Panama: The Introtour

Panama is sometimes perceived as a little piece of the US in Central America. While that is true in some senses; it uses the American Dollar, and boasts a similarly high standard of living, meaning that good facilities are available almost everywhere; one look at the bird list betrays it location deep within the tropics of Central America. It is often referred to as the “Crossroads of the Americas”, and it is easy to understand why, as this is the meeting point of the great avifaunas of North and South America, so Panama provides an exciting mélange of species. While the tour is likely to see plenty of familiar North American birds, like warblers, vireos, buntings and orioles, which by this time will have dropped in for the winter; there will also be a cornucopia of exotic tropical birds to whet the appetite, such as toucans, trogons, antbirds, manakins, motmots, foliage-gleaners and honeycreepers.

We also visit a site for the monotypic family Sapayoa, which arguably offers the best chance in the world to pick up this bird family. Timed in October, this is a great time to visit Panama, as big bird lists are produced through the combination of both resident tropical species and migrant boreal birds, but also spans the peak of raptor migration through the Isthmus, when massive aerial waves of birds-of-prey pass through Panama. The tour focuses on the lowland jungles and hill forests of Central Panama, centered around the famous Canal Zone. While picking up a swathe of tropical birds, while staying in comfortable lodging, we will also have time to visit the Panama Canal too, for a snapshot of a remarkable piece of American history, and an extraordinary feat of engineering.

The tour has been planned to allow those with even limited vacation time to be able to join; four of the days on the tour span weekends, leaving only five working days required for the trip.

Day 1: Panama City. After arrival in Panama’s capital, you will be transferred to our nearby airport hotel for the night.

Flashy Red-legged Honeycreepers are regular visitors to feeders at Cerro Azul.
Flashy Red-legged Honeycreepers are regular visitors to feeders at Cerro Azul. (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Cerro Azul to Burbayar. We will be on the road pre-dawn, heading north into the mountain ranges east of Panama City. These are popular among Panama City-based birders as they provide an easy day trip, and are less than 20 miles (30km) from our airport hotel. Cerro Azul is an assortment of luxurious private residences (for which we will have special access to), and weekend homes, surrounded by great forest. The elevation ranges up to around 3300ft/1000m on some parts of the mountain. This is the perfect place to start an Introtour, as the bird list is not as intimidating as the lowland spots visited later on, so we will be handling a smaller potential species list than at some other sites. That is not to say that it will not be exciting; far from it, there are still plenty of birds to feast on there. Some excellent private hummingbird feeders will make some of their US equivalents seem underwhelming; ten or more species can turn up through the day, but lots of individuals always grace these feeders, and we will sift through Crowned Woodnymphs, Green Hermits, White-necked Jacobins, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds for signs of any of the rarer species, like Brown Violet-ear, Long-billed Starthroat, Rufous-crested Coquette, or the stunning Violet-capped Hummingbird, a local species for which these feeders are especially famed for. Hummingbirds are not the only visitors though, and we may also see our first Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers, or a Hepatic Tanager while on site too. During our morning at Cerro Azul we will not merely perch ourselves at the feeders though. While any photographers in the group might spend longer at these, if they wish, the rest of us will bird some easy trails and forest fringed roads, in search of mixed flocks, which can hold a glittering array of Technicolor tanagers, like Silver-throated, Bay-headed, Emerald, and Rufous-winged Tanagers, and gorgeous Scarlet-thighed and Blue Dacnises. We may also bump into the area’s signature bird too, the Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, which along with the Violet-capped Hummingbird are perhaps the two most sought-after species by visiting birders. Other tantalizing possibilities include Black-headed Antthrush, Red-capped Manakin, and Yellow-eared Toucanet. With a short trip to Cerro Azul it is impossible to know what we can see from the myriad possibilities, but it sure to be a siege of colorful birds, with numerous lifebirds for first timers to Central America.

The largest Jacamar, Great Jacamar is fairly regular in central Panama
The largest Jacamar, Great Jacamar is fairly regular in central Panama (Sam Woods)

After lunch at Cerro Azul, we will head further east to the hills, where our accommodation for the night is found, Burbayar Lodge. The precise plan for the afternoon will be kept flexible, depending on what we have found during the morning, although time-permitting, we may check out some lowland forest near Lake Bayano for birds like Cinnamon Woodpecker, Great Jacamar, Golden-collared Manakin, Bare-crowned Antbird, and Black Antshrike. We will spend a single night at Burbayar Lodge.

