Wildlife photos from Panama's tallest mountain, Pt. 1 - Featured species: Volcano Junco (Junco vulcani) & Sooty Thrush (Turdus nigrescens)


Panama's tallest mountain is the Volcán Barú (Baru Volcano), an active volcano on the westernmost part of the country (Chiriquí Province), about 35 km (22 mile) off the border with Costa Rica. Its last eruption occurred in year 1550 and rises to a summit 3,475 m (11,401 ft) high. 

The volcano and its surroundings were declared National Park in 1976 with an area of 14,325 ha (35,400 acres). It is a part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, and over 250 species of birds have been identified within the park, and all five species of big cats live here as well. The national park protects a range of habitat, including humid montane forests, low humid montane forests, and montane rainforests.

The park's most popular hiking trail is the Sendero Los Quetzales (Los Quetzales Trail), which connects Boquete with Cerro Punta and wraps around the side of the volcano. This trail and areas around the ranger stations are also popular for birdwatching. There are other trails to the top of the volcano, but this is long, steep and strenuous trip, therefore not so popular for birdwatching. One of these trails is a road only fit for strong 4x4 vehicles and takes approximately 2 hours to get to the top from Boquete.

Disregarding the logistical difficulties (and cost) to reach the summit of the volcano, we arranged a photographic tour in search of certain bird species that in our small country are almost only found there. We left Boquete before dawn arriving to the top just in time to hit the most important targets of the endeavor: Volcano Junco (Junco vulcani) and Sooty Thrush (Turdus nigrescens). Other species we were able to observe in the summit at about 3,450 m high were: Large-footed Finch, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, Volcano Hummingbird, and Costa Rican Pygmy Owl (heard on the forest below), most of which can be found also on lower altitudes.




Adult volcano junco eating seeds

Immature volcano junco eating berries


Volcano junco running


Volcano junco about to hop

Volcano Junco (Junco vulcani) is an american sparrow-like bird of the Emberizidae family, it's the southernmost ocurring member of the junco group and it's endemic to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama, many of which are of course volcanoes. Since its preferred highland habitat is restricted to mountain tops this species has rather fragmented range. In Panama, as a matter of fact, it's restricted to areas above timberline on Volcán Barú, and Cerro Fábrega in Bocas del Toro (way more difficult to access), above 3,000 m (10,000 ft) high, rarely down to 2,700 m (9,000 ft). Where it occurs it can be fairly common.

The Volcano Junco has a yellow eye, is brownish and streaked on the back, and grayish on the head and body, with a blackish mask (lores), pink bill and legs. Feeds on the ground on seeds, berries, insects and spiders. It runs and hops, but flies only short distances.





 Sooty thrush and bokeh balls

 Immature sooty thrush

 No thrush can resist an earthworm

Sooty Thrush (Turdus nigrescens) is another bird endemic to the Costa Rica and Western Panama highlands, where it is generally fairly common where found. It inhabits open habitats at higher elevations, foraging mainly on bare ground for insects and small fruits. It has an entirely blackish plumage and orange-yellow bill, legs and orbital ring, the most prominent feature being the whitish irides (pale eyes), depending on sex and ambient light they appear more blackish or brownish. In Panama, they are best known to inhabit Volcán Barú and vicinity, mostly above 2,500 m (7,500 ft) high. 

The sooty thrush behaves like other thrushes. It forages on the ground, singly or in pairs, progressing in hops and dashes with frequent stops.Seeking insects and spiders, and also eats small fruits, especially Ericaceae which are found in the Volcán Barú summit.


We had a tough time chasing these birds through the slopes of the summit, filled with paramo-type flora, grass and scrubby bushes with scattered shrubs, and loose rocky soil, especially due to the effects of the high altitude (lack of oxygen). In addition, any misstep could make us end hundreds of meters below the ridges.

Other birds photographed on the summit are below, we also were told that white-nosed coatis (Nasua narica) and Jaguar (Panthera onca) have been seen around. We couldn't stay longer on the top of the mountain because we had more targets to search at lower altitudes, we were very happy to get some of them but they will be featured on the next part of this report.


 Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher (Ptiliogonys caudatus) - male


 
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus (Chlorospingus pileatus)


To be continued...