A Neotropical Birding Mecca: Pipeline Road Panama

For any birder who has a keen interest in Neotropical birds, Pipeline Road is a must! Located just 30 minutes from the “hub of the Americas,” Panama City, Pipeline Road traverses through a large stretch of lowland rainforest in Soberania National Park. For decades and to this day, Pipeline Road is one the most-visited sites for birding in all of the Americas.

Pipeline Road Panama
Pipeline Road, Soberania National Park, Panama

A Unique History

During WWII, an oil pipeline was installed across the historic Canal Zone of Panama as a precautionary method to move oil across the Isthmus in the event that the canal was shut down. The pipeline cut through the dense tropical rainforest and a road was built to service it when necessary. The war came and went, but the pipeline remained unused. The road was used for accessing particular sites in the area over the years, but as the forest continued to mature and the US handed the Canal Zone back over to Panama, regular traffic on Pipeline Road was reduced.

Originally 24 km in length and reaching all the way to the shores of Gatun Lake, over time Pipeline Road has gradually been overtaken by dense forest once again. Today, there are about 17 km of accessible road, though the first four kilometers remain the most traveled and most birded. Walking Pipeline Road – with several stream crossings as you go – can be done year-round. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s biologists and students study not only birds but many other tropical life forms and processes including ants, frogs, bats, mammals, seed dispersal, tree-fall gaps, and so much more. It is truly an area of amazing biological diversity!

Pipeline Road Panama

Christmas Bird Counts: A 19-Year Record

One of the reasons that Pipeline Road gained its fame as a top birding destination is because since the 70s, the Panama Audubon Society has been conducting annual Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in central Panama. For 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, the Atlantic Circle (including Pipeline Road) consistently held the record for the most bird species counted on a Christmas Bird Count, the highest count of 357 species! From 1996 on, Costa Rica, Ecuador and other countries in Central and South America began CBCs and started to count in circles that included varying altitudinal ranges and thus, recording higher numbers of birds. Panama’s CBC’s and in particular Pipeline Road still count numbers hovering around 300 species of birds, not too bad for a one-day count!

Birding Highlights on Pipeline Road

Pipeline Road has been a mecca for birders and tropical biologists for decades because of the birds! Over 450 species have been recorded along the road. Pipeline Road’s mature lowland rainforest supports incredible avian diversity and is particularly a great place for those seeking out Neotropical bird groups – antbirds, ovenbirds (woodcreepers, leaftossers, xenops, etc.), manakins, motmots, trogons, Neotropical raptors and others. Pipeline Road is a key birding destination for target birders to seek out some rather rare and elusive birds, including the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Pheasant Cuckoo, Streak-chested Antpitta and Great Jacamar. A large army ant swarm at any time of the year could have the ground-cuckoos lurking nearby, and the antpitta’s mournful song can be heard daily along the first sections of the road.

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo Pipeline Road Panama
The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, one of the “holy grail” birds of the Neotropics, can be found along Pipeline Road

Panama’s Isthmus is only 50 miles (80 km) wide. The Pacific side is very dry and the Caribbean side has very wet forests. This combination produces ideal conditions which are for great biodiversity. When walking along Pipeline Road, you will notice that every few hundred feet, the forest conditions change slightly from drier Pacific Slope forest to wetter Caribbean Slope forest. As the forest conditions change, so do the composition of species that are found there. Some more elusive species can be found further in along the road, including Violaceous and Olive-backed quail-doves and Great Curassow.

Ocellated Antbird Pipeline Road Panama
Ocellated Antbirds can be found at army ant swarms along Pipeline Road

A Home for Harpy Eagles

Harpy Eagles also call Pipeline Road their home. For a decade in the early 2000s, The Peregrine Fund released captive-bred Harpy Eagles into Soberania National Park, using Pipeline Road as a home base. Most were moved to larger forested areas in Panama once they became independent and were hunting on their own. However, there are still potentially several Harpies that call Pipeline Road and the forests of Soberania National Park their home. One individual, a wild bird from Darien that was injured, recovered and released along Pipeline Road in 2009 still makes appearances around the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center and other parts of the park. Keep an eye out for her and others on your walks down Pipeline!

What About the Pipeline Now?

The steel pipeline is still partly intact and certain sections lay exposed across the forest floor and cross over several streams that traverse Pipeline Road. Now covered in bromeliads and mosses, they remain a part of the rainforests of Soberania National Park and a reminder of the history of Panama’s famed Canal Zone. The birds have incorporated the moss-laden pipeline into their habitat, as army ants swarm overtop and antbirds follow, as they have done for decades.

Pipeline Road Panama
Exposed pipeline at a river crossing along the road, now covered by bromeliads and plants

Pipeline Road and Whitehawk

Pipeline Road remains our most popular destination for birding trips and is a must-visit destination for all birders who come to Panama. We offer both half day and full day birding trips along Pipeline Road. Some of our clients prefer to visit multiple days in row, because in many cases, one day is not enough to take in all that Pipeline Road has to offer! Ask us about our Pipeline Road tours and come experience it for yourself!

