1 and 3 August 2014
No trip to Panamá is complete without a visit to Pipeline Road. Pipeline Road is one of the most famous birding destinations in Panamá and perhaps even in Middle America. Located in Soberanía National Park, this dirt road offers some seriously excellent birding along a 17 km stretch that passes through mature tropical forest and patches of secondary forest. More than 400 species have been observed on Pipeline Road including some real standout birds, both for Panamá and for anywhere – Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Pheasant Cuckoo, Brownish Twistwing, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Jet Antird, Moustached Antwren, Black-breasted Puffbird, five species of Trogons, Black-capped Tyrannulet, Great Jacamar, Streak-chested Antpita, and so, so many more. The birding at Pipeline Road is nothing other than spectacular and it definitely earns its reputation as a world class birding site. Beyond the great birds, the birding itself is about as comfortable as it gets for lowland tropical birding with a clean, wide, flat, dirt road that is closed to vehicle traffic (except the occasional research vehicle), with a closed canopy over most the road. This combination yields easy walking, not too much sun, great views into the understory, and most importantly the forest is right there, making it easy to see so many species.
We visited Pipeline Road on two different days, just to enjoy the excellent birds and we were hoping for a couple of rarities. However the real highlight for us was sleeping in our truck at the entrance gate (We checked in with the police station in Gamboa who told us it would be no problem). We woke up before dawn to get ready for an all gravy day of birding and could not help but start smiling as soon as we rolled out of bed to the deep groaning calls of a Great Potoo and a chorus of Crested Owls. I love the song of the Great Potoo, and the Crested Owl is no slouch either with it’s churring purr of a call! As the darkness started to fade, two Short-tailed Nighthawks whizzed overhead and the forest started to wake up. Songs of Streak-chested Antpitta, Great Tinamou, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-crowned Antshrikes (until recently known as Western Slaty Antshrike), Song Wren, Black-faced Antthrush, Dusky Antbird and more filled the air. The morning brought so many good species it is hard to know who to mention – four species of Trogon (Slaty-tailed, White-tailed, Black-tailed, and Gartered), Blue Cotinga, Laughing Falcon, Spotted Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Great Jacamar, Black-breasted Puffbird, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant. We had several nice flocks that morning and a small ant swarm bumping our species list to 75 – not huge, but we weren’t really birding as hard as we could or trying to pad our list, more just enjoying a very relaxing morning! (full eBird list here)
We were on the lookout for the Brownish Twistwing and the Jet Antbird. Both species do get reported on Pipeline Road but not with any regularity. We spent some time searching wet ravines and the stream at the first wooden bridge for the Brownish Twistwing where it has been reported with no luck. A guide from the canopy tower said they heard one the day before but they never managed to get a glimpse. Apparently they are pretty shy birds and there may only be 1-2 Brownish Twistwing territories on all of Pipeline Road. We heard that Jet Antbird is sometimes seen in the scrubby second growth at the beginning of the road but we struck out on that one too. Despite striking out on our target birds we had a really enjoyable day of birding. It would be hard to have a bad day on Pipeline Road, to be honest.
Directions to Pipeline Road and other great birding destinations in the area can be found in the Bird-Finding Guide to Panama. As it currently stands, you can drive through the old gate (pay a park fee if there is an attendant on your way in or out). After a kilometer or two, keep right at the turnoff to the Rainforest Discovery Center and park a short ways later at the locked gate. Birding is good the entire length of the road but most people don’t get very far, the birding is usually just too good. Pipeline Road is definitely worth two or even three days if your schedule allows (one day to bird the beginning of the road and a second day to hike further in). We would also strongly advise avoiding Pipeline Road on the weekends as it is now a popular mountain biking destination and the week days are much, much quieter.
Of note, access to the Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Rd has changed. SENAFRONT (the national police and border patrol, more or less) have moved in to old canal buildings in the area. At the moment, after turning off across from the Summit Gardens and crossing the railroad tracks, there is a guard post just before Old Gamboa Rd itself. You must park adjacent to the guard post and you can walk a short distance to the Summit Ponds, but not beyond, unfortunately. There is far more traffic with SENAFRONT vehicles coming and going. You can now bird the other direction on the road for a short stretch, but it is not as extensive, interesting or productive as what was previously accessible.