Panamania Day 2: Pipeline Road

November 3, 2019 4 By Audrey

Our first real day in Panama began early in the morning when our birding guide Saul picked us up from the hotel. My mom and I are really lucky because it was basically random internet searching and reading reviews that led me to Panama Pipeline Bird Tours.

Cecropia leaf

I’m sure a lot of birding guides are great, but not as great as Saul. He’s a biologist from the UK who works for the Smithsonian, and he’s lived in Gamboa and birded the Panama area since 2011. He’s great company and really knows his stuff. I signed us up for three days of birding with Saul to Pipeline Road, Old Gamboa Road, and Altos De Campana National Park. The trip to Pipeline Road was our first introduction to Panama’s jungle.

Pipeline Road

Pipleline Road was originally constructed during World War II by U.S. soldiers to maintain a planned oil pipeline in the chance the Panama Canal was bombed. It is located on the border of Soberanía National Park, about a 40-minute drive from Panama City, and is now maintained for ecotourism and environmental study. A much better fit, I’d say.

From the beginning I was mesmerized by the sounds, each new bird song became my new favorite, starting with the Black-crowned Antshrike (song here). Which we eventually even saw.

Black-crowned Antshrike (female)

Maybe the rarest bird of the trip, a Black-billed Cuckoo was seen right from the start and photographed poorly by yours truly.

Black-billed Cuckoo

The first bird we got a really good look at was a Streak-chested Antpitta.

Streak-chested Antpitta

It’s like a thrush with no tail. Adorable, and the best part? It hops! There were two, hopping around and scratching leaves in search of insects. After this was a cute little Song Wren carrying a large leaf (or a leaf-shaped moth?) in its bill. This little wren is a fast-mover (video here).

Song Wren

Our first burst of color came from a Rufous Motmot.

Rufous Motmot

Just as a pair of Coati ran towards us on the trail.

Coati “gato solo”

They have poor eyesight and stopped at the last minute before diving off into the jungle. You never know what might be up ahead on this road, it could be an ocelot, or it might be a juvenile Rufescent Tiger-Heron.

Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Or a Central American Agouti, a large rodent related to the guinea pig running across the road.

Central American Agouti

If you hear chewing noise in the jungle, it’s probably an agouti. The noises were unreal. Is that a bird or an insect? Squirrel or agouti? Thunder or monkeys? So many mysteries to unfold.

The best noisemakers were Mantled Howler Monkeys. They hooted and hollered, and are a better weather predictor than any app since they will yell louder before a rain storm comes to drown out their sounds. Hearing the monkeys was almost better than seeing them.

Mantled Howler Monkey

But seeing them was pretty cool too, especially when we saw a baby hanging onto mama-monkey.

Lil’ Mantled Howler Monkey

Such good stuff. Every once in a while we’d get buzzed by a hummingbird, and even less often we’d get to see one. Thanks to this Heliconia plant we got looks at a Crowned Woodnymph.

Crowned Woodnymph

And a nearby Stripe-throated Hermit.

Stripe-throated Hermit

We saw our first manakins here, the Blue-crowned Manakin.

Blue-crowned Manakin

And a Red-capped Manakin.

Red-capped Manakin

Manakins are birds that dance ridiculous dances to win over the ladies and Red-capped Manakins were featured in David Attenburough’s Our Planet series on Netflix (clip here). This is when Saul told me that manakin footage was filmed on Pipeline Road at this lek, and this is when I almost lost hold of my emotions. I have stood in the footsteps of David Attenburough and can die happy now.

I pulled myself together to look at more birds. It was easy enough when trogons showed up, like this female Black-throated Trogon.

Black-throated Trogon

And a Gartered Trogon that I didn’t get great photos of. It was getting later and birds quieted down while the monkeys yelled louder alerting us to the next rainstorm. It was time to turn back, but there was one last treat before we left. Saul had staked out a top bird on my list, and it was still here.

Great Potoo

A Great Potoo!!!!! I know, it looks like tree bark, it didn’t sing or move, but I love it. It’s such an unusual and cartoon-looking creature. And I’ll never forget looking at this guy in the scope in the pouring rain, when all of a sudden Saul spots a Whooping Motmot.

Whooping Motmot

Woah! And of course this is when the Keel-billed Toucan showed up, while at the same time Capuchin monkeys spooked a Rufous Nightjar off a branch, so that was flying around too. WHAT IS HAPPENING?! Pull it together Panama, pull it together.

It didn’t end there. On the way out we saw a Wattled Jacana.

Wattled Jacana

A gang of Smooth-billed Anis.

Smooth-billed Ani

Oh, and how about a shorebird too? Southern Lapwing, checkmate!

Southern Lapwing

Well played, Panama, well played. The only bad thing about Pipeline Road was that we couldn’t go back every day. But there were more roads to explore, and apparently all roads in Panama lead to cosas buenos.

Pío y pío,

Audrey