Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2012

Posted by Jeri Langham


Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

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Myriads of magazine articles have touted Panama's incredible Canopy Tower Ecolodge, a former U.S. military radar tower transformed by Raúl Arias de Para when the U.S. relinquished control of the Panama Canal Zone. It sits atop 900-foot Semaphore Hill overlooking Soberania National Park. An enticing example of what awaits visitors to this marvelous birding paradise can be found in excerpts taken from the journal I write during every tour and later email to all participants:

We had great luck as we arrived at the Ammo Ponds, picking up Wattled Jaçana, Mangrove as well as Southern Rough-winged swallows, and Gray-breasted Martins. We barely got out of the "Tinamou" truck before the birds kept us hopping for over an hour. We had Crimson-backed Tanager; Black-throated Mango; Greater Ani; Great and Lesser kiskadees; Boat-billed, Social, and Rusty-margined flycatchers; White-tipped Dove; Variable and Yellow-bellied seedeaters; and a mobbing display that included at least 10 species of birds.

After dinner, we met downstairs at 7:45 p.m. for our only spotlighting night while at the Canopy Tower. In my eight years of coming here, this may have been my best night: a tamandua anteater eating ants in the tree above us, two common opossums with a fantastic Spectacled Owl that appeared to be ready to make dinner out of one of the opossums, one kinkajou that gave us great looks, two two-toed sloths, and two Common Potoos. One of them and another distant one were singing. It was great to at least hear both a Mottled Owl and two Choco Screech-Owls.

The birding from the Observation Deck was exceptional this morning. Marjie heard the Slaty-tailed Forest-Falcon, and all heard the Collared Forest-Falcon and many mantled howler monkeys announcing continued survival and thus occupied territories. At dawn the parade began, including a male Blue Cotinga, Keel-billed Toucans (one dead tree with 11 festooned on it), 3 species of parrots, at least 3 Green Shrike-Vireos seen, Gray-headed Kite, White Hawk, Collared Araçari, Scaled Pigeons, Black-breasted Puffbird, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Blue Dacnis, Red-legged and Green honeycreepers, Palm Tanager, Lesser Greenlet, and northern winter visitors like Yellow-throated Vireo and three warblers: Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Chestnut-sided.

On Cerro Azul, we decided to walk one of the narrow, somewhat secluded roads finding a female Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, FOUR Blue Cotingas, and a wonderful soaring Gray-headed Kite. Our stop at Bill and Claudia's home was incredible. The hummingbird show defies description, with hundreds of hummingbirds fighting for space at the 10 nectar feeders. Among them were Green and Stripe-throated hermits, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobin, and 3 hummingbirds: Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied. On our second visit, later in the day, we added Long-billed Starthroat. The dazzling colors of Red-legged and Green honeycreepers were stunning. Euphonias, Bananaquits, and tanagers added to the spectacle.

We drove into Pipeline Road and went directly to the new Discovery Center. We saw lots of birds from the top: White-necked Puffbird, Masked Tityra, Blue-headed Parrots, Cinnamon and Lineated woodpeckers, Black-mandibled Toucan, and many others seen previously. As we returned to the hummingbird area, a guide told me that a Pheasant Cuckoo had been seen. I have chased this bird in Venezuela, Panama, and Costa Rica for the last 26 years, only managing to hear one call back about five times, but never showing itself. The bird was not where they had seen it. However, a guide told me it was making a growling sound. I kept searching the area and finally heard a growling sound. I was able to spot the bird deep in the tangles as it was doing some sort of weird thing with its spread wings. Carlos was able to get his scope on it and we all celebrated my long-looked-for Pheasant Cuckoo.

Birding our way down Pipeline Road, we managed to get 4 species of trogons, White-whiskered Puffbird, Song and Bay wrens, Thrush-like Schiffornis, and a dozen antbird types. But we ended the birding day near the entrance to the Discovery Center where Alexis (another Canopy Tower guide) had a Little Tinamou in his scope. As we were congratulating ourselves on this stroke of luck, Alexis said, "Would you like to see a perched Pheasant Cuckoo?" There it was, no more than 15 yards away. We got to hear it sing and also see it fly away and then return to the same perch. What more could I ask for? Well, as we turned off the main Gamboa highway to the Canopy Tower road, we stopped and put the scope on a Great Potoo.

About 7 years ago, Raúl finished building the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton, which lies in the center of the largest inhabited crater in the Western Hemisphere and second only to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.  The Cerro Gaital Natural Monument surrounds it. Once again, here are a few excerpts from my January 2012 journal:

We traveled on a new portion of the Pan-American Highway as we drove west toward Costa Rica and then took the side road to Juan Hombrón and the extensive rice fields. Almost as soon as we emerged from the van, we started to pick up new species because we were in lowland grasslands, and the trees and shrubs on both sides of the unpaved road had many birds. In no particular order, we saw Savannah Hawk, Veraguan Mango, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Yellow-crowned Parrot, Brown-throated Parakeets, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rufous-and-white Wren, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Scrub Greenlet, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, and more. We then boarded the van and headed for the extensive rice fields. Yellow-headed Vulture was seen well and later photographed, and the number of egrets and herons was amazing. We also added Wood Stork, Glossy Ibis, Solitary Sandpiper, Blue-black Grassquit, White Ibis, both Yellow-headed and Crested caracaras, and Yellow-bellied Seedeater. 

Some of the specialty birds we saw at Cerro Gaital were Brown Violetear (not seen on previous tours), White-ruffed Manakin female, Common Bush-Tanagers, Tufted Flycatchers, Snowcap, Silver-throated Tanagers, Russet Antshrike, White-tipped Sicklebill (glimpsed in flight), and others before our picnic lunch by the new man-made lake. The new concrete forest trail at the far end of the lake is incredible. Even if there were no birds, it is a wonderful natural rainforest with huge trees covered in epiphytes and very easy to walk. It is difficult to pick the best bird here since we had two more birds never found on previous tours, of which my favorite was the Tawny-throated Leaftosser whose nest we discovered, but the Brown-billed Scythebill comes in a very close second. Barbara discovered a Spectacled Owl that is not even shown on the range map for this area, but we have photos. A female Orange-bellied Trogon completed our sweep of all six trogons possible on this tour. We had to work very hard for the Streak-chested Antpitta across the stream from us, but Moyo finally spotted it and Bill somehow got photos. We heard Black-eared Wood-Quail and saw three Song Wrens. Spot-crowned Antwren was not too cooperative, but Spotted Barbtail and Spotted Woodcreeper did cooperate.