Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2009

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 U.S. relinquished control of the Panama Canal Zone. It sits atop 900-foot Semaphore Hill overlooking Soberania National Park. 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 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:

"The earliest to arrive on top of the Tower heard Collared Forest-Falcons, a Mottled Owl, and an incredible display of sound from the mantled howler monkeys announcing that they had survived the night. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds on all sides of the tower. With my native co-leader, Carlos Bethancourt, helping us to find and see them, we added such beauties as Gray-headed Kite, many Keel-billed Toucans, Scaled Pigeon, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Plain-colored Tanagers, Red-lored Parrots, a perched Violet-bellied Hummingbird, and many others. We also scoped a few perched mantled howler monkeys. At 9:00 a.m., we met at the tower base and enjoyed some of the six wonderful hummingbird species that come to sip sugar water from the feeders. After my brief orientation lecture, we began birding down the Semaphore Hill entrance road. It was very productive, bringing us a pair of Blue-capped Manakins, Western Slaty-Antshrike, the tiny Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, Collared Araçari, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Violaceous and Slaty-tailed trogons, Broad-billed and Rufous motmots, and more, including a few botany and ecology mini lectures. The "Rainfomobile" (open truck) brought us our mid-morning snack. It was difficult to pull away from birding to enjoy the drinks and snacks, but it was nice to sit down. The activity around the ant swarm was the special treat before the "Rainfomobile" returned to bring us back up the hill for lunch. Some of the birds seen were Gray-headed Tanager, Plain-brown and Northern Barred woodcreepers, Spotted and Bicolored antbirds, White-whiskered Puffbird, Black-chested Jay, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and more.

"At 3:00 p.m. we met and drove down the hill on our way to Gamboa and the Ammo Dump site.  We did not see a ship moving through the Panama Canal, but did note the incredibly large crane called "Titan" that was "liberated" from Germany along with the smaller "Hercules." The former was needed to lower the heavy metal gates into the locks of the Panama Canal. We barely got off the "Rainfomobile" at Ammo Pond before the birds kept us hopping for over an hour. We had Ringed (largest) and American Pygmy (smallest) kingfishers, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Barred and Fasciated antshrikes, Crimson-backed Tanager, Black-breasted Mango, Greater Ani, Wattled Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Greater and Lesser kiskadees, Buff-throated and Streaked saltators, and many, many more.

"After an early departure in our air-conditioned bus, we arrived at Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side of the Canal Zone and crossed over without delay. This took us to Achiote Road. We arrived about dawn and clearly in time for the dawn chorus. Here we had several hours of rapid-fire new birds that included Black-headed Saltator, Spot-crowned Barbet, Yellow-tailed Oriole, White-tailed Trogon, Golden-hooded and Plain-colored tanagers, a very tough to see pair of Bay Wrens, Yellow-rumped Cacique, White-headed Wren (a real prize), and many others, including the diminutive Pied Puffbird. A nearby new trail produced Chestnut-backed Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, White-vented and Rufous-vented euphonias, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, and excellent views of Song Wren, but we could only hear the calling Little Tinamou. A surprise rainfall chased us out and sent us back toward the dam and Gatun Locks, where we stopped at a Golden-collared Manakin lek area. The rain had really quieted them down, so it was tougher than usual to see them. At the dam spillway, we added Common Black-Hawk and a number of egrets and herons. We had our picnic lunch at the entrance station to the San Lorenzo Forest Preserve and then continued on to the fort. The scenery was great and a Plain Wren cooperated for us. On a side road by a bridge, we added Prothonotary Warbler, Green Kingfisher, Black-tailed Trogon, and more mantled howler monkeys. However, the treat of the day for some was the great ride on the new train that runs from the bustling, poverty-stricken town of Colon (on the Caribbean side of Panama) over to Panama City on the Pacific side. We were able to ride in the large, new air-conditioned train car with the glass ceiling for better viewing. The dozen or so Snail Kites we saw were my favorite species seen from the train. What I will remember most about this day is the wonderful way our great group has already bonded and the wonderful laughing that accompanied us most of the day."

Raul 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:

"We loaded into three 4×4 vehicles for our all-day adventure on Cerro El Gaital. Even though it was foggy and windy, we got out and started walking the unpaved road and playing songs of specialty birds that we knew might be found at this foothill elevation. We had to work hard today, but had many rewards. Some of the exciting birds we saw were Spotted Barbtail, Orange-bellied Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Tropical Pewee, Yellow-green Vireo, White-ruffed Manakin, Black-and-yellow Tanager, and Pale-vented Thrush. It was a very good day for hummingbirds, as we saw nine species, with Snowcap, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, and White-tailed Emerald being new for the tour."  

Please join Carlos Bethancourt and me January 9–21, 2010 for another marvelous adventure, and consider combining this tour with our Venezuela Hato Piñero New Year tour, December 27, 2009–January 4, 2010, which I will co-lead with David Ascanio.