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!

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