Birding in Panama with the Pals
February 09 to 19, 2012
Last year Gonzalo Horna proposed a fixed date birdwatching tour in his country and seven brave Birdingpals signed up. Here are their notes about birding in Panama.
Actually it was so popular he run a second tour for Pals the next month.
Find out more about Gonzalo
This is not a conventional travel report listing every bird we found each day, but rather a collection of notes from the participants.
Knud Rasmussen, Toronto, Canada
On February 09, I arrived mid-afternoon at the Albrook Inn in Panama City, and soon after, Jim from Texas, a long time Birdingpal, showed up and we started to bird almost right away in the park below the inn. Shore birds, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher and other birds presented themselves right away. Surprise; also a small family of capybaras showed up in the middle of the city. Jim turned out to be an exellent birder, who had visited Central and South America many times. During our 10 day tour we managed to find 318 species of birds and not one was a lifer for Jim. That is the kind of birder, who is invaluable to any birdwatching tour, and I think everyone appriciated his knowledge.
Returning to the inn, we started meeting the other participants. Tony, from the Bahamas, was a good photographer and our legal adviser on the trip. Our tireless spotter of birds Ann and her husband Alec, also a photagrapher, were from the UK. Gordon, a Canadian friend, was also a long time Birdingpal and I have birded Pelee and the shores of Lake Erie with him previously. Finaly “rosinen i pølse enden”, as they say in Danish, showed up. The last to join the group was Andreas, a Pal from Copenhagen, and probably the most extreme birder of our group. I forgot to introduce myself. I am Knud, a Dane from Canada, a bit of a birder and an innocent bystander.
This mixed flock managed to spend 10 days birding Panama without any fist fights and we were all talking to each other on the last day, a major accomplishment for such a varied group of strangers.
This is my second winter in Panama and my first extended travel in this small Central American country. I did not realize how varied the landscape and habitat is for such a small country, until I went on this trip. 10 days to cover all the places we visited, was probably too ambitious a plan, and required many long drives on bad roads. Kudos to Gonzalo, I think he managed this ambitious trip well. I do not know if you can appreciate the work and stress on a local guide. He is expected to produce all the birds, make sure everyone is fed and bedded, as well as dealing with unexpected changes in plans, due to forces beyond his control (e.g. government and local tribal elders). Gonzalo had to make last minute changes, since the National Security Police did not want our motley group of birdwatchers running around in Darien, but he did manage to get us through the first police check at 4.30 one morning, giving us a chance to see a little of this province. I am sure he did not sleep well every night, worrying about the next day’s adventures.
In regard to birds, I personally had many lifers. The Resplended Quetzal in Volcan was a sight to remember and, larger than I expected. The King Vulture in Darien was great for me. This bird has been evading me in all my previous trips to the Americas.
I have to say as a ¾ centenarian, it was tough from time to time, but I am happy to have been part of this group. As the Birdingpal saying goes “a stranger is just a birder you haven’t met yet” and I think I made some new friends and hope to meet up again some place in this world. Thanks for putting up with me for 10 days.
Tony Hepburn - Nassau, Bahamas.
I have been a Birdingpal for a few years, during which I made contact with Knud Rasmussen, a Dane living in Canada (a Cadanian?), who founded the Birdingpal website some years ago and continues to do a great job expanding and administering same. During a conversation with Knud last year, I said that it would be good if we could go out birding together, perhaps during my next visit to Ontario, whereupon Knud mentioned a birding tour in Panama, which he would be joining and which was being organized by Gonzalo Horna. I duly contacted Gonzalo, as a result of which I signed on for the tour, which took place this past February.
Before leaving for Panama I acquired a local field guide - "The Birds of Panama", which very quickly made me realize, that I would be seeing very many birds, that I had never seen before. Fortunately for me, with the help of Gonzalo as well as other birders on the tour, who had visited and birded this part of the world on several previous occasions, I was able to learn which particular birds I was seeing and even to identify a few of the local endemics myself. By the end of the tour I had seen over 200 new life birds, way more than I had ever seen on other birding tours in the Caribbean or elsewhere!
We did more driving in Panama and saw more different locations than I had expected, but it was all worthwhile. Also, we stayed in a variety of accommodations and visited a variety of restaurants, which gave us a good feel for Panama and what it has to offer.
Overall I was very impressed with Panama, although at one point, I thought all we were going to be eating, was chicken, beans and rice!
Sergeant-Major Horna did an excellent job of organizing the tour, transporting us around the country, finding good birding spots and generally taking good care of us.
Many thanks, Gonzalo.
Last but not least, I greatly enjoyed the company of Knud and the other birders and hope to meet up with some of them again, perhaps in some other exotic birding country in Central or South America or elsewhere.
From Panama City in the middle to David in the West and Torti in the East, taking in Achiote and El Valle, Guadaloupe, Gatun Locks, Gamboa and Cerro Azul, we covered hundreds of kilometres, some days driving for 5 hours and more. From the urban sprawl and mud flats of Panama City to the hills of the Volcan Baru National Park, the mass of bourganvilia around El Valle,
the vegetable growing region of Cerra Punta, and the dry plains in the Darien region, we travelled to find the birds.
