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Panama: Panama City to Azeuro Peninsula


Work took me to Panama for two weeks at the end of April. We were stationed outside of the small (and I do mean small) town of Pedasi located on the Azeuro Peninsula. The area where we stayed was one of the driest areas of Panama. Less rain meant less diversity in wildlife, plants, and birds. Except for a few large natural parks, the peninsula was largely ruralized with cow pastures, sugar cane fields, houses, and towns. In other words, it was largely disturbed and clear cut. There were a few patches of forest that were allowed to reestablish themselves. Thankfully, where we were stationed there was a somewhat large area of dry forest that was allowed to reestablish itself. Despite the challenges of the environment, there were still a good amount of birds and wildlife to be seen. The great thing about being in an exotic environment was everything I saw was unfamiliar and exciting.

A nice thing about this area was that we weren't constantly attacked by mosquitos. In fact I think, I only got one mosquito bite during my stay that is a miracle considering how much they seem to like biting me. The no-see-ums were pretty bad though, especially in the dining areas where we would sit for extending periods and the flies seemed to know where an easy meal could be found.

I spent 98% of my time on location at my work site (the other 2% was the treat of going into town or going out to dinner). The meals were prepared onsite by two local cooks. I'm not sure how representative it is of Panamanian cuisine, but the two cooks there cooked pretty much the same thing everyday. Lunches and dinners consisted primarily of rice and beans - probably the staple of most Central and South American cuisines. Along with the rice, we were served either pork or chicken (once we had beef) that is often cooked in a greasy chili sauce. The meal would have been OK if the meat weren't constantly overcooked to the point of being jerky and a tough jaw workout. If we were lucky, we were served a side of salad. After a week of eating this, it got pretty monotonous and tiring. But perhaps breakfast was the worse for me. The first breakfast I had wasn't too bad - scrambled eggs with ham chunks and a pancake. Then it changed to what I now know is called hojaldres and salchichas guisadas. The first is basically a dough that is flattened and fried. It didn't have much flavor, but wasn't awful. The salchicha guisadas (sausage stew) was cut up hot dog in a tomato sauce with some onion and green pepper. I'm not really a fan of hot dogs to begin with so having them for first thing in the morning was hard to stomach. Panamanian breakfast was definitely something I wasn't too keen on. After a few meals of that I decided to skip breakfast and just keep birding in the mornings. It was more rewarding even if I got hungry.

I had not spent much time in a dry forest before. I was more used to the typical rainforest everyone thinks about when they think of the tropics. The recovering dry forest was relatively open, both on the ground and in the canopy. The canopy was only 50 feet up at the highest point, but on average was around 30 feet. Trunks were not thick, as trees grew more slowly compared to those located in wetter locations. Thin vines were strung from the forest floor up to the branches and epiphites grew on the bark of trees. Despite the relative openness of the forest floor, it was difficult to navigate without a path and I imagine it would be pretty easy to get disorientated and lost. Barbed scrubs and prickly grasses made walking along the fence and cow paths the better choice for birding. A plant related to the acacia had large intimidating thorns on every branch, but that wasn't the more intimidating thing about them. The acacia had developed a symbiotic relationship with ants - the plant provided housing in the thorns and aphids for the ants to ranch. In return, whenever anything would brush up against the acacia plant the ants would swarm and bite, thus protecting the plant. Those acacia plants were everywhere in the undergrowth.

In the early morning hours, I went on walks along a barbed wire fence that separated the forested property on one side and the heavily grazed and cleared area on the other. The nice thing about birding the dry forest at the end of the dry season was that the canopy was relatively open, so birds were somewhat easier to locate and observe. If I was lucky an overcast day would keep the day slightly cooler and I could stay out longer. But more often, the sun would come out and by 8AM, I would quickly become drenched in my sweat. On the other side of clear cuts and the dry season was the scarcity of shade.

On the ground, land crabs would creep along in the leaf litter. It was distracting to hear them moving leaves around, because I wasn't sure if it was a crab or something more interesting like an anole or snake. But they were entertaining to watch as they would run when approached. If they couldn't get away quick enough, they would take the defensive stance by facing their approacher and raising their back legs and their pinchers. Hermit crabs were also numerous on the ground. When approached they would retreat into their shells and lose their grip on the ground, sometimes this would send them tumbling down rocks, tree trunks and hills. Both of these arthropods were numerous, but seemed more active during the night after a rain and during the day when it got warmer. These times seem rather counter to each other, but it was when I noticed more of their numbers.

