A Travellerspoint blog

Panama Day 1: El Salvador Layover & Panama City Birding!

all seasons in one day 92 °F


Today, after driving all the way from Lynchburg to Dulles last night, I finally flew to PANAMA!!!! My excitement was just sky high so I will dive right on in:

I arrived at Dulles at 1:00am for a 6:00am flight so I briefly napped on the floor of the airport (a first for me!) and set multiple alarms due to my paranoia from daylight savings time which was going into effect during these exact hours. Of course, this added wrinkle had to occur during this exact time!

Soon enough, I was off to Panama on Avianca Airlines with a stop in El Salvador. No complaints about Avianca other than it was the absolute tightest economy class seating I have ever endured — even more so than Spirit or Frontier.

One I got to El Salvador, I enjoyed a wonderful, supposedly traditional El Salvadorian breakfast. Again, no complaints here — it was delicious, especially for being airport food.

I managed to do some birding out the window of the San Salvador airport (interestingly enough I have connected through this airport twice before, on my way to and from Costa Rica in 2016). TURKEY VULTURES, my first bird of the trip, abounded:

And, keeping a keen eye out for lifers, I spotted a Buteo-like hawk soaring in the distance: my lifer HARRIS’ HAWK! It is a dark brown hawk in open lowland savanna habitat with a bright white, thick tail patch (more so than on the Black Hawks, and different shape from Snail Kite). Bingo! My first lifer of the trip, and spied from about a mile away across the airport and through a terminal window! Awesome! The trip was off to a great start already.

This female AMERICAN KESTREL was perched alongside the runway while my second plane of the day was taxiing to takeoff to Panama:

And the second flight to Panama was incredibly scenic — I was grateful to have paid the measly $6 upgrade for a window seat. There were volcanoes dotting the landscape, some active:

The weather was clear and we followed the coastline down to Panama so, apart from Guatemala and Belize perhaps, I have probably now at least *seen* every other Central American country! :)

View of Panama City while approaching our final destination — the city has grown immensely from 2013!!!!

Anyway, we landed in Panama City fairly on time where the birding immediately resumed from the airport. Fittingly, my first bird photo in Panama: BLACK VULTURE! The most common sight in the Panamanian sky.

A massive highlight of the day was reuniting with Kim and Susie for our first ever tropical birding excursion together! They had flown directly from Chicago on a different flight and timed pickup perfectly — they had arrived an hour earlier and already picked up groceries and jugs of water (essential for Americans visiting Panama who are not used to drinking Panama’s water). We have an incredible week ahead of us and, judging off of our previous excellent trips up to the Bog and to Indiana, this is sure to be one for the books! So, so, so excited.

After picking up the rental car, we headed over to our first main birding stop of the trip, a wetland area that, due to the sensitivity of the habitat, I cannot mention by name on here. This would be our sole lowland marsh/savanna/openland stop of our trip so we were hoping to make the most out of the last few hours of daylight left to find some incredible birds. Right off the bat, I started spotting birds with the ubiquitous TROPICAL KINGBIRD stealing the show:

Another Tropical bird — a family of TROPICAL MOCKINGBIRDS! Good to get a few shots of these common species now so we don’t have to worry about them later when we’re looking for very specific target birds.

And BAM! Within three minutes of birding at my first birding spot, a lifer! These were my lifer PLAIN-BREASTED GROUND-DOVES, which are just, well, plainer-breasted than the more common Ruddies.

A brief look at a WHITE-TIPPED DOVE before it disappeared into vegetation:

Though I was on the lookout for my lifer Groove-billed, I was still satisfied to get SMOOTH-BILLED ANI for the first time since 2016!


We ooh’d and aah’d over a particularly obliging COMMON TODY-FLYCATCHER. Since Kim and Susie had never before birded the tropics, pretty much all of these birds were lifers for them — including this tropical species, of course. And this particular bird I had only seen twice before — super fun!

