WESTERN & CENTRAL PANAMA SPECIALITIES BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Western & Central Panama: Day 1 Our tour starts in the evening at Panama City, where we will stay overnight at a hotel close to the airport.
Western & Central Panama: Day 2 With the northwest trade winds dropping their moisture chiefly on the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide, the Pacific lowlands surrounding Panama City are characterized by a pronounced dry season during this time of year. Here semi-deciduous woodland prevails, and we shall begin our birding in some of the best remaining patches of this habitat. In the cool morning hours, the flashy but secretive Rosy Thrush-Tanager delivers its liquid song from dense thickets, whilst White-bellied Antbirds announce themselves with their accelerating crescendos. Lance-tailed Manakins display in well-concealed leks, and as mixed canopy flocks start assembling, we shall thoroughly scan these for uncommon Panamanian (formerly Yellow-green) Tyrannulet, a Panama endemic.
Other birds we can expect to see here include Roadside and Grey-lined Hawks, Squirrel Cuckoo, Lineated Woodpecker, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Southern Beardless, Yellow-crowned and Yellow Tyrannulets, Slate-headed and Common Tody-Flycatchers, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Great Crested, Boat-billed and Streaked Flycatchers, Rufous-breasted, Rufous-and-white, Isthmian and (Southern) House Wrens, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Clay-coloured Thrush, Tropical Mockingbird, Yellow-green Vireo, Scrub and Golden-fronted Greenlets, Crimson-backed Tanager, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Streaked and Buff-throated Saltators, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, and Yellow-backed and Baltimore Orioles. We will also make an effort to find the restricted-range Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Northern Scrub-Flycatcher.
Later we will continue the short distance to the Gamboa section of the former (US-administered) Canal Zone for a three nights stay.
Western & Central Panama: Days 3-4 As one travels across Panama from the Pacific coast towards the low Continental Divide, the forests gradually become more humid and we shall be concentrating our efforts on the large Parque Nacional Soberanía, which was created to safeguard the Panama Canal from the danger of silting up as a result of deforestation and subsequent erosion. Perhaps the most fabled of the Central Panama birding locales is the old Pipeline Road, a scenic and little travelled pathway through superb forest in the heart of the park.
Nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded here, a richness that rivals that of the entire European continent. In addition to an endless variety of more widespread birds, there are a good number of species with a rather more restricted distribution, such as Garden Emerald, Cinnamon Woodpecker, the awkward Southern Bentbill and the endearing Streak-chested Antpitta. We shall enjoy sampling the Canal Area’s astounding variety, and we will rise early to be able to witness the burst of bird activity that follows the breaking of day. As the sky lightens Cocoa Woodcreepers loudly proclaim their possession of a territory, and while the sun still struggles with the horizon the resonant hoots of the Whooping and Rufous Motmots resound through the forest and Bay Wrens give away their presence with their deafening duets.
On one morning we shall visit an incredible tower, which will project us into the canopy, in the midst of a whole new world! Here, fabulous male Blue Cotingas perch atop tall trees showing off their resplendent plumage in the early morning sunlight, and we shall also hope to have good views of the relentlessly vocal but sluggish Green Shrike-Vireo. Red-lored and Southern Mealy Amazons noisily depart from their roosts, while much smaller Orange-chinned Parakeets often congregate in fruiting trees. The tiny Brown-capped Tyrannulet and equally tiny Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher deliver their monotonous songs from the thick foliage.
We shall scan the treetops for Gartered Trogon, the sluggish Black-breasted Puffbird, gaudy Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, and Masked and Black-crowned Tityras. Mixed canopy flocks regularly come through, often containing Yellow-throated Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Golden-winged and Bay-breasted Warblers, Plain-coloured, Golden-hooded, Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, Green and Red-legged Honeycreeper and Thick-billed Euphonia.
