Birdwatching in Panama – Soberania National Park

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Panama Canal is a huge part of the Cuban economy and will become even more important when the expanded locks open next month and even larger New Panamax vessels can take that handy shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific, paying up to US$376,000 for the trip. That’s the current record, held by the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship. The fees start at US$800, for a yacht. The small tourist boat I took through paid US$4000 for its ‘partial transit.’

Part two of the Panama economy is provided by business, banking and financial services and all that evil side of capitalism, exemplified by Moussack Fonseca and the Panama Papers scandal which popped up just as I arrived in Panama City.

IMG_6652 - lookout tower, Soberania NP - 540Then there’s part three, the nature, wildlife, ecotourism, surfing, diving activities which we usually connect with Costa Rica in Central America. It’s equally important in Panama and at 530am I was meeting up with expert birding guide Rick Cahill for a dawn visit to the Soberania National Park.

◄ Now I am a long way from being a twitcher, but if there are interesting birds to see I am happy to go see them and Panama – where the Rockies meet the Andes at the canal – has a huge and colourful variety. Dawn is also the time to see them, entry to the park’s 32-metre-high lookout tower, poking up just above the surrounding canopy, costs a hefty US$30 for those dawn hours. After 10am the price drops to US$20.
IMG_6658 - Rick Cahill on lookout tower, Soberania National Park - 540▲ With an expert birder pointing the scope we lots of birds, some of which Rick ranks as five star, the sort of thing a twitcher would definitely like to add to their list. There were blue cotinga (small, iridescent blue), a red-legged honey creeper (which is blue as well), white-lined tanager, crimson-headed woodpeckers a black hawk-eagle and a green honey creeper.

IMG_6707-crimson-headed-woodpecker-pecking-Soberania-NP-270.jpgThen there were blue dacnis (and the green female), a white-necked puffbird, keel-billed toucans (toucans are great to see from above!), black mandible toucan, a little tanager (well there are lots of tanagers and they’re all little, a black-breasted one as well? And a plain-collared version), oropendola, a something to do with the Amazon parrot (red-lored?), a blue-headed parrot, a social flycatcher. Plus plain old turkey vultures. We have the tower top to ourselves for awhile until another guide and five clearly very serious birders – the clothes, the binoculars, the big lenses on their cameras – turn up. The park is right by the canal, from the lookout tower you can sometimes catch glimpses of ships going past.

◄ Later we see other crimson-headed woodpeckers including a lineated version, working away at a palm tree.

 IMG_6692-hummingbirds-Soberanie-NP-540.jpg▲ Down at ground level we go to the hummingbird feeding station which is absolutely alive with hummingbirds, lots of different varieties of them. Including garden emerald, blue-throated goldentail and simple long-tailed. They’re so tiny and move so fast how do you ever identify them? I’m wearing my red Radio Capital cap from Rome and some of them decide I’m a new hummingbird feeder and buzz me, it’s rather like being annoyed by flies in Australia. Hummingbird hearts beat at up to 1500 beats a minute, down to only 500 if they’re just sitting around. They burn energy, big time. Well small big time.

IMG_6710 - slaty-tailed trogon - 540▲ We then walk down the road for quite a way spotting assorted birds including the iconic bird of the park the slaty-tailed trogon. There’s also a white-necked Jacobin, a tropical kingbird with a bright yellow breast and another twitcher’s find, the blue crowned motmot. It’s not all birds, there are lots of howler monkeys, some of them really howling. There’s often a steady background howl going on. With binoculars you can see how closely they watch us. There’s also a very sick howler, a result of a bot fly infestation that they seem prone to and can kill them, very unpleasantly. We also see several white-nosed coati, a shambling creature. Rick says they climb trees, find themselves too high up, can’t get back down and fall.

Leaving the park we drive past a Smithsonian global warming project, geodesic dome-style greenhouses where they study how tropical vegetation manages if it gets even hotter and the atmosphere itself changes.

IMG_6724 - Noriega prison house - 540▲ Finally there’s a brief photo opportunity stop outside the Noriega house, where the ex-killer-dictator is imprisoned along with a couple of other big time prisoners. Behind a lot of barbed wire and along with a small flock of goats. After the US invasion in 1989 Noriega spent 20 years in a US jail, was released, promptly re-arrested and spent two years imprisoned in France and then it was on to his current jailhouse retreat.