Panama: Christmas at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Pre-trip Dec 22—27, 2008

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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A pleasant experience awaits those who choose to interchange the traditional custom of celebrating the holidays at home for an altogether unique adventure in a foreign country. The participants on our 2008-2009 "Holiday Season in Panama" tours quickly discovered that the differences were most pleasant indeed, such as the exchange of winter clothing for summer clothing. The most notable difference was that the familiar backyard bird species were mostly replaced by exotic tropical species (I say "mostly" because many backyard species had also opted to leave colder climates to migrate to the warmth of Panama).

I have led many tours in Panama, and yet I never tire of the sights and sounds of this premier birding destination. Even at our hotel beside the Canal in Panama City we began to see such tropical exotics as Orange-chinned Parakeet and Blue-headed Parrot, as well as Blue-gray Tanager, Palm Tanager, and Yellow-crowned Euphonia. And yet the real holiday excitement began at the Canopy Lodge. Upon arrival, we concentrated our attention on the bird feeders where bananas attracted a colorful variety of species. There were multiple Thick-billed Euphonias feeding beside Crimson-backed Tanagers, Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, Dusky-faced Tanagers, White-shouldered Tanagers, Flame-rumped Tanagers, and Red-legged Honeycreepers, just to name a few. Gray-headed Chachalacas fed in the Cecropia trees overhead, while Snowy-bellied Hummingbird and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds visited the flowers beside the feeders. A Rufous Motmot came in to enjoy the bananas as we all concluded that yes, indeed, Panama was a good choice for celebrating the holidays.

After a superb lunch in the open-air restaurant, where the birding continues between bites of tropical delicacies, we walked around the grounds and up the road near the Canopy Lodge. It was here that we would get our first of daily sightings of Black-chested Jays and Keel-billed Toucans. A pair of Bay Wrens sang loudly and showed themselves in the shrubs beside the road. Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flew about in the trees nearby as Yellow-faced Grassquits continuously moved along the road in front of us. The rain would start and stop and start, but it could not dampen our moods as we enjoyed the sights and smells of the tropical environs. Of course, there were many other spectacular sightings of birds during our holiday stay at the Canopy Lodge, as well as visits to beautiful landscapes.

On our second full day of birding we drove down to El Valle Chiquito where the stunning sunlit landscapes of the afternoon already made the short drive worthwhile. It was here that one of the many highlights of our holidays will long be remembered, for a pair of Tody Motmots responding to playback sat out in the open, as scopes and binoculars focused intently upon this normally hard to see species. We all had several looks at them through the scope before we decided to continue our walk, where we managed to see Fasciated Antshrike, Broad-billed Motmot, Lance-tailed Manakin, Black-bellied Wren, and Yellow-backed Oriole, as well as others, but it was the Tody Motmot that exceeded expectations.

Another highlight of the trip came during our day-trip down to the coast to bird at El Chiru. Here we witnessed over half-a-dozen Crested Bobwhites escaping the heat of the tropical sun as they lazily hung out in the shade along a footpath beside the road. To add an exclamation point to the sighting, a Blue-crowned Motmot dropped down among them from a nearby branch to grab an insect, before lighting on another open branch to enjoy his newfound meal. Yet another highlight we witnessed here was a pair of Aplomado Falcons mobbing a Savanna Hawk that had innocently flown in too close to their nest. These attractive and graceful rare to uncommon falcons of grassy savannas displayed their agitation by repeatedly dive-bombing and screaming at the much larger Savanna Hawk, which eventually had enough and flew to another nearby tree. El Chiru proved to be a very productive site where we also saw Brown-throated Parakeets, Veraguan Mango, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Scrub Greenlet, and various others.

Another significant sighting worth mentioning came during our failed attempt to make it to Los Altos de Maria due to a mudslide on the road. Not to be thwarted, we made the best of it by birding at Mato Ahogado. Here we watched a majestic White Hawk rise slowly up and over the hill where we stood, presenting a beautiful contrast against the dark green of the forest canopy. It was here also that we had great looks at the Blue-throated Toucanet, a female Snowcap hummingbird, Dull-mantled Antbird, Black-and-Yellow Tanager, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. Oh, the serendipity of an unexpected change of plans!

One last highlight I would like to mention took place during a drizzly on-and-off-again bird walk along the road just outside of the Canopy Lodge. As we had all decided to return to the lodge, the sun made a brief appearance, and to our surprise, inside the bushes in a puddle on the ground, various birds began to bathe. An Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, which is usually very hard to see as it keeps to the dense low vegetation, dropped down into the puddle and splashed and shook and splashed as it bathed before our very eyes. No sooner had it sat on a branch to preen and dry, but an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher took its place to bathe, and then a White-lined Tanager, followed by a Bay-headed Tanager, and next a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and then a Bay-breasted Warbler, followed by a Mourning Warbler, then a Canada Warbler, and lastly a Rufous-capped Warbler. We watched in delight as each species splashed about in the puddle of rain as it bathed itself.

It is moments like the highlights mentioned above that truly make each and every VENT tour special in its own right, and this holiday tour was saturated (no pun intended) with such moments. And although I am convinced that there is no inadvisable time to choose a VENT tour to Panama, I can honestly inform you that a "Holiday Season in Panama Tour" is a very productive and favorable time indeed!