Birding the Americas Trip
and Planning Repository
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31 July - 19 August 2007
by David Bell
Observers: David Bell (July 31 – Aug
19), Dan Cooper (Aug 12 – Aug 19) Guides: Rick Morales (Cana),
Ken Allaire (Nusagandi, Bayano, El Valle)
covered: Panama City
area (briefly), Cana, Nusagandi, Lake Bayano, El Valle, and Boquete,
plus several stops along in the Interamericana highway.
Best Birds: There were lots of good
birds, but nothing that was truly rare. Cana: Green
Manikin. Boquete: Sepia-capped Flycatcher.
Summary: I was curious to see what
the rainy season (“winter” to a Panamanian) would be like, after two
trips in January. My experience was that this is a great time of
year to visit, perhaps better than a dry-season
visit. My species total for the trip was 455, not
counting birds that were heard but not seen. I suspect that I
would have seen slightly more species overall, but slightly fewer
Neotropical species in the dry season.
I also wanted to see parts of the country that I had missed on previous
trips. If I had to pick a favorite, it would definitely be
Cana. Cana is fantastic for birding. It is expensive: $1500
for 5 days.
The advantages of a rainy season visit include: First, there was less
“background noise” from northing migrants, allowing me to focus on
tropical birds. I saw only 2 northern migrants other than
shorebirds: Purple Martin and Orchard Oriole. Second,
birding facilities are virtually deserted at this time of year, which
translates to easy booking and lower costs for hotels and guides.
Remarkably, I encountered not a single birder in 19 field days in
Panama’s top spots.
Panama: Panama is a very easy country to
get around in. People are friendly and helpful. In tourist
areas English is widely spoken; elsewhere it is not but pidgin Spanish
and hand signals will get the job done. The currency is the US
dollar. You can drink water directly from the tap and at
restaurants without fear (really, you can); the exceptions to this rule
are Bocas del Toro and remote eastern Darien. The food is not
challenging, consisting mostly of non-spicy rice, beans, vegetables,
fried fish and chicken.
Weather: The weather was no more of a
factor than it was on my prior visits. On all of my trips, rain
has been frequent. On this trip, I had rain on all but four
days. Most mornings were not rainy. I experienced just
three or four downpours so heavy that they made birding
impossible. In general, weather was not much of a factor because
rain tends to occur in what would otherwise be an oppressively hot time
of day in the lowlands. I tried to schedule lunch and longer
drives during the mid afternoon in order to minimize the impact of rain.
essential and otherwise:
I’m a fan of traveling light, and the following list is based upon that
A Bird-finding Guide to Panama
by Angehr, Engleman and Engleman. This book is excellent,
especially for a first edition. Directions to find birding spots
are excellent, as are the species accounts. Areas for
improvement: a map of Panama showing all the spots would be helpful in
the front; better guidance on how to bird each spot, like the
information found in an ABA guide.
b. A Guide to the Birds of Panama
by Ridgely and
Gwynne. I brought Birds of Columbia and didn’t use it, even in
Cana (they have a copy there). A couple of times in Boquete I
felt I could have used Birds of Costa Rica. If I had to do
it over again, I would just bring Panama and research other stuff on
the web. It’s a good book.
2) iPod and
Speakers: It is a good
idea to study bird voices prior to your trip. Xeno-canto.org is
by far the best resource I know of for this purpose. I did
not employ much playback on my trip, but still an iPod + speaker with
calls was great to have as a field reference. Note that Ken
Allaire has a nearly complete library of Panamanian bird calls, most of
which he recorded himself.
c. Ken Allaire’s
annotated checklist/birdfinding guide to the Canal area. This is
a the best resource I could find for status and distribution and bird
finding in the canal area and is newly published (on the web) this
year. You can download
this guide for free (as
of the time of this writing).
3) Recording and
playback device: I did
not bring one and regretted it. This is a critical tool in
Panama. Ideally, you want a small, lightweight device with a
directional mic and wide dynamic range (ie more than just human voice
range) that you can use to record and play back sounds. Without
such a device, some species, such as many wrens, are
difficult/impossible to see.
