Tuesday, 27th Jan. 2004

We were not able to disembark anywhere in Panama, so we birded from the deck or from our cabin balcony. We actually saw more species of birds than we expected, including seven lifers. The spotting scope was very useful for both watching and taking digiscoped photographs of those birds that were some distance away.


We woke at 5:30 am, before dawn, so that we could get a look at the entrance to the Canal and perhaps see some new birds at first light. The very first bird was a Magnificent Frigatebird soaring over the ship while we waited to enter the first of the Gatun Locks. We then saw Black Vultures roosting in the trees at the forest edge and some common water birds: Great and Little Blue Herons, Brown Pelican and Ringed Kingfisher. There were also swallows flying around, probably Mangrove Swallows, a flock of Cattle Egrets and when the light got better, we thought we saw Purple Martins on the top of the light fixtures. However, these were actually a local non-migratory martin, the Gray-breasted Martin*, having similar plumage to a female Purple Martin.
At 8am our ship entered the first of the 3 Gatun Locks, which would raise us to the level of the Gatun Lake beyond. We set up our scope on deck and while we waited for the ship to proceed through each lock, we used the time to scan the woods on the west side of the canal. We could see some parrots which were new to us: both Blue-headed Parrots* and Red-lored Parrots* (photos above right).  Also seen: Great Kiskadee, Great-tailed Grackles in abundance and a Tropical Kingbird. There were also several birds, which were just too far away, or seen so fleetingly that it was not possible to identify them. As we proceeded into the next lock we found that we were looking at a netting type fence and a field beyond. Here we saw more grackles and several meadowlarks, which based on range had to be Eastern Meadowlarks.

We then passed into Gatun Lake, which was formed during the construction of the Canal. Our ship had to wait there for some time before we could proceed across the lake, which contained many forested islands. We thought we might see birds on these islands, but apart from Turkey Vultures, they appeared to be pretty barren. While waiting for our ship to sail across the lake, we did see the swallows again and were now able to identify them as Mangrove Swallows*. We also spotted some Royal Terns, Neotropic Cormorants, Laughing Gulls and a White-tailed Hawk as flyovers.
By the time we cleared Gatun Lake it was almost noon and we then passed into the Canal proper. On passing a dredging operation we saw an Anhinga and more Tropical Kingbirds. On power lines we spotted a Pale-vented Pigeon* preening - another lifer for our list. As we passed along this section of the Canal we saw several raptors, some familiar: American Kestrel and Crested Caracara, and some unfamiliar such as the Yellow-headed Caracara* and the Gray Hawk.

The next series of locks were the Miraflores Locks. Passing through these we had time to study the local birds, but it was very difficult, if not impossible to identify the passerines, even with the scope. We were able to identify several Rock Pigeons, though! From the Pedro Miguel Lock we saw another Yellow-headed Caracara (photo below right), more Brown Pelicans (above left), Laughing Gulls, 2 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, 2 Great Kiskadees and 2 Pale-vented Pigeons. We passed into Miraflores Lake and then proceeded through more locks as we descended towards the Pacific side of the Canal.  It was now 3:15 pm. Here we saw a winter plumaged Spotted Sandpiper, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Little & Great Blue Herons, 4 Ospreys and 2 Fork-tailed Flycatchers* on top of some light structures (photo above right).

Species List - total 37
with 7 lifers marked with *

Magnificent Frigatebird
Neotropic Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Gray Hawk
White-tailed Hawk
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara*
American Kestrel
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Rock Dove
Pale-vented Pigeon*
Blue-headed Parrot*
Red-lored Parrot*
Ringed Kingfisher
Tropical Kingbird
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Fork-tailed Flycatcher*
Great Kiskadee
Mangrove Swallow*
Gray-breasted Martin*
Eastern Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle

Transit of the Panama Canal
© Helen Baines 2004
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Birding from a cruise ship - Jan/Feb 2004
Text ~ Helen Baines
Photography ~ John & Helen Baines
Dawn over the forest, bordering the Caribbean (northern) entrance to the Panama Canal
Looking north from the Gatun Locks. There was good birding in the woods on the left (west) side of the canal
Magnificent Frigatebird - male (left) and immature (right)
Digiscoped shots, at long distance, of Red-lored Parrot* (L) and Blue-headed Parrot* (R), seen from Gatun Locks
We saw many Brown Pelicans along the Canal - this one is  gliding over the Pedro Miguel Lock
Long distance shot of a pair of Fork-tailed Flycatchers* on a light fixture, from the Miraflores Locks
Ospreys were often seen perched along the sides of the Canal
The ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle
Yellow-headed Caracara* - a long distance shot, taken with the 300mm lens, and very useful in helping to identify this lifer
At almost 5 pm we were passing under the Bridge of the Americas (photo below right) and could see Panama City (photo above) to our left (east), as a fast moving squall came in. As we passed the tidal shore, we saw White Ibis, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and then lots of Ruddy Turnstones and Sandwich Terns on navigation structures. We then passed out into the Pacific Ocean and turned north towards Costa Rica.

Considering that we could not leave the ship, we were pleased to log 37 species, 7 of which were lifers*
A fast moving squall over Panama City, seen on our left (east) as we passed out into the Pacific Ocean
Sandwich Terns in the rain, on a navigation structure, along the last section of the Canal
Looking back into the southern end of the Canal, as we passed Panama City and out into the Pacific Ocean
Helen Baines, with her Canon Digital Rebel, as the ship passed under the Bridge of the Americas
A cargo ship passing through an adjacent lock in the Miraflores system
John Baines watching the progress through one of the locks
A male Magnificent Frigatebird, showing the red throat pouch, which is inflated during courtship, to impress the females
The Gatun Locks at the northern end of the Panama Canal, consist of 3 locks which raise ships 26 metres, to the level of Gatun Lake, which was formed whe the canal was built