Panama: Birding with a Camera®

This is a Birding with a Camera® Tour (BwC). We try to balance seeing as many birds as possible while also trying to take great photos of them. We still target endemics and other specialties. We will also try to see and photograph other animals if any are around (e.g. sloths and monkeys). Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for a traditional Birding Tour, you should check out our very popular Panama: The Best of Tropical America. tour


Panama is a longtime favorite of birders looking to gorge on tropical birds, either as a first tropical destination, or to supplement previous trips to other ones. The appeal of Panama to visiting birders is obvious; it is graced with a birdlist of over 1000 species in a country that mimics South Carolina in size, making long drives unnecessary, and many sites being easily visited by way of day trips from a business style hotel on a quiet edge of the country’s capital. It is also equipped with excellent US-style facilities throughout, and the widespread use of the US Dollar also makes things easy for people traveling from that part of the world. The reason for its extraordinary diversity is that Panama can be said to lie at the crossroads of North, Central and South America, which gives rise to a very different selection of birds as you move west to east through the country. This Birding With A Camera® tour focuses on the most accessible part of the country, Central Panama, combining this with higher elevation forests and habitats in western Panama. In the far west lies the Chiriqui Highlands (home of the Resplendent Quetzal), which are shared only with Costa Rica. East from there in Central Panama is the arguably the most famous engineering project built in the region, the Panama Canal. The canal also happens to be located in one of the richest lowland birding areas of the country, where legendary birding sites like Gamboa, Pipeline Road and Soberania National Park are all located just a short distance from Panama’s capital city.

Talamanca Hummingbird is confined to the western highlands of Panama and eastern Costa Rica
Talamanca Hummingbird is confined to the western highlands of Panama and eastern Costa Rica (Sam Woods)

As well as offering a wealth of tropical bird groups to look at, Panama also offers great opportunities to bird and shoot at the same time, with birds like honeycreepers, hummingbirds, tanagers, trogons, woodpeckers, motmots, antbirds and even quetzals all possible to photograph on this tour, making the destination a natural fit for a Birding With A Camera® tour.

Day 1: Arrival in Panama City; afternoon birding close to airport. Following morning arrivals in Panama City; we will meet in the afternoon for some easy birding a short distance from our hotel. Our first birding in Panama will be easy going, as we bird a combination of open fields, scattered trees, and boggy areas for our first birds that could include waterbirds like Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Wattled Jacana, Southern Lapwing, and Cocoi Heron, as well as land birds like the dramatic Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Pied Water-Tyrant, and perhaps raptors too, like Yellow-headed Caracara or even a Pearl Kite. After a few hours of relaxed birding, we will return to Panama City, where our first two nights will be spent in a quiet business hotel, on the outskirts of the capital.

A Shining Honeycreeper comes in to the feeder at Cerro Azul
A Shining Honeycreeper comes in to the feeder at Cerro Azul (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Cerro Azul. We will take a day trip to a private housing complex, built in forested foothills just to east of Panama City. As well as being pleasantly cooler than the lowland capital, the modest rise in altitude gives rise to a markedly different bird list. The centerpiece of Cerro Azul is a set of spectacular private feeders that attract such varied species like hummingbirds such as Rufous-crested Coquette, White-necked Jacobin, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, tanagers, like Plain-colored and Bay-headed, and Shining Honeycreepers, plus even the occasional monkey drops in too (Geoffroy’s Tamarin)! Away from the feeders, the surrounding forests are home to a heady selection of possibilities, like Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, White-ruffed Manakin, Blue Cotinga, and Rufous-winged and Speckled Tanagers. At the end of what will be a unique day of the tour, we shall return to our comfortable, modern hotel on the edge of Panama City for one more night.

