This was our first trip to Panama, and it came about almost by accident. We had bought Copa air tickets to Miami for a wedding that was subsequently cancelled, so we had to change the tickets. All Copa flghts go through Panama, and the price was right, so about a week and a half before the trip, we decided to change the tickets to spend a week in Panama. Between the months I’ve spent in Costa Rica and Ecuador, there aren’t that many new birds for me to see in Panama, so I wasn’t driven to turn the trip into a hardcore birding marathon. Truth be told, we both needed a vacation and the trip wound up being about half birding and half “vacation”, a pretty good mix.
We threw the whole thing together very quickly, and without a travel guide book, so the planning was a bit haphazard. Nonetheless, it went surprisingly smoothly. In planning the trip, I knew that I wanted to hit Metropolitan Nature Park in Panama City for Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Lance-tailed Manakin, and we knew that a visit to the canal was something we couldn’t miss. The lodge I most wanted to visit was the remote Burbayar Lodge near Nusagandi – this is a good spot for rarities like Black-crowned Antpitta, Speckled Antshrike, and Sapayoa. However, when we inquired, we found out their rates had more than doubled in the last two years. (Almost $400 a night for a place with no electricity!) I’m sure it’s a great place, but we just couldn’t afford the expense. So I decided the birding focus of the trip would be a few days in the Chiriquí highlands, where I would try to clean up some of the endemics shared between Costa Rica and Panama that I was still missing. We also decided we needed some quality beach time, and so we planned to visit the Bocas del Toro area for a little relaxation. The last night was left open as flex time. Here’s how it shaped up in the end:
4/14 Morning arrival in Panama City, afternoon visit to Miraflores Locks.
4/15 Morning in Metropolitan Nature Park, afternoon flight to David.
4/16 Los Quetzales trail in Volcán Barú NP above Cerro Punta.
4/17 Sleeping in, afternoon at Amistad International Park.
4/18 Morning birding at Cabanas Los Quetzales, afternoon flight to Bocas del Toro.
4/19,4/20 Snorkeling, birding, and relaxing in Bocas del Toro.
4/21 More relaxing, afternoon flight to Panama City.
4/22 Morning on Pipeline Road, afternoon departure.
Daily Summary (Including discussion of accomodations and birding sites)
4/14 Our flight from Quito landed around 9:30 and we rode a bus into the city from the airport. While cheap ($0.50 vs. the $25 cab ride), it was a bit uncomfortable. Nearly all the buses in Panama are converted US-style school buses, tricked out like hot rods, airbrushed and souped up and driven like race cars. These diablos rojos, as they are called, are novel and entertaining, but also often very full and it was difficult to manage with our luggage. There’s only one door, and lots of people standing in the aisle. And of course it was very, very hot! After checking into the Executive Hotel in town ($95/double, web special, very nice room, a/c, breakfast included), we went out for lunch at Niko’s, a local cafeteria institution, and also accomplished one of our main objectives for the day when we fortuitously stumbled across a bookstore selling Lonely Planet Panama for half price. Sweet! Equipped with more information, we headed out to Miraflores Locks for the afternoon. We spent some time in the museum and some outside watching the ships go by. It was truly incredible to see the size of the ships squeezing through the locks! There were birds, but I’m glad I didn’t bring my bins, because we didn’t see anything special. Mostly common birds like Orange-chinned Parakeets and Short-tailed Swifts. The only bird seen that afternoon and not again during the trip was an Osprey.
4/15 We slept in a bit and after the excellent continental breakfast at the hotel, we made it to Metropolitan Nature Park shortly after 7. This park, located right at the northern edge of the city, is quite a gem. It has a modest network of trails (we walked almost all of them) through excellent tropical semideciduous forest, just a few minutes from most hotels. The entrance is near the intersection of Camino de la Amistad and Avenida Juan Pablo. My three main targets were Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Lance-tailed Manakin, and White-bellied Antbird and we easily saw them all. In the end I had an astounding nine lifers, including Golden-fronted Greenlet, Southern Bentbill, Crimson-backed Tanager, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Plain-colored Tanager, and the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet. We also had a Common Potoo on a day roost, both Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Blue-crowned Motmot, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Rufous-breasted Wren, and sweet looks at Green Shrike-Vireo. Dusky Antbirds and Rufous-and-white Wrens were everywhere. The birding was very good, and we also saw a small group of 10+ Geoffrey’s Tamarins – I didn't expect to see a new primate on this trip! (Guess I should have done a little more research.) We went back to the hotel, packed up, and caught the 4:00 Aeroperlas flight to David, where we were met by Ito, a local driver and birding guide from Cerro Punta who drove us to Cielito Sur B&B between Volcán and Cerro Punta, where we spent the next two nights.
