Panama's Canopy Tower Feb 02—09, 2008

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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The Canal Zone was cooler and drier than I could remember it being on any previous trip, and the lack of rain was reflected in the vegetation. Many semi-deciduous trees had dropped their leaves, and a substantial dry leaf litter was in evidence everywhere we went. The dry conditions were also reflected in a general lack of bird vocalization, and dawn choruses from the Canopy Tower were a pale shadow of what I was used to. In spite of this, we managed to record 315 species in just six days of birding, which put us within 3–4 species of the all-time VENT record for a Canopy Tower trip.

Our first dawn vigil atop the tower produced the requisite scope views of the Green Shrike-Vireo, that persistent voice from the canopy. It also netted us views of not one, but two male Blue Cotingas, a bird that is easily missed in a short visit. Little else was happening next to the tower, so we headed down Semaphore Hill, pausing for nice studies of a pair of Black-breasted Puffbirds at the top of the driveway. The rest of the morning provided a nice scattering of typical Canal Zone birds, among them, close, perched Broad-billed Motmots and a White-whiskered Puffbird, as well as a seemingly oblivious Great Tinamou that apparently had not read the stealth-mode paragraph in the tinamou behavioral manual. The highlight of the morning had to be the engaging group of Purple-throated Fruitcrows that dropped down to eye level, the males with their purplish-red throat feathers flared for maximum effect.

The afternoon excursion started with a visit to some feeders in Gamboa, where colorful tanagers and honeycreepers went bananas for bananas, and where the much larger Blue-crowned Motmot respectfully waited his turn before climbing onto the feeder and taking over. The nearby Ammo Dump ponds yielded a number of open-country species, including adult and juvenile Rufescent Tiger-Herons.

Metropolitan Park gave us an introduction to birds of the drier forest, highlighted by the improbable and nearly incandescent Rosy Thrush-Tanager, as well as point-blank views of a singing Pheasant Cuckoo. The spritely Yellow-green Tyrannulet didn't elicit nearly as many gasps of delight from our group, but it was, after all, a Panamanian endemic, and it did sit still long enough for all to have great scope views. That afternoon we enjoyed a visit to Miraflores Locks, where, in addition to the fine Canal Museum, we were able to enjoy the spectacle of some behemoth container ships passing through the locks.

We spent the next day on famed Pipeline Road, one of the premier birding areas in the Neotropics. We began auspiciously, with point-blank views of an engaging Song Wren that strutted his stuff for several minutes. A vocalizing pair of Gray-headed Kites taped nicely into a bare tree, whereas a pair of Rufous Motmots in the understory proved a bit more furtive. We bushwhacked a bit for a Streak-chested Antpitta, eventually scoring nice views after I herded the reluctant bird toward the waiting group. In the course of working on the antpitta, we doubled our return when a Black-faced Antthrush taped in to our feet. We also enjoyed nice views of the world's smallest passerine, the diminutive Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, which looked more like a large beetle or bee floating from perch to perch in the midstory.

In the afternoon we discovered a small army ant swarm, attended by a sprinkling of the usual avian suspects, but that was merely the appetizer for the main course awaiting our return to Semaphore Hill. As we were driving back up the hill at the end of the day, I glanced out the window and noted a woodcreeper perched just above the ground on the left side of the road. I called it to Carlos' attention, and he braked abruptly. It was a Plain-brown Woodcreeper, a good indication that there were army ants present. And sure enough, there were. A large swarm was blanketing the dirt bank above the road, and birds were everywhere. We scrambled out of the vehicles and found that the birds, and the ants, were coming right out to the road's edge. Numerous Bicolored Antbirds were seemingly oblivious to our presence, and foraged almost at our feet, pouncing again and again on insect prey fleeing the onslaught of the ants. Flashy Spotted Antbirds infiltrated when they could, dashing in to make a capture before being driven off by the Bicoloreds. A few spectacular Ocellated Antbirds skulked about at the rear of the swarm, more inhibited than their cousins, but still giving great views. Woodcreepers, Gray-headed Tanagers, female manakins, and a Rufous Motmot all made appearances at the swarm—one of the great spectacles of nature in the Neotropics, and one that Panama seems especially good at serving up.

The next day was our early departure for the Caribbean side of the Zone, and while I knew that the previous day would be hard to top, I wasn't quite prepared for the downturn in our luck. Upon entering Colon, we discovered that one of our tires was going flat. Edwin managed to change the tire, but the spare didn't look trustworthy either. This was going to necessitate having the tires repaired, a lengthy procedure. We had Edwin drop us off across Gatún Locks, and we birded on foot until his return. In the interim, we found a singing White-eyed Vireo, one of a mere handful of records for Panama. By the time the tires were repaired and we had made it to Achiote Road, it was 10:00 a.m. and bird activity had died. We did manage a few nice pick-ups, most notably a lovely pair of Spot-crowned Barbets, but the course of events had clearly conspired to rob us of several birds that we otherwise would have expected to see.

Fortunately, the sunny, hot day meant that conditions were optimal for activity at the Golden-collared Manakin lek. When we arrived at the lek, we found multiple male manakins in full display mode, with their golden beards flared out, and wings snapping like dozens of firecrackers going off at once. Manakins were excitedly ping-ponging back and forth between perches at a pace that reached frenzied proportions when a female briefly toured the lek. We spent some time here, soaking up the sights and sounds of the displaying birds. Then, it was on to the train station, with a brief detour to look at some western night monkeys that were day-roosting in a tree cavity. The train provided us with a relaxing ride back through the Canal Zone, highlighted by good numbers of Snail Kites seen en route.

Old Gamboa Road was our spot for filling in a lot of the gaps from previous days, with highlights such as Barred and Fasciated antshrikes, roosting Boat-billed Herons, a teed-up Bat Falcon, a singing Jet Antbird, and scope views of a day-roosting Spectacled Owl. A nice Hoffmann's two-toed sloth rounded out our sloth list (we had seen several brown-throated three-toed sloths earlier). The afternoon on Plantation Trail gave us more photogenic Broad-billed Motmots and Gray-headed Tanagers, and another Great Tinamou, along with a not-so-cooperative Scaly-throated Leaftosser that offered a lot of fleeting views. We also had nice studies of a troop of Geoffroy's tamarins, beautiful little primates that are particularly common here. That evening we enjoyed a productive night drive, highlighted by a rufous morph Chocó Screech-Owl, a wonderful Common Potoo, and another two-toed sloth, this one with a youngster in tow.

We ended our trip with a visit to Tocumen Marsh and Cerro Azul. Raptors and waders were much in evidence at Tocumen, and we picked off Pearl Kite, White-tailed Kite, Crane Hawk, and Laughing Falcon among others. Cerro Azul provided a nice hummingbird show, with Rufous-crested Coquette, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and Violet-capped Hummingbird. Yellow-eared Toucanet, a sprinkling of tanagers, another Spotted Antbird, and, for a few, a perched King Vulture right above our heads, were among the other treats.

All in all, it was a wonderful introduction to the natural riches of the Canal Zone.