Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 29—Feb 05, 2011

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 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 first dawn vigil atop the tower failed to produce the typical great views of Green Shrike-Vireo, that persistent (some would say annoying) voice from the canopy. It did, however, net us fine views of a tree-full of outrageous Keel-billed Toucans, as well as close views of Blue Dacnis and Green Honeycreeper among others. After breakfast, we headed down Semaphore Hill, where we spent the rest of the morning enjoying a nice selection of typical Canal Zone birds, highlighted by a pair of Black-breasted Puffbirds excavating a nest in a termitarium; close views of gorgeous Rufous and Broad-billed motmots; nice studies of several species of antbirds (including Spotted Antbird and Checker-throated Antwren); and a particularly responsive Orange-billed Sparrow. Our afternoon excursion started with a visit to some feeders in Gamboa, where colorful tanagers and honeycreepers went bananas for bananas. 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 only the second 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 2010 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 several species that we might pick up whose ranges did not extend to the Canal Zone. Our success in 2010 prompted me to make the Bayano region a regular part of our itinerary, and once again, we were happy with the results. Foremost among our many prizes here was securing great close studies of both male and female Black Antshrike, a bird with a microscopic global range (limited to eastern Panama and western Colombia). We also enjoyed stellar views of multiple Orange-crowned Orioles and White-eared Conebills (the latter a lifer for Domi!), two essentially South American species of somewhat limited range, both of which here, are at the northwestern limit of their respective distributions. Rufous-winged Antwren is another bird that fits into that category, but we had to work a bit harder for our neck-straining views of that canopy dweller. I was particularly excited to find a number of singing Slate-colored Seedeaters in the area, including a couple of males that gave us nice scope views. As I explained at the time, this enigmatic species is nomadic, tracking the seeding cycles of various species of bamboos. Bamboos typically go many years (sometimes 10 or more, depending on the species) between seeding events, but when they do seed, most of the bamboo of a given species in a given area seed simultaneously, producing a hyper abundance of food for birds that specialize in eating bamboo seeds. These specialists, the Slate-colored Seedeater among them, are highly nomadic, moving from one major seeding event to another. When they find such an event, they descend on an area en masse, and immediately begin breeding in order to exploit the temporary wealth of resources. Once the bamboo have seeded and died, the birds move on, and may not be seen in that area again for another decade or more! There was a major bamboo-seeding event in the Canal Zone in 2009, and our tour enjoyed multiple sightings of Slate-colored Seedeaters at places ranging from Pipeline Road to Metropolitan Park. But that was then, and this was now, and it was a definite treat to have nice looks at these birds. Other highlights on the day included close studies of Black-tailed Trogon, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Bicolored Antbird, Striped Cuckoo, and a pair of lovely Geoffroy's tamarins, the latter, appropriately enough, seen from a bridge over the Rio Mono.

Our third day was spent on famed Pipeline Road, one of the premier birding tracts in the Neotropics. We had a particularly productive day here, highlighted by close views of a Collared Forest-Falcon perched low and close to the road in the late afternoon. Earlier in the day we had enjoyed excellent studies of a perched Double-toothed Kite, which seemed to be tracking a troop of monkeys. One of our primary targets was the Streak-chested Antpitta, which eluded us for much of the day until we eventually scored superb views of not one, but two of these endearing little "eggs 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. Other highlights included nice studies of Black-striped Woodcreeper, Moustached Antwren, Bicolored Antbird, Brownish Twistwing, Gray Elaenia, Thrush-like Schiffornis, multiple White-whiskered Puffbirds, and a particularly oblivious Blue-black Grosbeak.

Day four once again found us up well before the dawn and headed to Colón on the Caribbean side of the Canal Zone. Our destination here was Achiote Road, which 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 and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and the next we were swinging our scopes from Flame-rumped Tanagers to Black-headed Saltators. Spot-crowned Barbet was less conspicuous than usual, although we did have nice studies of one individual, and the White-headed Wrens proved annoyingly unresponsive. After getting both Pied Puffbird and Pacific Antwren along a small sidetrack, we headed for Trogon Trail, where we split the group for forest-interior birding. Along with exceptional views of Spot-crowned Antvireo and Red-throated Ant-Tanager, this loop trail was noteworthy mostly for producing a fabulous Pheasant Cuckoo, a short video clip of which Carlos subsequently posted to FaceBook. Our last real birding event of the day entailed a visit to a lek of Golden-collared Manakins. The floods of a few months earlier had clearly disturbed the forest floor in the vicinity of the lek, which may have been responsible for the general lack of activity on the part of the manakins. It also seemed as if the location of the lek had shifted by 100 m or so, because the few birds that were displaying were deeper into the forest than usual. Eventually, we caught up with one particularly nice male, which we were able to observe in full display at close range. All too soon, it was time to head 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 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 nice looks at Brown-capped Tyrannulet and Red-legged Honeycreeper, a perched Gray-headed Kite, Scaled Pigeons, and a White-necked Puffbird. The forest trail proved unusually quiet, so we spent much of the remainder of the morning staking out the hummingbird feeders at the Visitor Center, which attracted a steady stream of hummingbirds, including Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Black-throated Mango, and White-vented Plumeleteer among others. Our afternoon excursion found us once more in the Gamboa area, this time along the Chagres River. Here, we were treated to a singing male White-bellied Antbird at point-blank range, Jet Antbird, and an electric male Blue Cotinga.

Our final day found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which featured a number of special birds, among them, Whooping Motmot, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Rufous-and-white Wren, Lance-tailed Manakin, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. 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.

After a farewell dinner and final checklist session, we finished with an optional night drive down Semaphore Hill. It proved to be one of the best night drives I've ever done, at least in terms of the number and diversity of mammals seen. We had barely started down the hill when my spotlight beam caught a round object on a limb that I nearly passed off as an arboreal termite nest. A quick double-take revealed that the "nest" had a head—it was a roosting Great Tinamou! It's always special when you see a tinamou, but finding a perched one at night was particularly cool. The tinamou was followed by a continuous procession of special mammals, ranging from gray four-eyed opossum to multiple kinkajous, both brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann's two-toed sloth, and a pair of northern tamanduas (lesser anteaters), which offered superb studies. It was a fitting end to a very good trip.

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!