Panama Canopy: Tropical Birding at its Best

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14780A, International


  • Enjoy world-class birding along the Panama Canal Zone (including Pipeline Road), cloud forest, Caribbean slope, and Pacific coastal habitats
  • Stay at two award-winning eco-lodges, the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge
  • Explore rainforest to beaches with birds as your muse


  • All transportation in Panama, including airport transfers
  • All meals, gratuities, and park entrances fees as noted in the itinerary
  • Expert birding guides


DatesDec 6–14, 2014
Price$2,975 (10–12)
$3,345 (or fewer)
StaffPati Rouzer

Trip Overview

The Trip

Have you always wanted to bird Pipeline Road, experience a tropical sunrise from the top of the canopy, chase an ant swarm, walk in a cloud forest, and see the wintering home of our songbirds? Our journey offers a vast diversity of habitats while being comfortably based at two amazing lodges. We will explore the bird-rich lowland rainforest of the Canal Zone, and then from a mountain valley lodge enjoy more wonderful birding locations in the cloud forest, Caribbean slope, Pacific foothills, dry forest, and coastal beaches.

Panama, the isthmus between the Americas, produces the greatest biodiversity of any country its size in Central America. Over 40% of the country retains original forest, and approximately 34% (2.5 million hectares) of the country’s natural areas are protected. Panama contains 53 Important Bird Areas, three Ramsar wetland sites, three UNESCO World Heritage sites, and two Biosphere Reserves. Although our focus will be on birds, we will look for monkeys, bats, cats, and critters that crawl on the forest floor. Panama boasts 972 species of birds (16 globally threatened birds and 8 country endemics), 218 species of mammals, 242 known reptiles, 182 species of amphibians, and around 9,915 species of higher plants.

In addition, we will bird alongside the Panama Canal, one of the world’s most remarkable engineering feats completed in 1914 by the U.S. Many do not realize that Panama offers easy exploration of unique ecosystems and exceptional Neotropical birding trails, un-crowded even along the famous Canal Zone.

We will walk cleared forest trails or roads at a relaxed "birding pace," with many opportunities for photographs. A checklist will be provided for the nightly recording of species we’ve seen.

A local birding expert will accompany all of our outings and be available on the observation deck of the Tower, or at the lodge’s veranda, along with coffee, at 6:30 a.m.


Day 1: You will be met at the airport Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City and transferred to the Canopy Tower, where we will have our first dinner and orientation. It will be difficult to drag us away from the observation deck, where we might see our first Keel-billed Toucan, parrots, monkeys, ships transitting through the Canal -- or bats!

Day 2: Our day will start up on the observation deck. Early morning on the observation deck, along with eye-level birds, comes with coffee, tea, and juice. We will need to leave the excitement to board the open-air Birdmobile for Pipeline Road. This road is a birder’s dream. Here’s what we will look for: five species of trogon, three motmots, eight wrens, four puffbirds, three forest falcons, three manakins, two tityras, woodcreepers, woodpeckers, tanagers, and interesting flycatchers (you know what that means). We’ll keep a keen eye out for ant swarms with its attendant antwrens, antshrikes, antpitta, antvireo and other professional ant followers. Magically named birds with names like Cacique, Mourner, Bacard, Jacamar, Twistwing, and of course the jewels of the forest, hummingbirds, will tease us along the road. There will be other forest critters to keep an eye out for as well. Perhaps we will see a family of night monkeys in a tree cavity, frogs among the leaf litters, a horned beetle, or miniature forest of mushrooms on a downed log.

Day 3: After breakfast we will walk the Plantation Trail, an easy trail along a small creek through lush rainforest, seeking Oscillated, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, Broadbilled Motmot, trogons, up to three species of woodcreepers and woodpeckers, Dot-winged Antbirds, Fasciated Antshrikes, Red and Blue-capped Manakins, and Scaly-throated Leaftosser, among many others. The forest will be full of bird-song; perhaps we’ll hear the mournful song of the Great Tinamou.

In the afternoon, we will make a stop in Gamboa to visit the feeders at the Canopy B&B for close-up looks at honeycreepers, tanagers, euphonia, hummers and hopefully the Whooping Motmot. Next we’ll bird along the bank of the Chagres River, the main source of water for the Panama Canal. Waterbirds will be our targets here as we look for Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Wattled jacana, and Rufescent Tiger-Heron, as well as other birds along the riparian forest, such as Buff-breasted Wren, Black-chested Jay, Cinnamon Becard, Trogons, and even the Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon.

Day 4: Today we return to Pipeline Road for another opportunity to experience this birding paradise.

Day 5: After breakfast, we will bird around the Tower, enjoy the feeders at the base of the canopy, and get those last-minute photos of the lovely Blue-Chested Hummingbird. If time permits, we will walk a bit of Semaphore Hill Road. A two-hour air-conditioned van will deliver us at lunchtime to our lodge for the next four nights in El Valle de Anton. The elevation is higher here, at 2,400 feet, with temperatures ranging from 68 degrees at night and early morning to high 70s mid-day. The lodge’s many feeders will host some similar, but also many different, species. Outside your room bubbles a mountain stream and beyond it is the protected area of Cerro Gaital National Monument.

