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!

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

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!

Ornitherapy: Birding for the Soul

Looking back to some of our blog posts from 2013, this one caught our attention and is worth reposting. What is ornitherapy? How can birds help us to mentally, emotionally and physically thrive in today’s busy society? Read on and be inspired:

I recently came across a print ad by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showing beautiful snow-capped mountains against an orange sky and a foreground of wetlands filled with what look like hundreds of snow geese resting on the water.  The ad reads, “There is no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection.”

Butterfly Falls, Mountain Pine Ridge Belize
Butterfly Falls, tucked away in the Mountain Pine Ridge, is a beautiful oasis

Connecting with birds

I have been thinking a lot lately about that ad; about what it really means to be “connected” and what things in this life are truly worth “connecting” to. On the surface, we, as a society tend to form fleeting connections that do little to feed us emotionally or nurture us physically. Even we birders are often so connected to our life lists that we sometimes forget about the birds themselves. How often have we seen a new species only to immediately check it off the list and move on to the next one, without taking the time to really marvel at the beauty of its feathers, or the grace of its flight?

When was the last time you immersed yourself, if only for a moment, in the secret lives of birds – watching them forage for food, preen, or simply perch quietly in the shade? Do we truly “connect” with the species we are watching? Even when we learn their calls it is usually for purposes of identification, and not to enjoy the unique melodious music that deserves as much appreciation as a fine aria.

A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem in Costa Rica
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Connecting with ourselves

I can’t help but wonder… as a society, have we lost our connectedness, our mindfulness – our ability to be in present in each moment as it occurs and experience all the joy, beauty, sorrow or disappointment that moment brings? While Yoga and meditation strive to teach us how to do just that, those new to these practices might find them overwhelming and out of their realm or interest. But the truth is that neither Yoga nor meditation has to be done on a mat, sitting quietly in a room. In fact, our best moments of mindfulness are achieved off the mat.  One way to accomplish this is by immersing ourselves in nature. Yes, even while birding, we can achieve a feeling of peacefulness, tranquility, and joy.

Yoga in nature Belize
Yoga in the most serene rainforest setting, photo courtesy of Hidden Valley Inn

Whitehawk and Ornitherapy

We at Whitehawk want to offer our clients such an experience. Through our ornitherapy tours we practice birding in a mindful way – learning about the natural history of the species and spending time with each bird that we see. These tours also provide other optional mindful and relaxation activities such as gentle yoga  classes, both for beginners and for those who have been practicing for years. Our first ornitherapy tour brings us to the beautiful forests and colorful coral reefs of Belize. Our second ornitherapy tour will inspire us in Panama – stay tuned to our blog for more details coming very soon. Won’t you join us?

Top 10 Reasons to Love Vultures

Hooded Vulture, Rüppell’s Griffon, Eurasian Griffon and White-backed Vulture in Senegal

We admit it, we are big fans of vultures. And why not?! Long thought of as being dirty, ugly, garbage eaters, they are actually very beautiful birds and more importantly, play a major role in the environment. In the light of International Vulture Awareness Day 2018 which took place on September 1, we thought we would compile our list of the top 10 reasons to love vultures.

1. Bald heads

Of course, a bald bird is not the most appealing at first and may render the image of vultures as being ugly, but vultures are bald for at least two good reasons. Vultures are carrion eaters and in order to get into the good parts of a carcass, they need to get their heads deep in there! If they had feathers all over their heads, it would be very difficult to clean off (imagine plunging your head into a bowl of spaghetti and then imagine the cleanup afterwards – ugh!). But, with a bald head, all the vulture needs to do is splash around in a puddle, wait for it to rain or just let the sun dry it off and they have a nice clean head. Love it! But that’s not the whole story. New research suggests that vultures are bald because of the weather – being bald helps them stay cool in hot temperatures and by tucking their necks and heads in, they can stay a bit warmer in cold temperatures.

Having a bald head, like on this Black Vulture, helps it to stay clean and cool

2. Nature’s clean-up crew

Vultures are scavengers and feed primarily on carrion – dead animals. They are not well-equipped to kill prey and require their food to be dead or mostly dead. They play a major role in the environment by cleaning up roadsides, fields and the forest floor of dead animals. By doing this, they help  stop the spread of diseases. The stomach acids of a Turkey Vulture are so strong they can kill rabies, anthrax and other serious mammalian diseases. Nature’s most efficient clean-up crew!