4) Camera. I’m not a photographer, but
I’m glad I brought a camera. My Sony 10x optical zoom snap and
shoot was great for taking record shots. My recommendation:
if you just want record shots, leave the SLR and big lens at
home. If on the other hand you are going to Panama to photograph
birds rather than watch them, then load yourself down like a pack mule
and go for it!
5) Clothing: Bring 4-5 days worth of
clothes. It is easy and cheap to get your clothes cleaned.
Don’t bring anything that requires dry cleaning or special
treatment. Every town has a Lavanderia that will wash, dry and
fold 3 days worth of clothes for $2-3k. It will be 10 to 25 times
that much in your hotel.
a. Boots: you want comfortable
shoes or flip-flops, hiking boots and ideally a pair of calf-high
galoshes. Note that you will be walking long distances in all of
the above (except the flip-flops), so make sure you bring good, thick
socks that will keep your feet comfortable even when wet and break in
the boots before arrival. Galoshes are essential at Cana.
The lodge provides pairs, but I was glad I had my own. The
biggest advantage of galoshes is that they ward off chiggers, which are
the most significant pest I encountered on my trip.
b. Long pants: Forget
shorts. Walking around in Panama requires protection for your
legs. I brought two pairs of shorts and didn’t wear them once.
Columbia Sportswear sells excellent, durable, quick-drying pants that
are marketed to fishermen. Lots of pockets. By the way,
leather belts are useless in tropical rain. Bring something
synthetic that won’t turn into a wet noodle in the rain.
c. Long-sleeve shirts.
Again, regardless of the heat, you need protection for your arms.
Columbia sells some really great fishing shirts called “Omni-shade”
that are the most comfortable shirts I have ever encountered.
d. Rain jacket. Make
sure your jacket is RAINPROOF: It needs to keep you dry in pounding
rain that lasts hours. Something long enough to keep your pants
pockets dry is idea. A friend of mine had a “water resistant”
windbreaker and got completely soaked. By the way: I brought rain
pants but never used them.
e. Hat: you’ll need a hat that
protects you from sun and rain. I personally prefer a
broad-brimmed hat, but most people prefer a baseball cap because they
interfere less with your directional hearing.
It is relatively inexpensive to get your blackberry to work in
Panama. A good signal is available in virtually every town and
along the whole length of the InterAmericana Highway. You may
need to buy a new phone that is compatible with world-wide phone
systems. Getting your phone to work in Panama is more difficult
and expensive. I only made a few calls to check my messages – but
I sent a ton of emails and text messages. I would recommend
talking to your service provider IN ADVANCE of your trip because this
is not something you can do easily once you are in Panama. I
wrapped my Blackberry in saran wrap and it stayed good as new even
though I had it on me 100% of the time I was in the field.
7) Backpack or
vest: I experimented with a fisherman’s mesh vest rather than a
backpack and liked it. It is cooler. I put all my gear in
Ziploc bags to keep them dry. Bring a bunch of Ziplocs.
8) Water bottles:
staying hydrated is a constant battle. I bought several small
plastic water bottles and refilled them each night in my hotel.
In tropical birding you spend a lot of time looking at mixed flocks
moving around the canopy. Canon Image-stabilized binoculars are
unmatched for this purpose. I brought 15x, but 12x probably would
have been more suitable. Many (most?) people find the Canon IS
binoculars to be difficult to use and heavy. If you don’t like
them, then bring your regular high-quality optics. Note that if
you bring these, you can leave the scope at home (see below for more on
repellant: some people go without, but I consider it a
necessity. I brought a mosquito head net but never needed it.
notebooks or some other way of recording sightings.
The number of species and individuals encountered can be overwhelming,
which makes record-keeping in the field both more difficult and more
important than at home. Trying to drink from a firehose is
a good analogy. Keeping up requires diligence. Some
people can keep one or more days of data their heads, but I find that
it works best for me to record a species list at each stop.
Otherwise it all runs together, especially on days with multiple stops.
