Resplendent Quetzal is one of the world’s most elegant birds. Photo: Rich Hoyer
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 colourful 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, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Spangle-cheeked, Emerald, Black-and-Yellow and Silver-throated Tanagers occur. And around the coast near the banana-producing town of Changuinola we’ll seek out Black-throated, Bay, and Band-backed Wrens, the scarce Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Scarlet-rumped 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 Talamanca Highlands.
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 neighbouring Costa Rica, have been designated a globally important bird area, with almost 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 and Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared and Slate-throated Whitestart, the enigmatic 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.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening at a hotel about an hour’s drive from Panama’s Tocumen International Airport. Night in Panama City.
Day 2: We’ll start with some 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 Bronzy Hermit, Crowned Woodnymph, and, with luck, Green-breasted Mango. The forest patches on the grounds are excellent for Chestnut-backed Antbird and Black-crowned Antshrike, 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, traveling 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. We’ll ascend the sole highway that traverses the country here, going as far as the continental divide at roughly 4000ft. Here the avifauna is dominated by roving flocks of frugivores, with an array of gaudy tanagers including Black-and-Yellow, Spangle-cheeked, Emerald and Speckled. Here too we might find little flocks of warblers including residents like Costa Rican Warbler and Slate-throated and Collared Whitestart, along with migrants such as Blackburnian and Golden-winged. The possibilities in the Atlantic slope forests are vast, and each trip to the La Fortuna region brings a surprise or two. In the late afternoon we’ll make the return journey to our lodge at Tranquillo Bay, watching for terns and even jaegers 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 potentially occur along the canal, and other wetland birds like Northern Jacana, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Common Black-Hawk, and various waterbirds 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), 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 White-collared 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 harbour an outstanding array of colourful 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 Green Acres, 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, Olive-backed Euphonia 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 and Golden-collared Manakins, Shining, Green, and Red-legged Honeycreepers, Scaled Pigeon, and one of the true speciality 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 most Novembers. 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 (whose Panamanian range is restricted to only these islands). 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, again 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 four-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 Slaty-backed 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, Slaty-backed Violetear, White-throated Mountain-Gem, Mountain Thrush, or Slaty Flowerpiercer before dinner. Night at Los Quetzales Lodge.
Day 7: The Los Quetzales Lodge sits at the head of a largely settled agricultural valley in the shadow of the 11,400 ft. 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 Lesser Violetear and Talamanca 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 Northern Emerald Toucanet, Mountain Elaenia, Prong-billed Barbet, or stunning Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers perched up in the morning sun.
After breakfast we’ll drive to the crest of the Los Quetzales trail which winds over the northern shoulder of the volcano before dropping into the Boquete Valley on the east side. This 7KM trail passes through excellent highland forest, with large patches of primary forest on the slopes. Although the trail is quite steep, the first kilometre and a half are relatively flat, offering excellent access to some of the higher elevation birds. Furnarids in particular are well represented here, with birds like Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Ruddy Treerunner and Spot-crowned Woodcreeper being relatively common. Collared Whitestarts and Black-cheeked Warblers should accompany virtually all of the mixed flocks here, and can be quite confiding. With luck we’ll encounter some of the less common birds in the area too, such as Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Ochraceous Pewee, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Silvery-throated Tapaculo or the elusive Wrenthrush. The lower stretches of the trail can be attractive as well, and if the trees are in fruit we have an excellent chance at Resplendent Quetzal coming in to feed in the morning here. We’ll then return to the lodge for lunch and a brief rest before birding locally around town, with the locations dependent upon current conditions and our remaining birding needs. Night at Los Quetzales Lodge.
Day 8: This morning we will return to the higher forests, this time taking 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 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 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.
In the afternoon we’ll likely stop at the Lagunas de Volcán, a series of two shallow lakes nestled into the Chiriquí foothills at about 4000 feet in elevation. Surrounded by a large patch of forest, the region offers several species that are not found at the higher elevations, including Fiery-billed Aracari, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Plain Ant-Vireo, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Out in the grassland patches leading to the forest we may encounter Masked (Chiriqui) Yellowthroat, Pale-breasted and Slaty Spinetails, Scarlet-rumped Tanager or Rufous-browed Peppershrike as well as a nice array of more open country birds like Roadside Hawk or Crested Caracara. The caldera lake itself often supports numbers of waterfowl and marsh birds. We’ll head back to Los Quetzales in the early evening in time for dinner. Night at Los Quetzales Lodge.
Day 9: Our last full day of the tour will be spent making our way down to the city of David, where we will catch an early evening flight back to Panama City. We’ll spend the morning birding in the mid elevation forests where new birds might include Costa Rican Brushfinch, Riverside Wren or Crested Oropendola. A stop at a new birding bed and breakfast in the aptly named town of Paraiso will reveal up to ten species of hummingbirds (including Charming and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds and Brown Violet-ear) whirling around us in a bewildering show of speed and colour. The adjacent forest supports some good birds as well, such as White-ruffed and Orange-collared Manakins, Black-hooded Antshrike and possibly Red-headed Barbet or Spot-crowned Euphonia.
We’ll spend the rest of the afternoon birding around the lowlands near David where we might spot a few Pacific lowland birds such as Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Pearl Kite, Eastern Meadowlark, Brown-throated Parakeet, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, the endemic Veraguan Mango, and an array of waders and waterbirds in the rice fields. Night in Panama City.
Day 10: The tour concludes this morning at our Panama City hotel which is about 10 minutes from the international airport.
Updated: 26 January 2021