Going Wild in Panama, Part 1

I’ve spent most of my adult life dreaming about Panama. The country has ranked highly on my short list of priority destinations for years, largely due to its relatively close proximity, accessibility, and rich biodiversity. For birders who seek the natural treasures of the Neotropics, Panama is a fantastic first choice. It boasts more birds than any other nation in Central America, with over 900 different species recorded in the country. It’s a fantastic hotspot for other wildlife, too, hosting a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. From the dense lowland rainforests to the misty cloud forests of the mountains, Panama is full of incredible habitats with rich communities of plants and animals.

Whenever my work calendar has provided me with an extended break, I’ve attempted to plan an expedition to experience these wonders for myself. Time and time again, my efforts fell through. To be fair, there have been plenty of wonderful adventures for me to enjoy throughout the years. Arizona, Spain, Yellowstone, Florida, California, Texas…it’s hard to complain when these are your “back-up” plans for vacation! Even so, the prospect of Panama continued to linger in my mind. The stars finally aligned for spring break 2019, which fell during the last full week of April. Nestled between the end of peak season’s high prices and the beginning of the wet season’s persistent downpours, this time frame seemed ideal. I reached out to the Canopy Family to book lodgings and tour arrangements. After several weeks of studying all-new organisms and a few crucial gear purchases, the day of departure arrived at last.

Getting Started

For the first night of the trip, I had secured a room at the Canopy B&B in Gamboa. Staff informed me when I provided my travel dates that there were no tour guides or beds available at the internationally famous Canopy Tower until the day after my arrival. For the first 24 hours or so, I knew I was going to be on my own in terms of wildlife identification. Fortunately, there were ample resources available to prepare me for this Neotropical trial by fire. Princeton Field Guides’ Birds of Central America proved to be an incredible asset, and the country-specific A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama and The Birds of Panama came in handy as well. eBird’s photo and audio quiz tool was invaluable, allowing me to grill myself on Panamanian avians during my commute to and from work. The end result was that I felt considerably less helpless than I’d feared I would by the time I boarded the plane heading south. There was a whole new world of critters awaiting me, and I couldn’t wait to get acquainted with them!

Despite some storm-related complications and uncertainty surrounding my flight from New York, I reached Tocumen International Airport in Panama City right on schedule. My very first new species of the trip, a Gray-breasted Martin wheeling over the parking lot, was the 800th bird for my life list. The appointed shuttle driver met me just outside the customs gate, and we followed the road northwest towards Gamboa. Situated between the Panama Canal and Soberania National Park, the community serves as the gateway to some of the best wild spaces in the whole country. Legendary locations like Pipeline Road and Barro Colorado Island are usually accessed via Gamboa. The town itself is quite delightful, too, having fully embraced its status as an ecotourism destination. When I stepped out of the van at the B&B, I found a line of Leafcutter Ants marching along the walkway and heard Orange-chinned Parakeets calling in the treetops overhead. The colorful array of tanagers, hummingbirds, and other species in the backyard had me spellbound I even checked in. It was clear that this was going to be an unforgettable vacation.

First Impressions

Once I’d dropped off my bags at the B&B, I immediately set about exploring my surroundings in search of wildlife. Even birding from the sidewalk proved to be an effective strategy on the wild streets of Gamboa. Keel-billed Toucans sailed between the treetops while Short-tailed and Band-rumped Swifts spiraled in the skies above. There were plenty of unfamiliar sounds emanating from the forest, but I quickly learned the calls of abundant locals like Cocoa Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, Bright-rumped Attila, and Lesser Greenlet. I continued along Goethals Boulevard onto the grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. The brushy edges along the road offered various flycatchers and seed-eating songbirds, while the marina on the banks of the Chagres River provided great viewing opportunities for water-loving species. A noisy nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques provided plenty of entertainment while I scanned the shoreline from my perch on the docks. As I made my way back to the B&B for the evening, hordes of Red-lored Parrots continually streamed overhead, flocking towards their roost trees in the fading light.

At dinner, I had a lovely opportunity to chat with a fellow birder named Anthony. He was also headed to the Canopy Tower after a visit to the Darién Province in eastern Panama, where he and his companions had successfully sought rarities like Harpy Eagle and Sapayoa. We swapped stories and discussed the finer points of our hobby over some delicious food before heading off to our rooms. After turning in for the night relatively early, I was up before dawn the following day. I started down the same route towards the resort, listening as the forest gradually awakened.

The haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon echoed through the trees, joining the bellowing roars of Mantled Howler Monkeys and the quavering whistles of Great Tinamous. As the sun climbed higher, more and more creatures began to stir. White-nosed Coatis and Central American Agoutis roamed the lawns, and Gray-headed Chachalacas scrambled through the branches. Trogons, wrens, antshrikes, tityras, and motmots were all observed foraging along the road, while Wattled Jacanas and Southern Lapwings stalked the water’s edge. I meandered back towards the B&B, where Anthony drew my attention to a Green Shrike-Vireo singing in the nearby trees. I noticed that a Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift had also joined the ranks of its cousins circling the property. There were plenty of surprises to be found around town, but the promise of exciting new sights and scenery beckoned. I packed up my things and thanked the staff, bolting down some quick breakfast before the shuttle arrived to take us to Canopy Tower.

The Tower on the Hill

Gamboa is only about a 10 minute drive from the base of Semaphore Hill Road, the winding path that leads up the slope to Canopy Tower. Originally built by the United States for use as a radar station back in the 60s, the structure was converted into an ecolodge which opened for business in 1999. For 20 years, the Canopy Family has used the tower as a base of operations for wildlife tours in the Canal Zone. The observation deck offers a panoramic view 50 feet above the ground, eye level with the highest limbs of the surrounding trees. I was excited to see what my stay at the tower had in store for me.

After dropping off our bags in the lobby, Anthony and I decided to do some birding on Semaphore Hill Road while we waited for our room assignments. Despite the midday heat, we found a number of new forest birds along the way. Plain Xenops, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Checker-throated Antwren, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet were among the cast of characters we encountered as we strolled down the slope and back. At the tower itself, I enjoyed my first looks at Broad-billed Motmot, Double-toothed Kite, and Collared Aracari. White-necked Jacobins dominated the nectar feeders, aggressively chasing interlopers while Long-billed Hermit, White-vented Plumeleteer, and Blue-chested Hummingbird attempted to sneak in for some sips of sugar. A cloudburst sent me inside, where I watched a band of Geoffroy’s Tamarins relaxing among the branches right outside the dining room windows.

In the early afternoon, I relocated my luggage to my quarters. I took the downtime as a chance to introduce myself to some of the other guests who were staying at the tower, including Alex and Barb, a wonderfully warm and friendly traveling couple from Canada, and Martin, a world birder with decades of experience and stories. Canopy Family staff gave me an update on my tour schedule, introducing me to Igua, my first guide for the trip. For our introductory outing, we would visit the grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort near where I’d been solo birding earlier. I was curious about what species I might have missed with my limited knowledge and time in the area. After loading into the truck, we set off down the road back towards Gamboa.

Down By The River

Our first stop was the dock overlooking the Chagres River where I’d searched for birds the previous evening. Igua gave me some tips for identifying the frustratingly similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and pointed out a large male Common Basilisk clinging to a nearby tree trunk. There were a number of waterbirds working the shoreline, and swallows dipped and darted low over the surface everywhere I looked. A small flock of wild Muscovy Ducks flew past on their way upstream, my first encounter with the widespread domestic escapee in its native range. I was delighted to see that there were plenty of animals that had escaped my attention on my prior visits to the marina, making this outing feel like an all new experience.

We continued through the gardens towards the wooded nature trails, turning off the paved road at Sendero La Chunga. Tanagers were among the stars of the show, with Golden-hooded, Flame-rumped, Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Plain-colored, and Palm all putting in appearances. The tremulous cry of a Little Tinamou echoed from the dense cover just off trail, followed by the vibrant song of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager, but both birds remained hidden in the undergrowth. A pair of male Golden-collared Manakins proved much more cooperative, perching on unobstructed twigs long enough to allow everyone in the party brilliant scope views. As expected, Igua’s guiding skills added a number of new names to my list due to a combination of familiarity with the local birds and a better sense of where to search for particular targets. Parrots, saltators, and caracaras rounded out the evening’s tally before we started back towards base.

The Pipeline Cometh

Back at the Canopy Tower, we went over the checklist of birds and mammals to mark off the species we’d encountered. As we prepared for dinner, I was informed that there’d been a change of plans for my itinerary the following day. Anthony had invited me to join his group and their guide Jorge on a full-day expedition to Pipeline Road. I was honored by the offer, and thrilled at the prospect of visiting the world-renowned birding site earlier than I’d expected. This was an extra opportunity to search for rare and secretive animals along the depths of the rainforest road with a team of skilled naturalists, and on Earth Day, no less! After an excellent meal and plenty of charming conversation, I headed off to bed, eager to see what Panama had planned for me at dawn.