Birding adventure in Changuinola, Panama

Northern jaçana with raised wings

Northern jaçana with raised wings

What a wonderful bird the jaçana is!  I fully realised this only when literally knee-deep in mud in tropical heat coming back from San San Druy.  Where I floundered along a mud track, once up to the village, and once back again, the  jaçanas pattered along over the surface, leaving their little tracks before flying off in groups of five and more, screeching merrily. Karel Straatman’s photo is from Costa Rica, however, not Panama.

My excursion to the Changuinola area of Bocas del Toro, Panama, did include some birding, but other matters restricted my efforts.  I had intended to devote three full days to birding close to the Costa Rican border, or even head for Manzanillo and follow Patrick O’Donnell‘s directions in his marvelous blog Costa Rica Living & Birding.

As it turned out, I spent most of my time getting from one indigenous community to another, by bus, by hitch-hiking, and by walking.  It was a wonderful experience, only enhanced by its uncomfortableness.  The Spanish writer and painter Darío de Regoyos, writing at the dawn of the 20th century, blames the English and the railways for “vulgarising”  the travel experience by looking for ‘confort‘.  “Comer lo que salga o dormir en un diván”, what does it matter? he says.  He praises “el delicioso ensueño [de] ir a la ventura en busca de lo desconocido.” Well, the Changuinola area certainly was an unknown to me until quite recently, and I think it remains so, with the exception of the islands of Bocas del Toro, for most other non-Panamanians.


To begin at the beginning:  I took the 5.50 am bus from home down into Turrialba and then sat at the bus station looking at Gray-headed chachalacas and assorted flycatchers and tanagers until the bus for Siquirres arrived.  The road to Siquirres, once the main road for traffic from San José to the Caribbean, winds through mountains with considerable forest remnants and then down to the plains of the Caribbean.  I hope to take some side excursions in that area at some future time.  There are trails to the right and to the left down to the Pacuare and the Reventazón rivers.  The road to Limón is then a straight run and I couldn’t see anything out of the bus window until a lone Magnificent frigatebird appeared at Limón, about an hour later.

Magnificent frigatebird (2)

Magnificent Frigate-bird, courtesy of Karel Straatman

The next bus, all the way to the border at Sixaola, moves pretty fast at first, next to the beaches, but then, after Penshurt, it makes numerous stops.  I arrived, then, at about 1.30 pm at the border.

Both sides of the border now have it so arranged that a tourist on foot has to hand over $11 for each country upon entry.  In exchange for that you get a bus ticket (e.g. Changuinola to San José or vice-versa) that you presumably could use any time in the next year to leave the country that you might otherwise be intending to stay in illegally.  Crazy, but it gives $11 to some little local business (where you buy the ticket, on the Tico side a farmacy, for example) rather than directly to the government concerned.  At least, I think that’s how it works.  Taking a Tico car across is an even worse experience, since first you have to get a permit from San José or Limón.  I won’t go into the details.

Anyway, this time I shouldered tent and small backpack across the bridge, and then from the border village of Guabito decided, with little or no forethought, simply to take, on foot, the first road I didn’t know, which happens to go south towards a place called Las Tablas at the foot of the Talamanca mountains and still slap up against the Costa Rican border.

When, after a few kilometers, I saw a dirt road split off to the left, with mountains hovering in the background, I headed that way.  This road leads to San San Druy and other Naso communities, such as Teribe, the term Teribe sometimes also being used to describe the indigenous language of the Naso, which is distinct from that of the Bribrí who are mostly, though not exclusively, on the Tico side of the border.  There is a taxi service down the road, but I generally avoid taxis and wanted anyway to enjoy the birding on the walk.  This road is still on the flat and passes through pastureland used for cattle, but a couple of interesting birds, the Red-breasted blackbird and the Southern lapwing showed up nonetheless.  The blackbirds seem to be very common in the Guabito/Las Tablas area, but the lapwing has only reached Central America from the south very recently.  For example, Garrigues & Dean state that it was recorded in Costa Rica for the first time in 1997.

