Panama: Fall at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Nov 07—14, 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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The scene upon arriving at the Canopy Lodge for the first time is one not soon forgotten, and this year was certainly no different. Four tray feeders scattered about the garden and adjacent to the dining room were literally swarming with birds. Powder-blue Blue-gray Tanagers were perhaps the most common visitors (we had 35 in view at once!), followed closely by Clay-colored Thrushes. A burst of velvety-crimson revealed the presence of a pair of resplendent Crimson-backed Tanagers which immediately drew a chorus of oohs and aahs from the crowd. Very quickly a small flock of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers ventured out of the forest to one of the feeders. A Chestnut-headed Oropendola swooped in, and then came a troop of Dusky-faced Tanagers, followed by a Red-legged Honeycreeper, a Buff-throated Saltator, and a Black-striped Sparrow. Where to look next? A stunning male Flame-rumped Tanager demanded our attention, only to be ignored seconds later when the real show-stopper, a Rufous Motmot, arrived with a flourish. The incredible combination of emerald, rufous, violet, and black of this bird is truly breathtaking. A Snowy-bellied Hummingbird buzzed about the garden, at one point chasing a Bananaquit who dared to feed from "his" flowers. Tennessee Warblers hit the feeders and were followed by a pair of Red-crowned Woodpeckers. Someone spotted an Amazon Kingfisher across the garden perched over a small pond visible from the dining area. A noisy group of Black-chested Jays wandered through the nearby Cecropias. We tried to pause and catch our breath, but quickly a line of migrating raptors was seen overhead—Swainson's Hawks and Turkey Vultures heading to South America with the odd Broad-winged thrown in. My co-leader Danilo spied another raptor soaring over the peak to our east—a Black Hawk-Eagle! We had been at the Canopy Lodge for 30 minutes. It seemed we had found paradise.

In one action-packed week we scoured the foothills and Pacific lowlands in the vicinity of El Valle and the Canopy Lodge, tallying an impressive 235 species of birds. Although it was hard to tear ourselves away from the lodge feeders and grounds, other areas beckoned. Along the road above the lodge on our first afternoon we added such gems as Purple-crowned Fairy (one of 21 hummingbird species for the tour), Spot-crowned Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Keel-billed Toucan, and Bay Wren. That night following dinner a Tropical Screech-Owl sat right next to the dining area about ten feet off the ground for over ten minutes. We had frame-filling scope views and even watched him catch and devour a giant katydid! 

The next day at La Mesa, a slightly higher elevation just a few miles away, we saw Orange-bellied Trogon, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Spotted Woodcreeper, Plain and Spot-crowned ant-vireos, Slaty Antwren, Dull-mantled and Chestnut-backed antbirds, and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch among others. The nearby Cerro Gaital trail yielded Green-crowned Brilliant, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Thrush-like Schiffornis, Pale-vented and White-throated thrushes, and a crowd-pleasing three-toed sloth.

An even higher locale known as Los Altos del Maria produced perhaps our best day overall. Topping the list was a very rarely seen silky anteater less than 20 feet away! Bird highlights were not far behind with White Hawk, a Snowcap, a Black-crowned Antpitta hopping on a dead log, several Bicolored Antbirds and a pair of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens at an ant swarm that gave us spectacularly close views, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Red-faced Spinetail, Song Wren, and Black-and-yellow and Bay-headed tanagers (among 22 tanager species seen).

Drier forests near the town of El Valle also proved productive with Tody and Blue-crowned motmots (we would have four motmot species for the tour), Golden-collared Manakin, and our rarest bird of the trip, a Rose-throated Becard (providing the easternmost record ever for this species!). We also enjoyed two close two-toed sloths here. We visited the Pacific lowlands near El Chiru and Santa Clara where highlights included 1,000+ Blue-footed Boobies, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the scope for 15 minutes, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Veraguan Mango, Brown-throated Parakeet, and Rufous-browed Peppershrike.

On our final day we headed for the Canal Zone and a brief visit to the Canopy Tower. King Vulture, a pair of White Hawks, White-whiskered Puffbird, and a troop of mantled howler monkeys topped the list. We concluded with a visit to the Miraflores Locks and Visitor Center which provided a fitting ending to our journey.