In the afternoon we will explore the Las Minas Trail, which offers sweeping views of the mountains, fincas and, at the summit, both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We have a chance to see the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and the difficult Black-headed Antthrush. To keep us entertained, we’ll look for more manakins, trogons, tanagers, skyward Bat Falcon, Barred Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Hummers found here include Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Thorntail, and possibly the curvy White-tipped Sicklebill. We can choose to relax and explore the lodge grounds or do a hummingbird study at the feeders.

Day 6: We have a full day to experience Caribbean slope birding along the Rio Jordanal and Rio Indio. After a 40-minute drive from the lodge, we’ll stop at Rio Indio for our first look for specialties; the Bared Puffbird, Crested Oropendola, Buff-rumped Warbler, Long-tailed Tyrant, and forest Hermits like the Green, Long-billed, and Rufous-breasted. We'll also look for Golden-hooded and Emerald Tanagers, Cinnamon and White-winged Becard, Black-chested Jay, Shining Honeycreeper, as well as Seedeaters, seed-finch, euphonies, and antbirds!

We will have lunch along the Jordanal River and bird our way back to the lodge in time to take an afternoon rest or feeder watch/photography.

Day 7: This morning after breakfast, we’ll cool off as we head for the cloud forests of Cerro Gaital, the mountain backdrop of our valley and namesake of the preserve surrounding our lodge. We will look for the Black guan, Thrush-like Shiffonis, Orange-bellied Trogon, Spotted Barbtail, White Hawk, and new hummers like the White-tailed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

In the afternoon, we will hike the Cara Iguana Trail in the foothills, which has some of the last remaining Dry Pacific Forest and offers outstanding birding, including Pale-eyed Pygmy Tyrant, Lance-tailed manakin, RosyThrush-Tanager, Tody Motmot, Common Potoo and Bat Falcon.

Day 8: We’re heading to the coast today for more Dry Pacific Forest and coastal beaches, where we may see Yellow-headed Caracara, Roadside & Short-tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Rufous-browned Peppershrike, Broad-throared Parakeet, Red-breasted Blackbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and if we’re lucky, the endemic Veraguan Mango.

We will enjoy a picnic lunch at the beach and hope to view Blue-footed and Brown Boobies, Sandwich, Royal and Elegant Terns and Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds.

In the rice fields of Juan Hombron, we’ll look for Gray-necked Wood-tail, herons, Pearl Kite, and the unfortunately named Mouse-colored Tyrannulet.

Day 9: We'll transfer back to Panama City. After breakfast, we drive 2.5 hours back to Panama City for flights home later that afternoon.

Itinerary disclaimer: The itinerary is designed to maximize our experience and enjoyment of Panama’s wealth of species and habitat. Please recognize that weather or unforeseen events may require itinerary changes, or that opportunities, which might not have been known at the time of this printing, could become available.



Getting There

Arrange your flight to the Tocumen International Airport (PTY), Panama City, Panama. You will be met at the terminal exit by a driver holding a sign with your name on it and transferred to the Canopy Tower for our first evening’s meal and orientation meeting.

Our trips ends on December 14 with a return to Panama City around noontime. Please plan your flights home accordingly or plan to book an extra night for a flight home the next morning.

Accommodations and Food

The Tower is 1,000 feet above sea level and the observation deck extends 100 feet to just above the canopy. The structure is a restored U.S. Air Force radar station. It does not have air conditioning and a light sweater might be needed for the evening. Each room has a window and ceiling fan. Double rooms have twin beds and a private bath. The single rooms have a shared bath.

At our second lodge, all rooms are double with a large open door overlooking the Rio Guayabo, a small tropical creek. Numerous hummingbird and other feeders surround the rooms. The single room lodge, located nearby, all have private baths for those without traveling partners.

We will travel in a comfortable air-conditioned van.

Panamanian cuisine is a delightful mix of Spanish, African, and regional foods, served with fresh fruit, vegetables, and salads. Vegetarians, allergies or other restrictions can be accommodated, but please let the trip leader know in advance.

Trip Difficulty

You should be in good physical health, be able to rise early, walk "birding" pace for several miles with frequent stops, and stand for prolonged periods. Most trails are graded tracks or well-maintained trails that have occasional muddy or washed out parts, or road sides. We have a few trails with mild elevation gains. The highest elevation we will be hiking at is around 3,620 feet.

We will be in Panama during the dry season, which doesn’t mean it won’t rain -- just not heavily! Temperatures around the Canopy Tower will be in the mid-80s to low 70s at night. The Canopy Lodge is at 2,112 feet and our highest trail will be approximately 3,630 feet. Temperatures here will range from 68 F to 82 F in the evenings and early mornings. The lodge has a stream-feed pool and a swing rope for the adventurous. We will travel in a comfortable air-conditioned van.

