Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2008

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 Raúl Arias de Para when the United States 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. Twenty minutes away is the start of the famous Pipeline Road, possibly one of the best birding roads in Central and South America. From our 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.

An enticing example of what awaits visitors to this marvelous birding paradise can be found in excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later mail to all participants:

"We met for breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and then loaded up in three 4-wheel-drive vehicles for our drive to Pipeline Road. Carlos drove the open-top lead vehicle with six of us in the back. The rest of you rode inside two 4-wheel-drive, private vehicles hired for the day. Carlos and I decided to try edge birding first, and it was a wonderful success with Northern Royal Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin, and Collared Araçari being the best. We then walked toward the entrance to Pipeline Road, seeing a wonderful Cinnamon Woodpecker and several Red-throated Ant-Tanagers. A few of you also saw the collared peccaries that scampered across the road. We walked parts of the first two kilometers of Pipeline Road, with the highlight being the Streak-chested Antpitta seen well by all. Our morning birding on Pipeline Road was very good, with super looks at several trogon species, Double-toothed Kite, Orange-crowned Spadebill, Great Jacamar, Scale-throated Leaftosser, Scaly-breasted Wren, and the smallest passerine, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant. We had a wonderful picnic lunch and continued driving and walking further down this incredible road. Since the reintroduction of Harpy Eagles into the area, the last two-thirds are now off-limits to birders, but we saw plenty on the stretch we birded. I especially enjoyed the Black-striped Woodcreeper because it cooperated so well.

"At about 3 p.m., we started heading back, and our timing could not have been better, since it began to rain as we reached the covered platform of the new Interpretive Center. It was great fun watching the Chestnut-headed Oropendolas building their nests in one of the trees next to the building. As the rain shower ended, we left to spend some time viewing the backyard feeders in a home in the old officer's quarters of Gamboa. Ann Brinly and Dave Drake were able to get some incredible photos of at least five tanager species, plus Red-legged and Green honeycreepers, Blue-crowned Motmot, 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.

"An early departure got us to Tocumen Marsh rice fields at dawn. This is the fourth year I have visited here before going up to Cerro Azul because the cool morning beats a hot, late afternoon visit. Carlos took us to the same new area we tried last year, and it was very productive with Pale-breasted Spinetail, Wood Stork, both caracaras, and Cocoi Heron. I heard a Sora and tried taping one in, but only a few of you saw one that flushed and flew away from us. It was my first for Panama. The Laughing Falcon turned out to be new for this tour as well. There was a large area of shallow water, short rice, and mud that was superb for shorebirds and many others.

"Soon we were headed for the higher, cooler climes of Cerro Azul. Because the owner, Rosabel Miro, was away on vacation, she could not meet us at the guard station and lead the way to her wonderful Cerro Azul home, once owned by a former Panamanian president. Nando is the combination hired hand and guard whose family has a small house on the property. We started by looking at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and Yellow-faced Grassquits at the nectar and seed feeders. The trails here are wonderful, but quite steep. The best part is that much of the original vegetation has not all been cut and replaced by introduced pines as in most of Cerro Azul and nearby Cerro Jefe. In addition, this property is next to and overlooks a national park that has not been deforested. We had excellent looks at White Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Bat Falcon, King Vultures, and dark phase Short-tailed Hawk soaring above the forest. A walk down to the short, cement circle trail brought views of many species of flowers. We added Purple-crowned, Purple-headed, Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied hummingbirds, as well as Green Hermit and a male and female Rufous-crested Coquette.

"All of you seemed to enjoy the lunch that Carlos prepared for us. A Yellow-eared Toucanet allowed photos after lunch. The fortunate ones that chose to walk the long, newly improved trail to the Heliconia patch with Carlos added Striped Woodpecker (which would have been a lifer for me), as well as other species to our list. The seven who stayed with me were able to get great looks at the many species of hummingbirds we identified today, as well as an Emerald Tanager. A few minutes watching four tanager species at the new fruit feeder preceded our return trip. We were back at the Canopy Tower by 6:00 and did our list after dinner. Bob Ridgely was staying here tonight and was kind enough to autograph your field guides."

Raúl recently finished building the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton. Here, the rooms are magnificent, the food is as good as that of the Canopy Tower, and the bird feeders are to die for. Once again, here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:

"As usual, some of you were watching the feeders once it was light enough to see and enjoy the dozens of colorful tanagers and other species coming in to eat fresh bananas. I especially enjoyed the Chestnut-headed Oropendola and Rufous Motmot, but also the tough to see elsewhere Dusky-faced Tanagers. At 8:30, Ann, Laurie, Pat, and Paula joined Carlos for a drive up to the Zip line adventure. I have never had a participant regret partaking in this treat either here or during my Summer Costa Rica tour. As expected, you four had grins from ear to ear. The others birded the feeders with me until the bananas had mostly been eaten, and then we walked up to the Zip line kiosk. A few of you caught up with Bay Wren. The good news when the two groups met up was that the Mottled Owl was now roosting in a visible location this morning. It meant a walk across a swaying bridge, which several of you hated, but the owl cooperated and, even better, we had scope views of and photographed a cooperative Tody Motmot. This is a very difficult species to find on Neotropical tours. We returned to the Lodge with smiles on our faces to watch and photograph the dozens of birds at the feeders visible from the porch."

Please join Carlos Bethancourt and me January 5-17, 2009 for another marvelous adventure, and consider combining this tour with my Venezuela Hato Piñero New Year tour, December 27, 2008–January 4, 2009, which I will co-lead with David Ascanio.