The Keel-billed Toucan is one of the wonderful birds found throughout tropical regions in Central and South America.

Toucan experience the wonder of a cruise

Despite the delightful hummingbirds and the skulking antbirds, the highlight family of any trip to this region has to be the toucans.

As I write this, we are on a cruise ship heading north in the Gulf of Mexico. Our cruise left Vancouver on September 26 and will arrive in Fort Lauderdale in a couple of days. Along the way we have had port days in San Francisco, Cabo San Lucas, (Mexico), Puntarenas, (Costa Rica), Panama City, Cartagena, (Colombia) and Aruba. We had a short birding day in Cabo, and longer days in Costa Rica and Panama.

Our most interesting day was in Panama, a place we had never been before. Panama is a small country but they have 975 bird species, as many as all of Canada and the U.S.A. combined.

During our five-hour birding trip we saw over 60 species, 21 of which were new to me. One of the more interesting groups of birds here are the antbirds. This is a large family of smallish, insect-eating birds that are found throughout tropical regions of Central and South America. They are generally found in rainforest regions and have a tendency to stay hidden in the dense foliage.

Most of them don’t actually eat ants, but they do feed in association with army-ant columns. These columns of ants can include many thousands of ants and as they march across the jungle floor they disturb insects and other small creatures. It is these that become food for the antbirds. Any time you find and army-ant column in the rainforest, you will find birds.

On our trip we saw five species from this large and varied group: Red-throated Ant-tanager, Checker-throated Antwren, Dot-winged Antbird, Western Slaty-Antshrike and Fasciated Antshrike. A couple days earlier, while in Costa Rica, we saw three others: Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike and Slaty Antwren.

Hummingbirds are also common in Panama. We visited one rainforest lodge that had several feeders along the deck.  Six species of all sizes and colours were buzzing all around us: Little Hermit (less than 10 cm long), Long-billed Hermit (15-16 cm long), White-vented Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobin, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

Despite the delightful hummingbirds and the skulking antbirds, the highlight family of any trip to this region has to be the toucans. In Panama we saw the Keel-billed Toucan (pictured here). That any bird can fly with such a massive bill extended in front of it seems to defy the laws of gravity; the overall length of this bird is 45-50 cm, and about one quarter of that is bill.

In the last couple of years we have been fortunate to have had the chance to do some birding in Peru, Costa Rica and now Panama. The bird diversity in Central and South America is unmatched anywhere in the world. It would take many more visits to even scratch the surface when it comes to learning the tropical birds. But I hope to get the chance to try.