Panama’s biodiversity is staggering – the country is home to 218 mammal species, 226 species of reptile, 164 amphibian species and 125 animal species found nowhere else in the world. Panama also boasts 940 avian species, which is the largest number in Central America.
Bird-watchers consider Panama to be one of the world’s best birding sights. Quetzals, macaws, amazons, parrots and toucans all have sizable populations here, as do many species of tanager and raptor. The best bird-watching site in the country is Cana in Parque Nacional Darién, where you can see four species of macaw, golden-headed quetzals and black-tipped cotingas. Another fantastic birding spot is Parque Nacional Soberanía, where hundreds of species have been spotted along the famous 17km-long Pipeline Rd.
One of the most sought-after birds is the harpy eagle, the national bird of Panama. With a 2m wingspan and weights of up to 20lb, this raptor is the world’s most powerful bird of prey and a truly awesome sight. The bird is recognized by its huge size, its broad, black chest band with white underneath, its piercing yellow eyes and its prominent, regal crests. The harpy’s powerful claws can carry off howler monkeys and capuchins, and it also hunts sloths, coatis, anteaters and just about anything that moves. It’s best spotted in the Parque Nacional Darién around Punta Patiño.
More famous than the harpy eagle is the elusive, emerald-green quetzal, which lives in habitats throughout Central America, but some of the best places to see it are in Panama. The male has an elongated wing covert (train) and a scarlet breast and belly, while females have duller plumage. Parque Nacional Volcán Barú is a top spot for sighting them, as is Parque Internacional La Amistad. They are best spotted in the breeding season from March to June when males grow their spectacular trains and start calling for mates.
Panama’s geographical position also makes it a crossroads for migratory birds. Out of the country’s 940 bird species, 122 occur only as long-distance migrants (ie they don’t breed in Panama). From August to December, North American raptors migrate south into Central America by the millions – at times, there are so many birds that they make a black streak across the sky. The canopy tower in Panama’s Parque Nacional Soberanía is a particularly good vantage point for watching this migration.
In Bocas del Toro, keep an eye out for kettling hawk migrations – October is the best month to see them in large numbers. The migration of turkey vultures over the islands in early March and again in October is another striking sight. These big, black-bodied, red-necked birds can streak the sky and are able to soar for long periods without a single flap as they migrate between southern Canada and Tierra del Fuego.
Primate lovers are also drawn to Panama. Among the country’s many species – including white-faced capuchins, squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and howler monkeys – are some fascinating varieties. The Geoffroy’s tamarin, for instance, is found nowhere else in Central America. These tiny, gregarious monkeys can live in groups of up to 40 in lowland forest, and many weigh less than a pound. They’re identified by their whistles and chirps, mottled black-and-brown fur, white chests, and of course, their diminutive stature. They can be spotted in Parque Natural Metropolitano, Monumento Nacional Isla Barro Colorado and in the Darién.
Big cats prowl the jungles of Panama and although you’d be extremely fortunate to catch even a glimpse of one, their prints are easy to come across. Jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis and margays are all found on the isthmus. The jaguar is the biggest of the bunch and is the largest cat in the Americas. Jaguars (and pumas) both need large tracts of land in order to survive. Without them the big cats gradually exhaust their food supply (which numbers 85 hunted species) and perish. They are excellent swimmers and climbers and are commonly spotted resting on sunny riverbanks.
Panama’s offshore waters host a fascinating assortment of creatures. Reefs found off both coasts support a plethora of tropical fish, and visitors to the national marine parks might spot humpback whales, reef sharks, bottlenose dolphins, and killer or sperm whales. Underwater, whale sharks, black- and white-tip sharks and occasionally tiger sharks also visit.
One of Panama’s biggest coastal draws is the sea turtle. Of the world’s seven different species, five can be seen in Panama at various times throughout the year. All sea turtles originally evolved from terrestrial species and the most important stage of their survival happens on land when they come to nest. Although you’ll need a bit of luck and a lot of patience, the experience of seeing hatchlings emerge is unparalleled.
Arribadas (arrivals) are rare events that occur when thousands of female sea turtles flood the beach to lay their eggs. This happens occasionally on Isla de Cañas when 40,000 to 50,000 olive ridleys come to nest at a single time. This chance event most likely occurs in the wet season (usually September to October) during the first and last quarter of the moon. Although scientists are not entirely sure why these mass arrivals occur, a common theory is that arribadas are a defense mechanism to overwhelm would-be predators.