We stayed in accommodation ranging from the luxury of Park Eden in El Valle to the bunk house at Achiote with the Allbrook Inn
on the outskirts of Panama City as the fall back. We got to know chicken, rice and beans, three meals in one day, and other delicicies washed down with Balboa or Atlas or, for some, quantities of red wine.
Alec Crawford, England
318 species of bird were seen by Gonzalo's count and some were photographed by 'chief' photographer, Tony, and others. We peered into the trees and undergrowth and Jim, Andreas and Gordon would see birds that eluded others. Gonzalo knew where the Speckled Owl was and Ito at last found the Resplendent Quetzal. The disappointment was not being able to go deep into Darien because of a security problem. It rained for five minutes in Achiote but otherwise it was warm with generally low humidity, but we enjoyed
the cool of El Valle and Cerro Azul. A good trip but probably too ambitious to cover so much of the country in 9 days because with so much time in the minibus birding time was reduced. We had been to Costa Rica three years ago and, of course, many of the birds are common to both countries. We were a multi national party with quite a wide age range which enhanced the experience and Gonzalo's very good English ensured that we could all understand each other, except when, just occasionally, the two Danish
speakers realised they were getting out of practice in using their own language! Conclusions to be drawn, we saw a lot of Panama, we saw a lot of birds, we enjoyed ourselves.
Jim Sipiora Arlington, Texas, USA
This was my 10th trip to Panama but I have never traveled around the country in a single trip as much as on this one. Our first official stop was the Parque Natural Metropolitano. This park seems to get better with every visit and it is one of my favorite places in the canal area. I can't wait to bird here again. After that we went to the Caribbean side and Achiote Road. I have birded this road two other times and it has never lived up to my expectations given all I have read about it. This trip was no exception. The last time I did it, we spent more time in the more open areas along the road, which I think helped boost our list, as we ran across a lot of more open country species, which we didn't get on this trip. After that we hit two of the best areas in Panama the ammo dump Ponds and Pipeline Road. Both were excellent, but I don't think 1/2 day is enough time to cover this region. I think 2 days would have been more productive, especially, as our trip to the El Valle area was pretty much a waste of time and gas. We then flew to David and a visit to Cabanas Los Quetzales. This was a really nice area of cloud forest. Unfortunately our local guide's idea of birding was standing on the porch of a cabin playing the call of the Resplendent Quetzal over and over and over and over. Yes for hours that was all we did. The birds are obviously 'taped out' and do not respond to the recordings. This concept was impossible for the guide to grasp. When we finally walked a few trails, we found quite a few birds, but we sure wasted a lot of birding time with Quetzal recordings and we weren't done yet. After lunch we went to Sendero de Los Quetzales. I have birded this trail before and it was very good. However, rather than walk the trail and look for birds the plan was the same as at the cabins-play the Quetzal recording for birds that are not going to respond. I lost track of how long this went on. When our guides finally gave up and we walked up the trail a little way, we started getting some birds but then we had to go back and try the Quetzals again. The next day was a trip to Finca Hartman, which is billed as a shade coffee plantation. When we walked one of the trails, I didn't see too much in the way of shade-or birds but the feeders at the office were very productive. Then it was time for our trip to Darien. As already mentioned our original plans had to be scrapped and what was substituted wasn't all that great. Overall I enjoyed the trip, but I would rather have spent more time birding and less time traveling. I did get some new ideas for places to explore on future trips to Panama and also a few I would just as soon avoid.
Gordon Saunders, Ontario, Canada
Panama is a really beautiful country with a variety of habitats that are excellent for birds, mammals, plants and flowers, lizards, spiders, and insects that include some amazing butterflies and dragon flies. The main focus and interest for the group was birding, some for photography and others to record new species. By the end of the tour we had recorded 300+ species including the target bird Resplendent Quetzal, both male and female ... spectacular birds, especially the male with the long floating tail in flight - a memory not soon forgotten.
The variety of birds included such families as the motmots, trogans, toucans, tanagers, antbirds, woodcreepers, caciques, oropendolas grassquits, aracaris, puff-birds, manakins, (24 of 59 hummingbirds and 32 of 94 flycatchers), etc. Needless to say the first few days were daunting and overwhelming with the abundance and variety of bird species each day. One got accustomed and soon adjusted to seeing and identifying birds. There were many, 'oh, shit, missed it!' birds as well!
Some of the habitats included elevations of 2-3000 feet, cloud forests, semi-arid places, mangroves, stream-side, mountain-side and especially places along the Panama canal such as Pipeline Road, Gatun Lock, Chagres River and a number of nature parks near Panama City.
Gonzalo Horna, a Panamanian, was our chief guide and he organized an excellent itinerary for our 10 days in Panama. We travelled from near the Costa Rican border south to well into Darien Province where the Inter-American Highway ends near Yaviza ... we never made it that far. Our routes took us away from the main drags to some back country places and here it was easy to experience life in the country where the people worked and lived away from the cities. The group included 2 Danes (one has actually lived in Canada for more than 50 years, so more Canadian than Danish), 1 Canadian, 1 Bahamian, 2 Britons, and 1 American and despite the uniqueness of the group, we blended and worked and played well together. Our guide spoke Spanish and certainly bailed us out a number of times at restaurants, in the hotel, at the airport, police checkpoints, and finding our way around the streets and traffic of Panama City!
