Panama: El Valle's Canopy Lodge Jan 21—28, 2007
Posted by Barry Lyon
In describing El Valle’s Canopy Lodge, the word I return to over and over is “enchanting,” because all the ingredients for a perfect trip come together in this little corner of Panama. Set in the cool foothills west of the Panama Canal, El Valle offers everything the traveling birder could want: a beautiful lodge, quality food, access to a diversity of habitats and, of course, superior birding. It is a wondrous destination really, and one that is perfect for those receiving their first introduction to tropical birding, as well as for the veteran traveler who wants to see a lot of birds, many of which are difficult to find elsewhere.
VENT’s first Relaxed & Easy tour to Panama was an undeniable success, a trip filled with the cheer of enthusiastic participants and a cast of wonderful tropical birds. Upon first sight the lodge never fails to captivate new guests, and our group was clearly brought under the spell of El Valle from the moment we arrived. Strategically situated next to an outdoor dining room is a lush, path-lined garden, the centerpiece of which is a series of feeding stations. Through the duration of our tour, we spent hours every day watching a procession of tropical birds come and go from the feeding trays and nearby fruiting trees. The tanagers were the chief attraction here. Both beautiful and plentiful, we checked off 10 species in the garden alone! The Lemon-rumped and Crimson-backed were among the favorites, but lovely Silver-throated and Bay-headed were also cause for much excitement.
We ultimately tallied at least 50 species of birds on the lodge grounds. Leaving was not easy! A rarely seen Scarlet-thighed Dacnis was seen beautifully by all of us one afternoon while hordes of birds continued to clamor about the feeders. Like living jewels of the rainforest, Thick-billed Euphonias and Green and Red-legged honeycreepers danced through the flowering bushes and onto the feeders. Streaked Saltators and Orange-billed Sparrows visited on a slightly less regular basis, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds fed on flowering vines only feet away.
The real prize was a pair of Rufous Motmots that visited daily. These regal birds represent the quintessential tropical birding experience. Both large and colorful, they were regarded by many as the most beautiful bird of the trip. On the final night, many voiced their opinions that it was their favorite bird of the tour.
But no matter how wonderful the lodge may be, there is much more to see and enjoy by traveling a little further afield. Our morning at La Mesa resulted in a prized sighting of a “Blue-throated” Toucanet, seen in the scope. For a day at Altos de Maria we loaded up in 4 × 4 vehicles for a trip across the mountains. By far the best and most exciting find was the sighting of two male Snowcap hummingbirds. This rarely seen species is a specialist of the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica and Panama. El Valle is one of the few places where it is regularly seen. The highlights of an afternoon trip to the drier forest at Caraiguana yielded a pair of roosting Tropical Screech-Owls, much to everyone’s delight.
This was the first tour VENT has offered to El Valle that included a field trip into the rich Pacific lowlands. Although still largely unexplored for birding, we had a morning here that can best be called phenomenal! A roadside stop found us near some fruiting trees that were alive with birds. Barred Antshrikes, Boat-billed Flycatchers, Yellow-crowned Euphonias, Red-legged Honeycreepers, wintertime flocks of Orchard Orioles, and a flyover Aplomado Falcon were among the numerous highlights.
At our next stop, near the town of El Chirrú, I doubt any of us were prepared for the pageant of birds we would encounter. Leaving the bus we were greeted by birds in seemingly every tree! A rarely encountered (and newly described) Veraguan Mango hummingbird got things going, but soon after we found ourselves identifying one bird after another. We were like teachers taking roll, soon counting Rufous-browed Peppershrikes, more Barred Antshrikes, Lineated Woodpecker, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Brown-throated Parakeet, Panama Flycatcher, and Scrub Greenlet. But as impressive as the overall diversity was, the sheer numbers of birds seemed incredible.
A special feature of the tropics in winter is that all the great birds of Panama are joined by a host of Neotropical migrants, including Yellow-throated Vireo; Tennessee, Golden-winged, and Blackburnian warblers; Summer Tanager; and Baltimore Oriole. We saw all of these.
As we moved into late morning, the quality of birding didn’t let up. The discovery of a Yellow-crowned Parrot near a nest hole was a particularly astonishing find, while a Savannah Hawk, just moments later, rounded out the morning’s excitement. Finally, a beachside picnic was enhanced by the appearance of a Zone-tailed Hawk soaring low overhead, providing some of the best views any of us had ever had of this unpredictable bird of prey.
Back at the lodge, our final afternoon was terrific. A walk up the road for some of the more determined members of the group paid off with a rarely seen Sunbittern working the stream below. A little farther on, toward last light, the group reveled in a late afternoon flock of tanagers, hummingbirds, wrens, and honeycreepers.
Much can be said for the lodge itself. In addition to the birding, the beauty of the natural surroundings and the quality of accommodations allowed our group to bird and relax in total comfort. Each afternoon, passing clouds misted the surrounding hilltops while a steady breeze kept us cool. The rushing stream in the “front yard” became a sort of companion to us all.
The final day of the trip was no less exciting. An early return to the Canal Zone allowed us a partial morning of birding outside the Police Academy Training Center. Here we encountered scores of species new to the trip. The prize sighting had to go to the roosting Spectacled Owl, but no less enticing were the multiple mixed-species flocks we encountered along the way.
A grand finale to our activities saw us at the beautiful museum and visitor center for the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal. Following a tasty lunch, we worked our way through the museum and interactive exhibits, absorbing the remarkable history of the construction of the canal and the engineering marvel that it is today. About midway through the afternoon we watched a ship as it was lowered through the locks on its way to the Pacific.
Finally, an evening dinner on stately Panama Bay, with the lights of Panama City glimmering in the background, was a fitting ending to this special trip.