Rainforest Discovery Center

I headed out early with my guide Alex, to the Rainforest Discovery Center which is just down the famous Pipeline Road and to the left.

When we got out of the truck Alex immediately heard the call of the pheasant cuckoo. As we attempted to located the sulker, the bird shot out of the trees across the road and passed within feet of our heads. That certainly put a smile on the face of the morning!

Our first destination was the observation tower. At 40 meters tall, the tower put us above the rainforest canopy. No stiff necks here, trying to locate an elusive warbler or cotinga. Now we were looking down on them!

There was plenty signs of migration in the blue sky and among the treetops. Swifts and swallows passed by and an eastern kingbird perched up on a bare branch, perhaps a brief pause on its journey north. A long line of brown pelicans crossing over the verdant hills.

Eastern kingbird, resting on a snag. Taken from the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center’s observation tower.

You know when Alex, who birds this area frequently , gets excited about seeing a bird, then you know that bird is really special. The small accipiter flew into the top of a tree pursued by hummingbirds was the source of Alex’s excitement. This was one of the smallest hawks in the world: a juvenile rufous morph tiny hawk.

The tiny hawk, usually is concealed in the understory, was now sitting out in the open, sunning itself and preening. It’s hummingbird escorts perched nearby, but not too close because hummingbirds are a part of a tiny hawk’s diet. Now why would potential breakfast be perched so close to a known avian predator? The hummingbirds where calling attention to a threat in the area and the tiny hawk loses it’s advantage: it’s ability to ambush unsuspecting prey.

After sometime in the observation tower, we headed out to the Lake Trail that ended at a deck on Lake Calamito. There was a striated heron hunting in front of us and a rufescent tiger-heron devouring a water snake. Near the far shore, a large crocodile was moving on the waters. On the tree above was perched a male snail kite.

That’s not a log but an American crocidile!

A male snail kite at Lake Calamito. He is looking up over his shoulder at something in the sky. This interesting pose served as the model for my painting.


Cruising Upriver

One part of the tour that I was really looking forward to was the afternoon boat trip on the Tárcoles River. Judging by the advertising signs on our way to the dock, American crocodiles where the main draw for the tourist dollar on this wide, brown waterway. The larger than life crocodiles with massive, gaping jaws seemed utterly unreal, but we were here for the birds. 

We headed upstream keeping our eyes on the banks and skies for birds and scanning the wide waters for reptilian logs. On the port side, perched on a snag was the America’s largest kingfisher, a bird I had first seen on the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border. Now here were two ringed kingfishers in one bin-view.

Our captain pulled off to the starboard and planted the bow into a muddy channel to look at a brown scaly “log”. This “log” was over three feet long and was the half submerged head of a massive male American crocodile. We all scrambled to the bow to get views and I got a quick sketch of the crocodilian in which I grossly underrepresented the size of its massive brain case. It was hard to tell how long this croc was but some mature males can reach 20 feet and weigh a ton! Time to get back to birding.

We turned and headed downstream and the birding made a quantum leap. Near the river’s end we came to a debris strewn beach. Everywhere we looked were waders: wood stork, roseate spoonbill, white ibis, Wilson’s, black-bellied, and collared plover, green and little blue heron, spotted sandpiper, and night herons.

We headed up another channel and picked up the impressive boat-billed heron, mangrove warbler, and green kingfisher.

The most impressive sight of the boat trip was soon to come as we headed back down the channel. The raucous calls of scarlet macaws surrounded us. Off to the port side was a tree ornamented by 20 macaws, a tropical Christmas tree in July. We had been seeing this iconic parrot, usually flying in pairs, for parts of the boat trip and it was awesome to see so many in one place as they perched in their roost tree.

A tree full of macaws, a great way to end a wonderful afternoon boat trip.