Can a family-focused trip—even to one of the world’s most biodiverse countries—deliver enough opportunities for avian observation to satisfy this serious world birder? If you have kids, you’re probably as curious as I was. The short answer, I’m happy to report, is a resounding yes. With enough planning, you can enjoy a family-friendly, bird-rich vacation in the Panama Canal zone.

Once you’ve chosen a destination, deciding where to stay tops the list of critical decisions. Any dedicated birder visiting Panama City should first consider the Canopy Tower, one of the most important and beloved birding lodges in the Americas. Luckily, I’ve experienced the bliss of greeting the dawn from atop the tower and explored the deep rainforest grounds with expert guides. But the spartan charms of the tower would be wasted on kids like mine, who desire nothing more out of a hotel than a great (or even decent) pool. Surprisingly, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort offers all the luxuries you could want, including an extensive pool complex and utterly gorgeous grounds. I never researched the resort, imagining that it lacked the amenities my family wanted, but visiting for dinner allowed us to rent its grandeur without forking over the considerable room rates.

Most hotels in Panama are at least a little run-down, but research suggested that the Radisson Summit Hotel and Golf Panama offered everything a family could want at a surprisingly low cost. The rooms were great, the grounds lovely, and the pool (the most important part) fantastic. The food was better than decent, which exceeds our experience of Panamanian cuisine at most other locations. Places to eat are few and far between in the Gamboa area, so lower your expectations in that department. But as far as habitat and biodiversity on the premises, Radisson Summit dramatically exceeded my hopes. Despite the golf course, this place host all manner of birds and mammals. In fact, we saw two species of monkey, our only sloths, lots of coatis, and my rarest ever mammal sighting—a Jaguarundi—right on site. Amazing! All in all, the Radisson Summit delivered what we all wanted.

The view from our window at Radisson Summit. Yes, that’s Panama City to the right

Let’s be honest: driving around Panama sucks. The main problem, one that makes no sense to those accustomed to well-designed road systems, is an appalling lack of signage. Seriously, Panama raises the art of under-communication to new, deplorable heights. Even though roads are numbered on maps, we never saw those numbers referenced anywhere in the real world. If that didn’t make driving dangerous enough for visitors, the constant confusion is exacerbated in Panama City by rampant traffic, sloppy drivers, and a bewildering Panapass toll system that does not accept actual currency but rather a prepaid EZ-Pass.

That said, unless you want to be shuttled and taxied around, renting a car makes sense. We did and appreciated the ability to come and go freely, especially since we were so close to Gamboa. Having a 4×4 with good pickup helped as well. But be very careful about how you rent a car… and with whom. Panama inflicts usurious car insurance policies on visitors, so do your research. Car rental itself can be cheap, but mandatory insurance will more than double your expected rate. And if you rent from Ace, you’ll get ripped off for extra money for fake scratches upon your return. They got me for $150 that I couldn’t possibly avoid. Don’t let them get you. DO NOT RENT A CAR FROM ACE.

Crocodiles can get pretty big in Panama

Our family-focused fun included something for everyone: a pool for Mason, a zipline for Ivy, a canal tour for Sara, and birds for me. Here was our free-and-easy itinerary, which was only partially planned but fully satisfactory to all parties:

DAY 1: Arrive midday. Swim and explore hotel grounds.

DAY 2: All-day tour with Panama Day Trips – Canal boat tour on Lago Gatún, San Lorenzo Fort, and new Agua Clara Locks. Swim and explore hotel grounds.

DAY 3: Drive to Canopy Adventures in El Valle for ziplining. Swim and explore hotel grounds. Dinner at Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

DAY 4: Morning at Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Swim and explore hotel grounds.

DAY 5: Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Road for me. Fly home.

Note that even the most carefully planned itinerary only works for birding if you have a supportive partner along to provide the minutes and hours of attention needed to build a decent trip list. My daughter Ivy may be developing a taste for birding (though chasing mammals is what she’s really about) but she wilted quickly in the tropical heat, falling back with my wife while I pressed ahead. My last morning’s excursion to Summit Ponds was solo, a gift from someone willing to sit by the pool with the kids while I immersed myself in epic rainforest birding. Make sure you can do the same.

The view from the top of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center tower

Radisson Summit Hotel and Golf Panama really serves up a superior birding experience, just by nature of the amazing forest surrounding it. We requested a high floor, which provided stunning canopy views and killer birds every morning. If you’ll only be happy if you can see a toucan every morning, you can be very happy here. Plus, we never stopped finding new and better species, which suggests that this place could compile a highly respectable site list.

