Shorebirds, hawks and songbirds winging their way on a 20,000 mile round trip from pole to pole at heights of 20,000 feet, stop to feed and rest at Panama Bay. Counts of shorebirds along the Panama coast at times are among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the Upper Bay of Panama won a conservation status that ensures the migrating birds will be able to rest and feed there for generations.
At a ceremony in Panama City, the Upper Bay of Panama was formally designated as the first site in Central America to join the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, a group of organizations in eight countries that partner to protect shorebirds and their habitats.
The designation of the Bay of Panama as a Hemispheric Site for shorebirds underscores the value of the Bay of Panama as the most important site in Central America, and one of the largest in the Americas, for millions of migrating shorebirds.
Millions of sandpipers visit Upper Panama Bay to rest and feed during each migratory season. (Photo by Karl Kaufmann courtesy Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences) More than one million Western sandpipers, Calidris mauri, alone pass through the area annually. The site is used by more than 30 percent of the world's female population of Western sandpipers and is globally important for at least six other species of shorebirds.
Based on these high migratory bird counts - and the commitment of the Panamanian National Environmental Authority to make shorebird conservation a priority - the area has been recognized as a Site of Hemispheric Importance by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), ensuring a long term commitment to conservation.
At the designation ceremony, Ligia Castro de Doens, director of the National Environmental Authority of Panama (ANAM), said, "We support the designation of the Bay of Panama as a site of Hemispheric Importance due to the need of all Panamanians to ensure that the Bay is a clean and friendly place for shorebirds."
Castro emphasized the responsibility that ANAM and every citizen has to protect the Bay by conserving it and restoring it; and said it is important to raise awareness about these unique sites and the opportunities they bring, "as often these sites are admired by many foreigners yet overlooked by Panamanians themselves."
Shorebirds, which are among the most migratory of all species on Earth, are threatened by habitat destruction, pollution and human disturbance.
WHSRN says more than one-quarter of all of North America's shorebird species and subspecies are in serious decline. Some, such as the New World race of red knots, Calidris canutus, will become extinct within present lifetimes if current population trends are not halted, WHSRN warns.
But it is possible for countries within the Network to cooperate for shorebird conservation. At the site dedication ceremony today Trevor Swerdfager, director general of environment for the Canadian Wildlife Service said, "The movement of hundreds of species of migratory birds among the countries of the Americas links our nations with the responsibility to respect this shared biodiversity."
"In that spirit of respect and responsibility, we are also proud that it was the joint work of Canadian scientists and their Panamanian colleagues that led to the discovery and recognition of the hemispheric importance of the Upper Bay of Panama to shorebirds," Swerdfager said.
Shorebirds at Upper Panama Bay (Photo by Karl Kaufmann courtesy Manomet Center)
The formal site designation is taking place in Panama City during the peak shorebird migration season. Every year, the Upper Bay of Panama is visited by as many as two million shorebirds that travel from North America through the Isthmus of Panama and into South America.
Charles Duncan, director of the WHSRN Executive Office, said, "We are delighted to recognize the Upper Bay of Panama as a Site of Hemispheric Importance, so vital to the millions of migratory shorebirds that come from as far away as northern Alaska and central Argentina."
"The National Environmental Authority of Panama has chosen to be a leader in the hemisphere by committing itself to the conservation of these birds and the natural heritage of the Panamanian people," Duncan said.
Because of its importance to migratory birds, the Upper Bay has also been identified as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International, and has been placed on the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance.
John Turner, former assistant secretary of state and director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said, "The conservation of migratory birds brings countries and people together for a common purpose. The fact that birds don't know political boundaries serves as a catalyst for people in the Western Hemisphere to work together. Thanks go to organizations like the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network for making this happen for the benefit of all of us."
WHSRN is a voluntary, non-regulatory coalition whose mission is the conservation of shorebird species through a network of key sites across the Americas. Currently, it comprises 60 member sites in eight nations that total over 20 million acres.
To protect shorebirds and their habitats, WHSRN works with over 200 partner organizations across the Hemisphere. In Panama, the organizing partners are ANAM, the National Environmental Authority of Panama, and the nonprofit Panama Audubon Society.
"For the past seven years, the Panama Audubon Society has been working to preserve the wetlands of the Upper Bay of Panama," said the organization's President Rosabel Miró.
The Panama Audubon Society has been working on sustainable development projects with rural communities adjacent to the Bay of Panama's wetlands and on environmental education in schools in Panama City.
"The Bay of Panama, which is the first site in Central America to be part of the WHSRN network, is a critical site for migratory shorebirds," Miró said. "Preserving this annual spectacle can only be done through international cooperation, an increasingly obvious requirement for protecting the world's ecosystems."
The Network's executive office operates as a program of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences based in Manomet, Massachusetts. The center provides executive staff and services to the Network's members, partners, governing councils, and the scientific advisory committee.