Discover Panama, where the wildlife of North and South America blend and the biodiversity is unmatched. On this Panama birding and nature tour, we explore the dense western jungles interspersed with open agricultural areas of Panama’s Darién region, long coveted, but only recently opened to birders.
Like so much of the world, most of the Darién’s primary forest has been logged, yet it still boasts many rich habitats; indeed, the Darién continues to produce new Central American records and is a stepping stone for northward spreading species like Whistling Heron, Southern Lapwing, Slender-billed Kite, Pearly-breasted Cuckoo, Cattle Tyrant, and Yellow-hooded Blackbird.
Spend a delightful five nights at the Canopy Camp Darién, which boasts modern amenities like large, safari-style tents, full-size beds, private baths and showers, flush toilets, solar electricity, and fans. One night at the start of the tour is in Panama City.
- Visit Nusagandi, one of Panama’s first ecotourism projects, conceived and built by the Kuna Tribe
- Bird Canopy Camp’s trails for local specialties like Black Antshrike, Double-banded Graytail, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, and Russet-winged Schiffornis
- Explore near Yaviza, at the end of the Pan-American Highway and less than 50km from Colombia
- Search for night birds near camp, including Striped, Crested, Barn, Black-and-white, and Mottled Owls, as well as Common and Great Potoos
- Hike to Las Lagunas in search of beautiful Capped Heron and the extraordinary Black-capped Donacobius
- Visit Fundación Tierra Nueva, a non-profit that focuses on sustainable development of the Darién’s people
- Discover the mountain village of Nuevo Vigia, accessible by piragua (locally made dugout canoes)
Fri., July 23: Arrival in Panama
Today you arrive in Central America’s southernmost country!
Upon your arrival in Panama, you are transferred by hotel van to Riande Aeropuerto Hotel, just five minutes from Tocumen International Airport. While you acclimatize to the tropical heat and have a cold drink, you can birdwatch right on the grounds of the hotel. Great-tailed Grackle, Clay-colored Thrush, Variable Seedeater, Tropical Kingbird, Blue-gray Tanager, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and more await your visit in the gardens.
Those arriving in time can join your tour host for dinner. We meet our expert local guides tomorrow.
Accommodations at Riande Aeropuerto Hotel (D)
Sat., July 24: Nusagandi Forest Reserve | Canopy Camp Darién
This morning we enjoy a delicious breakfast in the hotel restaurant, featuring fresh tropical fruits and juices. Our local guide arrives at 6:15 AM to answer any questions you may have. Soon after breakfast we head for eastern Panama, where a host of great birds and plenty of exploring await!
The journey to our final destination is approximately five hours, but we make stops along the way in exciting birding areas. As we drive east along the Pan-American Highway, we scan for roadside birds and open-field raptors, including Savanna Hawk and Crested Caracara.
Our first scheduled stop is in the Nusagandi area, not too far off the highway in the foothills of the Caribbean Slope. Nusagandi was one of the first ecotourism projects in Panama, conceived and built by indigenous people. It provides naturalists access to an area administered and protected by the Guna (Kuna) Tribe.
As we follow the El Llano-Cartí Road north, we cross the Continental Divide and reach the Comarca (reserve) of Guna Yala (formerly a portion of San Blas Provence). Here we explore the trails through the pristine forest of the Nusagandi Forest Reserve in search of rarities and localized species including Sapayoa, Speckled Antshrike, Stripe-throated Wren, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Rufous-winged, Sulphur-rumped, and Black-and-yellow Tanagers, Yellow-eared Toucanet, the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Blue-fronted Parrotlet, Streak-chested Antpitta, and Tawny-capped Euphonia.
While enjoying a lovely Panamanian lunch, the hummingbirds at the feeders capture our attention, as Long-billed Starthroat, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and Black-throated Mango take their lunch, too, offering great photo opportunities.
After lunch, we head back to the Pan-American Highway and continue east. Although we are on the Pan-American Highway, the passport check at the provincial boundary reminds us that we are entering a more remote part of Panama. We carry on from here to the Canopy Camp Darién, arriving before daylight fades so we can settle into our tents and get acquainted with the setting. After a delicious dinner of fresh American and Panamanian fare, we gather for an overview of the days to come and settle into our tents for the night.