Lago Gatún was a highlight of the trip for my family, especially because the boat tours include trips to different Monkey Islands to handfeed the wild populations stranded by the filling of the lake to create the Panama Canal. You’ll get the best monkey sightings of your life along with certain birds like Snail Kites and Limpkin, which are Gatun Lake specialties.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort majestically overlooks Lago Gatún, so staying—or just birding—there delivers ample opportunity for all the Gatun birds. The grounds of the resort are extremely birdy, almost to a fault when 50 Orange-chinned Parakeets are screeching from a tree poolside. But even if you don’t stay there, visit for dinner or at least a drink.

Fuerte San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Fort) adds that historical element so many crave in a tour. I could take it or leave it, but the views of the Caribbean were gorgeous. The fort is inside the San Lorenzo National Forest, which has to its name an impressive bird list.

The Agua Clara Locks were recently created to accommodate the Neo Panamax vessels, the largest to ever navigate the canal. The spiffy, sparkling new visitor center includes a tasty nature trail that is reputed to hold some great birds. Unfortunately, I walked it in a downpour. The Miraflores Locks were birdier in my experience and include a museum experience this location lacks. But you can’t see the jumbo cargo ships at Miraflores!

Canopy Adventures in Anton Valley is part of the Canopy Family and very close to the Canopy Lodge. I picked up some amazing birds at Canopy Adventures back in 2010, but that was with a guide who knew his birds. Our zipline guides did not know their birds or were not inclined to lead us to the avian treasures locked within. I was able to scrape together a few birds anyway. Our guides did know ziplining, however, which guaranteed a safe and thrilling time for all of us. The long drive from Gamboa was worth it, especially because El Valle itself is so beautiful. But if you want to see the amazing birds found in this area, plan ahead.

Panama Rainforest Discovery Center ranks high on every visitor’s list, birders and non-birders alike. In fact, when we went, we met an American who was visiting for her third time. That magnificent tower rising above a pristine rainforest canopy certainly deserves a look or three. The center also includes the only hummingbird feeders we found, even though 95% of the hummers were White-necked Jacobins. Most important, though, is the center’s position on Pipeline Road. If you don’t know why Pipeline Road matters, you have a lot more research to do before visiting Panama! Suffice to say, the ant swarms that occur randomly here bring out so many mythical birds that birders never tire of exploring its depths. I was lucky enough to stumble onto one and pulled three lifers in mere seconds.

The Summit Ponds are home to all manner of kingfisher and long-legged wader, many of which are easier to find here than anywhere else in Panama. Unfortunately, Summit Ponds themselves can be tough to find. Park in the lot across from Summit Gardens and Zoo, then walk across the railroad tracks. When you see the dirt trail parallel to the tracks, keep walking: you won’t find the ponds there, as I learned to my chagrin. Follow the road to the military base and let the guard (yes, there is a guard) know you’re birding the ponds. While I arrived too early in the day to pick up any kingfishers, the trip was worth it because of what lies beyond the gate between the two ponds…

Old Gamboa Road is another phenomenal birding road in a country famous for them. Ignore the Summit Ponds gate barring entry if you want to experience rainforest birding bliss. I picked up many of the OGR specialties in just a couple of hours, but so many more were left on the table that I want to get back soon.

Summit Ponds

I’m no stranger to Central American birding, with plenty (though never enough) of trips to this part of the world to account for lots of the readily available species. In fact, I spent a week in Panama in 2010, exploring many of the hotspots in Gamboa and El Valle in the expert care of Canopy Tower and Lodge guides. Thus, I arrived in Panama with 204 species on my country list and low expectations for more than a handful of lifers.

How did I do once the lists were tallied? I’m happy to report that I identified 154 species in just five days, adding 65 more birds to my Panama list and 16 lifers. I found the most at Radisson Summit, which speaks very highly to the quality of birding on site even though this hotel does not cater in any way to bird watching. The Rainforest Center and Pipeline Road also delivered some of the wonders they are known for. Old Gamboa Road, a new destination for me, was the biggest revelation; I found some of the specialties of this site, though alas not all. Nonetheless, my family trip to Panama qualifies as a birding success. If you embark on a similar adventure, I hope you have at least as much fun as we did!

Great Tinamou
Finally saw one of these jungle chickens attending to an ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Lots on Lago Gatún and the canal

Blue-winged Teal
Seen on Lago Gatún during our boat tour

Magnificent Frigatebird
Common everywhere you have a view of the canal or the coast

Gray-headed Chachalaca
At the Radisson Summit and Gamboa Rainforest Resort marina

Brown Pelican
Frequently seen on Lago Gatún and the canal

Singletons on Lago Gatún and Summit Ponds

Neotropic Cormorant
Surprisingly, only one sighting from the veranda of Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Rufescent Tiger-Heron
One seen on Lago Gatún during our boat tour, right before White-faced Capuchins came aboard for grapes

Great Blue Heron
A few on Lago Gatún

Great Egret
Many on Lago Gatún

Snowy Egret
Many on Lago Gatún

Little Blue Heron
Many on Lago Gatún, mostly in patchy white juvenile plumage

Green Heron
Just one at Summit Ponds

Striated Heron
A couple on Lago Gatún and Summit Ponds

Boat-billed Heron
This species is a Summit Ponds specialty. I spotted one lurking in a tree.

