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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: The Canopy Tower in Autumn

2010 Tour Narrative

The 2010 trip to Panama’s Canopy Tower and Lodge combined an impressive diversity of birds (376 species) and nearly 20 species of mammals with a lush tropical setting, great company and excellent local cuisine. Our highlight species were many, with some of the standouts including a foraging Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo attending a large swarm of army ants, a pair of the locally scarce Ruddy Woodcreepers, close views of a stunning male Blue Cotinga, a White-tipped Sicklebill feeding at eye-level heliconia flowers, six species of trogons and a fiesta of gaudy tanagers including Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Emerald, Speckled, Black-and-yellow, Silver-throated, Golden-hooded, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped. We had excellent luck finding antswarms this year, with Bicolored, Spotted and unbelievably colorful Ocellated Antbirds in attendance. We also managed to turn up a few rarities, such as the young Red-footed Booby, second-year Pomarine Jaeger on the Atlantic coast and three Kelp Gulls on the Pacific coast. This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodgings, makes for a truly wonderful experience.

Our first three days in and around the Canopy Tower provided a wonderful introduction to the birds of central Panama. Perched atop a hill adjacent to the canal, the tower’s top deck affords spectacular vistas of the forest around the tower, and of the canal itself. Seeing canopy species such as Green Shrike-Vireo and Brown-capped Tyrannulet at eye level is very satisfying. This year we were hampered somewhat by low-level fog which obscured the view from the tower on several mornings. Nevertheless, we had fantastic views of a close female Blue Cotinga, good studies of flyover Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks, Fasciated Antshrike and a very obliging Black-breasted Puffbird from the comforts of the top of the tower. The hummingbird feeders at the tower’s base played host to six species of hummingbirds, including impressive numbers of White-necked Jacobins, Violet-bellied and Blue-chested Hummingbirds. Nearby fruiting trees held stunning male Blue-crowned Manakins and several improbably colored Golden-hooded Tanagers. The fun was not limited to birds, with views of White-nosed Coati and Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth just along the entrance road to the tower. All this without even walking more than a few dozen feet!

The forests and small wetlands close to the tower occupied two full days of our tour, with over 150 species found within just a mile of the tower. The road below the tower down Semaphore Hill passes through some forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity for encountering flocks with Dot-winged, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, Western Slaty-Antshrike, the secretive Black-faced Antthrush and Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots. On one afternoon we visited a nearby house where regularly stocked fruit feeders attract a riot of colorful birds. We watched, entranced, at the parade of color as Crimson-backed, Blue-gray and Flame-rumped Tanagers competed with Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers and Whooping Motmots for best in show while Central American Agoutis and Gray-headed Chachalacas tried to see who could devour the most bananas per minute. Another afternoon found us wandering along the margins of a marsh making careful studies of the similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, and enjoying lengthy looks at a family of  White-throated Crakes foraging in the open near our feet. A nice trail near the bottom of the hill was productive this year, as we found a very obliging antswarm with a pair of scarce Ruddy Woodcreepers and excellent views of Gray-headed Tanagers. A night drive near the tower produced a responsive Common Potoo and at a flowering Balsa tree a wealth of nocturnal mammals including an Olingo, several Common Opossums and a dainty Central American Woolly Opossum.

We also spent a full day on the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberiana National Park and provides unparalleled access to high-quality forest and almost 400 species of birds. Several Northern Barred, Plain-brown and Cocoa Woodcreepers were found foraging over an antswarm, affording excellent studies of these similar species. Just before we decided to set up our picnic lunch we received a call that a pair of Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos had been spotted at an antswarm near the newly constructed Rainforest Discovery Center and so, naturally, the chase was on. We ate lunch under the shade of the center’s observation deck and were soon overwhelmed by the number and diversity of hummingbirds coming into the feeders. With the exception of several Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, the species here were similar to those at the tower, but having well over a hundred individuals swirling around us was mesmerizing. After lunch, we set off down the center’s loop trail and were soon distracted by an antswarm with more Bicolored, Spoted, Chestnut-backed and Ocellated Antbirds. For a solid 20 minutes we watched as these birds fed on or near the forest floor all around us. Reluctantly we pulled ourselves away and continued down the trail, only to be sidetracked again by a pair of the peculiar Brownish Twistwing which we were able to observe performing their namesake behavior. Soon after, we were elated to locate another antswarm, this time attended by a Ground-Cuckoo, foraging just a few feet off the trail. The Ground-Cuckoos of South and southern Central America are a nearly mythical group of birds. Watching this nearly 18-inch-long bird, with an erectile crest, huge yellow bill, purplish back and violaceous tail, as it scampered around after grasshoppers surely counts as a highlight for anyone’s neotropical birding resume. After this incredible experience with one of the continent’s most elusive birds we happily retired to the Tower for dinner.

