Panama: The Introtour

This is a Birding Tour, and seeing birds will be the primary focus. Photography is welcome as long as it doesn’t interfere with the birding, and this tour is quite good for casual photography, especially at the feeders at Cerro Azul and on the Extension. We will also look at other wildlife if anything is around. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for tours that are more photography-oriented, you should check out our Panama: Birding with a Camera® Tour (BwC).

Panama is only several hours flying time from North America but is located firmly within the tropics. Its diversity is legendary, and with over 1000 bird species Panama even outcompetes Costa Rica in terms of this. Combine this with only short travel times between sites, and the ability to visit them out of one fantastic base, and you can quickly understand the appeal of this popular trip. Furthermore, the country also offers an easy window into an array of tropical bird groups, with families like trogons, toucans, puffbirds, motmots, hummingbirds and tanagers all well represented on this tour. The main tour spends it time in the diverse lowland tropical forests of the Canal Zone, where Panama offers some of the best and brightest of this even for a firstcomer to this activity. Easy forest birding, lots of dazzling tropical bird groups, well connected with North America, with comfortable accommodations to bird in, this is a natural fit for not only people looking for another tropical hit, but also for those looking to step into these heady waters for the first time. The main tour fits neatly into 8 days, utilizing weekends so that even working folks will have an opportunity to join this tour, which focuses on the legendary Canal Zone, just outside Panama City. Iconic sites like Soberania National Park and Pipeline Road sit alongside the Panama Canal, less than an hour out of the capital. However, the birding in Panama City is also surprisingly good, and we shall not ignore that either with visits to the globally important, shorebird rich, tidal flats of Coste del Este, as well as the inclusion of the wonderful Metropolitan Park, which showcases how wonderful tropical wildlife can thrive even in a modern city. Aside from the first and last nights in Panama City, all the tour nights will be spent in a resort in Gamboa, located right in the rainforest, within short drives of the other key locations. We will not ignore the Panama Canal either, which will be visited on one afternoon, where we will get to view the goings from overhead at the famous viewing platform at Miraflores Locks.


For those who have more time to spare, we also have a short extension into the Chiriqui Highlands of Western Panama, for a real contrast in birding styles and bird species. Here, cloudforest cloaks the sides of a volcano, and offers a swathe of different species, including one of the best birds on the planet, the incomparable Resplendent Quetzal, as well as mountain-gems, different tanager and toucan species that prefer these higher forests. Although higher up, this is also easy birding, and physically easy, like the main tour. This is a relaxed Panama tour.

Talamanca Hummingbird is a restricted range species found in western Panama
Talamanca Hummingbird is a restricted range species found in western Panama (Sam Woods)

The order in which sites are visited may vary depending on conditions on the ground.

Day 1: Arrival in Panama City. After arrival in Panama’s conspicuous capital, the tour will begin with an evening meeting for dinner and to plot plans for the next day. There is no birding planned on this day, so feel free to arrive at any time before dinner. A single night will be spent in Panama City. For those joining the pre-tour extension to the Chiriqui Highlands, this is the final day of the Extension.

Barred Antshrike can be found around the Ammo Dump Ponds
Barred Antshrike can be found around the Ammo Dump Ponds (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Parque Natural Metropolitano to Gamboa. We will start our birding adventure right in Panama City, at the wonderful wildlife refuge of Metropolitan Park. Here, we will start to familiarize ourselves with Panama’s abundant tropical species, like Squirrel Cuckoo, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Whooping Motmot, and Crimson-backed Tanager. We will also seek out one of the scarcer birds there, such as the striking Lance-tailed Manakin, near endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet, and retiring Rosy Thrush-Tanager. During the boreal winter (i.e. November-March) these beautiful tropical residents are supplemented by a considerable number of boreal breeding birds that spend the winter in Panama, like Yellow-throated Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, Summer Tanager, and Golden-winged, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers. After a morning there, we will drive to our rainforest resort in Gamboa, our comfortable base for the next 5 nights, less than an hour away. In the afternoon, we will begin our exploration of this rich area near Panama’s famous Canal. Five nights will be spent in Gamboa.

