Day 106: Shorebirds Without Borders

The Western Sandpiper is one of Panama’s best ambassadors.

April 16, 2015, Panama City, Panama — Guido and I were walking quietly down a trail at Cerro Azul this morning, in the mountains of Panama Province, when someone came running around the corner. It was Linda Harrison, who lives nearby with her husband, Jerry—the two of them were out looking for butterflies, and they’d just seen a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo! Guido and I followed Linda up the track and, sure enough, Jerry was standing there pointing at the bird. A large swarm of army ants was on the move, and the tide of fleeing insects had attracted an assortment of birds, including this ground-cuckoo. Eventually the swarm moved away from the trail and we were left high-fiving each other in disbelief: The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo is one of Panama’s rarest and most iconic birds (along with the Sapayoa and Spiny-cheeked Antshrike we saw yesterday!). To celebrate, Linda and Jerry immediately invited Guido and me over for turkey dogs and baked beans, which made a nice change from arroz con pollo.

We left the Harrisons after lunch to keep an entirely different appointment. Panama City, at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, lies on a large bay which is a hotspot for waders (up to 2 million shorebirds have been counted here in one season). Guido and I drove downtown, parked by the waterfront, and jumped over the seawall to scope the shore, timing our arrival to catch a falling tide. Tens of thousands of birds huddled on the mud, backdropped by a line of skyscrapers. Rosabel Miro, executive director of Panama Audubon, and two young shorebird researchers soon arrived to join us. As Rosabel picked out a distant Red Knot for my year list, she talked about the bay: Over the past several years, Panama Audubon has successfully battled to save it from development, through an environmentally unfriendly president (the last one) to a recent supreme court decision to designate Panama Bay a national park. I noticed a Western Sandpiper with a yellow leg band, and Rosabel explained that this was part of an international tracking project. “These shorebirds fly to far-away countries,” she said, “and it gives us a chance to get talking with conservation groups in other places, who we’d otherwise be isolated from.” 

New birds today: 15

Year list: 2044

Editor's Note: National Audubon Society’s International Alliances Program worked in close partnership with the Panama Audubon to develop the conservation plan for the area. When the Bay of Panama was in danger of losing its protected area status in 2013, Audubon members wrote over 14,000 letters to key decision makers. 

Learn more about Audubon’s international work.

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