The many mangrove-fringed islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago have long attracted those with a sense of adventure, and a new ecolodge built on Isla Bastimentos and adjacent to a large protected area of coastal forest now serves as a welcome and very comfortable base for the visiting naturalist.
We’ll explore the islands, canals, and adjacent mainland in pursuit of birds such as Three-wattled Bellbird, Red-billed Tropicbird (at a breeding colony), Stub-tailed Spadebill, Snowy Cotinga, and the colorful Montezuma Oropendola. We’ll travel to the mainland on at least two of our days, exploring the bird-rich foothill forests below the La Fortuna Forest Reserve, where birds such as Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and Spangle-cheeked and Silver-throated Tanagers occur. And around the coast near the banana-producing town of Changuinola we’ll seek out Black-throated, Canebrake, and Band-backed Wrens, the scarce Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Passerini’s Tanager, and a wealth of tropical lowland species. We’ll combine these days in the Caribbean lowlands with several days in the fertile and perpetually spring-like highlands above the city of David.
The highlands of western Panama and eastern Costa Rica encompass a large area of lightly developed mountains. Forests draped in bromeliads over a carpet of tree ferns and mosses cloak the upper reaches of the hills, while the verdant valleys play host to small coffee plantations and rural villages, all under the shadow of multiple volcanoes, including the hulking 11,400-foot Volcán Barú. These highlands, shared with neighboring Costa Rica, have been designated a globally important bird area, with over 50 regional endemic bird species. This long list of specialities includes such spectacular birds as Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar, Prong-billed Barbet, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Wrenthrush, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Yellow-thighed Finch. In addition, the highlands here are perhaps the best place to look for the stunning Resplendent Quetzal, surely one of the most evocative birds on the planet.
For those interested in a longer tour with a truly mind-boggling diversity of birds, this trip can be combined with our tour, Panama: The Darién Lowlands.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Panama City. Night in Panama City.
Day 2: We’ll start with a bit of birding around the grounds of our hotel, where we should find species common to the area like Red-crowned Woodpecker, Short-tailed Swift, Tropical Kingbird, Crimson-backed, Palm, Blue-gray, and Plain-colored Tanagers, and Saffron Finch. In the mid-morning we’ll take a shuttle to the nearby domestic airport and board our one-hour flight to the tiny coastal town of Bocas del Toro. From there a boat will pick us up for the half-hour ride out to our lodge on Isla Bastimentos. Once settled into our cabins, and after lunch and perhaps a short siesta, we’ll explore the banks of flowers that are common in the cleared areas around the lodge. Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds should be common, but we’ll concentrate on the patches of Heliconia for birds like Band-tailed Barbthroat, Crowned Woodnymph, and, with luck, Bronzy Hermit. The forest patches on the grounds are excellent for Chestnut-backed and Black-crowned Antbirds, several of which have become remarkably tame. The whole island is ideal for migrant and wintering warblers, and the fruiting trees should hold our first Northern Waterthrush and Tennessee, Prothonotary, Yellow, and Chestnut-sided Warblers feeding alongside more tropical species such as Golden-hooded Tanager, Bananaquit, Lesser Greenlet, and Tropical Gnatcatcher. As dusk begins to settle, Red-lored and Mealy Parrots should pass overhead, and we’ll make our way up to the canopy tower to watch the show, keeping an eye out for swifts, nighthawks, raptors, and even Green Ibis as the sun sets. Night at Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge.