3. More than just carrion-eaters

Did you know that some vultures specialize in eating some rather unique things? The Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture of Europe, Africa and Asia is one of these specialists – up to 90% of its diet consists of bone marrow. It carries bones to great heights over rocky hillsides and drops them to break them open and access the marrow inside. The Palm-Nut Vulture of Africa specializes in eating the fruit husks of oil palms and the palm-fruits of Raphia Palms. It also eats a wide variety of live animals, including crabs and mollusks, fish and turtle eggs and hatchlings. A number of vulture species are known to eat vegetable matter, and even some that will consume animal feces! See the Lammergeier in action on our India: In Search of the Snow Leopard tour.

Lammergeier
The Lammergeier specializes in eating bone marrow.

4. Sense of smell

The well-known Turkey Vulture, along with its close cousins the Greater Yellow-headed and Lesser Yellow-headed vultures of the Americas, are among only a few species of birds that has a highly-developed sense of smell. Their olfactory abilities are so good that they can find rotting meat on the forest floor covered in leaf litter from soaring above the canopy. Most vultures lack a sense of smell and, instead, use their keen eyesight to find food. Intelligent birds that they are, other species like Black and King Vultures will follow these keen-nosed vultures to where the food is. The Turkey Vulture has been used to locate leaks in natural gas lines – gas companies inject a chemical that smells like decaying flesh, and where there are leaks, Turkey Vultures will be found congregating in the area!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
The large, open nostrils of this Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and its close cousins help it to smell its food

5. They’re beautiful

Despite first impressions of vultures and their unique habits, they are beautiful birds. Nobody can deny that they are incredibly graceful in flight, gliding for hours on outstretched wings. Some species, like the King Vulture and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture of tropical America, are beautifully adorned with bright colors on their bare heads. And several species have pure-white plumage that shines in the sun when they soar overhead. Get up close with King Vultures in the Mountain Pine Ridge in Belize. How could you not love these beautiful birds?

A King Vulture spreads its wings, showing off its beautiful plumage and brightly colored head

6. Long-distance travelers

Some species of vultures are migratory. They make long journeys each year from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds where food is abundant. Turkey Vultures are well-known migrants; they fill the skies each spring and fall over North and Central America, in groups called kettles, sometimes numbering up to 10,000 individuals! Vultures migrate using thermals as a means of conserving energy; they can soar for hours this way without barely a flap of the wings. Turkey Vultures migrate from Canada well into South America, and they do so in record time, covering up to 200 miles per day! Panama is one of the best migratory hot spots for Turkey Vultures—over 1.5 million Turkey Vultures pass over the isthmus each fall. Ask us about experiencing the fantastic raptor migration of Panama.

Even non-migratory vultures can be long-distance travelers on a daily basis, soaring over 100 miles in a day in search of food. Their broad wings designed for soaring help them do this effortlessly, and they can move at speeds up to 60 miles per hour!

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture in flight

7. Find them almost everywhere

Another reason to love vultures:  they are a cosmopolitan group of birds. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Seven species can be found in the Americas from Canada down to Tierra del Fuego. There are 16 species of Old World vultures that soar the skies of Europe, Africa and Asia. Vultures are found in a wide variety of habitats, from tropical rainforest to high Andean plateaus, African savanna to the staggering rocky cliffs of the Himalayas. Wherever you may find yourself in your travels, there are likely vultures to be found. Ask us about seeing vultures on our Whitehawk tours.

8. Stars of ancient mythology

Vultures are a prominent feature in ancient mythology all over the world. They are revered as consumers of death and bringers of rebirth. They are present in Greek legends: Egyptian Vultures were known as the “cuckoo’s horse” because when they arrived in the Spring they carried migrating cuckoos on their backs. The Egyptian Vulture is also well-known in Greek tradition as the “cheese maker” because it regularly forages near dairy farms and feeds on dairy product waste. Another legend states that the poet Aeschylus died because a Lammergeier dropped a bone on his head. The stories go on and on.

Vulture heads are abundant in ancient imagery from various cultures. Vulture bodies have long been used in folk medicine. The term “griffon” is used to describe lazy, uncouth and gluttonous people, referring to the Griffon vultures. Generally, vultures are connected with shepherds and pastoral life and are typically viewed positively due to their rebirth powers.