During the heat of the day, if I had time I would walk on the rocky beach. There were a lot of sally-go-lightlys that would scuttle and practically throw themselves out of the way whenever someone would approach. The beach had large pockets of dead coral that washed up from the nearby reef. On the sandy part of the beach dozens and dozens of ghost crabs ran sideways either finding shelter in a burrow or using their lightening speeds to get away.

Around the worksite, I found a few herps and amphibians, but not large numbers of them. I'm not sure if this was because of the dry season or because there isn't much diversity in the area. Perhaps the most exciting encounter with a reptile was when I was sitting outside staring out into the bay. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a quick bought of thrashing in the leaves. I turned my full attention to the movement and then saw a snake use it coils to sort of bounce away into deeper leaf litter. I got up and looked around where the snake escaped to, then I saw the snake coiled up and flipping its tail around. Upon closer inspection I noticed it had a lizard in it's mouth. Before I could get a better look it bounced away again, this time deeper into the woods. When I first noticed it, the snake (a Yellowbelly Snake) must have pounced upon and caught the lizard.

The most common mammals around the worksite were the Howler Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins. In the mornings and sometimes at night, the howlers often call. They also called during the start of downpours, perhaps they weren't happy about being caught in the rain. The White-faced Capuchins were quieter and didn't like the looks of me when I would walk around. They'd watch me cautiously from the branches.

The bird life wasn't too disappointing; it definitely wasn't a constant whirl wind of activity, but there were still good moments. The most challenging birds were the flycatchers. There were a number of those yellowish flycatchers with and without wingbars or eye stripes or pale eyes or streaks. Still I managed to identify a fair number of them as they were the most numerous species on my list. My favorite bird was the Striped Cuckoo - a small cuckoo with a loud two-toned call. It took me a while to track down the caller, but once I did I began to notice how common they were in the area. Still they were fun to watch when they weren't calling. They would walk in the underbrush, pause and constantly raise and lower their rufous crown feathers. I also enjoyed the more colorful birds like the euphonias that would fly in small flocks and feed in fruiting trees. The common Barred Antshrike was entertaining to listen to and to watch as they would call. With every note their tail would pump up and down with their crowns fully erect. I was somewhat disappointed in the number of hummingbird species though. Perhaps it was the season, but I only saw a couple of species of hummingbirds. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see a Laughing Falcon, which was slightly out of the area according to The Birds of Panama by Angehr and Dean. In fact this was true of several species that I saw in the area. Perhaps the regrowth of the forest at the work site brought them back to their historic ranges. I hope that more species would find the regrowing forest suitable once again.

This was my first trip to Panama. Even though it was for work, it was a good easy and brief introduction to the culture. There's definitely a lot that I missed during my narrow and brief visit, but I would absolutely go back to Panama - and look forward to seeing different parts of the country.


Pictures (click on thumbnail)

