A Travellerspoint blog

Panama Day 4: Hiking Pipeline Rd…for 16 kilometers!

Soberanía National Park, Panama

all seasons in one day 91 °F


This morning, Kim, Susie, and I were up by 5:00am again for our big day of hiking Pipeline Road. Yes, I was cracking my proverbial birding whip once again! :)

After less than two miles from Gamboa, the road is blocked off for research vehicles only. I had been fantasizing about a whole day on Pipeline for YEARS so this was finally becoming reality!

We started hiking right around sunrise, serenaded by the otherworldly tremolos and barks of Mantled Howler Monkeys which are particularly vocal in the early morning hours. My first target of the morning would be Common Potoo, a weird Nighthawk-like bird that clings to the side of tree trunks during the day in camouflage. Mario gave us a location for one a short ways in alongside the road and we were hoping to find this charismatic Central American bird.

Our first notable bird along the hike was this WHITE-WHISKERED PUFFBIRD with brief but much better looks than my lifer the other day! And actual photos this time!

Then, we came upon a small mixed flock including this COCOA WOODCREEPER:

And a female Manakin sp — upon further inspection it turned out to be my photographic lifer VELVETY MANAKIN, awesome!

CHESTNUT-BACKED ANTBIRD and BLACK-FACED ANTTHRUSH were good heard-onlys for this stretch of trail, as well as a distant Streak-chested Antpitta that Merlin heard but I couldn’t quite pick out (so I didn’t count it). Then, we came to the bend in the trail where the Potoo was supposed to be hanging around.

There were lots of Mantled Howler Monkeys in the trees above. We were pretty confused about the directions for the Potoo which were to look for a bare tree in a clearing 200 yards beyond the bend after Radio Hill. We had located said bend, but were not finding bare trees, clearings, our said Potoo. Just these monkeys!

So I decided to backtrack to the bend in the trail and methodically search ANY clearing on the right after the bend. Sure enough, I soon located the Potoo tree and the COMMON POTOO itself, wonderfully camouflaged against the bark! Just incredible!

It’s pretty hard to even recognize that creature as a bird, but would you believe me if I said there are actually TWO in this photo?! Look closely! Yes, that’s a fuzzy little baby right in front of the mama Potoo! Absolutely mind-blowing!

Well that was a pretty awesome lifer and definitely one of the main targets for the entire Panama trip, accomplished. Sick!

We then kept trudging along Pipeline Road, going deeper inside the forest. As the morning grew hotter and sunnier, the birds fell quiet and we were soon walking for minutes on end with very few or no birds singing. Strange and slightly disappointing, but unsurprising given that I have found when the sky is sunny, bird activity will be low. Also, keep in mind that even slow birding in Panama is better than a lot of other ways we could have been spending our day, despite the heat and oppressive humidity of the lowland jungle.

I tried to follow the calls of what sounded like a mixed flock into the woods to the left of the road, but the birds kept retreating just beyond sight. We were glad to have made the detour, though, as we caught up with this turtle — my lifer Panamanian turtle sp! Sorry buddy — he didn’t look too thrilled at being handled so I put him down after a quick photo.

After more and more walking and listening (and yes, occasionally birdsong — helped in ID with the Merlin app), we came upon a clearing with a conspicuous bench and decided to have a mid-morning break. After snacking a bit, some activity in the trees overhead turned out to be a pair of nesting GOLDEN-HOODED TANAGERS! Beautiful! This was a highlight, even though they are common.

And here’s the nest itself, with the female:

I also admired the striking patterning on this butterfly in the canopy:

As well as MISTLETOE TYRANNULET, one of the more common birds of the Pipeline Road area and easy to miss if you don’t know what to look for:

The familiar “wheep!” call of eastern US woodlands revealed a wintering GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER:

After a good deal more hiking, Merlin helped me track down a pair of calling BLACK-TAILED TROGONS, a photographic lifer for me!

Here is the female, perching wayyyy high in the canopy above the trail.

Then, just on the other side of the trail, I heard a distinct rustling in the lower bushes and immediately checked for mammals and gamebirds. Sure enough, there alongside the trail was a GREAT TINAMOU making its best effort to forage inconspicuously underneath the bushes. Super cool, and my best looks of one yet!

Now, the next photos look like screenshots because they ARE screenshots — I ran into an issue uploading photos to Travellerspoint all the sudden writing this post and had a massive headache trying to figure out what the issue was. Then, I remembered that I wanted to enhance the quality of my photos in Panama even further so I had switched to shooting in Raw while at Pipeline Road on this day. For some reason, the site doesn’t want to upload Raw photos so I ended up taking screenshots so I could go ahead and get these posts up.

Anyway, I was really hoping to get good looks and shots of Trogons along the road and that materialized with this NORTHERN BLACK-THROATED TROGON (I went through two mis’ID’s: White-tailed, and Gartered, before finally coming up with the right ID for this bird. Gah). Absolutely jaw-droppingly spectacular bird though.


Then, we spotted a dark hawk moving through the Canopy right as we were about to turn around and declare victory for our “outbound” leg of today’s hike. I also went through iterations of misidentifications on this bird before finally coming up with the correct ID of CRANE HAWK once I had reviewed my photos showing the bright red legs and thick white tail band. An awesome lifer!


Then, we stopped to have lunch as we were heading back and found a beautiful bridge to stop and scan for birds too.

