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Birding Panama pt. 1 - Panamania...

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, April 7, 2014 

We landed in Panama City, early on Saturday the 22nd.  The whole day was open for birding in the mountains, and then a 3 hour drive to our hotel along the south coast  (Pacific) west of Panama City.  The plan was to head to Cerro Azul for my chance to finally get my lifer Speckled Tanager, along with a number of other species I wouldn't have the opportunity to see during the rest of our trip.  We made our way through customs fairly quickly and headed to the car rental area to pick up our SUV.  Things started to slow down here--despite it being Budget, it seemed to be a little behind the times.  It took about an hour to get our car which we had booked ahead of time.  By the time we were in the car and ready to go, I realized we hadn't asked for a GPS--and by this point the Budget guys were nowhere to be found.  So I decided, we were going to have an adventure--we had maps after all, and I had printed out step by step directions to each place we were going so we should be good right?

A first look at the jungles of Panama from above

1 Block out of the airport we realized that there were no street signs in Panama City.  So despite knowing that we had to turn right in 500 meters on Avenue Domingo Diaz, we didn't know if the street was actually Avenue Domingo Diaz.  The directions to the mountains were pretty straightforward, and we thought we were going the right direction, but after about 10 minutes, I decided we didn't know where we were.  We turned around and went back to the airport to try again (The irony I learned later was that we were indeed going the right direction--the mileage gauge on the car was on a different setting than it was supposed to be so our KM's weren't adding up as we expected).  This time we took another turn onto what seemed like the right street, but pretty soon we realized again that the directions didn't match  up.  It was official, we were lost in Panama City.  The road we were on seemed like a major thoroughfare given the bumper to bumper mid-morning traffic on a Saturday.  It was headed west in the general direction downtown and the Panama Canal so I told Sam that we would just keep going this way and instead of heading to the mountains go right to the first place we were staying. 30 minutes in on day one and my #1 target bird was instantly off the table as a possibility yet again.

But there were other birds. At the airport Sam spotted the first bird of the trip, a GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE.  Next came Rock Pigeons, followed by both CATTLE EGRET and LITTLE BLUE HERON.  In our 30 minutes of wandering along fields and marsh we added both EASTERN MEADOWLARK and my first lifer of the trip, RED-BREASTED BLACKBIRD. Both BLACK and TURKEY VULTURES could be seen soaring over the highway as we made our way towards downtown.  The slow crawl of traffic should have been mundane, but the "Panamaniacs" (a term I used to describe the drivers in this beautiful country) made sure to keep things interesting, by darting in and out of lanes, cutting you off, ignoring your presence, and all around making you fear for your life, or at least the well being of your rental.  It was stress filled driving at its best.

As we made our way into the heart of the city we soon found ourselves near the waterfront.  Lifer number two for the trip appeared on a power line along the road--a FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER.  Then things got crazy--one wrong turn and we were in old town. Wall to wall people and cars--this was not where we wanted to be and I was looking hard for an out--but not hard enough to notice the PEREGRINE FALCON cruising overhead.  Eventually everything worked itself out and I managed to make it onto Balboa Avenue, and with a little luck we were crossing the Bridge of the Americas on our way up (west) the coast.

Driving on the Pan-Am Highway

Once out of the city things were pretty fast going--minus the 25 minutes it took to get through the town of La Chorrera.  I missed a turn off just before town to take a "newer" highway that misses all the traffic--oops.  I didn't see a ton of birds as we made our way through small towns and villages along the Pan-American Highway.  YELLOW-HEADED CARACARA and AMERICAN KESTREL were two birds I noticed. By lunch time we found our way into the "surf-town" of El Palmar and our lodging for the first two nights--the Manglar Lodge.

Manglar Lodge front walk

We ate a quick lunch while watching a few birds around the garden.  TROPICAL KINGBIRDS and SOCIAL FLYCATCHER patrolled the area even in the heat of the day.  There were flowers along the fence in the yard and before long my 3rd lifer of the trip showed up in a BLACK-THROATED MANGO.  For the next two days this bird was a constant in the garden.  After lunch we decided to head to the beach which at this point was a ΒΌ mile out due to low tide.  I wasn't sure how high it go, but at its current state rock beds were visible all along the beach, and shorebirds were using them well.  WESTERN and LEAST SANDPIPER were seen along with COLLARED PLOVER and 2 WHIMBREL.  A lone SNOWY EGRET also was hunkered down trying to avoid the wind which was blowing sand.  We walked further west along the shore to where the rocks disappeared and the locals were out enjoying the warm tropical water.   The afternoon faded into evening and we retreated to our room to rest a little bit and cool down.  3 lifer birds on the first day was far fewer than I had hoped, and I knew missing Cerro Azul was going to take  a chunk out of my trip list. Maye tomorrow would bring some birds and photo ops.

3 life birds this day / 3 total trip life birds / 25 total trip species

photos from post:
Tocumen International Airport 
Balboa, Panama 
El Palmar (3/22 - day)
El Palmar (3/22 - evening)

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Blogger Dickson Smith said...

That had to be a fantastic trip! Looking forward to your photos.

April 8, 2014 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Dickson: It was a great trip--the best posts are yet to come!

April 8, 2014 at 10:16 PM  

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