Panama: Fall at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Extension Oct 22—27, 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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A frantic knock on my door was followed by the two words I had hoped to hear all week, "ground-cuckoos!" Moyo, our local guide, had just been informed that one of the lodge employees had found an ant swarm with two Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos less than five minutes away! This nearly mythical species is so highly sought, even by veteran birders of the Tropics, that it has become sort of the Holy Grail of Central America. I had seen only one previously. Many have made countless trips to the Tropics without ever seeing one. However, nowhere on Earth can one have as good a chance of seeing a ground-cuckoo as here at the Canopy Lodge.

We had just finished a wildly successful morning of birding (our last day of the tour) to the Caribbean slope forests of Jordanal and Rio Indio. A pair of Barred Puffbirds, two Green Thorntails, a White-winged Becard, a completely unexpected Slate-colored Seedeater, a flock of Sulphur-rumped Tanagers, and a sleeping northern tamandua (lesser anteater) topped the list. Despite this being my seventeenth trip to Panama, the seedeater and tanager were life birds for me. Such are the possibilities here! We had decided to head back to the lodge a little early to have a few minutes to pack up before lunch and our return drive to Panama City. That is when Moyo knocked on my door. I quickly rounded up the group, and we piled into the lodge van for the short ride to the spot where the ground-cuckoos had been seen. The ant swarm was about 20 yards downhill from us and we could hear the calls of attendant Black-chested Jays and Plain-brown Woodcreepers. Quietly, we scanned the forest floor, and suddenly one of the ground-cuckoos darted out after prey. The vegetation was thick and some of the group had an angle on the bird, while some did not. A few tense moments ensued before everyone in the group had a scope view of one of these amazing birds. What an incredible ending to an already fabulous trip!

Over five days we had scoured a variety of habitats in and around El Valle and the Canopy Lodge. In the nearby highlands of Altos del Maria we had enjoyed such highlights as White Hawk, the incomparable Snowcap, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, Red-faced Spinetail, a Spotted Barbtail building a nest, Spotted Woodcreeper, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, White-throated and Pale-vented thrushes, Common Bush-Tanager, and the brilliant Black-and-yellow Tanager, among others. In the forests of La Mesa, we tallied an unexpected Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a pair of Orange-bellied Trogons, Plain Antvireo, Tufted Flycatcher, Silver-throated Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and a host of spectacular butterflies. The Pacific lowlands of Juan Hombron and El Chiru yielded the likes of Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Common Black-Hawk, Savannah Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Crested Bobwhite, Yellow-crowned Parrot, Brown-throated Parakeet, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the endemic Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Barred Antshrike, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant. Along the Cara Iguana Trail we had Tody Motmot (always a prized find), Blue-crowned Motmot, roosting Tropical Screech-Owls, and Lance-tailed Manakin, while a nearby residence produced a pair of roosting Common Potoos. On trails in the Canopy Adventure we had Mottled Owl and the shy Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush.

Finally, of course, there was the wonderful birding right on the grounds of the lodge itself. Feeders stocked with bananas drew the likes of Rufous Motmot; Red-crowned Woodpecker; Blue-gray, Palm, Crimson-backed, and Flame-rumped tanagers; Red-crowned Ant-Tanager; Streaked and Buff-throated saltators; and the occasional Orange-chinned Parakeet and Chestnut-headed Oropendola. Brilliant Orange-billed Sparrows came in for bread, while a Long-billed Starthroat frequently visited the coral bean and a Snowy-bellied Hummingbird patrolled the garden. In the open-air dining area, meals were frequently interrupted for Lineated Woodpecker, Amazon Kingfisher, Bay-headed and Golden-hooded tanagers, and much more. In short, this place is a birder's paradise! We tallied 229 species on this extension, 78 of which were species we had not seen on the main Canopy Tower tour.