Mark Pretti Nature Tours, L.L.C.

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Panama Trip Report - the following is summary of my 2011 - 2017 Panama trips.

The southernmost country of Central America, the Republic of Panama is the well-known east-west oriented isthmus connecting North and South America.  Itís remarkably high biodiversity is a function of its tropical latitude, its unique location as a biological bridge between two continents, and its diverse biogeography.  While many South American species reach their northern limits in Panama, a number of North American species arrive at their southern limit.  High cloud forests in the far west (and the highest point in the country, Volcan Baru at 11, 410 ft.), a vast tract of intact and roadless rainforest in the east, a varied landscape of moist and dry forests in between, and enormous amounts of coastline on the Pacific and Caribbean sides all contribute to the biogeographic and species diversity of Panama.  Within the many habitats approximately 978 species of birds, 231 mammals, 205 amphibians, and over 150 reptiles have been found.  Of these, many are regional endemics.

Our trip begins in Panama City where we stay at the comfortable Albrook Inn.  Sandwiched between the Metropolitan Nature Park and Camino de Cruces National Park, the inn has surprisingly good birds on the grounds and on an adjacent quiet trail and road.  In addition to common and widespread species such as tropical kingbird, gray-breasted martin, social flycatcher, and clay-colored thrush, the area also has keel-billed toucan, yellow-crowned parrot, yellow-bellied and lesser elaenias, yellow-crowned tyrannulet, fork-tailed flycatcher, squirrel cuckoo, rusty-margined flycatcher, scrub greenlet, short-tailed swift, lance-tailed manakin, white-bellied antbird, crimson-backed tanager, and many others.  We spend our first morning at Metropolitan Park, a 655-acre patch of semideciduous forest that provides an excellent introduction to the lowland neotropics.  In addition to birds, the flora - wild cashew, Guanacaste, figs, Acacias, Heliconias, Cecropia, Castilla, and gumbo limbo - offer a nice introduction to neotropical natural history.  Orange-chinned parakeets screech overhead, occasionally stopping to perch or feed, cocoa woodcreepers (the most common one in the country) are fairly easily seen, white-bellied antbirds work the leaf litter, dusky antbirds work the bamboo tangles, both lineated and crimson-crested woodpeckers are found on the larger trees, and whooping motmots and trogons perch quietly between foraging bouts.  The park can be good for mixed flocks which, fortunately, aren't too overwhelming.  While the species composition varies, western slaty-antshrike, plain xenops, dot-winged antwren, white-shouldered tanager, several warbler species (bay-breasted, chestnut-sided, black-and-white), golden-fronted and lesser greenlets, blue dacnis, and many others are usually seen.  Though not as common as the birds, we've seen sloths, variegated squirrel, white-nosed coati, and the beautiful Geoffrey's tamarin here as well.  The tamarins are a regional endemic, and their active natures, precision leaping abilities, and unusual calls are great fun.

Of course, a visit to the Panama Canal is a must, and, after our rich morning at the park, we head to the nearby Miraflores Locks where a museum and viewing platforms provide a good understanding of this monumental engineering achievement.  With a bit of luck we'll be there as one of the large ships is passing through.  While the efficiency and precision of the locks is impressive, what is perhaps more impressive is the quantity of fresh water used each day.  With about 52 million gallons per ship for a complete transit, and with about 40 ships making the journey each day, it's hard to believe that there is enough water to run the canal non-stop all year.  Of course, the keys to this are the local climate (the rainy season lasts about 8 months during which up to 180 inches may fall in the canal area)) and the well protected forested watershed that surrounds the canal area.  

From Miraflores, it's only about 30 minutes to the luxurious Gamboa Rainforest Resort where we spend four nights.  Surrounded by intact forest and situated within Soberania National Park along the banks of the Chagres River, Gamboa is an ideal location for exploring the biodiversity of the canal area.  Our spacious, air-conditioned rooms all have balconies with hammocks, outstanding views of the river, and often eye-level views of many birds.  It can be a challenge to actually rest during our breaks as "from the balcony" species include short-tailed swift, many tanagers (plain-colored, golden-hooded, blue-gray, palm, lemon-rumped, and crimson-backed), orange-chinned parakeet, blue-headed, red-lored, and mealy parrots, fork-tailed flycatcher, and piratic, social, and common tody flycatchers.  Central American agoutis, variegated squirrel, and both two-toed and three-toed sloths are fairly common on the grounds.  An adjacent trail has been a good place for forest-based species such as whooping and broad-billed motmots, keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled toucans, white-bellied and chestnut-backed antbirds, golden-collared manakin, the rare American pygmy kingfisher, black-tailed flycatcher, song, rufous-and-white, and rufous-breasted wrens, dot-winged antwren, and others.