Soon, a researcher who had parked his white pickup nearby emerged from the jungle and told us he had been researching army ant swarms. In parched desperation, Kim begged him for water and he mercifully obliged, refilling all of our waterbottles with beautifully-purified water. Hell, we would have taken tap water at this point — we had hiked for well over four miles and it was pushing 90 degrees and 100% humidity. You get the picture.

Anyway, this researcher by the name of Patrick Kelley was doubly helpful for us because he graciously offered to give us directions to the army antswarm located off the trail a bit. Now, with tropical birding, you have to understand that “army antswarm” means not only ants, but antbirds, woodcreepers, and sometimes even rarer species feasting on the ants. This researcher was here to specifically study these interspecific connections and co-dependent relationships within the rainforest ecosystem. We were grateful for his trust in our ethics, and I was grateful to have been able to convince Kim and Susie to embark on what would become the craziest part of our day.

Following his directions, we headed just a tiny bit back up Pipeline Rd again and then cut into the jungle. Now it actually wasn’t the toughest bushwhacking I’ve done, but I was on high alert for Fer de lance and Bullet Ants which could have been anywhere. His directions were “100 meters off the trail, and you’ll hear the birds.”

Well, pretty soon after diving into the jungle, I did started to hear bird calls and after a bit more walking and getting cut up by rainforest leaves, we started to see birds too. Specifically, antbirds! Kim got much better pics than I did in the low light, but BICOLORED ANTBIRDS were everywhere in the understory, in an absolute feeding frenzy:

And our only NORTHERN BARRED WOODCREEPER of the trip:

However the real highlight were our life bird OCELLATED ANTBIRDS which Patrick told us were there and are definitely one of the “top billing birds” of Pipeline Road. This was a high target for me this trip so I was overjoyed to see this unique scalloped-back birds, even if the low light conditions made for crappy photos (for me):

Well, mission accomplished! And, miraculously, we found our way back to Pipeline Road without a problem. Teamwork makes the dream Work! thanks again, Patrick!

Another antbird highlight along Pipeline Road was this SPOTTED ANTBIRD, a lifer! Too cool!!!

And a more familiar face, that of a female BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER:


And a similar species, but note the white flanks: WHITE-FLANKED ANTWREN:

A quick detour to check out a stream (for no-show Agami Heron) on the way back yielded these cool frogs:




Just before reaching the trailhead, I got caught up in — finally — another mixed flock of birds; however, Kim and Susie needed lunch ASAP. So I told them to go ahead and get lunch and then pick me up later and thankfully they were okay with that plan, as the bird activity did pick up a bit from the slow stretches we had been having midday. I could tell my body needed food but I was in Panama and not about to miss birds. Yes, I know I’m a maniac.

I picked out my lifer female BLUE-CHESTED HUMMINGBIRD sitting in the understory:

And a beautiful look at a SPOT-CROWNED ANTVIREO, a lifer just yesterday:

When I finally reached Juan Grande Creek at the trailhead, I was lucky enough to see a pair of my lifer GRAY-COWLED WOOD-RAILS foraging the creek! Way, way cool.

And my visual lifer BRIGHT-RUMPED ATTILA along the drivable section of the road:

I honestly can’t remember if Kim or Susie had returned by this point, but I did get great looks at White-faced Capuchin along this stretch of the road too:

Anyway, I enjoyed a delish chicken lunch (at almost 4pm!) that Susie and Kim had graciously picked up for me, cracked the birding whip again, and directed us to our next stop: Summit Ponds for Boat-billed Heron and other goodies. Like Rainforest Discovery, it was a further walk in than I remembered, but we eventually got there and spotted our only ANHINGA of the trip:



Distant Coati:

Finally, after a great deal of scanning, a guide of another birding group generously got us on this BOAT-BILLED HERON, an immature, he had spotted roosting deep in the bushes! Too cool! I have only seen this bird once before, also at this location (albeit a much better look at it, but it involved a hike into a really muddy area we weren’t up for today):

There was a decent amount of songbird activity on the walk back to the car include ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK:

And female BLUE-BLACK GROSBEAK, my lifer! Awesome!

Back at the hotel, we stopped along the entrance road to photograph these flashy SOUTHERN LAPWING:

And I found a nest of YELLOW-BELLIED ELAENIA in the tree right next to us!

I decided to stay out and bird until dark while the girls headed inside for the evening. I was rewarded with much better looks at STREAKED SALTATOR than yesterday:

Then, I finally had exhausted my third camera battery of the day so I headed inside.

But after a bit of charging, I was so antsy to be inside while it was still light out that I headed back out! The girls already thought I was insane by now so I didn’t care. Hah! Anyway, I got some nice birds including looks at this BROAD-BILLED MOTMOT in low light and then decided to finally call it a night after walking nearly 12 miles today!

Even on slightly slower days, Panamanian birding is so enjoyable that like Mario says, we must pick three birds-of-the-day. So for me, those birds today will be Common Potoo, Ocellated Antbird, and Crane Hawk. Even though today had its tiring bits, the birding was still incredible and I gained ten life birds! It was phenomenally satisfying to check hiking Pipeline Road off my bucket list, finally!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1268 Species

10 life birds today:
1. Common Potoo
2. Blue-chested Hummingbird
3. Gray-cowled Wood-Rail
4. Crane Hawk
5. Plain-brown Woodcreeper
6. White-flanked Antwren
7. Spotted Antbird
8. Ocellated Antbird
9. Black-faced Antthrush
10. Yellow-bellied Seedeater

Posted by skwclar 04:29 Archived in Panama

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WOW! What a day. Liked the Gray-cowled wood rail and the Antbirds are fascinating.

by Mary McCutchan

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