Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Panama Trip Report

September 29 – October 24, 2015

Blue-crowned Manakin

Most of this extensive birding trip to Panama was organised by Birding Panama ( All the participants had previously birded Costa Rica and Colombia so we were focused on regional specialties and species that are difficult to find elsewhere. We had an extraordinarily successful trip with almost all key target birds seen. Almost 500 species were recorded with good birds including Black-eared Wood-Quail, Agami Heron, Crested Eagle, Plumbeous Hawk, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Costa Rica Pygmy-Owl, Dusky Nightjar, Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Snowcap, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Pirre Hummingbird, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Blue-fronted Parrotlet, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Resplendent Quetzal, Tody Motmot, Barred Puffbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, Grey-cheeked Nunlet, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Spot-crowned Barbet, Tody Motmot, Speckle-faced Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Wing-banded Antbird, Black Antshrike, Speckled Antshrike, Black-crowned Antpitta, Streak-breasted Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Black-headed Ant-thrush, Sapayoa, Brown-billed Scythebill, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Slaty-winged Foliage-gleaner, Beautiful Treerunner, Speckled Mourner, Double-banded Greytail, Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Choco Sirystes, Brownish Twistwing, Ochraceous Peewee, Dark Peewee, Russet-winged Schiffornis, Northern Schiffornis, Blue Cotinga, Sharpbill, Silvery-throated Jay, Sooty-headed Wren, Stripe-throated Wren, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher,Varied Solitaire, Pirre Warbler, Zeledonia (Wrenthrush), Connecticut Warbler, Green-naped Tanager, Blue-and-gold Tanager, Pirre Bush-Tanager,Viridian Dacnis, Orange-collared Manakin, Green Manakin, Yellow-green Finch and Black

Black-and-yellow Tanager

I organised the itinerary in conjunction with Jose Carlos Garcia ( I can highly recommend the services of Birding Panama; this was a difficult trip with plenty of challenges but with the exception of a couple of inevitable hiccups, it was very well organised. We were guided by Euclides (Kilo) Campos, who was by any standard a highly capable and skilled guide, able to track down the most difficult skulkers and always willing to help. In the Darien we were also guided by Isaac Pizaro from the local Guna Indian community, who has extensive knowledge of the local avifauna; Isaac organised the on-the-ground logistics for our visit to Cerro Pirre. Others have commented in reports that Isaac's behaviour can be erratic; there is some truth to this but at the end of the day he came up with the goods.

Fiery-billed Aracari

A series of seven illustrated posts from the trip have been published on my blog (search “Panama” on ). 

Crested Eagle
We visited major sites in the Darien in the east of the country near the Colombia border; in central Panama; and in the Chiriqui highlands in the west near the Costa Rica border. Trails were muddy and steep in places. Trips of this nature are not easy, especially with a large group. However we were fortunate with the weather, losing very little birding time to rain, and frequently overcast conditions kept temperatures in check to some extent. We had no mechanical difficulties although the bus could have been more comfortable.
The group and support staff, Rancho Frio
The biggest challenge of the trip was always going to be the assault on Cerro Pirre in the Darien – a key and difficult-to-access site for many regional endemics and specialties. We had three full days in this area in addition to two travel days so hard decisions had to be made about how the time should best be utilised. Our base for this part of the trip was Rancho Frio, the headquarters of Darien National Park. We had three nights at Rancho Frio and two nights camping on Cerro Pirre, with our gear being transported up steep tracks by Isaac's excellent team of porters and other workers.

Porters on Cerro Pirre
We spent the first of the three days in the lowland forests around Rancho Frio. This was a good move because we cleaned up most of the lowland and lower foothill specialties, allowing more time to look for mid-elevation species on our way up Cerro Pirre on the second day. The first camping night was at mid-elevation (640m) at camp site called Rancho Plastico. The group split for the second night, with some again camping at Plastico and others ascending to a ridge camp at 1100m. Some specialties are found only on the higher slopes but not everybody could camp up there, in part because of the physical challenges involved in the very steep climb and also because provisions for a second camping party were limited. With the benefit of hindsight, I believe it would have been better for the whole group to have camped both nights at Plastico, with those wishing to go up to the ridge leaving early in the morning and returning in the afternoon. It would have made operations much easier logistically and prevented tensions that can arise when guides and other resources are split. While formidable and challenging, the climb to the top was not as dire as some reports suggest and can be done quite easily in a full day if participants are reasonably fit.
Plastico Camp - Cerro Pirre
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe it would have been better for the whole group to have camped both nights at Plastico, with those wishing to go up to the ridge leaving early in the morning and returning in the afternoon. It would have made operations much easier logistically and prevented tensions that can arise when guides and other resources are split. While formidable and challenging, the climb to the top was not as dire as some reports suggest and can be done quite easily in a full day if participants are reasonably fit.
Isaac Pizaro on Rio Chucumaque
PARTICIPANTS Greg Roberts (leader, Australia), Euclides Campos (guide, Panama), Ketil Knudsen (Norway), Niels Poul Dreyer (Denmark), Taus Rasmussen (Denmark), Jeff Skevington (Canada), Jonathan Newman (United Kingdom), Bill Watson (Australia), Barbara De Witt (United States).

