FLY LONDON-PANAMA CITY (VIA MADRID)
Our birdwatching tour to Panama begins with an early morning flight from London Heathrow (change of planes in Madrid) to Panama City, where we arrive mid-afternoon. As the 'plane descends into Tocumen Airport, watch for the Bridge of the Americas at the entrance to the famous Panama Canal.
It is not possible to connect with a same day onward flight to Bocas del Toro, so we will be met upon arrival in Panama and transfer to a nearby hotel for dinner and overnight. Night Country Inn and Suites at the Panama Canal
FLY BOCAS DEL TORO, TRANSFER BY BOAT TO TRANQUILO BAY
In the extensive grounds of our Panama City hotel early risers might be rewarded with their first views of Red-crowned Woodpecker and Tropical Kingbird, plus noisy Crimson-backed, Palm, Blue-grey and Plain-coloured Tanagers.
After breakfast we head to the nearby domestic airport for our one-hour, mid-morning flight along the Caribbean coast to tiny Bocas del Toro, in Northwest Panama. Upon arrival in Bocas, we transfer from the airport to our boat and the 25-minute ride out to Isla Bastimentos and the lovely Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge. Once settled into our comfortable and well-appointed cabanas, we'll gather to enjoy a relaxing first lunch at the lodge, taking some time to enjoy our surroundings and perhaps a siesta during the heat of the day.
The lodge and its surroundings are bedecked in flowers year round and attract a fascinating variety of ‘hummers’. Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds are the most numerous, but with patience and constant checking of patches of Heliconia and Verbena more unusual species such as Blue-chested Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Purple-crowned Fairy, and, with luck, Bronzy Hermit might zap by - not to mention a plethora of tropical butterflies.
Within the grounds, patches of forest are good for Chestnut-backed Antbird and Black-crowned Antshrike, which have become less timid over time and sometimes allow close approach. In September, the island is ideal for migrant North American warblers and the fruiting trees are likelt to hold Tennessee, Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers along with luminous yellow Prothonotary Warblers. We might well find Scarlet Tanager and a Red-eyed Vireo or two, while tropical residents adding to the mix can include Blue Dacnis, Bananaquit, Shining Honeycreeper, Golden-collared Manakin and the energetic Tropical Gnatcatcher.
As night closes in at the end of a great first day, both Mealy and Red-lored Parrots fly overhead as we stroll to the canopy tower to watch the evening show of nightjars, raptors and swifts silhouetted against a setting sun. We return to the lodge, as we will every day for a delicious evening meal - dinners will vary based upon the local ingredients available, but expect three or four courses each night. Night Tranquilo Bay
LA FORTUNA ROAD & CHIRIQUE LOWLANDS
After a good breakfast, we depart Isla Bastimentos early this morning and take a 45-minute boat ride to Punta Robalo on the mainland in order to reach the best habitat in time for the peak of morning bird activity. The potential rewards are enormous as we have an exciting full day birding ahead of us along the Fortuna Road that passes from Bocas del Toro into neighbouring Chiriqui Province.
In the morning we'll bird a large protected area known as the ‘Palo Seco Protection Forest’, part of the vast La Amistad Biosphere Reserve.
On arrival in Punta Robalo, cleared areas around town host birds typical of more open country in Central America, such as Groove-billed Ani, Red-breasted Meadowlark, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-black Grassquit and White-collared Seedeater. Hedgerows between the fields often support larger fruiting trees, where we’ll seek an array of flycatchers and tanagers along with several species of wrens (including Black-throated and Band-backed) and Grey-breasted Wood Wren. There should also be herons, birds of prey, Wood Stork and Spotted Sandpipers to watch for.
Moving into the forest we begin to concentrate on finding some of the scarcer and harder-to-find local species, such as Red-fronted Parrotlet, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Chestnut-coloured Woodpecker and Dull-mantled Antbird. Mixed species flocks are regularly seen in the forest and amongst the fine array of tanagers, warblers and vireos we might come across Cinnamon and White-winged Becards, Long-billed Gnatwren and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper.
After a picnic lunch enjoying views of the undisturbed foothill forest - perhaps unsurpassed in all of Middle America - we continue our exploration of the area during the afternoon, keeping a keen eye skyward for the flocks of migrant raptors that pass this way in autumn as the afternoon heat builds. Given the right conditions, the movements can sometimes be spectacular and regularly include large numbers of Turkey Vultures and Plumbeous Kites. In the forest we could well see the diminutive Black-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant (the world’s smallest passerine), along with up to 5 species of parrots, Cinnamon and Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Green Kingfisher, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Northern Barred Woodcreeper and Azure-hooded, Black and Brown Jays.
