From a birding perspective, the first part to planning any trip is deciding when to go. As simple as this decision may seem there are several factors to consider, but first and foremost are weather conditions and bird activity. In Panama there are essentially two seasons - wet and dry, and depending on where you are in Panama the actual start and end dates vary by up to four weeks. In Panama City the dry season begins in early December and ends in late March to mid-April. Correspondingly, most bird activity occurs during this time because it is the peak breeding season for residents, and breeding species from Canada and the United States are wintering. It is worth noting however that although the dry season favours the best birding, there are other notable times that are likely to be very rewarding. For example, during autumn migration (September to October), witnessing the spectacular southbound migration of more than one million raptors and vultures is not likely to disappoint.
For our 2009 trip we decided to visit during the dry season. I had already been in late-February and early-March and if we chose to visit later there was a risk of encountering the onset of the rainy season. Additionally, we didn't want to visit immediately before or after Christmas, and so we settled on 14-28 February.
Now that we had our dates selected we had to pick our flights. This was unfortunately not a straight-forward process because many of the single-day flights that were available in 2008 were no longer available. Instead, every option required an overnight stay at a connecting airport either in the United States or Mexico, whereas in 2008 I was able to fly the entire trip in one day (albeit there were major delays). We eventually settled on flying with American Airlines and chose to fly out of Vancovuer early on the morning of the 15th. This meant that we first had to travel to Vancouver via ferry on the 14th, which would mark our first Valentine's dinner in the BC Ferries buffet! For the southbound trip we had two connecting flights, the first in Los Angeles with a layover of about 6 hours, and the second in Miami with a layover of about 7 hours. For our northbound flight we also had two connecting flights, the first in Miami with a layover of about 1.5 hours, and the second in Dallas with a layover of about 8 hours.
Now that we had our flights booked, we had to decide what we were going to do once we got there. Some decisions were easy, such as renting a car for greater independence and stop-and-go birding. We also had decided relatively quickly that we would spend most of our time based out of Panama City so as to minimize the amount of time spent moving from hotel to hotel. What we needed to do next was set an itinerary, and to do that, I purchased A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama by George R. Angehr, and Dodge and Lorna Engleman. The book is an excellent reference for planning birding trips to Panama, and provides numerous examples of places to go within each province, as well as a guide to highly sought-after species. In the introduction there is a full discussion of geography, weather and climate, major bird habitats, and what to bring and how to prepare for birding in Panama.
In my next post I will present our 2009 itinerary, and provide useful links to websites that helped with the planning process.
Until then, happy birding.