Birds of Panama

“What was your bird of the day?,” asked someone staying at our lodge, which caught me up short but got me thinking. If I was in Panama not to tally the greatest number of species for a life list but for the birding experience, surely I could remember what sighting brought me the greatest pleasure of the day. Now that I am home, after seven full and three half-days of birding, I will try to use this template as an aide-memoire of the trip.

Day 1: We took a tour of Panama City and didn’t pay attention to birds until our lunch stop on Amador Island, looking over the Pacific. In the distance, amid the much larger pelicans, gulls and terns, were a half-dozen smaller, darker grey birds, gracefully keeping their own company: Black Terns.

Day 2: Our first afternoon tour at Canopy Lodge in Vallee was marred by our guide’s non-stop whistling, which failed to attract any birds but annoyed me so much I slid off on my own. As the group returned to the van and I lagged behind, I heard chipping from the shrubs along the road and eventually tracked it to a small, striking bird with a rufous cap and ear patch surrounding a white eye-line. Not only was the bird cute, it was easy to identify as a Rufous-capped Warbler. We would see it a lot during our stay, and the sight was always welcome.

Day 3: I spent this day around the Lodge. In the morning at a woodland spot where they dumped fruit rinds daily, I first spotted the Orange-billed Sparrow. In the afternoon at the same location, Karen from Denmark and I watched as the large Grey-necked Wood-Rail clumped into view. Both were surprising and distinctive.

Day 4: An all-day trip to the Caribbean Slope proved a slow morning, but when we stopped in a small town for our picnic lunch we looked down on a tree with red pear-like fruits and a mass of birds jumping between the ground, the tree and a fence at its base. I asked our guide, Danilo Jr., what are those smallish, bright-green birds with black smudges on their cheeks. Emerald Tanagers, almost the last of the 15 tanager species that brightened our trip at every turn.

Day 5: In the morning, a grey, rainy day, we hiked uphill through fields and woods, fighting for every bird. At one large expanse there was nothing to see, absolutely nothing, but then in plain view, in full song, appeared a single Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch. Nondescript in color, as the name “Grass-Finch”* implies, it had a long pointed tail, the length of its body, and it gave us front and back views for as long as we wanted to watch. In the afternoon we were led to the scouted location of a Spectacled Owl. While I normally don’t like being spoon-fed, I would otherwise never see owls, and this fellow, with his rich cream breast and distinguished white spectacles, was one of the more majestic birds I have ever seen.

Day 6. Our second all-day tour was to the “Lowlands,” near the Pacific Coast. My favorite bird of the morning was the Rusty-margined Flycatcher, not because of any inherent qualities of the bird but because I labored so hard to identify it on my own. It is the spitting image of the more common Social Flycatcher: the latter shows faint traces of wingbars, while the former has no wingbars and a faint rust color on its secondary wing feathers (the “margin” of its name). After working so hard, I felt proprietary about the bird for the rest of the trip. For our lunch stop, we descended on the beach house of Snr. Raul, the Canopy owner. Amid a large group of Sandwich Terns stood a single Elegant Tern, a “rare migrant” that our guides did not expect to see. It recalled to me the many hours I’ve spent on Sands Beach in Santa Barbara, learning to distinguish Elegants from Royal Terns, and to clinch the identification there was also a single, much larger and thicker-billed Royal Tern standing nearby.

Day 7. Before leaving Canopy Lodge I got one more good look at the Bay Wren. It was the loudest singer for our whole visit, and while it would more often be hidden than visible it eventually became a common sight. Its sharply contrasting black-and-white face and bright rusty body was quite a departure from the wrens of North America. In the afternoon, on our first tour from Canopy Tower, we had a similar experience laboring to locate a calling White-throated Crake in a bed of water hyacinth – only to see it parading openly on a limb two days later.

Day 8. In the morning we walked down Semaphore Hill from the Tower, picking birds here and there from the forest around us and the canopy above. As we waited at the bridge for the van to pick us up for lunch, I found our Holy Grail, the Red-capped Manakin, sensational in its smallness and simplicity. Until that point, the Crimson-crested Woodpecker was the star. Our afternoon on the grounds of Gamboa Resort with guide Michael was somewhat desultory, enlivened by the surprising, brief, consecutive appearances of a Cinnamon Becard and a White-winged Becard; so I will here acknowledge the one good look we took of the White-throated Ibis, never before recorded in Panama but for more than a week camped out on the mudflat below the rattly bridge crossing the Chagres River.

Day 9. Gary and I asked to spend two mornings on Pipeline Road, the most famous birding spot in Panama, and we asked to start at the “far” end – actually only the far end of the road cleared for birding. What we got was a lot of dense second-growth forest, with few birds and those hard to see. Perhaps, however, it was worth it for the extended look we had of the Streak-chested Antpitta, strutting and puffing on the forest floor, carrying itself like a baby Snowy Plover. In the afternoon, in compensation, we hit a gold mine of a tree in the parking lot below Summit Pond – with species after species landing on its leafless branches. There was a surprising delegation from North America of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, warblers and a rare Painted Bunting (with colors more at home here than in Georgia), but I was most struck by a Purple-crowned Fairy, the largest, purest and most elegant of the eight hummingbirds we saw this day.

Day 10. Our second morning on Pipeline Road was more productive, largely because we worked its start, which was more open (if more crowded). Whereas most of the other birds I’ve cited so far are ones I located by myself – which adds to the pleasure I take – it was next to impossible to find the secretive, dull-colored species that populate the Panamanian forest. Here our guide, who could recognize the quietest sound and know where to look, was essential. Amid the various antshrikes, antpittas, antthrushes, antvireos, antbirds and antwrens (not that I saw examples of each), my favorite encounter was with a family of Song Wrens, patrolling the forest floor, tossing leaves that dwarfed their bodies, with a bright chestnut throat that jumped out when you could see them. Our last afternoon we went back to Gamboa Resort and hung out at the marina, where we added waterbirds to our list: Limpkin, Purple Gallinule, Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Oddly, however, the last bird we spotted and my favorite was a land bird, the Streaked Flycatcher. Although they went by different names – tyrants, tyrannulets, eleanias, flatbills, pewees, etc. – there were 34 flycatchers on my trip list before I saw one that had a streaked breast. And after all the colorful birds, it was a different kind of pleasure to soak in the subtle browns and rusts on its wings and back. It sat on a low limb, undisturbed, while we took turns at the scope, although it wasn’t far away. Upon counting, it proved to be bird number 270, ending our day, as so often happens in birding, on a high note.

*The bird names we encountered were a frequent source of amusement, if not confusion. To find a bird in the field guide index, it wasn’t enough to hear that it was a “finch” you were seeing, for the bird could as easily be alphabetized under “grass-finch” or “seed-finch.” A flycatcher would not be found under “F” if it were a “tody-flycatcher” or a “scrub-flycatcher.” A hummingbird was rarely called “hummingbird”; instead it was a “jacobin,” “coquette,” “woodnymph,” “mango,” “hermit,” “plumeleteer,” “fairy,” “starthroat” or “thorntail” – and those are just the ones we actually saw. Fortunately, since the guidebook’s publication, the Western Slaty-Antshrike that we frequently encountered and that the Smithsonian is studying on Pipeline has undergone a name change to Black-crowned Antshrike, meaning that in future editions it will be found under “A,” with the other antshrikes, instead of “S.”