Time permitting, before returning to the boat we’ll visit a coastal marsh in search of shorebirds, Green and Glossy Ibises, Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Blue-winged Teal and anything else that catches our eye.
In the late afternoon we make the return journey to Tranquillo Bay, watching for terns and skuas in the open bay en route. Night Tranquilo Bay
ISLA POPA AND TRANQUILO BAY
Rising early to take advantage of the cooler part of the day, and with a coffee in hand, we quickly check for birds hanging about the cabanas and along the forest edge. After breakfast we load up the boat and cross the tranquil blue waters of the Caribbean Sea to nearby Isla Popa – little more than a mile away.
Isla Popa is the second-largest island in the Bocas archipelago and lies close to the mainland, which has resulted in a variety of bird species colonising it. We’ll spend some time exploring a mangrove-lined channel looking for one of our key targets here: the Daz-white Snowy Cotinga. Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Pale-billed and Lineated Woodpeckers, Crested Guans and Mangrove Cuckoo often perch up in the early morning sun, too. It is wonderful to simply stand and enjoy this idyllic spot - and in the clear tropical waters we will also check for interesting marine life: various rays, turtles and sea stars are regularly seen in the shallows. Strolling further into the island’s interior, sharp eyes could well pick out some of the variable poison-dart frog morphs that live here - each island has its own unique colour form.
We return to Tranquilo Bay for lunch today and a siesta during the hottest part of the day – while those that wish may have a swim. Come late afternoon, we'll again venture out to explore the trail system that winds into the park behind the lodge. Pineapple Hill is a large, elevated clearing that offers a great chance to see Red-capped Manakin, plus Scaled Pigeon and Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers. Within the forest, we hope to find wandering flocks that should include active White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens, the tiny Stub-tailed Spadebill (found only in the archipelago in Panama) and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, while the loud chips of Blue-chested Hummingbirds soon disclose where they are sitting.
On Pineapple Hill, we might also encounter White-crowned and Pale-vented Pigeons, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Groove-billed Ani and Blue-grey Tanager. And we are likely to hear White-throated Crake, too. A tiny creek often has pools where colourful manakins and hummingbirds come to drink and bathe - it is often possible to get superb views of the beautiful male Crowned Woodnymph or perhaps a tiny Stripe-throated Hermit and lively Golden-collared and Red-capped Manakins.
As dusk falls, a return visit to the canopy tower at Tranquilo Bay could find us watching Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, Blue-headed, Mealy and Red-lored Parrots, the diminutive White-vented Euphonia and Short-tailed Nighthawk.
After dinner, for those with energy to spare, an optional walk around the grounds spotlighting for nocturnal wildlife might reveal Mottled or even Black-and-white Owls, along with mammals such as Crab-eating Raccoon and Woolly Opossum. Night Tranquilo Bay
CHIRIQUE GRANDE & PALO SECO PROTECTED FOREST
After an early breakfast, we will leave the dock at 06:15 this morning and travel again by boat to the town of Punta Robalo, on the mainland. Today we will be returning to the Palo Seco Protection Forest, its 167,000 hectares being one of the most vital areas of La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. This incredible area consisting of wet Atlantic forest, foothills and watersheds is part of BirdLife International's Endemic Bird Area Central American Caribbean Slope.
Palo Seco is a hotbed for range-restricted species and altitudinal migrants such as Three-wattled Bellbird, and is one of the most important protected areas in the Neotropics. Snowy Cotinga, Chestnut-coloured and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Hermit, Slaty Spinetail, Dull-mantled Antbird and Band-backed and Black-throated Wrens are all possibilities on the outing. Crimson-coloured, Speckled, Emerald, Spangle-cheeked, Black-and-yellow and Silver-throated Tanagers add to the rainbow mix.
Other lowland specialities to watch for include White-crowned Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Long-billed Gnatwren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Buff-rumped Warbler, Torrent Tyranulet and White-collared Seedeater. While mammals can include sloths, Mantled Howler Monkey and Red Brocket Deer.
