Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 28—Feb 04, 2012
Posted by Kevin Zimmer
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 all 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 several outrageous Keel-billed Toucans and a vocal group of Mealy Parrots, as well as close views of Blue Dacnis. 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; extremely confiding Black-throated and Slaty-tailed trogons; nice studies of several species of antbirds (including Spotted Antbird and Checker-throated Antwren); and a particularly responsive Black-faced Antthrush. Our afternoon excursion started with a visit to some feeders in Gamboa, where a variety of tanagers went bananas for bananas. The nearby Ammo Dump Ponds produced nicely, including Rufescent Tiger-Heron, up-close studies of a diminutive American Pygmy Kingfisher, breathtaking Crimson-backed Tanagers and Yellow-tailed Orioles, and a nice variety of other open-country and marsh inhabiting species.
The next day started well before dawn, as we drove two hours east to the Bayano Valley of eastern Panama Province. The forest here is somewhat drier and of lower stature, with more vines and an abundance of big Cuipo trees as the primary emergents. This region is the western/northernmost limit for many South American birds that are not found (or are very rare) in the Canal Zone just a short distance to the west. 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 northwestern Colombia). We also enjoyed stellar views of multiple Rufous-winged Antwrens, Orange-crowned Orioles and White-eared Conebills, a single Red-rumped Woodpecker, a single One-colored Becard, and 2 Golden-green Woodpeckers, none of which regularly occur at other sites on our itinerary. Black-tailed Trogon is regular in the Canal Zone, but there, it is typically the most difficult trogon to find, whereas at Bayano, it is the easiest. We saw no fewer than eight, including close studies of both sexes. Other highlights included scope views of an electric male Blue Cotinga; great looks at perched Gray-headed and Double-toothed kites; repeated point-blank views of a male Red-capped Manakin feeding in a fruiting tree right next to the road; and prolonged studies of a troop of striking Geoffroy's tamarins. A stop at Bayano Reservoir on our return drive yielded two Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, a Cocoi Heron, a radiant male Prothonotary Warbler, and a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants building a nest.
Our third day was spent on famed Pipeline Road, one of the premier birding tracks in the Neotropics. Highlights here came in dizzying succession, from boisterous roving groups of Purple-throated Fruitcrows to a pair of snazzy Cinnamon Woodpeckers, to an unexpected female Rufous-crested Coquette, to killer views of four species of trogons (Gartered, Black-tailed, Slaty-tailed, and White-tailed). 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 Spot-crowned Antvireo and Moustached Antwren, being serenaded by three different pairs/groups of Song Wrens, and seeing a western night monkey that was wiling away the daytime hours in a knothole in a tree. But best of all was being alerted by one of the Canopy Tower guides to the presence of an active army ant swarm back near the beginning of Pipeline Road. Upon getting the call, we immediately reversed course and headed to the spot. There, we found the swarm front right beside the road, with a full complement of obligate ant-following birds in attendance (well, minus the always hoped-for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo). As is usually the case in this region, Bicolored Antbirds were numerically dominant at the swarm, and were typically confiding in allowing us to approach to within minimum-focus distance. There were also several big, flashy Ocellated Antbirds, which, though behaviorally dominant, were also somewhat more reticent about our presence and about their own proximity to the road. A pair of Spotted Antbirds played the role of infiltrators, making repeated dashes to the swarm front to snatch a fleeing insect, and then getting out before they could draw the ire of the bigger antbirds. Meanwhile, several woodcreepers (Northern Barred and Plain-brown) hung out on the fringes, specializing on prey that tried to flee the ants via the arboreal (as opposed to the terrestrial) route. Gray-headed Tanagers came and went, as did a number of other birds. Most surprising was a lone Greater Ani that was lurking in the shadows at the rear of the swarm—it was odd to see this bird so far from water. Seeing a bird-attended army ant swarm is one of the great natural history spectacles of the Neotropics, and one that is guaranteed to remain in our memories long after the list of other species encountered on the day fades.
