New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2008—Jan 03, 2009

Posted by Tony Nunnery

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Tony Nunnery

Tony Nunnery grew up in Mississippi, then moved to Texas, and graduated from Stephen F. Austin University. After teaching elementary school for several years, he moved to M...

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Another year has gone and come again, with many people concentrating on overcoming bad habits and making resolutions to correct them in the New Year. Yet one habit that many of us share that need not be corrected, but rather allotted even more time to implement in our daily lives, is "BIRD-WATCHING"! That's right, and what better time to start than with VENT's New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower tour? That is just what some of us did, as we resolved to start the New Year in one of the premier birding destinations of the Neotropics.

We began early in the morning of December 28th on top of the Canopy Tower, with binoculars in hand, while listening to the predawn chorus and anxiously awaiting the tropical sun to light up the forested hills all around us. After listening to the barks and moans of both Collared Forest-Falcon and Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and the haunting call of the Great Tinamou, we were treated to scope views of a Scaled Pigeon, Red-lored Parrots, a pair of Black-breasted Puffbirds, several Keel-billed Toucans, and even a Green Shrike-Vireo. Oh, the joys of bird-watching—and this all took place before breakfast was served!

After breakfast we strolled down Semaphore Hill where a Squirrel Cuckoo ran rapidly along a branch (like a squirrel) before flying to perch in full view. A bit later, a pair of Black-throated Trogons were found low within the forest. They seemed almost tame, raising and lowering their tails while calling and intently looking for something to eat. Soon after we had taken in their lazy-like behavior, we found a seemingly even more inactive White-whiskered Puffbird that sat silent and almost motionless as we happily looked on. But then the activity picked up as we tried to sort out the various species within a feeding flock. There were Dot-winged Antwren, Checker-throated Antwren, Forest Elaenia, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Southern Bentbill, Olivaceous Flatbill, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-shouldered Tanager, and Blue-black Grosbeak just to name a few. We followed the flock as it actively foraged along the road for some time. They led us to a fruiting Melastome tree where we found a Blue-crowned Manakin and a Red-capped Manakin gorging themselves on its tiny fruit. Then there was the Broad-billed Motmot that flew in and sat long enough for all to see and photograph. As I said before, "Oh, the joys of bird-watching!" And it was not even lunchtime yet!

One memorable sighting was of the Great Potoo, resting motionless by day where it was nearly invisible due to its cryptic color, although it was fully exposed on a bare branch of a tree. Then there was a pair of Spectacled Owls resting by day in the thick foliage beside Old Gamboa Road. These two large, dark chocolate-brown owls, with their huge yellow eyes outlined with a broad white eyebrow like spectacles, completely captivated us as we astonishingly gazed upon them. (I might add that this was on New Year's Day, and confirmed our resolution to continue our habit of bird-watching the rest of the year.)

Some other noteworthy sightings took place on the Caribbean side of Panama during our day-trip to Achiote Road. Upon first getting out of the bus early that morning, we found a Plumbeous Hawk perched out on a bare branch down low and close to the road. This rarely seen species sat inconspicuously while we looked on before it flew into the forest interior. At the same location we had no less than three Pied Puffbirds respond to playback by flying in close to a leafless tree and sitting together in the early morning sun for an extended length of time. Here also a White-tailed Trogon sat out in the open as we all watched and photographed, before a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets demanded our attention as they fed in a nearby Cecropia tree.

On a day-trip up to Cerro Azul, after a fantastic morning at Tocumen Marsh, we comfortably enjoyed our lunch while looking out at the fabulous view of the forest. And yet it was one of those moments when not much bird wise was going on, so we decided to move elsewhere. While in the bus and driving up the hill we heard a flock and decided to get out. How quickly things can change. There was a small fruiting Melastome tree beside the road just full of birds. We saw Emerald, Speckled, Rufous-winged, and Golden-hooded tanagers, all busily bouncing from limb to limb, picking off berries. It was truly a special moment, seeing these species so close.

Let me end by adding some of the highlights of Pipeline Road. There were the four species of trogons seen very well, which included Violaceous, Slaty-tailed, Black-throated, and Black-tailed trogons. Here we managed to find the apparently rare (overlooked?) Gray Elaenia in a feeding flock. The Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, which is the smallest Panamanian passerine, made an appearance. This bird, normally difficult to observe, kept us amused with its diminutive size and virtually tailless configuration. And my last highlight is one of the very reasons we all exhibit this somewhat addictive behavior and entertaining habit of this extraordinary phenomenon called bird-watching. We heard in the distance the slow series of melancholy whistled notes of the Streak-chested Antpitta. Knowing that it is far more often heard than seen, we began to try to draw it in closer to the road with playback. After some patient attempts without any success, we (not so) quietly made our way, without a trail, into the dense undergrowth of the forest in the direction it was calling from. After some searching, we found it hopping along the forest floor before again stopping to call some more. We all had spectacular views of it as it sat atop a low perch, puffed out its streaked chest, and then began its slow series of melancholy whistled notes. Oh, the joys of bird-watching!

So with a New Year barely upon us, I have no doubt that we all will continue, this and each consecutive New Year, to resolve to remain engaged and active in our shamelessly shared habit of bird-watching. And what better way to stick to our resolution than starting the New Year on one of VENT's holiday tours. I hope to see you next year!