Bay-headed Tanagers visit the feeders at Cerro Azul
Bay-headed Tanagers visit the feeders at Cerro Azul (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Panama City to Volcan via Paradise. In the morning, we will take a short flight out of the capital to the western city of David, within easy access of the Chiriqui Highlands, a mountain chain shared only with nearby Costa Rica. After arrival in David, we shall bird local to the airport and in the foothills at Paradise, as we steadily drive up to the town of Volcan, our home for the next three nights. Paradise is a wonderful birding area, with feeders, that holds a lot of species and therefore promise for the day – hummingbirds are well represented there with Long-billed Starthroat, Scaly-breasted, Snowy-bellied and Charming Hummingbirds all present. Other forest birds, which occur at this mid-elevation site, include Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Lesson’s Motmot, Olivaceous Piculet, Crimson-fronted and Brown-throated Parakeets, Black-hooded Antshrike, Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner, Orange-collared Manakin, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Spot-crowned Euphonia all possible, among many other species too. By the day’s end we will roll into the mountain town of Volcan, where we will spend three nights, so that we can search for highland species, many of which are only shared with neighboring Costa Rica.

Our time in the western highlands we hope will be punctuated with sightings of Flame-colored Tanagers
Our time in the western highlands we hope will be punctuated with sightings of Flame-colored Tanagers (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Volcan Baru and Cielito Sur. We will have the first of two full days to explore the western highlands of Panama. On this particular day our focus will be on Volcan Baru National Park. As is the case, wherever it occurs, the Resplendent Quetzal will be a priority on our long target list for the area. Other species of note in this national park include, Prong-billed Barbet, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstart, Black-faced Solitaire, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher and Golden-browed Chlorophonia. Most of the day will be spent inside the park, although our time will be broken up there with a lunch/birding stops of Cielito Sur, a small lodge with hummingbirds feeders nearby, where we can see species like White-throated Mountain-Gem, and Fiery-throated, Stripe-tailed, Volcano and Talamanca Hummingbirds, during the quieter middle section of the day. A second night will be spent in Volcan.

Flame-throated Warbler is relatively common the mountains of the west
Flame-throated Warbler is relatively common the mountains of the west (Sam Woods)

Day 5: La Amistad NP. For our second full day in the highlands, we will search for some of the same highland species and others in La Amistad National Park, sometimes referred to as “PILA”. We’ll have a second shot at the quetzal here, but also chances at Spangle-cheeked Tanagers mixing with Ruddy Treerunners and Black-cheeked Warblers in mixed feeding flocks that might also contain Buffy Tuftedcheek, Tufted Flycatcher and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers too. Northern Emerald-Toucanet and Suphur-winged Parakeet are both also found here. After a final full day in the highlands of western Panama we will return to our lodging in Volcan for a third and final night.

White-throated Mountain-gem frequents the garden of Cielito Sur
White-throated Mountain-gem frequents the garden of Cielito Sur (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Chiriqui to Panama City and Gamboa. On this day, following some final birding in the highlands, we will take the short flight back to Panama City, before taking an hour drive to Panama’s most revered birding destinations, Gamboa, within easy reach of Soberania National Park and the famous Pipeline Road. There will be time in the afternoon to begin our birding exploration of this area, which is close to the famous Panama Canal. The first of three nights will be spent in Gamboa, with birds right on our doorstep, while staying in top class accommodations.

Spot-crowned Euphonia is a regional endemic
Spot-crowned Euphonia is a regional endemic (Sam Woods)

