Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 17—24, 2009

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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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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Three hundred and sixty-nine thousand raptors in four hours! From the end of lunch until late in the afternoon, we watched as kettle after kettle circled overhead and streamed past the Canopy Tower. The official hawk counter tallied over 209,000 Swainson's; 100,000 Turkey Vultures; 59,000 Broad-wingeds; and a sprinkling of Mississippi Kites, Ospreys, and Peregrines in that span. One would need no other reason to visit Panama in October than to witness this incredible (in fact, indescribable) avian spectacle. Oh, but there are other reasons—plenty, actually.

Over the course of a week, we scoured a variety of habitats in and around the Canal Zone and tallied over 300 species of birds, myriad gorgeous butterflies, and an impressive mammal list as well. Starting with the Canopy Tower itself, we enjoyed unsurpassed views of Green Shrike-Vireo (including the lovely powder-blue nape) at about 20 feet and below eye level, right out of the gate. Keel-billed Toucans posed on nearby dead snags. Red-lored Parrots sailed by. A Black-breasted Puffbird posed in the scope. A pair of Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers came in to a close cecropia. Golden-hooded Tanagers, White-shouldered Tanagers, Green Honeycreepers, White Hawks, and King Vultures—where to look next? Someone spotted a howler monkey, then a family of tamarins. Would we ever be able to tear ourselves away from the tower? We did, by mid-morning, and decided to stroll down the entrance road on Semaphore Hill. Birds continued to come fast and furious. Walkaway scope views of a pair of Broad-billed Motmots were followed by a male Red-capped Manakin and then a Violaceous Trogon. A pair of Black-faced Antthrushes (generally shy and seldom seen) decided to show themselves, as did a handsome Black-bellied Wren. Three White-whiskered Puffbirds and an Olivaceous Flatbill building a nest led us up to lunch. You could probably spend a week just birding the tower and surrounding forests without ever getting in a vehicle.

Of course other areas beckoned. On our second day we headed to the foothills of Cerro Azul. This is generally my favorite day of the tour and this year did not disappoint. From the grounds of a private residence we had Yellow-eared Toucanet, Spot-crowned Barbet, Stripe-cheeked (endemic) and Crimson-crested woodpeckers, Violet-capped and Violet-headed hummingbirds, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Hermit, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Scaly-breasted Wren, and a parade of tanagers that included the likes of Emerald, Speckled, Crimson-backed, Bay-headed, and Blue and Scarlet-thighed dacnis. The icing on the cake was provided when a somewhat rugged walk into a heliconia thicket yielded unbelievable views of a perched White-tipped Sicklebill.

On world-famous Pipeline Road we enjoyed White-tailed, Black-tailed, and Slaty-tailed trogons; Pied and Black-breasted puffbirds; Great Jacamar; Cinnamon Woodpecker; Black-striped Woodcreeper; Streak-chested Antpitta; White-bellied, Spotted, and Bicolored antbirds; Purple-throated Fruitcrows; and our first Blue Cotinga, among others. Feeders at the Rainforest Discovery Center produced a dazzling variety of hummingbirds such as Violet-bellied, Blue-chested, White-necked Jacobin, and Stripe-throated and Long-billed hermits. No color in the rainbow had been missed!

Day four found us on the Caribbean side of the country near the tiny town of Achiote. Highlights here included several Rufescent Tiger-Herons, Double-toothed Kite, Black-throated Trogon, a pair of Blue Cotingas, Pacific Antwren, White-headed Wren, and Yellow-backed Oriole. A two-toed sloth provided awesome views along the Trogon Trail. In the late afternoon we rode the Central Panama Railway along the Panama Canal and enjoyed the setting sun along with dozens of Snail Kites!

Our last two days were spent closer to the tower at Old Gamboa Road and Metropolitan Park. A family of Spectacled Owls, a roosting Great Potoo, White-necked Puffbird, Blue-crowned Motmot,  Jet Antbird, Lance-tailed Manakin, and Rosy Thrush-Tanager were among the more memorable species. Feeders near Gamboa swarmed with Red-legged Honeycreepers; Orange-chinned Parakeets; Blue-gray, Crimson-backed, and Palm tanagers; and at least one Shining Honeycreeper. A Long-billed Curlew at Panama Viejo was our rarest bird of the trip (fewer than ten country records). Finally, a night drive produced superb views of the rarely seen Choco Screech-Owl and an olingo.

This trip combined fantastic quality and quantity (never a day with fewer than 100 species), colorful tropical birds, and drab forest skulkers. And don’t forget the three hundred and sixty-nine thousand raptors…we certainly won't!