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 despite our later than usual arrival (thanks to a 40-minute delay caused by a ship going through Gatun Locks). One minute we were ogling Collared Aracaris and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and the next we were swinging our scopes from Black-headed Saltators to a male Blue Cotinga. The White-headed Wrens showed on schedule, albeit only distantly, but we dipped on Spot-crowned Barbet. After seeing an apparent family group of five Pied Puffbirds (or, as someone put it, "a flock of puffbirds"!) along a small sidetrack, we headed for Trogon Trail, where we ate our picnic and enjoyed some forest-interior birding. Along with exceptional views of Spot-crowned Antvireo, Southern Bentbill, Olivaceous Flatbill, and White-breasted Wood-Wren, this loop trail was particularly noteworthy for the spectacularly obliging pair of Black-throated Trogons, and, for Ginny's intriguing glimpse of a huge, gray, black and white raptor that got away just minutes before we encountered a picked-over carcass of a monkey! Our last real birding event of the day entailed a visit to a lek of Golden-collared Manakins. Some of the usual thunder associated with this visit had already been stolen an hour earlier when I followed the firecracker display sounds to a lone male at the edge of the forest near the Trogon Trail parking area. A visit to our usual lek site did allow us to watch multiple birds engaged in energetic display, a spectacle that never fails to delight. All too soon, it was time to head to the train station in Colón for a relaxing and scenic ride back through the Canal Zone.
Day five found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which featured a number of special birds, among them Whooping Motmot, White-bellied Antbird, Yellow Tyrannulet, Scrub Greenlet, and the improbable Rosy Thrush-Tanager, not to mention a fruiting tree full of Keel-billed Toucans and an inquisitive troop of Geoffroy's tamarins. A stop at Costa del Este produced a bonanza of shorebirds and waders, although the singular highlight that stands out in my memory was seeing a big female Peregrine snatch up a screaming Southern Lapwing, only to end up dropping the lapwing after getting strafed by a smaller male Peregrine. The lucky lapwing managed to fly off, and may now have applied for refugee status in Costa Rica! That afternoon saw us walking Plantation Trail, where we were treated to a lovely pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds (he rich rufous, she gray-brown) and a ridiculously close pair of Broad-billed Motmots. We capped off the day with a most productive night drive along Semaphore Hill, where, in addition to seeing several sloths of both species, we enjoyed great studies of an unusually cooperative "Chocó" (Vermiculated) Screech-Owl, multiple kinkajous, and an olingo.
On our final day we returned to Pipeline Road, but this time focused our attention on the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. We arrived early for a vigil atop their canopy tower. Besides providing an awe-inspiring view of the rainforest canopy, the tower gave us close, eye level views of a number of canopy dwellers including superb studies of Scaled Pigeon, Green Shrike-Vireo, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Plain-colored and White-shouldered tanagers, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. We also taped in a pair of Gray-headed Kites, one of which perched nicely for scope views, and a trio of Cinnamon Woodpeckers, which made for quite a sight as they lined up on a single snag. Low soaring Snail Kites overhead were also a treat, as was seeing yet another male Blue Cotinga. The forest trail below the tower yielded a pair of nest-building Fasciated Antshrikes and a fabulous Great Tinamou that was nicely spotted by Ginny. The hummingbird feeders at the Visitor Center proved unusually quiet, mostly because the aggressive White-necked Jacobins were so thoroughly dominating the feeders that few other hummers could get in. Still, we had nice looks at several Long-billed Hermits. Our afternoon excursion found us once more in the Gamboa area, this time along Old Gamboa Road and at Summit Ponds. The unquestioned highlight here was seeing a spooky pair of Spectacled Owls on their day roost, but nest-building Boat-billed Herons and a daredevil Hoffmann's two-toed sloth were close runners-up. It was a fitting end to a very good trip.
All in all, we enjoyed a wonderful introduction to the natural riches of the Canal Zone, and had a lot of fun doing it. Thank you for your good humor and good companionship, and I hope to cross paths with each of you on another trip to some birdy corner of the world!