"The upper Bay of Panama appears to have been designed for shorebirds. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Copper River Delta in Alaska, the Amazon Delta in Brazil, and the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, the site is among the great shorebird conservation areas of the Western Hemisphere."
Dr. Bryan Watts
Center for Conservation Biology
Panama - Host to millions of migrant shorebirds
Like sand through an hourglass, millions of migrating birds from North America pass through the Isthmus of Panama and into South America each fall. Hawks, songbirds, and shorebirds each provide a spectacle in their own right, but of the three, the shorebird migration most impresses an observer with its huge numbers as birds fly wingtip to wingtip over the beach or huddle together by the tens of thousands at high tide.
Mudflats - A rich feeding grounds
Shorebirds require rich feeding grounds to complete their journey, for unlike the hawks, they are unable to store up sufficient energy for the trip before starting. One such area is a complex of mangrove forests bordering immense mudflats up to several kilometers wide in the Upper Bay of Panama. The richest and most heavily used part of this area is the 30 kilometers of shoreline starting at the edge of the city and extending east towards Colombia. In 1997, during the fall migration, these mudflats hosted 1,300,000 migrant shorebirds. As much as 30% of the world population of Western Sandpipers were included in this figure. Satisfying the normal energy requirements of the shorebirds would have required over 50 metric tons of marine worms in October alone. (Watts, 1998)
Mangroves - A valuable resource
Almost half of the WHSRN site consists of mangroves. Mangroves are a unique tropical habitat that is one of the most dynamic on the planet. They contain plants and animals found in no other type of forest. Many commercially important fish and shrimp spend part of their life in mangroves. Over 90% of the wild-caught shrimp in Panama depend on mangroves for food and shelter for part of their lives. Many of Panama’s commercially raised chickens are fed fishmeal from anchovetas, small fish which also depend on mangroves. Sediments in mangroves trap pesticides and other carcinogenic chemicals from agricultural runoff and keep them from entering the marine food chain.
Panama Viejo - A World Heritage Site
Looking out over the mudflats near the western edge of the WHSRN site is Panama Viejo, the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, founded in 1519. The original street plan and many of the old buildings, including the cathedral, are preserved. In 1671, the city was sacked by the famous buccaneer, Henry Morgan. When the city was rebuilt, a site easier to defend was chosen several miles away, now called Casco Viejo, and the ruins were left, more or less undisturbed, until the present day.
In the News
The entire site is on a coastal alluvial plain on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama and consists of mangroves and adjacent mudflats. In places the mangroves form a thin fringe along the shore, but the estuary of the Rio Bayano towards the center of the site contains 9,300 hectares of mangroves, including some areas dominated by palms. The gradient off the coast is very low which, combined with a tidal range of over 5 meters, results in exposed mudflats exceeding 2 km wide at the lowest tides. The mudflats range from fine-grained, almost soupy mud to sand bars found mostly at the mouth of the Bayano River. Some areas have volcanic rock outcrops.
Max Single Day Count
* Present in small numbers, but no population estimate available.
In addition to shorebirds, the site contains nesting colonies that include 600 Great Egrets and 700 Neotropical Cormorants. It is used by many other waterbirds, including Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Snowy Egret, Tricolored, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Cocoi Heron, White Ibis, and many gulls and terns. Neotropical River Otter, Crab-eating Raccoon and American Crocodile are among threatened species presumed to occur.
The land surrounding the site is used for rice cultivation, cattle ranching, and subsistence agriculture. The western end of the site is adjacent to the capital city, Panama, and has urban and suburban housing and an international airport abutting the mangroves. In this section, only the mudflats are included in the site. The mangroves are excluded. Further to the east, rice farms and cattle pastures, often reclaimed from wetlands by cutting mangroves and channelizing streams, are adjacent to the site. There are some areas of second growth. The eastern part, beyond estuary of the Rio Bayano, has a higher proportion of subsistence agriculture and even some primary forest bordering the mangroves.
All mangroves in Panama are considered to belong to the state and it is illegal to cut them down. This law however is commonly ignored.
The site has just recently been placed on the Ramsar list of Internationally Important Wetlands. In so doing, Panama promises to preserve the ecological services the site provides.
Near the coast, sand is being extracted for use in construction. In various places, industrial chemicals, raw sewage, and agricultural chemicals from rice farms flow into waterways in the mangroves and ultimately across the mud flats. A new sewage treatment plant is being built at the western end of the site. Some mangroves around the periphery of the mangrove area are being cut for use as pasture. A few shrimp farms were built in the mangroves many years ago and then fell out of use but it is not unlikely that the mangroves will again be used for the same purpose.
The major threat is clearing of mangroves for housing near the city. In the rural areas, clearing of land for cattle and agricultural use continues, but not at a rapid rate.
We do not know exactly what impact removing mangroves will have on the birds using the mudflats. Certainly mangroves export a large amount of detritus to the food web on the mudflat, but we do not know how important this is compared to nutrients coming from water offshore. Presumably the particle size and consistency of the mud is important to many birds, and some kinds of development might affect this, but we have no information on possible impacts. The threat to roosting areas is not well known because, with the exception of a major area converted to housing, we do not know where they are located. Loss of roosting areas could have a major impact on the shorebirds. Clearly more research is needed, but in the meantime, it is prudent to make as few changes as possible to the mangroves.
