Panama: The Introtour

Pipeline Road, Panama Canal, Quetzals, and eastern Panama

The Isthmus of Panama is a physical bridge between North America and South America, and this is also reflected in the country’s bird community, which has elements from both regions. Panama changes markedly from west to east, so the country can be divided neatly into three main birding regions: the highlands of western Panama, the lowlands and foothills of Central Panama, (where the famous Pipeline Road is located), and eastern Panama. This 10-day tour visits each of these regions. Panama sits entirely within the tropics, where the world’s greatest diversity can be found, a fact that is illustrated by Panama’s giant bird list: Almost 1000 species have been recorded there, more than the USA, which is 130 times larger (Panama is smaller than the US state of South Carolina)!

The tour opens in Central Panama, where the country’s most famous feature is situated, the Panama Canal, as well one of the most revered birding destinations in the American tropics, the Pipeline Road. From there the trip heads into the highland cloudforests of western Panama, where the amazing Resplendent Quetzal is found. Lastly, the tour ventures into eastern Panama, where specialties of that part of the country will be the focus. Panama, like its neighbor Costa Rica, is a birding country that people frequently visit more than once. However, if you can only ever do one single trip to Panama this represents the very best the country has to offer; alongside classic tropical families like trogons, toucans, tanagers, motmots, and antbirds, will be lots of migrant birds in this season, when thousands of raptors and shorebirds pass through the Isthmus too.


Day 1: Arrival in Panama City; to Gamboa. After an afternoon meeting at the capital’s airport, we will move north into the Canal Zone, to the town of Gamboa, under an hour’s drive from the airport; where we’ll spend the next three nights at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

Dry forest will be visited for Lance-tailed Manakin
Dry forest will be visited for Lance-tailed Manakin (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Gamboa and the Panama Canal. This is the most bird-rich part of Panama, and two full days will barely do justice to the area. On our first day in the area we will focus on the forest edges, dry forest, scrubby thickets, grasslands and wetland areas, amazingly all just 30 minutes or so from downtown Panama City.

Boat-billed Heron is found in the Canal Zone
Boat-billed Heron is found in the Canal Zone (Sam Woods)

The birding here is relatively easy compared with the denser forests visited later on the trip, and it is a good place to quickly build a good bird list. Two of the main specialists of this drier area include the skulking Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and charming Lance-tailed Manakin. Whilst, in the wetter areas we may find Yellow-headed Caracara, Ringed and American Pygmy-Kingfishers, Capped and Boat-billed Herons, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Wattled Jacana, and Greater Ani. In scrubby thickets and wooded areas nearby we may also find Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Black-throated Mango, Purple-crowned Fairy, Whooping Motmot, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Jet and White-bellied Antbirds, Panama Flycatcher, and Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles.

The nocturnal Two-toed Sloth is the less commonly seen of Panama's two sloth species.
The nocturnal Two-toed Sloth is the less commonly seen of Panama's two sloth species. (Andrew Spencer)

During the middle of the day, when birding is quiet, we will make a visit to Panama’s must-see central attraction, the Panama Canal, situated close to our hotel. Although quieter for resident tropical species at this time of day, this will likely be the peak for one of the spectacles of Panamanian birding, the fall migration of raptors, when thousands of Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, and Turkey Vultures pass through Gamboa on their southern migration. We will be staying at one of the best places to view this firsthand, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

If there's a better looking antbird than Ocellated Antbird I'd sure like to know about it!
If there's a better looking antbird than Ocellated Antbird I'd sure like to know about it! (Andrew Spencer)

Day 3: The Pipeline Road (Part I). Today we will visit one of the most revered sites in Neotropical birding, the famous Pipeline Road. This wide open dirt road passes through thick lowland rainforest, and provides excellent birding for groups in that it allows very easy access to good forest, without the need for tricky trail walking. On this day we will though start with our head in the clouds, by visiting the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center’s Canopy Observation Tower. This 100ft/32m-high tower, will allow us access to the top of the rainforest, and view canopy species from this very well built platform. There are 174 steps to reach the top platform, with rest stops/platforms at 25ft/8m intervals, making the climb easier. Even though the site is near our hotel, an early start will still be required to get there for dawn when it is cooler and more pleasant up there for us, and it is also more active for birds, during the cooler early hours of the morning.

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

There will be plenty of room on the platform for all of us to enjoy this together as a group, as we survey the surrounding trees for birds like Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans, raptors like King Vulture, Gray-headed and Double-toothed Kites, and Black Hawk-Eagle; woodpeckers such as Crimson-crested and Cinnamon; the treetop dwelling Green Shrike-Vireo, the boisterous Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and the stunning Blue Cotinga. The tower is also a great place to see parrots, which are generally confined to the treetops, like Red-lored, Blue-headed, and Mealy Parrots, and Orange-chinned Parakeet. When the day heats up and the birds on the tower slow down, we shall descend, and check the feeders and flowers at the base of the tower for hummingbirds; species like White-vented Plumeleteer, Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermits, Crowned Woodnymph, and Blue-chested and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds all occur in the area. The remainder of the day will be spent either on easy, flat trails, or walking the Pipeline Road itself. The area boasts a bird list of some 400 species, and so it is impossible to know the exact selection on any given visit.

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

Like all tropical forests, even at a place so diverse, there are typically periods of inactivity punctuated with periods of extreme activity, especially if an antswarm is encountered or a mixed species feeding flock. Swarms of army ants can attract birds like Bicolored, Spotted, and Ocellated Antbirds, as well as Broad-billed Motmot, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager and Gray-headed Tanager, which come in to prey on insects fleeing the phalanx of ants.