Accommodations at Canopy Camp (B,L,D)
Sun., July 25: Canopy Camp Trails | Pan-American Highway to Yaviza
We meet before sunrise for coffee or tea and to enjoy the dawn chorus of unfamiliar bird songs, including the mellow “wolf-whistle” of the handsome Barred Puffbird. Yellow-throated (formerly Black-mandibled) and Keel-billed Toucans call from the towering Cuipo trees; Red-lored and Mealy Parrots fly overhead; and White-bellied Antbird, Bright-rumped Attila, White-headed Wren, Golden-headed Manakin, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar sing from the surrounding forests, while Pale-bellied Hermit and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird visit the flowers around camp. By the 7:30 AM breakfast call, we are ready to refuel!
After breakfast we work our way into the forest on “Nando’s Trail,” in hopes of finding Great Antshrike, Royal Flycatcher, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, Cinnamon Becard, Black-tailed Trogon, Tiny Hawk, and local specialties like Black Antshrike, Double-banded Graytail, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, and Russet-winged Schiffornis. Listen for groups of screeching Red-throated Caracara, and watch for King Vulture, Short-tailed Hawk, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Plumbeous Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, and other raptors over the clearings.
After lunch, we can enjoy the hummingbirds and other species around the camp (huge White-headed Wren are often common here), dip our feet in the rocky stream, or have a siesta. Then we head southeast and bird the forests and swampy meadows along the road toward Yaviza at the end of the Pan-American Highway, less than 50km from the Colombian border. Darién specialties we may find include Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Black Oropendola, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, and Black-capped Donacobius. Pied Water-Tyrant, Bicolored and Black-collared Hawks, Pearl and White-tailed Kites, Limpkin, Jet Antbird, Black-billed Flycatcher, Red-breasted Blackbird, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater may also be encountered as we head farther east into the Darién.
We return to camp in time to freshen up for dinner. We often end the day with our checklist — today we tally our sightings from our first full day at Canopy Camp!
After dinner those that wish can venture out to look for nightbirds, including Striped, Crested, Barn, Black-and-white, and Mottled Owls, as well as Common and Great Potoos and likely some nocturnal mammals.
Accommodations at Canopy Camp (B,L,D)
Mon., July 26: El Salto Road | Las Lagunas Road & Aruza Lagoons
We meet for an early breakfast, then head to El Salto Road for the morning. This road extends six km northward from the Pan-American Highway and ends at the mighty Río Chucunaque. The open road and surrounding dry forest are great places to search for regional specialties, including Golden-green Woodpecker, Double-banded Graytail, Blue-and-yellow and Chestnut-fronted Macaws, Black and Crested Oropendolas, the jewel-like Blue Cotinga, White-eared Conebill, Black-breasted Puffbird, and Orange-crowned Oriole, as well as the majestic King Vulture. A trail at the end of the road takes us into low-canopy forest, where we hope to find the striking Bare-crowned Antbird, as well as Pale-bellied Hermit, Olivaceous Piculet, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, and Forest Elaenia.
This afternoon we explore a bit and bird our way to Las Lagunas. The road extends 12km south of the Pan-American Highway through open farmland, dry scrub, and other roadside habitats, eventually crossing a stream and ending at small ponds. Along the roadsides, we hope to find Red-breasted Blackbird (an aggressive colonist in Central America), Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, White-headed Wren, Smooth-billed and Greater Ani, Muscovy Duck, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Southern Lapwing, Blue-headed Parrot, Striped Cuckoo, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Wren, Giant and Shiny Cowbirds, Crested Oropendola, and both Laughing and Aplomado Falcons. If we’re lucky, we may get a glimpse of a Chestnut-fronted Macaw or a shy Little Cuckoo, both having been seen along this road.
At the lagoons, a great habitat for many wonderful species, we hope to find Pied Water-Tyrant, Capped Heron, the beautiful Yellow-hooded Blackbird, and the extraordinary Black-capped Donacobius ? a taxonomic enigma that has recently been placed in its own family.
Accommodations at Canopy Camp (B,L,D)
Tues., July 27: Serranía Filo del Tallo Hydrological Reserve | Tierra Nueva Foundation
After our usual early breakfast at the Canopy Camp, we head into the Serranía Filo del Tallo Reserve. Serranía Filo del Tallo is a designated Hydrological Reserve that protects a small mountain range west of the Pan-American Highway. The Canopy Camp borders this reserve, which protects an area of 300 sq km (74,000 acres).
We access the reserve via a trail located at the northern end of the range. The trail crosses a small creek and passes through part of the reserve, then climbs upward to a plateau where there is a teak plantation. Here we hope to have great looks at Olivaceous Piculet, a tiny woodpecker no larger than your thumb, Golden-headed Manakin, Royal Flycatcher, Dull-mantled Antbird, Buff-rumped Warbler, Great Curassow, White-bellied Antbird, Red-throated Caracara, and Black-tailed Trogon, to name a few.
