We will try anything once, and a few times if it doesn’t kill us. So when we found ourselves staying less than 10 km from Soberania National Park which has one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world as well as a dense avian habitat with an incredible number of species, we thought “let’s go birding” – not really knowing what that meant. After some TripAdvising and Googling to find some guide options, it was off to the deeper sanctums of the interwebs for some investigation of the popular birding blogs. We quickly learned that this is a very serious sport where birders will spend gobs of money ($32B by North American Birders 15 years ago!) on travel and gear to travel to the ends of the earth chasing (or twitching) a particularly rare species and to dense habitats to achieve a record Big Year, Big Day or Big Sit. Given it was our first time, we were smug with the realization that we would be setting personal bests throughout our outing – an outing that began at 5:45am.
Not surprisingly, in the oppressive April heat and humidity of Panama City, birds and animals (and humans with any sense) are most active in the early morning and the late evening. Soberania National Park is just about 30 min. from Panama City so it is a very do-able day trip. We were headed to the Park’s famous Pipeline Road but would stop at a couple other spots first. Our guide was Gonzalo who is a passionate birding guide with a wealth of information on the birds as well as the flora and fauna of the region. And for the few bird calls where his whistle was lacking, he had recorded calls on his smartphone (check out Cornell’s bird identification app). His first questions to us were which species were we after and what was our count expectations for the day. Attempting to hide our ignorance, I mumbled a couple species into my coffee and indicated that we wouldn’t be disappointed if we didn’t hit his Pipeline day count record of 130, but we needed to see at least 50 different species.
We pulled into the eerie ghost town of Gamboa just about 6am. Gamboa is an older township built to house workers of the Panama Canal. Its parks and streets are overgrown and homes are in disrepair. Oddly, the Smithsonian foundation just built a beautiful research facility that stands-out as if Apple were to build their new headquarters in downtown Detroit. And indeed the only people we saw (granted it was EARLY), were a couple of bearded and bed-headed P.H.D. students heading off to an experimental greenhouse to presumably record some early morning data of some sorts.
But Gonzalo did not want to talk about Gamboa or the Smithsonian activities, he was laser -focused on birding. We cased the abandon park from the windows of his truck to locate some calls. After just a few hundred yards, we pulled over and he pulled out his spotting scope with a tripod and his two sets of binoculars (we blamed our travel on our lack of birding equipment), and we were off and running. Parakeets, toucans, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and so many more. Birds were everywhere – in trees, on fences, on the ground, on homes. We roamed the area for a couple hours. He would locate a new species by their calls first and then with his trained eye, set up a scope and have us take a look. We were scolded more than once if we were not quick enough to the scope – he was serious about finding the birds for us.
Our second spot was just down the road at a location named “the ammo dump“, which was the site of an active ammunition dump that houses some of the armaments that were used to protect the Canal in the past. It is directly across a dirt road from the canal, and we saw a number of tankers float by while we were there.
There is a small pond and some marshland that attracts aquatic birds as well as iguanas and lizards (including the “Jesus Christ” lizard) Here we found some vultures, parrots, herons, and a number of migrating birds (Panama’s isthmus provides a very popular route for the migratory birds that travel between North and South America but are not equipped for long pelagic journeys).
We also ran into a tamandua, or anteater, that was busy checking out ant nests on the ground and high above in the trees.
Our final stop was the Soberania National Park where we roamed around the pipeline trail and its vicinity. (note: the pipeline is a East to West pipeline that was covertly built by the US during WWII to ensure that fuel for fighter planes protecting the canal would be available on either side of the canal).
While in the park, we bumped into more professional birder travelers, completely decked out in their travel gear and weighed down by scopes, books, and cameras. They were quick to point out birds as well as other oddities such as the leaf-cutter ants that create a trail through the underbrush after weeks of transporting leaves from high above in the tree canopy down to their nests in the ground hundreds of meters away.
We also ran into a few foreign mammal species, including the agouti, tayra and the aggressive coati. Unfortunately, much like many places in the world, Panama is also experiencing a very dry climate which is killing animals and forcing others to be much more active to search for alternative water sources. The howler monkeys were also out in force and we have been hearing their howls for months now but we did get a close up view of one while on the pipeline road. It was hard to determine who was looking at whom.
All up, we were out for about 6 hours and managed to see 65 different bird species as well as 5 different mammals and some reptiles. Not bad for our first outing (a fact which we ultimately admitted to Gonzalo- although he was way ahead of us and knew immediately when we asked some rookie questions early on).
If you are in Panama, we highly recommend getting out into at least one of the parks. There are many – near and in Panama city and on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Panama’s unique geological history and location make it a truly unique spot for wildlife and it is worth understanding and witnessing it. For more of our travels and thoughts on Panama, check out our posts here.