Birding Panama’s Pipeline Road
By: Zeke Jakub (Concervacion Panama) The alarm is beeping, over and over and over again “Beep, beep, beep! “is ringing in my ears while in-between the world of dream and consciousness. Snooze; sleep more, “Beep, beep, beep”, minutes later. Reaching over to the alarm I turn it off. My eyes open slowly. It’s still dark out, which is not usually conducive to dragging yourself out of bed in the morning,
but today is a different morning. No data to collect, no gear to organize, nothing to double-check, today is simply pure joy. You would think these predawn hours would be quiet, serene and motionless. Yet there, the neighborhood ruddy ground dove is already trying to impress his mate with his low toned “Whwoot, whwoot, whwoot, whwoot”, then there is our omnipresent clay-colored thrush singing for the rain, singing for, a complex garble of flute like iterations, reminds me of the American robin indigenous to where I grew up in Massachusetts. Not long after I hear the excited call, a short series of high pitched trill notes coming from across the parking lot from a tropical kingbird. I realize the world is already moving, turning, in play and I am still in bed!
As I think about the world of birds flying around me already, getting out of bed is no longer a slog but an excited flurry of activity. Bathroom, check; breakfast, check; dressed, check; coffee, more coffee, check and check! Packed lunch in hand, I finally rush down to the car, stumbling along the way, readjusting my glasses, and finally stowing my gear. Most birders worth their salt have a “to-go” bag. Basically a pre-packed bag with all the necessities: field guide binoculars, notebook, pencil, water bottle, snacks, rain gear, camera and other items. Like an on-call doctor, one never knows when we might be called into action to dash to the field and identify some rarity, the odd visitor to our “birding area of operation”. Birders, you see, are always on call!
The drive is fast and easy, which is rarely said about moving through Panama City, but on a weekend morning at 0445 not many souls are about who don't have feathers, wings or a pair of binoculars at the ready. Headed toward one of my favorite spots in the wide world takes less than 30 minutes, Gamboa and the famous Pipeline Road. Many believe Pipeline is simply birders heaven!
Panama hosts one of the most diverse birding countries in the world, especially when compared to its land area (about the size of the state of South Carolina). George Angehr and Robert Dean report 978 species possible in their “Guide to Birds of Panama” publication. To offer a contrast, the U.S. and Canada count less, at about 914 species. The difference in land area is simply staggering when compared to the number of species recorded. At the famous Pipeline Road of Gamboa, near Colón on the Caribbean coast, there have been 435 species recorded through an electronic database created and maintained by Cornell University, called eBird (www.ebird.org). About 44% of the birds in Panama have been recorded in this one location!
Gamboa itself is a tiny community along the Panama Canal and also hosts an access dock to the famous Barro Colorado Island and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Gamboa, originally built for Canal employees now mostly serves as the dredging station of ACP (Autoridad del Canal de Panamá). As soon as you cross the Chagres River Bridge into Gamboa you immediately notice quietness, stillness, and lack of routine community activities. The only regular activity one is likely to observe is canal employees in transit to and from work and tourism activity from the establishments in Gamboa.
Arriving across the Chagres Bridge, I immediately go into “birder mode”. This means a double-down in speed, hazard lights on, windows down, “binns” or “glass” (binoculars) up and at the ready. From here on only birds are on my mind! You never really know what and when you will see something. This is part of the excitement of birding in the tropics. You could visit Pipeline Road five different days and possibly see five almost different birds from the list.
Continuing past the BCI/Smithsonian docks, we take a hard right turn down a dirt road in a very unassuming area; this is Pipeline Road! There is only a small, old, and ill-maintained sign which seems only to whisper to you, “You are here, you have arrived”. This is a good place to park and walk, although many prefer, as I do on this day, to drive to the entrance of the trail section of Pipeline Road just a few kilometers down this forested road. The palms, underbrush, and trees shield you like a safety blanket.
Birds are easy and plentiful here at Pipeline Road, they come and go quickly, often there are so many of them its hard to concentrate on just one. However, the nature of birding is unpredictable. You could have a day where the birds seem to perch and model, while on another day you have great views of tail feathers as they fly away from you. Birding is like that.