Part of the enjoyment here is the sense that one follows the rhythm of a safari; in that fashion, we tuck into our tented camp around mid-day. After some relaxation time during the hottest part of the day, we visit the property of the Tierra Nueva Foundation.
Fundación Tierra Nueva is a non-profit organization whose main mission is “working towards the sustainable development of people of the Darién Rainforest.” The property is the home of a technical school that focuses on applications in agriculture. We explore the trails in hopes of finding Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-breasted and Black-billed Flycatchers, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Cinnamon, Cinereous, and One-colored Becards, White-eared Conebill, White-headed Wren, and the stunning Great Curassow. We also search for the eastern race of the Chestnut-backed Antbird, which shows white spots on the wings.
Accommodations at Canopy Camp (B,L,D)
Wed., July 28: Nueva Vigia Village
We awake once again to the energetic dawn chorus of oropendolas, wrens, antbirds, manakins, parrots, and toucans as the sun rises over eastern Panama. After a satisfying breakfast, we depart the Canopy Camp for a day filled with great birds! This morning we are off to Nuevo Vigia, a village of the Embera Tribe that is nestled north of the Pan-American Highway, and surrounded by great secondary growth dry forest and two small lakes, all of which attract an enticing variety of birds.
The village is accessible by "piraguas," locally-made dugout canoes. As we coast along the Chucunaque and Tuquesa Rivers, we keep our eyes and ears open for Chestnut-headed, Crested, and Black Oropendolas, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Common Black Hawk, Yellow-tailed Oriole, and Red-billed Scythebill. Water birds of interest include Capped and Cocoi Herons, White Ibis, and Greater Ani.
We spend the majority of the morning birding at the lakes, a great place to see Black-collared Hawk, Bare- crowned and White-bellied Antbirds, Green Ibis, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Spectacled Parrotlet, Black-tailed Trogon, Striped Cuckoo, Black-bellied Wren, Little Tinamou, Golden-green Woodpecker, and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher (the least frequently encountered of the six New World kingfishers).
In the village of Nuevo Vigia, local artisans weave colorful decorative masks and plates out of palm fronds and carve cocobolo wood and tagua palm nuts into animals and plants; we have the opportunity to meet some of the community members and admire (and purchase) some of the beautiful handmade products. We enjoy a satisfying picnic lunch in the village, followed by more great birding around the riversides and scrubby habitat surrounding Nuevo Vigia before heading back to the Canopy Camp.
Accommodations at Canopy Camp (B,L,D)
Thurs., July 29: Aligandi | Canopy Camp Grounds
We enjoy breakfast and the birds at Canopy Camp as the sun rises. This morning we venture toward Yaviza to the property of Aligandi. Aligandi is a huge area with unique scrub forest and much to be explored. We head out from the Camp toward the end of the Pan-American Highway, taking a turn prior to reaching Yaviza. Along the roadsides here we scan for Red-breasted Blackbird, Striped Cuckoo, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Thick-billed Seed-Finch, American Kestrel, and other open area birds. A Great Green Macaw nest is tucked up in the canopy of a huge Cuipo tree, visible from the road, and if we’re lucky, an adult or a chick may be seen poking its head out of the cavity. At Finca Doncella, we continue on foot along the road through the scrub forest, seeking out Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Bat Falcon, Giant Cowbird, Orange-crowned Oriole, Red-billed Scythebill, White-eared Conebill, and mixed feeding flocks. It is possible to see the Macaws often fly over as we further explore the area. We enjoy lunch back at Canopy Camp.
This afternoon we stay close to home, exploring the Canopy Camp grounds and trails, which certainly merit further exploration! The afternoon is ours to enjoy the nearby trails accessible from the lodge, the verbenas full of hummingbird and butterfly activity, where we hope to see Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Pale-bellied Hermit, Long-billed Starthroat, Blue-throated Goldentail, and if lucky, a stunning Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird feeding here. Barred Puffbird, Spot-crowned Barbet, Olivaceous Piculet, White-headed Wren, King Vulture, Red-rumped Woodpecker and Streak-headed Woodcreeper are birds we may encounter this afternoon. If desired, we can hike up the slope to stand in the shadows of two giant Cuipo trees, standing like gates to rich mature forest. Later in the afternoon we meet again to review our checklist and enjoy cocktails as the sun sets for the day. We enjoy a final dinner together to wrap up the tour, and once again listen for the calls of owls and night birds around the camp after dark.