Panama Birds & Butterflies: A New Nature Tour

It goes without saying that birds are what brought us together here at Whitehawk. From our individual backgrounds as bird enthusiasts, educators and field biologists, we all met because of birds. We worked together on various bird conservation projects in Central America long before Whitehawk was formed. Though we were all originally drawn to birds for different reasons – their beauty, their ability to fly, and their unique biology and amazing behaviors, we all had the same goal in mind: help conserve the world’s avifauna and wildlife. That is why we built Whitehawk Birding and Conservation!

But we are not exclusive to birds. In fact, we love all things nature! Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi and plants of many kinds are all seen and enjoyed on our tours. When we began in 2011 we offered exclusively birding tours, but have since expanded and now offer tours that include a focus on mammals such as our India: Birding & Tigers tour, and our In Search of the Elusive Snow Leopard tour, both which offer the excitement of seeing many amazing large mammals while also enjoying the plethora of bird species that share the landscape with these amazing cats – truly a spectacular experience!

Delicate clearwing butterflies, like this Paula’s Clearwing, are captivating!

A New Nature Focus for Whitehawk: Butterflies

In 2018, we welcomed biologist and naturalist Jenn Sinasac on board our team. Jenn has been a long-time friend and past field colleague on bird conservation projects in Panama and Belize and brings a new facet to our combined knowledge base: butterflies & skippers. In addition to her passion for birds, Jenn has focused on Panama’s diurnal lepidopterans over the past several years. She is familiar with hundreds of species and is always learning more about their biology and distribution in Panama. With Jenn’s expertise in this area, we are excited to introduce a new tour combining these two winged wonders: Panama Birds & Butterflies nature tour.

Tailed Orange Butterfly Panama Whitehawk
The Tailed Orange stays close to the ground, offering great photo ops as they sit in low foliage

Birds and Butterflies: Harmony in Nature

For nature enthusiasts, birds and butterflies complement each other very well. First thing, they both have the amazing ability to fly and have adapted to a great diversity of environments. For those interested in learning species’ names and identifying everything they see, both birds and butterflies offer that opportunity. Field guides are readily available for both inPanama/Central America, and many birders are taking on the new challenge of learning the resident butterflies in this region. Birds and butterflies also complement each other when it comes to peak activity time. In general, birds tend to be most active early and then again later in the day, while many species of butterflies like the hottest, sunniest part of the day to forage. Therefore, there is always something flying to delight our eyes and our souls.

Proxenus Blue-Skipper Panama Whitehawk
Proxenus Blue-Skipper. Skippers of the tropics are beautiful and not as intimidating as they may seem!

Butterflying in the Tropics: Where to Start

Just like with birds, there is no need to have any experience when it comes to enjoying butterflies in the field. You do not need to know even one species! Over 1,800 species of butterflies and skippers are found in Panama. They are indeed plentiful, and we’ll admit, even a little intimidating! But once you start to familiarize yourself with the main groups of butterflies, and, with help from a local guide, begin to notice the different wing patterns, shapes and sizes you will start to see and recognize some common species over and over again. Don’t be surprised to find yourself wanting to see more and more! The pace of a Butterfly tour is slow, even slower than a birding pace. Watching butterflies can even be calmingly therapeutic, good for our minds and our souls, similar to what you can experience on our ornitherapy tours.

Common Morpho Panama Nature Tour Whitehawk
The Common Blue Morpho is an iconic butterfly of the American tropics

Panama Birds and Butterflies Tour

It is time! We are introducing our Panama: Birds and Butterflies nature tour because we want to get out and enjoy birds, and other winged creatures too! With Jenn and Edwin as our guides, we can ensure you a fantastic experience exploring Panama’s winged creatures – birds and butterflies! Our first tour will run September 4-13, 2020, so consider joining us for this fun, educative and exceptional nature-filled tour! Contact us for more details.

Looking for more about Panama’s butterflies? Check out some of our favorite butterfly websites, Neotropical Butterflies and Butterflies of America.

VIDEO: Birding in Cuba with Whitehawk

We can’t seem to get enough of Cuba these days. Our birding tours in this vibrant country always amaze us in so many ways. Cuba is a destination for everyone – with stunning scenery, incredible bird life, endemics galore, cultural integrity and delicious food, to say the least. In Cuba, there seem to be surprises to our delight around every corner. Check out our new video featuring birding in this amazing Caribbean destination!

As you can see, not only is Cuba a top destination for birders, but is an excellent place for wildlife photographers. There are fantastic photographic opportunities throughout the entire tour – for birds and wildlife, and also beautiful scenery, both in the city and in Cuba’s diverse natural habitats.

Looking for more information about Cuba? Check out the following links:

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba for Birders
Birding Cuba: Culture, Community and Conservation

Cuban Pygmy-Owl Whitehawk Birding
Cuban Pygmy-Owl, one of Cuba’s 24 viable endemics

Our next trip to Cuba is set for January 30 to February 9, 2020. Join us for the ultimate Cuba birding experience! Contact us for more details.

~ Your friends at Whitehawk Birding

Birding Cuba: Community, Culture and Conservation

The endemic Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, found only in Cuba

With nearly 400 bird species (25 of which are endemic, according to the Clements Checklist ), a welcoming culture, good food, and year-round warm temperatures, Cuba is one of our favorite destinations. We are offering our next tour to this tropical island in January 2020.

