Bienvenidos a Panamá (oh come on … sing it with me Paaanamahaa …oh yeah Van Halen)
In 2012 we spent one month in Panamá, hitting many of the birding hotspots. We loved every minute of our Panamá experience and, returning now, were excited to see some places we missed the first time. We decided not to revisit many of the destinations we birded in 2012, but brief synopses of the destinations can be found on our blog (just click Panamá on the right side bar). More information on tons of great birding destinations can also be found in the Bird-Finding Guide to Panamá by George R. Angehr, Dodge Engleman, and Lorna Engleman. There is also an update to the Bird-Finding Guide available for download online.
After a more painful than normal three plus hours at the border we were more than ready to see birds rather than concrete and idling semis so we headed straight for the Fortuna area after a resupply in David. The road from Chiriqui to Bocas del Toro crosses the continental divide, passing through the Fortuna Forest Reserve and the Palo Seco Protection Forest. In the past, birding right along the road was excellent, but now that the road is paved traffic has increased dramatically and birding from the road is frustrating. Cars whip by at high speeds and there are few areas to pull off the highway safely. The best place we found to bird is the road that goes to the communication tower at the top of the continental divide (8.79421, -82.20719). Only 1 or 2 trucks passed along the road and we saw some great birds right along the road.
While enjoying breakfast we were treated to the calls of a Costa Rican Pygmy-owl, not a bad way to start the day. After breakfast we heard a calling bird overhead that sounded like an Accipiter and whipped our bins up just in time to get looks at a Bicolored Hawk! We had brief looks but there was no question, that was a Bicolored Hawk, a raptor that is actually pretty difficult to find, and one we had been seeking for a long time. Along the road we also spotted Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Azure-hooded Jay, Chestnut-collared Swift, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and more (see full eBird list). There is also a foot path that is described in the Bird Finding guide along the road but the trail is currently a bit overgrown. We started down the path, ever hoping to turn up the rare Black-banded Woodcreeper, which has been reported in the area in the past. While we were walking down the trail I was thinking to myself the overgrown trail is a good place for snakes to be hiding under foot, we should be careful. But the thought passed as we spotted a few birds along the trail and we headed merrily on our way. Later on down the trail I looked down and shouted “SNAKE!” as Josh proceeded to walk right next to a snake.
He stopped dead in his tracks but I yelled, “NO keep going!” Josh’s heart was racing a mile a minute as he came within inches of a Jumping Pit Viper. Luckily the morning was still cool and the snake did not move an inch, but boy did that give us a start! Given the overgrown trail and the snake incident we decided to turn back and bird the road instead, which I thought was a pretty good idea.
There are a few other trails off of the main highway that are described in the Bird-finding Guide but we were not able to find any of the other trails. There are also still trails apparently at the long closed Willy Mazu further down the hill that some folks still bird, though we did not explore them.
In addition to the continental divide road we also birded down the Atlantic slope to Chiriqui Grande and surrounds. We tried to stop along the highway when we found pull-offs to bird a bit from the road but the highway noise was too much and we did not really see anything. We drove down to the Two Tanks Road described in the Bird Finding Guide as well to see what we could turn up. Unfortunately we arrived in the mid-day heat and did not see too much, but it looks like a worthy birding spot. The marsh area near the Two Tanks Road that is described in the book, however, is now a hugely depressing trash dump and on our visit it was not possible to drive over/through the trash to the better marshes further in. It is a good place to get Black Vulture though if you haven’t seen one yet (tongue in cheek).
There are not many options for places to stay in the Fortuna area. We camped on the road that leads to the Continental Divide and spent two peaceful nights up there (but there are no services). There is a cabin not too far down the Caribbean slope that may be available and prior arrangements can be made to stay there. Check out the updates to the Panama Bird Finding Guide for more information.