a quick jaunt to Panama

December 2, 2010

in Travel

Kingfisher and I have been to Panama twice before. I had a project I wanted to finish researching down there, so the long Thanksgiving weekend was a good opportunity for a short visit.

Home base was Canopy Tower, in the Soberanía National Park near Gamboa, where we’ve stayed before. I can’t say enough great things about it. Go take a look at their new web site. It’s not hype, it’s all true.

Canopy Tower is a former radar facility.

Our cozy but comfortable room, just under canopy level.

As far as wildlife watching was concerned, our plan was to spend most if not all of our time at what is probably my favorite place in the world  to do so — Pipeline Road. It was originally constructed in WWII along an oil supply line in case the canal was attacked, but ended up never being used.

Pipeline Road sign indicating stream crossings. Stern-looking husband on right.

It’s about 24 km long, but only the first 10 km are accessible (up to the red on the map above; here is a better map).  Beyond is restricted mostly to Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute personnel. Many types of research take place here, including long-term bird banding (in fact, we saw a color-banded Red-throated Ant-Tanager).

You can now drive farther up than on our previous trips, up to Quebrada Juan Grande.  In part, this is to accommodate visitors to the new Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, located about 600 m off Pipeline. They have a 32-m tower that provides great views of the surrounding forest.

Perhaps the last blue sky we saw for days, at the top of the Discovery Center tower.

We’ve been to Panama in the wet season, when the road turns into a quagmire — we were even stuck behind a tree that fell across the road one time. Right now should be the end of the rainy season, but we did not factor in that it is a strong La Niña year.  After the first day, the dry periods were measured in minutes, not hours. I don’t mind birding down there in the rain (it was very warm, and we had plenty of rain gear), but it was nearly impossible to find insects, which was a real bummer for us.

Between downpours, at Rio Frijoles, Pipeline Road.

We found most of the coolest insects right at the Canopy Tower. This lovely butterfly landed on the awning below the dining room level, along with some other colorful species.

White-spotted Prepona (Archaeoprepona amphimachus).

The guides at the Tower also hung out a sheet with both an incandescent and black light a couple of nights. In addition to many small moths (we’ll do a post over at our Urban Dragon Hunters blog in a week or so) was this wild thing.


This looks like a planthopper (Fulgoridae), something related to the peanuthead that Kingfisher so badly wanted to see.  This might be in the genus Zanna.

In other insect news, I managed to wade right in one of the first army ant swarms we encountered. There wasn’t much way to avoid it, as it stretched several yards across the trail, but it apparently wasn’t a hunting party (no attending birds, unfortunately) so there was no commotion to alert us. Many of the ants that got on me just clamped on to my shoes and socks, but some made it up my pants and I got about a dozen bites. They just felt like a sharp pinch. They are able to sting, so I’m not sure if they only bit me, or stung me, but they only left little marks that didn’t itch or anything.

We did find good birds at other swarms, and I ended up with a couple dozen new birds for Panama and ten life birds. I think the coolest were the Green Shrike-Vireo (a lifer) from Canopy Tower, and the three Great Tinamous (often heard but rarely seen) that wandered out on Pipeline Road in plain view, one about 10 yards away. The guides provided by Canopy Tower are excellent, but we generally birded on our own. We love finding, scrutinizing, and identifying our own birds.

Black-breasted Puffbird (Notharchus pectoralis)

In an especially torrential downpour, we took shelter at the Discovery Center on their nice deck, drank coffee, and chatted with our new Dutch friends David and Lennaert, whom we kept running into on Pipeline. In addition to the hummingbird frenzy at the feeders, we saw some nice birds, like this puffbird. Since I didn’t have much use for my macro lens for insects, I decided to see how it worked for a bird shot!

We saw many more mammals on this trip than previous times:

Also an unidentified rat, at least two types of bats, and a dead anteater.

I made it above 300 identified life butterfly species, and 200 life dragonflies as well. We met some great people, and I think I might have an announcement soon about a new writing gig. All in all, a good trip despite the rain.

Update: There is a new, highly recommended field guide to Panama birds!  No more taking chunks of plates from a larger regional field guide. Check out The Birds of Panama: A Field Guide.


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