SOCIAL FLYCATCHER, a common, Kiskadee-like flycatcher with a shorter bill and overall smaller than Kiskadees. There are five flycatcher species in the Panama province area that all look incredibly similar to this (i.e. Kiskadee-esque) and must be distinguished by minute differences in plumage, voice, and habits.


Then, I spotted my third lifer for the day: an absolutely magnificent SAVANNA HAWK!!! Awesome!!! I was really hoping to find this bird so I was glad we were able to snag it.

We next found an extremely stunning passerine, a PIED WATER-TYRANT, foraging along the bank of an irrigation ditch paralleling the path. Wow! What a bird — I’ve only seen this species once before, in Argentina no less.


I spotted another brilliant SAVANNA HAWK in a tree a little ways away:

CARIB GRACKLE was my fourth lifer of the day, associating with a flock of GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES which are very common in Panama. The Carib is the smaller species in the middle right. It has an interesting story in that it didn’t use to occur in the country but has moved in from the Caribbean, taking advantage of scrubby areas caused by habitat fragmentation.

Better look at the Carib:

Then, I spotted another raptor perched a little ways away — this time a WHITE-TAILED KITE! The only other time I’ve seen this bird was also in Panama, ten years ago, but honestly now I can’t remember that sighting very well so this might as well count as a lifer, too!


The next sighting was a great one — AMERICAN PYGMY KINGFISHER! Wowza! A stunner of a bird and also one I have only seen once before, in Bocas del Toro, Panama. This was a much better look at it and Kim and Susie were in absolute awe.

SAFFRON FINCH. This attractive, Old World species unfortunately is the “House Sparrow” of Panama and outcompetes many native birds for nesting in urban areas. I saw it on the grounds of the summit hotel in 2013 and it has significantly expanded its local range since then.



PURPLE GALLINULE was fun to see:

Then, it was time for the drive back through Panama City to our hotel, the Summit Rainforest Golf Resort. The recommended route had us criss-cross the city with a few scary left turns and generally-ignored emergency vehicles. In Panama City, driving laws seem to be mere suggestions. You have to drive aggressively and assertively or you’ll never get anywhere. Susie learned that quickly and was so sweet to do pretty much all the driving this trip. Thank you, thank you!

I birded the hotel grounds for a bit in the remaining evening light as I had fond memories of birding these grounds when I was just thirteen. Yep, they didn’t disappoint — a COLLARED ARACARI seemed to be perched waiting for me:

Again, massive kettles of vultures (with these being predominately TURKEY) are an absolutely abundant sight in central Panama:

As are (in the dry season AKA northern winter) kettles of Broad-winged and SWAINSON’S HAWKS, like this one:


The beautiful golf course grounds in the evening.

And the silhouette of a PALM TANAGER, a bird I remembered fondly to be nesting abundantly on the grounds. This wrapped up the day of birding because I needed to rest up for our first day out in the jungle tomorrow!

And just a funny random photo of the hotel dining room to end the day which my parents will recognize from our travels in 2013! Visiting this hotel brought back a touch of nostalgia for sure, especially as I remembered birding the grounds with my dad and swimming in the pool with family.

Bird-of-the-day to Savanna Hawk with runner-up to Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Savanna Hawk is a significantly open land-oriented species so it was great we could get this beautiful species on the first day. There will be so, so much more — trust me and stay tuned! Due to the astronomical number of photos to edit along with balancing a busy schedule, it will take me a while to get around to posting the coming days of this trip (as in expect a backlog of weeks or months!!!).

What a joy to bird with two great friends in an absolutely mind-boggling part of the world. SO amazing, and frankly unbelievable, to be back!

Happy birding!
World Life List: 1194 Species (4 life birds today: Harris’ Hawk, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Savanna Hawk, Carib Grackle)

Posted by skwclar 04:30 Archived in El Salvador

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The trip of a lifetime!! I still can't believe we pulled it off.

by Susie Nies

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