Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 03—10, 2006

Posted by Jeri Langham


Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

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I was on the Canopy Tower’s observation deck before dawn, as coffee and tea were being set up. We heard Mottled Owl, Great Tinamou, Collared Forest-Falcon, and incredible roaring mantled howler monkeys announcing their territories. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds from all sides of the tower. Native guide Carlos Bethancourt helped us spot Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled toucans, Scaled and Pale-vented pigeons, Red-lored Parrots, Lesser Greenlet, Green Shrike-Vireo (very difficult to see on Neotropical tours), and many others. Another morning would add Barred Forest-Falcon and scope views of Gray-headed Kite, along with Semiplumbeous and Crane hawks. A Black-breasted Puffbird was first seen from a window on the third floor, and Lineated Woodpecker cooperated briefly. At 9:00 a.m. we met at the tower base and enjoyed five wonderful hummingbird species at the feeders.

Our walk down the Semafore Hill entrance road was very productive, bringing us over-our-heads mantled howler monkeys. We were fortunate to encounter a feeding flock with Dusky Antbird, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Long-billed Gnatwren, Fasciated Antshrike, Broad-billed Motmot, and others just before the “Rainfomobile” brought us our mid-morning snack. I gave mini lectures about leafcutter ants, bananas, and other ecological and botanical topics. After lunch we enjoyed our first siesta break, with two spending most of their time trying out the third-floor hammocks. At 3:15 p.m. we met and drove down the hill, past the town of Gamboa. Birds came at a rapid rate: Variable Seedeater, Wattled Jacana, Blue Dacnis, Black-throated Mango, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Lesser Kiskadee, Greater Ani, and many others, but it was the Crimson-backed Tanager and White-throated Crake that drew the most comments. It was tough to leave, but cocktails and dinner beckoned.

Our longest day began at 4:00 a.m. as we climbed into our air-conditioned bus and departed via the Trans Isthmanian Highway for our visit to the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. We reached Colon before dawn, and crossed over the Panama Canal’s Gatun Locks. I am still amazed by the small size of the one-way drawbridge across each lock passageway. Swinging around the large earthen Gatun Dam, we started down Escobal Road, a long, poorly maintained one that was used by the U.S. military to access various training sites. Fortunately for us, it is also a wonderful way to reach various birding sites.

Achiote Road has a wonderful spot with a large enough parking area for our bus and our picnic breakfast. We had several hours of rapid-fire new birds that included Collared Ara├žari, both toucans, Black-headed Saltator, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Lemon-rumped Tanager, Spot-crowned Barbet, Yellow-backed Oriole, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Short-billed Pigeon, two oropendolas, two caciques, two trogons, and many others. The soaked mother and baby brown-throated three-toed sloth were delightful, and so were the dainty Geoffroy’s tamarins. An unpaved side road produced a 3-inch purple/red grasshopper, Pied Puffbird, and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet. The new trail was terrific, with Spotted and Chestnut-backed antbirds, and singing Song and Bay wrens. On the way back to Colon, we stopped at a Golden-collared Manakin lek. It was fascinating watching the males zip back and forth from perches as they performed for the females. A treat for most was the train ride from the bustling, poverty-stricken town of Colon over to Panama City.

At Rosabel Miro’s wonderful Cerro Azul home, once owned by a former Panamanian president, those who did not walk the steep trail were rewarded with the fruiting tree next to the porch producing Yellow-eared Toucanet; Bay-headed, Speckled, Emerald, and Rufous-winged tanagers; Green Honeycreepers; and Spot-crowned Barbets. Many butterflies worked the beautiful flowers in the gardens.

Pipeline Road never disappoints. Bay Wren, Speckled Mourner, and Bright-rumped Attila were three of the first to perform for us. Some portions of this old road were very muddy, and it took more than one try to get the 4-wheel drive vehicles to the other side of the ruts and puddles. As we drove I listened and looked for army ant swarms or flocks. Finally, I heard the sounds of an army ant swarm and we were in heaven for the next hour: Ocellated, Spotted, and Bicolored antbirds; Rufous Motmot; Black-chested Puffbird; Song Wren; Gray-headed Tanager; and four species of woodcreepers. Two Scarlet-rumped Caciques were building a nest over the road here. Later we walked away from scope views of a Streak-chested Antpitta. By the end of the day we had seen four species of trogons and heard a fifth. On the way back, participants in the lead vehicle saw a Great Tinamou before it scampered into the forest.

Our spotlighting evening was the best I have ever had in Panama: Virginia and common opossums, Choco Screech-Owl, Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, tamandua anteater, five Pauraques, Crested Owl, kinkajou, and we heard a Tropical Screech-Owl.