Backyard birding in Panama

Wildlife blogger Caitlin Kiska reveals why Panama is such an amazing destination for birders.

“I’ve never seen a Veraguan mango in the immediate Boquete area. Travel half an hour away? Some peoples backyards are practically dripping with them,” says Caitlin.
“I’ve never seen a Veraguan mango in the immediate Boquete area. Travel half an hour away? Some peoples backyards are practically dripping with them,” says Caitlin.

18 February 2016

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As I’ve mentioned before I think that two of the things that make Panamanian birding so special are that the backyard birding is epic, and that when you travel even the smallest bit the species you see can change dramatically.

Panama has been under siege from super windy weather in the last month (apparently it had something to do with this) and the weather led to me having to differentiate where I normally bird.

Some of my favourite more mountainous areas were just too wet and windy to head to, but luckily I was able to receive a few invitations to bird at different peoples houses away from the horrible weather.

You see it’s not just the birds that change dramatically by travelling just a short distance, it’s the weather in Panama too. Not only did these places offer different elevations, habitat, and species, but simply by driving 20-40 minutes I was able to have dry and sunny days out.

For many people backyard birding makes them conjure up images of cardinals, blue birds, robins and a couple other species of ever present US birds.

I personally love having a cup of coffee while watching any species of bird grab a bit of breakfast.

Many people find this same relaxation and sense of tranquility from backyard birding, and I even know a few people who find it meditative. 

Panamanian backyard birding can be much, much, more intense than this. It’s basically backyard birding on steroids.

People’s lists for their property (or their property and immediate area) can number well over 100, and this isn’t just with counting rare visitors.

There is an abundance associated with Panamanian backyard birding that I have encountered no where else.

Identifying the large amount of species in your backyard and immediate neighbourhood gets much more interesting and involved than any other place I have been.

Besides the sheer number of species you can see, we all know that sitting back and allowing birds to come to you as opposed to actively seeking them out can afford you some really great looks and interactions.

But let’s not forget some of the reasons backyard birding is so enticing – everyone likes birding with a clean bathroom and access to hot coffee, cold water, and even colder beer!

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Chestnut-sided warbler from a friend’s backyard. Coffee in hand! (Well…errr… Maybe I put it down to take the picture) © Caitlin Kiska

The first backyard birding experience I’ll write about came about when a great birding couple I know (The B’s) mentioned that their backyards were frequently visited by blue-crowned motmots and Veraguan mangos.

As with the green woodpecker in Hungary, there is always one semi common bird that takes me forever to see when I get to a new country.

Blue-crowned motmot became that bird for me in Panama. I had been very patient with seeing it, but the time had come to track it down.

The B’s have that great trait where they get very determined and excited to help you find your target bird, and they located the blue-crowned motmot almost right away in the area behind their house.

One of the next targets was the mango, and I was really pleasantly surprised to find they were the most common visitor to their feeder! Actually they ended up being the most prevalent hummingbird of the day.

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Female Veraguan mango © Caitlin Kiska

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Another visitor to their feeder was the scaly-breasted hummingbird © Caitlin Kiska

This day was really excellent and ended in me getting a ton of lifers and also becoming more familiar with lowland species. I’ve been in Panama about three months now and my familiarity with lowland birds is a bit on the fritz.

Whenever I go out with the B’s and Ann I always end up walking away with extra tid bits of information on how to identify birds. This time was no different!

The only thing I think is better than really great bird watchers are bird watchers who are super helpful. Hanging out with them is also a great reminder for me to continue working on my identification by call.

I’m currently on the look out for good systems for remembering calls, so if you have any tips please send it my way!

Besides just birding in their immediate backyard, we found some really excellent birds in the immediate neighbourhood.

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Stripped cuckoo was the highlight of the day, and was found a short walk from their abode. Hearing its lovely call was integral to our first spotting it. © Caitlin Kiska

A friend also was nice enough to let me tag along while she visited another couple whose backyard boasts an impressive number of species.

This couple we visited has been well known for years for cultivating a really wonderful place for birds, and I had been chomping at the bit to go ever since I was invited along!

The weather that day was very favourable and I was really excited to see what was in store.

I had read a list of what someone had seen on the property previously, and I was really looking forward to having a go at speckled tanager in particular.

While the B’s was an exercise in identifying more ‘nuanced’ birds (check out all the flycatchers we saw in the list at the end) the second house was an exercise in identifying bright and bold birds. It was also an exercise in observing bird behaviour!

Besides being a great birder, our hostess was wonderful with sharing interesting information about the behaviour of the many  of the stunning species that frequent her house.

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Speckled tanager (left) and cherrie’s tanager (right) © Caitlin Kiska

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Red-legged honeycreeper © Caitlin Kiska

Even with all the obvious stunners, my favourite feat of the day was getting great views at grey-necked wood rail.

Most birders will tell you the best way to see rails, crakes or any other bird that is shy to the human eye is to basically just set yourself up at a nice vantage point in an area they frequent and wait while crossing your fingers.

Well sitting in a comfy chair in the shade of a porch will beat crouching on the ground in a bug filled reed bed any day!

And this technique was as enjoyable as it was efficient. We only had to wait a short amount of time for the conspicuous rails to come and check out the water.

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Grey-necked wood rail © Caitlin Kiska

This viewpoint with the ‘stream’ provided a great viewing point for multiple species and was one of the most enjoyable areas of the day. Not only did I get multiple ‘soft targets’ I was able to see many birds I wasnt even expecting to see!

Costa Rican brush finch was a bird I was not holding out hope seeing, but we were able to see it with ease. I just realised that when birds are carrying nesting material they are breeding, and this information can be added via Ebird.

I enjoyed adding this bit of citizen science to my most recent report, as we all saw the Costa Rican brush finch carrying some nesting material around.

Sadly I did not get a picture but I can’t complain as we got really up close looks of this species anyways!

One of the things Ive noticed about cultivating great backyard birding is that its not easy.

Both of the couples whose homes I visited put a lot of thought, time and effort into setting up great areas that are conducive to our feathered friends.

The second couple I visited had some really well maintained paths through nice habitat that allowed me to grab a new lifers in the form of spot-crowned euphonia! I was lucky to see both male and female.

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Female spot-crowned euphonia © Caitlin Kiska

Dusky-capped flycatcher was also seen on the paths. This is becoming one of my favorite flycatchers.

Note that I saw this bird for the first time a few days before on a trip with the Boquete Birders. The picture below is from my outing in Caldera with them.

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Dusky-capped flycatcher © Caitlin Kiska

I am so thankful and happy I was given the opportunity to bird both the areas in this blog post. There are so many different and fun ways to bird.

There’s birding by car, birding while hunkered down in a hide, birding while hiking great distances and even birding by boat or kayak! I think that we can all agree that birding in the comfort and ease of your own backyard (or in my case a friend’s backyard) can be one of the best ways, particularly when such a bevy of species is offered up!

I’ve realised that backyard birding can also help you cultivate a really large amount of knowledge about the behaviour of different species.

Lastly its efficient, fun, and I think everyone likes being able to bird with coffee or beer in hand!”

Read more great blog posts by Caitlin Kiska, The Gambling Bird.

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