The Birding: Endemics Galore

Islands in general are hotspots for endemic species, and Cuba is no exception. The largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba has a great diversity of habitats, some like no other on Earth, and has supported endemism and is home to 25 endemic species. There are even endemic extinct species (Cuban Macaw), and another which is critically endangered (Zapata Rail). It also supports a number of endemic subspecies and regional endemics as well. Not only are Cuba’s viable endemics attractive but they are among some of the most notable birds in the world. The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird on Earth, and it is only found in Cuba! Likewise, the Zapata Wren from Cuba’s Zapata swamp is known to have one of the smallest global ranges in the world. While some species are rare, such as the Gundlach’s Hawk and Cuban Solitaire, other colorful endemics are easy to come across – Cuban Trogon (Cuba’s National bird), Cuban Tody, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Green Woodpecker and Cuban Parakeet. In fact, we have had great luck on all of our past trips (check out our past trip reports) to Cuba to see all of the viable Cuban endemic birds.

The stunning Blue-headed Quail-Dove is always a highlight of our tours

Culture and Conservation: A Community Connection

But there’s more to Cuba than just the birding. Cuba is long-known as a cultural destination, where Old Havana’s lively atmosphere and great food attract people from all over the world as a unique travel destination. While Cuba’s political history has had a large impact over the years on the country’s economic and travel situation, Cubans still remain as welcoming and friendly as ever.

Getting out to explore the island and its different environments, we come across mogotes, bays, marshes, dry forest, beaches and more. Being an island, all of these habitats are sensitive to disturbance. By visiting and placing direct funds in the country through ecotourism, we are supporting the conservation of these habitats and species that live there.

And there’s so much more to love about Cuba – check out our Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba for Birders list!

Cuban scientist, author and wildlife illustrator Nils Navarro talking with our group

Cuba Travel Update – Yes, US Citizens can go there!

Though travel regulations have changed for US Citizens hoping to visit Cuba, it is still legal to travel there. For our tour, we will be traveling under the OFAC designated category of “support for the Cuban people.” Under this category travelers must engage in meaningful activities that support locals. During our tours, we always stay in “casas particulares” – Cuban-owned private homes, and we eat in locally owned restaurants. Additionally, we are accompanied 100% of the time by our amazing local guide, Maikel, and work with other local guides in specific areas. As part of our “Bins for Locals” program clients have the option of donating used binoculars to local guides and biologists who are unable to obtain some otherwise. We also make a visit to a local school to donate books (in Spanish) and other supplies (we encourage our clients to bring along any materials to donate)! The information we collect on bird sightings throughout the country will be uploaded to eBird and will help further knowledge about the local avifauna and, in the long term, population trends and other important information for conservation. Finally, at the end of the tour, we will provide you with a document that includes our itinerary activities and names of the casas particulares and restaurants where we visited during the tour. 

Come escape the cold US winters with us. Join us on our next Endemic Birds of Cuba tour, January 30 to February 9, 2020.

Top 10 Birds to See in Panama

Panama, as you probably know from us by now, is a birding paradise. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to make our home, and this small Central American country thrives with its incredible natural assets. Over 1000 species of birds have been recorded here, owing to Panama’s varied habitats, elevational reaches, tropical climate and geographic position as an important migratory flyway for shorebirds, raptors and songbirds.

While it is extremely hard to choose a top 10 birds among over 1000 species found in Panama, we thought we would take a stab at the task! We feel that these top 10 are some of Panama’s most sought-after, beautiful and unique bird species. Perhaps after reading about them, you may be enticed to book a trip and come see them for yourself!

In no special order, here are what we consider Panama’s top 10 birds:

Harpy Eagle

Ok, perhaps we are biased here as our entire team has worked with Harpy Eagles in Panama for some time, but we are enamored by our National Bird. The Harpy Eagle is not only one of the most powerful birds on Earth, but is graced with such incredible beauty, delicately entwined with formidable features causing our hearts to skip a beat every time we see one. Harpy Eagles are considered rare, even endangered in some places, throughout its range. Here in Panama, the vast, highly biodiverse region of Darien in eastern panama is where Harpy Eagles roam. While sightings are never guaranteed, known nest sites in Darien give us good chances to see adults and juveniles in the wild year-round, since their breeding cycles last at least 2 years. Ask us about Harpy Eagles!

Harpy Eagle Panama
Harpy Eagle, Panama’s national bird

Resplendent Quetzal

Dubbed with the title of being “the most beautiful bird on Earth,” the Resplendent Quetzal surely lives up to its name, and it’s no surprise that it makes our top 10 birds to see in Panama list. The male’s emerald-green, shimmery feathers, contrasting bright red belly, fanned crest and its most adorning feature – long, wispy feathers that trail from its lower back long past the tip of its tail – attract even the most casual passerby. This bird is truly resplendent! The Resplendent Quetzal is found in Panama’s Chiriqui highlands, where it lives in the tranquil cloud forests, feeds on little avocado fruits and nests in cavities – hard to believe it can contain its tail inside a hole in a tree (it usually sticks out of the opening!). The best time of year to see the Resplendent Quetzal in Panama is during their breeding season from January through April, conveniently coinciding with Panama’s dry season. Book a trip to see Resplendent Quetzals in Panama!

