Panama's Canopy Tower Feb 03—10, 2007

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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Much has been written about the fine birding (and coffee!) atop the Canopy Tower, and we enjoyed both on our February Panama’s Canopy Tower tour. We had wonderful birds throughout the trip: an ant swarm with attendant antbirds and woodcreepers on our very first walk down Semaphore Hill; a tamandua that slowly crossed the road in front of us and went on to climb a tree alongside us; the soaring Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle (a lifer for one of the Canopy Tower guides) over Cerro Azul; a mixed tanager flock on Cerro Azul; shocker Crested Guans along the small trail behind Rosabel’s place; a migrant flock of hundreds of Plumbeous Kites at Achiote; and the gaudy and ever-present toucans?any one could be considered the trip highlight.

But what about the night drive? Arguably, we had the best night drive I have been on. It started out with a bang with a perched Crested Owl that sat still for us for minutes (but not long enough for a different Canopy Tower guide to round up his life bird!). That was followed in short order by two night monkeys, a rarely seen nocturnal primate. Add to that two-toed sloth, Great Potoo, two kinkajous, and a Pauraque, and one wonders what could be left. Our grand finale for the night drive was along Semaphore Hill where we had a responsive Choco Screech-Owl (“Vermiculated” according to the AOU?they are behind the times in not recognizing this split). His purring call from the forest understory can be amazingly hard to locate, but persistence paid off, and with me sneaking a short distance into the forest to spotlight him (and take his picture), everyone had good looks. I’m told the group could actually see the owl’s heart breaking when I turned to walk away from it.

But even with such a good night drive, one day will stand head-and-shoulders above the rest in my memories?Pipeline! Our visit to Pipeline Road is always one of our more exciting days, since it is the most intact and extensive tract of forest that we visit. It is world-renowned for its species diversity and for its ant swarms, so we set out hoping to see a range of species and maybe connect with an ant swarm. While our first stop was slow (neither leaftosser felt like showing itself), things picked up soon thereafter. A Sunbittern walking across the road caused us to slam our vehicles to a halt. It flew, exposing its striking wing pattern, but was relocated in a nearby creek where it foraged along the water’s edge by flipping leaves. On occasion it would quickly fan its bold sunspots on the wings, presumably to startle prey into an errant movement.

Excited at our good fortune, I sauntered back to the vehicles for my camera. When I sauntered back, I caught José’s eye and he motioned me forward quickly with a look of excitement: ground-cuckoo! A swarm of army ants with attendant antbirds had been active on the opposite side of the road and Jose snuck in to see what was there. He instantly saw the ground-cuckoo and then tried to have us all tiptoe in, since Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos are notorious for slipping away at the slightest disturbance. I didn’t hope to get everyone on the bird, but thought that if I could find it around the swarm (it was a lifer for me!), then I could get a few people in to see it quickly before it disappeared. When I made it up to the ant swarm, three people were already there watching the cuckoo and the other activity. I tried to have others join us inside the forest as quietly as possible, while Jose found a vantage from outside where the cuckoo could be seen without risk of disturbing it. The group split into the two factions, with those inside the forest getting amazing views of the ground-cuckoo as it hung around a log and made occasional dashes for some prey stirred up by the ants. Since everyone was getting good looks, and since it was a struggle for those outside the forest, I suggested that Jose bring the others inside too. Soon we had 16 people inside the forest with a ground-cuckoo?the cuckoo seemed like it couldn’t have cared less! To say that we had walkaway views of the bird would be rubbing salt in the wounds of other VENT leaders who haven’t seen this species yet, despite decades of tropical experience, but I do know that I lost track of it after the group’s attention shifted towards the myriad antbirds hopping, calling, and foraging around us.

We had six Bicoloreds, four Spotteds, and at least one nice Ocellated Antbird, plus three species of woodcreepers, Gray-headed Tanager, and a brazen Greater Ani all foraging inside the forest with us. We didn’t see the ground-cuckoo again, but amazingly, the Canopy Tower cell phone tree was activated and two additional groups, one coming from as far away as the tower itself, arrived at the spot hours later to find that the cuckoo had returned! It was an amazing experience and one of my most exciting birds ever in Panama. And the rest of Pipeline was pretty fantastic too!

This was a great trip with a great group. Thanks to all of you who made it so much fun!