Bird Watching in Panama

February 18th, 2014
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By Craig Weincek

Panama deserves to be one of the best destinations in the world for bird watching. While Panama might not have the most species of birds of any country in the world (though it is ranked in the top 25 with over 970 species) we are much smaller and more accessible to more exotic birds than most of the much bigger countries ahead of us on the list.

Because of the geographic diversity of Panama, with its two distinct coastlines, Pacific and Caribbean, bordering a lush landscape of rainforests crisscrossed by rivers flowing out of a continental divide of mountains, Panama has a uniquely concentrated variety of habitats for many of the most beautiful and some of the most rare birds in the world.

Most visitors and residents soon discover that bird watching is one of the joys of experiencing Panama. Whether an avid birdwatcher or “birder” as they are called, or an informal observer on vacation, most people can’t help admiring the beauty and variety of the numerous birds that grace the environment. While many species are native to the region, a large number of migrant birds, like so many tourists, visit the isthmus from both North and South America.

Golden-browed Chlorophonia.
Photo courtesy of Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa.

Whether it is a flight of pelicans, or a cloud of frigate birds, the fisherman’s friend, hovering over the nearby Pearl Islands; or a solitary Toucan, with its rainbow beak, perched on a jungle branch bordering the canal; or silvery white kites soaring over and through a fluttery flock of larks along the cliffs up in the mountains; or even vultures, with their ugly bare heads, perched on the walls guarding the Fish Market; birds are an integral part of the Panama experience. Sandpipers skip along the edge of the surf, while the aptly named Roadside Hawks patrol the country’s back roads. While the Harpy Eagle, the national bird, is well hidden in the jungles of the Darien, bright red, blue and green Macaws can be seen flying along the beach and jungle border. Golfers usually encounter skittish Killdeer on the course, while Oropéndolas swoop by making their unusual gulping sounds on their way back to the noteworthy bag-like nests hanging from the branches of a solitary tree.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Photo courtesy of Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa.

So Panama inspires almost everyone to become a casual bird watcher, but the country is also a mecca for serious birders, whose main goal is to log as many birds as possible. The central and western sectors of the country are ideal for birding. The eastern Darien area is wild, with few if any facilities or passable roads. Sightings of the hard-to-find Harpy Eagle are only for the hardiest adventurer.

Central Panama

The Panama Canal Watershed is one of the richest birding areas in the world and is also one of the most accessible with a short trip by car from the capital. Over 650 species of birds are said to reside in this watershed bordered by tropical forests. There are three highly recommended sites: The Canopy Tower and Lodge, The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. All three are located along the famous Pipeline Road, in the Soberania National Park, legendary among serious birders, where antbirds, flycatchers, mot mots, tanagers, toucans and trogons flourish. This area is where several 24-hour bird count world records have been set.

The Ancon Foundation

Violet-bellied Hummingbird.
Photo: Thomas Henell.

The National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON) is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of Panama’s biodiversity and natural resources.

ANCON has established a number of protected land reserves across Panama, including La Amistad National Park (shared with Costa Rica), Coiba Island National Park, and Darién National Park, the second-largest protected land area in Central America.

The Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge

Yellow-thighed Finch.
Photo courtesy of Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa.

The Canopy Tower offers an eye-level view just a few feet away from the rainforest canopy where tanagers and honeycreepers lurk and hawks soar. The tower also offers hotel accommodation with three-toed sloths and howler monkeys outside as neighbors. The Tower is just a brief stroll from Pipeline Road.

Also a short walk from Pipeline Road is the Canopy Bed and Breakfast, a lovely restored Canal Zone-era house, ideal for families who want to be in walking distance from the Tower.

Farther out, maybe two hours from the city, there is the Canopy Lodge, located in the hills of El Valle de Antón, where bird watching begins on the veranda and overlooks the feeders in the garden by the creek. There is also the Canopy Adventure zip-line and nature trail experience near the Lodge.

To contact the Canopy Family of Resorts telephone (507) 264-5720; email contactus@canopytower.com or go to http://www.canopytower.com.

The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Observation tower at The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center.

Just over a half-hour from the city, The Panama Rainforest Discovery Center is ideal for a day trip to the 100-foot/32 meter high observation tower along the Pipeline Road. It is from here that the 1985 Audubon Society record of 385 species were identified in 24 hours. The tower has 174 steps with resting and observation platforms every eight meters or 25 feet or so, and ends up above the top level of the canopy.

The tour begins at the Visitor Center where over a dozen species of hummingbirds have been seen at the feeders. There’s also a viewing platform along the circuit of trails through the forest near a lake where aquatic birds such as grebes and herons can be observed along with butterflies, moneys and even crocodiles.

For more information call (507) 314-1140 or (507) 6588-0697. Email at reservas@avifauna.org.pa.

Audubon Society of Panama

The Audubon Society of Panama, dedicated for 50 years to the preservation of birds and the study of their habitat and migratory patterns, is very active, organizing more than 20 bird observation tours throughout the year across Panama.

The Society also organizes the yearly Christmas Bird Counts, considered to be one of the top ten bird counts of the world.

Info: http://www.audubonpanama.org, or call 232-5977 or write to info@audubonpanama.org or audubon@audubonpanama.org Apartado 0843-03076; Panamá, República de Panamá.

The Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Collared Redstart

Collared Redstart.
Photo courtesy of Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa.

Nestled in the rainforest at the point where the Chagres River flows into the historic Panama Canal, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort combines a refreshing natural experience with a high level of luxury. Their Panama Tours program offers an aerial tram excursion, several boat tours, including one to Monkey Island and fishing expeditions, all of which happen to be excellent opportunities to bird watch. Naturally there are special birding tours and birding packages available with expert guides who can help identify the neotropical species and the birds’ songs among the lush foliage.

To learn more go to http://www.birdingpanamagamboa.com or email birding@gamboaresort.com.

Western Panama and the Chiriquí Highlands

The province of Chiriquí in the highlands of western Panama affords birders some of the most desired sightings anywhere, including the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the Three-wattle Bellbird and of course the Resplendent Quetzal, considered one of the most beautiful birds in the Americas. Iridescent green, the male quetzal has tail feathers that often reach over two feet in length.

While the area can be reached via the Pan American Highway, a good option is to take a 45-minute Air Panama flight from Panama City to the city of David, rent a car and drive up the tallest mountains in the country to the vicinity of Volcán Barú National Park.

Finca Lerida, CoffeePlantation and Boutique Hotel

Keel-billed Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan.
Photo courtesy of the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP).

Located at an altitude of over 1,600 meters, Finca Lerida is a working coffee plantation and full-service hotel only 10 minutes above the tourist town of Boquete. Now that a new four-lane highway has been completed, the drive up from David is a 30 pleasant minutes away.

In addition to sampling the award – winning coffe and a tour of the coffee plantation that was founded back in 1924 by a Norwegian engineer who worked on the construction of the canal, a bird-watching tour is offered with an experienced guide. Particularly from December to May, the guides virtually guarantee a quetzal sighting in an “Aguacatillo” tree on which grow the colorful bird’s favorite fruit. Most of the trails lead into the Amistad International Park where more than 500 species of tropical birds can be sighted.

After the tour, satisfied birders can enjoy a cocktail at the cozy La Amistad Bar or dinner at the gourmet Monniche Restaurant.

More information can be found at http://www.fincalerida.com or by emailing info@fincalerida.com or telephoning (507) 720-1111

Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Spa

Resplendant Quetzals

Resplendant Quetzals, male and female.
Photo courtesy of Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa.

At over 7,000 feet above sea level (2,200 meters), Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa offers the highest lodging facilities in the country tucked beside the primary cloud forest of the Volcan Baru National Park. The ecolodge is nestled in the small farming town of Guadalupe right above the towns of Volcan and Cerro Punta at the foot of the massive dormant volcano, Volcan Baru.

With a good restaurant on the grounds, the resort offers two types of accommodations: comfortable suites in the lodge, many with fireplaces because the evenings can get chilly; and cabins deep in the cloud forest via a very steep rocky road fording three streams, with access provided in a wagon pulled by a large farm tractor. The roomy cabins are surprisingly comfortable with electricity and even Wi-Fi, while at the same time feeling totally isolated in a 400 hectare protected reserve that lacks any venomous snakes and is virtually insect free.

Striped-tailed Hummingbird

Striped-tailed Hummingbird.
Photo: Virginia Veruette R.

What visitors discover while sitting on the porch of one of the cabins or taking one of the 4X4 birding tours is that they don’t call the place Los Quetzales for nothing, especially in season from mid-December through May. In addition to the resplendent title character, birders are often able to spot other exotic colorful birds such as the Emerald Toucanette, the Fiery-Billed Aracan, the Turquoise Cotinga, the Green Honeycreeper or the Golden-Browed Chlorophonia.

Information at http://www.losquetzales.com or email losquetzales@gmail.com or telephone (507) 771-2182 or (507) 6671-2182 (for English & French).

Bird book for Panama

There are two very good field guides for birdwatching in Panama: One is “The Birds of Panama” by Dr. Robert Sterling Ridgely. He is an American ornithologist. Co-author and illustrator is John A. Gwynne. The other is “The Birds of Panama; A Field Guide” by Dr. George R. Angehr and illustrated by Robert Dean.

Both guides are well-known for their illustrative plates and the exhaustive number of bird species covered.

Although Ridgely’s guide focuses on the species found on the Isthmus, recent editions of the guide also include expanded information on the birds of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Both guides are available at bookstores and at Smithsonian’s Corotu Bookstore located at the Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center on Roosevelt Avenue in Ancon. Call 212-8029 or write stribookstore@si.edu. They are also available at the offices of the Audubon Society at Casa 2006-B, Calle Primera East, Llanos de Curundu. Tel: (507) 232-5977 or write info@audubonpanama.org

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