I used a note-taking system based on sending emails to myself using my
Blackberry. Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks worked well for Dan.
I personally find it easiest to use the email method and copy the email
to email@example.com . EZbird recognizes bander’s codes (see
Pyle and DeSante http://www.birdpop.org/AlphaCodes.htm for
bander’s codes) and 6-letter codes and full species names. I get
an email back from EZBird within 5 minutes containing an
ebird-formatted excel file. See www.EZBird.com for details.
See above for more on Blackberries.
Optional or nice-to-have items:
For owling, super-bright police flashlights are great. For
getting around in the dark, something much smaller and lighter works
better. I personally prefer to not bring a small flashlight and
instead use the light from my blackberry screen to get around in the
dark. It is more than adequate for that purpose.
2) 4WD: If
you plan to explore back roads in the rainy season, which we did, then
a four-wheel drive vehicle is essential. Angehr et. al.
provide great guidance on which locations require 4WD. Note that
many locations do not require 4WD and you can save about 50% on your
rental by sticking to 2WD. You can have a fantastic birding trip
in Panama with 2WD.
Not necessary, especially if you have a blackberry for email. If
you do bring a computer, bring something small like a 8 or 10 inch
notpad. There are internet cafes everywhere these days and they
are cheap. $0.50 per hour for internet was a typical
rate. Many hotels have free WIFI.
helpful for keeping track of where you are, especially if you plan to
enter your data into ebird. Mine was too low-end and old (Garmin
210) to work in the forest and I would have appreciated a better
unit. The smaller the better because you will be carrying it many
miles. Water-resistant. Note: I feel that a GPS unit is a
useful safety device in the event that I got lost. In forested
areas, especially in the mountains, navigation by any other method is
difficult or impossible for outsiders. People can and do get
seriously lost. At a minimum, you should have a cheap miniature
compass. If I were going again, I think I would get one of those
GPS watches for runners.
5) Scope: My recommendation is to think
seriously about leaving it at home. If you want to set up on
raptors, toucans, trogons, etc and take extended looks, then a scope is
great. I personally was more interested in getting to know the
tropical flycatchers, warblers, Thamnophilids, Woodcreepers, etc and
for that kind of birding a scope is not useful. A scope is also
one more expensive piece of equipment to worry about in your car or
hotel room. Note that many guides carry scopes. We did a
little shorebirding and scanning fields, but the bottom line is that I
was with guides who carried a scope for about 10 days and we
encountered zero birds that couldn’t be identified without a
scope. Besides, my 15x Image stabilized binoculars provided looks
comparable to what I could see in a scope at lower magnification.
6) Tent: if
you are going to be camping outside in or near forest, then you should
bring a hammock tent. Good hammock tents are available in the US
(but not in Panama – I looked) that allow the hammock and mosquito net
to be zipped together and also provide protection from rain. If I
had one with me, I would have used it at the high camp on Pirre and at
Nusagandi. After my return I purchased a Hennesey
Ultralight and love it.
Cana is incredible for birding and I would recommend it. Cana is
right on the Columbia border, so there are a large number of species
for which Cana is the only safe, reliable spot in the AOU area.
Note that all of the interesting birding in Cana requires hiking for
3-10 kilometers each day (much of it on steep, muddy slopes) so people
with mobility issues should be aware that they will be limited to
birding around camp – and even that can be steep and muddy!
Believe me, you will need to literally crawl up muddy slopes.
There is no communication in or out of Cana. Make sure you bring
enough batteries for all your stuff. ANCON provides scopes,
galoshes (though I was glad I brought my own), bird books and
food. Your clothes will become unrecognizably filthy. You
can wash your own clothes, but getting them to dry was a
In five days, we saw over 225 species in Cana, which included many not
easily found elsewhere in Panama or the AOU area, such as Pirre
Warbler, Pirre Bush-Tanager, Green-naped Tanager, Crimson-bellied
Woodpecker, Green Manakin, all four Macaws, etc. We heard what
was probably a Choco Toucan on two occasions but didn’t see it. I
have heard that people have seen over 350 species on 8 day trips.
