Panama Birding: Pipeline Road—The Ants Go Swarming One-by-One
Actually more like thousands-by-thousands if not millions-by-millions
As mentioned in Part 1, Panama has a great diversity of birds to see and some stunning ones, at that! What I didn’t mention was how accessible these birds are, with many birding locations within Panama City or just outside of it. After a weekend in Boquete, we went back to our base in Panama City and I booked three day trips with Whitehawk Birding, an excellent, small Panama-based company that I had a great experience with and that I hope to bird with again in the future! A huge, heartfelt thank you to my guide, Jenn, for a very memorable few days!
The first day trip was to Pipeline Road, a well-known and well-traveled gravel road just 45 minutes west of Panama City in a town called Gamboa. The road is a remnant of WWII plans to build a cross-country oil pipeline—It ended up never being used, but now it’s quite the birding hotspot. Of Panama’s 1,000 species of birds, 400 have been reported on this 18-km stretch of road! It is also relatively easy birding as a good chunk of the road is flat and accessible by car. Birds can be found just off the road or passing overhead in the canopy that remains connected over it. Plenty of other wildlife like butterflies, monkeys, sloths, frogs, and ants (more on them later) can be found on the stretch as well. Rich in diversity and very easy to get to—it’s no surprise it’s a top Panama bird destination!
Jenn picked me up at 6AM and after pulling over for some much-needed coffee and my first carimañola (a delicious, meat-filled yucca fritter), we made our first stop at the Ammo Ponds, a wetland habitat just off the road. It was a bright, clear day defying the rainy season. The grass was so high, we could only tell where water was based on the gaps in the grass. Cars occasionally came through on the dirt road, likely headed to the Discovery Center. The Canal was just past some railroad tracks, and the tops of loaded cargo ships drifted past on their way from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Black-bellied whistling ducks were flying all around as if figuring out where they wanted to spend their day, and a number of juvenile Purple Gallinule wandered in the grass, seemingly just fledged. In one of the gaps in the grass, a Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Green Heron, and a Striated Heron were keeping a watchful eye for some breakfast. Some Smooth-Billed Anis were chatting in some bushes while Gray-headed Chachalacas were causing a ruckus in the distance. A White-Throated Crake called from right in front of us and, following the call, and the movement of the tall grass, we were able to get a glimpse of the elusive rail creeping through the grass.
Overhead, Orange-chinned Parakeets and Red-lored Parrots flew by (a common sight in Panama including in the city), as well as a flock of Eastern Kingbirds on their annual migration from North to South America. I came a little too early for big raptor migration, but we did also see an Osprey fly by. Wires were packed with Gray-breasted Martins with an occasional Purple Martin blending in too. Perched higher up was a lone Black Vulture, and both the Yellow-headed and Crested Caracara made appearances on distant, high perches.
A great start to the day, and that luck kept up for the rest of the trip! We hopped back in the car, driving down the road where the forest got denser over time. Big, beautiful blue morphos fluttered in clearings—their vivid iridescent blue a contrast to the thick greenery. We got some great sightings early on with some Gartered Trogons and a Fasciated Antshrike in addition to some White-tipped Doves looking for food on the ground. A Great Tinamou quietly snuck by just off the side of the road, trying not to be noticed and successfully escaping a photograph.
A couple other highlights came early. First, Jenn had me look up at a forked branch which had an extra lump that actually was a sleeping Great Potoo! The Great Potoo is a nocturnal insect-eating bird with a strange and terrifying growl of a call. (Really, though, give it a listen. It’s not a sound you want to hear in a dark forest.) A little ways down, there was another branch with an extra lump: another Great Potoo! Their eye slits and barely visible beaks betrayed their camouflage, and it seemed to be bath time. Both Potoos decided to preen while we watched them! A special sight to see these birds so much.
Being a tourist who grew up with Fruit Loops and tons of images of these colorful birds, I was thrilled to see my first toucan in the wild: the Keel-billed Toucan. We heard its croaking first while watching some Purple-throated Fruit Crows fly across the canopy, and it eventually landed right on top of us. It seemed to check us out for a while or maybe pose for the camera. (Probably just being a bird looking for food though…)
Moving right along, some Greater Anis followed us down the road and more birds like the Cocoa Woodcreeper, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and Black-breasted Puffbird gave us some great views of themselves.
The “main event” of Pipeline Road that birds—and therefore birders—are on the lookout for are ant swarms. During this event, army ants pour out of their temporary nest site (a bivouac which is actually just a bunch of ants linked together) in search of food: larger insects which they systematically subdue and dismember to feed to their larvae. If innumerable ants with big mandibles eating praying mantises and scorpions doesn’t bother you, you can watch this BBC Earth video with David Attenborough narrating the event.
These ant swarms attract a huge number of birds who aren’t after the ants, but rather all the insects that are flushed out of hiding during one of their raids. Ant-following birds can be found throughout neotropical forests, and when a swarm happens, mixed flocks show up including tanagers, woodcreepers, motmots, trogons, and a wide variety of birds with “ant” in their name because of how essential this behavior is.
In addition to being a great time to see a wide variety of birds, it also showcases some sophisticated bird behavior. Recent research shows that ant-following birds are able to distinguish active bivouacs from inactive ones, plan their meals based on this knowledge, and share information among species of birds in a cooperative way. Jennifer Ackerman has a whole chapter on ant-following birds in her book The Bird Way, and describes the behavior of these birds “less like gulls squabbling over a sandwich and more like a shred wolf pack tracking elk.”
No sloths spotted today, as I had hoped, but in addition to all our birds, we did see a ton of butterflies, a frog friend, and many leaf-cutter ants in action. The leaf-cutter ants had even made themselves a little frontage road that ran parallel to the human road for a stretch.
Overall, a fantastic day with 78 species of birds across Ammo Dump Ponds and the stretch of Pipeline Road we walked on. Easily accessible from Panama City and rich in biodiversity, Pipeline Road is a no-brainer stop for anyone going to Panama for birding and a great spot for anyone even just casually interested in seeing birds.
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