Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 30—Feb 06, 2010

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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No two birding trips to a tropical country are ever the same. The combination of a highly diverse avifauna and the subtly intertwined complexities of ever-changing weather patterns (wet versus dry seasons and their duration and onset) and how that influences fruiting cycles, flowering cycles, and insect abundance all makes for a lot of intangibles and unpredictability. However, regardless of the specifics, you know that you'll be treated to a lot of great birds and natural history. Our tour typified both the unpredictable and the predictable aspects of birding in the Neotropics. Our trip list was not as speciose as many of my previous weeklong tours to the Canal Zone, but this was a direct result of recent changes in access to two sites that used to be standards on all Canal Zone tours:  Tocumen Marsh (private land no longer accessible to birders); and Old Gamboa Road and the Police Academy Ponds (as part of the ongoing expansion of the Canal, the Canal Authority pulled access privileges shortly before our trip). Not surprisingly, our species list took a hit from previous highs, but we still managed to experience a wonderful cross section of tropical birds and mammals in just one week's time. And, by virtue of an itinerary tweak that took us to the Bayano Valley, we actually had a number of eastern Panamanian birds that are not typically recorded on tours to the Canal Zone.

Our first dawn vigil atop the Tower produced the requisite great 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, a close Black-breasted Puffbird, and a close pass by a Gray-headed Kite that responded to my tape. 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 Broad-billed and Rufous motmots, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Slaty-tailed and White-tailed trogons, White-whiskered Puffbird, Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, and a nesting pair of Fasciated Antshrikes. Our afternoon excursion started with crippling views of a perched Bat Falcon, followed by a visit to some feeders in Gamboa, where colorful tanagers and honeycreepers went bananas for bananas, and where we also enjoyed some nice looks at Gray-headed Chachalacas (imagine having those as a "feeder bird" back home!). The nearby Ammo Dump Ponds produced nicely, including Rufescent Tiger-Heron, up-close studies of a diminutive American Pygmy Kingfisher, the clown-like antics of a pair of Barred Antshrikes, Panama Flycatcher, and a nice variety of other open-country and marsh inhabiting species.

The next day started well before dawn because we had a lot of ground to cover. For the first time, we were substituting a day-trip to the Bayano Valley in eastern Panama Province into the slot where we would normally visit Cerro Azul. My recent experience on January-February trips to Cerro Azul had been disappointing, with few trees in fruit at that elevation, and little or no flock activity. Accordingly, I had made the decision prior to our tour to spend the day exploring the Bayano Reservoir area. I had done some limited scouting and group birding there in the past, and I knew that there were a number of species that we might pick up whose ranges did not extend to the Canal Zone. We had barely made it out of the bus at our first stop when we noticed a distant flowering tree that was attracting a lot of birds. Scopes were a necessity, and we soon began to pick out a number of White-eared Conebills amongst the Plain-colored Tanagers. José spotted a female One-colored Becard, which he soon had in the scope. Our attention soon shifted to a family group of Orange-crowned Orioles that eventually worked their way right up to the road. The conebills eventually drifted our way as well, and before long we had conebills right next to the road, where everyone enjoyed outstanding studies. I taped in a Bright-rumped Attila, which posed for great views despite being harassed by multiple hummingbirds. I had just started to work on a Black Antshrike, when I heard the call of a ridiculously distant Barred Puffbird. I alerted José to the voice and played tape several times, but to no avail. So, I went back to working on the Black Antshrike and a Rufous-winged Antwren, both of which were playing somewhat hard to get. Then I heard the puffbird call again, this time somewhat closer, but still distant. I knew he had to be in one of two emergent cuipo trees, and after a bit of scanning, I thought I had him. José soon confirmed it with the scope—Barred Puffbird, a tour first! We all enjoyed multiple looks and then I tried the tape again. The puffbird came for us like a heat-seeking missile. In no time, the bird was right next to the road, and like the Attila before him, this bird was the immediate target of several upset hummingbirds, which buzzed him repeatedly. Unfazed, the puffbird posed and sang for us for an extended period, providing the best highlight of the day. Not long after, we all secured good views of both the male and female Black Antshrike, a bird with a microscopic global range (limited to eastern Panama and western Colombia). Icing on the cake came in the form of a very responsive Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, which gave several close fly-bys, but which perched only long enough for a few people at a time to lay glasses or scopes on. All in all, it was a most productive "experimental" trip to the Bayano Valley, and one that I look forward to repeating next year.

Our third day was spent 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. Despite this, we scored early on with Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Rufous Mourner, a couple of female Blue Cotingas, and others. 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." 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. We spent a fair amount of time watching a small army ant swarm, and in the process, enjoyed repeated views of some typical ant swarm attendants, including Bicolored and Spotted antbirds, Northern Barred and Plain-brown woodcreepers, and Gray-headed Tanager. Less expected was a Ruddy Woodcreeper, which is a typical army ant-following species in northern Central America, but which is decidedly uncommon to rare in the Canal Zone. Yet another project bird was the Song Wren, a pair of which eventually showed nicely for everyone. A Thrush-like Schiffornis responded well to tape, and Mary Lou made a great spot on a perched Gray-chested Dove that we all got to enjoy.

