Panama: Crossroads of the Americas
Sandwiched between Costa Rica and Colombia, Panama is of country of varied geography and a rich and diverse avifauna, a true crossroads of the Americas. In the west it has a distinctly Central American flavor, tinged the further east you go with South American tones. Even for those who have visited Costa Rica previously there is much more on offer in Panama, especially in the central and eastern parts of this long country.
Our Panama tours take the form of three separate itineraries: first the main tour to the country is our Panama Introtour, in the mold of our other popular introtours, with a good overview of the Canal Zone in Central Panama, visiting the world famous Pipeline Road, the Canopy Tower, and the bird-rich middle elevation forests around Canopy Lodge near picturesque El Valle, among other sites in the middle of the country. Second, we offer the Chasing Chiriquí Endemics tour, covering the western highlands of the Chiriquí region, which comes loaded with a bounty of mountain endemics shared between this region of Panama and the highlands of Costa Rica. This occurs before our Panama Introtour, and can be taken as a stand-alone tour or in conjunction with the Introtour. Finally, we offer The Darien Extension to a new lodge in the Darien lowlands of the east, an area that offers up species more typical of South America, and not found in other parts of the country, along with some juicy Darien endemics. The first two tours can be taken as stand-alone trips, while the Darien Extension is offered after the Panama Introtour. And all three can be combined into an All of Panama tour for those who want to experience the whole of this amazing country.
These tours are timed for when northward-bound migrants (such as warblers, vireos and tanagers) should be present in peak numbers in Panama, combining with the myriad of tropical species present for an eclectic mix of birds. This also means you can do any of these tours and not miss out on the spring back home in the US and Canada, which will be picking just as you land back home. They are also timed at the very end of the windy dry season, when the winds will have died down but the rains not yet started in full force, and the breeding for many of the resident species will be underway.
PANAMA TOUR 1: The Panama Introtour (Central Panama)
This is the “classic” Panama tour, visiting the rich Canal Zone of Central Panama, the middle elevations of forest around the scenic El Valle, and finally taking in some further afield sites at the edge of eastern Panama. If there is one tour to take in Panama, this is the one. This tour can be taken by both people who have never experienced the tropics for the chance to catch up with those classical tropical families such as tinamous, trogons, manakins, antbirds, and antpittas, and also by those who have visited the tropics previously; the birding here is just that good! On this tour we also search for some of the most wanted birds in the region: if you want a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, then this is the place to go! Other high priority birds possible on this tour include the enigmatic Sapayoa, from a monotypic family, and the possibility of Tody Motmot, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Bare-crowned Antbird, Violet-capped Hummingbird, and (arguably the crown jewel of Central American birds), Black-crowned Antpitta. This can be combined with either the Chasing Chiriquí Endemics tour, which runs immediately before this one, and/or The Darien Extension.
Day 1: Arrival in Panama City & transfer to the Pipeline Road. After a morning arrival in Panama City you will either meet up with the group at the airport in Panama City, or be transferred to the group in the Pipeline Road area (two hours away), depending on the time of your arrival. The afternoon will be spent birding the superb Pipeline Road, offering such tantalizing treats as Streak-chested Antpitta and Slaty-tailed Trogon, among a long long list of possibilities. The next three nights will be spent nearby the famous Canopy Tower. (Note that Day 1 of this tour is the same day as Day 6 of the Chiriqui Endemics tour, for those taking both).
Days 2-3: Canopy Tower, The Panama Canal & Pipeline Road. The next two days will be spent exploring the world famous Canopy Tower, which affords amazing views of the surrounding canopy and what lives within it, and the easy forest birding found along the Pipeline Road within Soberania National Park. Early mornings are best spent at a vantage point overlooking the rainforest canopy, looking for species rarely seen from the ground, such as glowing Blue Cotingas, diminutive Brown-capped Tyrannulets, flocks of tanagers moving through at eye-level, and up close and personal looks at fly-by parrots. We will be on the lookout too for mammals, as this area holds Mantled Howler, Geoffroy’s Spider-Monkeys, and two species of sloth.