During our week at the Canopy Tower we made two day-long trips afield in order to sample some of central Panama’s other available habitats. Our trip to the north coast of the Canal Zone never fails to entertain, and this year was no exception. In the early dawn light we sat along a roadside edge and watched as dozens of species began to visit a huge fig tree that was covered in fruit. In less than an hour we had a flock of Spot-crowned Barbets, two male Blue Cotingas, great views of White-headed Wren, several Short-billed Pigeons, a pair of Purple-throated Fruitcrows and hordes of Lemon-rumped Tanagers, toucans and aracaris! After this show we walked slowly down the road pausing to soak in new birds at an impressive pace. At one particularly productive stop we marveled at a pair of the diminutive and incredibly colorful Pacific Antwrens as they foraged in a weedy thicket, while Scrub Greenlets, Plain Wren and Pied Puffbird were spotted nearly simultaneously, making it hard to decide just where to look first! Enroute to our lunch stop we visited a thick mangrove forest on the coast, where we found a cooperative male Black-tailed Trogon, and a pair of Streak-headed Woodcreepers. Even lunch proved eventful, as Fort Lorenzo held two surprise birds for us. While scanning the ocean below the fort we noticed a flock of foraging terns feeding in the mouth of the Chagres River. We were not the only ones to notice the flock, as within 20 minutes both a young Red-footed Booby, and a second-year Pomarine Jaeger came in to investigate the activity. Wintering Pomarine Jaegers are regularly encountered offshore in Panamanian waters but rarely seen from land, and the booby was wholly unexpected. We capped off a delightful day along the coast with a drive through the giant locks at the Atlantic end of the canal and a brief stop to look at some roosting Western Night Monkeys before boarding a train bound for Panama City. The transcontinental train ride affords a unique look into the flooded valleys and small islets created by the canal project and also provided views of several of Snail Kites, feeding along the tracks on the largely introduced Apple Snails that have colonized the canal’s lakes.

The day trip to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe provided us with our first taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. A private house, once owned by the president of Panama, gave us access to an extensively planted garden laden with flowers and fruiting trees. Here we enjoyed several new species of hummingbirds, including the charming Violet-headed and the impressive Green Hermit. The range-restricted Violet-capped Hummingbird was a crowd pleaser, but the star of the show was a delicate female Green Thorntail feeding in a large patch of sunflowers just down the road. Vying for our attentions here were several exquisite tanagers that were visiting a fruiting tree, including Emerald, Rufous-winged and Bay-headed. A short walk down the hill below Cerro Azul through a fairly glamorous neighborhood allowed us to investigate a stand of flowering trees where another gorgeous tanager awaited us in the form of a foraging flock of Speckled Tanagers. The foothill forests held several small mixed flocks, with many migrant warblers, vireos and tanagers from the north joining birds such as Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher and Shining Honeycreeper. On the way home we stopped along the coast at Panama City and marveled at the huge numbers of migrant and wintering shorebirds that were feeding along the mudflats. Perhaps due to the influences of La Niña we found three Kelp Gulls (typically restricted to further south along South America’s west coast) and a few Franklin’s and Ring-billed Gulls amongst the throng of Laughing Gulls. Also present were impressive numbers of Marbled Godwit, Willet, both Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plover and Short-billed Dowitcher. A small canal nearby held a cooperative Amazon Kingfisher, two Cocoi Herons, a flock of White Ibis and huge numbers of roosting Neotropic Cormorants.

On our last morning in the lowlands we again greeted the dawn atop Canopy Tower and then wandered along the Old Gamboa Road, which passes through patches of forest, ponds and open grassy areas. Here we enjoyed watching a nesting pair of Boat-billed Herons, duetting Rufous-and-White Wrens, a skulking Yellow-billed Cacique and a nice male Black-and-White Becard before packing up to head west to the Canopy Lodge.

