Panama's Canopy Tower Feb 03—10, 2006

Posted by Marshall Iliff


Marshall Iliff

Marshall Iliff, a lifelong nature lover, began birding at age 11 after attending a National Wildlife Federation Camp in the mountains of North Carolina. He attended VENT...

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I always love to return to the Canopy Tower, and this year’s trip touched nicely on all my favorite locales. Much has been written about the views from the Tower, and the many species that one can see while sipping coffee and taking in the majestic view. I’ll instead reminisce about some of our special moments away from the Tower, although I continue to consider that first morning one of my favorites, with its rush of new birds and comical toucans.

Our day along Pipeline Road is always infused with excitement since it is our best chance for encountering a number of rare interior forest species, including both birds and mammals. This year’s trip was slowed somewhat by a midday shower, but we ended up seeing many of the specialty birds of the road. Our first stop along a river was one of those places where new birds keep coming and coming. We initially stopped after detecting a bit of activity in the canopy. While we worked the small canopy flock, we were surprised to see two Crane Hawks fly in. Shortly thereafter a Great Jacamar sounded off and responded to our tape for great looks. Violaceous Trogon was added to the list, and then we had nice looks at a perched Purple-crowned Fairy. As we were getting ready to go, someone spotted a Blue-crowned Manakin, and then two Brown-hooded Parrots landed overhead. It would be another 45 minutes before we finally went to our next stop. And the next stop was just as birdy. There we saw our first Black-cheeked Woodpecker, followed by a raucous pair of Purple-throated Fruitcrows. We conversed with the local Song Wrens, but could not entice these showy forest-dwellers into the open. After lunch we would find some birds we had missed in the morning. Sandra spotted and called out a nice Cinnamon Woodpecker. An ant swarm off the edge of the road contained Bicolored and Ocellated antbirds. Black-tailed and Slaty-tailed trogons were seen just minutes apart, allowing for comparison of these two similar species. Some taping produced crippling scope views of a Streak-chested Antpitta, one of the secretive specialties of Pipeline. These antpittas can be very territorial, but very shy, and it takes cooperation from the entire group to get good views. It was a testament to our group that we did so well with this species.

At Achiote Road, the Caribbean Slope produces an entirely new mix of birds. Waiting for the sun to kiss the Cecropias and Ficus trees around our favorite spot has proven a time-tested strategy. As the trees were lit we enjoyed Black-headed Saltators and oropendolas; aracaris and Spot-crowned Barbets; Thick-billed Seed-Finch and Flame-rumped Tanager; Cinnamon Becard and Barred Antshrike; White-tailed Trogon; and a soaring Gray-headed Kite. It seemed that every time we turned around something new would appear: Black-throated Mango, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Gray Hawk, Yellow Tyrannulet, Pied and Black-breasted puffbirds, etc. Our species total for the day (132) was the highest for any one day of the trip, and with such a hectic pace of new birds in the morning it is easy to understand why. As the day warmed we retreated into the forest, looking for shyer and more difficult species along a loop trail there. Song Wrens would cooperate this day, and we saw other highlights as well including Black-throated Trogon, White-winged Becard, and a curious White-faced Capuchin monkey. Our early afternoon included a trip to Fort San Lorenzo, where the views over the Caribbean from the high promontory were matched only by the additional new birds, with Crested Oropendola one of the highlights. As always, we wrapped up this day with a train transit of the Isthmus of Panama, where we enjoyed the air-conditioning and bar service along with the great viewing and Snail Kites.

Our greatest variety is perhaps on our Tocumen Marsh and Cerro Azul day, since we start off in the Pacific Lowlands with herons and shorebirds, and finish high on Cerro Azul, looking down on Panama City drifting in and out of the clouds. Tocumen this year was truly excellent, thanks in part to scouting of a new area by Jose Soto. Special highlights included Pale-breasted Spinetail, Pearl Kite, Savanna Hawk, Laughing Falcon, and Straight-billed Woodcreeper. The cryptic little Mouse-colored Tyrannulet turned out to be a lifer for both leaders. We finished our afternoon on Cerro Azul, where the home-cooked Panamanian lunch was periodically interrupted by such exciting birds as White Hawk, King Vulture, Rufous-crested Coquette, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Emerald Tanager. Our most exciting moment came when a large pale-breasted raptor was called out as it circled from below. A glance at its stocky build, unique dark face patch, and clean white underparts identified it as a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle?a most exciting bird. This species is rare to uncommon throughout its range and is rarely seen in Panama, though Cerro Azul has proven to be a good place for it.

These are highlights of just three of our six excellent days birding central Panama?I didn’t even mention the fantastic Pheasant Cuckoo. Each trip holds its own special surprises, and the 302 species that we saw this year are still only a portion of those possible. The diversity and quality of birding here does not get old, and I hope some of you will consider a return trip in the future?it is sure to be different and equally exciting.