New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2011—Jan 03, 2012

Posted by Tony Nunnery

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Tony Nunnery

Tony Nunnery grew up in Mississippi, then moved to Texas, and graduated from Stephen F. Austin University. After teaching elementary school for several years, he moved to M...

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Following a very successful five days of birding on the Christmas at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Pre-trip, the Holiday Season in Panama tour participants prepared to celebrate the New Year with a week of exotic tropical birding at Panama's Canopy Tower. The Canopy Tower is situated in the middle of a vast swath of protected forest near a great diversity of habitats, allowing us to see a large variety of birds in a short period of time.

Our New Year at Canopy Tower trip began with sunrise and coffee on the elevated deck surrounding the top of the tower. After warmly welcoming the four new participants joining the tour, we all began excitedly watching as the treetops came alive with birds. First in the scope was a Scaled Pigeon whose bright red bill and breast feathers with white central spots and prominent black edging stood out in the early morning sun. Next, a pair of Keel-billed Toucans flew into a nearby leafless tree and began their typical call of endlessly repeated grunting and croaking while bobbing and tossing their heads from side to side with each note. A pair of parrots flew by before landing high up in a tree. The scope confirmed they were Red-lored Parrots by the small red area on the forehead. A small group of Scarlet-Rumped Caciques demanded our attention as they noisily fed in the Cecropia trees around the tower. The dawn chorus, the sunrise, the birds, the view of the surrounding forest bordering up to the Panama Canal, and the Panama City landscape all contributed to an exciting start of our tour.

After breakfast we strolled down the entrance road to the Canopy Tower, which has forest on both sides. We got fantastic views of Gartered Trogon, Broad-billed Motmot, and Black-breasted Puffbird. The latter species range is restricted from Central Panama to Northwest Ecuador; therefore, it is always a highly prized bird to see. We also managed to see great views of another range-restricted species on our walk. The Black-bellied Wren, known only from Costa Rica to Western Colombia, is usually the most difficult Thryothorus Wren to observe. This encounter was no exception; however, it did happen to wander into the open a few times from the dense undergrowth of a thicket nearby. A pair of Crimson-bellied Woodpeckers were much more accommodating as they climbed out in the open on the trunks and large branches to feed. Another noteworthy sighting came when a Green Shrike-Vireo joined a mixed-flock and descended much lower than its usual habit of remaining high in the forest canopy. This brightly colored but difficult to see species fed out in the open mid-canopy as we looked on in admiration. After lunch we visited an area close by known as Ammo Dump Ponds. This open marsh habitat proved to be very productive. Highlights included an up-close look at Greater Ani and Yellow-tailed Oriole. We had textbook looks at various Tyrant Flycatchers including Panama Flycatcher, Lesser Kiskadee, and Streaked Flycatcher. Our only view of a Blue Cotinga was here—a scoped female perched atop an open snag in the distance.

The next day we made an all-day outing to an area in the foothills known as Cerro Azul. Here, on a short walk along the road, we had great views of Song Wren, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, and a flock of Carmiol's Tanager. Last year we visited the private residence of Bill and Claudia, an American couple who had recently moved to Panama and begun to put out hummingbird and banana feeders. It was such a productive visit that I decided to return this year. It proved to be even better now that Bill and Claudia have maintained their feeders for the past year. In their garden alone we saw well over 30 species of birds. There were no less than 11 species of hummingbirds, which included Violet-headed and Violet-capped hummingbirds, and Rufous-crested Coquette. Various species of birds came to the banana feeders including Bay-headed and Golden-hooded tanagers, Green and Red-legged honeycreepers, and Thick-billed Euphonia, while a pair of Speckled Tanagers fed in a nearby melastome tree. Both Black-cheeked and Red-crowned woodpeckers frequently visited the banana feeders, but the grand reward of the garden came when a Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker made an appearance. This species, which is uncommon and local to humid forest, is found only in Panama. Needless to say, it caused quite the excitement as it quietly and inconspicuously flew in and landed in the tree directly in front of us.

