Panama is a beautiful country with a multitude of interesting sights to take in during a visit there, with birding being one of their specialties. The country is about the same land area as West Virginia who has just over 300 species of birds that live or visit there. Panama is home to more than 978 distinct birds and the exciting realization that there are new species in some of the more remote areas. To put that in perspective, there are 914 recognized species in United States and Canada combined! There is a fantastic mix of North and South American birds with some being migratory and others that are resident species. There are also several endemic species which means that they can only be found in within the borders of Panama. The Panama Canal is something to see as the large ships are moving through the locks, but more importantly, you must see the jungles around the canal that have been protected as green spaces and are relatively untouched since the building of the canal. This buffer around the canal is an amazing place to see some of the lowland birds in this tropical country. Other excellent birding areas of the country are the mountains extending out of Costa Rica, the grasslands on the pacific coast, the mountain chain extending out of Columbia, the lowland forests and the vast shoreline on both the Pacific coast and the Atlantic Coast as well as desert climates complete with cacti.
The amazing colors of Panama's Birds are something that you notice immediately, with some of the birds looking like rainbows. There are several different species of Toucan, all with different painted bills, Trogons with their bright colors and pattern coded tails, Hummingbirds with the iridescent feathers only showing when the sun is hitting them just right and the Tanagers filling all colors of the spectrum in all corners of the country. There are birds with cryptic coloration so well camouflaged, they have white speckles on their wings to imitate the look of filtered sunlight sitting on a leaf. Some birds look so similar to a branch that they are undetectable even when passing by within a couple feet. The niches that birds fill here are also incredibly far ranging with that reason being, the diversity of the landscape. There are birds that dwell here that have a special symbiotic relationship with plant species as well and have adapted a bill that is so specialized it is only suited to collecting nectar from a handful of flowers. The beak adaptation matches the length and curve of a flower’s tube virtually making that bird the only pollinator. The are also the Antbirds that have forged a binding relationship with army ants and are found only in the presence of these fierce insects. The Frigate birds, “pirates of the sky” who are canal residents who's main source of food is by stealing from other sea birds. The overwhelming diversity of birds in this little country makes it a birders paradise.
The Jungle Residents
As a kid, I had always thought that “Jungle” was the description for one specific type of forest for which all Tarzan typed men swung around in. The actual definition is “an area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics.” This description is true, but does it does not mention that a jungle can be as diverse as its inhabitants. Panama has jungles that are wet, relatively dry, mountainous and flat and the birds are as different as the plants they live among. There always seemed to be new species everywhere I went, and for a person that lives in a temperate climate, seeing a different species every time the binoculars came up to make an identification, made this exploration a true pleasure. There are plenty of trails here in most of the parks and reserves, but occasionally, I strayed from the path to follow the call of a bird. I recommend that if you plan on doing this, wear heavy boots and pants as all manner of poison is used by plants and animals alike. I would like to tell you a little story of one such detour. I heard what I thought was a chorus of frogs singing 150 feet off the path, so I ducked into the foliage of the jungle. It turned out to be a group of Keel-billed toucans and trogons chastising a Spectacled owl! I was excited to see the magnificent owl and didn’t want to miss getting the best possible photo before my subject made off further into the forest, so I steadied my camera by leaning against a tree. I was concentrating intently while the shutter clicked off 10 pictures and then I noticed ……… the trunk was moving. I pushed back from the tree to find ants running up and down the very spot I was using as my brace. The first bite was on my finger as I had inadvertently caught one’s leg under the band of my ring, and boy did that HURT. After brushing off the remaining ants without further incident, and making a quick assessment of my throbbing finger, I had another look at the virtual highway of ants making their way up and down the tree. I regained my composure and now the ants and pain were secondary as I still had an owl to get back in the lens. I focused back on the area the owl had been to see if my yelp had spooked it. I brought the binoculars up to my eyes and found the owl for two seconds. The next bite was a surprise as I was pretty sure I had checked all of my person for the little 6 legged beasties but I realized a little too late that one had made it into the eyepiece of my binoculars! Man did that sting………………however, I had an owl to photograph, so I brushed the upset ant off and finally got the picture of my subject which is proudly posted here in this section of the blog. I must really love birding because that night both locations had swollen up and hurt real bad. Regardless, I was out the next morning at dawn looking through the jungle in search of the next amazing group of feathers.
