Birdwatching in Panama during the wet season
Text and photos by Canadian wildlife photographers M.-F. and D. Rivard
With a total count of 978 species of birds and many species of mammals, Panama is a good destination for bird watching and wildlife photography. Given that Panama is a relatively small country, many species can be found without having to travel too far. In November 2016, we stayed at two different locations known to offer a variety of habitats and good birding. We made arrangements directly with a local company well known for its nature guides and programs. The two locations were Canopy Lodge, in El Valle de Anton along the Guayaco River (Coclé Province), and Canopy Tower, in Soberania National Park near Gamboà (Panama Province). They are part of the Canopy Family developed by Raul Arias de Para, a Panamanian bird enthusiast who developed world-class bird-watching tours and nature programs.
We visited Canopy Lodge from November 10th to 15th. This lodge is at a higher elevation than the Canopy Tower and therefore the temperature was somewhat cooler for the first part of our trip. At the end of the rainy season, in November, it can be quite warm and humid in Panama. We quickly realized that rain showers could come quickly and unexpectedly at that time of year, and that rain gear had to be readily available during hikes to protect our photo equipment, not to mention ourselves. This meant carrying backpack covers and ponchos at all times even if the guides were trying their best to optimize the timing of our outings around the rain.
In Panama, there are four species of motmots and the tody-motmot is the smallest and rarest of them. As seeing a tody-motmot was on the wish-list of a group member, one of our morning outings was dedicated to trying to find one. The tody-motmot did show up and stayed around for a while, giving ample time for all members of the group to see it, although it never came out in the open for the photographers…. While the view in most of our photos was obstructed by branches, a few photos were clear enough to provide a good account of this bird’s characteristics. A lineated woodpecker and 24 other species of birds were also seen, providing variety over this 2-hour outing.
We had rarely seen manakins in the past and we were pleased to see five species during our trip to Panama: the red-capped, the blue-crowned, the lance-tailed, the white-ruffed and the golden-collared manakin. These birds are quite spectacular but difficult to photograph as they move very fast and seem to have the tendency to disappear in the blink of an eye. Also, when they perch, they like to do so in the darkness of dense bushes, making it difficult for long lenses to focus.
The Canopy Lodge had an open lobby surrounded by gardens straddling a small river. There were a number of birds visiting the feeders. This allowed us to easily observe thick-billed euphonias, green and red-legged honeycreepers, dusky-faced, crimson-backed, flame-rumped, blue-gray and palm tanagers in addition to clay-coloured thrushes, the resident house wren, snowy-bellied hummingbirds, rufous motmots and collared aracari. From the lobby, we also saw an impressive group of the large gray-headed chachalacas (we counted 10 of them one morning from the balcony of our room). Green kingfishers were often seen perched on trees above the river.
Midway during our trip, we moved to Canopy Tower, near Gamboa in the Panama Province, along the Pan American Highway. The tower is an old radar station used by USA in their war against drug trafficking. The platform below the fibreglass dome provides a unique view on life at the top of the canopy. From there, you can see Panama City in the skyline and boats passing nearby on the Panama Canal. In a typical day, guests go the platform in early morning for coffee and to observe canopy-loving birds or animals, such as the three-toed sloths. It was not uncommon to see species like the green shrike-vireo, black-breasted puffbird, keel-billed toucan, scaled pigeon, palm tanager and a number of parrots or parakeets, all before breakfast.
Our day trips brought us to famous birding trails, such as Pipeline Road and Plantation trail, as well as to the Metropolitan park, Summit pond, and the Gamboa Resort and Marina along the Chagres River.
We saw twelve species of antbirds during our trip to Panama and the Pipeline Road provided the best opportunity to photograph some of them. The trail, which gets its name from the road built in the 1940s for a pipeline which was never used, is popular amongst birdwatchers because swarms of army ants are often seen along the trail. Such swarms attract a number of bird species, including antbirds, as insects and other invertebrates fleeing from the ants are easily found and preyed on. We found such a swarm as we approached the Discovery Center and it did not take long for us to see many species typically associated with army ant swarms, including the rufous motmot, black-striped woodcreeper, spotted antbird, bicolored antbird, black-faced antthrush and gray-headed tanager.
