New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2006—Jan 03, 2007

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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Panama’s unique combination of history, wildlife, and convenient lodging for naturalists makes it one of the New World tropics’ most compelling travel destinations. The Canopy Tower, our hotel base for this trip, represents?better than almost any other in Panama?this combination of convenience and comfort.

We awoke to fog on our first morning at the Canopy Tower and were unable to observe much from the circular lookout deck atop the hotel, a converted military radar station, but it was thrilling just to hear the unseen sounds of the tropical forest beneath us. Within a few hours the fog cleared and we began walking downhill from the Canopy Lodge, enjoying a morning filled with manakins, motmots, and antbirds.

The first afternoon brought an amazing show of colorful fruit-eating birds at Gamboa and a chat with the owner of the fruit and nectar feeders. I cannot recall ever seeing a more spectacular assemblage of birds at feeders with, ultimately, more than 130 individual birds of 16 species fidgeting with impatience as they appraised the banana banquet spread beneath their feet and the nectar feeders nearby. Strings of honeycreepers lined up on wires, like a phalanx of twitching toys, waiting for a selfish flock of Orange-chinned Parakeets to finish drinking their share (more than their share) of the proffered nectar. This colorful multitude at the feeders, in one sense, set the tone for the trip, because over the next several days we were treated to a remarkable array of new tropical birds with unfamiliar shapes and color patterns, and belonging to families equally unfamiliar. Along the way we learned something about graduated tails and racquet tails, about army ants and antbirds that follow ants (and about the throngs of antbirds that don’t), and about manakin displays, woodpeckers that eat fruit, and odd flycatchers that specialize on leafhoppers, bees, or fruit.

We did not see much evidence of nesting (here, at the close of the rainy season, there is relatively little breeding activity), but we saw mixed-species flocks in the forests, gatherings of birds at fruiting trees, and specialized, obligate army ant followers that garner their food by snapping up the hordes of invertebrates fleeing the carnivorous ants. And, we observed another specialization in these rich forests?Double-toothed Kites that use primates (mainly capuchin monkeys) as “beaters” to flush prey. Another species, the Semiplumbeous Hawk, has this same behavior, and when we observed this hawk eating a lizard in the presence of a group of these monkeys, we could only assume it had been using the monkeys for “beaters” too.

The Canopy Tower offers convenient access to a good variety of habitats?marshy ponds, tropical dry forest, mature moist forest and, by ranging to the Caribbean slope, lowland humid forest. All in all it’s a terrific way to spend a holiday week at any time of the year. There were enough birds, both common and rare, large and small, colorful and mundane, and easy to observe, as well as shy and retiring, to please the most discriminating traveler. I would rank as especially good finds, because of scarcity, the Great Tinamou, Boat-billed Heron, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Choc√≥ Screech-Owl, White-tipped Sicklebill, Ocellated Antbird, Spectacled Antpitta, Blue Cotinga, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, and Song Wren. Then add all those hummingbirds, motmots, puffbirds, trogons, and all those gorgeous little honeycreepers and tanagers, and you just know you’ve been to the tropics!

We finished our visit to the Caribbean canal zone with a memorable and, at some times riotous, train trip across the isthmus on the Panama Canal Railway. During that hour we telescoped more than ten years of canal-making history, and almost a hundred years of canal operation into a single hour as Carlos led us on a bird-spotting spree that ended just shy of 50 species on that brief journey.

I hope you enjoyed the trip as much as I did, and as much as my wife Bev did?it was her first opportunity to accompany me on a VENT tour. I’d love to see all of you again somewhere on another trip. Happy New Year!