Day 3: For our first full day in Bocas del Toro we’ll depart Isla Bastimentos early, travelling by boat to the small mainland town of Punta Robalo. We’ll spend the morning birding in a large protected area called the Palo Seco Protection Forest, part of the vast La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. In the coastal cleared areas around town we should find birds typical of more open country, such as Groove-billed Ani, Red-breasted Meadowlark, Blue-black Grassquit, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, and White-collared Seedeater. Large hedgerows between fields often support big fruiting trees, and here we’ll look for an array of flycatchers and tanagers and several species of wrens, including Black-throated, Band-backed, and Canebrake. Once in the forest we’ll focus on some of the scarcer and harder-to-find species that call this area home; Lattice-tailed Trogon, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Dull-mantled Antbird, White-fronted Nunbird, and perhaps even Lanceolated Monklet might pop up for our enjoyment. Mixed-species flocks are common here, and we should be able to find Cinnamon and White-winged Becards, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Wedge-billed and Cocoa Woodcreepers joining the larger numbers of tanagers, warblers, and vireos within the flocks. We’ll have a picnic lunch and then continue birding in the area for the afternoon, keeping an eye skyward for flocks of migrant raptors as the afternoon heat builds. Before returning to the boat we’ll spend a bit of time in a coastal marsh, looking for shorebirds, Green and Glossy Ibis, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Blue-winged Teal, and anything else that catches our fancy. In the late afternoon we’ll make the return journey to our lodge at Tranquillo Bay, watching for terns and even skuas in the open bay en route. Night at Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge.
Day 4: We’ll have an early breakfast and then journey north for an hour by boat to the Soropta Canal. This seven-mile-long canal was started in 1898 and originally served to shelter and transport banana barges moving between Almirante and Bocas del Toro. Little trafficked now, the slow-moving waters provide an excellent access point to the Humedal de San San Pond Sak Wetland Preserve. Many large fruiting trees, small clearings, and open marsh patches line the canal, and we’ll spend the morning slowly birding the area from our boat. We’ll look especially for the scarce Nicaraguan Seed-Finch and the Almirante form of White-collared Manakin. But the overall diversity here is impressive. Larger birds, such as Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, Laughing Falcon, and Olive-throated Parakeet, are often spotted in the early hours perched on canopy supertrees. All six species of New World kingfisher occur along the canal, and other wetland birds like Northern Jacana, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Common Black-Hawk, and various waterfowl should be common. We’ll also keep a sharp eye out for the telltale ripples that might signify a surfacing Manatee, although they are scarce.
After a picnic lunch we’ll bird the mouth of the Changuinola River, walking along the sandy beach and looking for masses of shorebirds (including Collared Plover), Roseate Spoonbill, Brown Pelican, and various species of tern. On the way back through the canal we’ll likely take a brief walk around an old research station, where we might encounter lekking manakins, Grayish Saltator, Black-cowled Oriole, various species of flycatcher, and a host of wintering migrants. Assuming we’re not arriving on an extremely windy or choppy day, we’ll exit the canal and venture a bit offshore to Swans Cay. This tall beehive-shaped island supports a breeding colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds and Brown Boobies, and we should be able to get superb views of these two elegant species. The tropicbirds are often quite confiding, coming to within a few feet of the boat. Eventually we’ll pull ourselves away from the colony and return to our lodge in the late afternoon, with some time before dinner for a shower or perhaps a brief snorkel off the dock, where several large coral heads harbor an outstanding array of colorful marine life. Night at Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge.
Day 5: We’ll depart by boat for nearby Isla Popa, a bit more than a mile across the shallow waters of Dolphin Bay. Isla Popa is the second-largest island in the archipelago and quite close to a mainland peninsula, allowing a wide array of bird species to easily colonize it. We’ll explore a mangrove-lined channel looking for Snowy Cotinga, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Pale-billed and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Mangrove Cuckoo perched in the early morning sun. In addition to the birds, the shallow waters here support large beds of turtle grass that attract interesting marine life like rays, sea turtles, sea stars, and large upside-down jellyfish. A short walk onto the island should allow us to look at some of the varied poison dart frog ecomorphs that call the archipelago home. Each island has its own colour morphs, in a bewildering and amazingly bright array of colours. Later we’ll take the 20-minute boat ride to the west, arriving in Buena Esperanza, a small privately owned cacao plantation with a beautiful piece of lowland forest and a natural creek. Under the canopy and amid the small organically grown cacao plants we’ll seek out an array of gaudy birds like Slaty-tailed, White-tailed, and Gartered Trogons, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Pied Puffbird, and Black-chested Jay. Mammals can be found here too, and we may spot Mantled Howler Monkey or a Three- or Two-toed Sloth up in the canopy.