Resplendent Quetzal
The Resplendent Quetzal resides in the highland cloud forests of Chiriqui, western Panama

Ocellated Antbird

For any birder exploring the American tropics, antbirds are always on the top of the list for birds to see. While Panama has over 30 species of antbirds and their relatives to dazzle our sights over, there is one species that truly stands out of the crowd: the Ocellated Antbird. Its (relatively) large size, shaggy hairdo, bright blue facial skin, and ornately scalloped pattern all over its body makes this antbird a most-wanted bird to find in Panama. But there’s a trick to finding them – in order to find an Ocellated Antbird, look for swarming army ants in Panama’s lowland rainforests. Ocellated Antbirds are “professional” army ant followers and are rarely found away from a swarm. A big ant swarm may have up to half a dozen Ocellated Antbirds attending it, and they dominate over all other antbird species at the swarm. Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park is an excellent place to find Ocellated Antbirds!

Ocellated Antbird Panama
Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Searching for ground-cuckoos brings us to a whole other level of birding in the Neotropics, that relies very much on luck and good birding karma! The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, although widespread, is the “holy grail” bird to find in Panama. Never common and hard to predict, this roadrunner of the tropical rainforests attends large army ant swarms in central and eastern Panama. Like the Ocellated Antbird, it stays on or close to the ground, and eats up larger animals (small lizards, large arthropods) that army ants disturb while swarming. Ground-cuckoos are indeed cuckoos, but on the contrary to typical cuckoo behavior, they build their own nests and raise their own young, rather than parasitizing other bird nests. There is always the possibility to see one on our Panama tours, and if lucky enough to find one, you deserve a celebratory drink at the end of the day for adding this spectacular bird to your list!

A true “holy grail” bird, the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo can be seen with luck at army ant swarms

Black-crowned Antpitta

Antpitta-like in many aspects, the Black-crowned Antpitta is actually a rather remarkable member of the gnateater family, Conopophagidae. It fits the standard, antpitta “eggs with legs” appearance, and its two subspecies are both decorated with rich dark plumage and striking scalloping on their breast. Black-crowned Antpittas are only found in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, making them a key target species in this area of the Neotropics. They are best detected by their distinct songs and sharp chucking alarm calls. We can find Black-crowned Antpittas in the foothills of western and central Panama, and into the lowlands of Darién. 

The Black-crowned Antpitta lurks in the dark forest understory of Panama’s lowlands and foothills

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker

Unlike some other countries in tropical America, Panama is not known as being a hotspot for national endemics (regional endemics YES). We have a small number of endemic species, less than 10, and due to range extensions and more exploration into remote areas, some of our previously endemic species are being found in our neighbor nations. But that’s ok! Birds don’t have boundaries. The Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker is one of our national endemics, found only here in Panama. This small, attractive woodpecker is found in the foothills of eastern Panama – Cerro Azul is a great place to seek out this bird.

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker
Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, one of Panama’s endemic species

Tody Motmot

The Tody Motmot is a denizen of the dark nooks of the foothills of Central America. This motmot represents its own genus Hylomanes, and definitely stands out from the crowd within the motmot family. It is smaller and lacks the racket tips on the tail and gets its name for its resemblance to the todies of the Caribbean. The foothills forests of El Valle de Anton, as well as further into Darién, are excellent places to find the Tody Motmot in Panama, and it is always most-loved bird on any of our trips where we are fortunate to see it. It is always a target on our full day trips to El Valle de Anton.

Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle
Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle

Spectacled Owl

Of all the amazing birds we find while birding in Panama, the widespread Spectacled Owl is most often voted “bird of the trip” and for good reason: those large eyes surrounded by white “spectacles” and that piercing glare we experience every time we see one is beyond memorable! It is one of our largest owls in Panama, and luckily, we know of a few reliable roosts in some of our most popular birding areas where established pairs raise their young every year. They are superb subjects for bird and wildlife photographers, often allowing fairly close approach.

Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama
Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama

Sapayoa

For decades, the Sapayoa has remained a true mystery to birders and bird taxonomists. While it is nothing remarkable in appearance, it’s the appeal of its odd evolutionary history, along with its rather small global range, that makes it one of the most wanted birds to find in Panama. While it resembles a flycatcher or a manakin, ornithologists and taxonomists have long pondered over its taxonomic placement, as its closest living relatives appear to be the Old World broadbills. It is now generally accepted to be placed in its own family, Sapayoidae. For birders seeking to see representatives from each family of birds, this is a number one target! Panama is perhaps one of the best places to see the Sapayoa – it can be found in the eastern foothills and lowlands, almost always near forest streams. Ask us about finding the Sapayoa in Panama!

Sapayoa Panama
Sapayoa, a truly unique and puzzling bird

Blue Cotinga

Last but definitely not least, the Blue Cotinga definitely merits a spot in our top 10 birds to see in Panama list – how could it not! The electric blue plumage of the male is like no other in central and eastern Panama, where it is fairly common in the treetops of the lowland rainforest. With that color it easily stands out from the crowd! Even the scalloped plumage of the dull brown female is attractive. Panama is the only place to find the Blue Cotinga in Central America, and its small range to extreme northwestern Ecuador makes it a special bird to find. Blue Cotingas are usually solitary or found in small groups and are best found by visiting fruiting trees that they frequent. Seeing a male always produces an awe-inspiring reaction!