Birds come and go quickly, often there are so many of them its hard to concentrate on just one, and then there is the problem of identification! Many look alike. Patience, meticulous observation, a handbook and birding guide who knows the area can get you well on your way to enjoying and cataloguing Pipeline Road.
Preparing to Bird
If you are ready to take the plunge in to the abundant world of birding in Panama, Pipeline Road is great place to visit. The first thing on your list should be a “to-go” birding pack that is packed and ready to roll on a moment’s notice. Here are some things to put in the pack that would serve an on-trail birding day trip.
1.) Binoculars. A good pair of binoculars is a must. You must have your own pair. Sharing does not work in birding. Sometimes one will see a bird for 1-5 seconds and it’s gone. A typical birder uses any of the following combinations: 7x40, 8x42, 10x42, and 10x50. Most birders use binoculars with at least 7x magnification but no more than 10x. I personally use the 8x42 combination. Smaller binoculars, or what are called “compacts”, are easier to carry around but rarely have an objective lens larger than 30mm. The significance of this is less light reaches your eye which equates to less detail. In the end, detail is one of the most important aspects to birding and identification.
2.) Field Guide. A good field guide is very important. Often, after we finish watching a bird in the field there is a great desire to identify the bird. This is part of the fun in birding. To carry a field compatible and instructive book is essential. For Panama birding I use two on and off. Robert Ridgely`s Field guide to the birds of Panama is extraordinary and packed full of detailed information. It is a larger tome than most people like to carry to the field, but it’s much more complete than the smaller George Angehr & Robert Dean “Field Guides to the Birds of Panama”. I find both useful in different situations and find myself carrying each of them about equally.
3.) Notebook and Pencil. Birders are meticulous creatures. We like to keep track of what we see, where we see it and generally enjoy taking notes about these observations. It is not only important for our own purposes but the scientific community often uses bird watchers field checklists for research. See Cornell University’s eBird site www.ebird.org. Sign up and participate! Sometimes we find birds that should not be where they are. This rare occurrence is actually fairly common. In these cases it’s important to take notes about the birds physical appearance, behaviour, location, and conditions surrounding the observation. Much research has shown that humans have a very poor ability to recall facts within hours after an observation. Field notes are the best way to keep clear data.
4.) Sketchbook. Some birders, like me, are budding artists. If you enjoy drawing, sketching, watercolors or some other form of art, it is common in the birding world to keep sketch journals or watercolors of your observations in the field. I personally carry a small Winsor & Newtown field watercolor set with me at all times so I can sketch and color bird observations in the field.
Safety Necessities -
2 x 1000mL water bottles, filled (minimum for tropics),
1 x packed snacks and lunch (consists usually of power bars, granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches and other high energy foods),
1 x headlamp (I use Petzl headlamps) in case you get caught on a trail in the dark, always carry extra set of batteries,
1 x multi tool (I have a Swiss Army Champ),
1 x rain gear (I carry both a rain poncho and a sturdy packable umbrella),
1 x cell phone for emergencies, 1 x packable first aid kit, 1 x sunscreen, 1 x hat, wide-brimmed ( I love Tilly’s but also use Panamanian campasino hats often)
5.) COMFORT. For long trips, I find that a foldable tripod-like chair is great for the field. You can get a $4 trifold seat at DO-IT Center.
6.) Insect Spray is not usually needed on small trail trips. But if you are susceptible to bites, its handy to have some non-chemical based bug spray in your day pack.
On Saturday July 12th, I am leading a small group of maximum 10 people on a 2-hour Pipeline Road trail. We will be meeting in Gamboa at 8am, and will walk an easy trail. For details and to register, call Jamuna at 6780-1198.
Ezekiel S. Jakub from Greenfield, Massachusetts is an ornithologist lecturer and specialist nature guide. He has worked with National Geographic/Linblad Expeditions, Road Scholar/Elder Hostel, worked with Semester @ Sea Enrichment Voyages and many other organizations. He has been birding since he was 6 years old, and was leading field trips at 12. He is currently serving as the Executive Director of Conservación Panama. His current area of research is Bird Conservation and he is working on the "viability of urban conservation of migrant and resident birds of Panama City, Panamá".