As the air warms up we will scan the skies for such raptors as Black and Turkey Vultures, Western Osprey, Double-toothed and Grey-headed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk and Black Hawk-Eagle, as well as foraging Short-tailed and Band-rumped Swifts. Hummingbirds are also of interest, and we will hope to find White-necked Jacobins, Black-throated Mangos, Violet-bellied and Blue-chested Hummingbirds, and White-vented Plumeleteers.
We may even hear the characteristic tune of the splendid Pheasant Cuckoo, one of the ultimate Neotropic prizes. In many other Latin countries it is rare and only known from a handful of specimens, but this exquisite brood parasite is more easily found here than anywhere else. Even so this vocal but shy bird can be very hard to see, though with a dose of luck it may be lured into view.
Venturing further into the forest, an incessant squeaking may betray the presence of a singing assembly of Long-billed Hermits. Constantly wagging their white-tipped tails, the indefatigable males spend a large part of their day vying for the female’s attention. Another lek-forming species is the electrifying Golden-collared Manakin, whose spectacular displays include loud snaps remarkably resembling the noise made by breaking a dry twig. All of a sudden, the sound of desperate leaps and frantic scuffling may herald the arrival of an army ant swarm. Columns of soldiers and hunters advance across the forest floor, attacking any grasshopper, beetle or other small creature they may find along the way. Inevitably they are accompanied by a set of professional ant-following birds, who noisily partake in the carnage and swallow up those beasts that depend on flight for escaping the raiding ants. The typical gang of ‘professionals’ in these forests consists of Plain-brown Woodcreeper and the faithful trio of Spotted, Bicoloured and Ocellated Antbirds. Sometimes they are joined by a sluggish Broad-billed Motmot, a hungry Northern Barred Woodcreeper, the rail-like Black-faced Antthrush or the fierce-looking Grey-headed Tanager. As we quietly stand by near the head of the antswarm, these bizarre birds can be surprisingly tame and confiding, allowing us to witness one of the most amazing phenomena in the life of the rain forest. Of course, the ultimate prize would be a Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo, and although they do show up here from time to time, we would count ourselves extremely fortunate, though one can but hope!
A wealth of other exciting birds can be found in this densely vegetated world; we’ll scan the forest floor for Great and Little Tinamous, Grey-chested Dove and the secretive Ruddy-Quail Dove, and keep an eye open for predators such as the scarce Tiny Hawk and Plumbeous Kite. Fruiting trees may attract Grey-headed Chachalaca, Pale-vented and Short-billed Pigeons, Brown-hooded and Blue-headed Parrots, and Collared Aracari, whilst flowers may attract Band-tailed Barbthroat, Stripe-throated Hermit, Crowned Woodnymph (Violet-crowned form), and Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and we’ll also look out for Purple-crowned Fairy, which is largely an insect gleaner. In the mid-storey we’ll look for stealthy White-tailed, Black-throated, Slaty-tailed and Black-tailed Trogons, White-necked and White-whiskered Puffbirds and Great Jacamar, whilst tapping may lead us to Black-cheeked and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers.
A great variety of antbirds and furnarids are present, some of them forming understorey flocks. Species we may see include Plain Xenops, Ruddy, Wedge-billed and Black-striped Woodcreepers, Fasciated and Black-crowned Antshrikes, the localized Spot-crowned Antvireo, Moustached, White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens, Checker-throated Stipplethroat and Chestnut-backed Antbird. A bewildering array of tyrant flycatchers are also present, and may include Mistletoe Tyrannulet, Forest and Grey Elaenias, Rufous Mourner, Ochre-bellied, Ruddy-tailed, Acadian, Piratic and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Sulphur-rumped Myiobius and Golden-crowned Spadebill. Other possibilities include Cinnamon Becard, Bright-rumped Attila, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, the noisy Rufous Piha, colourful Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, the shy Russet-winged Schiffornis, Buff-breasted, Black-bellied and Song Wrens, Trilling Gnatwren, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers, Slate-coloured and Blue-black Grosbeaks, Scarlet-rumped and Yellow-rumped Caciques, and Crested and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.