The Egyptian Vulture is a prominent bird in ancient Greek mythology

9. Record wingspans & heavyweight fliers

Vultures are among the largest flighted birds on Earth. The Andean Condor of South America is one of the heaviest flying birds. It weighs up to 33 lbs. and has an immense wingspan of over 10 feet – the largest wingspan of any raptor. This makes the Andean Condor the largest raptor on Earth. Of the Old World Vultures, the largest species is the Cinereous Vulture, just slightly smaller than its American cousin, at 31 lbs., with a similar wingspan. Lifting off the ground requires great force of their strong wings which are built for soaring and thus help conserve their energy. If you like seeing big birds, you’ll love vultures!

Andean Condor
The Andean Condor of South America is the largest raptor in the world

10. Bio-indicators

Vultures are excellent environmental indicators and alert us to changes in ecosystem health. Being a scavenger near the top of the food chain, vultures are subject to bioaccumulation of toxins, such as DDT and lead. Vultures and other raptors showed early indication of environmental contamination and sparked action to ban DDT in North America. When vultures in Asia began to decline significantly in the early 2000s, it brought about attention that something was happening in the environment. A veterinary drug was being used to treat injured livestock, and when the vultures ingested the meat after the animal died, the vultures suffered from kidney failure and also perished. The sad reality is that several species of vultures are now critically endangered in Asia, though this drug has been banned in some countries. Vultures are indicators of poaching activity since they travel long distances to find animal carcasses and congregate in large groups. Sadly, many vultures are targets of poisoning events by poachers trying to hide the evidence of their actions.

We love vultures!

We enjoy vultures whenever we see them – on our travels or in our own backyards. Vultures also need our help – several species are severely declining in numbers and are critically endangered. Next time you see a vulture, consider some of the reasons why they are so special and so important in our environment. Ask us about vultures on our tours. We love talking about them, and perhaps you will come to love vultures, too!

Ocellated birds: what they are and why they have that name

While guiding in the humid forest of Colombia, I spotted an Ocellated Tapaculo,  a beautiful but elusive bird. Upon hearing this species’ name, one of the birders asked  “Where do these names come from? What does that name mean?” At the time, I had no answer to give him. But I wanted to be able to answer this question for the next person who asked. So I did some research.

Ocellated Tapaculo in the Andean forest of Colombia

It turns out that the name comes from ocellus, a modern Latin word derivate and diminutive of oculus (‘eye’). So, ocellus literally means ‘small eye’. In this case, the name refers to the eye-like spots on the bird’s plumage. Therefore, the white ocelli (the plural of ocellus) that cover the body of the Tapaculo were the inspiration for its name.

We can find this bird from Peru to Colombia, within the Andean montane forest. If you are interested in seeing it, there will be good opportunities on our tour, Colombia: Three Andean Mountain Ranges.

The adjective is not exclusive of the Tapaculo

Many other species, curiously all in the Neotropics, also have  this adjective in their names.  Among the most interesting is the Yucatan Peninsula endemic, the amazing Ocellated Turkey. This bird – with a mixture of green and bronze colors and a bare, blue head, received its name from the astonishing blue and rufous ocelli on its tail.

Ocellated Turkey - Meleagris ocellata

During our tour, Honduras and Guatemala: Jewels of Central America, we will visit El Tikal National Park in the Peten region of Guatemala. This will be a great chance to spot this jewel. But,  if you would prefer a shorter tour,  our Belize: Birds of the Caribbean tour offers another good opportunity to see this species.

Finally, I should highlight one more spotted bird, which is widely distributed in Central America – the Ocellated Antbird. The black ocelli on its belly and back stand out against its otherwise brown plumage, making it look as if they were  painted on. That’s why this species  is one of the targets on Pipeline Road in Panama; and in La Selva Biological Station, which we visit on our new birding tour: Costa Rica: Wild Nature

Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Other Ocellated birds in the Neotropics

  • In the Oak-pine forest from southern Mexico to Nicaragua – Ocellated Quail.
  • A dark nightjar that we can find in many places in South America , and in Central America (Honduras to Costa Rica), we can also find a regional subspecies –  Ocellated Poorwill.
  • Found in Costa Rica and several countries in South America – Ocellated Crake.
  • The Mexican endemic  – Ocellated Thrasher.
  • One of the smallest woodpeckers found in Peru and Bolivia – Ocellated Piculet.
  • Found in the Northwest of the Amazonia – Ocellated Woodcreeper.

Common names aren’t the only ones use the word “ocellus”. Some scientific names also incorporate this word, such as ocellate, ocellatus, and ocellatum. For example, Podargus ocellatus and Leipoa ocellate are the scientific names of Marbled Frogmouth and Malleefowl, respectively.  The two species are in Australia – another upcoming destination for Whitehawk.