chairs, keeping dry while they went about their business in the rain.
That rain was decidedly an afternoon phenomenon, and the next morning dawned bright and cool.
Tino led us on a walk up the hill from the lodge, starting at the waterfall and ending with an army ant swarm. We got to know the plain-brown (unfair name) and cocoa woodcreepers, and plain (even more unfair name) xenopses crept up the vines just off the trail. It was a fine wren day, with excellent views of a rufous-and-white wren—usually very retiring—and rufous-breasted wrens, with their orange underparts and complexly patterned black and white faces some of the most attractive of a very attractive tropical American family.
The afternoon’s downpour gave us a greatly appreciated afternoon off. We were back at it and eager the next morning, though, with a trip uphill to Las Minas. If the day before had featured the wrens, this was the day of the tanager: we saw no fewer than eight different species, including the weird and uncommon dusky-faced, the spectacular silver-throated, and the striking tawny-crested. It was a brown bird, though, the wedge-tailed grassfinch, that would make our outing so memorable, perched singing on a tall grass stem in a clearing overlooking the distant Pacific.
The Gaital Trail is not far from the La Mesa trailhead, but the experience the next morning was very different.
Green hermits, perhaps the most beautiful of the tropical hummingbirds, were chirping at their display posts in the forest, and chestnut-capped brush finches and chestnut-capped warblers emerged from the dark foliage for lifebird-quality looks. With seven tanager species tallied, we nearly matched the record of the day before.
The afternoon rain never arrived in anything approaching earnest, so we met up for another outing, this time to La Moza.
A pair of nesting spectacled owls was a treat, but the real star of this excursion was the rarely seen and spectacularly colored rosy thrush tanager. Our first was a female, attractive enough with her rusty underparts and supraloral, but we eventually saw adult males as well, an implausible combination of black and bright pink, unequally by any other bird in the Americas. As unlikely as it was to have seen even one, or even two, of these beauties, we ended up getting good views of no fewer than six individuals, males and females alike, an experience worth the entire trip.
We’d enjoyed the coolness of the high elevations so much that it was with only half a heart that we decided to undertake the long drive to the Pacific the next day—but it turned out to be a very good decision indeed.
We padded the trip list with a great variety of waterbirds, from black-bellied whistling ducks to wood storks, but the land birding was just as good, peaking with a pair of ferruginous pygmy owls and, finally, good looks at one of the most appealing of the tropical quail, the crested bobwhite. Red-breasted meadowlarks, crested caracaras, and fork-tailed flycatchers, all classic birds of the Central American lowlands, all put on a good show for us, but perhaps the most delightful experience ashore was Lori’s discovery of a nesting pair of straight-billed woodcreepers, making their family home in a hollow fencepost right next to the road.
Lunch at Villa Denise was a chance to enjoy the beach and the water, all under the slightly sinister watchful eye of hordes of black vultures and magnificent frigatebirds. It was here, too, that we discovered by far the rarest bird of our entire time in Panama.
Watching the abundant frigatebirds, brown pelicans, and Sandwich terns, we found a brown shearwater headed toward us, headed steadily for shore. Any tubenose is scarce onshore in Pacific Panama, but the sooty shearwater, so abundant elsewhere in its range, is so rare that the authoritative field guide to the region, Vallely and Dyer’s Central America, does not even admit it to the official list. This bird came to rest on the water for several minutes, then continued north just off the beach, giving excellent and diagnostic views and deigning to permit aesthetically mediocre but identifiable photos. This was a lifebird for Danilo, an infrequent enough occurrence; we would later learn that others had been seen that day off the Osa Peninsula, marking a phenomenon the extent of which will become clear only when all the records are eventually compiled.
Surely we couldn’t hope to equal our day on the coast. But our next, and our last, full day in the Canopy Lodge area was nearly as good.
The Candelarios Trail was extremely birdy, a fine mix of second growth, old forest, and cultivated land. If the sooty shearwater had been our rarest find, the most exciting of the entire trip was the black-crowned antpitta, a bird Tino had cautiously listed among the tentative possibilities on our outing. The first site we checked had no antpittas at all, but the second proved to be the site of one of the most exhilarating experiences a birder could have. A black-crowned responded vocally to playback, then moved in bounding circles around us, giving brief but splendid views on the forest floor before ultimately pausing on a fallen limb just a few feet away. This group of birds encapsulates the exotic appeal of the American tropics, and this species—a lifebird for all of us—is among the most dramatically and startlingly patterned of all. Never did I expect to see this species so well or in such good company.
Our final afternoon excursion took us to the daytime roost of a pair of tropical screech owls, then on to the beautiful garden of Eric’s family in Mata Ahorgado. In between, we made an amazing stop at an anonymous-looking, rather scrubby yard, where a single tree hosted no fewer than fourteen species of birds as we looked on. Black-striped sparrows, blue-black grassquits, snowy-bellied hummingbirds, and best of all, a pair of noisy and inquisitive barred antshrikes visited this modest plumeria; a male garden emerald, as breathtaking as the eponymous gem, made repeat forays into the nearby flowers, while a short-tailed hawk and a crested caracara joined the ever-present vultures overhead. The feeders did their best to keep up, with fine looks at a Lesson motmot and several red-legged honeycreepers, but the “bird tree” remains one of the most memorable sights of a memorable day.