After lunch and a siesta back at Tranquillo Bay we’ll explore the trail system that winds into the park behind the lodge. A large elevated clearing, called Pineapple Hill, offers a great chance to see Red-capped Manakin, Shining, Green, and Red-legged Honeycreepers, Scaled Pigeon, and one of the true specialty birds of the island, wintering Three-wattled Bellbirds. These truly odd cotingas, known for their dangling throat wattles, move downslope from their highland breeding areas during certain times of the year, and their quarking bell-like calls can be a common background noise around the lodge during November. Within the forest proper we should find roving flocks of understory birds, such as White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens and hopefully the tiny Stub-tailed Spadebill (found only on these islands in Panama). For those who are interested, it should be possible to take a guided sea kayak or snorkeling trip in the nearby bay this afternoon. On a return visit to the canopy tower as dusk falls we’ll look for perched Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, Blue-headed, Mealy, and Red-lored Parrots, and the diminutive White-vented Euphonia. After dinner an optional walk around the grounds for nocturnal wildlife might reveal Mottled or even Black-and-white Owls, and we have chances for other animals like Crab-eating Raccoon and Wooly Opossum. Night at Tranquillo Bay Ecolodge.
Day 6: We’ll travel away from Tranquillo Bay, traversing the continental divide at about 4000 feet in elevation on an excellent road that winds through the Talamanca Range. Our eventual destination is the Los Quetzales Lodge near the mountain town of Cerro Punta on the Pacific side of the divide. It’s about a three-hour drive, but we’ll take all day to make the journey, stopping regularly along the road at different elevations. This lone road through the mountains connects the Bocas lowlands with the rest of the country and affords the visiting naturalist access to a remarkably varied avifauna. Our first stop will likely be in the Atlantic foothills, where a small creek crosses the highway. We’ll look for Torrent Tyrannulet, Buff-rumped Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and perhaps even American Dipper on the rocky creekbed. Above the water some large spreading acacia trees should be in flower, attracting birds like Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos and tanager flocks that include such gems as Speckled, Crimson-collared, Emerald, Black-and-yellow, and Silver-throated Tanagers.
As we wind our way uphill from here, the birdlife steadily changes. Acorn Woodpeckers become common, and flocks of Sulphur-winged Parakeets might start shooting over the road. Flowering shrubs attract a wide array of hummingbirds, and we’ll look for Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Magenta-throated Woodstar, White-tailed Emerald, and Green Hermit feeding on the flowers. A side road that leads to an array of microwave towers passes through a large patch of cloudforest. Here we might find our first Collared Redstart or a tanager flock containing Golden-browed Chlorophonia or Bay-headed, Rufous-winged, Flame-colored, White-winged, Cherrie’s, Blue-and-gold, or Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. Blue-and-white Swallows and hulking White-collared Swifts should course overhead, and in the understory we might encounter the pretty Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush or noisy flocks of Ashy-throated and Common Chlorospingus. In short, the birdlife here is extremely diverse and completely different from the birds that we will have come to know from our days in the Bocas Archipelago. We’ll have a picnic lunch somewhere near the large Lake Fortuna, perhaps accompanied by a passing group of Red-headed or Prong-billed Barbets or just a hungry Rufous-collared Sparrow or two.
Continuing over the continental divide, we’ll pass through the much drier and warmer Pacific lowlands near David, watching for Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, Pearl Kites, and a host of new open-country birds before winding back up toward the towering Volcán Barú and Los Quetzales Lodge, nestled below the volcano at about 6500 feet. We should arrive with a bit of time to explore the grounds, perhaps seeing our first Band-tailed Pigeon, Green Violetear, White-throated Mountain-Gem, Mountain Thrush, or Slaty Flowerpiercer before dinner. Night at Los Quetzales Lodge.
Day 7: The luxurious Los Quetzales Lodge sits at the head of a largely settled agricultural valley below Volcán Barú. From the lodge grounds the forest stretches uphill toward the peak, offering spring-like temperatures (60–70-degree highs) year round and easy access to the forest on the slopes. On our first morning we’ll spend a bit of time before breakfast birding around the lodge grounds. Hummingbird feeders here can be very busy, dominated by Green Violetear and Admirable (Magnificent) Hummingbird. With a bit of patience we should encounter Stripe-tailed and the diminutive Scintillant Hummingbirds as well. Around the edge of the forest we might detect Emerald Toucanet, Mountain Elaenia, Prong-billed Barbet, or a stunning Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher perched up in the morning sun.
