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Equator to Antarctica - OWE 'off-piste' Adventures

This blog highlights some of the thrilling nature we experienced shore-side during our grand voyage to South America and Antarctica on Fred Olsen Cruise Lines' MS Balmoral.


Sector 1. Nassau to Callao

Ocean Wildlife Encounters – ‘Off Piste’ in Panama

Following a very late notice cancellation of our tour to Achiote Road, Dave opted to join a ship tour to Panama City, while Anno, Laura and Jeff grabbed a taxi and headed for Pipeline Road accompanied by Tim Watson, avid birder and protector of Red Kites.

As usual on these days ashore, we didn’t arrive at our destination until late morning; forest birding in the tropics is always hard work in the middle part of the day. Despite this, we had an exceptional few hours, although our first sighting after alighting from the taxi was actually a mammal. A very obliging and totally unexpected Three-toed Sloth eyed us, unblinking, in typical languid fashion.

A Three-toed Sloth stares down from a tree at the entrance to Pipeline Road, Panama January 2023
Three-toed Sloth - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Despite the heat of the day, birds were calling and the odd flitting shape would appear momentarily in the forest gloom. An early sighting of a Squirrel Cuckoo aloft in the canopy brought us to a female manakin, she posed just long enough to be photographed, females are notoriously difficult to identify and it would be another seven weeks before we had chance to check the images and confirm her as Blue-capped Manakin.

A squirrel Cuckoo perches in a tree in Pipeline Rd in Panama Jan 2023
Squirrel Cuckoo - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A female Blue capped Manakin in Pipeline Rd, Panama in Jan 2023
Blue-capped Manakin (female) Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The sound of timber being splintered soon zeroed us in to a rather bigger, more straightforward prize. A young Crimson-crested Woodpecker was making short shrift of extracting tasty morsels from the decaying wood. A short way down the road, a second woodpecker was chiselling wood, this time it was a male Cinnamon Woodpecker. We also soon racked up two woodcreeper species, namely Black-striped and Cocoa.

Crimson-crested Woodpecker juvenile on a tree in Pipeline Road, Panama January 2023
Crimson-crested Woodpecker - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A male Cinnamon Woodpecker on a tree in Pipeline Rd, Panama Jan 2023
Cinnamon Woodpecker - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Cocoa Woodcreeper on a tree in Pipeline road, Panama Jan 2023
Cocoa Woodcreeper - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Black-striped Woodcreeper searches for food along Pipeline Road, Panama, January 2023.
Black-striped Woodcreeper - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

It was difficult to know where to look at times, there was so much to see. A movement in the gloom attracted Jeff’s attention which resolved into a Pine Marten-like mustelid called a Tayra. Jeff got Anno on to it before it melted back into the undergrowth. No photographs, just memories.


The leafcutter ants held us enthralled for a lengthy spell. It was like watching a super-efficient production line at full throttle. One line was bringing in the raw materials and another line was taking away the waste products to the local tip!


Four pairs of eyes were so much better than a lone watcher and Laura picked out a stationary object from a cluttered background. It was a Motmot, Broad-billed to be precise. These long-tailed birds watch patiently on a branch looking for movement, then pounce on their unsuspecting prey using a technique referred to as a ‘sally-strike’.



Leafcutter ants transporting waste material to their tip site. Pipeline Rd, Panama Jan 2023.
Leafcutter Ant tip site Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Broad-billed motmot sat in a tree Pipeline Rd, Panama January 2023
Broad-billed Motmot - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Anno is our reptile specialist, and he was on constant watch, so it was no surprise when he picked out a dazzling Blue-tailed Lizard, associating with the ant nest and adjacent tarantula burrows.