White-necked Puffbird is the most frequently encountered of Panama's puffbirds
White-necked Puffbird is the most frequently encountered of Panama's puffbirds (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Rainforest Discovery Center and Summit Ponds. Our first site inside Soberania National Park will be the canopy observation tower at the Rainforest Discovery Center. A short time after dawn we will make our way up the stairs to this 100ft-high platform above the rainforest canopy. This will give us a chance to soak in a dramatic view, but also birds that frequent the treetops, such as Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, Collared Aracari, Brown-hooded, Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrots, Scaled Pigeon, Green Shrike-Vireo, and Scarlet-rumped Cacique. We will also be on the lookout for the many raptors that roam above the forest here, like Gray-headed and Double-toothed Kites, King Vulture or Short-tailed Hawk. One of the regular scarcer birds up there is the dazzling Blue Cotinga, a stunning shade of electric blue that words cannot adequately describe. After lunch back at our resort, we shall visit somewhere very different in the afternoon, the local Summit Ponds, that hold Boat-billed Heron and Green and Amazon Kingfishers on the ponds themselves, while Jet and White-bellied Antbirds lurks in the scrubby parts of the forest, as does Yellow-billed Cacique. Golden-fronted Greenlet, Yellow-backed Oriole and the gorgeous Golden-collared Manakin are all also regulars on site. Another night will be spent at our comfortable Gamboa base.

Cerro Azul is Tanager Heaven
Cerro Azul is Tanager Heaven (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Los Altos de Cerro Azul. Most of this tour is spent in the lowland forests and other habitats in the bird rich Canal Zone, just to the northeast of Panama City. However, on this day a cooler, higher site will be visited in the foothills of the mountains, east of the city. Even though this is the longest drive of the tour, it is only two hours away. The rise in altitude, even to only 800m/2620ft, brings a vastly different bird list into play, with hummingbirds and tanagers the outstanding groups at this site. One of the highlights will be a visit to a set of private feeders, where the Floridian owners keep their hummingbird feeders well-stocked, and put out food for other birds too, such as Rufous Motmot, Bay-headed Tanager, and Red-legged, Green and Shining Honeycreepers. The regular hummingbirds that amass at the feeders include Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, the ubiquitous White-necked Jacobin, Crowned Woodnymph and the occasional Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. Flowers in the area often also attract the resplendent Rufous-crested Coquette. Along with the birds, monkeys might take advantage of this garden feast, Geoffroy’s Tamarin also being a regular yard animal there. Away from the feeders, we will be on the lookout for mixed feeding flocks for species like Black-and-yellow, Rufous-winged, Emerald and Speckled Tanagers. Some of the rarer species in the area include the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and striking Yellow-eared Toucanet. After a full day in this extremely different area from the rest of the tour, we shall arrive back at our Gamboa base in the evening.

Red-legged Honeycreeper beside the busy feeders at Cerro Azul
Red-legged Honeycreeper beside the busy feeders at Cerro Azul (Sam Woods)

Days 5-6: Soberania National Park (Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Ponds) and the Panama Canal. On the way into Soberania National Park, and Pipeline Road, lies the Ammo Dump Ponds, one of Panama’s most popular birding sites, where Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Wattled Jacanas, Rufescent Tiger-Herons, Purple Gallinules, Greater Anis, and Snail Kites are all regular around the wetland. The scattered trees that border its edges are home to Gray-headed Chachalacas, Barred Antshrikes, Panama Flycatchers and Scrub Greenlets. In the grassy areas finch-like birds gather, like Ruddy-breasted and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters. After the Ammo Dump Ponds, we enter one of Central America’s most lauded birding sites, Pipeline Road. There, an easy walking, flat road passes through rich rainforest which hosts a glut of trogons, with 5 species present, and possible in a single morning (Slaty-tailed, Black-throated, Black-tailed, Gartered, and White-tailed Trogons), Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots are regularly encountered, as is Streak-chested Antpitta, Fasciated and Black-crowned Antshrikes, Checker-throated Stipplethroat, Keel-billed Toucan, White-whiskered, Black-breasted and Pied Puffbirds, Red-capped and Golden-collared Manakins, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Southern Bentbill, Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-bellied and White-breasted Wood-Wrens, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. With any luck, we will locate a swarm of army ants, which can attract predatory birds like Bicolored, Spotted and Ocellated Antbirds, which prey on the other insects fleeing the ants. The area is also rich in mammals, and sloths are regularly found, along with agoutis, howler monkeys and capuchins. Occasionally too, the cute Panamanian Night-Monkey may be found sleeping in a hollow. With two full days in this area, we will get more than an introductory feel of this fantastic site. One one afternoon we shall visit the observation deck at Miraflores Locks, to get a birdseye view of the Panama Canal. The nights will be spent in nearby Gamboa.