The male Blue Cotinga is a spectacular bird

Ask us about finding these top 10 birds and other incredible avifauna in Panama. Whitehawk offers tours all over the country, targeting these species and others that draw us to our beautiful country. Book your trip with us now!

Our Newest Destination: BHUTAN

FIre-tailed Myzornis Bhutan
Bhutan is home to many colorful birds, such as this Fire-tailed Myzornis

Asia’s big up-and-coming birding destination is the land-locked country of Bhutan. Bhutan appeals to us for several reasons. The small country is home to over 600 species of birds, some of which are more easily found here than anywhere else in the world. This is the case of the striking and rare Rufous-necked Hornbill, Beautiful Nuthatch and near-endemic Bhutan Laughingthrush, as well as some fantastic pheasants, including Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal and Satyr Tragopan. Situated north of India and nestled in the shadows of the mighty Himalayas, Bhutan boasts a multitude of elevational ranges and thus great diversity of habitats, from tropical and sub-tropical forest, cloud forest, and up to high elevation passes. Bhutan is culturally beautiful – extravagant Buddhist temples, dzongs, monasteries draped with colorful prayer flags, intriguing relics and stunning architecture call to us, and are set in the most scenic of landscapes one could ever imagine.

Satyr Tragopan Bhutan
The Satyr Tragopan is one of the several beautiful pheasants we will look for during the tour

Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas

For these reasons and many more, we are excited to announce Whitehawk’s first birding tour to Bhutan. Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas is a 16-day, cross-country journey through this spectacular country. With our highly experienced local guides, we will visit the best areas for birding along the way, many still begging to be explored. This tour takes us through a wide range of elevations, maximizing the different species of birds we will find during the tour, from lowland tropical and subtropical forests to high elevation passes with mesmerizing views of the Himalayas. Cultural stops along the way will complement our days of birding, and there will no doubt be birds to see around the enchanting monasteries and monuments, bringing us the best of both worlds. Additional birds we will seek out during the tour include Ward’s Trogon, Himalayan Cutia, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Ibisbill, Long-tailed Minivet, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Hooded Pitta, and Crimson Sunbird, among many others.

TIger's Nest Monastery Bhutan
Tiger’s Nest Monastery, near Paro

A Glimpse at the Tour

This tour begins in Guwahati and finishes in Paro, with short connecting flights to and from the larger cities in India (Delhi and Calcutta). We traverse the rugged landscape, traveling in a comfortable van from southeast to western Bhutan. Each night we stay in local hotels and nature resorts, accredited by the Bhutan bureau of tourism. Our local guides, as well as our Whitehawk tour leaders, have a wealth of knowledge on the birdlife and wildlife of Bhutan; there will be opportunities to learn and see plenty of new species around every curve of the mountain. Our first Bhutan: Birding in the Himalayas tour will run April 12-27, 2020. Please contact us for more information about this new and exciting tour!

Rufous-necked Hornbill Bhutan
Bhutan is one of the best places to find the rare Rufous-necked Hornbill

2019 Discover India: Birding & Tiger Safari Trip Report Online!

One of 12 individual tigers we were lucky to see during our 2019 tour in India

Well, our long-awaited tiger safari and birding tour came and went, leaving 7 people in complete awe of the spectacular wildlife we saw during the 2-week excursion into the wilds of India. We had great sightings of not one, not two, but rather TWELVE Bengal Tigers in the wild, observed their behaviors, studied their perfection as top predators and gained an even greater respect for the incredible animals that they are and their importance in their diminishing habitat.

As we ventured through the national parks and reserves of northern India, we were lucky to see plenty of other wildlife that was nothing short of marvelous. Like Africa, India is a fantastic place for large mammals in general, and during the tour we had great views of, among others, Dhole (Wild Dog), Jungle Cat, Leopard, Common Palm Civet, Indian Gazelle, Blackbuck, Northern Red Muntjac and Nilgai.

Jungle Owlet seen at Bandhavgarh National Park

Finally, the birding! The wide variety of habitats we visited during the tour were worthy of some world-class birding, with memorable sightings of Brown Fish-Owl, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Indian Courser, Sarus Crane, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, Plum-headed Parakeet, Savanna Nightjar, Chestnut-breasted Bunting, Orange-headed Thrush,Crested Treeswift, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Jungle Owlet, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, Indian Skimmer and so much more.

Orange-headed Thrush foraging on the ground in Tadoba National Park

Overall, we wrapped up our tour with 246 species of birds and 26 species of mammals. Without further ado, check out our Discover India: Birding & Tiger Safari trip report for the full account of our most memorable moments, tour highlights and a full list of the birds and mammals seen and enjoyed during the tour. We are already planning for our next Indian adventure, check back soon for dates for our future tours in this highly biodiverse country, or get in touch with us for more information.

A Leopard carrying away a fresh kill in Ranthanbore National Park, one of this tour’s many amazing moments

Central American Hummingbirds – the gems of the region

The snowcap - one of the endemic Central American Hummingbirds
The Snowcap – one of the endemic Central American Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are one of the most diverse groups of birds in the New World. There are more than 345 species from Alaska (Rufous Hummingbird) to Tierra del Fuego (Green-backed Firecrown), including the Caribbean islands.

