4 best birding places in Panama
A friend of mine from Ontario challenged me to a birding duel; could I match their 403-bird list during my own two-week trip to Panama?
Although I was travelling to the same places with a group of avid "twitchers" (aka bird- watchers), the task would still be challenging. The route to Panama City from my home on the Sunshine Coast, BC was not too direct. It involved an over-night in Vancouver for an early morning flight and stops in two U.S. airports (Dallas and Miami). However, if you were coming from Toronto or major cities in the US you would be able to enjoy non-stop convenience on the route.
Upon arrival, we were met by our land operator and taken to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, our base for five days in the central canal zone and its watershed. Those initial 24 hours will forever remain among my list of greatest days. At first light, we took an hour's boat ride to Barro Colorado Island. This island is world-famous for being the oldest tract of protected neotropical rainforest on Earth and for the extensive field research carried out at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, whose field station has been active on the island for seventy-five years. We were joined by two young guides: Vilma, a zoologist studying jungle cats, and Carla, a botanist. In addition to our day's bird sightings of manakins, parrots, hummingbirds, wood creepers, trogons, and toucans, our list of mammals was kicked off with close-up sightings of sloths, white-faced howler monkeys, and tamarins. A major highlight came when an ocelot was observed by Vilma as it appeared and disappeared without a sound.
The first jungle day continued back at Gamboa where we took the aerial tram to the top of the canopy. While in the tram, I heard squeals from those ahead of me and knew that an avian rarity could be anticipated. And rare it was, for perched above was a Harpy Eagle. I admit to tears of joy. After dinner, we retired to the old library in the resort to review that day's bird count. A not too shabby 65 species had been observed, with many "lifers" among them. The next day was equally rewarding as we walked nearby Pipeline Road to bird in the scrub habitat and ponds within Soberania National Park. Each day we added habitats and new species that resided within the canal zone.
Our middle itinerary focused on the Chiriqui highlands of western Panama with excursions around Boquete and Volcán Barú moving through landscapes of extraordinary beauty and natural abundance.
The last part of our journey was a visit to the remote eastern Darien National Park where our land operator manage the Cana field station. The one-hour chartered flight went from cityscape to a realm of brown rivers and verdant forests. We landed on a short grass runway next to a one-benched, palm-fronded, open-aired stand that served as departure lounge for a group of outbound passengers. Our guide called the people in this group CB’s (Combat Birders), which can loosely be defined as folks who bird each day from pre-dawn until after dusk. I then learned a host of other bird jargon that the local guides use to classify birding visitors to match experience and expectations with available offerings. Ours was a mixed flock of AB’s (Avid Birders), SOB’s (Spouses of Birders), and BIT’s (Birders-in Training). The Cana field station has eight basic rooms with four shared bathrooms and solar heated showers. We were there for three nights, plus an overnight at the remote Pirre tent camp 4,900 feet above sea level in the cloud forests. We slept in tents under a thatched roof, all grouped together on padded mats. There was no electricity, and the limited water was strictly for drinking and handwashing. The outdoor toilet was located 300 meters walk, which seemed much farther at 3:00 am. By the end of 14-days we came home with a respectable list of 370 species and a treasure trove of unforgettable memories. After returning home I received a gift from fellow travelling companion Robert Bateman who captured the birding areas we encountered in a series of hand-drawn/hand-colured panels.