It was much warmer and humid at the tower, as expected due to the lower elevation of the terrain. On the Monday of our last week in Panama, it rained for the whole night and, as the rain continued the next morning, we stayed at the Tower awaiting for better conditions. We were scheduled to return to Pipeline Road on that day but the rain was too intense to go out. We still managed to get some pictures of hummingbirds who came to the feeders at the base of the tower despite the rain. We learned in the morning that a tree had fallen across the road preventing us to get out of the resort. It took three hours for our guide to cut the tree and remove it from the road. By mid-afternoon, the rain had diminished somewhat and our guide came to get us for a tour to Ammo pond and Canopy B&B where some feeders were set for tanagers, parrots and the like. We also drove in a 4WD looking for birds along the Chagres River and were able to photograph a female barred antshrike, a snail kite and black-bellied whistling-ducks at close range, using the vehicle as a blind and as shelter since it was still raining. This saved the day … and we were able to see 50+ species of birds on that day despite the rain.
On our return, as we drove up the road to the Tower, we saw that three additional trees had fallen and were blocking the road. As we were stepping out of the 4WD to evaluate the situation, the thought of walking up the road in the intense heat and humidity to get to the Tower was putting a damper on our spirits. However, staff from the lodge was already on site and the driver quickly drove us to the tower (an appreciable distance) while the guide was making some calls to get the equipment needed to clear the way (again). As we entered the lodge, heavy (really heavy) rain started. We felt sorry for the work team who had to clear the road under such conditions. The rain continued throughout the night and we were told in the morning that 15 to 17 inches of rain had fallen in the previous 24 hours. There were landslides in the area, more trees across the road and a number of emergencies in neighbouring communities. The Ammo pond that we had visited on the previous day had overflowed onto the main road. After checking the news, we realized that we were in the area of Tropical Storm Otto. The storm flooded communities along the Caribbean side of the Panamanian coast, including the city of Colon. The storm was upgraded to a Category-1 hurricane later on that day and became Category-2 hurricane as it moved towards Nicaragua and Costa Rica. We remained safely at the lodge, hoping that we would be able to get out for a last day of birding prior to our departure from Panama. Indeed weather improved on the next day but light rain continued most of the day. We visited Summit Pond, nearby, and were lucky to see a royal flycatcher, a rare bird for the area.
During day trips, our guides were excellent at locating and identifying new bird species by sound and at setting up the scope for easy viewing. They sometimes called the birds by whistling, by imitating their call or, in the case of manakins, simply by clapping their hands. While we carried our own photo equipment, many participants took photos through the lens of the scope with their mobile phone cameras. This seems to be a new trend in bird watching enthusiasts and, while the technique takes some practice without a special adaptor, the results were often surprisingly good. However, in order to get a good picture with this technique, the birds have to be very, very cooperative!
Overall, we saw 269 species of birds during our stay in Panama. We had planned the trip knowing that it was at the end of the rainy season and were hoping that we would be able to have good daily outings between somewhat predictable rain showers. This was indeed the case for most days and we were able to protect photographic equipment while keeping it available on each of the outings. The conditions encountered towards the end of the trip were unusual and it would not have been possible for us to foresee them. Indeed, hurricane Otto was described as “the latest hurricane formation on record in the Caribbean Sea”, the “strongest Atlantic hurricane on record that late in the year” and the “farthest south a hurricane has made landfall on record in Central America” ( See The Weather Channel - Hurricane News ).
During our travels in various countries, we had not encountered chiggers (a small mite that can leave itchy bites) but, in many of the trails visited, they were known to be present. Warnings about chiggers quickly led us to adopt the practice of sticking the bottom of the pants in our socks and of using a sulphur powder (made available freely at the lodges) as part of our daily routine. This preventative practice was sufficient to avoid any bite.
As we left, we took note that a good time to return to Panama would be between January and April, i.e. during the dry season. Nevertheless, the rainy season had a lot to offer, as it is green everywhere and the vegetation is luxuriant. We were pleased that we were able, due to the care of the staff at our accommodations, to eat the food, including salads, without getting sick. Long sleeve shirts, long pants, good hiking boots and mosquito repellent were needed for outdoor activities but we successfully avoided insect bites. Starting in the Pacific ocean at Panama city and stretching north for 77km to Colon on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, the Panama Canal is also interesting to see both from a historical and engineering perspective. From Canada, Panama is relatively easy to get to as there are early morning direct flights from Toronto to Panama City and return flights leaving for Toronto in mid-afternoon.
For the identification of bird species, we used “The Birds of Panama, A field Guide” by George R. Angehr and Robert Dean, a Zona Tropical Publication (Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London).
You can consult the list of bird species seen during this visit in the following pdf file: panama-bird-list-2016 .