It’s no surprise that the greatest number of hummingbirds are in the tropical region, including a large number in Central America. Here, we may encounter about 30% of the hummingbird species, of which 20 species can be found only in Central America. Additionally, some hummingbird genera are unique to this region, such as Panterpe (Fiery-throated Hummingbird), Microchera (Snowcap) and Elvira  (Coppery-headed and White-tailed Emeralds),  which have apparently diversified in this region recently. Similarly, the genus Lampornis originated in Central America and then expanded into North America, along with the Amethyst-throated Hummingbird and Blue-throated Hummingbird. Excluding these two species, the other hummingbirds of the genus Lampornis, the mountain-gems, are a mostly Central American group found only in Mesoamerica.

Which hummingbirds can you find only in Central America?

This region is home to 20 endemic Central American hummingbirds according to the Clement Checklist. Of these, only two have large ranges in the region. The tiny Snowcap delights us in the humid forests from Honduras to Panama; and the Purple-throated Mountain-gem, with a smaller distribution, is found from the hilly areas of Nicaragua to Panama.

Other Central American hummingbirds are shared between two countries. Such is the case of the Green-breasted Mountain-gem which we can come across in both northwestern Nicaragua and Honduras. The same happens between Costa Rica and Panama with an extraordinary number of Central American endemic hummingbirds. Between these two countries are two endemic bird areas (EBAs): the Costa Rica and Panama highlands and the South Central American Pacific slope, which is home to 13 endemic hummingbirds:

  • Veraguan Mango
  • White-crested Coquette
  • Talamanca Hummingbird
  • Fiery-throated Hummingbird
  • White-bellied Mountain-gem
  • White-throated Mountain-gem
  • Magenta-throated Woodstar
  • Volcano Hummingbird
  • Scintillant Hummingbird
  • Garden Emerald
  • Black-bellied Hummingbird
  • White-tailed Emerald
  • Charming Hummingbird

Volcano Hummingbird - one of the endemic Central American hummingbirds of the highland of Costa Rican and Panama
Volcano Hummingbird – one of the endemic Central American hummingbirds of the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama

Central American hummingbirds of a single country 

Only Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama have hummingbirds restricted to their political boundaries. Costa Rica is the most favored country with two endemic hummingbirds.

Honduran Emerald – This hummingbird is the only endemic bird of Honduras. For 38 years the species had not been reported because it was presumed to be a forest inhabitant and no one was searching for it in the right place! However, after plotting the locations from where this species had been collected in the past, it was clear that this species inhabits dry forest and scrub, mainly arid, open-canopy deciduous thorn-forest. Thanks to this clue, six emeralds were rediscovered in the upper Aguan River basin in about an hour during an expedition in 1988. Since then, at least half a dozen sites of this emerald population have been discovered.

Coppery-headed Emerald – One of the members of the aforementioned Central American genus Elvira, this small hummingbird is fairly common in Costa Rica. It is found at middle elevations on the Caribbean slope, north of the Reventazon river, and reaches the Pacific slope in the northern parts of the Guanacaste and Tilaran Cordilleras.

The Coppery-headed Emerald a Central American hummingbird endemic to Costa Rica
The Coppery-headed Emerald a Central American hummingbird endemic to Costa Rica

Mangrove Hummingbird – This hummingbird is found only in the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It is mostly associated with mangrove forest and is occasionally observed in adjacent, non-mangrove habitats. It feeds primarily on the flowers of the Tea Mangrove (Pelliciera rhizophorae).

Glow-throated Hummingbird – This is a very poorly known endemic hummingbird of Panama. It is restricted to a small area in the Tabasara mountain range.

More endemic Central American hummingbirds by different taxonomy

If we follow the IOC taxonomy, we will gain two other endemic hummingbirds of Central America: Blue-vented Hummingbird and Gray-tailed Mountain-gem. Some taxonomic authorities, like the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, consider these hummingbirds as subspecies. The first one is a subspecies of Steely-vented Hummingbird, which can be found from the arid zones of western Nicaragua to central Costa Rica. The Mountain-gem is endemic to the Talamanca mountain range of Costa Rica and it is the subspecies of the White-throated Mountain-gem.

This is important to keep in mind, since one never knows when new research will split a subspecies into an entirely new species. This has been the case recently, when two Central American hummingbirds were split. The former Magnificent Hummingbird was split into Rivoli’s Hummingbird and the Central American endemic Talamanca Hummingbird. Similarly, the Green Violetear was split into Mexican Violetear and Lesser Violetear. Both species can be found in Central America. The most curious thing of all is that Lesser Violetear has an exclusive subspecies in our region, a highland endemic from Costa Rica and Panama.

It is clear that for unrivaled hummingbirds viewing, Central America is a great destination. The fact that it is home to thirty percent of the hummingbird species and about 20 endemics is sufficient enough reason to visit this part of the world. Join us on our next birding trip to one of several Central American countries and enjoy an incredible birding experience with these little avian gems!

Review of Birds of Central America

On this review of Birds of Central America, we go over the different sections of the book and compare it to other publications that treat with bird identification on the region.

Birds of Central America Cover
Birds of Central America Cover

The Authors

This is an impressive book by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer, and the first field guide to encompass the entire Central American region, comprising seven countries: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Both authors have traveled and have extensive experience in Central America. Dyer has published numerous illustrations in Neotropical bird guides, such as ‘Birds of Peru’ and ‘Bird Guide of Trinidad and Tobago’. Additionally, both authors work for the Department of Ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History. This has facilitated their prolonged access to a large collection of specimens and has facilitated contact with many other collections.

