Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 20—27, 2007

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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Every trip to the famed Canopy Tower is different, but each offers its share of excitement and wonderful tropical birding highlights. Our October trip this fall was certainly one of the best ever. We saw just under 300 species of birds, and covered a wide variety of habitats from the foothills of Cerro Azul to the Caribbean lowlands forests of Achiote to world-famous Pipeline Road.

Our morning on Cerro Azul was probably my favorite of the trip. At nearly 3,000 feet elevation, a number of foothill species can be found here that are not likely encountered elsewhere. Topping this list, perhaps, is the bizarre and rarely seen White-tipped Sicklebill—a large member of the hummingbird family with an absurdly decurved bill. We ventured to a large Heliconia patch which serves as a lekking area for this species, and, with some patience, were rewarded with magnificent views of a sicklebill literally six or seven feet away.

A short distance away at a private residence, where we spent much of our morning, we watched a parade of highly sought and colorful species. A pair of the very localized and uncommon Spot-crowned Barbets greeted us in a fruiting tree upon arrival. Shortly thereafter, they were joined by a pair of elegant and equally localized Yellow-eared Toucanets. Green Honeycreepers, Blue Dacnis, and Bay-headed Tanagers joined in the mix, creating an incredible kaleidoscope of color. Nearby fruiting vines yielded Emerald Tanager, Shining Honeycreeper, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and Thick-billed Euphonias. Hummingbirds darted about the garden and feeders, with the likes of Purple-crowned Fairy, Green Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit, White-necked Jacobin,Violet-capped Hummingbird, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and Violet-headed Hummingbird all making appearances. At one point, two magnificent King Vultures and two equally impressive White Hawks circled in the valley just below us. Other visitors included three Swallow-tailed Kites, the always impressive Broad-billed Motmot, a group of Collared Aracaris, Chestnut-mandibled and Keel-billed toucans, Crimson-backed Tanager, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. All these amazing highlights were packed into one morning of birding!

Other areas we visited proved equally productive. At Achiote we enjoyed great views of Double-toothed Kite; White-tailed Trogon (one of five trogon species for the trip); American Pygmy Kingfisher; Black-breasted, Pied, and White-whiskered puffbirds; Black-faced Antthrush; and White-headed Wren. Nearby Gatun Dam produced Savannah Hawk, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Golden-collared Manakins at a lek, Black-chested Jays, and Red-breasted Blackbird. An hour at Fort San Lorenzo was as good as any of the trip, with prolonged scope views of the rarely seen Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, two male Black-tailed Trogons, and a tamandua (lesser anteater) devouring termites at a nest almost overhead.

Pipeline Road never fails to produce exciting finds. Highlights of our day along that famous birding road included Little Tinamou (actually seen!), Black Hawk-Eagle, Blue-crowned Motmot, White-necked Puffbird, Great Jacamar, Cinnamon and Crimson-crested woodpeckers, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Streak-chested Antpitta, Spotted Antbird, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (literally 15 feet away in the scope!), and Purple-throated Fruitcrow among others.

Of course, we can't forget the area of the Canopy Tower itself. Our October tour is timed to coincide with the migration of raptors from the United States to South America. On our first day we witnessed a fantastic flight right over the tower with an estimated 23,900 Swainson's Hawks, 1,800 Broad-winged Hawks, and 15,700 Turkey Vultures passing over in about an hour-and-a-half! Other tower area sightings included Choco Screech-Owl, Blue Cotinga (female only this time), Green Shrike-Vireo, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins, and Black-breasted Puffbird. Mammals included two-toed and three-toed sloths, mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy's tamarin, and white-nosed coatimundi.

I've barely scratched the surface of what was seen on our wonderful trip. The richness of the Canal Zone simply must be experienced by anyone interested in tropical birding, and no place provides a better base for doing so than the Canopy Tower.