New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2009—Jan 03, 2010

Posted by Tony Nunnery

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Tony Nunnery

Tony Nunnery grew up in Mississippi, then moved to Texas, and graduated from Stephen F. Austin University. After teaching elementary school for several years, he moved to M...

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It is no secret that Panama is one of the premier birding destinations in the Neotropics. Even less a secret is the Canopy Tower, a premier birding destination near Panama City. One quickly becomes aware of its fame by the numerous magazine covers featuring the Canopy Tower that are found framed and hung around the dining area of the Tower itself. There are good reasons for so many magazines wishing to do a cover story about the Canopy Tower, one being its ideal location within the Soberania National Park, offering spectacular birding opportunities. Although its close proximity to various other birding locations is a plus, there is nothing like waking up to the dawn chorus and walking up atop the Tower to gaze upon the numerous tropical birds flying over the forest canopy, with views of the Panama Canal and Panama City skyline to remind us that this birding location is unique.

So it is no wonder that our New Year tour starts atop the Canopy Tower early in the morning where we enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while watching the sun rise over the forest canopy. In no time we exchange our warm drinks for our binoculars as the canopy comes alive with various species of birds. Our tour began with Red-lored Parrots flying in the early morning sunlight and perching in a tree as we all looked on. Shortly after, a Scaled Pigeon demanded our attention as it conspicuously sat out on an open branch. Soon after admiring the pigeon’s bright red bill and its breast feathers with white central spots and prominent black edging—giving it a scaled appearance—our attention was refocused on a pair of Keel-billed Toucans that had alighted in an adjacent tree. These two toucans began croaking, calling, and bobbing their multicolored bills and heads, tossing them from side to side in unison. A Green Shrike-Vireo soon diverted our attention as it began singing in a densely leafed tree just next to the Tower. After a few minutes of its tirelessly repeated three-note call, it pleased us all by hopping out on an exposed branch. We quickly focused our binoculars to admire its bright grass-green plumage and conspicuous blue band on the hind neck. It turned to show off its bright yellow throat as it continued calling before hopping back inside the canopy. As Short-tailed Hawks and a Zone-tailed Hawk took advantage of the early morning thermals and Mealy Parrots circled the Tower, a Purple-crowned Fairy hummingbird fed on a flowering vine atop the canopy near the Tower. And to think this was all taking place before we'd even had breakfast.

It is no wonder birds and birders alike flock to Panama for the holidays. It never ceases to amaze me what surprises await those who join a "Holiday Season in Panama" tour. One of the highlights of our tour was the Yellow-Green Tyrannulet, which is found only in central and eastern Panama. We came across this Panamanian endemic in an area of second-growth woodland in the Bayano lowlands. A pair was seen with a mixed flock and gave each of us very accommodating views as they fed in the low trees just above us. Another very special species seen in the same flock was the White-eared Conebill. We saw a pair feeding, gleaning in the terminal foliage and branches just above our heads. Also on the same trail we saw a Black Antshrike. This species, found only in eastern Panama and northern Colombia, was not shy at all as it fed beside the trail. Another memorable highlight was the Blue Cotinga perched in the canopy, seen from the Discovery Center Tower at Pipeline Road. It was an added bonus to the incredible views as we watched the sun set on the forest canopy. No less than five species of parrots circled the Tower and perched in the surrounding trees, including the Brown-hooded Parrot and Blue-headed Parrot, whose colors stood out in the evening sunlight as Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Golden-hooded Tanager moved through the branches nearby.

I must not fail to mention the Great Potoo we saw on a day perch. We watched as it sat motionless, high in the tree, looking like an extension of the snag it sat on. Another night bird we saw perched by day was a pair of Spectacled Owls. These large, beautiful owls were very much aware of us as we gazed at them in awe and wonder. A memorable moment was provided by a pair of Red-capped Manakins along the entrance road to the Canopy Tower. We all looked on as they flew rapidly from perch to perch before remaining motionless on a low branch beside the road. We also had a great view of a Blue-capped Manakin that responded to playback, and flew in and sat at eye level while we were birding along Pipeline Road. These are just a few of the many memorable moments we experienced.

Of course, among the various species of hummingbirds, four species of trogons, four species of puffbirds, and various species of tanagers and antbirds, I could go on and on mentioning the thrill and enjoyment we experienced watching these tropical marvels. I am sure those on our "Holiday Season in Panama" tours will fondly recall these and many more moments as they reminisce about the wonderful time they had birding Panama. So next winter, when the cold climate has sent the birds south for warmer weather, I suggest you join a VENT tour to the Canopy Tower and witness for yourself why so many magazines write about this premier birding destination of the Tropics. I’m sure you will agree that its fame is well-deserved.