Meadowlark, Red-breasted male; Florencia (1)

Now renamed Red-breasted Meadowlark, photo courtesy of John Beer

I managed to get beautiful close-up views of both species and was particularly thrilled to see the lapwing because its northern counterpart is an unforgettable part of the landscape in my native Yorkshire.

The road, and with it all vehicular traffic, ends at a footbridge over a river that yielded a Spotted sandpiper.  The mountains are now just ahead but so was a sea of mud that masqueraded as a footpath.  I wore only hiking boots and so had to remove them, roll up my trousers and go barefoot for the next two or three kilometers to the village of San San Druy and its  political conflict.  When you’re up to the knees, quite literally, in thick mud, you don’t have much time for bird-watching, and I didn’t give much thought to the numerous Northern jaçanas skating across it.

If you come here, bring botas de hule!  The Naso families that helped me along through the mud were all well-heeled for the event or else on horseback.

At San San Druy, which I reached at nightfall, I discovered why I had seen a truck-load of police and at least a dozen armed security guards at the bridge.  A local cattle-rancher (large-scale) “ganadero” claims that the Naso have invaded his land and has, with the collaboration of the police, torn down their ranchitos and evicted them.  The private security guards maintain a constant presence to prevent any resettlement in the disputed area.  I was received at the entrance to the village at the point of dispute and was taken in by don Lucas and don Nelson, who kindly let me put up the tent under the canvas extension of their house.  The houses of the area are basically wooden platforms built on posts up above the ground (to avoid flooding), and wooden walls around the platforms are then topped with thatch.  Several houses together often form a family community.  The village has no electricity, but people gather at wooden tables for evening conversation.   There are many good websites that can explain all this much better than I can.  I would stick to the birds, but the people were really the highlight of my trip.  If you’re just interested in birds, you can skip to the end for my regrettably short list of sightings.

The Naso account of the conflict is at great odds with the cattle rancher’s.  They claim that these are ancestral lands.  Large posters next to my tent showed big photos of what looks like excessive force used for eviction.  Since all land was community land, no one holds deeds to the land they live on.  This seems to be a common problem in the area and one that the Panamanian government is trying to solve by a publicity campaign, seen on posters everywhere, urging on all families the registration of land ownership.

Sleeping was a little difficult because of mosquitoes, dogs and the arrival of a group of women and children in the middle of the night.


A brief attempt at birding in the morning turned up nothing of note, but I slogged through some more mud and visited the main village square by a pretty river.  It boasts a recently built school and a small health centre that has been there for some time.  I was unable to head up into the mountains because of the heavy mud on the trail, but it is clearly an area well worth investigating and I’m sure it has received little attention from birders so far.  Before I left, one of the hired security guards felt the need to fire off his rifle very loudly.  Whether this was for fun or in order to intimidate, I could not discern.

On the difficult return to the bridge, I glimpsed Purple gallinules and Green herons through the sweat running off my brow and I envied the jaçanas as I tried to maintain my balance on bare feet.  Large flocks of Crimson-fronted parakeets passed overhead, but this is a species that I already know very well from Turrialba.  I bathed in the river at the bridge, but it was a brief dip because I was attacked by a large helicopter-sized hornet from above, and by swarms of small but aggressive fish from below.  I was lucky to cadge a lift in a truck that was dropping off PVC piping and soon arrived in Las Tablas.

