Panama ranks as one of the world's top bird-watching sites, with more than 950 registered species of resident and migrant birds -- more than the U.S. and Canada combined. Because Panama is a land bridge connecting two continents, birders are privy to viewing species from both North and South America. Many of the birds found here are "showcase" birds such as toucans, macaws, and the resplendent quetzal, which delight even non-birders. Keen birders often return home having seen dozens of "life birds," or their first sighting of a bird species. If you head out with a qualified birding guide, expect to see upwards of 100 or more in a single day.
Lodges with the best bird-watching include Canopy Tower in Soberanía National Park, and its sister property Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Antón; Sierra Llorona Panama Lodge southeast of Colón and near Portobelo National Park; Cana Field Station in Darién National Park; Punta Patiño Lodge in Darién Province near the Gulf of San Miguel; Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa on the edge of International Amistad and Volcán Barú national parks. Note that these lodges provide professional bird-watching guides either as part of an all-inclusive package or ordered a la carte. Tour operators listed center their trips around these all-inclusive lodges, so really what you're getting is a 24-hour professional who is both problem-solver and educational guide.
Bird-watching hot spots include the Darién Highlands for macaws, large toucans, colorful tanagers, and endemics such as Pirre Warblers; the Darién Lowlands, especially known for harpy eagles; the Nusagandi region for speckled antshrikes and sapayoas; Soberanía National Park and Pipeline Road, home to more than 525 species including trogons, antbirds, blue cotingas, and other canopy dwellers; Achiote Road, near Fort San Lorenzo and Colón, for diurnal raptors and spot-crowned barbets, oropendolas, and pied puffbirds; El Valle for North American breeding warblers and black-crowned antpittas; and the neighboring national parks International Amistad and Volcán Barú (Chiriquí Highlands) for the resplendent quetzal, three-wattled bellbirds, trogons, long-tailed silky flycatchers, tapaculos, and Andean pygmy owls. Two popular birding areas here include Finca Hartmann and Finca Lérida, both coffee plantations with endemic and migratory species. Seabirds such as magnificent frigate birds nest on Isla Iguana in the Azuero; they also nest on Swan's Cay in Bocas, where you'll also find brown boobies and red-billed tropic birds.
U.S.-Based Tour Operators
Caligo Ventures (tel. 800/426-7781; www.caligoventures.com) specializes in bird-watching tours, with set itineraries for 9-day tours January through March to the Darién ($2,095/£1,048), and a combo of Soberanía National Park and the Chiriquí Highlands ($2,560/£1,280). Caligo uses local, expert birding guides. They also offer 9-day trips for independent travelers for $1,895 (£948) from May to November; and $2,095 (£1,048) from December to April.
Field Guides (tel. 800/728-4953 or 512/263-7295; www.fieldguides.com) is a specialty bird-watching travel operator, with highly esteemed and friendly guides. They offer four all-inclusive 10-day programs from December to March. Their "Wild Darien" visits the Cana Field Station; "Western Panama" focuses on the Chiriquí Highlands; the "Canopy Tower" sticks around Soberanía National Park; and "Wild Panama" visits the San Blas mountain range. Tours cost an average of $2,795 to $3,145 (£1,398-£1,573), and group size is limited to eight people.
Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (tel. 800/328-8368 or 512/328-5221; www.ventbird.com) is a well-respected tour operator and the largest company in the world specializing in bird tours. VENT offers not just December-to-March tours, but tours year-round either with one of their own guides or a local guide (or combination). Group limit is 10 people; tours average 7 nights and base around one destination (mostly the Canopy Tower) with optional add-on trips. Prices range from $1,645 to $2,695 (£823-£1,348) for 7 nights.
Panamanian Birding Companies
These tour operators provide travelers with multiple-day journeys, but more importantly, they are the companies to contact for shorter day excursions, especially around Panama City. In addition to these operators, the Panama Audubon Society (tel. 232-5977; www.panamaaudubon.org) offers a bird-watching trip around Panama City once a month for nonmembers ($5/£2.50) per person); and other trips and activities for members. Check their website for dates.
Ancon Expeditions has the largest staff of professional birding guides, many of whom are contracted by international companies, and they own and run both the Cana Field Station and the Punta Patiño Lodge in the Darién.
Advantage Tours (tel. 6676-2466; www.advantagepanama.com), which runs the Soberanía Research Lodge in Gamboa, are the travel organizers and outfitters for the international Audubon Society. Their secret asset is Guido Berguido, a degreed bird-watching guide who is one of the friendliest and enthusiastic guides anywhere. Their year-round "Birdwatchers Paradise" combines Soberanía and Achiote Road with Volcán Barú.