by Richard Rowlett
I highly recommend Robert Ridgely's *Birds of Panama*. There is an excellent section in the back on where to find birds in Panama, including Panama City, and lists everything you need to know, including telephone numbers, addresses, where to get maps, and much more. It is the best, most complete, and most useful field guide I have ever used! Wish they could ALL be like that. The premier spot as you may already know, is Pipeline Road, only 45 minutes drive from Panama City. However, the gate is usually locked. Arrangements can be made through the Panama Audubon Society, P.O. Box 2026, Balboa, Republic of Panama.
Actually I don't really know how it works if you don't know someone. I knew someone who had a key and he just loaned it to me everytime I visited Panama and wanted to go birding there for a few days. I camped back in there two and three days at a time. Unfortunately, this person is no longer there and I was last in Panama 3 years ago.
You could walk it, or at least part of it. It's 17.5 km to the end (Agua Salud) but birding is often best in the latter half. During the heat of the day, walking in the stream beds is where you'll find most of the activity, it's a little cooler there, and you can pause to go skinny dipping along the way. I remember running into a sunbittern in full display one hot afternoon downstream in Agua Salud which I thought was one of the most dazzling birds I'd ever seen. Watch out for those pesky monkeys. They like to poop on you if you are standing under a group of them feeding in a tree. It's no accident either; they do it deliberately! Driving the road at night can be rewarding for the mammals and assorted night birds like owls, nightjars including potoos, and boat-billed heron. A powerful spotlight helps -- one you can plug into the cigarette lighter.
Ridgely has been my bible. He lists and describes how to get to the best birding sites in exact detail. On my last trip, I rented a brand new Toyota 4-Runner and spent a month birding all parts of the country that I could get to. Alone. No serious problems with people. I was there before and after Noriega, and my month long solo expedition was a few weeks after the invasion. The Toyota didn't fare so well, and I had to pay about $1200.00 in damages from having run it in the ditch and to replace both mirrors and radio antenna which were broken by vandals at the snowcap site and figured I got off lucky. Best and most economical vehicle I've ever driven though, 40 mpg diesel. It would go everywhere including to the top of 3,000 m. Volcan Baru (no small feat for the faint of heart, but oh! what outrageous birding on the way up!! -- especially those awesome fiery-throated hummingbirds!!). Too bad it was trashed when I returned it.
A lot of people seem to think when they are in Panama, they have to go to Barro Colorado Island. Well, locals recommended that it wasn't really worth it unless you can make arrangements to stay for a few days. As it is, a one day trip doesn't get you there until late morning, after the bird activity has died down. It is utterly imperative to be ON SITE and start birding at the crack of dawn. It's wild for those first few hours, but by 10am or so, it get's pretty quiet and hot, and birds are much harder to find. Don't neglect the evening for birding, especially the last 2 hours of daylight, there can be quite an impressive surge of activity before dark.
On the Caribbean side, and not far from Panama City, Achiote Road is a good spot as are some others listed in Ridgely, across the Gatun Locks from Colon. About Colon: WARNING!! Don't mess around there at all. This place IS dangerous! Robbery and Murder is standard fare and people there don't even blink. Don't stop for anything and keep your doors locked. Even the locals from Panama City wouldn't have anything to do with it. I never had any problems, but could have, and I have heard way too many horror stories. The slums there are really photogenic.
Another great spot, and one of my favorites is Nusagandi, a 2-hour (took me 6) drive east of Panama City. I had a hair raising experience getting there, driving it at night, in an all night pounding rain and lightning storm with the cloud bases hugging the tree and ridge tops. The constant severe lightning was terrifying, and I thought that I had finally done it, taken that one chance too many, and probably was going to die. I didn't.
The fantastic thing about Nusagandi is it's location on the Continental Divide, and the great but basic accomodations provided. You can just sit on the veranda in the evening writing up your notes by lantern light while listening to all those strange noises in the rain forest, be lulled to sleep by them, and wake up in the morning to an incredible wealth of birdsong. The antbirds were a riot up there. BTW, when the army ants are swarming, treat them with respect! Otherwise, you'll be sorry. They devour everything in their path including YOU. Antbirds are one group that ARE most active during the heat of the day when the ants are on the move and grouchy.
You probably should make arrangements in advance. I had no problem by just dropping in at 3am in the morning during the monsoons. As it was, I was the first person to have been there in over a month. A normal person wouldn't go there in the wet, and would make arrangements before hand. You shouldn't have any problem in the dry although I'd still go in a 4WD.
I've been to every site and sub-site listed in Ridgely's finding birds in Panama section, except for the more remote Darien Country, to which a rather major and expensive expedition has to be arranged well in advance.
Go get the book. If you still have some questions after that, then don't hesitate to contact me directly. Maybe someone else will have a better update about the mood there now and how Americans are treated. When I was last there, there was pretty high euphoria running through the country following the ousting of Noriega. Perhaps some sense of reality and frustration has returned and it may be less so now.
As for the streets of Panama City being safe in the day; well, I hope so. Still the usual common sense rules apply. Maintain self confidence without appearing hostile and try not to look like a tourist. Pickpockets would be the most likely concern on crowded streets. Parks and local birding spots described by Ridgely should be safe. I never lug a camera around; binoculars are enough, and have never felt threatened there. I'd stay out of some parts at night though, but you probably aren't going to those sailor hangouts in the bombed out zone anyway.
Personally, I like Panama better than Costa Rica because there are fewer tourists (NONE in the immediate wake of Noriega) and everywhere I went, the locals all seemed to love just having one, an American, come around. Most Costa Rican species can be seen in Panama plus many more with affinities to South America which don't occur in Costa Rica. Good Luck, Have Fun! :)
Bellevue, WA, USA