Panama - Great Birding Within Easy Reach
By Melanie Votaw
If you live in the U.S., international bird watching doesn’t require that you travel so far afield. Panama is relatively close, especially for those of us who live in the east, and it’s a prime birding location. If you include migratory birds in the mix, nearly 1,000 species have been recorded in this small country. You don’t have to trek difficult terrain to see colorful beauties either.
Even in Panama City, you’ll hear flocks of loud parakeets flying frequently overhead. All you have to do is train your ears to the sound. In the forests just outside the city, you’ll see more than birds. You’re likely to also see and/or hear howler monkeys, tamarin monkeys, sloths, tamandua anteaters, and tarantulas, among countless other interesting creatures.
An advantage to visiting Panamanian rainforests is that the U.S. government exterminated many of the insects in the area. There is no malaria, and while there are a few annoying bugs, you aren’t likely to be bitten as much as you would on a Caribbean island.
I stayed at the Canopy Tower, a birding and ecotourism lodge just 35 miles from Panama City. Its location made it easy to also spend time in Panama City and visit the Panama Canal. It was fascinating to watch the ships move through the narrow passage, and the birds were not far away. I even saw a magnificent frigatebird flying above the Canal.
The Canopy Tower is rustic but comfortable. You can sleep there, booking an all-inclusive package like I did, or you can simply visit for a day. Hummingbird feeders at the door to the lodge are always a source of activity, but the highlight is the top of the tower, where you can get a proverbial “bird’s eye view” of the treetops. Every night at dusk, I made my way to the top of the tower to listen to the parrots, toucans, and other animals settling into the trees for the night.
The Canopy Tower started out as a radar station built by the U.S. Air Force to defend the Panama Canal. Raul Arias de Para converted the building to an ecolodge in 1997, opening in 1999.
Besides bird watching in the lodge area itself, you can easily explore the birds in other areas of Panama. Because the country is a narrow strip with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, the types of birds you see in the various locations are diverse.
The guides at Canopy Tower are well-trained, and much of the birding done off site is from the road. So, it requires little of you, except perhaps some straining of your neck as you point your binoculars upward. The guides are so good, in fact, that I joked with one of them, saying I expected him to deliver a particular bird. I didn’t really expect that. After all, it isn’t like you can make an appointment with wild animals.
But lo and behold, the next day, he took us to a location where we found that very bird, even though it was well hidden under some brush on the ground. I was stunned.
Besides birding, Panama has a lot to offer travelers. Virtually every kind of ocean recreation is available, and there is plenty of culture, history, and nightlife. These include 16th century ruins, golf courses, and great restaurants. You could easily have a vacation filled with diverse activities – something for everybody. Just don’t forget the birds!
Photos: Top photo of Red-Capped Manakin courtesy of Canopy Tower; Keel-Billed Toucan and White-Vented Plumleteer Hummingbird photos by Melanie Votaw.
About Melanie Votaw
Melanie Votaw is the author of 13 non-fiction books and has written for such publications as Woman’s Day, Executive Travel, and the South China Morning Post. She has visited 40+ countries on six continents and has more than 1,000 bird species on her life list. Some of her favorite experiences include flying in a microlight over Victoria Falls, bathing an elephant in the River Kwai, and hunting for a rare hummingbird at 12,000 feet in Ecuador. Melanie lives in the wilds of New York City.