Day 3: Nusagandi to Gamboa. A morning will be spent in the Nusagandi area, where the inconspicuous Sapayoa, a strange, manakin-like, bird that occupies its own family, will be one of the major targets on the forest trails close Burbayar Lodge. Some of the other exciting possibilities within this foothill forest include the scarce Black-crowned Antpitta, Speckled Antshrike, Dull-mantled Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Stripe-throated and Song Wrens, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and Black-and-yellow Tanager. After lunch we will head to Gamboa in the Canal Zone, and settle in to Gamboa Rainforest Resort for the next three nights, in the heart of some of the most famous birding sites in all of Central America.

Cinnamon Woodpeckers are reasonably common in the Canal Zone
Cinnamon Woodpeckers are reasonably common in the Canal Zone (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Rainforest Discovery Center and the Pipeline Road. On this morning we’ll rise early, take a short drive to a newly established private reserve, the Rainforest Discovery Center. Our reason for visiting, is not only some great, open, and easy to bird, forest trails at ground level, but also access to one of the finest canopy towers in all of Central America. We’ll spend the first few hours at least of the morning up on the top of the 40-meter high observation tower, specifically designed for bird-watchers to see canopy birds in comfort. This is sure to be one of the highlights of the entire tour. In the early hours of the morning, the eye level canopies of the surrounding forest are alive with activity, while the skies above regularly host flocks of parrots, noisily waking up for the day; Red-lored, Mealy and Blue-headed Parrots are all not only possible, but likely. While the mere view itself is worth the entry alone, we will be there for much more; active feeding flocks might reveal the inconspicuous Green Shrike-Vireo, a carrot-billed Slate-colored Grosbeak, while beautiful butch Black-chested Jays or boldly-patterned Scaled Pigeons can use this time of day to emerge right at the treetops, birds that can be tricky to see from the forest floor. Colorful and striking birds will also be to the fore, as flashy tropical birds like toucans often emerge into the treetops at this time, with the possibility of three different species from the tower: the giant Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, as well as the distinctly smaller Collared Aracari, which roam the forest in small gangs. We will be keeping a close eye for spots of bright blue dotting the canopy, as these might reveal a gorgeous male Blue Cotinga, one of the most-desired, and most beautiful of all tropical birds in the area. There are so many birds in this area, it is difficult to know what we might see, and any two visits can be quite different, but some of the other avian stars could be White-necked Puffbird, Masked Tityra, Slaty-tailed Trogon or Scarlet-rumped and Yellow-rumped Caciques, and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

Colorful species like this Golden-hooded Tanager simply abound on this tour
Colorful species like this Golden-hooded Tanager simply abound on this tour (Sam Woods)

As the day warms the chances of raptors on the wing increases with exciting residents in this area including King Vulture and Black Hawk-Eagle, while migrant species could include kettles of hundreds to include birds, which are likely in the skies in the fall. These migrating flocks are likely include decent numbers of Turkey Vultures, and Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, among others, and will add a spectacle to an already dazzling bird tour. After being on the tower in the cooler hours of the early morning, once the days starts to hot up, and the bird activity up high drops off, we will descend back to the forest floor, where the avian possibilities are no less exciting. We will check out another set of hummingbird feeders, which, while usually less diverse (in terms of species numbers), than the mountains, are still worth a look for the chance of Blue-chested Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobins, Violet-bellied Hummingbirds, and Black-throated Mangoes. In the late morning we’ll explore the trails of the Rainforest Discovery Center, before moving on to the Pipeline Road in the afternoon; the latter is one of the most revered sites in Central America for lowland forest birds, and well deserves both our afternoon there, and another full day in the area subsequently too.

After lunch back at Gamboa Resort, which is one of the best places in the area for raptors, with Black Hawk-Eagle, and both Roadside and Short-tailed Hawks occurring there; we’ll head out to the famed Pipeline Road. In spite of its unattractive name, this road is actually very attractive, flanked by rich lowland forest, which is loaded with birds and animals. The road is within the well-protected Soberania National Park, so that only few vehicles are permitted there. Thus, we can walk this road with little fear of traffic, and mostly, nothing but the noise of the birds for company. It is a long-time favorite spot among Neotropical birders, as the road is long, and wide, cutting through extremely diverse forest, allowing easy forest viewing, and excellent forest birding for small and large groups alike.

