Friday, May 10, 2013

Cerro Gaital Ssssurprises

Last weekend I visited El Valle de Anton, a picturesque town situated in the crater of an extinct volcano, 2 hours west of Panama City.  El Valle is a popular tourist destination for many reasons; there is plenty there to do!  Birding, hiking, buy local products at the artisan markets, take a dip in the hot springs or visit the zoo & amphibian rescue centre, among many other things.  

Cerro Gaital Trail
Cerro Gaital Trail
Whenever I am in El Valle, I always enjoy the fresh air, the breeze and the birds, as it is one of Panama's top birding destinations.  Located in the western foothills of Panama at an elevation of approximately 650 meters, there are birds teeming from just about everywhere and plenty of birding hotspots in the area.  This past weekend, among some work and time to enjoy the surroundings, we ventured up to the top of Cerro Gaital.  We took a bus from the Canopy Lodge up the road leading to the top, past La Mesa and hopped off at the trail head.  From here, we hiked up the trail and entered into foothills cloud forest, with its typical abundance of lush mossy trees, bromeliads and plants.  Just 50 meters from the road, we could hear the distinct sound of a Green Hermit lek, where several males were displaying.  As we headed along the trail, we found some nice foothills and higher-elevation species, including Plain Antvireo, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Common Bush-Tanager and Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.  

Our highlight of the morning, however, was not a bird.  As we walked up the trail, I spotted a small snake coiled up on the handrail along a section of the path.  Immediately I knew it was a viper and within seconds I realized I was looking at a beautiful Eyelash Pit Viper!  I had been wanting to see this species for years, and finally there was one in front of me.  

Eyelash Pit Viper
Eyelash Pit Viper, Bothriechis schlegelii
Eyelash Pit Vipers are a small to medium-sized snake of the humid forests of the Neotropics.  They get their name from the enlarged scales above their eyes, which are thought to aid in camouflage, to break up the snake's profile among the vegetation.  Eyelash Pit Vipers are quite variable in their appearance and can have a variety of colours and patterns - brown, banana yellow, and mottled green and red.  They are arboreal and have a strong prehensile tail.  Eyelash Pit Vipers are typical ambush predators; they sit and wait quietly, well-camouflaged, for their prey to be in close range and strike, impaling prey with large, needle-like fangs.  They prey on small rodents, frogs, lizards and birds.  They often sit at eye level, in palm trees and heliconia flowers, to sit and wait for birds and other visiting animals.  They are even known to return to their favourite specific sites to sit and wait for migrating birds each spring.  

Eyelash Pit Viper
Eyelash Pit Viper showing its "eyelashes"
El Valle de Anton
El Valle de Anton, from Cerro Gaital
After grabbing some photos of the viper, we carried on up to the top of Cerro Gaital, where we had great views of El Valle de Anton from above.  On our way back down, we continued to find nice birds including Blue-throated Toucanet, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and my lifer Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch.  It was nice to do some exploring on Cerro Gaital again, it had been a few years since I had been there, and even though I enjoy every walk I take no matter what I see, this trip turned up some rewarding sightings!

~ Jenn 

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