Bird Watching on Panama’s Famous Pipeline Road

Pipeline Road

March 2013. It was a foggy morning in Gamboa, along the Panama Canal. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but I stumbled out of bed to the rhythm of palm tanagers and clay thrushes. Red-legged Honeycreepers hopped frantically through a tangle of vines in the backyard, while two white-collared Jacobins took turns drinking breakfast from a hummingbird feeder hung in the kitchen window. Water bottles and field guides packed, binoculars and cameras in hand, we excitedly piled into the car and set off on the road.

I was on a birding trip over spring break with some college friends. Jack, whose home served as the base of operations for the company, had a quick breakfast while leafing through the Birds of Panama field guide. Ben was playing with his iPhone, asking Brendan and Benjamin about tropical bird calls. Graham inspected an interesting moth that had spent the night with the porch light.

We had just under two weeks to put a solid dent in the potential birds of Panama, a list of around 1,000 species in an area smaller than South Carolina. That morning we were off to explore the famous Pipeline Road, one of the most biodiverse birdwatching spots on the planet. A remnant of some World War II plans for an oil pipeline to cross the country, Pipeline Road is a narrow stretch of road that cuts through the dense rainforest of central Panama. Although only 18 kilometers long, it presents an incredible way for people to see frogs, mammals, insects and nearly half of all the birds in Panama: a staggering 400 species have been recorded along the route!

The most numerous of the ant-following birds when the author came out was the bicolor anteater. The species is rufous brown with a white belly and ranges from Honduras to Colombia and Ecuador. It is often observed near swarms of army ants. Photo by Brian Magnier

Just before sunrise, we stopped at a series of mist-shrouded ponds. This was the Munitions Dump Ponds, a known birding site that marks the start of Pipeline Road. Dotted with waterfowl and waders, this body of water is a great place to start the morning list. A tiny red-breasted seedeater lived up to its name, while a snail’s kite floated gracefully on the opposite bank. Purple gallinules and wattled jacanas grew around the water lilies, and a rufous tiger heron tried to blend in among the reeds. A capybara lazily moved out of the way of the car.

We went from the ponds to the forest, which became denser and darker as we went. This first stretch of road, we watched the birds as we leaned over each other to stick our heads out the car windows, craned our necks for any unusual sights or sounds. Of course, dawn in the rainforest meant almost all sounds were unheard of and there were very few sightings. Jungles are notoriously harsh habitats for birds, where birds, insects, and frogs often call within a few feet of you while hiding behind three or four layers of foliage. Usually the best method to see one of the birds is to find a clearing in the forest, where you can stand and scan the perimeter to move around. If you walk quietly enough, you might sneak up on creatures hanging out along the way. Bright butterflies, such as the blue morpho, often flit flexibly along trails, and puffbirds and flycatchers perch just above the trails, waiting for clumsy insects (like morpho butterflies) to pass.

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Incredible Birds on Pipeline Road

Our list of amazing birds (with equally amazing names) is growing by the minute: Blue-breasted Hummingbird, Collared Aracari, Speckled Mourner, Stripe-throated Hermit, Violaceous Trogon, Double-toothed Kite. A plaintive whistle from the right side of the trail revealed a Streak-breasted Antpitta, an incredibly secretive bird. A rustle across the path ends up being an agouti, a forest rodent that looks like a small capybara or a large squirrel with a docked tail. Every other bird was a life sentence for me, and it was sometimes hard to keep up with all the reported sightings (my friends are higher caliber birders than me and had certainly studied the calls more than I had). But as is the nature of birdwatching in the rainforest, there have been many lulls in activity. Solid green walls on all sides, pale gray clouds above and mud below were often the only things we could see. The clouds decided to open up a bit, although the rain barely dampened our already sweat-soaked clothes.

Around mid-morning, we rounded a corner of the trail and came across a line of marching soldiers. They weren’t humans, of course, but ants: military ants. Two lines of ants had begun to cross the path, the intimidating soldiers forming a living tunnel through which the workers passed. With huge jaws pointing skyward, the hundreds of tiny bodyguards were a sight to behold. But that was only the beginning…

A White-Whiskered Puffbird fed on insects scared away by ants. Photo by Brian Magnier

Army ants are not just a species of ant; rather, the name “army ant” is given to a few hundred species of nomadic ants that live in large colonies that form massive predatory “raids”. The species we had come across was probably Eciton burchelliithe most common New World army ants.

