We heard the quetzals before we saw them. Their resonant, yelping call notes emanated from high in the ancient trees bordering the trail. At first, I only got frustrating glimpses of the birds' iridescent green back and throat as the small flock fed on wild avocados in the thick foliage. My guide then drew my attention to a male that had hopped up onto a branch in full view. I could barely contain my excitement. The helmet-like crest, bright red belly and ridiculously long upper tail coverts sparkled in the dappled light. Seconds later, when the quetzal flew off, the coverts trailed behind the bird like the train of a wedding dress. I immediately understood why this species rates among the most beautiful in the world.
In March 2015, my wife Michelle and I had the pleasure of spending five weeks in Boquete, Panama, located in the country's western highlands near the Costa Rica border. Straddling the land bridge between North and South America and subject to warm tropical sunlight and abundant rainfall, Panama boasts nearly 1000 species of birds, more than Canada and the United States combined. Millions of migrants, too, pass through or spend the winter in Panama.
For anyone who likes the outdoors, Boquete is one of Central America's top destinations. People come from all over the world to watch birds, hike, raft, visit coffee farms and study Spanish. We did all of these things, minus the rafting. The town is known for its cool climate, gorgeous mountain setting, and the flowers, vegetables, fruits and coffee that flourish in the rich soil. It is also home to several thousand expats from the U.S., Canada and Europe. Despite the many newcomers, it retains its original charm, thanks to the friendliness of the Panamanian people.
We were able to rent a condominium surrounded by spectacular flowering shrubs and nestled among coffee plantations on the mountainside above the town. Every morning we watched the sun climb over the forested peaks and bathe the garden roses in sunlight. In the late afternoon, there were often rainbows to admire - something else for which Boquete is famous. The rainbows owe their presence to "bajareque," a mixture of wind and fine drizzle that occasionally forms over the town during the dry season. It doesn't last long, however, and never interrupted our activities.
A highlight of staying at the condominium was starting each day with a cup of exquisite Panamanian coffee and watching the multi-coloured array of birds feeding on the oranges and bananas we put out. Some of the local hotels like the Boquete Garden Inn also put out fruit for the birds to the great pleasure of the guests eating breakfast only metres away. The hummingbird feeder in our garden was also a source of delight. Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were usually coming and going and Violet Sabrewings dropped by from time to time, too. The male's glittering violet plumage and white tail tips make it one of Panama's most spectacular hummingbirds. A real treat, also, was the tiny Scintillant Hummingbird that came to the flowers of a small lemon tree. It is found nowhere else in the world but the highlands of western Panama and eastern Costa Rica.
My full immersion into Panamanian bird life, however, was thanks to Jason Lara, a young and talented Boquete nature guide. We spent a wonderful morning on the nearby Sendero Los Quetzales, one of Panama's most famous birding destinations and most beautiful trails. As we drove up to the trailhead, we stopped briefly at a roadside stand of Cecropria trees. The branches were laden with hanging tendrils of fruit that were an irresistible magnet to birds. Over the course of 20 minutes, we watched a non-stop parade of different species flying in and out. Among them were Silver-throated Tanager, Cherrie's Tanager, White-throated Thrush and Gray-headed Chacalaca - all of which afforded us close up views and great photo opportunities.
Arriving at the trailhead, Jason heard the quetzals almost immediately. After a little searching with the binoculars, we were able to get great views. The Resplendent Quetzal was once considered divine and associated with the "snake god", Quetzalcoatl by Pre-Columbian civilizations. Moving on, we were soon regaled by a pair of duetting Prong-billed Barbets, whose loud, distinctive "cwa-cwa-cwa" call is unmistakable. The cool, wet, moss-festooned forest also offered up everything from Golden-browed Chlorophonias to Blue-throated Toucanets. The resonant "clangs" of Three-wattled Bellbirds and the ethereal fluting notes of Black-faced Solitaires were a constant presence, too. Over the course of the morning, we saw or heard nearly 50 species, most of which were life birds for me.
I had explained to Jason that one of the reasons for coming to Boquete was to improve my Spanish skills. When he offered to take me back to his house to meet his family - none of whom spoke English - I was thrilled. He introduced me to his mother, father, grandmother and various cousins, all of whom were wondering why this crazy gringo wanted to come to their modest house! They were the most gracious hosts, and we spent a wonderful hour chatting and drinking mango juice in the garden.
During our stay in Boquete, Michelle and I spent many days hiking the many mountain trails just outside of town. On the Pipeline Trail, we came upon a pair of quetzals excavating a nesting hole in a dead tree. We watched the birds for at least a half-hour as wood chips flew in all directions. The most scenic walk, however, was the Three (Lost) Waterfalls trail. Although some sections were quite steep and muddy, the waterfalls and views of the valley below were spectacular. Some people were even swimming in the pools at the base of the falls. Another day, we walked the Pianista Trail, which started just down the road from our condominium. The easy hike winds along a lovely stream through dairy land and up into cloud forest. I stopped to ask questions of a farmer who was sitting outside his one-room trailside house. Before I knew it, he had invited us inside and his wife was serving us coffee and cookies!