The road to Las Tablas is not really worth birding because it passes through endless banana plantations, but from the truck I did see a large yellow and black oriole that seemed too big for a Black-cowled and may well have been the Yellow-tailed.  Las Tablas is a fairly large village, beautifully situated at the base of the Talamanca mountains and close to the Costa Rican border, and it would be a great base from which to do some serious birdwatching.  I hauled myself up the first slope of the trail that heads up to Agua Salud, so named for its hot springs, but could not continue, again because of my lack of adequate footwear.  The people of the area are Ngöbe speakers (they prefer not to be called guaymíes); they form the vast majority of the population in the Bocas del Toro area and their language is not mutually comprehensible with Naso.  A group of three hiking down from Agua Salud had taken six hours, the man toting two large wooden planks and one of the women walking barefoot because of the mud.

The spot I reached in the forest above the village produced several White-collared manakins and the popping sound made by their wings was a constant accompaniment.  Blue-headed parrots seem to be the most common local parrot species, and I also saw a Red-throated ant-tanager.  Well, that’s not quite accurate, I suppose, because it was a yellow-throated female.  This is another of the purportedly common Caribbean species that I had never seen before, so I was very pleased.

Ant-Tanager Red-throated pair Angostura (5)

Pair of Red-throated Ant-tanagers at Angostura, Turrialba, courtesy of John Beer

I cleaned up in the river below before spending the night with  a local family, this time Spanish-speaking.  Las Tablas is a bilingual community.  The elderly couple lived with their son, Ngöbe daughter-in-law and three little girls in a large but very ramshackle house.  They were most hospitable and are a very loving family unit; they fed me patacones, ñampí and lentils and gave me a room for the night without my asking.  Unfortunately, my room was also occupied by several noisy rats, and this made sleeping a bit difficult at first.  A very loud owl seems to match the vocalisation for Striped owl, but, lacking a flashlight,  I never saw it.


My third day was the most productive for bird species because I heard about an  Ngöbe community called La Gloria, which is just off the road between Changuinola and Almirante.  All the tourists go to Almirante to take the boat to the Bocas del Toro islands.  Access closer to Changuinola from Finca 60 (I’m hoping I’ve got the number right)  is now blocked because of fallen trees obstructing the waterway.  I’m told that there are no plans to re-open the service.

I hopped off the bus on the main road and in two minutes was in the middle of lots of birds and sloths on the little side road that goes down to La Gloria.  One sloth was chewing guarumu leaves right next to me and low down, but I’d been standing there birding for twenty minutes before I heard it munching and noticed it.  The little road has barely any traffic and so all is tranquil and bird calls are everywhere.  The main difficulty about birding is that all the inhabitants of La Gloria have to walk up the road to get the bus to Changuinola, and almost every one of them greets you with a handshake and engages you in friendly conversation.  In the two hours or so that I spent on the road, I was invited to three different homes down in the village.  One of the people I met was don Zacarías Nuboni.  For information about La Gloria and the nearby area, or to hire a guide for the mountains, contact him at  The community is only a couple of kilometers from the main Changuinola to Almirante road, but the birds were numerous and I walked very slowly.  I missed being able to identify several species, including a possible Rufous mourner or phia, that I could only briefly glimpse.   The scenery is spectacular and heavily forested, with beautiful views up to the Talamancas, though I was later told that the vegetation was much denser twenty years ago.

My last night in Panama was spent in La Gloria in lengthy conversations with don Vicente, who had insisted on accompanying me down the final stretch into La Gloria.   I put up my tent on a platform used for drying cocoa beans, encircled by five of the typical wooden Ngöbe houses.  The compound houses members of don Vicente’s extended family.  Here, no individual person has his private space, and none seems to need it.  The village was celebrating graduations from the school, and loud music prevented an early retirement to bed.  As at San San Druy, there is no electricity in the village, but don Vicente explained that it is due to arrive within three months.   I was given a large evening meal of rice and tuna, and I slept well once don Zacarías, who was in charge of the graduation celebrations, turned off the music.