The authors’ experiences have served this book well. Within its main section, ‘Birds of Central America’ covers 1,194 bird species in great detail through concise texts on identification and behavior, distribution maps and illustrations. It also includes 67 additional species, of which there are only some citations, in an annex.

Other field guides for the region

The fact that this book covers an area as large and diverse as Central America is both a strength and a weakness. While there are three other books that have covered parts of this region: ‘A Guide to the Birds of Panama, with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras’ (Ridgely and Gwinne, 1989), ‘A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America’ (Howell and Webb, 1995) and, more recently, ‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America’ (Fagan and Comar, 2016), there is currently no other book out there that includes all of the species distributed throughout the width and length of the region. This makes the ‘Birds of Central America’ a unique find.

However, it probably isn’t very often that anyone would need one guide that brings all these countries together for a single trip. In fact, the book is quite bulky for a field guide. It weighs 1.4kg and measures 22.86 x 15.24cm; a size and weight to consider if we want to have the book tucked in our backpack when we climb a muddy hill during a tropical downpour. As for other physical characteristics of the book, the quality of the paper and the flexible cover certainly suggests a resistant, highly durable product.

Review of Birds of Central America: size comparison of some Central America bird books
Size comparison of some Central America bird books. Birds of Central America is the one at the bottom, and its the largest of them all

Introductory section

The book begins with an introduction to Central America and a detailed description of how the book is organized, including the different sections included for each of the treated species. Of particular interest is the section that describes the different biogeographic zones of the region.

The main part of the book, as you would expect from a bird identification guide, includes information related to each species: a small distribution map to the left of the text accompanied by a short description, and further details on its identification, habitat, behavior and vocalizations. The plates with illustrations corresponding to each species can be found on the opposing page. In some cases, notes on the taxonomy are added, particularly if there have been recent changes, as well as geographical variations.

The texts are precise and concise, especially when describing the identifying characteristics of each species. At times, one would hope for a greater abundance of details, and more comparisons with similar species. In this regard, other guides in the region contain more detailed texts, like the aforementioned Howell & Webb.

The order of the species follows the list of Birds of North America published by the American Ornithology Union in 2017, with some variations that facilitate the comparison of similar birds that, otherwise, may be confusing. A handy feature is the index of the different bird groups listed on the inside flaps of the book. This is of great help when it comes to quickly finding the species that one is looking for.

The illustrations

A highlight of this work is the high quality of the illustrations. These are, for the most part, excellent. They show the birds in their typical postures, with a high degree of fidelity to the expression of the bird as well as meticulous detail of the plumage and bare parts. There are some exceptions however: Illustrations of some groups of birds, such as raptors, shorebirds, and gulls, are not of the same high quality. At other times, it appears that the magnificent illustrator, Dale Dyer, may have been painting from museum specimens and not from observations made of live birds. In some illustrations the birds appear somewhat rigid and unnatural. However, the majority of the illustrations are superb. This is especially meritorious, considering that all them have been made by a single artist, an unusual feat in a guide of this scope.

While the plates are beautifully rendered, at first glance, they appear a bit washed out, making the illustrations look too pale. Other readers have commented on this as well, ruling out the possibility that it could be just our copy. It is possible, however, that this is an effect sought by the authors. And, the truth is, after spending a while contemplating the illustrations in this book, the impresson that there is a lack of contrast disappears and, by comparison, the rest of the guides suddenly seem to have an exaggerated contrast, with excessively dark contours and colors that are way too saturated.

In general, the illustrations are generously sized, occupying as much of each page as possible. In the upper right margin of each page, the authors have indicated the proportion of the illustrations with respect to the actual size of the bird – all the species on the same page are in the same proportion. Generally the distribution of illustrations is clear and does not give rise to confusion, although sometimes a clearer separation would be desirable, as we are used to seeing in guides such as ‘The Sibley Guide to Birds’ by David Sibley, and ’Birds of Europe and North Africa’ by Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström.

The age classes, as well as the different sexes in those species that present sexual dimorphism, are mostly reflected in the illustrations. Also, as mentioned, illustrations of many of the subspecies and geographic variants are frequently shown. This is remarkable since this is the first time many of these variants are represented in an identification guide. This feature allows us to appreciate at a glance the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences between individuals from different populations

Another added value is the inclusion of some relatively recent ‘splits’. For example, the wrens of the genus Cantorchilus (Cabanis’s, Canebrake and Isthmian Wren), formerly included in another genus as Plain Wren, each receive their corresponding illustration which reflects the differences between them, helping us to better appreciate the variations among these species. Likewise, the maps show how they are distributed with little overlap throughout the region. Another good example is that of Lesson’s Motmot and Whooping Motmot. Until recently, they were considered the same species, but in this book, each one has its corresponding illustration, showing the small differences that will allow us to distinguish between these parapatric species. These and other taxonomic novelties (31) are collected in the Taxonomic Notes, in the final part of the book.

