It was November 2007 when I first had an opportunity to go to Panama, to attend the jointly-hosted Smithsonian Institution and Environment Canada symposium on Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Americas. The conference, scheduled for 25-28 February 2008, meant that there wasn't much time to prepare, either for the conference itself, or for what was going to be my first chance to go birdwatching in the tropics. In a matter of a few days, my colleague Dr. Fred Bunnell and I had registered for the conference, prepared and submitted an abstract for our paper, and were well on our way toward developing a presentation. But more importantly, however, and getting back to the focus of this post, was that I had to prepare for the trip.
The first thing I had to do was figure out what I needed medically in terms of the various vaccines I might need. For this particular trip, it turns out I needed Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A and B. The latter takes 7 months to fully administer (3 doses total, with second dose one month after first, and third dose six months after second). There was an option to get drugs for Malaria, but I decided not to for three reasons: 1) Malaria is carried predominantly by mosquitoes that are active at night, and I wasn't planning on being out at night; 2) Malaria is virtually absent in the Canal Area (and has been for at least for 20+ years) and I wasn't leaving the Canal Area, and; 3) for some people, Malaria drugs can make you feel worse than if you actually contracted Malaria and had to go through treatment. The best advice I can offer with regard to injections and a trip to the tropics is to speak with a travel medical specialist. They will ask you where you're going, what you're planning to do, and make recommendations best suited to your needs. As a preventative measure, I also took Dukoral (for travellers diarrhea) two weeks prior to leaving, and carried with me a prescription dose of co-ciprofloxacin just in case travellers diarrhea hit at precisely the wrong moment (such as at the conference banquet, or on the return air flight). Apparently, water in the Canal Area is perfectly suitable for drinking, but I wasn't going to take any chances.
The second thing I had to do was get a field guide. Without one there would almost be no point in going, as the vast majority of species occurring in Panama are different from the North American species that I've committed to memory. A quick browse on Google and Amazon.com made the choice of field guides relatively easy - there was only one: A Guide to the Birds of Panama, by Robert S. Ridgely and John A. Gwynne. In a way it was a pleasant surprise to see just one book, as unlike North America field guides, where it seems that each trip to the bookstore reveals yet another guide promising to provide something better, the reality is that you really only need one book to do 90% of the work.
There are a few shortcomings to the Panama field guide, such as no range maps, but overall I found the book to be exceptional, especially considering that nearly 1,000 species are discussed. Of greatest importance is the accuracy of the plates, which by no small measure are excellent. The book weighs in at a hefty 1.3kg (3 lbs), but was well worth lugging around given the amount of time I had to use it.
I've heard from some folks, that in order to lighten their load they've actually cut out the colour plates, but I think there are just too many sacrifices in doing so. For one thing, all of the raptors in flight are printed in gray-scale and embedded with the text body - and like most regions, most raptors are seen in flight. Various other species are also depiected as gray-scale sketches throughtout the book, such as Tropical Mockingbird. There are numerous other reasons for carrying the entire book, but perhaps the most important is to assist with sorting out similar species. For example, Three-striped Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler are virtually identical in appearance, and only the former is shown in the colour plates (the authors acknowledge that in order to reduce the size, most North American species are excluded as they can be found in other guides). So the key to separating these species is revealed in the text, and it turns out that elevation is a very good indicator. The text is also invaluable for describing distribution and key field marks. I suggest you carry the entire book!
So now that my field guide was on its way, I had to prepare for some serious studying. And if the studying was to be effective, I had to first determine where I was going to go once I got there. In doing so, I could narrow the range of species I would be likely to see (this is where range maps in the guide would have really helped). To maximize my time in Panama with other commitments back home I was able to add three days prior to the conference, and two days at the end. Thus, my trip began on 21 February and ended on 2 March. My actual itinerary looked like this:
21 Feb: Victoria, British Columbia to Panama City (all day)
22 Feb: All day available
23 Feb: All day available
24 Feb: All day available
25 Feb: Morning only; conference reception in afternoon
26 Feb: Morning only; conference in afternoon
27 Feb: Conference field trip
28 Feb: Conference all day
29 Feb: All day available
1 Mar: All day available
2 Mar: Panama City to Victoria, British Columbia (all day)
I thought it would be useful to purchase both the Moon and Frommers guide to Panama to assist with my planning, but from a birdwatching perspective, these books turned out to be largely inadequate. At best, each book had only 2-3 pages on bird-watching, but without a sense of irony, both mentioned the two places I spent most of the time: Metropolitan Park and Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. From additional searching on the internet it became abundantly clear that for anyone planning a birdwatching trip to Panama City, these two locations are highly rated.
To summarize my plans, I decided that on the first day I would ease into things by visiting Metropolitan Park because it was local, had a variety of trails, and was touted as being the only tropical forest designated as a National Park and located within the city limits of a major metropolis (hence the name). Additionally, I decided that I would spend all available mornings at Metropolitan Park because it was close and I only had a few hours each morning. For the conference field trip I chose to visit Barro Colorado Island (more on this later), and for two of the full days (1 at beginning and 1 at end) I chose to hire a guide (more on this later, too). In the next post I'll discuss highlights of my first tropical birding experience, including the kinds and number of species seen, the value of having a guide, and the unusual experiences encountered along the way.
Until then, happy birding, wherever you may be.