Top 10 Birds to See in Panama

Panama, as you probably know from us by now, is a birding paradise. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to make our home, and this small Central American country thrives with its incredible natural assets. Over 1000 species of birds have been recorded here, owing to Panama’s varied habitats, elevational reaches, tropical climate and geographic position as an important migratory flyway for shorebirds, raptors and songbirds.

While it is extremely hard to choose a top 10 birds among over 1000 species found in Panama, we thought we would take a stab at the task! We feel that these top 10 are some of Panama’s most sought-after, beautiful and unique bird species. Perhaps after reading about them, you may be enticed to book a trip and come see them for yourself!

In no special order, here are what we consider Panama’s top 10 birds:

Harpy Eagle

Ok, perhaps we are biased here as our entire team has worked with Harpy Eagles in Panama for some time, but we are enamored by our National Bird. The Harpy Eagle is not only one of the most powerful birds on Earth, but is graced with such incredible beauty, delicately entwined with formidable features causing our hearts to skip a beat every time we see one. Harpy Eagles are considered rare, even endangered in some places, throughout its range. Here in Panama, the vast, highly biodiverse region of Darien in eastern panama is where Harpy Eagles roam. While sightings are never guaranteed, known nest sites in Darien give us good chances to see adults and juveniles in the wild year-round, since their breeding cycles last at least 2 years. Ask us about Harpy Eagles!

Harpy Eagle Panama
Harpy Eagle, Panama’s national bird

Resplendent Quetzal

Dubbed with the title of being “the most beautiful bird on Earth,” the Resplendent Quetzal surely lives up to its name, and it’s no surprise that it makes our top 10 birds to see in Panama list. The male’s emerald-green, shimmery feathers, contrasting bright red belly, fanned crest and its most adorning feature – long, wispy feathers that trail from its lower back long past the tip of its tail – attract even the most casual passerby. This bird is truly resplendent! The Resplendent Quetzal is found in Panama’s Chiriqui highlands, where it lives in the tranquil cloud forests, feeds on little avocado fruits and nests in cavities – hard to believe it can contain its tail inside a hole in a tree (it usually sticks out of the opening!). The best time of year to see the Resplendent Quetzal in Panama is during their breeding season from January through April, conveniently coinciding with Panama’s dry season. Book a trip to see Resplendent Quetzals in Panama!

Resplendent Quetzal
The Resplendent Quetzal resides in the highland cloud forests of Chiriqui, western Panama

Ocellated Antbird

For any birder exploring the American tropics, antbirds are always on the top of the list for birds to see. While Panama has over 30 species of antbirds and their relatives to dazzle our sights over, there is one species that truly stands out of the crowd: the Ocellated Antbird. Its (relatively) large size, shaggy hairdo, bright blue facial skin, and ornately scalloped pattern all over its body makes this antbird a most-wanted bird to find in Panama. But there’s a trick to finding them – in order to find an Ocellated Antbird, look for swarming army ants in Panama’s lowland rainforests. Ocellated Antbirds are “professional” army ant followers and are rarely found away from a swarm. A big ant swarm may have up to half a dozen Ocellated Antbirds attending it, and they dominate over all other antbird species at the swarm. Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park is an excellent place to find Ocellated Antbirds!

Ocellated Antbird Panama
Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Searching for ground-cuckoos brings us to a whole other level of birding in the Neotropics, that relies very much on luck and good birding karma! The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, although widespread, is the “holy grail” bird to find in Panama. Never common and hard to predict, this roadrunner of the tropical rainforests attends large army ant swarms in central and eastern Panama. Like the Ocellated Antbird, it stays on or close to the ground, and eats up larger animals (small lizards, large arthropods) that army ants disturb while swarming. Ground-cuckoos are indeed cuckoos, but on the contrary to typical cuckoo behavior, they build their own nests and raise their own young, rather than parasitizing other bird nests. There is always the possibility to see one on our Panama tours, and if lucky enough to find one, you deserve a celebratory drink at the end of the day for adding this spectacular bird to your list!

