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  Panama Experience by R. Munguia  

Panama is a well known destination for birders from around the world, and the reason is simple. Some birding locations have claimed more than 375 species in one day. Take for example the Pipeline Rd, less than an hour from busy Panama City in the town of Gamboa is perhaps one of the most productive birding sites in Central America. But, my experience wasn’t quite that good. Lack of rain was to blame for the slow avian activity I experience in September, but even then I was able to watch few interesting birds such as the Barred Antshrike following a swarm of army ants. Few hummingbirds made their way to the feeders at the Rain Forest Discovery Center, including Green Hermits and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds. 
Upon arrival to Panama I decided to travel east to Lago Bayano in search of the Cocoi Heron a beautiful bird that clearly resembles our Great Blue, but with a different head dress and lighter feathers around the breast and neck.  Within minutes of crossing the Bayano bridge I spotted the first Cocoi, but it wasn’t after several attempts that I got the picture I was looking for. While looking for the heron I made friends with some Kuna-Yala tribesmen which were happy to help me and my group get closer to the heron. The Kunas and the Emberá are two of seven indigenous tribes in Panama, that despite of the industrialization and the Panama Canal, continue to thrive in the Panamanian wilderness. While the influence of tourism and development can be seen somehow, they still maintain all their traditions including clothing, food, housing, music and body painting style.
Instead of waiting for the rain to arrive I moved to where the rain was on the Caribbean side. The Achiote Rd, is another well know birding area, and soon I was rewarded with several tropical species including the Slaty-tailed and Black-throated Trogon. On this road I also photographed  a White Hawk and a Black Hawk. To get there we went past the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, where Lake Gatun feeds the locks and bring the ships up 85 feet from the Caribbean Sea.  Here we were greeted by a troop of Howler Monkeys and several Collared Aracaris only a hundred feet  from the Canal.  A couple of miles later we found a family of Southern Lapwings that allowed us really close. Along the road we spotted several Keel-billed and Chesnut Mandible toucans which seemed to be in good number in the area west of the canal.

One day l led the group to the closest National Park from Panama City, the Parque Nacional Metropolitano.  I went there in search of Monkeys and some birds, but instead got an amazing experience with 2-toed sloth, which was too close to a heavily trafficked road that borders the park. Two days later we came back to the park in the morning and were able to see several species of birds including the Broad-billed Motmot and the Squirrel Cuckoo.  Later in the second  week  and before moving to the Canopy Lodge we went to the Canopy Tower, where some of us had the chance to see Mealy Parrots, Nighthawks and Collared Swifts flying at the end of the day.  On this week we spent most of the time traveling to different birding sites in the Valle del Anton area. Here I captured some images of  the Common Potoo , Bay-headed Tanager and my favorite the Rofous Motmot. Besides all the birds we captured, we also explored the herpetofauna, which was really productive specially at night.  I went with a local expert to see some of the local species and I was pleased by the results. I found several species of snakes and nocturnal insects. On the lodge grounds I identified 4 species of frogs and one turtle species. Other birds on the grounds included the Green Kingfisher and a large Ringed Kingfisher, Euphonia spp., House Wren, Flame-rumped  Tanager, Blue-Gray Tanager, Collared Aracari, Palm Tanagers and Crimson-backed Tanager, and the Golden-hooded Tanager. One day we visited the rice fields near the Pacific and added few other species including several raptors. We had an aerial show of Aplomado Falcons, Yellow-headed Caracaras, Yellow-headed Vultures, and the impressive Savannah Hawk, which is one of the most attractive hawks I have ever seen.

Panama is definitely  among the best places to bird in Central America, and offers a variety of ecosystems in a relatively small area. Driving was easy, except in downtown Panama City.  Wildlife seems to thrive even in the City due to large green areas and two national parks bordering the city. I highly recommend a birding trip to this magnificent country.  The Panama canal is a marvel not to be missed.


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