Panama: The Best of Tropical America on One Tour

Panama sits in an interesting location, with influences from North America, Central America, and even South America too, which leads to its extraordinary bird list of over 1000 species (yes, more than Costa Rica!). This tour is designed on two levels; to dip into the varied regions of the country, from Central Panama, where both the legendary Pipeline Road and Panama Canal are located, but also includes trips into Western Panama and the endemic-rich Chiriquí highlands, where Resplendent Quetzal lurks in the cloud forest, and also east of Panama City, where some species more typical of the Darien also occur.

With recent taxonomic changes, this tour is also of particular interest to family listers, as there are now (as of 2017, when Wrenthrush and Thrush-tanagers were recognized as distinct families for the first time) 4 significant bird families on offer: Thrush-tanagers, represented by Rosy Thrush-tanager, possible right in Panama City, Wrenthrush, a highland species only found in Western Panama, which shares the same habitat with the Prong-billed Barbet, part of the two-species Toucan Barbet family; and last, but by no means least, the Sapayoa, an odd, inconspicuous, and local bird of lowland forest. No other tour offers a good chance of these bird families on one single trip.


While searching for the key families, we will pick up a stream of birds, with classic tropical groups, like trogons, hummingbirds, puffbirds, toucans, antbirds, manakins, tityras, becards, and true tanagers (not closely related to the tanagers, which are part of the cardinal family, in North America). Some of the mouthwatering birds on offer among these include, Keel-billed Toucan, Rufous-crested Coquette, Whooping and Tody Motmots, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker (double figures from this family available), Jet and White-bellied Antbirds, Black-chested Jay, Shining Honeycreeper, Black-and-yellow Tanager, as well as a heady selection of other Neotropical wildlife like Geoffrroy’s Tamarin, Mantled Howler monkeys, two and three-toed sloths, and poison dart frogs. Thus, this tour appeals to both the first timer to the Tropics, but also “older hands” looking to add some specialties Panama offers the best chance at, and birders looking for key bird families best found here.

Geoffroy's Tamarin even occurs within Panama City
Geoffroy's Tamarin even occurs within Panama City (Sam Woods)

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 wintering boreal migrant birds like warblers, tanagers, and orioles.

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird is regularly encountered in Panama
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird is regularly encountered in Panama (Sam Woods)

The order in which sites are visited is sometimes adjusted based on flight schedules and lodge availability, but all sites will still be visited and these changes will not affect the birding

Day 1: Arrival in Panama City; optional afternoon birding in Chepo. After arrival in the hub of Central America, Panama City in the morning, you will be transferred to a business hotel to freshen up before some optional afternoon birding nearby. Chepo is an area of wet fields and open country birding that should provide some easy birding to ease us into the tour. Birds like Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Pearl Kite, Striped Cuckoo, Pied Water-Tyrant (best chance is here), and Plain-breasted Ground-Dove could all feature here, along with more regular fare like Red-lored Parrot (Amazon), Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. A single night will be spent at a business hotel near Panama City airport.

Prong-billed Barbet will be a target for family listers in the Chiriqui highlands
Prong-billed Barbet will be a target for family listers in the Chiriqui highlands (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Panama City to the Chiriqui Highlands. We will take a short morning flight to the city of David, in the westernmost province of Chiriqui, where the highlands of Panama are located, home to numerous endemic species only shared with neighboring Costa Rica. 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.

Resplendent Quetzal, an obligatory target in the Chiriqui Highlands
Resplendent Quetzal, an obligatory target in the Chiriqui Highlands (Sam Woods)

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 (3475m) Volcan Baru. As we journey north, we will make stops in the foothills to search for birds like Speckled Tanager and Fiery-billed Aracari too. Three nights will be spent in the cool, highland town of Volcan.

*Depending on flight times, there may be some time for some local birding near the airport, before our domestic flight, as this is one of the best shorebirding sites in all of the Americas and is simply loaded with birds in this season. While there are no specialties, it is a spectacular site and very close to the airport, so can easily fill a small gap in time.

Day 3: Volcan Baru. Montane birding in this area is superb, and will be the site, where we especially target some family birds for those with a family listing bent, like Prong-billed Barbet, and Wrenthrush. However, the supporting cast is no less impressive, with birds like Resplendent Quetzal (our first chance), Orange-bellied Trogon, Flame-throated Warbler, and Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher also all on offer, on what could be one of the flagship days of the tour. The birdlife in this region will be totally different from that experienced on most of the tour, and new birds will come thick and fast, many of them only shared with neighboring Costa Rica (i.e. local, regional endemics). Another night will be spent in Volcan.

