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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: The Canopy Tower in Spring

2011 Narrative

After many wonderful trips to bird-rich Panama during the “green season,” WINGS’ inaugural March tour to the famed Canopy Tower was highly successful. Our highlight species were many, with some of the standouts including: a Fasciated Heron foraging along a rushing stream on Cerro Azul; an immature Agami Heron quietly sitting along the bank of one of the Summit Ponds; a beautiful male Blue Cotinga perched in excellent light; or perhaps the hummingbird feeders at a private house that we visited that held an impressive 11 species, including a young male Rufous-crested Coquette. Panama is justly known for a large number of colorful tropical birds, and we enjoyed repeated views of Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, five species of trogons, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, gaudy tanagers such as Bay-headed, Crimson-backed and Golden-hooded and a host of dazzling hummingbirds. Along Pipeline Road we encountered an active ant swarm with attendant Bicolored, Spotted and incredible Ocellated Antbirds, as well as three species of woodcreepers and a cooperative pair of Song Wrens. What could be better than having these sometimes-reclusive birds foraging unconcerned just a few feet away, accompanied by the constant song of a Streak-chested Antpitta seen a scant half hour before?  And we haven’t even mentioned the superlative fresh food, wonderful scenery, varied flora, beautiful landscapes and great camaraderie! It was truly a wonderful trip.

The extension to eastern Panama allowed us to access a very different avifauna than that found in the Canal Zone. Likely the highlight sighting was our encounter with a cooperative female Spiny-faced (Speckled) Antshrike, an enigmatic and very distinctive species found in a small area of eastern Panama and adjacent Colombia. Other great finds around the trails of the rustic but comfortable Burbayar Lodge included a very closely perched Plumbeous Hawk, a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle and flocks of Tawny-crested, Sulphur-rumped and Black-and-Yellow Tanagers. The Bayano lowlands were highly productive, with multiple sightings of the range-restricted Black Antshrike, a Great Curassow walking across the trail, a pair of exquisite Golden-green Woodpeckers, two Royal Flycatchers and a fast-moving White-eared Conebill.

The Canopy Tower, situated atop a 300-foot hill in Soberanía National Park, overlooks a great expanse of forested slopes and lowlands. From atop the tower one has a great view of the canopy and of the canal. The tower’s top deck is a special place in early morning, as the dawn light creeps across the canopy and the birds begin to wake. Bare trees around the tower hosted perched Red-lored, Mealy and Blue-headed Parrots, Keel-billed Toucans, multiple tanagers, Green Shrike-Vireo and the occasional troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys, White-faced Capuchins or Geoffrey’s Tamarins. We spent several early mornings atop the tower drinking in the view, watching Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins eating berries from fruiting trees below us. The hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower hosted Blue-chested and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds and White-necked Jacobins, and near the picnic tables was an active Red-rumped Cacique nest.

The forests and small wetlands close to the tower occupied two full days of our tour, with over 150 species found just within a mile or two. The Ammo Ponds in nearby Gamboa provided a great introduction to the yellow-bellied flycatchers with black-and-white head stripes as we spent some time learning the differences between Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and Greater and Lesser Kiskadees. Also at the ponds were a nesting Rufescent Tiger-Heron, many Wattled Jacanas, a Streaked Saltator and a responsive Cinnamon Becard. At another nearby wetland, the Summit Ponds, a nesting Boat-billed Heron, Amazon, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, a foraging Gray-necked Wood-Rail and a surprising immature Agami Heron (very scarce in the Canal Zone) were nice treats. The trail near the ponds was productive as well, with many Gumbo Limbo trees in fruit and attracting a wide range of birds, including a White-eyed Vireo (the 10th record for Panama). The nearby day-roosting Spectacled Owls and a brooding Rufous Nightjar provided some excitement, and views of the very obliging Jet Antbird (often quite hard to see well) were excellent.

The road below the tower down Semaphore Hill passes through some forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity for spotting understory birds. On our first morning we walked slowly down the hill, pausing to admire birds such as Gray-headed Kite, Purple-crowned Fairy, Western Slaty-Antshrike and Black-breasted Puffbird. Near the base of the hill we were witness to the beautiful display of three male Dot-winged Antwrens, wings drooped and back feathers ablaze as they courted a nearby female. The plantation trail near the base of the tower produced views of a day-roosting Great Potoo and point-blank looks at a pair of Purple-throated Fruitcrows. Here too we found a fruiting tree that was attended by a Masked Tityra and no fewer than a dozen trogons of three species – Slaty-tailed, Gartered and White-tailed! On one afternoon we visited a nearby house where regularly stocked fruit feeders attract a riot of colorful birds. We watched entranced at the festival 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 Orange-chinned Parakeets tried to see who could devour the most bananas per minute.

We also spent a full day on the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberanía National Park and provides unparalleled access to high-quality forest and almost 400 species of birds. Our views of Streak-chested Antpitta as it sat near the road calling for almost 10 minutes were hard to beat. Just before lunch we encountered an active ant swarm right next to the road that allowed us to have amazingly close views of the very attractive Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, and repeated and sunlit views of the almost unbelievably colorful Ocellated Antbird. Also in attendance at the swarm were Northern Barred, Black-striped and Cocoa Woodcreepers, several Red-throated Ant Tanagers, a pair of Song Wrens and a curiously rail-like Black-faced Antthrush walking ahead of the swarm. We spent almost two hours with this flock, an experience that the participants will surely treasure.