Among the mammals we may encounter are Central American Agouti, White-nosed Coati and Mantled Howler Monkey. We will also stop at a small marsh where we will look for such aquatic birds as Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Anhinga, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, White-throated Crake, Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana and Green Kingfisher, while nearby open areas often hold Yellow-headed Caracara, Ruddy Ground-Dove, White-tipped Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbird, Grey-breasted Martin, Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows, American Yellow Warbler, Variable Seedeater and the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle. A nocturnal foray near our lodge may yield Pauraque, Crested and Spectacled Owls, Chocó Screech-Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Common and Great Potoos, or even the arboreal Kinkajou, though none are easy to find.
Western & Central Panama: Day 5 After spending the morning in the former Canal Zone we will travel westwards to Penonome for an overnight stay.
Western & Central Panama: Day 6 This morning we will continue to David in western Panama’s Chiriqui province for a two nights stay. The drier lowlands in the vicinity of David offer an interesting selection of open country birds, and here we will have a gentle introduction to the tour, with a variety of widespread species such as Pale-vented Pigeon, Ruddy Ground Dove, White-tipped Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Southern Lapwing, Western Cattle Egret, Black and Turkey Vultures, White-tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, the smart Red-crowned Woodpecker, Yellow-headed Caracara, Orange-chinned and Brown-throated Parakeets, smart Red-lored Amazons, Barred Antshrike, Common Tody-Flycatcher, the aptly-named Mouse-coloured Tyrannulet, the noisy Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, the ubiquitous Tropical Kingbird (TK as they are affectionately known!), Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet, Southern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows, Grey-breasted Martin, (Southern) House Wren, Tropical Mockingbird, Clay-coloured Thrush, Lesser Goldfinch, Black-striped Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle, American Yellow Warbler, Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers, the colourful Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue-black and Yellow-faced Grassquits, Variable and Morelet’s Seedeaters and Streaked Saltator. Later we will begin our explorations further afield.
Western & Central Panama: Day 7 During our stay we will explore the forested slopes of Western Panama that lie to the north of our base in David. Of prime importance to us will be the localized and endemic White-throated Mountaingem, which we will hope to see at some feeders. Whilst looking for this smart endemic, we should encounter a number of other hummingbirds including Lesser Violetear, smart Talamanca Hummingbirds, the gorgeous Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Scintillant and Volcano Hummingbirds, the impressive Violet Sabrewing, and localized Stripe-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds. Other species likely in these wonderful surroundings include Mourning Dove, comical Acorn Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpecker, the montane Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Mountain Elaenia, the range-restricted Yellowish Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Northern Tufted-Flycatcher, the localized Yellow-winged, Yellow-throated and Brown-capped Vireos, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes, Mountain Thrush, the gorgeous Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Siskin, the widespread but attractive Rufous-collared Sparrow, the localized Sooty-capped Bush Tanager, Yellow-thighed Brushfinch, smart Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, migrant Tennessee, Wilson’s and Black-throated Green Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Silver-throated and Flame-coloured Tanagers, and Slaty Flowerpiercer. If luck is on our side, we will find the exquisite Resplendent Quetzal or even the sneaky Wrenthrush (or Zeledonia)!
Almost as local is the Chiriqui Yellowthroat (restricted to western Panama and easternmost Costa Rica), and we will visit an area of wet pastureland in the David area where they can regularly be found. In the surrounding open country, we are sure to add other new species to our tally such as Blue-winged Teal, Common Gallinule, Great Egret, Pale-breasted and perhaps Slaty Spinetails, Black-chested Jay, Eastern Meadowlark, and the range-restricted Isthmian Wren.
