The Canopy Tower overlooks a wide swath of lowland forest. Photo: Canopy Tower Staff
Panama is one of those fortunate places where two great avifaunas meet. As one moves from the Costa Rican border east toward the Colombian border, Central American birds drop out and the truly Neotropical groups such as antbirds, woodcreepers, tyrant flycatchers, hummingbirds and tanagers begin to dominate. It all makes for an exceedingly rich birding experience. Our trip is timed to take advantage of the end of Autumn migration, when resident breeding birds are joined by wintering migrants and transients from North America. This influx of Nearctic migrants makes for a very diverse avian assemblage. The acclaimed Canopy Tower serves as a delightful home base as we explore several remarkable birding areas including Pipeline Road, which offers arguably the best lowland birding in Central America, with over 400 species recorded from this single locale!
Day 1: The tour begins at 18.30 with an introductory meeting in the main room at the Canopy Tower. Shuttle transfers are arranged from Panama City Tocumen airport to Canopy Tower. Night at the Canopy Tower.
Day 2: In early dawn light, coffee in hand, we’ll stand on the top deck of the Canopy Tower, enjoying the sunrise over the forested hillsides below us and scanning the skies and the trees for parrots, pigeons, mixed canopy flocks and the prize of the forest canopy, the stunning Blue Cotinga. After an hour on the deck we’ll have breakfast and then drive to Plantation Road, a nearby forest trail. In this lowland Atlantic forest we’ll hope to encounter flocks containing Dot-winged, White-flanked Antwrens and Checker-throated Antwrens, Black-crowned Antshrike, Cocoa Woodcreeper and canopy species such as Yellow and Scarlet-rumped Caciques and Purple-throated Fruitcrow. This trail is often excellent for forest raptors such as Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kites, Black Hawk-Eagle, and Collared Forest-Falcon. We’ll return to the Canopy Tower for lunch and an early afternoon siesta (in our rooms or in hammocks on the top floor) — or to watch the hummingbird feeders for Violet-bellied, Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin and Long-billed Hermit. Later we’ll drive north along the Panama Canal to Gamboa and the justly famous but perhaps not-so-enchantingly named Ammo Dump Ponds. Here we’ll find our first waterbirds including numbers of Wattled Jacanas. White-throated Crake and Gray-cowled Wood-Rail lurk in the reed beds and there is always the chance of finding a motionless Rufescent Tiger-Heron along the pond margins. Here too large grass beds contain mixed groups of Yellow-bellied, Ruddy-breasted and Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-Finch while the tangled vegetation around the larger pond holds Buff-breasted and Plain Wrens. Large concentrations of Gray-breasted Martin and Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows often gather along the canal, which also offers a corridor for pelagic species to cross the isthmus - overhead there could be passing Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, Ospreys or terns. Night at the Canopy Tower.
Day 3: We’ll rise early for an all-day expedition to Pipeline Road, considered by many to be the premier lowland birding location in Central America. We’ll walk road, followed by our vehicles (with our picnic lunch), and make a particular effort to locate such difficult species as King Vulture, Streak-chested Antpitta, Great Jacamars, Black-striped Woodcreepers, Moustached (Pygmy) Antwren, Forest Elaenia, Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, Pied, White-necked, Black-breasted and White-whiskered Puffbirds and Song Wren. If we’re very fortunate we might encounter a Great Curassow or Tiny Hawk, Great Jacamar or Rufous Piha, or any number of other true rarities that call this forest home. Generally we come across one or two ant swarms attended by obligate ant followers such as Bicolored, Spotted and the superlative Ocellated Antbirds, as well as several species of woodcreeper. Watching dozens of birds in attendance on a swarm, seemingly oblivious to our presence, is an experience a naturalist can truly revel in. In addition to the birds the forest here is literally alive with butterflies, dragonflies and a host of frogs. Everywhere we look, there will be things of interest and it is never easy to leave. Night at the Canopy Tower.