Our last morning in Panama started with a leisurely watch of the feeders at the Canopy Lodge, visited by all of what seemed by now old friends. The three-hour drive back to the tower, up and over the spine of southern Central America, was uneventful, and soon enough we found ourselves seated at lunch in the dining room where we’d started. An early afternoon’s hummingbird watching was interrupted by an adventure of a different sort, when Mark, safely harnessed, ascended to the very top of the bright yellow dome, where he enjoyed a view seen by very few over the past sixty years.
Rain threatened. The lure of an afternoon’s visit to the Rainforest Discovery Center and its own hundred-foot canopy tower was irresistible, though, and we joined Igua for a hike through the dense forest—our efforts dwarfed by the leafcutter trail that was at least as long as our own. Scarlet-rumped caciques, purple-throated fruit crows, and yellow-tailed orioles were among the most colorful of the birds we found, all of them, though, outshined by male golden-collared manakins, glowing bits of deep yellow in the dark of the jungle. At the end of the trail, a quiet backwater of Lake Gatun was home to lesser kiskadees, purple gallinules, and a female snail kite; this time, the white-throated crakes remained merely a voice.
We ended the day, and our time together in Panama, with the climb up the discovery center’s tower, constructed of remnants reclaimed from buildings associated with the building of the canal a century and a quarter ago. The helical staircase was dizzying, and so was the view from the top, but well worth the climb. A pair of scaled pigeons perched close, and a distant bare-limbed tree rising above the canopy played host to a variety of rainforest birds, finally including a male blue cotinga, an increasingly scarce species that we had virtually written off for this trip.
A final dinner, a farewell, and a diabolically early departure for the Panama City airport: we can’t wait to do it again!
Mid-April is a wonderful time indeed here on the Gulf coast, with bright, cool mornings followed by bright, warm afternoons. And birds, lots and lots of birds.
I’d decided to devote our last day of scouting (already?!) to firming up our impressions of some of the sites that had earned a place on the itinerary for next year’s VENT tour to Alabama. We started on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, stopping at D’Olive Park to look for marsh birds; two common gallinules were our reward, the first of this scouting trip.
We would have seen more had I been less impatient to return to Village Point Preserve, in Daphne. Things started off with a bang—or rather, a series of slurred whistles—when a Swainson warbler began to sing just below the parking lot, presumably the same individual we’d heard on our first visit a few days ago. White-eyed vireos, gray catbirds, and great crested flycatchers seemed to be everywhere; a flock of some 700 tree swallows was resting on the beach, and a swamp sparrow fed quietly on the sand at the edge of the phragmites.
With the temperature rising into the high 60s, our quick visits to a few sites in Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge weren’t overly productive. Good encouragement was provided, though, by the birds at the oddly named Tacky Jack’s, a bayside restaurant near Fort Morgan. Green, little blue, and great blue herons fished the waters beneath us as we enjoyed our food; the adjoining yard was a feeding spot for blue grosbeaks and house finches. Among the many royal terns loafing on the jetty were a few Caspian, Forster, and sandwich terns, and of course there were brown pelicans and laughing gulls aplenty—a shame that their abundance makes it so easy to overlook the dramatic beauty of these conspicuous and easily watched birds.
Fort Morgan is just a few minutes farther down the road. Blue grosbeaks dominated the fields and lawns here, too, but they were overshadowed by the first (and only) scissor-tailed flycatcher we would find, hunting patiently on the ground on the sloping lawns of the ancient fortress. The woods at the ferry slip were fairly quiet, but an eastern bluebird, a summer tanager, and a palm warbler added a bit of color; two swamp sparrows, in conjunction with the Daphne bird from earlier in the day, were a clear sign that that species, too, was on the move.
The afternoon got lovelier and lovelier, with temperatures in the 70s and a fine onshore breeze. The white sands of Pelican Point were haunted by least and royal terns, sanderlings and dunlins, and great blue herons; the shores of a small island just offshore were lined by black skimmers. Toward the end of the walk, we found no fewer than five piping plovers darting along the beach. Delightful as they were, none of those birds were unexpected—unlike the reddish egret we found dancing in the shallows. On the way back out, we paused to check one of the small ponds and discovered that two of the noisy clapper rails had actually emerged from their fastness to preen and bathe and generally stomp around on the mud.
Our last stop of the day, was a final brief visit to Shell Mounds. It was getting on to suppertime, so more birders were leaving than arriving, but the birding continued to be exciting, and a bit wistful for us, as this would be the last stop of the entire trip. The orange feeders attracted orchard and Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, and yellow-throated warblers and scarlet tanagers foraged on the roadside. And the white-eyed vireos we had with us always.
Fittingly, John had booked us at Hummingbird Way for our last dinner together. Quite a dinner: we started with oysters, crab soup, and biscuits, followed by macaroni and cheese, red snapper, crab cakes, and the entire suite of desserts, my favorite the pineapple upside down cake but none anything short of delectable.
And so it came to an end. But we’ll be back in exactly a year! Give Greg a call and come along in April 2024 for what is sure to be another spectacular excursion to Alabama’s Gulf Coast.