Travel Story The tropical paradise that will get you hooked on bird watching

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

Visiting Panama and not looking at birds would be like going to Rome and not poking your head inside a few churches. Impossible.

Sitting on the veranda of our eco-lodge in Panama, we stare into a tangled mass of tropical vegetation. Somewhere in all that greenery, there are birds, and we’re trying to spot and identify them as they’re drawn to a nearby feeder loaded with ripe bananas.

“Is that a dusky-faced tanager on the banana now,” I ask our guide, perhaps a little too confidently.

“No, a clay-coloured thrush,” Tino replies. My friend Julie laughs. “It’s only our first day, Suzanne.”

It is, and besides, we haven’t come to Panama to look at birds. Yet, visiting Panama — and El Valle de Anton in particular — and not looking at birds would be like going to Rome and not poking your head inside a few churches. Impossible.

“Look, look at that,” says Tino excitedly, shining his little green light into the branches of a tree. “Oh my goodness” exclaims Julie, looking through her binoculars and locating a green honeycreeper. The bird is stunning, with a brilliant green body, jet-black head and yellow beak.

Canopy Lodge and its three sister lodges in other parts of Panama are renowned amongst “birders” for their prime locations in birding hotspots, and for their guides. Tino, for instance, tells us — with no hint of gloating — that he can mimic the call of 50 or more different birds. Of course, he can also quickly spot them. “Look now,” he says, as two collared aracari — a type of toucan with large, bright bills — land nearby, followed by three more. “That’s a beautiful bird,” he says, zooming in on one with his powerful scope for us to admire better.

The birds are indeed beautiful but the real reason we’ve come to El Valle is because of its temperate climate, what Panamanians like to call “eternal spring”. That, and its unusual location in the crater of an ancient volcano, almost 600m above sea level. El Valle is the second-largest inhabited volcanic crater in the world after Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater.

And the reason we’ve chosen to stay at Canopy Lodge is because of its enchanting setting, with a wild jungle at one side and a manicured garden on the other. More to the point, a river runs through it, and water has been diverted from the river to form a natural swimming pool. The truth is, we’re bathers, not birders.

The large, free-form pool is better than any hotel pool. An enormous cashew tree towers over it, filtering the tropical sun and supporting a tree house where a porcupine sometimes rests in one of its cupboards. The branches are covered in bromeliads and Tarzan-style ropes hang down, inviting us to play.

On our first afternoon we hurry to the pool like kids going to summer camp. We swing from the ropes, then drop — “like ripe papayas” — to use the words of the lodge’s fun-loving owner — into the cool, clear water. Perhaps best of all, we have the pool entirely to ourselves. The birders are too busy to bathe — at least in the pool.

When they return at the end of each day they gather in the lounge to check birds off their lists and compare notes before dinner. By 8 or 8.30pm they retire to their rooms and rest up for the next day, which starts as early as 5.30am. 

We’re busy too, just not birding. One morning we browse the town’s colourful handicraft, flower and food market, then head to the community-owned hot springs. Since we’re in the caldera of a volcano, it’s no surprise that hot water bubbles up from the ground here. But due to some problem — our knowledge of Spanish is on par with our knowledge of birds — the water isn’t flowing today.

A German man is just leaving and he tells us it’s still worth the $US2 ($2.64) entrance fee to give ourselves a mud facial. He’s been in El Valle for a week and happily suggests other places we should also visit. There’s the orchid centre, where thousands of orchids are being propagated for replanting in the wild, including the white and rare Holy Ghost orchid, Panama’s national flower. It sounds exquisite, with a centre shaped like a dove with purple-spotted wings.

We might also want to visit the zoo, where another endangered species and national symbol — the Panamanian golden frog — is being bred to ensure it survives despite being wiped out in the wild. And have we thought about hiking up to the Sleeping Indian Girl at the top of the caldera? We have and we will. We’ve been admiring the way one section of the volcano’s walls resembles a person lying on his or her back. We’re also looking forward to the views from the top.

That evening a couple of the birders back at the lodge share photos on their phones over dinner. Richard, from Washington State, shows us a brilliant green and red Cuban tody. Tony, who’s from Pennsylvania, flashes a hummingbird before us, one he spotted in Trinidad. When I ask Tony’s wife Pat how they got into birding I learn it was as innocuous as buying a bird feeder after someone gave them a gift certificate to Home Depot 20 years ago. “Now” she says, “95 per cent of our holidays are related to birding.”

After dinner Tino asks Julie and I if we’d like to go birding the next morning. It feels like we’re on a slippery slope but, yes, we would. We’re up at dawn, finish breakfast by 6.30am and we’re on the road by 7.15am. We don’t go far, a few kilometres or so to the other side of the caldera. Now, the sun is up and birds are calling from the treetops. At first, Julie and I see nothing but dense greenery while Tino pulls birds into his scope like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat.

Look, a social flycatcher. Quick, there’s a tropical kingbird. Look now, a keel-billed toucan. But when Tino spots a hummingbird in her nest just a few yards away and almost at eye level with us, we’re truly awed. Her camouflage is perfect, but he found her anyway.

At lunch that day I “get it” when Feliz, a doctor from San Antonio, Texas, tells me watching birds takes her to a magical place. She describes a green hermit hummingbird she saw that morning. “Oh my God, it was glorious, like a jewel.” I tell her about a female barred antshrike we saw that was orange and frilly and far more beautiful than its name suggests. Feliz is here with another doctor who is a long- time birder. “I was partial to Costa Rica,” the woman says, “but I’m impressed.” 

For the rest of our stay, Julie and I do more typical tourist activities, including riding the zip lines through the cloud forest at Canopy Adventure, just up the road from our lodge. Seeing a sloth hanging from a tree branch in full view on our last morning is another highlight.

But I’ll always associate Panama with birding. Near the end of our stay a few of us are watching birds near the lodge one morning when a brilliant blue and yellow one flies past. “That’s a... a…” I pause, trying to recall the name. “... a thick-billed euphorbia,” I finally blurt out. 

The birders clap and cheer, even though I realise seconds later that I called the bird by the name of a plant. What I meant to say was thick-billed euphonia, not euphorbia. No matter. Panama has hooked me on birding and they know it.

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