Birding Pipeline Road. Again.

How do you top the morning’s rare find of the Yellow-breasted Crake?

Well, you certainly don’t stop birding for the day. Why would you? The near-magical appearance of finding a special bird gets a birder’s heart racing for more and that’s what we wanted—more secret finds like kids on a treasure hunt or playing hide and seek. Except instead of saying “Tag! I got you!” you stop and peer through binoculars, and not once feel like a Peeping Tom as you watch birds carry on with their bird lives.

No time to bask in the afterglow of stumbling on the crake. It’s time to press on and look for more surprises. We had one stroke of good luck in our pockets and that fueled our desire for more good luck today. We headed to the nearby Pipeline Road—a well-known birding spot in Soberanía National Park’s 55,000 acres of tropical rainforest. I like walking this road—it’s full of interesting history that has nothing to do with birds. In fact, most roads don’t have anything to do with birds and were paved long before we were putting together trip itineraries and organizing bird lists.

But this road is unique. It was during World War II that a pipeline was built along the Panama Canal to transport fuel from one ocean to the other in case the waterway was attacked. It was never used, but the relatively flat, abandoned gravel service road remains, meandering through the mature forest, attracting 525 different bird species, making for perfect birding.

Pipeline Road

Pipeline Road

We birded Pipeline Road during our first trip to Panama and I was eager to return. Birding this area is remarkable. Just think about it. Last I checked, there are 914 bird species found in North America. That’s from the most southern tip of the United States up to the far reaches north in Canada. But just in this area in Panama you have the chance to see over 500 species of birds. I can’t imagine that there’s ever a bad day of birding on the Pipeline Road.

Even if you run into this:

Muddy road on Pipeline Road Panama

Okay, so it’s a little muddy.

Yeah, no big deal. So what if there was a little mud in a few spots. We were wearing good shoes with rugged tread like a Michelin Tire. At first I walked cautiously on the side of the road as though trying to keep steady on a balance beam, but eventually, the slippery, sloshy mud was a Badge of Adventure on my shoes and I didn’t care. This is what you can expect when visiting Panama during the rainy season and since we signed up for a trip at this time, by golly, we’re not going to complain about it. It’s only mud and mud washes off.

Soberania National Park Panama

Soberanía National Park Panama

Our plan was fairly straightforward: keep walking until we get tired and then walk back. The trail isn’t a loop so we can decide how far we want to go (mud notwithstanding), and usually, it’s my legs that tire out before my desire to find birds wanes. Besides, we were going to be coming back the next day, so we didn’t rush things or try to push the distance. That, and there’s still that dream that we’re going to move here, so we know we’ll be back.

Soberania National Park Pipeline Road trail map

Trail map for Pipeline Road

How about some mammals?

Pipeline Road is almost a sure bet to see great mammals. In fact, before we really saw any birds we stumbled upon two Mantled Howler monkeys—an adult supervising its nearby juvenile. They were simply hanging out on the branches with no concern about us. For them it was just another day in the tropical forest.

Mantled Howler Monkey Panama Pipeline Road

Adult Mantled Howler Monkey

Mantled Howler Monkey - juvenile Panama Pipeline Road

Mantled Howler Monkey – juvenile

We left the monkeys and continued our walk along the gravel road. Where were the birds? It wasn’t too late in the day and it was still before lunch, but the birds were taking their time to chirp, squeak and call.

No matter. We then moved from watching the monkeys to finding this mother sloth and her little one doing what sloths do—just hanging out.

Sloth Panama

Female three-toed sloth, and if you look closely you can see that she is holding a baby sloth (you can see the baby’s leg on her tummy).

Finally, some birds

Our first bird was the Black-crowned Antshrike with something in his beak. And he looks pretty happy about it too.

Black-crowned Antshrike

Black-crowned Antshrike

And such good looks at a very cooperative Olivaceous Flatbill.

Olivaceous Flatbill Panama Pipeline Road

Olivaceous Flatbill

It’s always interesting to find a nest. This one belonged to a White-tipped Dove.

White-tipped Dove nest Panama Pipeline Road

White-tipped Dove nest with two eggs.

The above photo makes it look like we were close to the nest, but we weren’t and I want to be clear about that.  I used my long lens to get this shot and we were careful not to linger.

Birding Pipeline Road Panama

It turned out to be a beautiful day to go birding on the Pipeline Road. (Steve and Beny)

A soaring surprise

First Beny heard it. Then Steve, then me. A raptor was calling high up in the sky and we craned our necks to see it.

“Come HEEEEaar,” it seemed to call piercingly.

Nothing. Couldn’t find it.

“Come HEEEaaar,” it teased again.

This went on for 10 minutes with our noses pointed up to the blue sky peaking through the open canopy. “Oh lordy,” I thought. “My neck is going to be tight tomorrow.”

Finally Beny points and says in his deep-throated semi-whisper, “There!” and pointed to a Black Hawk-Eagle soaring above us. The hawk-eagle had just entered the blue sky as if on cue, giving us great views and showing us the zig-zag striped underwings. He soared in circles, indicating a sort of “hello” to us.

Snap. Snap. Snap. I tried to capture photos with my long lens as the raptor soared higher and higher up the thermal until becoming a little black dot disappearing into the distance, and I was unsure if I was able to capture anything decent with the camera. As the hawk-eagle disappeared I lowered the camera and swooped my head down to look through the its viewfinder, making myself a little dizzy in the process.

Not perfect and not very detailed, but it’s certainly proof of a new lifer.

Black Hawk Eagle Panama Pipeline Road

A kind of, sort of decent snap of the Black Hawk-Eagle.

Sloths dripping from the trees

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many sloths on one trip as this one produced. And not only that, it was the first time the light was working in my favor, which is not an easy task in the tropical forest.

Thank you, sloths. And thank you, sun.


Three-toed sloth hanging around.


Time for a Sloth break.

Such a rewarding 1/2 day of birding (including the Ammo Ponds), but we were getting hungry and it was getting hot. Time for lunch with Beny and then back to the hotel for a swim. Let’s call it a day, shall we?

Birding Pipeline Road Panama in the mud

Badge-of-Adventure mud on the shoes.

Here’s our list for Pipeline Road

We were only on Pipeline Road for about two hours, so 30 species is not bad in that amount of time. Don’t fret. We went back to Pipeline Road the following day. (Lifers in bold.)

  1. Black Vulture
  2. Turkey Vulture
  3. Black Hawk-Eagle
  4. Gray-chested Dove
  5. Squirrel Cuckoo
  6. Broad-billed Motmot
  7. White-whiskered Puffbird
  8. Collared Aracari
  9. Keel-billed Toucan
  10. Cinnamon Woodpecker
  11. Lineated Woodpecker
  12. Crimson-crested Woodpecker
  13. Black-crowned Antshrike
  14. Checker-throated Antwren
  15. Streak-chested Antpitta
  16. Cocoa Woodcreeper
  17. Black-striped Woodcreeper
  18. Plain Xenops
  19. Southern Bentbill
  20. Olivaceous Flatbill
  21. Purple-throated Fruitcrow
  22. Blue-crowned Manakin
  23. Red-capped Manakin
  24. Black-bellied Wren
  25. Isthmian Wren
  26. White-breasted Wood-Wren
  27. Song Wren
  28. Long-billed Gnatwren
  29. Gray-headed Tanager
  30. Fluvous-vented Euphonia