Glossy Ibis
Apparently, this is a rarity this time of year. I saw one at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort marina.

Black Vulture
Tons everywhere, all the time

Turkey Vulture
Tons everywhere, all the time

Mississippi Kite
Spotted some massive migratory groups at Radisson Summit Hotel and Golf Panama

Common Black Hawk
Just one from Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Great Black Hawk
A single juvenile at Lago Gatún

Gray-lined Hawk
A couple at the clearing at the other end of Old Gamboa Road

Think you know what this mystery raptor is?

Gray-cowled Wood-Rail
One confiding bird on Lago Gatún

Common Gallinule
Many on Lago Gatún

A bunch on Lago Gatún and nowhere else

Wattled Jacana
Found on just about every body of water, even small golf water traps

Greater Ani
Only one for sure on Old Gamboa Road. I found distinguishing these birds from the ubiquitous grackles challenging to say the least

Groove-billed Ani
Several on Lago Gatún

Spotted Sandpiper
One at the Ferry Colon crossing and two at Summit Ponds

Southern Lapwing
Plenty anywhere with grass

Rock Pigeon
Common at airport and Panama City environs

Pale-vented Pigeon
Seen at most locations

Short-billed Pigeon
Lifer. Singles at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Plain-breasted Ground-Dove
Lifer. Two at Radisson Summit Hotel and Golf Panama on my first day and none after

Ruddy Ground-Dove
Abundant everywhere

White-tipped Dove
Seen at most locations

Gray-chested Dove
One at Fuerte San Lorenzo

Squirrel Cuckoo          
Singles at most locations

Pheasant Cuckoo
Heard only. Super close coming into the Pipeline Road ant swarm, but a guide there might have gone a little heavy on the playback!

Short-tailed Swift
Seen at Gamboa Rainforest Resort marina and Old Gamboa Road

Vaux’s Swift
Seen at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Great Potoo
Lifer. A specialty of Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Staff there pointed one out to everyone.

Garden Emerald
Lifer despite its commonality. At least one at Radisson Summit

White-necked Jacobin
Hordes mobbing the feeders at Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Long-billed Hermit
A couple eschewing the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center feeders for the comfort of nearby vines

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird
One resisting the jacobins at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center feeders

Blue-chested Hummingbird
One on Pipeline Road

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
One at Radisson Summit

Violet-headed Hummingbird
One on Old Gamboa Road

Whooping Motmot
I despaired of never seeing a motmot on this trip. Luckily, we pulled two on our last night at Radisson Summit Hotel. No identified trogons though?

Collared Aracari         
Seen at most sites

Keel-billed Toucan
Seen everywhere

Red-crowned Woodpecker
Seen at most inland sites

Lineated Woodpecker
A few at Radisson Summit

Crimson-crested Woodpecker
At least one a day at Radisson Summit

Collared Forest-Falcon
One excellent sighting on Old Gamboa Road before the bird was mobbed by jays

Collared Forest-Falcon

Yellow-headed Caracara
Several at Radisson Summit and canal zone

Orange-chinned Parakeet
Abundant and conspicuous everywhere

Red-lored Parrot
The common Amazon in the Gamboa area. Seen every day.

Mealy Parrot
Two from the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center tower

Fasciated Antshrike
Lifer. One at Radisson Summit

Checker-throated Antwren
One on Pipeline Road

Jet Antbird
Lifer. Two on Old Gamboa Road

Bicolored Antbird
Three at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Bicolored Antbird

Spotted Antbird          
Lifer. Two at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Ocellated Antbird
Lifer. Got great views of this serious rarity at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road. You’ll have to settle for the photo at the top of this report!

Plain-brown Woodcreeper
One at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Lifer. One at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Cocoa Woodcreeper
Two at Radisson Summit

 Gray Elaenia
One at the end of Old Gamboa Road

Lesser Elaenia
One at Radisson Summit

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
One on Old Gamboa Road

Royal Flycatcher
Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this species. A couple on Old Gamboa Road

Black-tailed Flycatcher
Lifer and Old Gamboa Road specialty. One spotted there.

