Panama: El Valle's Canopy Lodge Mar 01—08, 2008

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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El Valle's new Canopy Lodge, located in the foothills of west-central Panama, is a must destination, even for those who have previously visited other parts of Panama. Some highlights from our March 2008 tour should provide sufficient evidence:

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. We had wonderful scope views from about 30 feet of this nearly mythical species at an ant swarm on La Mesa! It was a lifer for everyone in the group, including me. The El Valle area has proven to be arguably the best place in the world to find this highly-sought bird.

Pheasant Cuckoo. A Pheasant Cuckoo at the Canopy Tower on our way back to Panama City the final day was a trip favorite of many. After some effort, this bird perched in the open for several minutes affording incredible studies. Although not as difficult to find as the previous species, this is still an elusive and prized sighting.

Twenty-three species of tanagers. Representing virtually every color in the rainbow, our list of tanagers presented a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of beauty, from the velvety-black Flame-rumped with its contrasting golden rump to the blood-red Crimson-backed, to the stunning little Black-and-yellows, the appropriately named Emerald, and the blue, green, and rufous Bay-headeds. The lodge grounds alone harbored 19 species our first afternoon, producing a feeding frenzy of blue, red, and yellow. The incomparable Red-legged Honeycreepers, with their turquoise crowns, deep blue and black bodies, and contrasting raspberry legs, were certainly show-stoppers. Topping the list, perhaps, were the ridiculously long and close views of a singing male Rosy Thrush-Tanager along the Cariguana Trail.

Snowcap. This tiny (2.5 inches), burgundy-colored hummer with the bright white cap and tail is reason enough to visit. Our tours have had great success with this species so far, and, as with the ground-cuckoo, it may prove that El Valle is perhaps the best place anywhere to find this extremely localized species. We had stunning views of two males, both perched and feeding at eye level from about 30 feet!

Motmots. Our tour enjoyed superb views of four species of motmots. With some effort we located the tiny Tody Motmot (generally the hardest of the four to find), enjoying nice scope views. Rufous Motmots, flashy and spectacular, were everyday feeder birds at the lodge. Both Broad-billed and Blue-crowned were also seen exceptionally well and within a short distance of the lodge itself.

This area harbors many uncommon and hard-to-find foothill species. Our trip had Dull-mantled Antbird, prolonged close studies of about 11 Blue-throated Toucanets, an Ochraceous Wren nearly at eye level, Spotted Woodcreeper, Red-faced Spinetail, several handsome male White-ruffed Manakins, a singing Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Pale-vented Thrush, a cooperative pair of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, and great views of Tawny-capped and White-vented euphonias.

One day of birding in the dry Pacific slope area around El Chiru added a wide variety of  new species. Highlights for us included a Pearl Kite, a covey of Crested Bobwhite, stunning views of a Striped Cuckoo, the recently split Veraguan Mango, scope views of  Brown-throated Parakeets, a wonderful Barred Antshrike, and a Pale-vented Pygmy-Tyrant among others. Nearby coastal areas yielded Boat-billed Heron, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, Elegant Terns, and a Zone-tailed Hawk.

The lodge itself is spectacular. The large double rooms (each with a patio) face out toward the garden. Here, well-supplied feeders host a parade of species throughout the day. It is hard to tear oneself away to bird other areas. In addition to the previously mentioned tanagers and motmots, the feeders yielded Orange-billed Sparrow, Black-striped Sparrow, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and Buff-throated and Streaked saltators. The feeders and the stream in front of the lodge can be viewed from the open air dining room. Black-chested Jays, Ringed Kingfisher, and Collared Aracaris were some of the birds we saw from our tables.

Miscellaneous highlights. A few other species were deserving of special mention on our trip. A male Rufous-crested Coquette was seen on three separate occasions by many in the group right outside the dining area. A male Blue Cotinga was an improbable mid-morning find at the canopy Tower on our last day. Roosting Mottled Owl and Tropical Screech-Owls near the lodge were both crowd-pleasers. Finally, a perched White Hawk on the slopes of Los Altos de Maria one afternoon allowed us to approach within 40 feet. We enjoyed lengthy (15 minutes or more) scope views of this magnificent bird, which was voted the favorite of the trip!

As you can see, our El Valle trip was wildly successful. Cooler foothill temperatures, a different variety of birds from the Canal Zone, and superb accommodations combine for a wonderful new destination.