Three species of motmot can be found along Pipeline Road
Three species of motmot can be found along Pipeline Road (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Gamboa to Panama City; Tocumen Marsh and Coste del Este. On our final morning in the area around Gamboa, we shall choose which of the myriad local birding sites to visit, based on what we have not seen, at the time. After lunch in Gamboa, we will move back to Panama City for a final night, spending some time doing wetland sites on the outskirts of the city for our final afternoon. At Tocumen Marsh, wetland birds abound, with over a dozen species of herons found there, including Cocoi and Bare-throated Tiger Herons. Raptors are represented by Pearl and White-tailed Kites, Savanna Hawk, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and Yellow-headed Caracaras, while freshwater shorebirds like Solitary Sandpipers and Southern Lapwing can also be found. This open country site also holds Striped Cuckoo, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Panama Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Plain-breasted Spinetail, and Pied Water-Tyrant. Nearby, the shores of the Upper Panama Bay hold vast numbers (10,000s) of shorebirds during the boreal winter, where Wilson’s, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandspipers, Marbled Godwits, Red Knots, and Short-billed Dowitchers all winter in good numbers, and Black Skimmers, Gull-billed, Royal, Sandwich, and Elegant Terns are all regularly found too, along with Tricolored Herons, Common Black-Hawks, Straight-billed Woodcreepers and Saffron Finches. The final night will be spent in a good airport hotel in Panama City.

Sloths are regularly encountered in the Canal Zone
Sloths are regularly encountered in the Canal Zone (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Departure from Panama City.There is no birding planned for this day, with a hotel shuttle provided for international transfers out.

Keel-billed Toucan is wonderfully abundant on this tour
Keel-billed Toucan is wonderfully abundant on this tour (Sam Woods)

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Chiriqui Highlands Extension: Quetzals and Mountain-Gems (5 days)

The Extension offers the incredible Resplendent Quetzal
The Extension offers the incredible Resplendent Quetzal (Sam Woods)

The cloudforests of the highlands of western Panama are markedly different from the lowland forests of the Canal Zone. These will be the focus for this short extension. These forests are home to Resplendent Quetzal, and a variety of hummingbirds like White-throated Mountain-Gem, Fiery-throated Hummingbird and Violet Sabrewing. On top of that are a series of highland specialties, like Black Guan, Black-faced Solitaire, Flame-faced Warbler, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher and Yellow-thighed Brushfinch among many others. We shall also visit the foothills on the way up there, which can turn up other species like Lesson’s Motmots, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Orange-collared Manakin too. Like the main tour, this is easy going birding, which is not physically challenging.

Day 1: Arrival in Panama City. After arrival in Panama’s conspicuous capital, the tour will begin with an evening meeting for dinner and to plot plans for the next day. There is no birding planned on this day, so feel free to arrive at any time before dinner. A single night will be spent in Panama City.

Birding the hills above David (on the Extension) can yield the dazzling Fiery-billed Aracari
Birding the hills above David (on the Extension) can yield the dazzling Fiery-billed Aracari (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Panama City to the Chiriqui Highlands via Paraiso. In the morning, we will take the earliest flight from Panama City to the western city of David, a mere 75 minutes away. While the following days will be spent in cloudforests higher up, on this day we will work our way uphill and bird the foothills near the town of Paraiso at a lower elevation of 900m/2950ft. This will give us a chance at some species unlikely/not possible either on the main tour, or over the following days on the extension, notably birds like, Crested Guan, Charming Hummingbird, Lesson’s Motmot, Fiery-billed Aracari, White-crowned Parrot, Brown-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Black-hooded Antshrike, the endemic Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner, Orange-collared Manakin, and Spot-crowned Euphonia. The scarce Veraguan Mango may also be found during this time. After most of the day in this foothill area, we will continue uphill to our cloudforest ecolodge in Cerro Punta, Guadalupe, located at an elevation of 2200m/7220ft. Three nights will be spent in a cloudforest lodge close to Volcan Baru National Park, and the famous Los Quetzales Trail.