Back at ground level the Pipeline Road provides easy access to some of the richest forests in the Americas. Among the many highlights we’ll search for are the antswarms that roam the leaf litter and attract an attendant horde of birds, and Pipeline Road is among the best places in the world to experience this phenomenon. If we track down some swarming army ants we have a good chance to find Bicolored, Spotted, and Ocellated Antbirds, Plain-brown and Black-striped Woodcreepers, Broad-billed Motmots, and White-whiskered Puffbirds, or maybe even one of the rarer attendees like Ruddy Woodcreeper, or perhaps even the much sought after Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. Another rarity possible in the area includes Agami Heron lurking in one of the narrow creeks that cross the road, or the furtive Pheasant Cuckoo calling in the dense vegetation. Manakins feature heavily at Pipeline, with the cracking and popping Golden-collared, moonwalking Red-capped, and Blue-crowned all possible. Various other uncommon, sought-after species we’ll be looking for include Speckled Mourner, Black-breasted Puffbird, and Russet-winged Schiffornis. And a myriad of flycatchers, antbirds, tanagers, and furnariids will ensure that we almost always have something to look at in between. In among the tropical birds we should also keep our eyes open for migrants moving through, which at this time should be sporting spring colors; birds such as Chestnut-sided, Golden-winged and Bay-breasted Warblers, Philadelphia and Yellow-throated Vireos or Scarlet Tanagers may be encountered passing through en-route north.
Day 4: Canal Zone to El Valle. After another morning in the Canal Zone, focusing on whatever we’re still looking for, we will load up and head to our next destination, El Valle de Anton, to the west of Panama City. Our base for the following three nights is a legend in its own right: Canopy Lodge, famous as one of the best birding lodges in Earth, and rightly so. The rooms are amazingly spacious and well designed, they have a fully stocked library, and the grounds and feeders are superb. We should arrive in time to take in some of the frenzied feeder action: Crimson-backed Tanager, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Collared Aracari, Thick-billed, Fulvous-vented, and Tawny-capped Euphonias, and Rufous Motmot, among others, are all regular, and in recent times a mob of Gray-headed Chachalacas have also taken an interest in them too! The gardens are also a haven for hummingbirds with Bronze-tailed and White-vented Plumeleteers, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, and Rufous-crested Coquette all turning up in the garden regularly.
Days 5-6: El Valle. This picturesque highland town is nestled within the crater of an extinct volcano, with rich volcanic soils providing a wonderful environment for plant life – colorful blooms adorn the town, and patches of middle-elevation forest around the town provide important habitat for some cool highly-desired birds. There are a number of sites around this area, all within easy reach of the Canopy Lodge, our luxurious base for exploring the area. Our first priority will be stop in at the nearby Canopy Adventure. While most tourists come here to zipline though the forest, our main target will be one of the Holy Grails of Neotropical birding: the best chance of seeing Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in the world. The guides and rangers from the Canopy Lodge track the ants, and the cuckoo, regularly; if there is one around, they will find it. This will be our number one target if they have been seen of late, and they are most likely to be encountered at an antswarm that may also attract Broad-billed Motmot (the indicator species for a swarm in the area), Barred Forest-Falcon, or various woodcreepers. The same small forest reserve also has a number of know territories of the odd Tody Motmot. If there are some blooms in the area we will also check them for White-tailed Emerald, an erratic species that drops in from time to time. Other species that this area holds include Sunbittern, Black-crowned Antpitta, Orange-bellied Trogon, Spot-crowned Barbet, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Black-and-yellow Tanager, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.
Day 7: Canopy Lodge to Cerro Jefe. After a final morning in the El Valle area we’ll head back east, crossing Panama City and arriving in the tranquil wooded hill of Cerro Azul. In the afternoon we will drop in at a set of local feeders, where the retired birders have created a haven for hummingbirds and fruit eating birds. The hummer feeders have recorded a phenomenal 19 species over the years, with the regulars being Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Green and Stripe-throated Hermits, and Snowy-bellied Humingbird. However, we will be keeping a close out eye out for the endemic Violet-capped Hummingbird, as these feeders represent the single best place to find it in the world. Any photographers are sure to go crazy at the opportunities to get extreme close ups of Red-legged Honeycreepers, Bay-headed, Highland Hepatic, and Plain-colored Tanagers. The seed feeders also attract Variable Seedeaters too.
Day 8: Cerro Azul & Cerro Jefe. This hill east of Panama offers some scarce species typically found further east in the Darien, but which here are right at the western edges of their range. One of these, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, is perhaps more often found here than anywhere else, and we will certainly be trying to track it down. Other rarities that are sometimes found in the area include Yellow-eared Toucanet, Black-crowned Antpitta, Brown-billed Scythebill, Rufous-winged Tanager, and Black-headed Brush-Finch. We will search for White-ruffed Manakin, Black-throated Trogon, and Cinnamon Woodpecker, and some rarer, skulky species like Black-eared Wood-Quail and Tawny-faced Quail that will require some luck to find.