On a return visit to the Quetzal Trail, we walked several kilometres towards the town of Cerro Punta, located about 1000 metres higher than Boquete on the other side of the Baru Volcano. The eight-kilometre route takes between four and seven hours and, as we found out, is easiest if you walk in the other direction! Although we didn't make it the whole way, we were compensated by the amazing sight of thousands of Broad-winged and Swainson's Hawks soaring overhead - almost like a river of birds - as they made their way northward to breeding grounds in Canada.
A trip to Boquete is not complete without visiting one of the many coffee plantations. We chose Finca Lerida, a plantation located just 6 kilometres out of town, which is nearly as famous for its bird life as its coffee. Not only did we learn first-hand about coffee production, but the role of the Ngöbe Buglé indigenous people, who hand pick the red berries, was also explained. Ngöbe Buglé women, clad in colourful, ankle-length dresses and always with several children in tow, are a constant presence in the Boquete area.
The extensive grounds, gardens, flowering hedges and forest trails at Finca Lerida make it one of the premier birding spots in Panama. Hundreds of species are present, many of which nest and feed in the trees that shade the coffee plants. I therefore returned to the farm the next morning for a half-day of birding with another of Boquete's most experienced guides, Cesar Cabellero. Thanks largely to his ability to find birds based on their songs and calls, we had great looks at dozens of species.
One of the advantages to staying in Boquete is that you are only an hour or two from beautiful beaches on the Pacific coast. One of the longest and most attractive of these is Playa Las Lajas, located about 70 km east of the city of David. As you drive south from the Interamericana Highway to the beach, the road is lined with huge trees that form a lovely canopy. Cattle graze in the fields and birds are everywhere. We stopped several times to admire the landscape and add species such as Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Giant Cowbird to our list. The best birding at Las Lajas, however, is at a large lagoon, which offers up all kinds of waterbirds and shorebirds. Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone and Wood Stork were just a few of the birds we found there. There are also mangrove forests to be explored in the area. A good selection of accommodation can be found nearby, ranging from beautiful bed and breakfasts like Casa Tao where we stayed to the relaxing Las Lajas Beach Resort.
Because bajareque (see above) is sometimes an issue in Boquete, we decided to hop in our rented car and drive 20 minutes south to a private nature reserve called Rio Encantado. Although we only stayed for the day, the reserve offers comfortable accommodation, the highlight being an amazing tree house. The owner, Frank Stegmeier, has planted exquisite gardens and reforested much of the 100 hectares, which border both sides of the Caldera River. Not only is it much warmer at Rio Encantado, but the lower elevation means the mix of birds is quite different. An hour's walk along some of the trails produced beauties such as Ringed Kingfisher, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Crimson-backed Tanager, and the exotic Lance-tailed Manakin.
Boquete has an active ex-pat birding group, which organizes regular outings, both in town and beyond. I was able to join the group for some "backyard birding" and for a half-day excursion to a private property belonging to Linda Scott. Like Rio Encantado, Linda and her husband have reforested much of the land and created a veritable nature paradise. I could have spent the entire morning just sitting on her deck! The parade of birds coming to the feeder, gardens and birdbath was non-stop.
Whenever I travel, I make a point of asking the local people whether they are noticing any changes in the climate. People in Boquete told me that it is no longer necessary to wear a jacket to work outside - something they always used to do - and that the winds are stronger than ever. I learned, too, that the heat along the Pacific coast is much more intense than in the past.
In some ways, Panama still lags behind countries like Costa Rica when it comes to what tourists - and especially eco-tourists - are looking for. As Frank Stegmeier of Rio Encantado pointed out, "North Americans aren't coming here for the architecture or to see ancient ruins, neither of which exists in Panama. The government needs to understand that tourists want high-quality experiences with nature. If development continues on its current trajectory and if farmers are allowed to burn their land the way they are doing right now, the country's reputation as a nature destination is going to suffer." I hope that the Panamanian government will take Frank's words to heart and provide greater protection to what is still a remarkably beautiful and nature-rich country.
Contributor: Drew Monkman @naturesyear
Visit Drew's website, Our Changing Seasons, for even more insights on nature around Peterborough and the Kawarthas. He has also authored two books, Natures Year in the Kawarthas and Natures Year: Changing Seasons in Central and Eastern Ontario
Further information about this Panamanian adventure:
Should you decide to visit Panama, Drew would recommend purchasing the Birds of Panama by George Angeher and Robert Dean. He also used the excellent Panama Birds - Field Guide app. It includes images for more than 830 species as well as most of the songs and calls. To see more pictures of birds in the Boquete area, visit Lloyd Cripe's site of digiscoped photos at www.lloydcripephotos.com/
PTBO --> DESTINATION
- 5 1/2 hours by air
- 3 hours by car
- Several hours trekking and birding