Panama is one of the best places on Earth to find an army antswarm, and its attendant bird followers, like this Spotted Antbird
Panama is one of the best places on Earth to find an army antswarm, and its attendant bird followers, like this Spotted Antbird (Sam Woods)

One of the birding experiences for which the lowland jungles of Central and South America are famed for is army ant swarms. We will be hoping to walk into just such a swarm, as these can be very productive for birds too. The army ants roam the leaf litter in huge numbers, sweeping across it on the prowl for insect prey, which they overwhelm by their sheer numbers, which are in their tens of thousands. Thus, when a phalanx of these ants move into an area, insects flee at the head of the swarm, providing a bounty of food for ant-following birds. If we find a large group of foraging army ants, we’ll also be on the lookout for attendant birds like the dashing Ocellated Antbird, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, Northern Barred and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, or even a Broad-billed Motmot. Another night will be spent at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. At night there are exciting nightbirding possibilities in this area, for those not exhausted from the day’s excursions, with Spectacled and Mottled Owls and Common Potoo all occurring in the immediate area.

Day 5: Soberania National Park and The Panama Canal. Our base in Gamboa is close to all the birding areas within Soberania National Park, and our precise plan for this day will be flexible, and based around what we have seen and not seen up until this point. It is likely that further time will be spent along the Pipeline Road, within the park, as this is the kind of site where you would still be picking up new birds are a week there!

Tanagers, some of the most colorful and treasured tropical species, are a major feature on this tour
Tanagers, some of the most colorful and treasured tropical species, are a major feature on this tour (Sam Woods)

The forests within Soberania National Park hold too many birds to mention; more than 500 species have been listed in the park. All the following occur, and much more besides: White-tailed and Black-throated Trogons, Moustached Antwren, Black-breasted and Pied Puffbirds, Streak-chested Antpitta, Southern Bentbill, Cinnamon Becard, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and Purple-throated Fruitcrow. Along with these resident tropical species, we may also run into some familiar faces from North America, like Bay-breasted, Black-and-white and Chestnut-sided Warblers, or Northern Waterthrush. Among the extreme rarities in this area are Great Curassow, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo and Pheasant Cuckoo, although considerable luck would be needed to see any of these birds, even if they are seen here with some regularity. We may also run into some of the mammals in the park, like agoutis, peccaries, howler monkeys, White-faced Capuchins, Geoffroy’s Marmosets, or one of the two sloth species that are found there.

It will not all be forest birding though, as wetland sites such as the unappealingly named Ammo Dump Ponds, can provide wetland species too, like Least Grebe, Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, American Pygmy-Kingfisher, Rufescent Tiger-Heron or Lesser Kiskadee; while the open edges can be good for seedeaters, such as Ruddy-breasted and Variable.

We will also make time, during the quieter time of the day for bird activity, to visit one of the locks on the Panama Canal, so that you can see firsthand a site that occupies such a significant place in American history. There are sure to be birds here too, with Magnificent Frigatebird, and Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows all possible. One final night will be spent at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

A Collared Aracari greedily wolfs down fruit at Canopy Lodge
A Collared Aracari greedily wolfs down fruit at Canopy Lodge (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Gamboa to Canopy Lodge. After some final birding in the lowland jungles in the Gamboa area, focusing on areas, which will yield the most birds we are still looking for by this stage; we will depart west for the hills. Canopy Lodge is located within El Valle de Antón, a valley situated at around 1970ft/600m, making for a more pleasant climate compared to our past few days in the sweltering lowlands. For our time in the foothills of this area we will be based at the sensational Canopy Lodge, one of the best birding lodges not just in Panama, but anywhere. This has established itself as one of the most prestigious lodges for birders, with superbly designed, well thought out rooms, and a beautiful garden to boot, which is equipped with both excellent fruit feeders, and several hummingbird feeders also.

Anyone carrying a camera on the tour is sure to be happy at the stream of greedy birds dropping in to gorge on the fruit table, immediately beside the lodge. Regular visitors include species like Gray-headed Chachalaca, Collared Aracari, Rufous Motmot, Clay-colored Thrush, Crimson-backed Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, and Chestnut-headed Oropendola. The hummingbird feeders vary in terms of number and variety of species from day-to-day, although can attract birds like Stripe-throated Hermit, Violet-headed Hummingbird and Green Thorntail. The hummingbird feeders are not the only attraction for hummingbirds in the garden though, as plenty of flowers adorn the yard, many of which have been planted with these winged jewels in mind. Arguably our best chance of the dashing Rufous-crested Coquette will be by checking the various blooms around the beautiful lodge grounds; the same goes for the White-tipped Sicklebill, which has one of the most oddly-shaped of all hummingbird bills. Other birds we might find on this well-manicured property are gaudy Golden-hooded and Flame-rumped Tanagers, boisterous Boat-billed Flycatchers, fidgety Rufous-capped Warblers, furtive Orange-billed Sparrows, and the ubiquitous Bananaquit. Our next three nights will be spent in the wonderful surrounds of Canopy Lodge.