Day 9: Nusagandi and Bayano. We will depart Cerro Azul early and drive further east to Nusagandi, where we will spend the morning tracking down a very unique species (in its own family!), the odd Sapayoa. Although this day offers the toughest terrain of the tour it could be worth it for the chance of this species and others, including Dull-mantled Antbird, Speckled Antshrike, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker or another shot at Black-crowned Antpitta. Flock birding at Nusagandi can often be very productive, and we’ll keep an eye out for specialties like Sulphur-rumped Tanager, Spot-crowned Barbet, Stripe-throated Wren, and Song Wren. Later in the day we will drop down into some drier forest near Lago Bayano where we will search the Heliconia thickets for Bare-crowned Antbird, and search flocks for Black Antshrike, White-eared Conebill, and Black-billed Flycatcher, all easier to find here than anywhere else in Panama. Great Jacamar and lekking Golden-collared Manakins can also be found here, along with Royal Flycatcher and Pale-bellied Hermit. At the end of this long, last day we will head back into Panama City for the night.
Day 10: Departure/Begin The Darien Extension. For those who cannot stay for yet more Panamanian birds, the hotel will provide a transfer to the airport, while those who are continuing will leave the capital early for a two hour drive east to the San Francisco reserve. (Please note: Day 10 of this tour is day 1 of The Darien Extension).
PANAMA TOUR 2: Chasing Chiriquí Endemics (Western Panama)
This tour takes in one of the best highland birding sites in Central America, rivaling or surpassing even the most revered Costa Rican locations for reliability in terms of finding the highly sought-after endemics of the Chiriquí Highlands. As well as the chance to catch up with the incredible Resplendent Quetzal, there is a horde of other endemics on offer from Black Guan to Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher to Flame-throated Warbler to Golden-browed Chlorphonia and Black-faced Solitaire…
Day 1: Panama City. After arrival in the financial hub of Latin America, we will transfer you to a hotel in the city for the night, where we will meet in the hotel lobby in the evening (7pm) for a welcome dinner.
Day 2: Metropolitan Nature Park to Boquete. Most of the morning will be spent birding a diverse park right in the heart of Panama City, where we hope to find some special species like the country endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and White-bellied Antbird. This is perhaps the best place on the tour to find the odd Lance-tailed Manakin. Along with these rarities are a host of more widespread tropical species like Keel-billed Toucan, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Whooping Motmot, Crimson-backed Tanager, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Golden-fronted and Scrub Greenlets. Birds may not be the only animals on the agenda as cute looking groups of Geoffroy’s Tamarins also roam the park. In the late morning, when it becomes too hot and the bird activity slows somewhat we will load up in our vehicle and head out west, into the highlands of Chiriquí province, where we may arrive in time for some late afternoon birding around our comfortable lodge for the night: Finca Lerida.
Day 3: Finca Lerida to Los Quetzales. In the morning we go after what could very well be one of the highlights of this Panama tour, or all three of them put together. This tour is timed for when the rich forest surrounding the coffee groves echoes with the other-worldly sound of Three-wattled Bellbird, as the males give their loud, far-carrying, and extremely distinctive “bonking” calls, while their famed three-wattles dangle oddly from their faces in display. That will not be the only celebrity bird we will be looking for, as this working coffee plantation and forest reserve also holds an area of cloud forest where male Resplendent Quetzals can often be found, often touted as one of the “Best Birds on Earth” for very good reason. The local guides track their movements, and so if one is around, we have a great chance of finding it. There are other possibilities on the grounds including the Chiriquí endemic Dark Pewee, Golden-crowned Chlorophonia, Yellowish Flycatcher, Blue-throated Toucanet, and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. In the afternoon we will move over to the west side of Volcan Barú, and check into the scenic surrounds of Los Quetzales Ecolodge and Spa. We should have some time on the afternoon to pick up birds right on their grounds, where the hummer feeders draw in such stunners as White-throated Mountain-Gem, Scintillant Hummingbird and Violet Sabrewing, while the fruit feeders can attract Silver-throated Tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches, among others. The surroundings of the lodge may also hold some Chiriquí highland specialties like Yellow-winged Vireo or Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. The next two nights will be spent within the cabins at Los Quetzales Ecolodge and Spa.