While at Gamboa, we do an afternoon boat trip on the Chagres River and the canal itself.  To me, the canal is a bit odd compared to other freshwater areas in the neotropics (e.g. the Pantanal, Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, mangrove estuaries in west Mexico) as it isn't crawling with water birds.  This is likely due to its artificial nature as well as the ship and boat traffic.  Nonetheless, we've done pretty well along the Rio Chagres and in some quiet backwater areas on Gatun Lake where we've seen a nice mix of species.  Along the Chagres we usually find black-bellied whistling ducks, blue-winged teal, several waders (great egret, little blue, great blue, green, striated, and tricolored herons), anhinga, common and purple gallinules, wattled jacana, occasionally royal and sandwich terns, and sometimes the rare masked duck.  A stop by a nearby native Embera village has a nesting colony of yellow-rumped caciques with displaying males, nest-building females, and giant cowbirds and piratic flycatchers waiting in the wings.  While passing through the canal, we have the opportunity to get a ship's eye view of the navigation markers, the historic excavations, the ongoing dredging operations, and sometimes a huge container ship.  We eventually arrive at a quiet area where introduced apple snails attract limpkins and the only snail kites in the country, and where white-throated capuchin monkeys are sometimes seen on a small island.

Gamboa is only minutes away from two well-known birding sites, Pipeline Road and Old Gamboa Road.  We have two mornings to explore the Pipeline area which has excellent rainforest, good wildlife, easy walking, and an impressive species list.  While you can't see everything, we've done pretty well in the past with slaty-backed forest-falcon, double-toothed kite, purple-throated fruitcrow (one of the few species of cotinga in which the male participates in nesting), four puffbird species (pied, white-necked, white-whiskered, and black-breasted), great tinamou (actually seen by an entire group), four trogons (slaty-tailed, black-throated, gartered, and white-tailed), and many antbirds, flycatchers, and tanagers.  Of course, one of the birding highlights of  the area is finding an army ant swarm, and the Pipeline area can be very good for just that.  In the lowlands of Panama, the suite of ant-following species that we've seen includes bicolored antbird, the gorgeous ocellated antbird, spotted antbird, gray-headed tanager, plain brown and northern barred woodcreepers, and sometimes red-crowned and/or red-throated ant-tanagers.  Mixed flocks often have antwrens (checker-throated, white-flanked, and dot-winged), plain xenops, western slaty-antshrike, brown-capped tyrannulet, and olivaceous woodcreeper.  The Pipeline Road area is one of the few places in Panama where the recently split russet-winged schiffornis is found, and we've had good looks at this interesting species.

Adjacent to Pipeline Road is the Rainforest Discovery Center which has good hummingbird feeders, nice trails, and a 100-ft. canopy tower.  The tower is one of the best and most well-designed I've seen, and the early morning ambiance atop it is always a highlight.  The light, the diversity of trees, seeing the "other end" of the many lianas seen in the understory, and watching the birds, particularly those hard to see from below, is a magical experience.  Parrots (mealy, blue-headed, and red-lored) fly from night roosts to feeding areas, raptors (crane, great black, and semiplumbeous hawks, Mississippi and plumbeous kites) take flight, sometimes perching and offering excellent views, and many of the canopy birds become active.  The tower is often one of the best, and sometimes the only, place to see blue cotinga, green shrike-vireo, brown-capped tyrannulet, and bright-rumped attila, all of which we've seen well.  It's also a great spot from which to view mantled howler monkeys, and one lucky morning we had a troop of at least 20 sitting out in an open fig tree where they had spent the night.  Black-breasted puffbird, purple-throated fruitcrow, blue dacnis, green honeyceeper, and keel-billed and chestnut-mandibles toucans are fairly common, too.  The Center's hummingbird feeders are buzzing with various species.  Early in the morning, before the white-necked jacobins have taken over, the mix includes violet-bellied, white-vented plumeleteer, blue-chested, crowned woodnymph, and long-billed hermit.  The staff is well tuned to the local wildlife and has generously shared with us a lemurine night monkey day roost, a female brown-throated three-toed sloth with a baby, and the favorite perches of the male rufous-crested hermit.  A trail to a small lagoon nearby has been good for great tinamou, dusky antbird, rufous and broad-billed motmots, ciannamon woodpecker, southern bentbill, and golden-collared manakin, while the lagoon itself sometimes has masked duck, lesser kiskadee, purple gallinule, wattled jacana, and greater ani.

Old Gamboa Road is one of the birdiest places I've seen in Panama.  It's always a great afternoon location with a nice mix of forest, ponds, open country, and second growth.  In February and March, the fruiting Panama berry and gumbo limbo trees in the parking area are often full of birds, both fruit eaters and others.  While the common tanagers and clay-colored thrush are always present, it's a good spot for three euphonias (thick-billed, yellow-crowned, and fulvous-vented), streaked, Panama, and piratic flycatchers, masked and black-crowned tityras, and red-crowned woodpecker.  Edge and open country species here include yellow-bellied and variable seedeaters, blue-black grassquit, thick-billed seedfinch, indigo bunting, bran-colored flycatcher, smooth-billed ani, and yellow-headed caracara.  Most birders visiting the neotropics encounter the great kiskadee and its many look-alike cousins.  With five such species occurring in close proximity (great and lesser kiskadees, and boat-billed, social, and rusty-margined flycatchers), Old Gamboa Road is perhaps the best place I know to sort them out by field marks, vocalizations, and habitat preference.  Two small ponds on the road can have ringed, amazon, green, and pygmy kingfishers, nesting boat-billed heron, and occasionally prothonotary warbler, while the forest and second growth has been good for day-roosting spectacled owl, slaty-tailed trogon, golden-hooded tanager, jet antbird, and lance-tailed manakin.

