Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 18—25, 2008

Posted by Barry Zimmer


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 over 300 species of birds and covered a wide variety of habitats, from the foothills of Cerro Azul to the Caribbean lowland 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 to be encountered elsewhere. We spent the entire morning birding the yard, gardens, and surrounding forests of a private residence where the bird activity seemed non-stop. A pair of the very localized and uncommon Spot-crowned Barbets greeted us in a fruiting tree shortly after our arrival. Soon they were joined by a pair of elegant, and equally localized, Yellow-eared Toucanets. Hummingbird feeders were abuzz with activity including Green Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird among others. Green Honeycreepers, Scarlet-thighed and Blue dacnis, and Bay-headed, Speckled, Emerald, Hepatic, Blue-gray, and Crimson-backed tanagers joined in the mix, creating an incredible kaleidoscope of color. A pair of Stripe-cheeked Woodpeckers, a Panamanian endemic, appeared suddenly, and posed for prolonged scope views. Fulvous-vented and Thick-billed euphonias darted about some fruiting vines. A Black-faced Antthrush was surprisingly cooperative as it fed on the forest floor. Overhead, a rarely seen Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle soared majestically by, and was later followed by an equally magnificent White Hawk. Topping this list, perhaps, was 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 about 15 feet away. Other visitors included the always impressive Broad-billed Motmot, Violet-headed and Violet-capped hummingbirds, a male Rufous-crested Coquette, a group of Collared Aracaries, and a Scaly-breasted Wren. 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 White-tailed, Violaceous, and Slaty-tailed trogons, Pied Puffbird, Chestnut-mandibled and Keel-billed toucans, Blue-headed Parrot, Lineated and Cinnamon woodpeckers, Pacific Antwren, Cinnamon Becard, and White-headed Wren. An hour at Fort San Lorenzo was also productive with scope views of the rarely seen Green-and-rufous Kingfisher and a male Black-tailed Trogon.

Pipeline Road never fails to produce exciting finds. Highlights of our day along that famous birding road included Gray-necked Wood-Rail with babies; Black-breasted and White-whiskered puffbirds; Squirrel Cuckoo; Crimson-crested Woodpecker; Black-striped Woodcreeper; Streak-chested Antpitta; Spotted, Bicolored, Chestnut-backed, and Ocellated antbirds; and Purple-throated Fruitcrow among others. The hummingbird display at the newly-built Panama Rainforest Discovery Center was beyond description. Eight species of dazzling hummingbirds fed literally feet away from us, including Long-billed and Stripe-throated hermits, Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, and the incomparable Violet-bellied Hummingbird.

The open country and rice fields of Tocumen yielded an entirely different variety of birds including Cocoi Heron, Aplomado Falcon, Amazon Kingfisher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Pied Water-Tyrant, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

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 third day we watched a fantastic flight right over the tower with an estimated 9,000 Swainson's Hawks and 7,000 Turkey Vultures passing over late in the afternoon. This was surpassed on our final day when an estimated 20,000 Swainson's Hawks poured over Panama City as we watched, mesmerized, from the mudflats of Panama Viejo. Other tower area sightings included a perched adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle for over an hour (!), a family group of Hook-billed Kites, five King Vultures, a pair of White Hawks, a Bat Falcon right overhead, a fabulous study of the rarely seen Choco Screech-Owl, a family group of Spectacled Owls, a roosting Great Potoo, a show-stopping male Blue Cotinga, Green Shrike-Vireo, and Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins. An ant swarm located just below the lodge one afternoon yielded close, leisurely views of Bicolored and Spotted antbirds, Blue-crowned and Rufous motmots, Orange-billed Sparrow, and Northern Barred and Plain-brown woodcreepers. Mammals included two-toed and three-toed sloths, mantled howler monkey, Geoffroy's tamarin, tamandua, 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.