Cielito Sur ($77/double) is a nice place owned by Glenn and Janet, a Panamanian-American couple. Rooms are comfortable, the grounds are birdy and pleasant, and breakfast is delicious. The only drawback is the breakfast schedule: 7:30-9:30 is not very convenient for serious birders! They packed us a very good breakfast on the 16th when we set out early, but we stayed for the real thing on the 17th and it was even better. Fortunately, you can bird all day in the Chiriquí, so if you don’t hit the trail until mid-morning it’s not the end of the world.
We took one of the many buses going into the town of Cerro Punta (5-10 minutes) for a nice dinner at the Hotel Cerro Punta.
4/16 Waking early, we caught a bus into Cerro Punta just after 6:00 only to learn that there would be no taxis to take us up to the El Respingo entrance track until 7:00 or even later. So, impatiently, we just walked. It turned out ok but this is not the best way to get to the park! You could easily arrange a transfer to the trailhead or at least the start of the entrance track. Walking along the Bajo Grande road we saw White-naped (Yellow-throated) Brush-Finches, Mountain Elaenias, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes. Finally walking got a little old and we hitched the last kilometer or so to where the pavement ends. From there it was about a 3km walk up to the start of the Los Questzales trail. (You could also drive up in a rugged 4x4 vehicle.) Volcano Hummingbird was nectaring on some roadside flowers, and a Black-faced Solitaire was hunting from a low wire fence. Overall, the birding was much, much better up on the Los Quetzales trail. In the edgy habitat around the park entrance station, Long-tailed Silky-Flycathcers were common. From there we walked maybe 2km out along the trail through some beautiful old-growth forest, and back. We didn’t even start the trail until mid-morning, and the birding was fantastic! Of course we saw a couple male Resplendent Quetzales, very easily excited by a whistled imitation of their song. Mixed flocks contained Yellow-thighed Finches, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, and Ruddy Treerunners. We had great looks at Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and Zeledonia, both very responsive. Large-footed Finches were surprisingly common on the forest floor. Other sightings include Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Prong-billed Barbet, Silvery-throated Jay (nesting), Barred Becard, Ochraceous Wren, and a young Yellow-billed Cacique. We saw a trogon that was calling like I thought an Orange-bellied should sound, but looked dead-on like a Collared. So confusing! I later read that the Orange-bellied’s in western Chiriquí province can be very red, and since the trip I’ve been told that the two “species” are just about vocally indistinguishable. So what’s the point? A dubious split, it seems. In the afternoon, walking back down the entrance track, we found a White-fronted (Rough-legged) Tyrannulet, an uncommon bird in the area.
After lunch in Cerro Punta, we returned to the inn to relax… yeah that was a lot of walking! The hummer feeders at the inn are good, with eight species regular, including Snowy-bellied Hummingbird and White-throated Mountain-Gem. Dark Pewee and Flame-colored Tanager are among the many birds that can be found around the grounds, situated at about 1800m. I finished the day with another eight lifers – wow!.
4/17 Today we slept in a bit, and I wandered the grounds of the inn for a while before breakfast. Spotted Wood-Quail were calling from the woods at the edge of the yard but I couldn’t get a look. Blue-throated Toucanet, Orange-bellied Trogon (a yellow-bellied female), and Scarlet-bellied Dacnis were good sightings. Green Hermit and Red-faced Spinetail were both nesting on the property. Breakfast was great, and afterward we transferred by taxi up to Los Quetzales Lodge in Guadalupe. We spent the afternoon hiking in the Las Nubes section of La Amistad International Park (a shared protected area on the border with Costa Rica). The birds were mostly the same as the day before, though without some of the highlights. Fiery-throated Hummingbird (today’s only lifer), Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Black-capped Flycatcher, and Buffy Tuftedcheek were new birds here. Along the Cascada Trail we saw much evidence of migration, including Barn and Cliff Swallows moving overhead and a hunting Olive-sided Flycatcher at the La Nevera overlook (2500m). A little further on, a kettle of 21 Broad-winged Hawks circled overhead and streamed northwest. Chestnut-collared Swifts were cruising around the gorge seen from the El Barranco overlook.
By late afternoon we returned to Guadalupe and I spent a little while birding around the Los Quetzales grounds. Saw Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers, Silver-throated Tanagers, a pair of Yellow-bellied Siskins, and a Belted Kingfisher flew overhead. I briefly heard Dusky Nighjar calling at dusk near the center of town but wasn’t able to locate it. Ito Genover, the local birding guide who did our transfer from David to Cielito Sur, reportedly has this bird in his yard. We had hoped to hook up with him this afternoon, but we were unable to find him.