Day 4: After an early breakfast we’ll passAfter an early breakfast we’ll pass over the newly constructed lock systems near Gatun Lock before reaching the Achiote Road on the Caribbean coast. Achiote is widely regarded as the best place in the canal area for diurnal raptors, and we’ll keep our eyes upward for Semiplumbeous, Gray-lined, Common Black, Great Black, and Short-tailed Hawks and several kites and falcons. Fruiting trees along the road often attract Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Scarlet and Yellow-rumped Caciques, Blue-headed Parrots and a nice assortment of open-country birds. We’ll also look for local species such as White-headed Wren, Montezuma and Crested Oropendolas, Spot-crowned Barbet, Pacific Antwren, Long-tailed Tyrant, Bare-crowned Antbird and Red-breasted Meadowlark. The region is extremely diverse and often this day of the tour produces the highest species total of the week. We’ll have a picnic lunch near a historic Spanish fort located on a bluff above the Caribbean at the mouth of the Chagres River, and then visit a nearby mangrove forest looking for birds such as Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-tailed Trogon and perhaps Muscovy Duck before heading back to the tower in the late afternoon. Night at the Canopy Tower.
Day 5: We’ll again have an early-morning watch from the top of the tower. Canopy flocks containing birds such as Green Shrike-Vireo, Brown-capped Tyrannulet and White-shouldered Tanagers should be visible if we’re not distracted by Red-lored, Mealy, Brown-hooded and/or Blue-headed Parrots wheeling around below us. Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracari are common around the tower early in the morning, often perching up in nearby Cecropias. After breakfast we’ll walk down the mile-long Canopy Tower entrance road, possibly encountering a troupe of White-faced Capuchins or the very attractive Geoffrey’s Tamarin. The forest floor along the roadside is open in many places, greatly improving our chances of actually seeing such ground-dwelling species as Black-faced Antthrush and Great Tinamou. Three species of motmots, Crimson-crested, Black-cheeked, Lineated and Cinnamon Woodpeckers and a host of flycatchers should help make for a very full morning of birding. In the mid-afternoon we’ll drive to the nearby Summit Ponds where edge specialists such as Buff-throated Saltator, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Jet Antbird and Golden-fronted Greenlet are often found along the access road. We should also encounter a few mixed flocks of open-country tanagers and flycatchers including the incredible Crimson-backed Tanager. Around the ponds we could see Boat-billed Heron, Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, and kingfishers including Amazon, Green and possibly even American Pygmy. After dinner we’ll offer an optional night tour back down the road to the ponds. The forest feels like a very different place when it’s dark, with a diverse frog chorus and with Western Night Monkeys, Kinkajou, Tamandua and bats competing with a long potential night bird list that includes Spectacled, Mottled, Crested, Black-and-white and Tropical Screech-Owls, Pauraque and Great and Common Potoos. Once at the ponds there is a good chance we’ll witness the antics of the Greater Bulldog Fishing Bat, a large golden bat that spends its evenings hunting surface fish in ponds close to forests. Night at the Canopy Tower.
Day 6: We’ll leave early this morning for Cerro Azul. Though only about two hours away, these highlands present a whole new world where trees are laden with epiphytes and colourful orchids. Mixed canopy flocks often include a variety of dazzling tanagers such as Emerald, Silver-throated, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged, Speckled and Black-and-yellow. Understory flocks here can include several species not found in the adjacent lowlands, such as Spotted Woodcreeper, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and White-ruffed Manakin. Migrant warblers are often common as well, including some of the brighter species like Golden-winged, Redstart and Blackburnian. We have reasonable expectations of seeing the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, the beautiful and range-restricted Violet-capped Hummingbird and even the amazingly colourful Yellow-eared Toucanet. We’ll visit an impressive array of hummingbird feeders at a local house, where we regularly encounter over 12 species and hundreds of individuals over the course of a few hours as well as masses of Shining, Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers. After lunch we’ll drive toward Panama City to investigate the waterfront at Costa de Este. The mangrove linked shores of Panama Bay are a RAMSAR designated site (a wetland of international importance) for waders, supporting a wintering population estimated at almost a million birds. We’ll arrive in the late afternoon, and should encounter thousands of waders of over a dozen species, as well as hundreds of herons including Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Cocoi Heron. Night near the Panama Canal.
Day 7: The main tour will conclude this morning with a shuttle to Panama City Tocumen airport for flights home. Those continuing on to the Bocas del Toro and Western Highlands tour will be transferred to the regional airport for the flight to the Caribbean lowlands.
**Single room supplement: Please note that the standard room at Canopy Tower is a shared double-occupancy room which has a private bathroom. This is what the above cost is based on. Single occupancy of those double rooms carries a single room supplement of £450. Note however that Canopy Tower also has some smaller, single-occupancy-only rooms which have shared bathroom facilities. Clients who request a single room on their booking form will be given one of these, and we will deduct £165 from the basic tour price listed above.
Updated: 17 November 2020