A Blue-tailed Lizard along Pipeline Rd, Panama Jan 2023
Blue-tailed Lizard - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

After a couple of kilometres walk in oppressively humid heat, sound-tracked by a ‘seven layers of hell’-like cacophony from the resident Mantled Howler monkeys, we reached the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre and headed for the hummingbird feeders. Here we relaxed while we watched the to-ing and fro-ing of White-necked Jacobins, Long-billed Hermits and Violet-bellied and Blue-chested Hummingbirds. Rested, we were ready to ascend the impressive 30m canopy tower. Hot and sweaty, we eventually all reached the top. It was blazing in the sun and very exposed. Naturally most birds were sensibly keeping to deep cover.

Violet Bellied Hummingbird, Long-tailed Hermit & White necked Jacobin - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

After a little while we descended and, back at the hummingbird area, a forest jewel was shining in the gloom. A sumptuous male Golden-collared Manakin illuminated its surroundings just long enough to enable us to get some images and gaze at it in wonder.

A loop out to a small wetland area brought more rewards. Not least in the form of a very large Basilisk. Surprisingly, it was disturbed by a pair of Lesser Kiskadees that were a fraction of its size. A small scuffling sound behind us turned out to be created by one of Panama’s most charismatic mammals, a delightful family group of White-nosed Coati rummaged in the undergrowth, unconcerned by our presence. These relatives of Racoons are a delight to watch and are rather lovely creatures. This all happened to the backdrop of other-worldly banshee sounds as the local howler troops again bellowed their territorial rights.

A Golden collared Manakin perches in a tree at Pipeline Rd, Panama January 2023
Golden-collared Manakin - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Basilisk rests on a tree trunk Pipeline Rd, Panama Jan 2023
Common Basilisk - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A young White-nosed Coati at Pipeline Rd, Panama Jan 2023
White-nosed Coati - Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

On our return we bumped into some research ecologists who kindly directed us toward a culvert pipe in which we found some Spear-nosed Bats. As dusk was approaching, they were revving up for the night shift, and starting to fly up and down the pipe, with Laura catching the action on her phone.


Finally reaching the taxi we had one last bonus in the form of Keel-billed and Chestnut Mandibled Toucans calling in some bare-branched trees. A fitting finale after a few spectacular hours in a Central American Rainforest.

A Chestnut-mandibled Toucan perches in a tree at Pipeline Road, Panama January 2023
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan Pipeline Rd, Panama © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Ocean Wildlife Encounters Off-Piste – Rancho Alemán

On Friday 26th January, the OWE team got dropped off at the port gates of Guayaquil to meet our birding guide, Daniel Lopez. We wanted some cloud forest birding. Two hours later, after drive-by sightings of a Pearl Kite and a cinnamon-coloured Savanna Hawk, we finally arrived at Rancho Alemán. We alighted from the vehicle and plunged straight into the forest, to be immediately greeted by an Ecuadorian Thrush foraging amongst the leaves of the track. This is mountain rainforest, so uphill we squelched along the muddy track. Birds were singing and calling all around, but spotting them was, as ever in these forests, a challenge. One of the few that did show reasonably well was the Flame-rumped Tanager, represented here by the lemon-rumped subspecies.

An Ecuadorian Thrush forages on a track at ancho Alemán, Ecuador,January 2023
Ecuadorian Thrush - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador - © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Flame-rumped Tanager poses briefly at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador, January 2023
Flame-rumped Tanager (lemon-rumped form) - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © David Chilcott - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The logo for this privately owned reserve is the Grey-backed Hawk, an endangered raptor found only in a very restricted part of Ecuador and Peru. We could hear it calling and watched one soaring briefly in a gap in the canopy. We would see it rather better later in the morning.

A Grey-backed Hawk soars over the canopy at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador, 26th Jan 2023
Grey-backed Hawk soaring above Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

We yomped a little further uphill and encountered a somewhat grumpy Mountain Crab, we’d clearly disturbed its morning reverie and it let us know it wasn’t happy by audibly snapping its claws. We grabbed a few photographs and soon left it in peace.