Accommodations at Canopy Camp (B,L,D)
Fri., July 30: San Francisco Nature Reserve | Bayano Lake | Return to Panama City
We wake before dawn to pack and have an early breakfast, say our goodbyes to the Canopy Camp staff, and start our journey back to Panama City. En route, we stop at San Francisco Nature Reserve, a private forest reserve owned and managed by the St. Francis Foundation, covering 1,300 acres in eastern Panama Province.
The San Francisco Reserve was established in 2001 by Father Pablo Kasuboski, an American priest from Wisconsin who came to Panama in 1988. The reserve serves as a wildlife refuge and protects the headwaters of the main rivers of the area. The foundation created by Padre Pablo also works on infrastructure development in the area by building and maintaining aqueducts, roads, schools, and churches. In fact, the St. Francis Foundation built and maintains the largest private rural aqueduct in all of Panama and Central America. The reserve has a variety of habitats, including primary, secondary, and riparian forests, forest edge, fields, farmland, ponds, and wetlands.
During our morning here, we explore some of the different habitats along the short road that enters the reserve. We hope to find Great Jacamar, Broad-billed Motmot, Collared Aracari, Russet-winged Schiffornis, Royal Flycatcher, White-fronted Nunbird, Brownish Twistwing, Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Blue and Plain-breasted Ground-doves, and if we’re very fortunate, a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle soaring overhead or dare we even whisper it … a Wing-banded Antbird along the trails!
After lunch, we stop at the bridge at Lake Bayano, Panama’s second largest lake. This reservoir supports great numbers of water birds, including a large colony of Neotropic Cormorant, as well as Anhinga, Cocoi Heron, and the locally rare Bare-throated Tiger-Heron. We scan the water’s edge for Purple Gallinule, Pied Water-Tyrant, Smooth-billed Ani, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. A short trail leading from the lake is a great place to search for Black Antshrike, Bare-crowned Antbird, Rufous-winged Antwren, and Golden-collared Manakin.
At another stop along the way ? the Río Mono Bridge ? the surrounding forest is home to Rufous-winged Antwren, One-colored Becard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Blue Cotinga, Pied and Barred Puffbirds, White-eared Conebill, Orange-crowned Oriole, Blue Ground-Dove, and more. We also scan the river below for Green-and-rufous Kingfisher and the elusive Fasciated Tiger-Heron.
Our tour ends this afternoon at the Panama City airport. You may fly back home this evening, book tonight at the airport hotel on your own, or arrange a transfer to the Canal Zone to spend a few days at leisure in the city. (B,L)
Cost of the Journey
The cost of this 7-night journey is $2890 DBL / $3390 SGL, from Panama City. This cost is based on double occupancy and includes 7 nights’ (1N Riande Hotel, 6N Canopy Camp) accommodations; meals as specified in the itinerary, group airport transfers, professional guide services, local park and other area entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses. The cost is based on a minimum number of 6 participants, with fewer a small group surcharge (typically $100-$300) may apply. Singles are limited at Canopy Camp, so please inquire promptly if interested.
The cost does not include transportation to or from your home to Panama, or items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone charges, porterage, maid gratuities or beverages from the bar.
All major airlines service Panama City. Since you are spending your first night at an airport hotel, arrive any time on July 23. Plan to depart on evening fights (from 6:00 PM onward) on July 30, or stay for an extra night (or more!) on your own. We recommend the Riande Hotel after the tour at about $160 per night.
Photo credits: Banner: Black Howler Monkey by Peg Abbott; Pheasant Cuckoo by Carla Bregman; Canopy Camp by Lori Conrad; Night Monkeys by Carla Bregman; White-headed Marsh Tyrant by Mike Boyce; White-fronted Capuchin by Peg Abbott; Common Black Hawk by Greg Smith; Broad-billed Motmot, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Purple Gallinule by Tom Dove; Juvenile Harpy Eagle, Pat Lueders; Keel-billed Toucan, Peg Abbott; Capped Heron, Peg Abbott; Southern Lapwing, Peg Abbott; Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, Alan Gertler; Silver-throated Tanager, Peg Abbott; Collared Aracari, James Adams; Black-throated Mango, Naturalist Journeys Stock; Canopy Camp, Lori Conrad; Golden-headed Manakin, Buck Snelson; Red-throated Caracara, Peg Abbott; Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Peg Abbott; Black-breasted Puffbird, James P. Smith; Black-crowned Antshrike, James P. Smith; Cinnamon Becard, James P. Smith; Crested Eagle, James P. Smith; Geoffroy's Tamarin, James P. Smith; Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, James P. Smith; Red-billed Scythebill, James P. Smith; Streaked Flycatcher, James P. Smith.