Day 7 – 8: Gamboa, Pipeline Road and Surrounds. This is not just one of the most famous Panama birding spots, but one of the most revered in all of neotropical birding. Certain, flashy tropical bird groups are well represented here, with 5 species of trogon regular (Black-tailed, Black-throated, Slaty-tailed, White-tailed and Gartered), 3 regular toucan species (Keel-billed, Yellow Throated Toucans and Collared Aracari), 3 motmots are regular too (Broad-billed, Rufous and Whooping), and 4 different puffbirds are frequently found there (Black-breasted, White-collared, White-whiskered and Pied), and local hummingbird feeders attract species like White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed Hermit and Blue-throated Hummingbird. Antswarms can occur at any time in this area, and when they do, they provide one of the great neotropical birding experiences, with chances to see Spotted, Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds all at the same swarm with other attendant species like Red-capped Manakin. A canopy observation tower will be visited on one of these mornings too, to get up close with canopy species like Blue Cotinga, Fasciated Antshrike, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, Moustached Antwren, Black-chested Jay, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Green Shrike-Vireo, Blue Dacnis, and Scarlet-rumped Cacique. Two more nights will be spent in a resort beside the rainforest in Gamboa.

Spotted Antbirds are attracted to antswarms along the Pipeline Road
Spotted Antbirds are attracted to antswarms along the Pipeline Road (Sam Woods)


Day 9: Gamboa to Panama City.
Much of the day (including lunch), will be spent around this super rich birding area, taking in whatever of the many birding sites best suit our birding needs at this time. After most of the day around Gamboa again, we will return to a business hotel in Panama City for another night.

If we come across an antswarm in the Canal Zone, we'll be on the lookout for the striking Ocellated Antbird
If we come across an antswarm in the Canal Zone, we'll be on the lookout for the striking Ocellated Antbird (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Altos del Maria to Valle de Anton. On this day we will leave Panama City early and head up into the foothills at Altos del Maria, a private forest area, where special access is required to enter. The area is typically deserted, save for a few quiet residents, and we will have the place largely to ourselves, with masses of forest areas to explore by road and trail. This is an exciting area, being the only one of the trip where the Snowcap hummingbird can be found. Other standout birds that occur in this area include Orange-bellied Trogon, Dull-mantled Antbird, Streal-chested and Black-crowned Antpittas, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Northern Schiffornis and Tawny-capped Euphonia. While searching for these and other species, we could also find Scaled Pigeon, Brown-hooded Parrot, Russet Antshrike, Slaty Anwren, Brown-billed Scythebill, Spotted Barbtail, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, White-throated Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Rufous-and-white, Bay and Ochraceous Wrens, Dusky-faced and Hepatic Tanagers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. After a day there (and lunch in the field at this beautifully tranquil site), we will drive on to the town of El Valle de Anton, where after arriving in the late afternoon, we shall check in for a 2-night stay.

Green Honeycreeper is readily seen at the Cerro Azul feeders
Green Honeycreeper is readily seen at the Cerro Azul feeders (Sam Woods)

Day 11: El Valle de Anton. This area in the foothills of the mountains is cool and pleasant in terms of climate, and has plenty of birds to offer too, being a good area for species like Tody Motmot, Crimson-backed Tanager, Black-crowned Antpitta. Other species in this area include Lesson’s Motmot, Gray-headed Chachalaca, White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, Violet-headed Hummingbird, White-tailed Emerald, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Barred Antshrike, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Checker-throated Antwren, Panama Flycatcher, White-winged Becard, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Chestnut-headed Oropendola and Black-faced Grosbeak. Sometimes too, there is a Spectacled Owl roost staked out too.

The Rufous-crested Coquette is one of the most wanted birds on this trip
The Rufous-crested Coquette is one of the most wanted birds on this trip (Sam Woods)

Day 12: Juan Hombron to Panama City. Having spent a full day in the forests of the foothills the day before, and plenty of time in lowland forests too around the Canal Zone, this day will see us head south to the open country and coastline of the Pacific lowlands around Juan Hombron. The birding in this area is easier going than forest can be, and we will be seeking out species like Savanna Hawk, White-tailed Kite, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras, Crested Bobwhite, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Striped Cuckoo, Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-crowned Parrot, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Scrub Greenlet, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, and Lance-tailed Manakin. In addition to these we will check the coast for shorebirds and wetland species like Glossy and White Ibises, Magnificent Frigatebird, Elegant Tern, Northern Jacana, and Wood Stork, among others. By the end of the day we will return to our now familiar, air-conditioned business hotel in Panama City, perhaps taking in another site en route, time permitting.

