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Panama Birding: An Introduction and Photos from Boquete
A dispatch from the other end of the flyway!
When I came up with the title “Dispatches from the Flyway,” it was intended as a reference to my home, the San Francisco Bay Area, which sits along the Pacific Flyway. As it happens, this year, I’ve been lucky enough to travel along that flyway quite a bit, venturing toward its northernmost point for a trip to Haida Gwaii and then down toward to the southern end of it in Panama, home to the Maroon-chested Ground Dove. Although finding birds is always on my list of things “to do” when traveling, this Panama trip was the first where I did dedicated birding tours with local guides—and there’s a lot to report!
This trip to Panama happened in large part thanks to the generosity of a friend who let us stay at her Panama City apartment for free. Panama, though just slightly smaller than South Carolina in area, boasts nearly 1,000 species of birds including over 100 endemic species (some shared with Costa Rica or Columbia). Panama’s location between two continents and two oceans lends itself to an impressive amount of diversity. And as the Panama Canal connected the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea for people and goods to travel through, the land itself serves as a bridge for millions of migratory species traveling to and from breeding sites in North and South America. Finally (at least for this incredibly short introduction to Panama), there are a number of different habitats for birds to live in including rainforests at many different levels of elevation, forest edges/woodlands, marshes, and beaches.
Some of the country’s most notable birds are the Harpy Eagle (Panama’s national bird), the Resplendent Quetzal (found in Boquete), the Blue Cotinga (the bird on the cover of Angehr and Dean’s Birds of Panama field guide), and the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo (a “holy grail” bird for many serious birders). There are also plenty of colorful parrots, tanagers, and, of course, toucans and toucanets that are a delight to see! Let’s not forget all those hummingbirds either! These latter groups are quite easy to spot, many of them flocking in towns and cities or hanging out right beside the road—no binoculars or scope needed.
Given the amount of birds Panama has and the fact that almost all of them would be new to me, it felt foolish NOT to hire a local guide. It was an excellent decision to do so, and my guides including Jason Lara in Boquete absolutely made the Panama trip. Worth mentioning, too, is this trip was during the “green season” when rain is quite high and tourism is pretty low. We did miss a day in Boquete because of poor ground conditions that prevented us from landing in David on our first attempt, but generally, we had great luck with weather and birds and had the added bonus of enjoying most places to ourselves. Perhaps one con is that Resplendent Quetzal breeding season, when it’s easiest to spot them, is in the drier months, and we didn’t get to see one.
That said, in just one day with Jason, we saw 60 species of birds, 54 of which were lifers for me and one which was very rare! Boquete is a mountain town (fun fact: popular with American retirees) in the province of Chiriquí in the western part of the country. It’s mostly forest and woodland habitats, but the birds can also vary quite a bit by elevation there, and a short drive can bring you to a whole different biome with a new list of birds to see. Our locations included Los Ladrillos, Finca Lerida, and the private home of Casa de Sabrewing among other stops.
Birds with pants is my new favorite (totally not-scientifically-grouped) type of bird after this trip. These are birds that have different colored, often brightly so, thigh feathers that are visible from the right angle. The Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Bat Falcon, and Yellow-thighed Brushfinch showed off their trousers for us on this trip.
Taking photos of birds is… hard. They move fast, they’re small, and even if they’re not far away or high in the tree canopy, they still could be hopping behind a bunch of branches. For some birds I liked like the Prong-Billed Barbet and Emerald Toucanet, I could only commit to memory by drawing them later. I’m also always torn between just enjoying observing the bird and trying to get it on camera. The latter desire may be urged by our social media era of “pics or it didn’t happen.”
That said, feeders are great for photos, and there is no shame in what some might call “lazy birding”! We stayed at the Boquete Garden Inn, a little hotel we enjoyed a lot and which we picked because it had feeders for easy birding over breakfast. Look at these colorful feathered friends—stunning!
If you are interested in the checklist, I put together a Boquete Trip Report on eBird combining all locations.
Despite the abundance of birds and their relative accessibility, Panama is not as popular a birding destination as its neighboring Costa Rica. I’ve not been there, but I have only great things to say about bird experiences I had in Panama—which will continue in Part 2 with a trip to Pipeline Road!
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