Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 21—28, 2006

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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I could hardly believe my eyes when a member of our group alerted me to the presence of an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched almost directly over our heads. This stunning raptor (certainly one of the handsomest raptor species in the world) is a rarity in central Panama. To see one at all requires luck; seeing one at 30 feet is quite unbelievable! The bird remained on the bare snag directly above us for about a minute before launching off to the north and the vast forests of the Chagres National Park. We could hardly believe our luck.

While arguably the most exciting moment of the day, the Ornate Hawk-Eagle was but one highlight of our morning on Cerro Azul. That morning stands out among all others on our recent Fall at Panama’s Canopy Tower tour. With access to property nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, it was the one opportunity on our trip to see some of the foothill species that are not found down in the Canal Zone. We spent much of the morning birding the yard of a private residence and letting the birds come to us. One fruiting vine on the side of the house yielded a parade of brilliant species including Emerald, Speckled, Crimson-backed, Golden-hooded, and Bay-headed tanagers; Scarlet-thighed and Blue dacnis; Green and Shining honeycreepers; and Fulvous-vented and Thick-billed euphonias?a virtual cornucopia of every color in the rainbow. A stunning Great Jacamar, not previously recorded from this location, sat in plain view for over five minutes, repeatedly uttering its shrill mournful whistle. A raucous duet from the nearby slopes revealed the presence of a small covey of rare Black-eared Wood-Quail, which were ultimately seen well (as close as five feet away for some) by everyone.

Hummingbird feeders lined up along the back patio produced another dazzling array of color with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers; Rufous-tailed, Snowy-bellied, and Violet-capped hummingbirds; Purple-crowned Fairy; and Green Hermits darting about in a frenzy of activity. A tiny Violet-headed Hummingbird and a Stripe-throated Hermit foraged just feet away in some low flowering shrubs, while a stunning Violet-crowned Woodnymph defended a flowering tree.

By mid-morning the raptors had begun to move and we were treated to a brilliant pair of White Hawks right overhead, a rare Plumbeous Hawk (a lifer even for me!), two adult King Vultures, and the aforementioned Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Late in the morning most of the group took the short hike to a nearby lek of the rarely seen White-tipped Sicklebill. Prolonged scope views were had of this unusual hummingbird as it perched in a heliconia thicket, and it was voted the favorite bird of the tour! Other species drifted through the property during the morning including Black-throated Trogon, Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled toucans, White-ruffed Manakin, Tawny-capped Euphonia, the regionally endemic Rufous-winged Tanager, Bananaquit, and Black-striped Sparrow. It was hard to drag ourselves away from this wonderful and productive area after lunch.

By early afternoon we were headed down to the flooded rice fields of Tocumen where we added an impressive number of water birds and open country species including Boat-billed Heron on a nest, Cocoi Heron, over a thousand Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in view at once, Pearl Kite, Bat Falcon, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and Amazon Kingfisher. Our total number of species for the day was an astounding 149?a rare combination of high quality and high quantity.

Of course this was but one day of our Panama tour. Other highlights included a Tiny Hawk in Metropolitan Park, four species of puffbirds, White-headed Wren and Spot-crowned Barbet in Achiote, roosting Spectacled Owl at 40 feet, an incredible male Rosy Thrush-Tanager that posed in the open for a minute, Green Shrike-Vireo and Slate-colored Grosbeak up close and personal from the Tower, and a magical experience with a Common Potoo on our night drive. I could go on and on if space allowed. In all we had 306 species of birds in six days, in addition to 15 species of mammals. Every trip to the Canopy Tower produces special memories and this one was no exception.