Violet Sabrewing are found in the western highlands at Volcan Baru
Violet Sabrewing are found in the western highlands at Volcan Baru (Sam Woods)

Day 4: 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 massive diversity of birds, one of which is the incredible Resplendent Quetzal, if we are looking for further looks, or we failed to find it the day before. Other highland specialties will get further chances to find, are Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Dark Pewee, Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, and Yellow-thighed Finch. A last night will be spent in Volcan.

Day 5: Volcan Baru to David; fly to Panama City and transfer to Gamboa. After some final local birding in the highlands, we shall drive back to the city of David, fly back to the capital, and then drive the short distance (90 minutes) to Gamboa, a great base for exploring the legendary Pipeline Road in the coming days…The first of three nights will be spent at a resort in Gamboa.

Collared Redstart is restricted to highland forests
Collared Redstart is restricted to highland forests (Sam Woods)

Days 6 – 7: Gamboa and Pipeline Road area (Soberania National Park). This is one of the most revered areas in all Tropical American birding, as diversity hits the roof, and there are numerous close sites centered around Gamboa and the Pipeline Road, in which to bird. On one of these days, we will climb the 100ft/32m-high Canopy Observation Tower (at the Rainforest Discovery Center), to get a birds-eye view of the treetops, and to watch for canopy species like Blue Cotinga, Black-chested Jay, multiple toucan species, Scaled Pigeon, Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, Cinnamon and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Masked Tityra, Golden-hooded Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. At other times, we will bird at ground level, at a number of famous local birding sites, like the Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Ponds, and Summit Ponds. Where exactly we shall visit will depend on local news and how our bird list is growing. For sure, we will visit the Pipeline Road at least twice though. Birds on offer when we are down on the forest floor will included Ocellated, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds (if we manage to locate an anstwarm); Great Tinamou, Slaty-tailed, Gartered, and Black-tailed Trogons, Black-breasted and White-whiskered Puffbirds, Black-faced Antthrush and Streak-chested Antpitta, Royal Flycatcher (with luck), Golden-collared and Red-capped Manakins, Black-bellied and Song Wrens, Yellow-tailed and Yellow-backed Orioles, and Chestnut-headed Oropendola. These nights will be spent at a comfortable resort in Gamboa, close to the varied birding sites available.

A spectacular regular species on this tour: Keel-billed Toucan
A spectacular regular species on this tour: Keel-billed Toucan (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Gamboa to Metropolitan Nature Park, Panama City. After some final birding in the Gamboa/Pipeline Road area for some of the day (exact site to be determined, based on what we are still looking for at the time); we will return to Panama City for another single night’s stay. In the afternoon, we will make an extended visit to the Metropolitan Park in Panama City, home to Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet, while if we have not seen one by this point, we can search the local area for Garden Emerald too.

Panama is arguably the best country to find the erratic Ocellated Antbird
Panama is arguably the best country to find the erratic Ocellated Antbird (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: Cerro Azul to Nusagandi. Today we will swap the steamy lowland jungles for the hills northeast of Panama City, and therefore offer some markedly different bird species form that which has gone before. Some of the possibilities at Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe, two low hills east of the city, include the scarce Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, shockingly bright Black-and-yellow Tanager, as well a horde of other interesting foothill species, like White-ruffed Manakin, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and Plain-colored, Speckled and Rufous-winged Tanagers. If we are lucky, we may also find Yellow-eared Toucanet, for which this is historically a good site, but where it seems to have become distinctly more difficult in recent years.

Mixed flocks in the foothills can hold the striking Black-and-yellow Tanager
Mixed flocks in the foothills can hold the striking Black-and-yellow Tanager (Sam Woods)

We shall also visit some excellent private feeders in the area, which can attract a variety of hummingbirds, fruit-eating birds, and sometimes monkeys too. The potential species list there could include the much-wanted Rufous-crested Coquette, the scarce and local Violet-capped Hummingbird, as well as more widespread hummers, like White-vented and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, and White-necked Jacobin. The other birds that may be there during this visit, are Bay-headed Tanager, Shining Honeycreeper, and perhaps even Geoffroy’s Tamarin, a small monkey species. After most of the day there, we shall continue our journey on eastwards, to Nusagandi in the Kuna Yala Foothills. Two nights will be spent nearby the Kuna Indian preserve of Nusagandi.