Cerro Pirre

September 29. I arrived in Panama City following a 27-hour sojourn from Brisbane via Los Angeles. Overnight in the very nice and birdy Radisson Summit Hotel.

September 30. Birding in the forest which surrounds the hotel.

Radisson Summit Hotel
October 1. The first day of the 21-day tour but the day before our travelling began. Some of us who arrived early hired Kilo for a morning excursion to Chagres National Park, a nice area of lowland rainforest not far from the hotel. Good sightings included exceptionally close-up views of the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet. Blue Cotinga, Connecticut Warbler and White-whiskered Puffbird were seen.

October 2. Today we visited the famed Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park, also not far from the hotel. We spent the day walking the shaded road, scoring nicely with Spotted Antbird, Russet-winged Shiffornis and Streak-breasted Antpitta. An Agami Heron close to the track was an unexpected bonus.

Birding Pipeline Road
October 3. We left the hotel early, crossing the Panama Canal and heading east along the Pan-American Road to the Bayano lowlands, where we had Black Antshrike in scrub by the Rio Mono. We birded some more scrub near Torti along the Rio Torti, finding Pacific Antwren and Double-banded Greytail. Lunch was at the Hotel Torti where we were entertained by an abundance of hummers at the feeders including Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird and Long-billed Starthroat. We packed small bags for our foray into the Darien and left our main luggage cases, laptops and the like in storage at the hotel to pick up on the way back; this was necessary because the travel arrangements for the Darien are not adequate to handle large bags. We headed further to east to Meteti, overnighting in the basic but pleasant Meteti Hotel.
Guide Euclides (Kilo) Campos 
October 4. We checked out some secondary scrub and grassland east of Metiti early in the morning, then had some very good birding at the eastern end of the Pan-American Road, especially roadside in forest patches within 15km of Yaviza, the busy port town where the road terminates. Here we saw Grey-cheeked Nunlet, Barred Puffbird, Spot-crowned Barbet and Black Oropendola, along with Geoffrey's Tamarin. We met Isaac Pizaro and loaded ourselves into a large motorised canoe for a 1.5-hour journey up the Rio Chucumaque to the town of El Real. After lunch we crowded into an ancient truck for a 10km drive to the edge of the forest. We then hiked 6km through the forest to Rancho Frio, the national park headquarters. Our trek was interrupted by the sight of an imposing and much-wanted dark phase Crested Eagle – one of the most difficult neotropical raptors to see - perched high in a tree above the track. This was near the spot where a pair of Harpy Eagles had for several years nested successfully until earlier this year, when one of the adults was shot by locals; the people evidently were angry that their demands for money from visiting birders in a national park buffer zone were refused. After a long and eventful day, we arrived in the late afternoon at Rancho Frio, pleasantly located in a clearing in the forest beside a fast-running stream, ideal for bathing. Our baggage arrived on the backs of three horses. Accommodation was in a shared dormitory.

October 5. A day on the lowland and lower foothill forest trails around Rancho Frio. It started well with Viridian Dacnis and Choco Sirystes near the buildings. Soon after we had a pair of Sapayoa – the only one of the world's 234 bird families that I had not seen. In the same area we saw Slaty-winged Foliage-gleaner and Lemon-spectacled Tanager. A Speckled Mourner foraging mid-canopy was another species that is difficult to find elsewhere.

Mantled Howlers
Late in the day, when we thought it couldn't get much better, Kilo was alarmed when he heard, close to the track, the sound of what he thought was the gnashing of tusks of potentially dangerous White-lipped Peccaries. Instead, out of the thick ground cover popped a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, which perched briefly on a log before fluttering into the undergrowth; unfortunately half the group missed the bird.