Acadian Flycatcher
One on the grounds of Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Southern Bentbill
One on Pipeline road

Olivaceous Flatbill
One on Pipeline road

Plain-brown Woodcreeper

Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Several at various locations

Panama Flycatcher
At least one each at Fuerte San Lorenzo and Old Gamboa Road

Tropical Pewee
One or more at Radisson Summit

Lesser Kiskadee
Several at many locations, particularly Radisson Summit

Great Kiskadee
Several, especially at Radisson Summit and Summit Ponds. Gotta hear that classic call.

Boat-billed Flycatcher
Plenty everywhere

Rusty-margined Flycatcher
Seen every day, with many at Fuerte San Lorenzo and Summit Ponds

Social Flycatcher
Seen at several locations

White-ringed Flycatcher
Seen at several locations. Who has time for all these lookalike flycatchers?

Streaked Flycatcher
Seen each day at Radisson Summit and other locations

Tropical Kingbird
Abundant and conspicuous

Eastern Kingbird
Seen in groups of one to four at Radisson Summit, Pipeline Road, and Summit Ponds. Better get moving… we expect you in New York in a couple of months.

Golden-fronted Greenlet
A group in the trees at Summit Ponds

Red-eyed Vireo           
Singletons seen at several locations

Yellow-green Vireo
Singletons seen at Radisson Summit, Pipeline Road, and Old Gamboa Road

Green Shrike-Vireo
One seen from my balcony at Radisson Summit

Purple-throated Fruitcrow
Where else but Pipeline Road and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center?

Black-chested Jay
One group of four on Old Gamboa Road

Tree Swallow
A few at Summit Ponds

Mangrove Swallow
Abundant everywhere with water access

Gray-breasted Martin
Abundant everywhere

Barn Swallow
Abundant everywhere

Cliff Swallow
Abundant everywhere

Southern Rough-winged Swallow
One on the grounds of Gamboa Rainforest Resort, but I probably missed a bunch

House Wren
Seen almost everywhere. Way too common!

Black-bellied Wren
Lifer. Two at Radisson Summit

Rufous-breasted Wren
Multiples seen (and heard) at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Isthmian Wren
One along the train tracks near Summit Ponds

Buff-breasted Wren
Lifer. One singing on Old Gamboa Road

Song Wren
Three at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Tawny-faced Gnatwren
Lifer. One singing on Old Gamboa Road

Clay-colored Thrush
Abundant and conspicuous everywhere. Watch for the tail wag upon landing

Tropical Mockingbird
Many at Radisson Summit and Gamboa

Northern Waterthrush
Singles at Radisson Summit and Summit Ponds

Golden-winged Warbler          
One at Canopy Adventure

Chestnut-sided Warbler         
Singles at Canopy Adventure and Summit Ponds

Bay-breasted Warbler
One from the top of the tower at Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Yellow Warbler
Surprisingly common at Radisson Summit

Canada Warbler
One at Canopy Adventure

Common Yellowthroat
Two while waiting for the Ferry Colon. Our guide John Acosta was keen on birds but had never seen one.

White-shouldered Tanager
Several seen at most locations

White-lined Tanager
Two on Old Gamboa Road

Crimson-backed Tanager
Common everywhere

Flame-rumped Tanager
Only saw these generally common birds once all trip at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Gray-headed Tanager
Three where else but at the ant swarm on Pipeline Road

Gray-headed Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager
Abundant everywhere

Palm Tanager
Abundant everywhere

Golden-hooded Tanager
Common at Radisson Summit

Plain-colored Tanager
Seen a couple of times at Radisson Summit

Blue Dacnis
Two from the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center tower

Red-legged Honeycreeper
Common everywhere

Rosy Thrush-Tanager
Lifer and my target bird for the trip. Lucked into glimpses of a furtive pair on Old Gamboa Road!

Buff-throated Saltator
Seen at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Red-throated Ant-Tanager
Seen on Pipeline Road and Old Gamboa Road

Saffron Finch
Abundant at Radisson Summit

Blue-black Grassquit
Seen at various locations with tall grass

Variable Seedeater
Seen at various locations with tall grass

Yellow-bellied Seedeater
Some at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Shiny Cowbird
Some at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Yellow-backed Oriole
A group chattering at Old Gamboa Road

Yellow-billed Cacique
A pair at Radisson Summit

Scarlet-rumped Cacique         
Seen at various locations

Yellow-rumped Cacique         
Seen at Radisson Summit and Old Gamboa Road

Great-tailed Grackle
Abundant and conspicuous everywhere. You can’t escape grackles in the Americas.

Crested Oropendola
Common at many locations

Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Seen most days at Radisson Summit

Thick-billed Euphonia
Seen at many locations

House Sparrow
Almost got away without seeing any, but one turned up at Radisson Summit


Howler Monkey

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.