The enigmatic Sapayoa, a monotypic bird family
The enigmatic Sapayoa, a monotypic bird family (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Nusagandi. A full day will be spent at this important forest site in the foothills, where two particular species of interest occur, Sapayoa, a monotypic family, and the rare and local Speckled Antshrike, for which this represents the best site in the country (but where it still remains a difficult bird). Other birds that might be found while searching for these include Black-crowned Antpitta, Black-throated and White-tailed Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Pied Puffbird, Brown-hooded Parrot, Black-crowned Antshrike, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Checker-throated Antwren, Black-striped Woodcreeper, one of the World’s smallest birds in Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous Mourner, Tawny-crested Tanager, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. A second night will be spent close to Nusagandi.

A dozen woodpeckers could be recorded on this tour!
A dozen woodpeckers could be recorded on this tour! (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Nusagandi to Lake Bayano. After some further time at Nusagandi, we shall depart southeast for the Lake Bayano area. Depending on what we are most looking for, we may have some time to bird around Lake Bayano on the way, or may choose to spend further time at Nusagandi for Sapayoa, Speckled Antshrike, and other rarities that can take time to find. The night will be spent in the tiny town of Torti, on the eastern side of the province of Panama, near the border with neighbouring Darien province.

Day 12: Lake Bayano area. On our journey east, we will have by now moved into an area where some species more typical of the Darien creep onto the bird list, and we shall search for some of these. Some of today’s targets shall include Long-billed Starthroat, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Barred and Black Antshrikes, White-bellied and Bare-crowned Antbirds, Great Jacamar, Golden-collared Manakin, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Southern Bentbill, Pied Water-Tyrant, Golden-fronted Greenlet, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. A second night will be spent in a simple guesthouse in Torti.

Great Jacamar is found around Lake Bayano in Eastern Panama
Great Jacamar is found around Lake Bayano in Eastern Panama (Sam Woods)

Day 13: San Francisco Reserve to Panama City. Most of the day will be spent to the east of Torti in this wonderful reserve set up by local monks, which has some Darien species represented in the area. Many of these are rare and low density, so picking what will be seen on any two visits is tricky, but the list of birds that occur in and around the reserve include the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Choco Sirystes, Gray-cheeked Nunlet (rare), Barred Puffbird, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Golden-headed Manakin, Speckled Mourner, Yellow-backed and Orange-crowned Orioles, and even the extremely rare Wing-banded Antbird. After most of the day in this area, we shall head back for another night in Panama City in mid-afternoon. Night in Panama City.

The handsome Golden-collared Manakin will be looked for at several sites
The handsome Golden-collared Manakin will be looked for at several sites (Sam Woods)

Day 14: Departure from Panama City/Anton Valley Extension. For those not joining the extension, an airport transfer will be provided for international flights out.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Anton Valley (El Valle de Anton) Extension (5 days)

For those with more time, we offer an extension to the foothills and Pacific lowlands, southwest of Panama City. This includes visits to the famous El Valle de Anton, a Panama Birding Mecca, as well as the coastal lowlands around Juan Hombron, and finally, Altos de Campana National Park. This part of the tour has the greatest likelihood of success with much wanted birds like the near endemic Veraguan Mango, Tody Motmot, the superb Black-crowned Antpitta, and gain further chances at seeing the rare Yellow-eared Toucanet. In this part of Panama there are also the most regular sightings of Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, although plentiful luck will still be needed to get that one, even if it arguably the best place in the World for the species!

Black-crowned Antpitta, actually a Gnateater, will be looked for on the extension
Black-crowned Antpitta, actually a Gnateater, will be looked for on the extension (Scott Olmstead)

Day 1 (Day 14 of the main tour): Altos del Maria to El Valle de Anton. After departing Panama City early, we shall visit a private estate, Altos del Maria, in the highlands, where substantial forest occurs in this large highly restricted area. This area is rich in foothill species, and we shall be on the lookout for some real treats, like Snowcap, Orange-bellied Trogon, and Dull-mantled Antbird. Other birds in the area include, White Hawk, Northern Emerald Toucanet (recently split from the South American forms), Gray-headed Chachalaca, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Spadebill, Tufted Flycatcher, Eye-ringed Flatbill, the rare Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Northern Schiffornis, Ochraceous Wren, and Dusky-faced Tanager (the latter now part of a newly formed family, Mitrospingidae, Mitrospingid Tanagers). With almost all of the day there, we shall move on to the tranquil mountain town of El Valle de Anton, where we shall spend three nights, checking for Black-headed Saltator on the way there.