Two-toed Sloth is a nocturnal species, while three-toed is diurnal
Two-toed Sloth is a nocturnal species, while three-toed is diurnal (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Parque Natural Metropolitano; afternoon departure from Panama City. While this is the official departure day (with departures after 3pm suggested), we will still have time for an early morning visit to Parque Natural Metropolitano, a superb birding site in the heart of the city! The reason for its inclusion here is that it is the single best site in Panama for Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and is also good for one of the few country endemics, Yellow-green Tyrannulet, and Lance-tailed Manakin. Other birds in the area include Squirrel Cuckoo, roosting Common Potoo, White-vented Plumeleteer, Short-tailed Hawk, White-necked Puffbird, Black-crowned Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky and White-bellied Antbirds, Brown capped Tyrannulet, Black-tailed Flycatcher, Golden-collared Manakin, Green-fronted and Lesser Greenlets, Orange-billed Sparrow, and Yellow-backed Oriole. Geoffroy’s Tamarins also roam the park. After early morning in the park, we will return to the hotel, check out and organize hotel shuttles to the airport for afternoon departures home after a magnificent tour of one of Central America’s very best birding destinations.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. There are some early starts, and long days in the field (breakfasts at 5:00-5:30am are typical), although this is not a tough trip.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the walking will be easy, although there may be some trail walking on at least half of the days.

There are no long drives on this tour, with the longest being under three hours (direct) between Panama City and El Valle de Anton (although these will take all day with the birding planned!)

CLIMATE: Panama is tropical and so temperatures remain fairly constant year-round; in the lowlands, it will be hot and humid, with temperatures ranging between 70-90 Fahrenheit (21-31 Celsius), and humidity generally at around 80%. In the foothills and mountains temperatures will be considerably cooler, at around 50-66 Fahrenheit (10-19 Celsius). December is one of the coolest months of the year, and although there is some rainfall in this month, it is outside of the wettest period of the year, and is considered a great time to visit for a combination of cooler, weather, limited rainfall, and excellent birding at this time, with borel migrants complimenting the tropical residents.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent on all nights; all hotels have full-time electricity, wi-fi, hot water and en-suite facilities everywhere, and lowland hotels all have AC too.

PHOTOGRAPHY: There are good to very good photo opps at Cerro Azul at the feeders there, in the mountains at the feeders at Cielito Sur, and we will also visit several feeder sites around Gamboa too. Outside of the feeders the photography is more challenging, although Panama provides some of the easiet access to forest birds in the Americas, and there are usually plenty of on the fly opportunities away from feeders too.

WHEN TO GO:
Panama offers good year-round birding, and therefore birders often visit in all months of the year. The highest bird lists are gathered in September to April, when the resident tropical birds are joined by considerable numbers of migrant boreal species too, so this is typically when most birders visit. December to April represent the driest months of the year, and are therefore popular.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Panama. It must be valid for at least six months past the time of your scheduled return. A visa is NOT currently required for citizens of the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, and most Western European countries. For other nationalities, please contact your nearest Panamanian embassy or consulate for entry requirements. There are two further requirements for entering Panama: (1) that you can show you have sufficient funds for entering the country; usually considered to be $500 US Dollars or more. This can be proven by either carrying cash in excess of this amount, or carrying a recent bank statement, showing funds in excess of this amount are available to you. In reality, this is rarely asked of tourists entering Panama, but everyone on the tour should be prepared for this, in the case of the rare circumstance they may request proof of funds. (2) Proof of onward travel; please bring a print out of your return flight ticket home, (or onward to somewhere else), showing that you have an outbound flight from Panama at the end of your stay in the country.Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 12; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 13; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 13; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 13; tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; internal flights; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for any luggage porters used; international flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.