Achiote Road was typically birdy. From the moment that we stepped off the bus, birds were coming fast and furiously. One minute we were ogling Collared Aracaris, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and a dazzling male Blue Cotinga, and the next we were swinging our scopes from Flame-rumped Tanagers to Black-headed Saltators. After a bit of work, we taped a White-headed Wren into a spot where it could be studied in the scopes. This canopy-dwelling relative of our Cactus Wren is easily missed in a short trip, and our views were unusually good. Not to be outdone, three Spot-crowned Barbets (two males vying for the attention of a single female) settled into the same Cecropia, and proceeded to entertain us for several minutes. After lunch, we split up and hiked a loop trail, which produced Spot-crowned Antvireo and Olivaceous Flatbill for some, and some colorful, green-and-black Dendrobates frogs for all. For most participants, the best was saved for last, when we visited a lek of Golden-collared Manakins (runner-up for Favorite Bird of the Trip). Upon stepping off the bus, I was a bit concerned at not hearing the usual snapping and popping that signals male manakins on the lek. However, within short order, 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. Just as exciting, and completely unexpected, was a kinkajou that was sprawled across some low branches in plain view! This common forest mammal is normally active only at night, and it is a rare sight to ever see one in daylight, let alone as close and unobstructed as this animal was. It was hard to know where to look, at the kinkajou or the displaying manakins, so we did both. When we tired of rubbernecking between the two, we headed to the train station in Colón for 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. We arrived early for a vigil atop their canopy tower. Besides providing an awe-inspiring birds-eye view of the rainforest canopy, the tower gave us close, eye level views of a number of canopy dwellers (including stunning studies of Brown-capped Tyrannulet), a singing male Slate-colored Seedeater, soaring Gray-headed Kites, a family group of White-necked Puffbirds, and more Blue Cotingas. A walk along the trails produced additional Slate-colored Seedeaters and too-close-to-focus-on Violaceous Trogons and Squirrel Cuckoos. But it was on the return hike that we really hit the jackpot. Carlos was leading the way out when he rounded a bend and saw a gorgeous Ocellated Antbird sitting in plain view within 10 feet of the trail. No sooner did he call it out than the bird dropped to the ground and pounced on a small lizard (Anolis sp.). As the antbird was busy subduing the lizard, we all scrambled for position. Unfortunately the bird flew off before everyone could get on it, and a second bird followed behind the first. There was no sign of an ant swarm in the vicinity, and army ants are usually a prerequisite for seeing Ocellated Antbirds. These obligate army ant followers are not territorial in the classical sense, so the songs on my iPod were no cinch to bring the birds back. But, they appeared to be our only hope, so I gave it a whirl. Within seconds we had a response, and soon thereafter, three Ocellated Antbirds flew towards me and landed in a thicket just below us. At this point, they bunched together and appeared to go into a group trance. We, of course, bunched together and went into our own group trance, spellbound by the spectacular colors of what is arguably one of the most attractive of all antbirds. After a few minutes, two of the antbirds flew off, but the third stayed on, seemingly glued to its perch. This was an incredible stroke of good fortune for us. Normally, you would need ants to have any kind of chance at seeing Ocellated Antbird, and even when preoccupied with foraging at a swarm, Ocellateds tend to be somewhat jumpy and prone to fading off into the forest at the slightest disturbance. To have not one, but three of these handsome birds sitting still for a prolonged period was the highlight of the tour for most people. After this, the hummingbird feeders at the Visitor Center seemed anticlimactic, but they did attract a nice variety of hummingbirds, including gorgeous male Violet-bellieds.

Our afternoon excursion found us once more in the Gamboa area, this time along the Chagres River. Here, we were treated to more Rufescent Tiger-Herons, a singing male White-bellied Antbird at point-blank range, Jet Antbird, and a Golden-fronted Greenlet that was close enough to touch.

Our final day found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which featured a number of dry-forest species, among them, Rufous-and-white Wren, Lance-tailed Manakin, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. 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. I would be remiss not to mention the additional Slate-colored Seedeaters that seemed to be singing all around us. This poorly-known species is highly nomadic, and its presence in any given area seems to be tightly tied to ephemeral mass-seeding events of various species of bamboo. Most of these bamboos may take 8–15 years before seeding, and when that happens, the seedeaters move in, breed explosively, and then, once the bamboo has died, disappear just as quickly as they appeared. They may not return to a given area for another decade or more. In all of my trips to Panama, I had never encountered Slate-colored Seedeaters in the Canal Zone before, and prior to November (when this latest invasion first started), most of the local Panamanian bird guides had only seen the species once or twice before. So, we were incredibly lucky that the timing of our tour coincided with an event that likely won't be repeated for another 10 years or more. We capped our day with an afternoon 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!