Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 31—Feb 07, 2009

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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A wetter-than-normal fall/winter in the months preceding our visit had a noticeable impact on the flowering and fruiting cycles of a number of shrubs and trees in the Canal Zone, and probably impacted insect reproductive cycles as well. On top of this, we experienced unusually windy conditions on several days. The end result was that many Canal Zone birds that are normally vocal and easy to see during our January/February visits were strangely silent, unresponsive to tape, and generally inconspicuous, and had seemingly bred early. In fact, dawn choruses were largely unremarkable, and but a pale shadow of what I am used to hearing at this time. At the same time, we found out that the corporations that own the land at Tocumen Marsh had decided to deny any further entry to birders, including locals. Not surprisingly, our species list took a big hit from previous years, but we still managed to experience a wonderful cross section of tropical birds and mammals in just one week's time.

Our first dawn vigil atop the tower produced the requisite point-blank views of Green Shrike-Vireo, that persistent (some would say annoying) voice from the canopy. It also netted us fine views of a tree-full of outrageous Keel-billed Toucans (16 at one time!), a close Black-breasted Puffbird, lively Golden-hooded and Plain-colored tanagers, and canopy-feeding Blue-chested and Violet-bellied hummingbirds. After breakfast we headed down Semaphore Hill, where we spent the rest of the morning enjoying a nice selection of typical Canal Zone birds, among them, close, perched Broad-billed Motmots, Rufous Motmot, White-necked Puffbird, and Slaty-tailed Trogons (excavating a nest cavity). Audio playback brought in a stunning male Red-capped Manakin and an ornate male Spotted Antbird, as well as more subtly plumaged treats like Checker-throated Antwren and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher.

Our afternoon excursion started with a visit to some feeders in Gamboa, where colorful tanagers and honeycreepers went bananas for bananas, and where multiple goofy agoutis battled one another over stale slices of white bread. The nearby Ammo Dump produced nicely, including eye level, up-close studies of a diminutive Olivaceous Piculet and the much flashier Cinnamon Woodpecker, as well as Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Barred Antshrike, and a nice variety of other open-country and marsh inhabiting species.

We spent the next day on famed Pipeline Road, one of the premier birding tracks in the Neotropics. Sadly, dawn arrived not with the usual bang, but with more of a whimper as regards bird vocalization. Given the general lack of vocalization, we opted to try for a "project bird" early on. We bushwhacked a bit off the main track for a Streak-chested Antpitta, eventually scoring superb views of this endearing little "egg with legs." Nice looks at a variety of avian eye-candy soon followed, as we enjoyed killer studies of Great Jacamar, Black-tailed Trogon, White-tailed Trogon, and a most confiding male Blue-crowned Manakin. A Tiny Hawk at a staked-out nest site was an unexpected treat, and sat patiently while we enjoyed rare scope views of this widespread, but seldom-seen raptor. We also enjoyed nice views of the world's smallest passerine, the diminutive Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, which looked more like a large beetle or bee floating from perch to perch in the midstory. A Gray Elaenia taped down nicely to manageable heights, as did a Moustached Antwren. Totally unexpected was our close encounter with a northern tamandua (or lesser anteater), which bolted from the side of the jeep track, but then allowed a subsequent close approach and study by several in our group.

Cerro Azul was unusually devoid of bird activity (¿Cómo se dice "morgue" en Español?), although we did manage some nice studies of a number of hummingbirds, (among them, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Hermit, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird), a vocal pair of Bay Wrens, Hepatic Tanager (probably a separate biological species from our populations in the southwestern U.S.), and a flashy Yellow-eared Toucanet.

Achiote Road stood in stark contrast to Cerro Azul. From the moment that we stepped off the bus, birds were coming fast and furiously. One minute we were sorting out stunning Yellow-tailed Orioles from similarly colored but differently patterned Yellow-backed Orioles, and the next we were swinging our scopes from Flame-rumped Tanagers to Black-headed Saltators to Spot-crowned Barbets. A stunning White Hawk sailed overhead, White-tailed Trogons posed sedately in front of us, and a responsive pair of Northern Barred-Woodcreepers nearly landed on me in response to playback. After a bit of work we taped a group of White-headed Wrens into a spot where they could be studied in the scopes. These canopy-dwelling relatives of our Cactus Wren are easily missed in a short trip, and our views were unusually good. A distant blue bird spotted by Leigh proved to be a lovely male Blue Cotinga that showed off nicely in the scopes—another good pick-up that we frequently get from the Canopy Tower itself. A short walk down a sidetrack turned up a noisy group of Black-chested Jays, as well as a pair of little Pied Puffbirds that actually landed on a low wire in plain sight. For most participants, the best was saved for last, when we visited an active lek of Golden-collared Manakins (ultimately voted favorite bird of the trip in a landslide). When we arrived at the lek, we found multiple male manakins in full display mode, with their golden beards flared out, and wings snapping like dozens of firecrackers going off at once. Manakins were excitedly ping-ponging back and forth between perches at a pace that occasionally reached frenzied proportions. We spent some time here, soaking up the sights and sounds of the displaying birds. Then, it was on to the train station in Colón, followed by a relaxing ride back through the Canal Zone, highlighted by good numbers of Snail Kites seen en route.

The following day we returned to Pipeline Road, but this time we focused our attention on the recently opened Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. The feeders attracted a nice variety of hummingbirds, including gorgeous male Violet-bellieds, and a mixed-species flock along one of the trails brought birds such as Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Becard, and Fasciated Antshrike down nearly to eye level. We also scored a Golden-winged Warbler (rare in the Canal Zone), nice looks at a pair of secretive Black-bellied Wrens, another pair of Black-tailed Trogons, and a cooperative pair of Black-faced Antthrushes. After lunch, I birded alone down Semaphore Hill and turned up a White-whiskered Puffbird, a species that we typically see in the Canal Zone, but one that had eluded us to this point. Knowing that José and the group were going to pick me up along the road en route to our afternoon excursion, I stayed with the puffbird for nearly 30 minutes, only to have it fly just minutes before the group arrived. Fortunately, it was still within earshot, and tape brought it back for nice studies. Old Gamboa Road was our spot for filling in a lot of the gaps from previous days, with highlights such as Geoffroy's tamarin (a truly beautiful little primate), Panama Flycatcher, roosting Boat-billed Herons, an impressively large Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and scope-filling views of a day-roosting Spectacled Owl.

Our final day found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which featured brief looks at the improbable and nearly incandescent Rosy Thrush-Tanager, point-blank studies of a skulking White-bellied Antbird, and, after some effort, excellent studies of our last holdout trogon, the Black-throated. The spritely Yellow-green Tyrannulet didn't elicit nearly as many gasps of delight from our group, but it was, after all, a Panamanian endemic, and one that is often missed. That afternoon we enjoyed a visit to Miraflores Locks where, in addition to the fine Canal Museum, we were able to enjoy the spectacle of some behemoth container ships passing through the locks.

All in all, a great group of birders enjoyed a wonderful introduction to the natural riches of the Canal Zone, and had a lot of fun doing it. Thank you all for your good humor and good companionship, and I hope to cross paths with each and every one of you on another trip to some birdy corner of the world!