Unlike many ant species which form large colonies, army ants do not build a permanent nest; instead, they build a living palace of ants in order to protect the queen. Literally hundreds of thousands of ants link their tiny legs and jaws together to create this amazing twisting structure. When it’s time to move on, the ants scatter and migrate through the forest floor, creating small rivers of death and destruction for any creatures that await them. That in itself is an incredible biological spectacle, but the truly spectacular part comes when all the other symbiotic species come into play.

The ants themselves will eat just about anything that doesn’t move, but there are plenty of insects, lizards, and frogs that are able to escape the approaching phalanx. But in doing so, they are forced to give up hiding among leaf litter and leap into trees, and it is there that they meet their untimely demise by a multitude of other predators. Many birds make their living by following swarms of army ants and chasing frightened prey from the ground, just as cattle egrets and bee-eaters use buffaloes, rhinos, elephants and giraffes by opportunistically snatching all insects that large mammals rustle. In Central and South America, army ants are constantly followed by large numbers of anteaters, ants, ants, ants, and ants, many of which are obligate ant followers. Many other birds also benefit from the activity. Why pass up an easy meal?

As we watched the army ants cross the path, we realized that these little streams of ants were just the first scouts of what would be a huge raiding party covering hundreds of square meters of the forest floor. We quickly learned to watch where we put our feet, because the army ants of the soldiers were biting a lot. But once we figured out where to position ourselves to minimize attacks, we started seeing an amazing variety of birds. Bicolor Antbirds were the most numerous ant-followers, but several Northern Banded Creepers and an assortment of flycatchers also flitted through the understory. A cute little White-Whiskered Puffbird sat quietly below eye level, while two Pied Puffbirds sat just above us. The prize for the most beautiful bird species in the group definitely went to the Ocellated Antbird, which had bronze and jet black markings and sported bright blue facial skin.

One bird we all hoped would materialize was the rufous-winded ground cuckoo, a species as secretive as it is alluring. Rufous-winded Ground Cuckoos are large ground cuckoos from the Neotropics, sporting a distinctive crest and a beautiful purplish back. They are also known to follow army ants.

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A Great Tinamou feeds along Pipeline Road. The author and his friends nicknamed the bird Mark because he hung around their group of birders and wasn’t shy like tinamous often are. Photo by Brian Magnier

Near the middle of the swarm was a Greater Tinamou, a generally shy bird that looks like a clumsily adorable big gray chicken. We were thrilled to see one so close, as the entire tinamous family is known to be very difficult to approach. Yet this individual was so preoccupied with eating terrified little insects that he didn’t seem to mind wandering around in this group of humans. For about 30 minutes, we enjoyed the presence of this tinamou, whom we decided to name Mark. We weren’t just able to relax and enjoy the interesting species and behaviors, we were forced to: for quite a while we were very surrounded by an impressive number of ants, and none of us were too eager to get his ankles bitten.

The whole experience lasted about an hour, after which the ants overran the trail and continued, their avian groupies right behind. If any of us felt a little disappointed that we hadn’t seen a Ground Cuckoo, we found solace in the impossibly close gazes we had of the Pointed-winged, Checker-throated Antwrens, Creepers of Cocoa and Broad-Beaked Motmots. As usual in the treasure hunt that is birdwatching, missing the elusive ground cuckoo gave us a reason to come back another day. Slowly we moved on and continued to enjoy all that Pipeline Road had to offer (at least until lunchtime!).

In less than six hours, we had seen agoutis, sloths, morpho butterflies, giant helicopter damsels, and rocket frogs, which are related to poison dart frogs but lack the attractive colors or deadly toxins. We had also seen nearly a hundred species of birds, an impressive number, but which nevertheless represented only a quarter of the birds we could have seen. It was a day that left us itching for more birding, if not itching for all those ant bites.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

Learn about Central American birds that follow ants

Learn more about the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Watch the Panama Fruit Feeders Bird Camera