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)

Some of the other possibilities along the road include Great Tinamou, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Scaled Pigeon, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Streak-chested Antpitta (this arguably represents the best area on Earth to see one!), Black-faced Antthrush, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens, Golden-collared and Red-capped Manakins, Southern Bentbill, Song Wren, Blue Dacnis, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. A staggering 5 species of trogon occur (Slaty-tailed, White-tailed, Gartered, Black-throated, and Black-tailed); 3 species of motmot (Broad-billed, Rufous and Whooping); and 4 species of puffbird (White-necked, Pied, Black-breasted, and White-whiskered). Some of the rarer residents include Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Pheasant Cuckoo, and Speckled Mourner.

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

While birding in this area, we may also run into other animals too, like Central American Agouti, Collared Peccary, Geoffroy’s Tamarin, Mantled Howler Monkey, White-nosed Coati, or Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth. A third night will be spent in Gamboa.

Day 4: Panama City to the Chiriqui Highlands. After returning to Panama City airport, we will take a short flight to the city of David, in the westernmost province of Chiriqui. Birding around the airport itself can be good, and we will keep an eye out for birds like Pearl Kite, Veraguan Mango, Brown-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Black-hooded Antshrike, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Orange-collared Manakin, shortly after landing. After some time there, we will drive up into the mountains, and the town of Volcan, which lies in full view of the dramatic 11,400ft-high Volcan Baru. As we journey north, we will make stops in the foothills to search for birds like Speckled Tanager and Fiery-billed Aracari. Two nights will be spent in the town of Volcan.

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)

Day 5: La Amistad National Park. A full day will be spent in this large park that is situated within the Talamanca Mountains that are shared with Costa Rica, and is administered by both countries. It is home to a huge diversity of birds, one of which is the incredible Resplendent Quetzal. The birdlife in this region will be totally different from that experienced elsewhere on the tour, and new birds will come thick and fast, many of them only shared with neighboring Costa Rica, like Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Flame-throated Warbler, Dark Pewee, Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, and Yellow-thighed Finch. A second night will be spent in Volcan.

Resplendent Quetzal will be our main target in the highlands
Resplendent Quetzal will be our main target in the highlands (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Volcan Baru to Gamboa. If we have not yet seen a Resplendent Quetzal, this will be our main target for our final morning in the highlands of western Panama. This morning will give us further chances at highland specialties, like Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, and Spangle-cheeked Tanager. After our final morning in the highlands, we will drive back to David, take the short flight back to Panama City, and return to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for another two nights.

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

Day 7: The Pipeline Road (Part II). The mega diverse Pipeline Road deserves more than a single visit, and so a second full day will be spent in the area, which is situated within the beautiful Soberania National Park, searching for the myriad birds and animals found there. Another night will be spent in Gamboa.

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)

Day 8: Cerro Azul to Lake Bayano. Today we will change tack entirely; starting out in the foothills around Cerro Azul, where specialties like Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Violet-capped Hummingbird, and Rufous-crested Coquette occur, in addition to Emerald and Olive Tanagers, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and White-ruffed Manakin. However, after lunch we will move into the lowlands of eastern Panama, and the bird rich Lake Bayano area, where birds like Black Antshrike, Golden-collared Manakin, Bare-crowned Antbird and Great Jacamar may be seen. The night will be spent in a simple hotel in the tiny town of Torti.

Black Antshrike can be found in the forests around Lake Bayano
Black Antshrike can be found in the forests around Lake Bayano (Andrew Spencer)

Day 9: San Francisco Nature Reserve. This lovely reserve is located in eastern Panama, and hosts a number of birds more closely associated with the Darien to the east. Among the birds we will be looking for include Orange-crowned Oriole, Barred Puffbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, Rufous-winged Antwren, Red-capped and Golden-headed Manakins, and Yellow-backed Oriole. Some of the rarer species possible include Wing-banded Antbird, Black-crowned Antpitta, and the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet. In the afternoon we will return to Panama City for the final night.

Day 10: Departure from Panama City. You will be transferred to the airport for international departures.

The Snowy-bellied Hummingbird is a regular visitor to the excellent feeders at Cerro Azul
The Snowy-bellied Hummingbird is a regular visitor to the excellent feeders at Cerro Azul (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to Intense. There are some early starts, and long days in the field (breakfasts at 5:00-5:30am are typical).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. All of the walking will be easy, with no tough hikes. The drives on this tour are almost all on paved roads, and none of the drives exceed two and a half hours.

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). October is part of the rainy season, so rain is to be expected during the tour.

ACCOMMODATION: Good on all but two nights, with full-time electricity, hot water and en-suite facilities everywhere. On two of the nights (days 8 and 9) a simple hotel will be used, although this still has full time electricity and en-suite facilities. Internet is available on all but these two nights.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, and the focus will be to try and find as many species as possible. However, the hummingbird feeders at the Rainforest Discovery Center (day 3), and at Cerro Azul (day 8) often provide good opportunities to photograph hummingbirds, such as White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed Hermit, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird respectively.

WHEN TO GO: Panama offers good year round birding, and therefore birders 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, although this tour has been timed in October, when the peak of raptor migration occurs in Panama to complement the other birding planned on this tour.

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.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 9; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 10; 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 10; one airport transfer per person, on the designated arrival and departure days; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 10; 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.