New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2005—Jan 03, 2006
Posted by Tony Nunnery
What a wonderful way to start the new year—birding at Panama’s Canopy Tower, one of the premier birding destinations of the Neotropics. We started our adventure looking out over the canopy of Soberania National Park, from our strategic perch atop the balcony/roof of the Canopy Tower. This morning proved to be as rewarding as all previous tours. We were delighted to see a Crane Hawk circling the tower at eye level. A Scaled Pigeon sat perched out in the open as all scopes focused on its breast feathers with white central spots and prominent black edging, giving it a scaled appearance. Red-lored Parrots also perched out in the morning sun. Band-rumped Swift, Short-tailed Swift, and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift all flew around the tower giving us studied views. A Keel-billed Toucan flew in and perched in a bare dead tree, rocking back and forth as it croaked like a frog. The highlight of our early morning was a Green Shrike-Vireo that perched out in the open just meters away and sang as everyone looked on in awe.
After breakfast we made our way down to the bottom floor and out into a more familiar setting, that is, looking at the forest from the ground up. At the hummingbird feeders around the tower we watched Western Long-tailed Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Blue-chested Hummingbird, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird. After carefully studying each species’ brilliant plumage, we were ready to make our way down the entrance road. No sooner had we turned around than a Black-breasted Puffbird flew in and perched low under the canopy long enough for all to view it in the scope. As we began to slowly make our way down the road, a pair of Broad-billed Motmots flew in and began their honk-like calls. Then we had the pleasure of spotting a White-whiskered Puffbird lazily looking around just a few meters away. A flock passed over the road with Fasciated Antshrike, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, and Plain Xenops, as well as various other species. A pair of Brown-capped Tyrannulets moved low and slow for all to see, as a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher hawked for insects nearby. An Orange-billed Sparrow fed along the ground, as a pair of Long-billed Gnatwrens fed overhead. At the bottom of the road a Great Potoo sat on a day perch. Needless to say, it was a wonderful start for our tour.
After lunch we headed to Carmen’s House in Gamboa where she maintains fruit, seed, and hummingbird feeders. Here we had plenty of opportunity to sort through a few species: Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, Crimson-backed Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Shining Honeycreeper, and Red-legged Honeycreeper all came to feast on the bananas and oranges. Ruddy Ground-Dove, Variable Seedeater, and Yellow-bellied Seedeater were gorging themselves on seed, while Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and White-necked Jacobin competed for sugar water. After a thorough study of these and other species, we drove a short distance to the Ammo Dump Ponds. Along with numerous wetland species, the highlight here was a distant male Blue Cotinga in the scope and an American Pygmy-Kingfisher just meters away perched above the water.
On a day-trip over to the Caribbean side of Panama we explored Gatun Locks, Achiote Road, and Fort San Lorenzo. While stopped at Gatun Locks to let ships pass through, we saw Streaked Flycatcher, Plain Wren, Tropical Mockingbird, Saffron Finch, Streaked Saltator, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole feeding beside the road, while Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Osprey, Laughing Gull, and Royal Tern circled around the ships going through the locks. As we crossed the locks to the field beside Gatun Lake, we saw Red-breasted Blackbird and Eastern Meadowlark. From here we drove to Achiote Road which winds through Caribbean lowland rainforest. A Plumbeous Kite and a Great Black-Hawk were seen on the wing, while a Yellow-headed Caracara ate carrion on the road. A Little Cuckoo was seen down low in a tree, but then a pair of White-headed Wrens and Spot-crowned Barbets flew in to divert our attention. A Cinnamon Woodpecker made an appearance, as did a group of Purple-throated Fruitcrows. Along with various flycatchers too numerous to mention, and an abundance of tanagers, were Yellow-billed Cacique and Montezuma Oropendola. For lunch we drove to Fort San Lorenzo, situated at the mouth of the Chagres River. Here we explored the fort and history of earlier times while watching shorebirds. We also walked in the forest near the fort and saw Golden-collared Manakin, Black-chested Jay, Common Black-Hawk, Broad-billed Motmot, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and others. The day ended on a leisurely train ride back to the Pacific side of Panama along the Panama Canal, where numerous Snail Kites flew between the many islands of tropical forest rising out of the waters of the canal.
The next day was spent at the infamous Pipeline Road. Using 4 × 4 vehicles we made our way deep into the forest of Soberania National Park. This day seemed to be dominated by trogons. We saw White-tailed, Violaceous, Black-throated, Black-tailed, and Slaty-tailed trogons. Next came the motmots: Blue-crowned, Rufous, and Broad-billed. Woodpeckers included Black-cheeked, Lineated, and Crimson-crested. But amid all the tanagers, flycatchers, and other species, the highlight was the ant swarm where we had numerous antshrikes and antwrens, along with Bicolored Antbird, Spotted Antbird, and the outrageous Ocellated Antbird.
The following morning at Tocumen Marsh we saw various waterfowl such as Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, and numerous herons including Cocoi Heron and Boat-billed Heron. Wood Stork, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Grey-headed Kite, White-tailed Kite, Mangrove Black-Hawk, Savanna Hawk, and others were seen soaring, circling, and sitting in the marsh. Windows were opened and cameras were aimed for a long extended view of a Pearl Kite perched next to the bus. A Merlin raced overhead as we coaxed a Pale-breasted Spinetail out of the brush. A Yellow-crowned Parrot briefly perched in a tree while a Black-throated Mango constructed her nest. Ringed, Amazon, and Green kingfishers hunted in the small ponds along with Southern Lapwings and Pied Water-Tyrant. These and many other species made the morning memorable indeed. For lunch we drove to the foothills of Cerro Azul where highlights included Speckled, Emerald, and Rufous-winged tanagers.
After another early morning up on the tower looking out over the canopy, we birded along Plantation Road where we enjoyed various mixed species flocks, along with antbirds at our feet. The afternoon was spent at Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Road where we stayed past dark for night birding. The highlight of this day was a family group of Spectacled Owls on a day roost.
Our last full day of birding began at Metropolitan Park. Here we had a Bat Falcon hunting from a crane used to study the canopy. A Stripe-throated Hermit fed along the path, while we watched a White-bellied Antbird in the understory. A Yellow-green Tyrannulet fed down low in the trees, where everyone was able to see up close this Pan-American endemic. Besides the abundance of other species seen this morning, Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Blue-headed Parrots perched in the morning sunlight were among the many highlights. After lunch we viewed the three-story exhibits of the Miraflores Locks museum, and watched a few ships make their way through the locks. That evening we birded along the entrance road to the Canopy Tower.
Although I could go on and on, one must actually experience this tour to understand how the exciting moments seem to occur continually. Any participant on this New Year’s tour can confirm the fact that Panama remains one of the premier birding destinations of the Neotropics.