Another all-day outing found us heading towards Colon on Panama's Atlantic coast and crossing the locks to the west side of the canal. We stopped the bus to look at a pair of White-tailed Trogons posing for us on the wire before reaching our first stop on Achiote Road. Here we had Brown-hooded Parrots perched in a nearby tree, and later Mealy Parrot in the scope. Black-breasted Puffbird made another appearance, while Collared Aracari and Keel-billed Toucans frequently flew from tree to tree. White-headed Wren, known only from Central Panama to Western Colombia, foraged along the forest border before sitting out in the open. We enjoyed a taste of local coffee and pastries before taking a short hike on Trogon Trail where we had great looks at a pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds and Black-striped Woodcreeper. After a lunch break and a visit to the scenic and historical site of Fort Lorenzo, we made a brief stop to watch Golden-collared Manakins displaying on a lek. We ended the day by boarding a train in Colon for the 50-mile journey across the isthmus and along the canal. From the slow-moving train we watched numerous Snail Kites as we took in the beautiful scenery.

We spent the next morning at Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Road. The ponds proved to be exceptionally productive as we watched Amazon, Green, and American Pygmy kingfishers feeding just a few feet away. A Cocoi Heron landed on top of a tree and posed for some time before moving on. We also enjoyed seeing scoped views of Boat-billed Herons on a day roost. Leaving the ponds and hiking along Old Gamboa Road, we witnessed a mixed-flock with Plain Xenops, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Northern-barred Woodcreeper, Fasciated Antshrike, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Rufous-breasted Wren, Gray-headed Tanager, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia, just to name a few! Later we had a nice look at Scarlet-rumped and Yellow-rumped caciques, plus Slaty-tailed Trogon. A Tiny Hawk flew in just over our heads and perched in the dense undergrowth, yet we managed to scope it for all to see. Here we also had scoped views of Spectacled Owl on a day roost. After lunch we hiked along Old Plantation Road, where we came across a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers, a flock of Black-chested Jays, and watched an incredible show of Geoffroy's tamarins circling in the trees around us.

What better way to start the New Year than hiking along Pipeline Road in the Soberania National Park, arguably the most famous birding road in the world? A Chestnut-mandibled Toucan perched overhead while a mixed flock fed along the road. In the flock were Spot-crowned Antvireo, and Moustached, Checker-throated, and White-flanked antwrens. It took some concentration, but perseverance got most everyone on the tiny two-and-three-quarter-inch Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant. One of the most memorable moments came as we watched a Streak-chested Antpitta singing in the understory. Watching this plump, short-tailed, very long-legged terrestrial forest bird was a great way to bring in the New Year. An added bonus came in the afternoon when we visited the Mira Flores Locks of the Panama Canal to watch ships transit the locks and spend time in the recently built visitor center.

Our last full day was spent in the early morning at Metropolitan Park. First up was a Common Potoo sitting on a day perch, followed by a Whooping Motmot hunting butterflies nearby. As we hiked on one of the park's trails, we came across a mixed-flock with Western-Slaty Antshrike, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Golden-fronted Greenlet, and various others, yet the showstopper was the Yellow-green Tyrannulet. The species endemic to Panama can be readily confused with a number of species, but shape and behavior help to distinguish it. Fortunately for us, it was down low and close to the trail allowing us to witness its rather conspicuous white eye ring, and long tail held cocked in a manner reminiscent of a gnatcatcher. And to leave no doubt, it frequently sang. To add to the excitement, below the flock a Rosy Thrush-Tanager presented itself along with a White-bellied Antbird!

The afternoon was spent returning to Pipeline Road and birding around the Discovery Center, which included enjoying the magnificent view of the forest canopy from the 100-foot-high Observation Tower. Tucked in the shade of the forest canopy sat two Pied Puffbirds, which we gladly viewed since we had missed them on Achiote Road. Other noteworthy sightings at the Discovery Center were Long-billed Hermit, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Blue-chested Hummingbird, White-tailed Trogon, and White-winged Becard. As we were leaving, we spotted a Little Tinamou resting under a small shrub near the road. This was the second tinamou for the day since we had seen the Great Tinamou along the entrance road to Canopy Tower on our way to the Discovery Center.

It was evident from the first morning that this would be no ordinary holiday. The customary and common were replaced with exceptionally special and wonderfully unexpected moments! It is no wonder that VENT’s Holiday Season in Panama has been consistently in demand by those seeking something extraordinary.