Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2007

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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Myriads of magazine articles have touted Panama’s incredible Canopy Tower Ecolodge built by Raul Arias de Para when the U.S. relinquished control of the Canal Zone. While its rooms are rather spartan due to being a refurbished radar tower, the food is excellent and the opportunity to view birds from above the treetops is outstanding. I can hear owls, forest-falcons, and mantled howler monkeys through my bedroom window before dawn, and, while eating our meals on the fourth floor, we often spot toucans and other Neotropical birds in the cecropias and other trees surrounding the tower. Up to seven species of hummingbirds visit the nectar feeders at the tower base and a walk down the mile-long Semafore Hill road always produces great birds.

From the tower-top this past January we photographed Geoffroy’s tamarins and a brown-throated three-toed sloth cradling a youngster. Twenty minutes away is the start of the famous Pipeline Road, possibly one of the best birding roads in Central and South America. This past year a recently reintroduced Harpy Eagle was seen on several days. From this base daily birding outings are made to various locations in Central Panama, which vary from the primary forest around the tower to huge mudflats near Panama City, to the vast Tocumen Marsh, to cool Cerro Azul forest and, finally, to humid Caribbean lowland forest.

A good example of what awaits visitors to this marvelous birding paradise can be found in excerpts of our first two days taken from the journal I write during every tour and later mail to all participants:

“By 6:00 a.m. I joined a few of you on the top of the Canopy Tower and, little by little, everyone made it to the top for a pre-breakfast morning of birding while sipping coffee or tea. The earliest to arrive heard Great Tinamou, Collared and Barred forest-falcons, and an incredible display of sound from the mantled howler monkeys. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds from all sides of the tower. With native guide Carlos Bethancourt helping us to find and see the wonderful birds, we added such beauties as Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled toucans, Scaled Pigeon, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Red-lored Parrots, Green Shrike-Vireo (a very difficult bird to see on most Neotropical tours), and many others.

Our second morning, we met for breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and loaded up in the three 4-wheel drive vehicles at 6:15 a.m. for our drive to Pipeline Road. Carlos drove the open-top lead vehicle with five of us and did a wonderful job of getting us through all the tough, slippery, muddy areas. The rest of you rode inside two 4-wheel drive private vehicles hired for the day. Carlos and I decided to do edge birding first and it was a wonderful success: Bicolored Antbird, Blue-winged and Magnolia warblers, male and female Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, Black-bellied Wren, White-bellied Antbird, Yellow Tyrannulet, Gray-headed Tanager, and many others before our first snack break.

We then walked the first two kilometers of Pipeline Road before our second snack break at bridge number one. The morning birding on Pipeline Road was very good with Bay Wren, Double-toothed Kite, killer views of Streak-chested Antpitta, and all five possible trogon species. We had a wonderful picnic lunch and continued driving and walking further down this nine-kilometer road. Since the reintroduction of Harpy Eagles into the area, the last two-thirds are off-limits to birders, but we saw plenty on the stretch we birded. I especially enjoyed the dazzling Black-striped Woodcreeper because it cooperated so well.

At about 2:30 we started heading back and had some interesting driving through a few of the muddier stretches. We left in time to spend some time viewing the home feeders in a home in the old officer’s quarters of Gamboa. John was able to get some incredible shots of at least five tanager species, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Clay-colored Robin, Orange-chinned Parakeets, and others. It was a great way to end a day of birding on the famous Pipeline Road."

Raul recently completed building the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton. The rooms are magnificent, the food is equal to that of the Canopy Tower, and the bird feeders are to die for. Once again, here are some journal excerpts from one day to whet your appetite:

“We met for breakfast at 5:00 a.m. but did not get away until 6:00 because a fantastic Rufous Motmot was coming in to the fruit feeders along with other wonderful birds. Carlos loaded into the lead 4×4 with Moyo as driver. Four others took the second 4×4 with Charlie as driver, and I followed in the last 4×4 with the rest of you. The road went from good to okay, to “holy cow,” and, at one point, to “We are not going up that hill are we?”

The park boundary began at the gate Carlos unlocked for us. In spite of fog, we started out with great looks at Brown-hooded Parrot and Blue-throated Toucanet. A nearby Ochraceous Wren teased us but never came into view. Moyo turned out to be a great spotter, with the other drivers also trying to help. He noticed the closely perched Black Hawk-Eagle that allowed all of us to see it in the scope before it gave us three overhead passes, and later he found a stunning male Snowcap. A Spotted Woodcreeper did show up several times today. After our mid-morning snack, Carlos found a White-tipped Sicklebill, but it wasn’t until our second visit to this Heliconia patch that all of us got several looks in the scope at this incredible hummer.

My saddest moment today was noticing the vast forest destruction by a company that is trying to convert much of this area to another Cerro Azul type of subdivision. Huge homes are springing up in the various subdivisions that are being developed. Why they continue to replace gorgeous native trees covered in mosses and other epiphytes is a complete mystery to me. In one “cloud forest” area they had not completely destroyed, we had excellent views of Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, and Russet Antshrike. Orange-bellied Trogon finally showed up and several tanagers did too. In spite of high winds and some sprinkles, it was a superb day of birding."

Please join Carlos Bethancourt and me January 5-17, 2008 for another marvelous adventure, and consider combining this tour with my Venezuela Hato PiƱero New Year tour (Dec. 27, 2007 ? January 4, 2008), which I co-lead with David Ascanio.