Panama: Fall at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Nov 05—12, 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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Julio's phone rang (our driver), and he quickly passed it to me. "Barry, this is Moyo. We've found ground-cuckoos at an ant swarm just above the Canopy Adventure. Pick me up along the road and we'll go straight there!"

The group and I were coming from Panama City to the Canopy Lodge to begin our weeklong birding adventure. I had told them that we likely wouldn't be birding en route and that we would get to the lodge and leisurely enjoy the feeders and grounds before lunch and settling into our rooms. Now things had changed. The Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo is one of the most highly sought birds in all of Central America, a nearly mythical creature that is seldom seen even by veteran birders to the Neotropics. We found Moyo (my co-leader and full-time Canopy Lodge guide) standing along the main road and quickly picked him up. A short five-minute ride uphill brought us to the trailhead where the ground-cuckoos had been seen earlier in the morning. We could hear the chatters of Black-chested Jays and calls of attendant woodcreepers at the swarm as we poured down the trail. The front of the swarm seemed to be centered right on the trail itself, so we got into place and waited. Within moments, one of the ground-cuckoos darted out and paused on the trail. If not for the jay that was perched a few feet to the left, this would have been our first bird of the trip! The iridescent purplish back shimmered in the patchy sunlight and the bird slowly raised and lowered its tawny crest in the fashion of a roadrunner. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it vanished to the right. Moments later another appeared chasing, and capturing, a small snake that was fleeing the ants. For the next 30 minutes we marveled at three of these very special birds foraging and posing amongst the raiding ants. What an incredible beginning to our tour—certainly one of the most exciting starts to any trip in my 27 years of leading tours!

It was to be a week filled with special birds and special moments. On Altos del Maria, we enjoyed scope views (after considerable effort) of Streak-chested Antpitta, studied male and female Snowcaps perched, and tallied many other great birds including Orange-bellied Trogon, a very rare Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Plain and Spot-crowned antvireos, Red-faced Spinetail, Long-tailed Tyrant, Bran-colored Flycatcher, Tufted Flycatcher, Ochraceous Wren, Black-faced Grosbeak, and a parade of tanagers that included the magnificent Black-and-yellow, Golden-hooded, Tawny-crested, Bay-headed, and Silver-throated. Nearer to the Lodge itself on La Mesa we added Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch and Common Bush-Tanager among others.

Down in the Pacific lowlands we enjoyed a great day with the likes of Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Savanna Hawk, a locally rare White-tailed Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Bat Falcon, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the endemic Veraguan Mango, Yellow-crowned Parrots, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, and more.

On another day we ventured to El Cope (Omar Torrijos National Park), where the star of the day was an incredible Black-crowned Antpitta that circled us several times and afforded excellent views. White-flanked Antwren, Stripe-breasted Wren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Emerald and Speckled tanagers rounded out the list. On the way back to the lodge, a couple of roadside stops yielded Brown-throated Parakeets and Rufous-browed Peppershrike.

The Cara Iguana Trail in the town of El Valle produced a great list that included Tody, Blue-crowned, and Rufous motmots within minutes of each other, a pair of roosting Tropical Screech-Owls, and a very active three-toed sloth.

All of this excitement, and yet the best birding of all may have been right at the Canopy Lodge itself. Feeders in the garden adjacent to the dining area teemed with birds throughout the day. Glorious Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped tanagers joined the more common Blue-gray and Palms. Buff-throated and Streaked saltators, Bananaquit, Collared Aracari, Barred Antshrike, Thick-billed Euphonias, White-lined Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and the king of the feeders, the Rufous Motmot, all made regular appearances. Brilliant Orange-billed Sparrows furtively visited the garden as well, and Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed, and Violet-headed hummingbirds danced about the many flowers. Central American agoutis ran under the feeders looking for scraps. A White Hawk sailed overhead and perched in a nearby cecropia. Gray-headed Chachalacas sunned themselves in a thicket across the stream. It was hard to know where to look first!

Our final great moment came during the last morning when a member of the group spotted a male Rufous-crested Coquette feeding on the fire bush outside of her room. This rarely seen species makes periodic appearances on the lodge grounds, but none had been seen here in quite some time. We all enjoyed fantastic views of this tiny and truly stunning species right before lunch on our last day.

In all we netted 240 species of birds for the tour, including several of the most highly sought species of Central America. In addition, we saw wonderful butterflies (nearly 50 species) and good mammals and reptiles as well. This is truly a naturalist's paradise!