Whilst in David, we will also visit the scenic Fortuna Road that winds up the lower mountains of Chiriqui and which offers some of the country’s best birding. Constructed along a trans-Panama pipeline, the road gives access to the Continental Divide and the forests on the adjacent Caribbean slope of Bocas del Toro province. On a clear day, the views of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, the Chiriqui Grande Lagoon and the forested mountains and lowlands must rank among some of Central America’s most superb scenery. The lush forests and cooler weather near the divide make for pleasant birding, and here we will primarily be looking for a number of specialities that are shared with Costa Rica, though we will be focusing our attention on species that are difficult to find there such as Red-fronted Parrotlet, the sneaky Lattice-tailed Trogon and the stunning Blue-and-gold Tanager.
Other great birds we may encounter include the tantalizing Three-wattled Bellbird as well as specialities such as Black Guan, White-bellied and Purple-throated Mountain-gems, the tricky Black-bellied Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar, Blue-throated Toucanet, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Black-thighed Grosbeak and the secretive Sooty-faced Finch.
Other more widespread species we may well encounter in this area include Band-tailed and Ruddy Pigeons, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-collared and Vaux’s Swifts, Green Hermit, Green-crowned Brilliant, Barred and Great Black Hawks, Collared Trogon, Golden-olive Woodpecker, the smart Red-headed Barbet, Zeledon’s Antbird, a variety of furnarids including Wedge-billed and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Lineated and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, and Red-faced Spinetail, the retiring White-throated Spadebill, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Torrent and Mistletoe Tyrannulets, Dusky-capped and Boat-billed Flycatchers, Blue-and-white Swallow, the scarce Azure-hooded Jay, Ochraceous, Stripe-breasted and Grey-breasted Wood Wrens, American Dipper, Pale-vented Thrush (drab, but an excellent vocalist!), smart Thick-billed and Tawny-capped Euphonias, Common Bush-Tanager, the endemic hypophaeus race of Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager (perhaps deserving of specific status as Drab-breasted Bush-Tanager), White-naped Brushfinch , an excellent array of American Wood Warblers including Tropical Parula, Black-and-white, Golden-winged, Mourning and Blackburnian Warblers, the stream-loving Buff-rumped Warbler, Slate-throated Whitestart, Rufous-capped and Black-eared Warblers and a plethora of colourful tanagers, including Emerald, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Black-and-yellow, Tooth-billed, Summer and Scarlet-rumped Tanagers.
More uncommon species we could encounter include the scarce White-tailed Emerald, the fine Ornate Hawk-Eagle, secretive Orange-billed, Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Road and weather conditions permitting, we will have a pre-dawn search for the endearing Bare-shanked Screech-Owl.
We should have time for a short visit to the Caribbean lowlands where we may find Finsch’s Parakeet, Groove-billed Ani, Tropical Pewee, Brown Jay, Olive-backed Euphonia, Red-breasted Blackbird and Montezuma Oropendola.
Western & Central Panama Day 8: After spending much of the day in the David region we will drive to Las Lajas for an overnight stay.
Western & Central Panama: Day 9 To the north of Las Lajas, the windy slopes of Cerro Colorado are home to two more of Panama’s few true endemics, namely the spritely Yellow-green Brushfinch, and the uncommon Glow-throated Hummingbird. The former is fairly straightforward to find but we will need real luck to come across the hummingbird, which may not have been recorded from this region for several years now. Adult males are scarce and females and immature males are very hard to distinguish from the closely-related and much more common Scintillant Hummingbird.
The cool cloudforests here are also home to some higher elevation specialities shared only with adjacent Costa Rica, such as the noisy Prong-billed Barbet, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Streak-breasted Treehunter, the retiring Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Black-faced Solitaire, Black-and-yellow Phainoptila, Collared Whitestart, Spangle-cheeked Tanager and Golden-browed Chlorophonia, in addition to some more widespread species such as Striped Cuckoo, Lesson’s Motmot, Lineated Woodpecker, Spotted Barbtail, Yellow-green Vireo, Rufous-and-white Wren, White-throated Thrush, Elegant Euphonia and Buff-throated Saltator. If we are fortunate, we may also find the smart Black-breasted Wood Quail, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove or the tricky Brown-billed Scythebill.
