Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 09—21, 2010

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 email to all participants:

After lunch, most of you enjoyed our first siesta break. At 3:00 p.m. we met and drove to Gamboa and the Ammo Ponds site, stopping to view a perched Great Potoo. Along the way we did see the incredibly large construction crane called "Titan" that was "liberated" from Germany along with the smaller "Hercules," and needed to lower the heavy metal gates into the locks of the Panama Canal. We had great luck as we arrived at Ammo Pond, picking up Wattled Jacana, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Gray-headed Kite, Yellow-headed Caracara, Masked Tityra, and Mangrove as well as side by side Southern Rough-winged and Northern Rough-winged swallows. We barely got out of our vehicle at Ammo Ponds before the birds kept us hopping for over an hour. We had Ringed (largest) Kingfisher; Yellow-tailed Oriole; Crimson-backed Tanager; Black-breasted Mango; Greater Ani; Greater Kiskadee; Panama, Social, and Rusty-margined flycatchers; White-tipped Dove; Yellow-rumped Cacique; Rufescent Tiger-Heron; and more. We dragged ourselves away to go to the feeders in Gamboa and on the way photographed a pair of cooperative, perched Bat Falcons. The feeder gave us great views of Green and Red-legged honeycreepers, Blue-gray and Crimson-backed tanagers, and some Clay-colored Robins. You also enjoyed the agouti waiting for food to drop from the feeder.

Carlos could not go spotlighting with us tonight so we joined the other seven people staying at the Canopy Tower. Domi, another Canopy Tower leader, and I each searched the forest with a spotlight. It started slow, but in the end I think we saw 10–15 common opossums, 1 kinkajou, 1 Allen's olingo, 2 brown-throated three-toed and 1 Hoffman's two-toed sloth, a sleeping Great Tinamou, and, my favorite, a Crested Owl. We were back by 9:30.

On Achiote Road our major stop was a wonderful gentle curve with a large enough parking area for our van. We arrived just after dawn, in time for the dawn chorus, and had several hours of rapid-fire birds that included Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Black-headed Saltator, Spot-crowned Barbet, Yellow-backed Oriole, White-tailed Trogon, a huge kettle of White-collared Swifts, White-headed Wren (a real prize), and many others, including an Agami Heron (a first for my Panama tour).  At a little restaurant in Achiote, we were surprised to pick up Black-bellied and Plain wrens. We then headed for an unpaved side road that gave us great views of Pacific Antwren and the diminutive Pied Puffbird.

While heading back to catch the train, we stopped at a mangrove area and were very lucky to pull out two Mangrove Cuckoos and a male Black-tailed Trogon. However, the treat of the day for some of you 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. The dozen or so Snail Kites we saw were my favorite species seen from the train. 

The newly built Panama Rainforest Discovery Center tower (175 steps) on Pipeline Road takes us above the forest canopy to produce a 360-degree view of the surrounding forest…it is magnificent. The showstopper was the male Blue Cotinga, but so many other birds were equally impressive: Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Crimson-crested and Lineated woodpeckers, both White-necked and Black-chested puffbirds, Keel-billed Toucan, Scaled and Pale-vented pigeons, and small birds like Blue Dacnis, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Tropical Gnatcatcher, White-necked Jacobin, and more. Jose Soto (another Canopy Tower guide) called us to say he had an army ant swarm, so we headed over, picking up Chestnut-backed Antbird and a male Slaty-tailed Trogon on the way. The army ants were in a dense forest location, so it took a long time for you to see the Gray-headed Tanagers, Spotted and Bicolored antbirds, and Plain-brown Woodcreepers.

Raúl 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 amazing. Once again here are a few short excerpts to whet your appetite:

As we ate our first lunch here after I dragged you away from the bird-covered fruit feeders, Danilo told me that after 15 days one of the Mottled Owls had returned to its day roost. We hiked straight to the area, crossing over a swaying bridge on a trail with moss and algae-covered rocks and exposed roots, but were rewarded with frame-filling views of the Mottled Owl. Continuing up the main road, we also picked up Blue-throated Toucanet, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and Black-chested Jay. My biggest surprise was seeing a Long-billed Starthroat sitting on a completely exposed nest up on a Cecropia branch. A male Violet-headed Hummingbird cooperated just before we got back, but the treats were not over. After dinner a Tropical Screech-Owl started calling near Lorna's room and I was able to get a light on it for all to enjoy. 

This morning on La Mesa we enjoyed Tawny-capped Euphonia, Silver-throated Tanager, Louisiana Waterthrush, Dusky-faced Tanager, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and, for some, Dull-mantled Antbird. The highlight for me was getting the one and only Orange-bellied Trogon that called all day to come right in when I played the tape. 

As usual at Canopy Lodge, once it was light enough to see we enjoyed the dozens of colorful tanagers and other species coming in for the bananas. I especially enjoyed the Rufous Motmot, but also the Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and stunning Crimson-backed and Lemon-rumped tanagers. Then it was into Danilo's van for a ride to Rio Chiquito. At the bridge in the bottom of the valley, we were immediately rewarded with a Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, one of Panama's smallest birds. We then tried once again for Tody Motmot. Danilo had taken us to all the other locations where he had seen it over the years and this was our last chance. We were finally successful. This will make my "Top Ten" because it is the number one target species in the El Valle foothills and I was afraid we might miss it.