October 6. The porters had gone up the steep slopes of Cerro Pirre yesterday to set up our mid-elevation camp at Plastico. Early on our hike up the mountain we scored with Plumbeous Hawk - another difficult neotropical raptor. Then came a suite of highly desirable mid-elevation birds: Tody Motmot, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Dull-mantled Antbird, Black-and-yellow Tanager, White-ruffed Manakin and best of all, Wing-banded Antbird. This is probably the best place to see Wing-banded Antbird and our excellent views of 2 birds on the slopes below the trail were among the trip highlights.
The camp at Plastico was basic with small tents under the cover of a large plastic sheet. Unfortunately, sleeping mats we thought would be provided did not materialise, evidently due to a misunderstanding. Most of us were content enough to put up with the discomforts in the knowledge that getting a large group up this mountain was never going to be a fairy tale logistically. Kilo and the guys went the extra mile to meet various requests, to the point of compromising their own comfort. In the late afternoon during a steep walk down to a stream, we saw more Sapayoas.

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
October 7. This day presented new challenges because the group divided, with most heading uphill to another camp on the ridge at 1100m. Not everybody could or was able to go up to the ridge for various reasons (see discussion above) so some remained at Plastico for the second camping night. Those who ascended further were rewarded with the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker not far from camp, and further up with a feeding flock of Blue-fronted Parrotlets - a species normally seen only as a quick fly-by, if at all. Brown-billed Scythebill was another welcome addition to the list.
Higher up still, Cerro Pirre's specialties emerged in the form of Varied Solitaire and Pirre Hemispingus, while Tooth-billed Hummingbird and Violet-throated (Emerald) Toucanet put in appearances. At the summit, Pirre Hummingbird and Sooty-headed Wren showed nicely, while most of the group saw Pirre Warbler and Choco Tapaculo. Late in the day, some of us had crippling views of a nicely co-operative Black-crowned Antpitta – another species high on our wishlists - close to Plastico camp.
October 8. The good fortune of those at the top continued in the form of Black-eared Woodquail, Russet-crowned Quail-Dove and Beautiful Treerunner. Those who remained at Plastico made do with great views of Central American Pygmy-Owl, Ornate Hawk-Eagle and another Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker. All us eventually made our way slowly back down the steep trail to Rancho Frio in the afternoon. Not long before sunset, a fledgling Crested Eagle close to camp made quite a din as it begged for food from parents unseen. Around the camp, Crested Owl and Choco Screech-Owl were heard but not seen.

The boat at El Real
October 9. Our journey to Rancho Frio in reverse: hiking back through the forest, a truck ride to El Real, then the boat back to Yaviza, this time at low tide with good numbers of waterbirds feeding along the shores. We headed west to fetch our luggage at the Hotel Torti then moved on to our next destination: Burbayar Lodge in the Caribbean foothills of central-east Panama. This lodge had long been a primary destination for birders in Panama but in recent years, many have reported problems with booking accommodation.
October 10. We walked some of steep and muddy trails a few kilometres from the lodge in Nusagandi – a large forest reserve owned by local Indian communities. We saw Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Tawny-capped Euphonia and Striped (Western) Woodhaunter along with our only large ant swarm of the trip, with attendants including several obliging Ocellated Antbirds.

Burbayar Lodge
October 11. Early in the morning we scoped a Plumbeous Hawk from the lodge on a slope across a valley. We visited a forested gully in another area near the lodge, seeing yet more Sapayoas (a total of 12-14 were seen during the trip) and Sulphur-rumped Tanager. Some of the group in the afternoon visited another site to connect with Speckled Antshrike.
October 12. A day largely in transit, heading west back across the Panama Canal to the resort town of El Valle, located in a volcanic crater in Panama's central highlands, where we stayed in the Anton Valley Hotel.
October 13. We visited some nice forest patches around Cerro Gaital and second-growth scrub near El Valle, seeing Pale-vented Thrush, Garden Emerald and Northern Schiffornis. With the benefit of hindsight we did not need to visit this site, but it was intended as back-up for key targets such as Black-crowned Antpitta and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, which we unexpectedly cleaned up in the Darien.

Las Lajas
October 14. We continued west on a long drive to Las Lajas, a coastal site in north-west Panama, where after some effort along the main road to the beach we spotted the local specialty – a male Veraguan mango, another Panama endemic. We moved on through the city of David to the Chiriqui Highlands town of Volcan, where we booked into the delightful Hotel Dos Rio.