There are currently no forest wardens assigned to the area. Guards with suitable transportation by boat, car, and occasional overflights by plane are needed to ensure that mangroves are not cut down illegally. Public education on the value of mangroves and mudflats is necessary to gain sufficient public support to reduce development.
Status of Conservation Efforts
The Upper Bay of Panama is composed of 5 different Important Bird Areas (IBAs), which were identified through completion of a Birdlife/PAS program to identify IBAs in Panama. PAS considers the Upper Bay of Panama to be one of its top priorities for conservation work and has been conducting a series of public awareness and educational projects on the importance of its preservation for the past 5 years.
Panama's environmental authority, ANAM, is very supportive of conservation efforts in the Upper Bay of Panama but has a limited budget for work in the area.
Pictures by Karl Kaufmann
Click on each thumbnail to see a bigger picture.
Dedication of the Upper Bay of Panama as a Site of Hemispheric Importance, 17 and 18 October 2005
The Upper Bay of Panama is visited by as many as 1.3 million shorebirds annually, and has recently been recognized as a WHSRN Site of Hemispheric Importance, based on these counts and the commitment of the Panamanian National Environmental Authority to make shorebird conservation a priority. The site was officially dedicated on October 18, 2005 in Panama City, Panama.
Rosabel Miró, President
Sociedad Audubon de Panama
Republic of Panama
Links to Additional Resources
Panama Audubon Society (PAS)
Promotes knowledge and understanding of birds and their habitat in Panama. Includes full checklist of the birds of Panama and descriptions of endemic birds and areas where they are found.
Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM)
Panama's environmental authority.
The Importance of Panama Bay to Shorebirds (PDF, in Spanish; 3 MB)
Presentation by Rob Clay, BirdLife International, at the WHSRN Hemispheric Council's meeting in Panama City, Panama, in February 2010.
Related Research and other Publications
1989 - 1993. Winter survey of waterbirds on the entire coastline of Panama. (Morrison et. al. 1998)
1995 - 2000 Inventory of Important Bird Areas in Panama, which identified the Upper Bay of Panama as one of the highest priority sites for bird conservation in Panama. George Angehr/PAS.
1997. Survey of use of Upper Bay of Panama by shorebirds during fall migration under direction of George Angehr/Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) (Watts, 1998)
2002. Research on bill morphology and feeding techniques in Western Sandpipers by Silke Nebel, Simon Fraser University. (Nebel, 2005a, 2005b)
2002. Counts of overwintering and spring migrant shorebirds. Deborah Buehler, Royal Ontario Museum. (Buehler, 2003).
2003 Shorebird counts by air and land during fall migration by Deborah Buehler, Alberto Castillo and George Angehr, PAS. (Buehler et. al, 2004.)
2004 Western Sandpipers radio-tagged in Upper Bay of Panama to track migration route. Study done by Pat Baird, Kahiltna Research Group, California State University with assistance of Kim Mathot, Simon Fraser University and Audrey Taylor, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
2005 Survey of herons and other waterbirds in the Bay of Panama, including an inventory of major nesting colonies of herons and cormorants in mangrove areas of the site. James Kushlan, National Museum of Natural History, and George Angehr, PAS/STRI.
Documents and References
Agüero, M., E. González and Equipo Profesional de ICSED. 1998. Informe Final: Estudio, Valoración y Evaluación Preliminar de distintas alternativas de Uso-Explotación y Preservación de los Manglares de Juan Días, Bahía de Panamá. Centro Interamericano para el Desarrollo de Ecosistema Sustentable (ICSED). Santiago, Chile.
Angehr, G. and O. Jordán. 1998. Informe del Programa de Áreas Importantes para Aves en Panamá. Sociedad Audubon de Panamá. Panamá República de Panamá.
Angehr, George R. 2003. Directory of Important Bird Areas in Panama. Sociedad Audubon de Panama and Birdlife/Vogelbescherming Nederland, Panama and the Netherlands. 342pp.
Anguizola, R., V. J. Cedeño & G. Sopalda. 1990. Inventario de manglares de la República de Panamá. Instituto Geográfico Nacional Tommy Guardia. 8pp.
Brooks, Cl. and D. Riley de la R. 1986. Observación Ecológica sobre Vertebrados Asociados a un Manglar de Avicennia en Juan Díaz, distrito de Panamá. Tesis de Licenciatura en Biología conespecialización en Zoología. Universidad de Panamá. Facultad de Ciencia Naturales y Exactas. Escuela de Biología. Panamá. 75pp.
Buehler, D.M. 2002. Shorebird counts in Panama during 2002 emphasize the need to monitor and protect the Upper Panama Bay. Wader Study Group Bull. 99: 41–44.
Buehler, D.M., Castillo, A.I. & Angehr, G. 2004. Shorebird counts in the Upper Bay of Panama highlight the importance of this key site and the need to improve its protection. Wader Study Group Bull. 105: XX–XX.
Butler, R. W., R. I. G. Morrison and F. Delgado. 1992. The distribution of fish-eating, wading, and raptorial birds in the Gulf of Panama. October 1991. Canadian Wildlife Service. 198 (5): 1-3.
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Nebel, S., D.B. Lank, P.D. O'Hara, G. Fern·ndez, B. Haase, F. Delgado, F.A. Estela, L.J. Evans Ogden, B. Harrington, B.E. Kus, J.E. Lyons, F. Mercier, B. Ortego, J.Y. Takekawa, N. Warnock & S.E. Warnock. 2002. Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) during the nonbreeding season: spatial segregation on a hemispheric scale. Auk 119:922-928.
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