A Mountain Crab at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador dsiplays its fearsome claws, 26th Jan 2023
Mountain Crab - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador - © David Chilcott - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

One of the loudest singers in the forest was the Grey and Gold Warbler, we mostly got glimpses, but finally one deigned to perch, for a few seconds, on an old boundary fence. Similarly, the Buff-throated Saltator kept tantalising us, until Dave finally managed to capture a lovely image of one among the bromeliads, before it promptly evaporated back behind the green veil.

A Grey and gold Warbler perches on an old barbed wire fence at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador 26th Jan 2023
Grey and Gold Warbler - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

A Buff-throated Saltator perches briefly near bromeliads at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador, 26th January 2023
Buff-throated Saltator - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © David Chilcott - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

When we had time to look down it was possible to find other forest inhabitants, tiny frogs of the Pristimantis genus. Anno informs us they are very variable and sometimes only doable in the hand via groin colouration. There were also a few scuttling lizards, but only one was successfully photographed and it turned out to be a ‘presumed’ Western Ecuadorian Whorl-Tail Iguana.

A tiny from presumed Prismantis genus Rancho Alemán, Ecuador 26th Jan 2023
Prismantis sp. frog - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Western Ecuadorian Whorl-Tail Iguana -  Rancho Alemán, Ecuador  26th Jan 2023
Western Ecuadorian Whorl-Tail Iguana (presumed) - Rancho Alemán © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Perhaps the most appreciated non-bird creature we discovered in the forest was a gorgeous little glasswing butterfly called Oleria makrena. It took a team effort searching the internet to get it to species and even then, it’s caveated with ‘presumed’.

A tiny glasswing butterfly poses on a leaf at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador, 26th January 2023
Glasswing butterfly Oleria makrena (presumed) - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

Almost as small as the glasswing were some of the hummingbirds that fizzed about. We saw four species but the only one photographed was the Green-crowned Brilliant as it stopped to sip nectar.

A tiny hummingbird sipping nectar Rancho Alemán, Ecuador, 26th Jan 2023
Green-crowned Brilliant hummingbird sips nectar - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © Jeff Clarke - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

As we descended, we had a second bite of the Grey-backed Hawk cherry, and this time it was nicely perched, bar a few obstructing branches, and we were able to really appreciate this beautiful raptor. A fitting totemic emblem for a wonderful area of cloud forest.

A Grey backed Hawk perches in a tree at Rancho Alemán, Ecuador, 26th January 2023
Grey-backed Hawk - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © David Chilcott - Ocean Wildlife Encounters

The ranch homestead was just 250m down the road from where we exited the forest, but this was the most dangerous part of our day. Our guide was clearly on edge and made the group stick closely together. We would love to have lingered as we were spotting lots of birds, but he chivvied us on. It wasn’t a few yappy dogs that worried him overly, it was the threat of ‘Narcos’. We did get checked out. Clearly not a place to be a camera-touting tourist that gets separated from the group.


The homestead area, where we were served a delicious lunch, was equally full of birds, but it was just a pity we didn’t really have time to appreciate it. Here we found Royal Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Blue-grey Tanager, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Ecuadorian Piculet and much more besides. There are some great little wooden chalets for longer stays here. So, check out the Facebook and Instagram pages. As always on these shore days, the ships scheduled departure time forced our return, long before we were ready to leave.

Blue-grey Tanager (1), Black Cheeked Woodpecker (2) and Rusty margined Flycatcher (3) - Rancho Alemán, Ecuador © Jeff Clarke (1&2) David Chilcott (3) - Ocean Wildlife Encounters


If you have enjoyed this blog you can read about our OWE Equator to Antarctica Sector 1 on-ship wildlife encounters by clicking the link.


Please note: All images and text are copyright of the photographer/author and Ocean Wildlife Encounters. Passengers on the cruise may copy images for personal use only.

Parts two and three of the blog are in preparation and will be published shortly.


Acknowledgments Ocean Wildlife Encounters would like to thank the following individuals and organisations: Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, the crew of MS Balmoral, our agents Peel Talent and in particular Sara Andrew, for enabling our participation in this epic adventure.


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