Each of the 10 days were long with early am rises to get to the birding sites for maximum viewing and finishing late some evenings with a nice shower, cold beer and evening ... not necessarily in that order! The food was good and we made many stops at some roadside cafes and restaurants for a great variety of the local foods. Fish and chicken was very popular with plantains, beans and rice, yucca, local fruit, etc. Ceviche is a popular and tasty local dish. And the coffee was amazing ... Panama is a big producer of some of the world's finest coffee. And local beer is only $1.00 ... how nice is that!
Most of us stayed in Panama beyond the 10 days birds to do other things and certainly the Panama Canal was one of the highlights.
This is an amazing man-made structure that is absolutely vital to world trade and commerce ... and to stand next to the going and coming of some of the world's cruise, cargo, pleasure craft and other large ships. It was interesting to learn that a second canal is being built parallel to the first and will open on the 100th anniversary of the first in 2014. And, as Gonzalo, our guide suggested, 'you must come then for the BIG party!'
And that is the spirit goodwill and humor of the Panamanians! They are very hospitable and friendly people who no doubt at times are tired of the tourists with their different ways. We were certainly treat exceptionally well and for me it was a tremendous learning experience to have had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country and participate in many of their customs and way of life. And, of course the many birds were a bonus along with the new Birdingpals from different parts of the globe.
Andreas Petersen, Copenhagen, Denmark
This was my first trip to Central America so I was expecting to see a lot of new birds – and indeed my expectations were fulfilled: During the round-trip I recorded 298 species (as always when you are birding in a group, not everyone sees everything) and during my 12 days extension, birding on my own, I added another 35-40 species. Almost all of them new to me!
The group we travelled in was very heterogeneous with regard to birding experience and ambitions, but I think we managed to get along quite well during the 10 days.
Unlike some of my co-travellers I have some reservations regarding our guide Gonzalo. He was much focused on getting us to se the birds, which is fine, but when asked by me to also identify birds heard, he rarely volunteered and only when repeatedly asked about the same bird. Birding in forest/jungle areas means that many birds are only heard so aural identification skills are essential. Outside of central Panama City and its immediate surroundings (Gamboa, Achiote) he did not seem to know the localities very well. In pure practical things, his laser pointer was only working part time and one morning we had to hunt for an open supermarket so he could top up his mobile phone credit.
But the most critical part was the cancelled trip to El Real in the easternmost Panama. This I did not know upon arrival in Panama and it was not very well communicated. The two days in replacement was almost a waste of time, birding in not very producing areas. The cancellation was in brief explained by security reasons and that the police would not allow us to go upriver from Yavitze. If this was true then my complaints are irrelevant, but only a few days after our roundtrip I met another group, led by another guide/company that the very next day was going to Yavitze and sail upriver
Note: It should be noted, this group also did not get past Yavitze and all the Ancon tours have been cancelled until further notice. Just before I left Panama 3 people was killed by illegal loggers in Darien, so the safety concern are real. The Panamanian and Colombian governments are working closely to solve the problems and let's hope they can. It would be a great experience for birders to travel in Darien again. Knud
Some of these objections may stem from the group being quite diverse, but in the end I feel I cannot recommend Gonzalo beyond a day trip in Panama City for the normal Birdingpal.
All the pictures are compliments of Tony, Alec, Andreas and Gordon and I am sure they will give a small indication of birding in Panama.
A final note.
Returning to the municipal airport in Panama City from David, your identification was checked as is normal many places.
When I handed my passport over, I was told, that I was illegally in the country. A bit surprised, I asked to see my passport and could not find any entry stamp for my arrival December 02/11. The only stamp was dated January 2011, and you can only stay a maximum of 6 months without a visa.
Not speaking Spanish, I realized this could be big trouble and I could easily have been detained and spent a day or two in jail, before this matter was cleared up.
This is where a good guide comes in. Gonzalo right away returned to help, and we ended up on the second floor of the airport with two female immigration officers. I do not know, what he told them, but there was a lot of talking and in the end smiling. One of the officers’s then called the international airport in Tucamen and spoke to a colleague, who confirmed, I did indeed arrive December 02/11 on a COPA flight directly from Toronto. My passport was returned, but I had to get to Tucamen right away to get this matter settled.
Since Gonzalo had the rest of the group to look after, he made arrangement with an English speaking driver to take me to the airport, stay and help me contact the emigration officer there. Half an hour later my passport was returned with a freshly printed stamp indicating I arrived in Panama December 02/11.
The moral of the story is, of course, to check your passport when you arrive in a foreign country, but more importantly to have a guide, who can do more than finding the birds for you. I will always be thankful to Gonzalo for the way he handled this little problem very professionally.
Last update 10/10/2012