Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 15—22, 2011

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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Within a minute or so of arriving at our roadside birding spot near the village of Achiote, we heard the raspy calls of one of our prime targets, the localized White-headed Wren. In the same genus as our Cactus Wren, this striking species is a real regional specialty. We quickly spotted a pair of the wrens atop a tall tree and enjoyed good scope views. Moments later a Black-cheeked Woodpecker perched on an open snag and was quickly followed by a stunning Yellow-backed Oriole. Two Blue-headed Parrots flew by and an always impressive Keel-billed Toucan croaked from a bare tree to vie for our attention. Motion in some nearby cecropias revealed a family group of our other big target, Spot-crowned Barbets. We had great studies of these strange and beautiful birds for several minutes.

The song of a Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher caught our attention across the road, and with some difficulty we finally got this tiny passerine in the scope. Slaty-tailed Trogon, Flame-rumped Tanager, Squirrel Cuckoo—the parade went on and on. Two Orange-chinned Parakeets investigated a potential nesting site in a palm, and a male Thick-billed Seed-Finch sang from a vine tangle. The distinctive song of a Pied Puffbird came from across an open area, and quickly we had taped the bird in right next to the road.

Fifteen minutes had passed and our list was mounting at a dizzying pace. Over the rest of the morning we added White Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Collared Aracari, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, White-whiskered Puffbird, Gray-capped Flycatcher, Blue Cotinga, Black-chested Jay, and Song Wren among others. At nearby Gatun Dam, we tallied a rare Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Savannah Hawk, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and a group of Saffron Finches, while a nearby canal yielded a nesting colony of the strange Boat-billed Heron and a Common Black-Hawk. Great views of white-faced capuchins and mantled howler monkeys rounded out the day.

Of course, this was but one of many successful days on our recent Canopy Tower tour. We began our first day atop the tower itself where we enjoyed Gray-headed and Hook-billed kites; Short-tailed Hawk; Red-lored and Brown-hooded parrots; Keel-billed Toucans; Green Shrike-Vireo; Red-capped Manakin; Golden-hooded, Plain-colored, and Palm tanagers; and Green Honeycreeper. A very close three-toed sloth and a group of adorable Geoffroy's tamarins distracted us from the great birds. A walk down the entry road to the tower produced a host of new birds including Broad-billed Motmot; White-whiskered Puffbird; Western Slaty-Antshrike; Dot-winged, White-flanked, and Checker-throated antwrens; Blue-crowned Manakin; Gartered Trogon; and more. In the late morning and early afternoon, we had great raptor movement over the tower with an estimated 14,000 Broad-winged Hawks alone, plus good numbers of Swainson's Hawks and Turkey Vultures. The Canopy Tower is the ideal place to witness the spectacle of hawk migration in the fall. After a mid-afternoon break we birded some nearby marsh country and a set of feeders in Gamboa. Wattled Jacana, Whooping Motmot, Barred Antshrike, Crimson-backed Tanager, stunning Red-legged Honeycreepers, and an uncommon Shining Honeycreeper were among the highlights.

The next day was spent on world-famous Pipeline Road. Prolonged scope studies of a Streak-chested Antpitta topped the list, but Great Tinamou, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Long-billed and Stripe-throated hermits, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Black-throated Trogon, Black-breasted and White-necked puffbirds, White-bellied and Spotted antbirds, Royal Flycatcher, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and a group of western night monkeys were also of note. A wetland at the base of Pipeline Road had Rufescent Tiger-Heron, White-throated Crakes (good views), and Yellow-tailed Oriole.

On the third day we ventured to the foothills of Cerro Azul where an entirely different group of birds can be found. A visit to a recently discovered lek of White-tipped Sicklebills resulted in scope views of this rarely seen hummingbird perched about fifteen feet away. A Yellow-eared Toucanet, another regional specialty, gave us great views, as did Short-billed Pigeon, Long-billed Starthroat, Green Hermit, Violet-capped Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Speckled Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, and White-vented Euphonia. We were very lucky to find an ant swarm right next to the road which gave us wonderful studies of Plain-brown, Northern Barred, and Ruddy (rare) woodcreepers, and Bicolored, Spotted, and incomparable Ocellated antbirds.

Other days produced such special birds as Collared Plover; Long-billed Curlew (very rare in Panama); roosting Great Potoo; Cinnamon, Crimson-crested, and Lineated woodpeckers; White-tailed Trogon; Lance-tailed Manakin; and the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet.

In all, we tallied a very impressive 294 species of birds and 14 species of mammals (including a rarely seen paca), all while enjoying the comforts of the Canopy Tower for a week!