27 – 29 July 2014
After we recovered from our adventures in the Darién we headed up to Cerro Jefe and Cerro Azul outside of Panamá City to try our luck with a few more hard to find birds, namely the Tacarcuna Chlorospingus and the Spiny-faced Antshrike (aka Speckled Antshrike or just Xenornis). We had the great fortune to meet Bill Adsett, a long-time Panamanian birder, earlier during our travels and he offered to show us around the area. Bill is an excellent ornithologist and natural historian and knows exactly where to go to see all of the highlights in the area. We were really quite lucky because access to Cerro Jefe/Cerro Azul has changed recently and it is no longer possible to enter the housing development without being a guest of a resident or going with a guide who has permission to enter. You can of course still try your hand at negotiating with the guards at the gate to gain entrance but it’s not clear how successful you might be. Directions and maps to Cerro Jefe/Cerro Azul are written up in the Birding Finding Guide to Panamá.
Our first stop was a place known as the Cerro Jefe Conservation area. If you have 4WD you can drive up the road but some of the best birding is along the beginning of the road, so we opted to walk. Within minutes of getting out of the truck we spotted a Violet-capped Hummingbird. The Violet-capped Hummingbird is endemic to eastern Panamá and northwestern Colombia, but Cerro Jefe seems to be by far the easiest and most accessible place to see this little guy. We ended up seeing three Violet-capped Hummingbirds in about 1 mile. Next up along the road we came across a couple of mixed species flocks with Emerald Tanagers, Speckled Tanagers, Bay-headed Tanagers, Rufous-winged Tanagers (distinctly less common than Bay-headed Tanager in Costa Rica and Panamá), and Black-and-yellow Tanagers. Other highlights on our short afternoon walk included Scaly-breasted Wren, Brown Violetear, Pale-vented Thrush, Rufous-crested Coquette, and Crimson-backed Tanager (eBird list).
That afternoon Bill took us down to Calle Maipo to try our luck at finding the Black-eared Wood-Quail and Tawny-faced Quail. Bill sees both of these species with some regularity along the trail however that afternoon we struck out. Over the next two days we stopped by Calle Maipo in the early mornings and just before dusk hoping to see at least one quail. On the second evening we heard a Tawny-faced Quail down in the canyon and also heard a Black-eared Wood-Quail but both of them remained decidedly distant and out of view. Well, at least we know that they are there; maybe we will have better luck next time. On our last morning we decided to give it one more shot. Perseverance finally paid off as we started walking down the trail just before day break, a covey of 4 Black-eared Wood-Quails stood right in the middle of the trail! Josh and I saw a Black-eared Wood-Quail the last time we were in Panamá but all we managed to see of the bird was a tiny bit of its face. I couldn’t believe our luck! Four Black-eared Wood-Quails in the wide open! We never managed to see the Tawny-faced Quail, but Calle Maipo and Cerro Azul are pretty good places to try your luck.
Our real mission though was to look for Spiny-faced Antshrike and Tacarcuna Chlorospingus. Bill, of course, knew right where to look so we headed off for Vistamares trail in the Cerro Jefe Conservation Area (see the Bird Finding Guide to Panamá for directions and a map). The trail is fairly easy to find from the main road and descends quickly into a nice patch of foothill forest. The cloud forest on the upper part of the trail appears to be suffering a bit and is not nearly as lush as it was in the past. In fact, several forest patches on Cerro Jefe are looking a bit rough these days perhaps due to climate change. The upper bit of the trail was pretty quiet but activity started to pick up as we descended. Near the bottom of the hill we crossed a small wet, lush ravine where Bill told us that the Spiny-faced Antshrike had been spotted in the past but there had not been any reports in recent years. We slowly worked the area hoping to turn up the Antshrike. We played the call once and got an immediate response and soon a female-plumaged Spiny-faced Antshrike popped up right in front of us. It was actually pretty incredible to see this rare bird up close and personal. She sang a bit for us and graciously allowed me to record her. Josh also took some stunning photos. We did not see a male, but the good news is that the Spiny-faced Antshrike is still hanging on along the Vistamares trail. This is really good news because Spiny-faced Antshrikes are declining throughout their range due to habitat loss and are listed as vulernable. Spiny-faced Antshrikes are restricted to humid foothill forests between 350-800 m in Eastern Panamá and northwestern Colombia but are really only known to occur at 12 or fewer sites (Adsett and Wege 1998). Of the sites where they occur, most people try for them at Nusungandi but they have not been very reliable lately, most likely because many people use playback in what was probably just one territory of Antshrikes and they have stopped responding. Beyond Cerro Jefe and Nusungandi there are not really any readily accessible sites to look for this bird though it is certainly out there in other locations. We felt very lucky to have seen a female Spiny-faced Antshrike and hope that they continue to hold on around Cerro Jefe.
Right after the Spiny-faced Antshrike we had a very cooperative and bold Purplish-backed Quail-dove hanging out right next to the trail. I’ve seen Purplish-backed Quail-doves before but never this well and never this close. The Quail-doveDove was calling near the road and came closer and closer until it was in clear view just a few feet into the forest, and then crossed the road right in front of us, practically walking over my shoes! That cannot be said for our other target bird, the Tacarcuna Chlorospingus. We worked every mixed species flock we could find but the flocks were lacking the chlorospingus contingent. They should be somewhere in a mixed species flock, we just needed to find the right one. Thankfully we did soon find a very large flock that held at least two Tacarcuna Chlorospingus. We even managed to get great looks and photos which is not always that easy with cloud forest canopy birds. We had several other excellent birds in the same flock, including the Panamá endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Yellow-eared Toucanet, as well as another Brown Violetear in the same area for a final cap on the day. That last flock pretty much finished off our day and we headed back for a celebratory dinner (See eBird for our complete bird list).
The next day we headed off for the Xenornis trail to look for more Spiny-faced Antshrikes. The Xenornis trail is notoriously difficult to find but it shall remain that way to help preserve some of the habitat, as the local birding community is not eager to expose the entrance to the trail and make it accessible to poachers. There are directions in the birdfinding guide, but once you park at the end of the road it takes some effort to bushwhack around and find the actual start of the trail, then it takes a bit of time before you have confidence that you’re actually on the trail! We walked a decent section of the trail and helped re-open some of the lower part of it, but we did not have a repeat of our Vistamares trail luck and had a rather quiet morning. We did not hear or see any more Antshrikes which was a bit of a disappointment, but hopefully they are still around the area. We also tried for the local Stripe-headed Brush-finch (aka Black-headed Brush-finch) which Bill has seen along the Xenornis trail in the past but no luck for us that day. Our few highlights included Slate-colored Grosbeak, a heard-only Ornate Hawk-Eagle, White-ruffed Manakin, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Pale-vented Thrush. Check out our eBird list for our complete bird list for the Xenornis trail.
As an amazing final cap to our time in Cerro Jefe and Cerro Azul, Bill knew of a place where Blue-fronted Parrotlets sometimes come to roost in the evening so we went on a bit of an evening stake-out. Sure enough, after about 45 minutes of watching and listening, a pair of Blue-fronted Parrotlets streaked in like silent little missiles but luckily we caught a glimpse of them coming in. Soon we had excellent views and even got some very nice photos considering the poor evening light – not an easy bird to find perched and photograph, it was excellent to see this species as something other than a distant, brief streak across the sky.
We wanted to again give a huge thank you to Bill Adsett! We thoroughly enjoyed our time and saw some amazing birds thanks to you! Cheers!
Adsett, W. J. and Wege, D. C. 1998. Natural history of the little-known Speckled Antshrike Xenornis setifrons. Cotinga 10: 24-29.