Equipment and Clothing

Good-quality waterproof binoculars, a bird guide (see references), field notebook, and a scope, if you have one and are willing to carry it. Our guide will carry a high-quality spotting scope and one will be available at the lodges.

There will be many opportunities for excellent photography as we walk the trails and enjoy the feeders; however, super-telephotos (400-500 mm) may not be appropriate for this active type of trip.

We will be traveling during the "dry" season, but rain is possible any time. The lowlands will be warm to hot and definitely humid. The foothills are pleasant, but might be cool and drizzling, and the cloud forest highlands are cool during the day to cold and windy at night. Layers of quick-drying clothes, lightweight fleece, rain gear, sunscreen protection for skin/lips, and hats are essential. Wear footgear that's solid enough to provide daylong support, with non-slip soles adequate for forest hiking, and also bring a pair of sandals to change to in the evening. Panama has few insects, but bug juice will protect you from the occasional mosquitoes and other biting/sucking bugs.

As always, consult your physician for any health concerns and recommended vaccinations/inoculations or emergency travel medicine for gastro-intestinal, respiratory, or allergy events. Although medical and some dental care is provided free to tourists for the first 30 days in Panama, it is strongly recommended that you purchase your own travel cancellation and interruption insurance. The Sierra Club covers you for emergency medical evacuation and limited medical expenses. Details will be provided upon sign-up.

More facts: no electrical adaptors are needed (all current is the same as in the U.S.), and there is free Wi-Fi and a lodge phone to call home (international charges will apply). However, it is cheaper to purchase a disposable phone at the airport with minutes, switch your smart phone to international service, or purchase a texting service. The lodges are non-smoking. A travel visa is not necessary for Panama, but your passport must be valid for six months after leaving the U.S.

A detailed equipment list, packing suggestions, and a checklist for study will be mailed to registered participants.



  • Angehr, George R. and Robert Dean, The Birds of Panama. This is the most up-to-date and useable field guide.
  • Angehr, George, Dodge Engleman and Lorna Engleman, A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama. Describes the regions and birds likely to be seen in them.
  • McCullough, David G., The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914. History of the canal’s early years.
  • Keller, Ulrich, The Building of the Panama Canal in Historic Photography.
  • Forsyth, Adrian, Ken Miyata and Thomas Lovejoy, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America.
  • Kricher, John, and Mark Plotkin, A Neotropical Companion: Second Edition (1997) or An Introduction to the Animals, Plants and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics.
  • The Rainforest Publications has quick foldout guides to mammals, amphibians, and flora.


  • Panama 'AdventureMap' by National Geographic



The meeting of two continents on this narrow isthmus weds North and South America, resulting in the highest biodiversity of any country its size. Panama has two oceans, 50 rivers, volcanic highlands, and the largest rainforest reserve outside the Amazon Basin. Over 40% of the country retains original forest, and approximately 34% (2.5 million hectares) of the country’s natural areas are protected. Panama contains 53 Important Bird Areas, three Ramsar wetland sites, three UNESCO World Heritage sites, and two Biosphere Reserves. It has a country list of 972 species, 16 globally threatened birds, and eight country endemics. The Canal is one of the world’s most remarkable engineering feats, completed in 1914 by the U.S., but many do not realize that Panama offers easy exploration of unique ecosystems and exceptional Neotropical birding trails, un-crowded even along the famous Canal Zone.

Each ship passing through the Canal requires 52 million gallons of water. To supply the Canal’s water source, vast regions of the majestic Chagres River watershed are protected. The 1977 Panama Canal Treaty obligated Panama to provide water for the canal and local communities, create national parks, conduct water resource studies, and promote sustainable communities. Strong national and international interests coalesce to protect the hydrology of the Canal, resulting in benefits not only in the Canal Zone, but also throughout Panama’s natural areas. Conservation challenges will always be present with the ever-increasing population and its attendant demands on land and resources. Chief among threats are inadequate enforcement protecting against illegal clearing, poaching, timber logging in and adjacent to protected areas, road construction, extraction operations, illegal trafficking for the pet trade and hunting for food, pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture, conversion of coastal mangrove forest for shrimp farming, invasive elephant grass along the Canal Zone, and the ever-present development pressure for housing and leisure activities, including tourism. The Panama Audubon Society has had phenomenal success working with its NGO and governmental partners to document important bird areas, inform resource managers, and implement conservation action. They have been working tirelessly to protect the recent development threats to the Bay of Panama, an important over-wintering site for millions of shorebirds.

During our visit to Panama we have the opportunity to observe conservation successes and challenges while supporting sustainable tourism. In alignment with the Sierra Club’s mission to explore, enjoy, and protect wild places, our tour also provides immersion in priority goals of resilient habitats and complex water conservation issues.



Pati Rouzer

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