My guide in Cana was Rick Morales, who was excellent. Rick is a
top-notch guide. He was a really good guy, knows the birds very
well and worked hard to help me 24/7. I felt incredibly lucky to
be one-on-one with him for 5 days in Cana. Rick has one of the
best ears of any birder I have ever met, which is a critical skill
anywhere in Panama but especially in Cana. He is the author of
the ANCON Checklist of the Birds of Panama. I’m sure there are
other good guides to Cana, but if you have a chance to go with Rick,
City area: Ivan’s Ecolodge in Gamboa was great for
inexpensive lodging – about $35 per night. Highly
recommended. It is the closest hotel to Pipeline road. I
walked the first 3 km of Pipeline and hiked one of the streams (use
galoshes or just get wet). My best birding was at the Rainforest
Discovery Center which is located about 2.5 km along Pipeline
road. Costa del Este was a great stop for shorebirds, waders and
boobies. I picked up a few Pacific Deciduous forest
species on ANCON hill, such as Lance-tailed Manikin. I
tried to visit the Summit ponds on Old Gamboa Road, but got the
directions messed up and never made it. From what I hear they are
a great place and I’m sure I would have added 5-10 species to my trip
list if I had made it.
and Lake Bayano: My guide for Nusagandi, Bayano, El Valle and
points inbetween was Ken Allaire. Ken has what may be the most
authoritative library of recordings of Panamanian birds, including many
that he recorded himself. Ken is extremely knowledgeable about
the status and distribution of brids in the Canal area, Nusagandi and
El Valle (where he lives). His excellent annotated checklist/birdfinding guide
is the most authoritative work on this subject that I was able to find
and it is excellent (not to mention free!). Ken is an
American living in Panama and an avid lifelong birder, so he is
extremely easy to relate to. He is as passionate about
birds as I am, and worked incredibly hard to help me. If you are
planning to be in the Gamboa area or El Valle, you couldn’t do better
than to have Ken at your side.
In Nusagandi stayed in the bunkhouse and shared the kitchen with the
Kuna staff. It was extremely primitive – probably too much so –
but I’m glad I got the experience and the birding was fantastic.
The Buryabar lodge is the way to go in this area if you can afford
it. Nusagandi/Bayano is one of the best places in Panama to find
Xenornis, although we missed it. Nevertheless, we had lots of
eastern Panama birds here, including Black Antshrike, Rufous-winged
Antwren, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Cocoi Heron.
There are lots of good spots in the El Valle / Altos del Maria area,
and Ken knows them well since he lives there. Best birds:
Black-capped Antpitta, Snowcap and Sicklebill. This was the only
place I saw Emerald and Black-and-Yellow Tanagers. I stayed in a
cheap hotel, but the best place to stay for birders is the Canopy Lodge
if you can afford it.
Dan and I were surveying coffee farms, so we spent most of our time in
areas not mentioned by Angehr et al. We visited Finca
Lerida (which is in the book), Finca Las Esmeraldas Jaramillo and Cana
Verde areas, Finca Barbara, Finca and Finca Kotowa. By far
the best birding was at Finca Lerida (which is in Angehr), both because
they were the only Finca set up for birding, but also because they had
the best forest. Notable birds at Lerida included Blue Seedeater
and Quetzal (common). Slivery-fronted Tapaculos were
abundant although difficult to see. Lerida has beautiful rooms for rent
and is highly recommended as the place to stay in Boquete for birders.
Our best “discovery” was the new Kotowa Zipline, which offers good
access to higher elevation birds (above 2000m) and elfin forest.
The management and staff of Kotowa was very welcoming of birders and
would love to host birders in the future. They even have a couple
of nice cabins for rent. We saw several birds here that we missed
elsewhere: Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher (common above 1800m),
Prong-billed Barbet (common above 1700m), Collared Redstart (common
above 1800m), Sooty-headed Bush-Tanager (common above 1900m),
Red-tailed Hawk (not seen by me) and Barred Hawk.
birds seen (does not include
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Great Green Macaw
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Southern Rough-winged Swallow