The El Valle area is among the best places on earth to look for Rufous-crested Coquette
The El Valle area is among the best places on earth to look for Rufous-crested Coquette (Sam Woods)

Days 7-8: El Valle de Antón. Two full days will spent checking out the varied locations in and around Canopy Lodge. The plan for this will be somewhat flexible, evolving as we go on, but we will walk some easy forest trails at a neighboring property, The Canopy Adventure, as well as right around the lodge too which has its own discrete set of trails, and combine this with birding in dryer forests and open country too to add to the eclectic mix of species available here. The beauty of Canopy Lodge is not only the lodging itself, but its location, which allows access to a number of distinct locations, varying in their avifauna. It will be an action-packed few days, offering up many species not possible during our time in the Canal Zone, like Black-crowned Antpitta, Tody Motmot, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. This area also offers up another shot at the rare and unpredictable Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo; if there is a local antswarm with this bird in attendance, the local guides will know, and we will race to the spot!

In drier forests close to the lodge a whole different suite of birds becomes possible, like Scrub Greenlet, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Brown-throated Parakeet, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Garden Emerald, Veraguan Mango, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, and Lance-tailed Manakin.

After two days of dipping into different different habitats, we are sure to have added a whole swathe of birds to our lists, and will have certainly benefitted from visiting some of the finest sites not only in all of Panama, but all of Central America.

Chestnut-headed Oropendolas are conspicuous visitors to the Canopy Lodge feeders
Chestnut-headed Oropendolas are conspicuous visitors to the Canopy Lodge feeders (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Canopy Lodge to Panama City. After breakfast and a final look at the lodge garden, we will hit the road for Panama City, arriving around 10AM to meet afternoon flights out.

Custom extensions can also be arranged to Canopy Camp in the lowlands of the Darien of the east. Please contact the office for further details.

OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Bocas del Toro Extension (5 days)

A short flight from Panama City brings you to Bocas del Toro in the extreme northwest of Panama, this province buts up against the eastern border of Costa Rica. For this extension you will be based on the idyllic island of Bastimentos. Its location offers some markedly different birding experiences from those offered on the main tour; a visit to Bird Island offers the sights of nesting Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies at close quarters; up to 6 different manakin species may be found, including White-collared and Golden-collared (the latter displays regularly close to the lodge); all American kingfishers are present-all 6 of them, from the tiny pygmy to the hulking Ringed; and treetops around the lodge offer some of the best chances of ghostly white Snowy Cotinga in all of Panama.

Golden-collared Manakin shows off its golden collar
Golden-collared Manakin shows off its golden collar (Sam Woods)

Visits to the mainland can also be made for birds of hill forest, like Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Ruddy Treerunner, Torrent Tyrannulet, American Dipper, and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, among a host of other species not possible, or unlikely, on the Introtour, like Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. But do not think you will only be looking for birds; this area is rich in all kinds of wildlife, with healthy populations of both two-toed and three-toed sloths, agoutis and monkeys. And those looking for night excursions for owls or potoos might also find themselves in the company of richly colored Green-and-black, and Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs. All 4 nights are spent at the lodge, in the company of excellent local bird guides, and transfers in and out of the lodge are arranged directly to and from Panama City. Visits to this lodge can be arranged either before or after the main tour, at your convenience.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE:  This will range from hot and humid in the lowlands of the Canal Zone to cool and pleasant in parts of the mountains around El Valle de Antón. Rain can occur at any time during this tropical trip, although usually comprises of short, heavy bursts during the afternoon. If opting for an add-on to Boca del Toro, the climate at the lodge is hot and humid, although there are sometimes cooling sea breezes too. The visit to the mainland and the hill forests can be decidedly cool.

DIFFICULTY:  Mostly easy; the trails and tracks in the Canal Zone are easy and offer few physical challenges; in the mountains we may take some slightly steeper trails, although these are only steep on short sections. The highest elevation of the tour is around 3600ft/1100m, and so altitude issues are not going to be a problem here.

ACCOMMODATION:  All accommodations are of a very good or excellent standard, with the exception of one night at Burbayar Lodge, which is a more rustic lodge, with only short-term periods of electricity provided by a generator. The location in the heart of beautiful foothill forest though, has made this a popular choice for birding visitors.