Days 4-5: Volcan Barú National Park. The next two days will be spent within this scenic park, walking a quiet, wide open trail that offers arguably the best cloud forest birding in Central America. A whole host of highland species await, including ethereal-sounding Black-faced Solitaire, Black-cheeked Warbler, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Ruddy Treerunner, charismatic Collared Redstarts, Flame-throated Warbler, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager. Some of the more elusive species that we’ll search for include Buffy Tuftedcheek, Silvery-throated Jay, the unique Zeledonia (Wrenthrush), Ochraceous Pewee, and Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. In addition to the gobs of highland specialties we’ll have another shot at Resplendent Quetzal. The first night will be spent at Los Quetzales, while in the afternoon of the second day we will drive a few hours to the city of David for the night. Just outside David we will make several short stops to try to track down any flowering Coral Bean Trees and their attendant Veraguan Mangos, a species practically endemic to Panama.
Day 6: Departure/Begin the Panama Introtour. We’ll leave the western part of Panama on a morning flight out of David to Panama City. Those not joining the Panama Introtour will finish the tour in Panama City Airport, where they can connect with flights home, while those joining the Panama Introtour will head to the Canal Zone, and spend the afternoon in the Pipeline Road area. The night will be spent near the Canopy Tower. (Please note: This day is day 1 of the Panama Introtour).
The Darien Extension(Eastern Panama)
The Darien often evokes thoughts of untamed forests, untouched expanses of bird-filled wilderness, and some of the best birding to be found on the planet. And for good reason – some of the largest tracts of pristine forest in the Americas survive in the Darien, and they are home to a bounty of birds typically ranging further south into the continent of South America. There are also a group of other species that can only be found in the Darien in eastern Panama and in inaccessible parts of Colombia, making them functional endemics not possible elsewhere. Such high-profile targets as Black Oropendola, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, and White-headed Wren should feature, and it is also arguably the best place to track down the Panamanian endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet.
Day 1: Panama City to San Francisco Reserve. We’ll leave Panama City early for the Darien, stopping en-route at the San Francisco Reserve a couple of hours from the city. This small private reserve is owned and maintained by Franciscan monks, and protects a picturesque area of tropical hill forest. It is a spectacular place for hummingbirds, with Snowy-bellied, Sapphire-throated, and Blue-chested Hummingbirds, Rufous-breasted, Long-tailed, and Stripe-throated Hermits, and White-vented Plumeleteers all regular. The streamside vegetation can hold Royal Flycatchers, and the forest is home to the rare Central American Pygmy Owl, Brownish Twistwing, and the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet. The fairly open forests here make for a good place to look for puffbirds, often hard to find in denser, humid forests, and Pied, Black-chested, and Barred Puffbirds all occur here. In the late morning, once the day heats up we will continue our journey to the new Canopy Camp, in the lowlands of The Darien, our home for the next three nights. In the afternoon we will take a short trip out to try and track down White-headed Wren and Gray-cheeked Nunlet.
Days 2-6: The Darien. We’ll spend all of our time at the new Canopy Camp, where our main targets will be those species whose ranges don’t make it as far west as the areas visited on the other tours. Foremost among these will be actual Darien endemics, such as Black Oropendola, and rare species that are hard or impossible to find anywhere else, like Double-banded Graytail. But there’ll be a host of other birds to look at, including noisy White-headed Wrens, skulking Black Antshrikes, Black-tailed Trogon, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Spectacled Parrotlet, One-colored Becard, Golden-headed Manakin, and Rufous-winged Antwren. We’ll also search for some wetland birds not found further to the west, among them Cocoi and Capped Herons, and Black-capped Donacobius.
Day 7: The Darien to Panama City. After a final morning of birding at the Canopy Camp we’ll make our way back west to Panama City, perhaps stopping off again at the San Francisco Reserve or Lago Bayano, depending on what we’re still looking for. The night will be spent in Panama City.
Day 8: Departure.
CLIMATE: Varying from very hot and humid in the middle of the day in Panama City and the lowlands, to chilly at night and early in the morning in the western highlands. Some rain will be expected, but heavy sustained rain is unlikely.
DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy, with flat, wide trails at most locations. A few trails in western Panama are steeper, but only of moderate difficulty, while the trails at Nusagandi are narrow and at times moderately steep, but not exceptionally difficult.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent throughout. The Darien extension will stay in a luxurious, African-style tented camp, while the rest of the tour will stay in high quality lodges and hotels.