In the late afternoon we will work our way back through the lowland foothills, scanning for 'kettles' of migrating raptors, Snowy Cotinga and finally some marsh birds including up to three species of ibis, Southern Lapwing and Common Gallinule (American Moorhen). A fresh picnic lunch will be served in the field and we will return to the lodge in the evening. Night Tranquilo Bay
FINCA DE CACAO (GREEN ACRES CHOCOLATE FARM)
After birding from the lodge’s terrace with Panamanian coffee and a casual breakfast a little later than usual, we will take an easy 20-minute boat ride this morning through Dolphin Bay to Buena Esperanza.
The tropical flora here represents the best collection of plants - and therefore butterflies - in the archipelago. A superb water garden and natural creek running through the property also attract many species of mammals, reptiles and multicoloured amphibians. The psychedelic Green-and-black Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus) can be prolific with sufficient moisture. The landowners, who live onsite, protect this beautiful piece of mainland forest by using the property to operate an artisanal chocolate farm. Cacao trees grown to produce organic chocolate thrive beneath the shade of the forest canopy.
It's a terrific spot for birds and beneath this stunning canopy we will be searching for such delights as Slaty-tailed, White-tailed and Gartered Trogons, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Pied Puffbird, Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant, Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, Black-chested Jay, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and many more. Mammal sightings today might include Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Mantled Howler Monkey, Kinkajou, both Three-toed and Two-toed Sloths, various squirrels and Greater White-lined Bat.
After returning to Tranquilo Bay for lunch and a welcome hammock siesta, birding excursions to the canopy observation tower, the forest trail system and hummingbird bathing station are among options open to us. (For anyone wanting to take a rest from birding, water activities, guided sea kayaking or snorkeling amidst the alluring coral reefs are also available this afternoon.) Night Tranquilo Bay
CHANGUINOLA RIVER VALLEY
After coffee, fresh tropical juices and a complete Panamanian breakfast, we will leave the dock at 06:15 for a sunrise boat ride to Almirante, a banana producing town on the mainland.
From Almirante, our vehicle will take us through the foothills stretching along the coastline in one of Central America’s narrowest migratory bottlenecks. Due to the mainland topography, thermals channel the annual raptor migration down this beautifully rugged coastline. At this time of year, the number of 'kettles' and flights of soaring birds of prey can be sensational, with thousands of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks, Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites, and Turkey Vultures being seen at a time. This area is also important for a diverse group of resident Neotropical raptors including Black Hawk-eagle, White-tailed, Grey-headed and Hook-billed Kites, White Hawk and the striking King Vulture.
We will delight in a picnic lunch at an amazing overlook in the Caribbean foothills. This beautiful vista over the low wet forest in the San San Pond Sak Wetlands affords an excellent opportunity to scan the canopy for Lovely and Snowy Cotingas, and soaring birds of prey.
We will explore several sideroads today that branch out into villages where the indigenous Ngäbe people practise subsistance farming along the Changuinola River. Birding the forest edge, cocoa farms and patches of gallery forest may reveal the likes of Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Great Antshrike, Orange-collared and White-collared Manakins, the tiny Northern Bentbill, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Blue-black Grosbeak.
After another fantastic day in the field, a short boat ride through Dark Land and Dolphin Bay will bring us back to the lodge in the early evening. Night Tranquilo Bay
SAN SAN POND SAK & SNYDER CANAL
Today will be a tranquil day of ‘birding by boat’ within several lush coastal wetland habitats. The San San Pond Sak Wetlands is a designated Ramsar site, as well as part of the La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The area is rich with abundant habitats including Atlantic wet lowland forest, Raphia palm swamp, freshwater river course, mangroves and ocean impact beachfront.
Access to the reserve is via boat through the historic Snyder Canal, as birds conveniently fly through the gallery forest back and forth across the waterway. After the Snyder Brothers finished construction of the canal in the late 1890s, it was used to transport bananas from the Changuinola River Valley to the sheltered waters of Almirante Bay at Boca del Drago, where they were loaded onto transport ships. Panama’s first canal was vital in establishing The United Fruit Company and the very beginnings of what would become known as ‘The Banana Republic’. This is an excellent place to find lowland bird species, northern and altitudinal migrants, raptors and shorebirds.
All six species of kingfishers known to the Americas can be found here. We will also be watching closely for regional endemics such as the range restricted Nicaraguan Seedfinch, White-collared Manakin (Almirante race), Olive- backed Euphonia, Black-cowled Oriole, Canebrake Wren and Three-wattled Bellbird. The furtive Masked Duck, Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Potoo, Northern Jacana and Bare-throated Tiger Heron are also possible. Raptor sightings could include Yellow-headed Caracara, Western Osprey, Laughing, Bat and Peregrine Falcons and the petite Pearl Kite.
