San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Panama bird guide gets thumbs-up

A long with a 330-kilometer border, Costa Rica and Panama share about 800 species of birds. But unlike Costa Rica, our neighbor to the south is not exactly renowned as a birders’ paradise.

Panama’s birding status may be about to change, though, thanks to the recent publication of “The Birds of Panama: A Field Guide.” Published by a division of Cornell University and Costa Rica’s own Zona Tropical Publications, it is a sister guide to “The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide,” published in 2007, which quickly became an indispensable field companion in Costa Rica. Both guides are cleanly, crisply designed by San José-based graphic designer Gabriela Wattson.

The Panama guide is written by Panama resident George R. Angehr, an eminent research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and curator of exhibitions for the new museum of biodiversity under construction in Panama City. Compact and easy to use, this guide aims to provide all the information birders need to identify any bird they are likely to encounter in Panama.

The new guide replaces the 35-year-old “Birds of Panama,” written by Robert Ridgely and illustrated by John Gwynne. Apart from being too heavy to carry as a field guide, that book was last revised in 1989, and there have been many changes in the Panama bird scene since then, including about 50 new species.

Angehr has been studying birds in Panama since 1977 (see box) and is co-author of “A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama,” published in 2008. This man knows his birds, and he knows where to find them, which is more than half the battle for bird-watchers.

Along with the usual descriptions of field marks to help users identify birds, Angehr also supplies concise notes on habitat, behavior, vocalizations and even information on the level at which a forest-edge or woodland species is likely to forage.

One of the most valuable features in this new guide are the range maps, which not only show where most of Panama’s 978 species are likely to be found, but also are color-coded to indicate whether the species is a breeding or nonbreeding resident, a transient passing through, a breeding migrant or a casual “vagrant.”

Panama Bird Guide 2

These all-important maps and detailed notes conveniently face the picture pages, so all the clues a birder needs are right there on a two-page spread.

When it comes to identifying a bird, a picture is certainly worth the proverbial thousand words, and Costa Rica’s own Robert Dean has brilliantly illustrated the birds of Panama. A longtime resident of Monteverde in north-central Costa Rica, Dean is a renowned wildlife artist who also illustrated “The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide.”

Dean’s paintings bring birds to life. Thanks to years of close observation, he has mastered the art of posing the birds in natural stances, with every detail of feathers and coloring.

Improving even on the excellent illustrations in the Costa Rica field guide, this new guide has larger renderings that are more brightly colored. One quibble with the Costa Rica guide among avid birders has been that the paintings, owing to a printing problem, are washed out. But the Panama guide shows the birds in their truer hues. This guide also illustrates more plumage variations, extra visual information that is especially helpful when trying to identify shore birds, raptors, seedeaters and warblers.

As well as being larger than the Costa Rica field guide, this book is heavier, with 100 or so more pages. But it is still lighter and far more portable than the old Ridgely book. Field guides need to be sturdy enough to withstand rain, humidity and lots of thumbing. So far, the prototype Costa Rica guide, published in 2007, has stood the test of time and use pretty well, except for the cover, which tends to curl up in humidity. The heavier Panama book has a sturdier cover, so it may perform even better in the field.

Even if you already own the Costa Rica field guide, this handsome new guide is a useful addition to your library, as it has so many fine paintings of Costa Rican species. It may also inspire local birders to head south of the border, especially to the remoter, eastern regions of Panama where most of the Panama species not found in Costa Rica live.

“The Birds of Panama: A Field Guide” is available for $37 at 7th Street Books in downtown San José; for other locations, visit

Field Guide Notes

How long does it take to write a field guide? Judging by George Angehr’s long résumé in Panama, it looks like a lifelong project.

“Yeah, it pretty much has been,” Angehr acknowledges. “I tell people that depending on how you look at it, it either took three years, or 33 years. I first came to Panama to do my thesis on hummingbirds from 1977 to 1979.”

Angehr came back to Panama to live in 1992 and has spent the last 20 years studying birds in Panama. “It took me about two years to write the texts, working mostly on weekends, since I had a day job. Then it took another year of editing, design, writing the front matter, etc.”

For Robert Dean, it took about two years to paint the 171 new birds for the Panama guide. Because there is so much species overlap between Costa Rica and Panama, the publishers were able to use many of Dean’s original paintings from “The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide.”

Apart from hours at the easel in his studio in Monteverde, Dean traveled to some remote areas of Panama to get a firsthand look at some species that were new to him, including a boat trip to Coiba Island, off Panama’s Pacific coast, to see the island’s two endemic birds.

Angehr and Dean also traveled together to the wilds of the Darién, on the border between Panama and Colombia, in search of rare and new species. Some were easier than others to find, Dean says. “We stepped off the plane onto the El Real airstrip in the Darién, and right there on the runway we spotted two new birds for Panama: the yellow-hooded blackbird and the large-billed seed-finch.”

Birders who buy the book in Panama will be gratified to know that 50 cents per copy goes to support the conservation efforts of the Panama Audubon Society. “It’s the most important organization devoted to bird conservation in Panama,” says Angehr, who is a board member and also director for science for Panama Audubon.

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