My final day on this Panama trip was mostly spent on buses between La Gloria and Turrialba, but before I headed back to the Costa Rican border I walked back up the hill and did some more birding.  A very loud Laughing falcon was the highlight, but Blue-headed parrots were again common.  At the top of the hill, instead of catching a bus immediately I walked just a kilometer or so towards Changuinola.  The road has heavy vegetation and yielded at least one interesting spot with a mixed flock of Collared araçari, Scarlet-thighed dacnis, warblers and who knows what else.  I then turned down the next side-road, which leads to the community of Junquito, which is very similar to La Gloria.  The road was not as good for birding, since there were scattered houses along it, and the vegetation was not as thick, but I would love to explore it further next time I cross into Panama.

Falcon, Laughing (Santa Rosa; garden)

Laughing Falcon at Santa Rosa de Turrialba, courtesy of John Beer

My bus trip home had few highlights.  From the bridge crossing the Rio Sixaola at the border, I had a brief look at a Greater yellowlegs and (probably) a Pectoral sandpiper on the Costa Rican side of the river, but from the bus I couldn’t get a very good look at the beaches and estuaries up to Limón.  Another time.

I arrived very late back in Turrialba, hitching a ride with a pineapple truck and  my clothes still covered in San San Druy mud.  I’d missed the bus at Siquirres, but I’d had a fantastic time in Panama.  And now here’s the list, as always regrettably short.  I’m hoping for a longer one at the CATIE Christmas Bird Count on December 18th.

1.   Grey-headed chachalaca

2.   Magnificent frigatebird

3.   Little blue heron

4.   Great egret

5.   Cattle egret

6.   Snowy egret

7.   Green heron

8.   Black vulture

9.   Turkey vulture

10. White-tailed kite

11. Hawk (sp.) La Gloria, large chestnut patches on primaries seen from below (I can find no illustration that matches)

12. Purple gallinule

13. Northern jaçana

14. Southern lapwing

15. Greater yellowlegs

16. Spotted sandpiper

17. Pectoral sandpiper

18. Laughing gull

19. Rock pigeon

20. Pale-vented pigeon

21. Red-billed pigeon

22. Ruddy ground-dove

23. Crimson-fronted parakeet

24. Blue-headed parrot

25. White-crowned parrot

26. Squirrel cuckoo

27. Groove-billed ani

28. Striped owl (voice only, hence an educated guess)

29. White-collared swift

30. Stripe-throated hermit

31. Rufous-tailed hummingbird

32. Violaceous trogon

33. Ringed kingfisher

34. Chestnut-mandibled toucan

35. Keel-billed toucan

36. Collared araçari

37. Black-cheeked woodpecker

38. Spot-crowned woodcreeper

39. Tropical pewee

40. Dusky-capped flycatcher

41. Boat-billed flycatcher

42. Great kiskadee

43. Social flycatcher

44. Grey-capped flycatcher

45. Tropical kingbird

46. Masked tityra

47. White-collared manakin

48. White-crowned manakin

49. Yellow-throated vireo

50. Red-eyed vireo

51. Brown jay

52. Blue-and-white swallow

53. Mangrove swallow

54. Grey-breasted martin

55. Barn swallow

56. House wren

57. Clay-coloured robin

58. Tennessee warbler

59. Chestnut-sided warbler

60. Bananaquit

61. Red-throated ant-tanager

62. Passerini’s tanager

63. Golden-hooded tanager

64. Blue-grey tanager

65. Palm tanager

66. Scarlet-thighed dacnis

67. Thick-billed seed-finch

68. Variable seedeater

69. Yellow-faced grassquit

70. Black-striped sparrow

71. Rufous-collared sparrow

72. Black-headed saltator

73. Red-breasted blackbird

74. Great-tailed grackle

75. Baltimore oriole

76. Oriole (sp.) Large, black and yellow

77. Chestnut-headed oropendola

78. Montezuma oropendola

One thought on “Birding adventure in Changuinola, Panama

  1. Hi Paul,

    Sounds like quite the adventure and great to read a report from that area. I have always wanted to explore more of that area because of the extensive areas of forest and interesting indigenous cultures.


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