A rainforest in February is the place to be for wonderful sights, sounds and scents of the tropics. Central America has many more bird species than we see in the United States and many of them are breathtakingly beautiful, including toucans and parrots and many-hued hummingbirds. Exotic birds with exotic names, like tinamou, potoo, motmot, shrike-vireo and aracari, are exciting to observe and to add to trip lists.

So it might seem strange that etched in my memory after a recent trip to Panama are some of the birds we can easily see back home. Walking past a lush vine climbing a massive tree one day, our nature-watching group spied a prothonotary warbler searching for food, just as it will do in Minnesota this summer.

Nearby was a Baltimore oriole, busily gobbling tree fruits alongside a rose-breasted grosbeak, while a yellow warbler picked tiny caterpillars off the leaves. All three bird species will appear in Minnesota soon to enjoy our spring and summer insect “bloom.”

House wrens, indigo buntings and barn swallows, all “local” birds in the summertime, seemed to be enjoying their months in the tropics. And it’s not hard to see why, surrounded, as they are, by lush vegetation offering a variety of fruits and tasty insects every month of the year, along with abundant flying insects. These birds didn’t leave us last fall because of impending cold; instead the driver was scarcity of food. Minnesota just can’t offer much in the way of insects and fresh fruit in the winter.

On the ground in the tropics, it’s easy to see why so many of our temperate zone species undertake exhausting migratory journeys fraught with danger in the form of hurricanes, ocean crossings and unreliable food sources. It’s because the rewards are so great for those that make it to Central or South America for the winter that migration is hard-wired into their brains. (It’s also not hard to understand why they come northward each spring to disperse into the abundant spaces in the temperate zone, full of food in the form of insects to feed their offspring.)

However, one of the surprises of a region so full of life and with thousands of bird species is that birds often seem scarce. Panama is known worldwide as a birding mecca and attracts visitors from around the globe, some expecting birds to be dripping from the trees.

The truth is that rainforests are densely shaded and its birds often hold themselves immobile as they scan for a meal, making them nearly invisible. And then, much of the bird activity takes place high up in the canopy, out of view. Guides who know their country’s birds, preferred habitats and feeding styles (and can mimic bird calls) make the difference between a scanty day of bird-watching and one with many sightings.

A trip to the tropics is eye opening, not just for the views of stunning birds not seen in our region, but also because it becomes clear just how intrepid birds are. After all, we fly comfortably in jets to our destinations, but migratory birds make the long journeys, twice a year, under their own power.


St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.