Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 22—29, 2005

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Each trip I lead to the Canopy Tower in Panama seems better than the last. The diversity of habitats and birds that are nearby this great ecotourist lodge never ceases to amaze me. This October, Victor and I co-led a Canopy Tower tour and the myriad highlights were simply mind-boggling. One day we were looking at an estimated 40,000 raptors (mostly Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures) pouring over the tower, and the next we sat spellbound as a pair of Streak-chested Antpittas hopped, quite literally, at our feet! Such are the possibilities in October in central Panama.

The first morning of our trip was spent, as always,¬†atop the tower and along the entry road up Semaphore Hill. From the tower we had eye level views of such canopy denizens as Green Shrike-Vireo (including the powder blue nape!), Bright-rumped Attila, the stunning Slate-colored Grosbeak, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled toucans sat up on exposed perches, as did a White Hawk and a Semiplumbeous Hawk. A troop of mantled howler monkeys and another of the tiny and endearing Geoffroy’s tamarins put on wonderful shows as well. Then shortly after breakfast, the aforementioned parade of migrant raptors began. Kettle after kettle of hawks and vultures streamed by the tower?a sight that simply must be seen to be believed. It was mid-afternoon before the flight started to peter out. Hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower provided stunning up-close views of such gems as White-necked Jacobin and the incomparable Violet-bellied Hummingbird, in addition to Snowy-bellied and Blue-chested hummingbirds, White-vented Plumeleteer, and Western Long-tailed Hermit. A walk along the entry road yielded Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins, Broad-billed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and very good views of a Great Tinamou, among others. Later that afternoon in Gamboa we were entertained by a fantastic group of birds coming in to feeders, including Orange-chinned Parakeet; Rufous-tailed Hummingbird; Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, and Palm tanagers; and Red-legged, Shining, and Green honeycreepers.

We spent the next day on world-famous Pipeline Road. Being able to spend the entire day walking through the forest with absolutely no traffic is such a great experience. Among the more spectacular sightings were a responsive pair of Streak-chested Antpittas just feet away, displaying Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Spot-crowned Antvireo, super looks at a Brownish Twistwing, Pied Puffbird, male Blue Ground-Dove, and a prolonged study of a tamandua, or lesser anteater. We also encountered two nice ant swarms with the usual attendant Bicolored and Spotted antbirds, and Northern Barred and Plain-brown woodcreepers. We ended this fabulous day at the Ammo Dump Ponds where an adult Rufescent Tiger-Heron and a brilliant Yellow-tailed Oriole were the highlights.

Early the next morning we headed to the tiny town of Achiote on the Caribbean slope. Birding along the paved road here, we tallied both of the premier Achiote specialties:  two family groups of White-headed Wrens working through bromeliad-laden trees, and a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets feeding in the cecropias. In addition we also saw Black Hawk-Eagle; Gray-headed Kite (perched); Pied and Black-breasted puffbirds; White-tailed, Slaty-tailed, and Violaceous trogons; Bare-crowned and Chestnut-backed antbirds; Song Wren; Long-tailed Tyrant; and a host of other wonderful species. A group of white-faced capuchin monkeys gave us great views on the way out. We returned to the Canopy Tower via the Panama Railroad?a one-hour trip right along the canal with nice birds and scenery. We totaled an impressive 157 species for the day!

The next day was arguably our best of the bunch. The morning was spent on private property on Cerro Azul with a completely different group of foothill species available to us. White-tipped Sicklebills on a lek, a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets at 15 feet, the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, and a dazzling bevy of tanagers including Emerald, Bay-headed, the very localized Rufous-winged, Golden-hooded, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis were among the more notable birds. Two pair of the rarely seen Black-eared Wood-Quail were even a lifer for me! In the afternoon we headed down to Tocumen Marsh where we added Cocoi Heron, Savanna Hawk, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Boat-billed Heron, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, among others.

Our final two days were spent in areas near the tower including Old Gamboa Road and Metropolitan Park. Highlights here included Spectacled Owl, Golden-collared and Lance-tailed manakins, Jet Antbird, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and the spectacular Rosy Thrush-Tanager. In all we totaled 319 species in just six days of birding. We also had wonderful mammal viewing (I forgot to mention the very rare Rothschild’s porcupine seen on our night drive), and a comprehensive exposure to much of the Canal Zone and its habitats.