Los Quetzales ($60/double including breakfast) was a pretty nice place, but it lacked the personal touch of Cielito Sur – for example, keeping the hummingbird feeders full is a small thing that would make a difference. The staff was friendly but we had to really press to get any information out of them. Communication was certainly not their strength. For example, when we arrived on the 17th, we made it very clear that we wanted to have an early breakfast the next morning and arrange a transfer up to their cabins in the park. However, the next morning, breakfast wasn’t ready until 7 and there was no one available to do the transfer until after 8. I was surprised by the way things went because I’ve heard very good things about this place. I suspect it would be easier to have a satisfying experience if you bought the all-inclusive package, which includes guiding and all meals.
4/18 As discussed, I had a rather late start this morning, but as soon as I stepped out of the Los Quetzales Land Cruiser I started seeing great birds. Walking up the trail to cabins 2 and 3 I could hear a tremendous chatter of hummers and “dickey” birds; it occurred to me there might be an owl… and there was! A roguish-looking Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl was perched beside the trail with a freshly killed furnariid in its talons, with Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, White-throated Mountain-Gem, Black-faced Solitaire, Green-crowned Brilliant, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager and others fiercely scolding from all around. The prey seemed to have been decapitated but otherwise was in pretty good condition, and I could see that it was dark brown with some coarse buff streaking. It’s not a 100% positive ID, but I like to think this was the Streak-breasted Treehunter that I spent three days looking for without success. Oh, the irony! Proceeding up to the cabins, I promptly found a gorgeous Golden-browed Chlorophonia singing overhead, and Green-fronted Lancebill and Fiery-throated Hummingbird visiting the feeders. I met the local guide/caretaker Abel who was filling the feeders and he told me he wanted to show me a bird. We walked over to the other cabin and peeked around a corner to find a dozen Slaty Finches on the ground feeding on seed that he had set out for them. Nice surprise - a lifer that I hadn’t expected at all. I saw a few Spangle-cheeked Tanagers at this site, and Black-cheeked Warblers were quite abundant here. I had limited time because of my late start, but I went for a short walk anyway, and it was a good thing I did. On the track up to cabin 4 I stumbled into one of the best birds of the entire trip, a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove that seemed equally surprised to see me. I managed an excellent view in bins that lasted a couple seconds, and then the bird vanished into the understory. Yellow-winged Vireos were common here. Walking on the Las Minas trail I saw a Resplendent Quetzal and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and then it was time to head back down.
We returned to Los Quetzales, packed up, and took a taxi to David for our 1pm flight. It took about a half hour to fly to Bocas del Toro, and we had great views of both coasts and the Chiriquí highlands as we flew across. Over the course of our three flights during the trip we could really get a feel for the human-altered geography of the western part of the country; areas that are not protected have been massively deforested, especially on the Pacific side. We spent the night at the Bocas Inn in town, and had dinner at El Pecado, a Thai-Panamanian restaurant that I would highly recommend.
4/19 After an excellent morning snorkeling excursion with a local boatman name Tite, we were transferred by boat to Al Natural, a remote beach resort on the far side of Isla Bastimentos. (I saw Mangrove Swallow from the dock before we set out.) Birding on Bastimentos was actually not bad. It’s still mostly forested, with mangroves fringing most of the shoreline. Being an island, it doesn’t have the highest diversity, but this time of year it sure has a lot of birds. The value of this and other forested coastal islands as stopover habitat for migrants became overwhelmingly clear over the next couple days, as I realized the trees were dripping with northbound boreal migrants. Eastern Wood-Pewees were singing all over the place, and Northern Waterthrush, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, Black-and-white, and Canada were among the warblers present. In the afternoon I observed a group of over 25 Plumbeous Kites circling lazily over the island, swooping this way and that, catching and eating insects on the wing. In the evening, a small party of Night Monkeys came to the mangroves beside the dining room for banana handouts.
4/20 I walked in the forest for a couple hours this morning and picked up a surprise lifer, Gray-headed Dove. Flocks of Tawny-crested Tanagers were common, as were Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Western Slaty-Antshrikes, and Green Ibis, the latter perched in the canopy giving their haunting, rollicking calls. Montezuma Oropendolas were commuting overhead. On the far side of the island I found three of the endemic red Dendrobates poison dart frogs, an exciting find, and I saw well a skulking costaricensis Bay Wren. Gray-necked Wood-Rails were not uncommon by voice, but to my disappointment, I never heard anything that sounded like a Rufous-necked. I had hoped this rarity might be present in the island’s mangroves. The Night Monkeys came back for a repeat performance tonight.