Volcan Hotel Dos Rio 
October 15. This morning early we headed to the Volcan foothills site of Cuesta de Piedra, a 30-minute drive from the hotel, where we ticked off regional specialties including Cherrie's Tanager and Costa Rica Brushfinch. Eye-ringed Flatbill, seen by some on Cerro Pirre, was present. We moved on to Volcan Lakes, seeing Orange-collared Manakin in remnant scrub and the distinctive Chiriqui race of Masked Yellowthroat.
Volcan Lakes
October 16. We had the whole day on the upper slopes (between 1800 and 2500m) of Volcan Buru National Park along the Los Quetzales Trail. Here in the beautiful cloud forest we had a feast of specialties shared with neighbouring Costa Rica, where many are more difficult to find than in Panama. Early in the morning we had mixed flocks lower down including Scintillant Hummingbird, Black-cheeked Warbler and White-throated Mountain-Gem. Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher was in the mix along with Volcano Hummingbird and Resplendent Quetzal higher up.

Volcan Baru National Park
At the highest point of our walk we connected nicely with a Zeledonia, or Wrenthrush – likely to eventually have a family of its own – in the undergrowth; we were to snatch glimpses of a couple more as the day progressed. Silvery-fronted Tapaculo was another skulker that showed briefly at first, then very well on the track. Then came two much-wanted specialties in quick succession - a flock of 8-10 Silvery-throated Jays and an Ochraceous Peewee; both species are challenging to find elsewhere. The day was capped off by a vocal Costa Rica Pygmy-Owl tracked down after some effort.
October 17. We checked out of the hotel and moved to another scenic highlands tourist town – Boquete, where we booked into Boquete Tree-trek at 1400m. Along the road in the afternoon we saw several Dark Peewees and a flock of Sulphur-winged Parakeets, while a probable Maroon-chested Ground-Dove flew across the road, not to be found again.

Boquete Tree-trek
October 18. We had a long (2.5 hours) drive to Fortuna Reserve on the Continental Divide that separates the Pacific and Caribbean slopes of western Panama. We began on the Pacific side at about 1000m with good numbers of hummingbirds including White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Snowcap and Black-bellied Hummingbird; the latter two were unexpected but most welcome. Another vocal Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl attracted large numbers of hummers and other birds. Blue-and-gold Tanager, a Panama endemic, showed nicely and was not uncommon along the road. On the Caribbean side, we headed down a forest trail and scored stunning views of two highly desirable birds: Lattice-tailed Trogon and Ochre-breasted Antpitta. On another trail from where the Caribbean Sea glistened in the distance, a Black-headed Ant-thrush showed nicely.

Continental Divide at Fortuna
October 19. In the morning, we birded the road close to the hotel, adding Philadelphia Vireo to the list, before moving on to David and east to the town of San Felix, where we booked into a basic hotel.
October 20. We were up early for a 1.5-hour drive northwards to the cloud forest of Cerro Santiago. It was dark when we arrived to the loud calling of a Dusky Nightjar by the road. We saw 1 or 2 birds fly by closely and Ketil managed to photograph one with the improbable aid of a smartphone torch. As dawn broke, we had several Streak-breasted Treehunters about along with our main target – Yellow-green Finch, another Panama endemic. Our birding success was followed by a long drive back to Panama City, where we again booked into the Radisson Summit. 

Ochraceous Peewee
October 21. A day of rest and contemplation. With the benefit of hindsight, I would not have organised things much differently. If we had known we were going to do so well in the Darien, we would not have gone to El Valle; we could have done with an extra night on Cerro Pirre, but the logistical challenges were substantial. Nor do I think we should have split the overnight camping into two groups for the second night on Cerro Pirre.
Unfortunately it happens sometimes with large group excursions that an individual may be more concerned with his or her personal comforts than with the interests of the group; that adds to the challenges of running an already difficult operation. However, we had outstanding success birdwise, making up for the relatively minor pitfalls and annoyances. Most of these were outside the control of what for the most part was an excellent and highly motivated group of experienced and enthusiastic birders. And many thanks to Kilo and Jose Carlos again for their wonderful work.
October 22. A dude visit to Panama Canal. Birding over, for the time being.
October 23. Another dude visit – to Casco Viejo, the Old City of Panama.
October 24. Depart Panama City.
See the full report on Surfbirds for the annotated list of species:

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