Camino del Oleoducto translates to “pipeline road” and there are several in Panama. These pipelines crisscross the country in several different locations with some above ground and others below, however they are all monitored and need roads to access them. This means relatively easy trekking through some very remote and heavily vegetated areas which is essentially a birders highway to paradise. There is one of these pipeline roads that is quite famous for being the one place you must bird while in Panama. This well know road runs alongside the canal just west of Panama city starting out of Gamboa where there are several tour companies that will show you the way. The trek begins at a good sized pond where you get great views of some water birds. Herons, rails, swallows and flycatchers are all feeding during the morning here. There was even an Alligator lazily swimming in the pond waiting for breakfast to come too close. Along the first section of forest were a multitude of birds including Antbirds, Manikins, Wrens, Tanagers, Puffbirds and Motmots to name a few. Also along the path were non-feathered White-nosed Coati and Howler Monkeys. A couple miles in, is the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center where there are several maintained trails and locations for close encounters with the wildlife. The area I enjoyed the most was a station set up that had at least 10 hummingbird feeders all filled whenever they ran low. As you first show up, you notice there are little birds darting past making the tell-tale buzz of hummingbirds as you walk up to the overhanging roof. The ramp leads up to the deck where the feeders are and you realize there is more than a couple of the little birds. There must have been more than 100 of these little gems buzzing around. The White-necked Jacobin and the Violet-bellied Hummingbird are the most common but I saw a total of 6 species of hummingbird in an hour’s time. I suppose that would be a good number if I was in Arizona, but Panama has over 50 species of hummingbirds! You could spend a couple days on this camino del aves, so don’t plan anything else but the pipeline for at least that day.
The people are quite friendly and speak mainly Spanish, although English is also spoken in the larger cities. One of the most memorable things about making my way around Panama is learning how to maneuver on the roads there. Just remember that if you aren’t immediately behind the guy ahead of you, you aren’t going fast enough which mostly applies when there is no one in front of you. Mostly the rules of the road apply and no one is exactly rude, but defensive driving is not a strong point for most of the drivers. During my trip I had the pleasure of being hosted by a fantastic family in Los Planes where this little village is nestled in the Pacific foothills of the Talamanca Mountains. Arenio and Yolanda were the perfect hosts arranging the accommodations and making sure I was fed well while there. Once settled, the knowledgeable pair took me on a tour for the day through beautiful jungle mountains and very productive valley roads. I can pass along their information if you are looking for a guide in the area around Reserva Forestal de Fortuna. One of the other very friendly locals that I was put in touch with was Guido Berguido who lives for birding and conservation. Guido was very kind to take me in and allow me the use of a room for a couple of nights while I explored Pipeline Road and the area surrounding Gamboa. I highly recommend you have a look at Guido’s amazing site, Advantage Tours, outlining all of the trips that he offers and the birds to see while you are there. One of the coolest things that Guido and his company offer, is a trip into the Darien, where you interact with indigenous people of the area which is a once in a lifetime experience. There is also a tour to Chucanti which I mention further on. I also want to thank Zeke for all of his help in contacting these people and making my trip an amazing success. Please see the good work that Zeke does here at Conservation Panama where the goal is to have locals earn a living through tourism and guided birding, but more to the point is to have those same people spread the word and show that the local flora and fauna are worth way more living than they are cleared, killed and removed from the land that is Panama.
If you have read the Lorax, written by one of my favorite authors, you will understand the reference. If you have not, please get a copy right away! Don’t let the cover fool you. One of the unfortunate parts of travelling to the tropics is the amount of deforestation that is so prevalent. Entire mountainsides are clear cut for farm and pastureland. It is hard to judge a people that are so reliant on farming and as the population grows so do their needs. Guido told me that he is trying to purchase an entire mountain which has been found to hold the secret of new species of plants and animals alike. During his first land purchase, he learned that the land was only part of the equation, and the timber was not part of the sale. At the time he was heartbroken as the land is virtually worthless ecologically without the forest. He worked very hard to raise the money to purchase the trees and succeeded in buying every last one. Today, he is looking to purchase the rest of the land for Chucanti Private Cloudforest Reserve, and could use your help. Please contact Guido here to help the cause. Most of the conservation work is done through education of the local people and mostly of the younger generation who are not yet imprinted with the old ways of subsistence farming. On a more positive note, I was pleasantly surprised during one of my walks that there was obvious signs of palm plantations that had be retaken by the natural jungle. This is proof that if left to its own design, nature will reclaim its former glory.
Panama has an incredible array of birds to be found in all corners of this thin ribbon that connects continents. Birds of tremendous color and diversity abound in this beautifully natural country. There are several ecosystems here from the very dry to the consistently wet, from beautiful beaches to marvelous mountains. There are birds that visit here every year from the reaches of the continents to the north and south and birds that live here that can be found nowhere else in the world. I plan on being a part of Panama from afar and again very close up, through the lens of my camera. I loved Panama for the people, the sights and of course the birds and would recommend this as one of the bucket list trips of a lifetime.