Nestled in a forested valley just uphill from the picturesque town of Anton, and in the eastern edge of the Talamanca range that stretches westward into Costa Rica, the lodge offers a wealth of birds not accessible around the tower. The daily show at the fruit feeders just outside the dining hall is a treasure for the eyes, with dozens of colorful tanagers, including some normally restricted to the dense forest understory (like Dusky-faced and Red-crowned Ant-tanager), competing with Red-tailed Squirrels, honeycreepers and even Rufous Motmots and Collared Aracaris for the best pieces of banana. The cool air and light breeze of El Valle provided a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the tower. We spent about two days birding various trails through drier vine forests, and very moist cloud forests around El Valle. The diversity of habitats leads to a corresponding diversity of birds, and we were thrilled to see species such as Green-crowned Brilliant, Blue Seedeater and Orange-bellied Trogons in the highland just a few miles away from where we could watch Lance-tailed Manakin, Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Rufous-and-white Wrens in the lowlands. The hardest decision here is often, where to next? 

Our first morning at the lodge, we visited a nearby trail and were thrilled to encounter two of the signature species of El Valle. A small patch of flowering heliconias was visited by the bizarre White-tipped Sicklebill, whose supremely curved bill is adapted to the shape of the heliconias’ flowers. Not five minutes afterwards we enjoyed views of a perched Tody Motmot, perhaps easier to see in Panama than anywhere else. Other highlights near the lodge included a surprise roosting Chuck-Will’s-Widow, several wintering Golden-winged Warblers, a Buff-rumped Warbler, perched White Hawks and the scarce White-thighed Swallow. The next day we walked up Cerro Gaital, with new bird species coming rapidly. Mixed flocks abounded on the lower slopes, with the gaudy Silver-throated Tanager often in the lead. The bamboo near the top of the summit was in seed, and we managed to locate a small group of Blue Seedeaters feeding in the thick stands. Bird-of-the-day honors fell to a pretty Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet quietly sitting just overhead.

On a full day-trip from the lodge we visited the lush cloud forests well above El Valle. Here the orchids and bromeliads seemed to outweigh the trees, and the frequent rain and fog contributed to a markedly different avifauna than on the drier lower slopes. This year we were unlucky with the weather and forced to make small excursions in between bouts of rain (mornings are generally cloudy but fair here at this time of year). Walking along a recently paved road we found a host of special birds that occur mainly in the eastern sierra of Panama. Flocks of Common Bush-Tanagers often contained some of the more rare species such as the attractive Ochraceous Wren, gaudy Black-and-Yellow Tanager or charismatic Tufted Flycatcher. One of our party who elected to remain behind during one of our walks even managed a lengthy visit with a Black Guan foraging just above the van! We were happy to have excellent views of a close and fairly cooperative Black-crowned Antpitta this year, surely one of the most attractive species in Central America. The highland hummingbirds did not disappoint either with two Snowcaps, a scarce Brown Violetear,and a foraging Band-tailed Barbthroat. This highland forest is being rapidly cleared to make room for luxury homes, but there are still good tracts of forest remaining and I hope that we can continue to access quality habitat in the coming years.

Another day-trip from the lodge found us in the Pacific lowland marshes and forests of coastal Cocle Province for our most diverse single day of the trip. The rice fields, agricultural areas, hedgerows and coastline here offer a wealth of species that we did not see anywhere else on the tour. Each participant came up with a different “bird of the day,” with Garden Emerald, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Rufous-browed Peppershrike, all receiving mention. Of particular note was the staggering number of Little Blue Heron and Cattle Egrets present in the wet fields along the coast. Other highlights have to include the very striking Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, several coveys of Crested Bobwhite, a perched Brown-throated Parakeet and the diminutive Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. The dry savannah-like patches along the coast proved good for raptors as well, with Savannah, Roadside and Short-tailed Hawks, a pair of Aplomado Falcons, White-tailed Kite and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.

We capped the trip off with a short stroll around the hotel grounds of the Country Inn on Panama City’s Amador Causeway, where we found a cooperative Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, a group of foraging Yellow-bellied Seedeaters and a migrant Merlin. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Carlos Bethancourt and Tino Sanchez, for making this a great tour to lead. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.

- Gavin Bieber

December 2010

Updated: February 2011