4/21 Slept in this morning and then spent some time watching a couple of striking male Golden-collared Manakins behind our bungalow. They looked to belong to the nominate subspecies, and were certainly not cerritus (“Almirante Manakin”), the race described from western Bocas del Toro province. A pair of Common Black-Hawks were vocalizing and displaying over the beach a bit west. After we transferred back to Bocas town we found out the Panama City flight we hoped to get on (5:30pm) was full, so we squeezed onto the 4:30, with just a few minutes to spare. Got White-collared Seedeater at the airport.
Once back in the city, we checked into Hotel Marbella ($44/double, a good deal) and started planning for the next morning, our free day. After realizing on the plane that I had somehow gotten so sunburned that I couldn’t even lean back against my seat, I decided a trip to the beaches of Isla Taboga was out. My next idea was Pipeline Road, a famous birding site north of the city in Soberanía National Park. I had read in trip reports that the road is often locked and it is well known that the best forest is pretty far in, so I thought we should get a guide to take us in. Of course by this time it was late on a Saturday afternoon, so it was not an easy task. I had on hand a trip report that said Guido Berguido of Advantage Tours was quite good, and his cell phone was listed in my Lonely Planet, so I gave him a call. Guido was already booked for the next day but pulled a few strings a found a guide and transport. I ate a spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s for dinner, something I miss from the states. (There’s no Wendy’s in Ecuador!) It was awesome.
4/22 We got picked up from our hotel at 6:30 (Guido said they couldn’t do earlier on such short notice) and after bit of car trouble, we picked up our guide Euclides "Kilo" Campos, who looked vaguely familiar to me, near Gamboa. Our first stop was a short one at the Ammo Dump, where we picked up Wattled Jaçana and a Rufescent Tiger-Heron on a nest. Soon we were birding on Pipeline, but it was on foot, not by car as I had hoped. I later learned that Canopy Tower is the only tour agency that has a permit to drive in on Pipeline Road. This was a bit disappointing for me, but no one’s fault but my own for planning the excursion at the last minute and not asking many questions. The birding was actually very good, though I knew I wouldn’t have much chance for many new ones. Flocks of Eastern Kingbirds going overhead were the day’s most obvious sign of migration. Near the start of the road we found a healthy antswarm being attended by Gray-headed Tanagers, Song Wrens, Bicolored Antbirds, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and a Blue-crowned Motmot, among others. Flocks of White-flanked, Checker-throated, and Dot-winged Antwrens were moving along the edge of the road in several locations. One flock had a Spot-crowned Antvireo in it. Euclides picked up a Fulvous-vented Euphonia by ear, and we soon had decent looks at a female high in the canopy. This was my first new bird, and we soon had my second, a Black-breasted Puffbird calling from the treetops. At some point during the morning I realized we had met Euclides before, when Erin and I were working at Cape May Bird Observatory and Euclides had been an intern at Hawk Mountain. Small world! Other sightings included Rufous Mourner, Cinnamon and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Gray Elaenia, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Shining and Red-legged Honeycreepers, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Southern Bentbill, and Brownish Twistwing (somewhere around km 2.5; this was as far as we walked.). We heard Speckled Mourner once or twice, but were unable to call in this mega.
On the way back, we stopped in at Guido’s house for a quick bite and then just about 100m past plantation road we stopped to see a Great Potoo on its “nest”, a large branch leaning out over the road. The adult had one fluffy white chick at its side. It was a good morning, and Euclides was a fine guide, definitely recommended. Advantage also does morning birding at Metropolitan Nature Park. If you’re going to do Pipeline Road and you want to go futher in, however, it seems that you may need to set the trip up through Canopy Tower.
Overall I thought it was a great trip. We were impressed by Panama’s infrastructure and we found its likenesses to the US novel and endearing. Being served safely-drinkable ice water in restaurants felt luxuriant, especially given the intense sun and heat (except in the highlands). Being able to flush toilet paper took a close second place. Perhaps if we were coming from the US this likeness would have made it less interesting, but for us it was a welcome reminder of things back home. (We currently live in Ecuador.) The people we encountered were exceptionally friendly and kind and always wanted to help us out however they could. And everywhere we went was very birdy. In the end, I tallied 25 lifers, right on par with my expectations.
Stuff you might find helpful and things I wish I knew when we were planning the trip:
- Three-wattled Bellbird is best seen near Boquete; it’s rare on the Cerro Punta side of Volcán Barú.
- Not all tour agencies are allowed to drive on Pipeline Road.
- Maroon-chested Ground-Dove is reported to be coming to a seed feeder at Finca Dracula orchid reserve near Guadalupe. (This is just a few minutes from Los Quetzales. I heard about this when we were back in Panama City at the end of the trip but haven’t been able to verify it yet.)
- Metropolitan Nature Park opens at 6:00am. (Some locals seem to think it’s 8:00.)