If something is missing from the illustrations, it is the lack of depictions of birds in flight. This is the case for many of the pigeons and thrushes, and some raptor species, which is a pity since, in the field, birds of prey are most often observed in flight. However, this seems to be a detail missing from most field guides, which lack an illustration that shows the top of the bird in flight. Another aspect that would enrich the book further would be the use of arrows, as in the Peterson Identification System (as in the aforementioned Birds of Europe guide), to point out the most relevant identification features that separate similar species, age classes or sex.

Maps and final sections

The distribution maps are fully updated with the available information. They are detailed and include isolated observations of interest, as well as small populations. However, there does appear to be one error. It appears that the maps of Blue-throated Motmot and Turquoise-browed Motmot have been interspersed.

Following the main part of the book comes the section corresponding to those species that have been cited on few occasions in the region or about which it has not been possible to confirm their presence. This section consists of a two-page list of species with a brief description of the records. Below this, are the Taxonomic Notes of those species on which recent changes have been made. It is followed by a brief glossary of terms used during the text and, finally, the extensive bibliography (677 references) and the index.

Conclusion

As mentioned at the beginning, one of the greatest virtues of this guide is also its biggest problem. Covering a region as wide and rich in species as Central America affects the size and weight of the volume. This makes it, perhaps, uninteresting as a guide to take into the field, thus relegating it, in most cases, to a reference book once we are back home.

It is important to keep in mind that most trips made by amateur or professional birders usually take place in a single country at a time, so it may be more convenient to have field books specific to that country. There are several high quality works to choose from including Richard Garrigues’ ‘The Birds of Costa Rica’ (2007) and George R. Angehr’s ‘Birds of Panama’ (2010).

Though it isn’t conveniently taken into the field, so many other aspects of this work make ‘Birds of Central America’ indispensable for anyone with a minimum interest in the birds of the region. The updated taxonomy and maps, the inclusion of illustrations of geographical variants, different age and sex classes, as well as the high quality of the plates, make this guide the prime bibliographic reference on Central American birds. And that’s not a small thing!

Ornitherapy in Panama: Birds, Beaches and Yoga

Whitehawk’s first ornitherapy tour is set in the tranquil forests and white sand beaches of Belize.  Now we are excited to introduce our second tour in this style, in our home-base country of Panama.

Imagine waking up to a spectacular view of Pacific dry forest from the front porch of your private cabin, just a five-minute walk away from the soothing waves of the Pacific Ocean. You hear the familiar “whoop” of the Whooping Motmot outside your cabin, the comical buzzy notes of the Lance-tailed Manakins lekking in the forest nearby, and a screech of a Yellow-headed Caracara flying above. Take a deep breath and fill your lungs with the fresh, salty air. The morning bird activity will no doubt attract your attention – take a moment to watch the movements of the motmot as it flicks its tail like a pendulum from side to side, waiting for the perfect moment to dart to the ground to snatch up an insect.

Yellow-headed Caracara Panama
Yellow-headed Caracara are abundant in central Panama

Connecting with birds

An ornitherapy tour is all about indulging in a connection with birds and nature. The first five nights of the tour are set in the dry forest of the Pacific lowlands. Our friends at Istmo Yoga and Adventure Retreat will graciously host us at their beautiful oasis just a couple hundred meters away from the sandy beach and warm Pacific waters. The birds of the Pacific lowlands and lower foothills of El Valle de Anton nearby will charm us with their charismatic behaviors and ease of observation. Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, Lance-tailed Manakins, Flame-rumped Tanagers, Crested Bobwhites, Collared Aracaris, Red-legged Honeycreepers, Tody Motmots, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, Gray-headed Chachalacas and so many more will inspire us.

The final two nights take us to the banks of the Panama Canal where over 500 species of birds have been recorded. Toucans, trogons, manakins, antbirds, cotingas – all will dazzle and stimulate our minds and souls. From the forest understory to the canopy above, we will celebrate Panama’s great bird life. We will also take in some of the local sights, including the famous Panama Canal.

Stand Up Paddleboarding Panama
Stand-up paddleboarding in the calm waters of the Pacific

Connection with yourself

This tour also gives us the opportunity to relax, reflect and perhaps try out something new! While at Istmo, join us for a daily Yoga class and/or meditation session. Or get out on the calm waters of the Pacific and try Stand-Up Paddleboarding through the calm mangroves. You may even see a Straight-billed Woodcreeper or Mangrove Cuckoo, two mangrove specialties, while on the board! At any time, feel free to pull out some pencils and give sketching a hummingbird a go, or spend a few minutes coloring a mandala for some sweet relaxation in nature. Share these moments with others in the group or keep them to yourself to enjoy. Let ornitherapy and birds help you find this great connection!

Meditation on the beach Panama
Meditation on the beach

Nature prescriptions and Ornitherapy

Birds and nature have the incredible ability to greatly aid a wide variety of conditions, or at least put our minds at ease and sooth us. So much so, GPs are starting to prescribe birdwatching and beach walks to people suffering from chronic and debilitating illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stress and mental illness. We recently came across this article and couldn’t help but see the connection to the benefits of our ornitherapy tours – it’s worth a read.

“There’s no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection”

For those looking for a birding and nature getaway that embraces relaxation, join us in December 2019 for Whitehawk’s Panama Ornitherapy: Intro to Birding and Yoga. Perhaps this is a great way to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, and truly enjoy a gift of nature. Contact us for more information and to reserve your spot now!