A true “holy grail” bird, the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo can be seen with luck at army ant swarms

Black-crowned Antpitta

Antpitta-like in many aspects, the Black-crowned Antpitta is actually a rather remarkable member of the gnateater family, Conopophagidae. It fits the standard, antpitta “eggs with legs” appearance, and its two subspecies are both decorated with rich dark plumage and striking scalloping on their breast. Black-crowned Antpittas are only found in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, making them a key target species in this area of the Neotropics. They are best detected by their distinct songs and sharp chucking alarm calls. We can find Black-crowned Antpittas in the foothills of western and central Panama, and into the lowlands of Darién. 

The Black-crowned Antpitta lurks in the dark forest understory of Panama’s lowlands and foothills

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker

Unlike some other countries in tropical America, Panama is not known as being a hotspot for national endemics (regional endemics YES). We have a small number of endemic species, less than 10, and due to range extensions and more exploration into remote areas, some of our previously endemic species are being found in our neighbor nations. But that’s ok! Birds don’t have boundaries. The Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker is one of our national endemics, found only here in Panama. This small, attractive woodpecker is found in the foothills of eastern Panama – Cerro Azul is a great place to seek out this bird.

Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker
Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, one of Panama’s endemic species

Tody Motmot

The Tody Motmot is a denizen of the dark nooks of the foothills of Central America. This motmot represents its own genus Hylomanes, and definitely stands out from the crowd within the motmot family. It is smaller and lacks the racket tips on the tail and gets its name for its resemblance to the todies of the Caribbean. The foothills forests of El Valle de Anton, as well as further into Darién, are excellent places to find the Tody Motmot in Panama, and it is always most-loved bird on any of our trips where we are fortunate to see it. It is always a target on our full day trips to El Valle de Anton.

Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle
Tody Motmot, as seen in the shady understory in El Valle

Spectacled Owl

Of all the amazing birds we find while birding in Panama, the widespread Spectacled Owl is most often voted “bird of the trip” and for good reason: those large eyes surrounded by white “spectacles” and that piercing glare we experience every time we see one is beyond memorable! It is one of our largest owls in Panama, and luckily, we know of a few reliable roosts in some of our most popular birding areas where established pairs raise their young every year. They are superb subjects for bird and wildlife photographers, often allowing fairly close approach.

Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama
Spectacled Owl, the largest owl species in Panama

Sapayoa

For decades, the Sapayoa has remained a true mystery to birders and bird taxonomists. While it is nothing remarkable in appearance, it’s the appeal of its odd evolutionary history, along with its rather small global range, that makes it one of the most wanted birds to find in Panama. While it resembles a flycatcher or a manakin, ornithologists and taxonomists have long pondered over its taxonomic placement, as its closest living relatives appear to be the Old World broadbills. It is now generally accepted to be placed in its own family, Sapayoidae. For birders seeking to see representatives from each family of birds, this is a number one target! Panama is perhaps one of the best places to see the Sapayoa – it can be found in the eastern foothills and lowlands, almost always near forest streams. Ask us about finding the Sapayoa in Panama!

Sapayoa Panama
Sapayoa, a truly unique and puzzling bird

Blue Cotinga

Last but definitely not least, the Blue Cotinga definitely merits a spot in our top 10 birds to see in Panama list – how could it not! The electric blue plumage of the male is like no other in central and eastern Panama, where it is fairly common in the treetops of the lowland rainforest. With that color it easily stands out from the crowd! Even the scalloped plumage of the dull brown female is attractive. Panama is the only place to find the Blue Cotinga in Central America, and its small range to extreme northwestern Ecuador makes it a special bird to find. Blue Cotingas are usually solitary or found in small groups and are best found by visiting fruiting trees that they frequent. Seeing a male always produces an awe-inspiring reaction!

The male Blue Cotinga is a spectacular bird

Ask us about finding these top 10 birds and other incredible avifauna in Panama. Whitehawk offers tours all over the country, targeting these species and others that draw us to our beautiful country. Book your trip with us now!

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