Bird List
Gray-headed Chachalaca Ortalis cinereiceps Azeuro Pen, flock of 3
Wood Stork Mycteria americana roadside
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens Panama City, Azeuro Pen
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus Azeuro Pen and Panama City
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis Panama City, Azeuro Pen
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias Achontines Lab, Azeuro Pen
Great Egret Ardea alba roadside
Snowy Egret Egretta thula roadside, Herrera
Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea roadside, Herrera
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis roadside
Green Heron Butorides virescens Azeuro Pen, 1
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus roadside, Herrera, large group
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus roadside
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura roadside
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus roadside, 1
Common Black-Hawk Buteogallus anthracinus Azeuro Pen, 1
Savanna Hawk Buteogallus meridionalis near Las Tablas
Gray Hawk Buteo nitidus Azeuro Pen, 1
Yellow-headed Caracara Milvago chimachima Azeuro Pen, family
Laughing Falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans Azeuro Pen, 1
Gray-necked Wood-Rail Aramides cajanea Azeuro Pen, 3
American Oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus Azeuro Pen, 2
Wattled Jacana Jacana jacana roadside, in pond
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius Azeuro Pen
Gull sp. Panama City, many flying over water
Rock Pigeon Columba livia roadside
Pale-vented Pigeon Patagioenas cayennensis Azeuro Pen
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura Azeuro Pen, heard
Ruddy Ground-Dove Columbina talpacoti Panama City
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi Azeuro Pen, many
Aracari sp. roadside near Panama City
Orange-chinned Parakeet Brotogeris jugularis Azeuro Pen
Red-lored Parrot Amazona autumnalis Azeuro Pen
Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana Azeuro Pen
Mangrove Cuckoo Coccyzus minor Azeuro Pen
Striped Cuckoo Tapera naevia Azeuro Pen
Groove-billed Ani Crotophaga sulcirostris Azureo Pen, family in nest
Common Pauraque Nyctidromus albicollis Azeuro Pen, 1 flushed off ground
Garden Emerald Chlorostilbon assimilis Azeuro Pen
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Amazilia tzacatl Azureo Pen
Sapphire-throated Hummingbird Lepidopyga coeruleogularis Azureo Pen
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata roadside, 1
Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana Azeuro Pen, 1
Red-crowned Woodpecker Melanerpes rubricapillus Azeuro Pen
Crimson-crested Woodpecker Campephilus melanoleucos Azeuro Pen
Cocoa Woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus susurrans Azeuro Pen
Barred Antshrike Thamnophilus doliatus Azeuro Pen
Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet Camptostoma obsoletum Azeuro Pen
Yellow Tyrannulet Capsiempis flaveola Azeuro Pen
Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet Tyrannulus elatus Azeuro Pen
Yellow-bellied Elaenia Elaenia flavogaster Azeuro Pen
Lesser Elaenia Elaenia chiriquensis Azeuro Pen
Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant Atalotriccus pilaris Azeuro Pen
Olive-sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi Azeuro Pen, 1
Panama Flycatcher Myiarchus panamensis Azeuro Pen
Great Kiskadee Pitangus sulphuratus Azeuro Pen
Boat-billed Flycatcher Megarynchus pitangua Azeuro Pen
Social Flycatcher Myiozetetes similis Azeuro Pen
Streaked Flycatcher Myiodynastes maculatus Azeuro Pen
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus roadside
Fork-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus savana Azeuro Pen
Lance-tailed Manakin Chiroxiphia lanceolata Azeuro Pen, 3
Masked Tityra Tityra semifasciata Azeuro Pen
White-winged Becard Pachyramphus polychopterus Azeuro Pen, 2
Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus Azeuro Pen
Yellow-green Vireo Vireo flavoviridis Azeuro Pen, many sing throughout day
Scrub Greenlet Hylophilus flavipes Azeuro Pen
Black-chested Jay Cyanocorax affinis Azeuro Pen, group of 3
Southern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx ruficollis roadside
Gray-breasted Martin Progne chalybea Azeuro Pen
Rufous-and-white Wren Thryophilus rufalbus Azeuro Pen
House Wren Troglodytes aedon Azeuro Pen
Tropical Gnatcatcher Polioptila plumbea Azeuro Pen
Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus Azeuro Pen, 1
Clay-colored Thrush Turdus grayi Panama City
Northern Waterthrush Parkesia noveboracensis Azeuro Pen, 1
Blackburnian Warbler Setophaga fusca Azeuro Pen, 1 male
Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia Azeuro Pen, 1 female
Blue-gray Tanager Thraupis episcopus Azeuro Pen
Palm Tanager Thraupis palmarum Azeuro Pen, pair nesting in eaves
Blue-black Grassquit Volatinia jacarina Azeuro Pen
Great-tailed Grackle Quiscalus mexicanus Panama City
Bronzed Cowbird Molothrus aeneus Azeuro Pen, 1
Giant Cowbird Molothrus oryzivorus Azeuro Pen, 1 male
Yellow-backed Oriole Icterus chrysater Azeuro Pen, family of 3
Crested Oropendola Psarocolius decumanus Azeuro Pen
Yellow-crowned Euphonia Euphonia luteicapilla Azeuro Pen
Thick-billed Euphonia Euphonia laniirostris Azeuro Pen
Lesser Goldfinch Spinus psaltria Azeuro Pen
Howler Monkey
White-faced Capuchin
Varigated Squirrel
large bat sp.
American Crocodile
Tree Boa
Yellowbelly Snake
Green Iguana
Central American Whiptail
Anole sp.
House Gecko
Dwarf Gecko
Yellow-headed Gecko
Marine Toad


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page updated: 5/13/12