From the high branches of fruiting trees down to the shrubby forest edge, the chatter of Olive-throated Parakeets might accompany our search for Passerini’s and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Red-breasted Blackbird, Squirrel Cuckoo, Streaked and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and the minute Common, Black-headed and Slate-headed Tody-flycatchers. Mammals are invariably trickier to find, but possibilities include Crab-eating Racoon, White-nosed Coati, Neotropical River Otter, the docile West Indian Manatee and Bottlenose Dolphin.
Soropta Beach is important for migrating and resident shorebirds and is also a nesting ground for Leatherback and Hawksbill Turtles. We will picnic on the beach, enjoying the fresh sea breeze and the shorebirds. In autumn, the rivermouth could produce Arctic and Pomarine Skuas along with Wilson’s, Collared and Semipalmated Plovers and Least, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs probe the beach and up to four species of tern may be seen at roost. Common and Lesser Nighthawks sometimes appear in the late afternoon.
Sea conditions permitting, in the afternoon we will head just two miles offshore to visit a breathtaking rookery reserve known as Swan’s Caye. Here we should enjoy close looks at Panama’s only known breeding colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds. Brown Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds also nest and we'll enjoy those too before returning to our lodge in the late afternoon. Night Tranquilo Bay
TRANQUILO BAY, FLY BOCAS DEL TORO-PANAMA CITY
Our last morning at Tranquilo Bay is left open for birding the many trails on the property, perhaps making one last visit to the bird bathing pool in the forest... or simply just relaxing.
After an early lunch, we return to Bocas del Toro and catch a late afternoon flight back to Panama City. Our hotel for the next two nights lies a short drive to the north of the city, on the edge of the Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces. Night at Radisson Summit Hotel, Panama City
PIPELINE ROAD (SOBERANIA NATIONAL PARK) & DEPARTURE FOR LONDON
Early risers can listen to the chorus of tropical birdsong as species begin to appear in front of the hotel and local golf course. Grey-headed Chachalacas and Great Kiskadees invariably make the most noise, but the birdy hotel grounds hold an array of Central American species.
Southern Lapwings strut about the fairways and Wattled Jacanas feed on pools about the golf course; Grey-headed Kites and Short-tailed Hawks regularly cruise above the trees, as White-tipped Doves and Squirrel Cuckoos clamber through the branches. Red-crowned Woodpeckers are common and we could well find Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds or a Black-throated Mango. Large Keel-billed Toucans flash their colourful bills, trying to outdo the brilliant palette of warblers or tanagers – though it is hard to outshine Crimson-backed Tanager!
Anyone that simply wishes to rest up before our return to the UK can spend time at leisure in Panama City or relaxing by the hotel's pool.
However, for those keen to enjoy some further birding our Panama tour concludes with a full day excursion plus another visit next morning into nearby Soberania National Park in company of an expert bird tour guide living locally.
Protecting some 55,000 acres of tropical forest, Soberania is situated on Panama's Pacific slope, close to the famous Panama Canal. Legendary in birding circles, Pipeline Road runs north-south through the park for the best part of 11 miles, passing through old-growth and secondary forest - it is one of the best places to see birds in the American tropics, with a bird list exceeding 400 species!
Great Tinamous call from the forest and we may be lucky to spot a shy Ruddy Quail-dove lurking in the leaf litter. Long-billed Hermit is possible and we may find Whooping Motmot and both Black-tailed and White-tailed Trogons sitting quietly on a liana. If we are lucky to encounter an ant swarm, we have chances of seeing a host of attendant species such as Black-crowned Antshrike, Chequer-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, and Dusky, Chestnut-backed and the remarkably beautiful Ocellated Antbirds. Blue-crowned and Golden-collared Manakins are two more local specialities, as is Fulvous-vented Euphonia. We are sure to encounter a host of new and exciting species during our visits here for a cracking finale to our tour!
Our birding adventure over, we return to our hotel for an early lunch on Day 11, then depart for nearby Tocumen International Airport and our late afternoon flight home.
Lunchtime arrival in Madrid and onward connection to London Heathrow, where our birdwatching tour to Panama concludes this afternoon.
Please note that the above itinerary is intended only as a guide and we may vary the programme locally depending on latest bird news, weather and sea conditions at the time of our visit.