After breakfast we’ll drive on a bumpy 20-minute track uphill to the small Los Quetzales cabins, tucked into the woods above the valley floor. Although relatively close to our lodge, these cabins and their associated trails support a quite different avifauna. Birds can be plentiful here, with large mixed flocks and near constant visitation to the provided hummingbird feeders. We’ll likely spend the majority of the morning watching the show from the comfort of the cabin deck. White-throated Mountain-Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing, and perhaps even Fiery-throated Hummingbird should all be present on the deck feeders. The chief prize of the region is always the breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal, which is often reported from around the cabins or on the trail system here. If any of the many aguacatillo trees nearby are in fruit, we may see one or more birds without even leaving the deck of the cabin! The males, with their incredibly long trains, are surely one of the most spectacular birds on the planet. Other birds frequent the cabins as well; Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Yellow-thighed and Large-footed Finches, Black-and-yellow Silky Flycatcher, and Tufted Flycatcher often appear just off the deck. Eventually we’ll walk away from the cabins, looking for birds like Silvery-throated Tapaculo, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Ruddy Treerunner, Barred Becard, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Ochraceous and Gray-breasted Wood Wrens, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and Sooty-capped Chlorospingus. The diversity here is indeed high, with many regional endemics to look for and a host of scarce species, like Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Black-breasted and Spotted Woodquail, and Silvery-throated Jay, to keep us entertained for the morning.
After lunch and a bit of a siesta we’ll bird around the grounds of the lodge and along some of the adjacent trails, looking for any species that we missed on the morning outing and just enjoying the comfortable and scenic surroundings. After dinner we’ll head out on an optional amble to look for Dusky Nightjar. Night at Los Quetzales Lodge.
Day 8: We’ll have an early start to the day, heading west through the foothills toward the Costa Rican border. Our destination will be Finca Hartmann, a privately owned shade-grown coffee plantation near the town of Santa Clara. This delightful site, with very friendly hosts, has a bird list approaching 300 species. As we travel along the roads and trails that wind through the plantation and remnant patches of cloudforest, we’ll be especially on the lookout for birds like the exquisite Turquoise Cotinga, which is regularly encountered around the clearings of the plantation property. Some of the other memorable species that we may find here include the huge Pale-billed Woodpecker, skulking Chiriqui Quail-Dove and Spotted Wood-Quail, Blue-diademed Motmot, Red-headed Barbet, and Fiery-billed Aracari. In the afternoon we’ll likely stop at the Lagunas de Volcán, a series of three shallow lakes nestled into the Chiriquí foothills at about 4000 feet in elevation. Surrounded by patches of forest, the region offers several species that are not found at the higher elevations, including the perky Orange-collared Manakin, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Rose-throated Becard, and Golden-crowned Warbler. On the lakes we might encounter an array of waterbirds including Masked Duck. Night at Los Quetzales Lodge.
Day 9: We’ll spend the morning birding around the valley, the exact locations depending on which species we are missing. We’ll likely make the short drive over to the trailhead of the Los Quetzales trail, a well-known hike that crosses over the higher slopes of Volcán Barú and eventually reaches the town of Boquette on the other side.This beautiful trail traverses large swaths of old-growth forest, with many ferns and bromeliads. Here we might look for quetzals, skulking Wrenthrush, Silvery-throated Tapaculo, White-naped Brushfinch, and mixed flocks containing a wealth of colorful tanagers and warblers. After lunch we’ll make our way down to the airport in David, a bit over an hour’s drive to the south, to catch our mid-afternoon flight back to Panama City. Around the airport in David we might spot a few Pacific lowland birds such as Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Pearl Kite, Eastern Meadowlark, or Brown-throated Parakeet.
We should have a bit of time before dinner for an optional walk around the hotel grounds, where we’ll likely find a few new species that are typical of the central lowlands of Panama, such as Black-throated Mango, Garden Emerald, Yellow-crowned Parrot, and Yellow-bellied Seedeater. We’ll have our final dinner on the banks of the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. Night in Panama City.
Day 10: The tour concludes this morning in Panama City.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 01 September 2016