27-29 July 2014
There are some really sexy birds that people come to Central America for – Resplendent Quetzal clearly tops the list and birds like Horned Guan, Pink-headed Warbler, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Three-wattled Bellbird are absolutely amazing and are instant highlights of any trip where they are seen as well. Then there are some really striking but really difficult to see endemics that are not as frequently sought due to the difficulty in finding them – Ocellated Quail and Azuero Parakeet certainly come to mind (although the parakeet is not necessarily so hard anymore – we’ll write more about this in a future post). And then there are some honestly less exciting endemics, though many are not very hard to see – birds like Honduran Emerald, Nicaraguan Grackle, and Yellow-green Finch. But then, there is the final category – birds that are not very splashy but yet are very hard to see (and in some cases, even identify!). There are several of these birds lurking in Central America, though top of the list are probably the Gray-headed Piprites, Black-capped Siskin, Olive-backed Quail-Dove (hard to see and rarely makes a peep so if not seen well it can be hard to ID), Tawny-faced Quail, Beautiful Treerunner, Tacarcuna Tapaculo and Wood-Quail, and one final entrant on the list – Glow-throated Hummingbird. Which brings us to our current post!
The Glow-throated Hummingbird is a very poorly known bird with a not entirely perfectly demarcated range in the western highlands of Panamá, roughly from the highlands of Ngobe-Bugle and Veraguas, purportedly east of the range of Scintillant Hummingbird. Identification of adult males is fairly well understood, gorget color if seen well, or a photographed spread tail can both separate the adult male from adult male Scintillant Hummingbird. However, identification of females and immatures is essentially unknown and it is not clear at all if museum specimens are correctly labeled, nor on what basis they were originally labeled. It was previously thought that the two species did not overlap much in range, and it was presumed that the “standard area” to look for Glow-throated, which is Cerro Santiago/Cerro Colorado, featured mostly Glow-throated Hummingbirds with Scintillants being rare. Upon what basis this assumption was made or who originally made it I do not know. Unfortunately it seems that the vast majority of Selasphorus hummingbirds encountered on Cerro Colorado by all visitors are females or immatures and ultimately not identifiable with current knowledge. Adding to the confusion, Magenta-throated Woodstar occurs in the area as well and the immature and female of this species are very similar to female and immature Selasphorus, though they can be separated readily if seen well, and the adult male is very distinctive. It has since become clear that Glow-throated are certainly not the dominant species there and may, in fact, be the exception, at least as far as can be inferred from the frequency of sightings of adult male Glow-throated Hummingbirds vs adult male Scintillant Hummingbirds. Perhaps in the past adult male Glow-throated Hummingbirds were more frequently seen on Cerro Colorado and some factor has changed the distribution of the species or perhaps Glow-throated Hummingbirds are seasonal on Cerro Colorado. But it seems that these days, those lucky enough to encounter an adult male Selasphorus hummingbird on Cerro Colorado are apparently far more likely to encounter Scintillant.
If that doesn’t get you excited to go looking for this species, perhaps the remote location, lack of facilities, and continuing deforestation will! Ok, in reality, it’s not that hard to get up to Cerro Colorado, though it is a bit out of the way. The road is fine until the village of Entrada de Hacha aka “Acha,” beyond which you will want a pickup or other vehicle with good clearance, and if it’s been raining or you don’t have good tires, 4WD could be desirable. Alternatively you could leave your vehicle at Acha and hike a few kilometers beyond to access the better forest (which is necessary to find the endemic Yellow-green Finch, though perhaps NOT the best strategy for Glow-throated Hummingbird, but we’ll get to that later). Directions and some up to date information are available in both the Bird-finding Guide to Panamá and the recent update/supplement to it which is available online here.
We birded the “traditional” best area for Glow-throated, from km 4.5 to km 9.6, still before the village of Acha, for the better part of two days. This area consists of forest patches, second growth, scrub, and agricultural clearings (and apparently more and more of the latter). The Bird-finding Guide suggests that the road improvement project pushed the birds further from the road, making the Yellow-green Finch harder to find here, but I would suggest that the clearing of the forest for agricultural plots and houses is a much greater impact than the road paving. In any case, we didn’t find Yellow-green Finch here (the lower stretch before Acha). We did find many, many Selasphorus hummingbirds, but all of them female/immature plumaged. We got great photos of many including spread tail photos and perhaps someday in the future, with better understanding of the two species, we can review our photos for an armchair tick but in the meanwhile they all went down as Selasphorus species. While in the area we pulled off the road into a deep little pull-off in a draw and camped with no problems other than a ferocious windstorm and some rain!
A bit disheartened by our lack of luck, we decided to try further up, so we could at least get a better chance for the purportedly easy Yellow-green Finch. Arriving at the village of Acha, we spoke with the locals briefly and were quickly introduced to the Cacique (village leader, perhaps chief is the best translation?) who was happy to have us bird the area and told us we could sleep where ever we wanted in our vehicle as long as we were off the road. After a brief conversation we headed on past Acha on the road to Raton. The forest is still fairly disturbed and there are numerous new clearings for houses through the first few kilometers but after about 3km or so you finally enter into much better cloud forest. Upon arriving here, it was not long before we found a flock and some activity and had great looks at a group of Yellow-green Finches! Finally we found one of the two endemics we were looking for! We birded the road until quite late in the evening, and again for a full morning. We found Yellow-green Finch a few more times, so this is certainly the place to look for it these days. We also found several Selasphorus hummers (though not as many as the more disturbed areas below). We also finally found a male Selasphorus, who luckily was very cooperative and very close, as the conditions made viewing very hard with moderate wind and thick fog swirling around. We never really saw the gorget light up very well but we did get photos of it as well as the tail and both confirm what we though in the field after about 10 minutes of watching him – it was indeed a male Scintillant Hummingbird and not a Glow-throated. With the weather deteriorating we headed back down to the first areas we had tried, and refound several of the same female/immature plumaged birds in the same locations we had found them in the preceding two days, but still failed to turn up any males.
There are some other nice birds in the area, particularly further along the Acha-Raton Rd where the forest improves. Among the more noteworthy species we found up there were Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Black-faced Solitaire, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and Elegant Euphonia.
A bit disheartened, and a bit tired of the wind (which had been blowing fairly nonstop for our 3 days up there), we had a quick pow-wow and decided to move on down the road, leaving a door open to perhaps revisit Cerro Colorado on this trip (though we did not end up being able to do so). Perhaps not our most exciting bit of birding of the trip but not everything is as exciting as the Tufted Jay preserve, El Triunfo or Parque Nacional Darien. We do still hope to return and track down the Glow-throated Hummingbird in the future, and we also hope that agricultural expansion in the area doesn’t completely eliminate its habitat in the (apparently) only known location to search for the species!
For more information on the identification of Glow-throated Hummingbird, and for some thoughts from William Adsett, who has spent a good bit of time in the area looking for them, we recommend the following links: