May 15, 2010
The Republic of Panama, a tropical country with a large variety of easily accessible habitats, is a great place for an introduction to the birds of the American tropics. The typical neotropical families, like trogons, antbirds, and tanagers are well represented, some, like the tyrant flycatchers, by a hundred different species, and others by just a few. The total number of bird species found in Panama, about 975, is surprisingly large, especially when you consider the relatively small surface of the country. Some 150 of these are neotropical migrants that only occur in the country from September till April. It is not rare to see more than twenty different migrant warblers and vireos on a good morning on spring or fall migration, and that added to fifty or sixty resident species.
This variety is partly explained by the fact that Panama is a land bridge between North and South America, which produces a resident avifauna that mixes birds from both north and south. In Panama it is possible to find species typical of Central America like Passerini’s Tanager, Green Shrike-Vireo, and Resplendent Quetzals, as well as their South American counterparts: Flame-rumped Tanager, Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo, and Golden-headed Quetzal. As it would be expected, the South American birds are easier to find on the eastern portion of the country, while the Central American species are found west of the Canal Area. The birds of the central part of the country, the area surrounding Panama City, include species from both ends.
Central Panama has the most easily accessed forests of Central America, and birding is easy and productive. Some species are very common throughout the city, and a few hours of birding in any city park can produce a long list of birds. Tropical Kingbirds, Social Flycatchers, Clay-colored Thrushes and Blue-gray, Palm and Crimson-backed Tanagers are hard to miss, as is the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle. The dry forests of the Metropolitan Nature Park, which is right next to Panama City, are typical of the Pacific Slope. On a morning walk of any of its trails you may find Lance-tailed Manakin, Slaty-tailed Trogon or a Pheasant Cuckoo. The Rosy Thrush-Tanager is very common here, and you’ll certainly hear, if not see, one or two. As we move closer to the Caribbean Sea, the forests get more humid. Pipeline Road, which starts at the town of Gamboa next to the Panama Canal, passes through 28 kilometers of forest protected by Soberanía National Park, and is a world-renowned birding destination. If you want to see forest birds, like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, then Pipeline Road is the place to go. You’ll certainly see many Atlantic Slope birds, and you may even find some foothill species like Tawny-crested Tanager or Sirystes. But to really experience the Atlantic Slope and its birds you need to go to Achiote Road, in the Province of Colon. It’s the best place to see White-headed Wren, besides Darien, and Montezuma Oropendola, besides Bocas del Toro. Dusky-faced and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers are seen regularly, and it’s usual to see a gorgeous male Blue Cotinga perched in full sunlight on an exposed branch by the road.
The easiest way to get to Western Panama is by plane, but you can also use the Inter-American Highway, which reaches all the way to the Costa Rican border. In the way you’ll pass mostly savannas and small patches of second growth, prime raptor habitat. Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras are very common, but you can also see Pearl Kite and Aplomado Falcon. During the boreal winter look for White-tailed Hawk.
There’s virtually no forest left in the Pacific Lowlands of Western Panama, so the best birding is in the highlands. According to BirdLife International, the western highlands, from Cerro Campana all the way to Costa Rica, are a one of the areas with the highest levels of endemism in the world. Species like Black Guan, Dusky Nightjar, Fiery-throated Hummingbird and Bare-throated Umbrellabird are found there and nowhere else. Most of these species are also found in adjacent Costa Rica but a few, like Yellow-green Finch and Glow-throated Hummingbird, are only found in Panama. Unlike Eastern Panama, traveling in Western Panama is easy: the roads are in generally good condition and there are plenty of places to stay. Getting to good forest is easy, and some species are very common. In the towns of Boquete and Cerro Punta you can find Band-tailed Pigeons, Rufous-collared Sparrows and Blue-and-white Swallows, but the best birding is along the roads that go up into the mountains. Even second growth forest can produce good results, especially during spring or fall migration, when our flocks of resident warblers and redstarts are joined by their northern relatives. When you reach real forest look for treerunners and other furnariids, but don’t forget to check the undergrowth for skulking Wrentrhushes and Silvery-fronted Tapaculos.
Most of Eastern Panama, San Blas and Darien, is hard to access, and visiting requires careful planning. It is well worth the hassle, though, especially if you really need a Speckled Antshrike on your life list. In Eastern Panama you’ll also have a better chance of seeing the Harpy Eagle, Panama’s National Bird. The easiest way to get there is to drive the Interamerican Highway, which dead-ends in the town of Yaviza. There is also regular service to a few small towns in the lowlands, but to get to Cana and the foothills you’ll have to either charter a flight or hike all the way up. And, as you know, the foothills is where the endemics are: Green-naped Tanager, Pirre Warbler, Beautiful Treerunner, Tacarcuna Wood-Quail, etc. Many of the Darién specialties can also be found in the lowlands, though. There’s even a few species that can only be seen in the lowlands, like Black Oropendola, Spectacled Parrotlet and Black Antshrike.
In Panama there’s plenty of opportunities for birdwatching, no matter how long your life list is or how into birding you are. Whether you go out on a morning bird walk at the Metropolitan Nature Park or in a trek up Volcán Barú in search of Volcano Junco and Timberline Wren, you’ll certainly have a lot of fun.