During the week at the Canopy Tower we made two day-long trips afield, one to the Atlantic-slope forests of San Lorenzo National Park and Achiote Road, and one to the cloud forest atop Cerro Azul just northeast of Panama City. The lowland forests along central Panama’s Atlantic coast support several species of birds not found around the lodge area.

We enjoyed a bird-rich morning along Achiote Road and on several side trails. There was a wide array of favorites from the day, from perched Collared Aracaris and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, to hummingbirds like Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and Rufous-breasted Hermit. The Golden-collared Manakins may have been the bird of the morning. We ate an enjoyable lunch on the coast at Fort Sherman, where Crested and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and Yellow-rumped Caciques were nesting in the large fig trees, and then wandered down the road to bird a section of thick mangrove forest. Black-tailed Trogons performed beautifully this year, and we also encountered several Streak-headed Woodcreepers. Undoubtedly the best bird though was a perched Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, which had recently caught a large mudskipper and was busily trying to figure out how to swallow it. We capped off a delightful day along the coast with a train ride alongside the canal back to Panama City. The train afforded a unique look into the flooded valleys and small islets created by the canal project, and also provided views of Snail Kites feeding along the tracks on the largely introduced Apple Snails that have colonized the canal’s lakes.

The trip to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe provided us with our first taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. A visit to the charming home of a couple of ex-pat Americans gave us access to an extensively planted garden laden with flowers, hummingbird feeders and fruiting trees. Here we enjoyed incredible views of 11 species of hummingbirds at amazingly close range. The range-restricted Violet-capped Hummimgbird and the tiny Violet-headed Hummingbird were crowd pleasers, and we really enjoyed the young male Red-crested Coquette (a species not present on our November tours) that was feeding in a patch of purple verbena flowers. We also had fabulous luck with the Panamanian endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, which sat in the open for many minutes for all to enjoy. A pair of Blue-fronted Parrotlets whizzed overhead several times, and American Swallow-tailed Kites were virtually constant companions. We encountered several small feeding flocks of montane birds, led by the perky Olive Tanagers. Of particular interest in the flocks were several Sulphur-rumped, gaudy Bay-headed and Speckled Tanagers, and a pair of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Enroute to the hotel in Panama City we stopped along the coast just east of town to take in the extensive mudflats at high tide. Here throngs of shorebirds were resting at close range, waiting for the receding tide to provide lunch. Although all the species here are familiar to most North American birders, it is nice to see such abundance, and many of the birds were molting into their bright breeding plumage. A beautiful Peregrine Falcon also took interest in the bounty, and in the nearby mangroves we had fabulous views of Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and two stately Cocoi Herons. In all, our week at the Canopy Tower produced 298 species of birds amid some wonderful weather and a great bunch of tour participants!

Our spring Panama tour offers an extension to the eastern part of Panama, and the Burbayar Lodge offers perhaps the best way to access several specialties of eastern Panama’s Darién. Range-restricted species like Black Antshrike, Spiny-faced Antshrike and White-eared Conebill join several hard-to-find foothill birds like Sapayoa, Black-headed Antthrush, Olive-backed and Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, Great Curassow and flocks with Sulphur-rumped, Tawny-crested, Speckled, Rufous-winged and Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, making for a very different avifauna from the Canal Zone. The winter of 2010-2011 was very atypical for much of northern South America, with a strong La Niña event bringing unseasonable rains throughout much of the typical “dry” season. Eastern Panama was also affected, and during our tour we experienced rain over two of the three days. In December of 2010 the lowlands of eastern Panama were extensively flooded due to an epic 16-day storm, and many of the birds of the region were less active than usual, with few species calling.

Nevertheless we had an enjoyable time exploring this under-birded area, which is just now becoming known to the birding public. By slowly walking the trails around the lodge we encountered the rarely seen Plumbeous Hawk, male Golden-collared, Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins, a pair of Dull-mantled Antbirds, several flocks of Tawny-crested Tanagers and the prize of the extension, a female Spiny-faced Antshrike! This enigmatic and very poorly known species is a foothill stream specialist and virtually a Panamanian endemic, and we were thrilled to watch her foraging for over 10 minutes on one of our afternoon outings. The road to the north of the lodge stretches to the Gulf Coast through a protected indigenous nation and is heavily forested. One morning we walked along the road, finding King Vultures, a perched Double-toothed Kite, a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a stunning Great Jacamar glowing in the early morning sun, displaying Long-tailed Tyrant and Black-and-Yellow and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers.

Below the lodge lies Bayano Lake, a large hydroelectric project adjacent to the Pan-American Highway. The highway just east of the lake passes through an area of intact dry forest with a host of interesting birds. We visited these forest trails en route to the lodge and on our return to Panama City, seeking several species that reach their western limit around the lake. On both visits we encountered the scarce Black Antshrike, another species that just ekes across the border into Colombia. Mixed flocks were quite active on the trails, and we lucked into some rare species such as Great Curassow, Golden-green Woodpecker (which must be one of the most attractive New World woodpeckers), Royal Flycatcher, White-eared Conebill and Slate-colored Seedeater. Blue Ground-Doves were very vocal along the paths, and a mixed flock of understory antbirds gave us our last views of Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, Chestnut-backed and Spotted Antbirds and Western Slaty-Antshrikes.

Upon our return to Panama City we took a slow walk around the Amador Causeway, where we found Orchard Orioles feeding in a flowering tulip tree, a large flock of Saffron Finches along the verge of a football pitch, a migrant Palm Warbler and our only good views of a perched Yellow-crowned Parrot to round out a fantastic trip list. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years!

- Gavin Bieber, March 2011



Created: 30 March 2011