Several sites will be scoured for the outrageous Rufous-crested Coquette
Several sites will be scoured for the outrageous Rufous-crested Coquette (Sam Woods)

Day 2: El Valle de Anton. This town is centered around some amazing birding sites, such as Cerro Gaital, Cara Iguana, and Canopy Adventure. We shall divide our time between all or some of these, depending on the latest birding news at that time. Some of our main targets in the area will be the scarce Tody Motmot, White-tailed Emerald, the shy Black-crowned Antpitta, and Spot-crowned Barbet. Other birds we will be on the lookout for include Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Lesson’s Motmot, Panama Flycatcher, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, and Flame-rumped and White-shouldered Tanagers. A private property also regularly has a roosting Spectacled Owl; if this is present during the time of our visit, we will make a special attempt to see this bird. Similarly, in some years (though not every year), there are regular sightings of Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in the area. If there is positive news on this, we shall make this a priority too, of course. But, please note that this is very rare and usually highly unlikely on this tour, even if Panama is one of the more reliable places to see this extremely inconspicuous and rare species. A second night will be spent in a quiet resort on the outskirts of El Valle de Anton.

Crimson-backed Tanager is a wonderfully common species in Panama
Crimson-backed Tanager is a wonderfully common species in Panama (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Juan Hombron and El Valle de Anton. In the morning, we shall leave early and visit the Pacific coastal lowlands, at Juan Hombron, and then return to El Valle for some afternoon birding again. The morning birding in the open country coastal lowlands will be in complete contrast to most of the other days, which will be spent in forested sites. The birds of interest here are Veraguan Mango (the best site on the tour), Lance-tailed Manakin, Isthmian Wren, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Savanna Hawk, Scrub Greenlet, and an assortment of waterbirds. In the afternoon, after returning to El Valle de Anton, we shall revisit one of the local sites, depending on what we still need. It is best to cover the lowlands in the morning, as they become hot and uncomfortable by late morning, while the highland birding around El Valle is good all day long. A final, third, night will be spent in El Valle de Anton.

We will search for the scarce Tody Motmot on the extension
We will search for the scarce Tody Motmot on the extension (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Altos de Campana National Park to Panama City. This park is a beautiful location, and is good for Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch (our only chance of the tour), and is one of the more reliable places for Black-crowned Antpitta, which we will have looked for on the extension before too, at a less regular site. There are also 3 species of honeycreepers, 2 ant-tanagers, White Hawk, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-chested Jay, Yellow-green Vireo, Black-faced Antthrush, Spotted Antbird, Slaty Anwren, White-ruffed Manakin and others to play for. In the afternoon, we will return to Panama City for one final night.

Day 5: DEPARTURE from Panama City. An airport transfer will be provided by our hotel to connect with international departures.

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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).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Easy to moderate. Most of the walking will be easy, but there are 3 days with optional difficult hikes (i.e. at Nusagandi and Torti). The drives on this tour are almost all on paved roads, and none of the drives should exceed three 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). February is one of the driest times of year.

ACCOMMODATION: Good on all but two nights – apart for those nights, all have with full-time electricity, wi-fi, hot water and en-suite facilities everywhere, and lowland hotels have AC. On two of the nights (in Nusagandi) a simple lodge will be used; it has rustic cabins with private bathrooms but limited electricity and no hot water

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, and at Cerro Azul often provide good opportunities to photograph hummingbirds, and fruit-eating birds. This is a good tour for a “birder with a camera”.

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 13 (if only doing the main tour, to the night of day 17 of also going the extension); meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 14 (if only doing the main tour; to breakfast on day 18 if also doing the extension); 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 evening of day 13 (if only doing the main tour; to the evening of day 17 if also doing the extension); 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 13 (if only doing the main tour; to the evening of day 17 if also taking the extension); 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.