Western & Central Panama: Day 10 This morning we will focus our attention on finding the localized Veraguan Mango, a species that can be surprisingly tricky to track down. Whilst looking, we should also encounter the localized Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. Once we have achieved this we will head for the attractive coastal town of Santa Catalina for a two nights stay. Around Los Lajas, on the journey to Santa Catalina and close to our accommodation we shall explore the local coastline and open areas where we should pick up a number of new species for the trip. These may include a good number of wetland species such as Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Black-necked Stilt, Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, Wilson’s, Semipalmated and smart Collared Plovers, Killdeer, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Least, Semipalmated, Western and Spotted Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, (Western) Willet, Laughing Gull, Royal and Cabot’s Terns, Wood Stork, huge Magnificent Frigatebirds, Anhinga, Neotropic Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, American White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Western Osprey and Amazon and Ringed Kingfishers.
We should also encounter a number of species of open country and adjacent thickets, such as Plain-breasted Ground Dove, the grassland-loving Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Common Black Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Crested Caracara, Yellow-crowned and Southern Beardless Tyrannulets, Mangrove Swallow, the smart Yellow-crowned Euphonia, the huge Crested Oropendola, Crimson-backed Tanager and Ruddy-breasted and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters.
Western & Central Panama: Day 11 This morning we will take a boat over to the adjacent Coiba Island. During the crossing, we may well see a few seabirds such as Galapagos Shearwater and perhaps Nazca Booby, as well as Black Tern and Brown Booby. Once on the island, we may well find a few species along the coast such as American Oystercatcher, Green Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Green Kingfisher, and perhaps Bare-throated Tiger Heron. Once we’re ready, we will explore a trail through the forest on the island, where we should have little trouble finding the endemic Coiba Spinetail and the range-restricted Azuero Dove (which only occurs here and on the remote Azuero Peninsula). These two will be our main targets, but other likely species include, the localized Garden Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, the smart Blue-throated Sapphire (or Goldentail), the imposing King Vulture, Red-rumped Woodpecker, the huge and impressive Scarlet Macaw, Blue-headed Parrot, the gorgeous Lance-tailed Manakin, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, the localized Panamanian Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Scrub Greenlet.
Later in the day, we will take our boat back to the mainland, keeping an eye open for seabirds as we go.
Western & Central Panama: Day 12 This morning we will travel to Penonome for an overnight stay.
Later we will begin our exploration of the forested hills above El Copé. This excellent area is at the eastern end of the range for many of the western highland endemics and is the most accessible area of the General de División Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park. Here we will explore the forests for a number of much-wanted species including the delightful Snowcap and the elusive Yellow-eared Toucanet, as well as Grey-headed Chachalaca, Scaled and Short-billed Pigeons, Chestnut-collared and Band-rumped Swifts, White-necked Jacobin, Stripe-throated Hermit, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Crowned Woodnymph, the hooting Rufous Motmot, Broad-billed Motmot, the smart Spot-crowned Barbet, the impressive Keel-billed Toucan, and Black-cheeked and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers. We’ll seek out mixed flocks which may hold the scarce Long-tailed Woodcreeper, Plain and Spot-crowned Antvireos, White-flanked and Slaty Antwrens, Checker-throated Stipplethroats and Plain Xenops. In the understorey we’ll look for the ground-loving Chestnut-backed Antbird, Bicoloured Antbird and the smart Streak-chested Antpitta, whilst other species may include the fabulous White-ruffed Manakin, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Southern Nightingale-Wren, Rufous-breasted Wren, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, We will also have another shot at one or two of the more tricky species such as Black-breasted Wood Quail, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove and the elusive Lattice-tailed Trogon.
Western & Central Panama: Day 13 After a morning again exploring the forested hills above El Copé we will make our way to Panama City airport where the tour ends in the late afternoon.