While the Gamboa area is always tough to leave, so to is our next destination, the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton.  With very nice rooms, good food, a first-class staff, and some of the best fruit feeders I've seen, our stays are always memorable.  Here we trade the warm and humid lowlands for the cooler and drier conditions of the low mountains.  At 2000 feet and located at the base of a steep, well forested slope, the Canopy Lodge is a premier birding destination in the neotropics.  Upon arrival, the feeders quickly exert their magnetic pull on the group, and, over the course of our four night stay, we enjoy great views of a suite of colorful species including dusky-faced tanager, orange-billed sparrow, chestnut-headed oropendula, thick-billed euphonia, white-lined tanager, red-legged honeycreeper, and the regulars which include blue-gray, lemon-rumped, and crimson-backed tanagers.  Red-tailed squirrels climb the feeders, agoutis pick up fallen leftovers, waterthrushes, house wren, and rufous-capped warblers work the lawn and shrubs, and odd feeder rarities, e.g. prothonotary warbler and spot-crowned barbet, sometimes drop in.  Though there are no guarantees, we've never failed to have early morning views of sunbittern on the stream that runs through the property.  This northern race of the species sounds very different from the one found in the lowlands east of the Andes.  Other birds on the grounds include white-breasted wood-wren, scaly-breasted wren, bay wren, gray-cowled wood-rail, red-crowned ant-tanager, rosy-thrush tanager, black-chested jay, collared aracari, and northern and Louisiana waterthrushes.

The El Valle area has a variety of habitat types including mid elevation foothills and higher areas that have cloud forest.  While some birds are found in the bottom of the valley as well as up on the mesa, others are more limited by elevation.  Up in the "cloud forest", with its tree ferns, epiphytic mosses, lichens, orchids, and bromeliads, we've found orange-bellied trogon (at its southern limit), white-tailed emerald, barred hawk, white-ruffed manakin, pale-vented thrush, spotted woodcreeper, emerald toucanet, the rare and elusive black-capped antpitta, spot-crowned and plain antvireos, tawny-capped euphonia, silver-throated and emerald tanagers, both gray and white-breasted wood-wrens (in one of the few areas where they overlap), and the local race of common chlorospingus (bush-tanager).  On trails adjacent to the lodge, we've had good luck with ant swarms which are attended by black-chested jays, plain brown woodcreeper, and a rare bird for which the El Valle area is known, the rufous-vented ground-cuckoo.  Other rather rare birds which seem unusually common around El Valle are tody motmot, rosy-thrush tanager, brown-billed scythebill, and white-tipped sicklebill.  The local guides know of about 20 tody motmot territories in the area, and our groups have had the good fortune to see several.  The thrush-tanager, an understory skulker, is always a challenge, but again we've had some great views of "out in the open" birds at El Valle.  In addition to day-roosting mottled owls near to or on the lodge property, we've also enjoyed great views of tropical screech and spectacled owls in nearby areas, and, though it's quite rare in the area, we once had a crested owl on its day roost.  The Cara Iguana Road on the south side of town is a good spot for some of the Pacific slope species such as lance-tailed manakin (of which their is a lek) and rufous-and white wren.  And speaking of wrens, there aren't many places that are as rich in these birds as El Valle where I've seen the two wood-wrens as well as ochraceous, bay, house, Isthmian (plain), rufous-breasted, and song wrens.  With four full days in this beautiful area, we're able to leave El Valle feeling very satisfied.....but of course wanting more.

We conclude our trip with a visit to the new Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo on the Panama City waterfront.  This excellent educational facility focuses on the biodiversity of Panama with exhibits on geology, paleontology, anthropology, history, and culture.  It provides us with a nice overview of some of the foundational elements for all of the habitat and species richness we've experienced on the trip.

As with all of my trips, Panama is a great place to learn about the natural history of the neotropics.  We usually see and learn about all sorts of fun things - the ecology of the highly specialized army ants (both sheet-swarming and column raiders), the ubiquitous leafcutter ants; the special relationship between figs and the minute wasps that pollinate them; the unique trilogy of heliconid butterflies, the Psiguria vines from which they obtain nectar and pollen, and how that relationship is connected to the ecology of their host plant, passionvine; the nesting habits and breeding biology of oropendulas and caciques as it relates to primate predation; the ecological importance of termites; hermit hummingbirds, their nectar sources, and hitch-hiking flower mites; and many other natural stories.

Panama has been a great addition to my trip offerings, and I can't wait to return next year !!

Photos - Black-breasted puffbird, yellow-crowned tyrannulet, Geoffrey's tamarin, and white-necked jacobin by Misty Vaughn

Last updated: February 21, 2017.