Scintillant Hummingbird rests in the cloudforest
Scintillant Hummingbird rests in the cloudforest (Sam Woods)

Days 3-4: Volcan Baru. In contrast to the main tour, the extension will be spent in cloudforests, with a markedly different set of birds. One of the key sites we shall visit is Sendero Los Quetzales, named after its most famous resident, the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal, one of the world’s must-see birds. Other highland specialties that we shall be seeking include Black Guan, Prong-billed Barbet, Northern Emerald Toucanet, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous Wren, Black-faced Solitaire, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Flame-throated Warbler, Large-footed Finch, Yellow-thighed Brushfinch, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia. Hummingbirds are also conspicuous in this area, with these species possible at feeders on site or nearby garden flowers: Scintillant Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewing, Talamanca Hummingbird, and White-throated Mountain-Gem. Many of these are regional endemic species, confined to the highlands of western Panama and southeastern Costa Rica, and all of them are restricted to the highlands, and therefore not possible on the main tour. The nights will be spent in an ecolodge near Volcan Baru National Park.

Northern Emerald Toucanet is a highland species found on the Extension
Northern Emerald Toucanet is a highland species found on the Extension (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Chiriqui Highlands to David and Panama City. In the late afternoon/evening we will fly back to Panama City for the final night at an airport hotel. Before then, we will have most of the day to either continue birding the cloudforests higher up or search the foothill sites lower down near David for whatever we are still looking for before our flight back to the capital. This is the first day of the main tour, which is an arrival day for those not joining this pre-tour extension.

Flame-faced Warbler can be found along the Quetzal Trail on the Extension
Flame-faced Warbler can be found along the Quetzal Trail on the Extension (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy to Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically start between 5:00 and 5:30am. On some days there will be some downtime after lunch. The travel times on the main tour are short, with no drives exceeding two hours in length. There are two hour drives on the day trip to Cerro Azul; on all other days of the main tour the travel times are an hour or less. On the Chiriqui Highlands Extension, the drives may be up to 3 hours on two of these days, traveling between the highlands and David. There is one short flight on the extension, of around 75 minutes. The drives are almost all on good, paved roads. This is not a tough tour by any means.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. You can expect to walk up to around 4 miles (6 km) per day, at a slow pace.

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). The timing of these tours is always timed for the driest time of year (December-April).

ACCOMMODATION: Good on all nights, a good airport hotel and rainforest resort are the only hotels used on the main tour, and a good cloudforest lodge is used on the extension. Only two hotels are used on the main tour, with one extra lodge used on the extension. This means there is minimal unpacking required on this tour. All accomodations used have full time electricity, hot water, en-suite facilities, and Wifi Internet. For the hotels in Panama City and Gamboa, which are located in lowland areas, all rooms have AC.

PHOTOGRAPHY:The primary purpose of this tour is to have all the clients see as many birds as possible and seeing the birds will always take priority over getting photos. We do welcome photography, but the tour leader will not allow photographers to move in front of the group for a photo until everyone has had a good look at the bird. All of our guides are also amateur photographers, so they are happy to help you out within the limitations given here.

On this tour, the photographic opportunities are quite good at the feeders at Cerro Azul on the main tour, and also can be good on the extension to the Chiriqui Highlands. Although much of the main tour is in tropical forest, which can be challenging for bird photography, Panama is one of the best destinations for this.

WHEN TO GO:Panama offers good year-round birding, and therefore birders often visit in all months of the year. December to April are the driest 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.

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. Currently (as of May 2021), a negative Covid test (PCR or Antigen test) is required for entry, even if vaccinated. This can be taken at the airport on arrival in Panama City for an extra fee (around $50).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 7 (on the main tour), to the night of day 11 if taking the Chiriqui Extension; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 8 (if on the main tour only), to breakfast on day 12 if taking the extension; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 7 (if only doing the main tour), to evening of day 11 if taking the extension; one airport transfer (by hotel shuttle) per person, on the designated arrival and departure days; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7 (on the main tour), to afternoon of day 11 if taking the extension; 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. Any payments for Covid tests are not included in the tour fee.