Panama: Christmas at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Pre-trip Dec 22—27, 2011

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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Largely because of Panama's geographical position, this little land bridge country can boast of an exceptionally awesome list of avifauna. Consequently, the last two decades have seen a continuous increase in the number of visitors interested in the local birdlife. Victor Emanuel has been an insightful pioneer in this respect by early on introducing and offering birding tours to Panama. One such tour, which has consistently been in demand, is VENT'S "Holiday Season in Panama."

The memorable moments began as we woke up and gazed out at the historic Panama Canal—this was not to be just another ordinary holiday. The views from our breakfast table revealed the gulls, terns, pelicans, and frigatebirds flying over the canal. This was followed by exotic tropical tanagers and euphonias in the palm trees on the hotel grounds. After this brief yet exciting introduction to Panama, we found ourselves viewing the Panamanian landscape on a short drive to El Valle's Canopy Lodge, where the holiday festivities would truly begin.

Upon arrival we stepped out of the van and immediately stepped up to the spotting scope to see a White Hawk patiently perched in the forest canopy. Then we crossed the footbridge over the picturesque mountain stream flowing through the lodge's grounds to the open air dining area where our focus was quickly diverted to the feeding stations. Dazzling arrays of tropical tanagers, euphonias, motmots, and hummingbirds captivated us for the next two hours as oropendolas and aracaris flitted from one tree to another. Before being summoned to the lunch table we had seen no fewer than 30 species of birds. This included the Rufous Motmot, Collared Aracari, and Red-crowned Woodpecker eating bananas alongside Crimson-backed, Flame-rumped, Blue-gray, and Palm tanagers. Mixed in with them were Clay-colored Thrush, Buff-throated Saltator, Thick-billed Euphonia, and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. In the flowering bushes beside the banana feeders we saw Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed, and Violet-headed hummingbirds, as well as Bananaquit and Rufous-capped Warbler. And to think the holidays had barely begun!

The feeding stations at Canopy Lodge offer an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with some of the more common bird species we encounter throughout the trip. Once we all gain knowledge for identifying these more common species, we are then more capable of sorting out and finding new unknown species from the mixed flocks we encounter during our daily excursions. In addition, this adds to the enjoyment and appreciation of the tour as one participant after another delights in finding a new bird species to share with the rest of the group.

The afternoon of the first day we hiked up the road from the lodge, but before leaving the entrance area we heard a Yellow-billed Cacique in the dense undergrowth of a thicket nearby. A great skulker rarely coming into the open, and often difficult to even glimpse, yet with playback we were able to entice the cacique into a small opening in order for everyone to get an up-close view from the scope. Further up the road, half-a-dozen Black-chested Jays caught our attention as they moved among the trees and called loudly. Another spectacular sighting came as we left the road to hike to a day roost of a Mottled Owl; as this owl is strictly nocturnal and hence not often seen, it was a treat to have such an up-close and extended observation.

Another advantageous aspect of staying at Canopy Lodge is the opportunity to bird various habitats all within close proximity of just a short drive away. One such side trip took us up to a region known as La Mesa. The less than half-an-hour drive from the lodge was interrupted as we stopped to watch a mixed flock. The reward was finding a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets for an extended period of time, since this range-restricted species from Western Panama to Western Colombia is rarely seen in El Valle. A planned stop at a patch of Heliconia flowers to hopefully see a White-tipped Sicklebill provided looks at Stripe-throated and Green hermits, as well as a White-vented Plumeleteer. Since the White-tipped Sicklebill seemed to be a "no-show," I decided to try a slightly unusual approach. Knowing this species of hummingbird to be vigorously territorial, I decided to use playback in hope of some response. Suddenly, to our surprise, this heavy-bodied hummingbird instantly flew in and sat for an extended period of time directly in front of us to defend its patch of flowers. Everyone took great satisfaction in observing every detail of this extraordinary hummingbird—unmistakable with its very sharply decurved bill bent almost into a right angle, bronzy-green above, below heavily streaked sooty and white, and tail a graduated bronzy-green tipped white. An extra-added attraction came as it finally began to cling awkwardly to a Heliconia flower while probing the blossom with its curious bill.

Once up at La Mesa, another mixed flock provided great looks at Common Bush, Dusky-faced, Golden-hooded, and Tawny-crested tanagers, but the climax was a pair of Orange-bellied Trogons. This range-restricted species from Costa Rica to Central Panama was the sought out target of the day and provided us with great looks as it perched for a long period of time. After lunch we made another side-trip 15 minutes away to Cara Iguana. Here we had Tropical Screech-Owl on a day roost, as well as another always-desired target species, the Tody Motmot.

An all-day trip to Altos de Maria in 4×4 vehicles presented more memorable moments. First there was a Gray Hawk perched low and close to the road. Then there were splendid looks at Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, and Tufted Flycatcher. A Thrush-like Schiffornis flew in and perched up close. Remarkably, while watching another patch of Heliconia flowers, we had another perched sicklebill, as well as a Band-tailed Barbthroat. Over a decade of guiding trips in Panama, this was my first time to have two separate and excellent views of the sicklebill. Another notable moment happened after lunch when everyone managed to see Dull-mantled Antbird feeding and calling just a few feet away.

An additional all-day trip downslope to the Pacific Coast furnished many more memorable moments. In the area of Juan Hombron, a Pearl Kite, Savanna Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Crested Caracara, and Barn Owl each provided excellent looks, as they remained perched for extended periods of time adjacent to the road. There was also a spectacular scoped view of the six-and-a-half-inch Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Its small size, chunky shape, and black "false eyes" on the back of the head amused and entertained everyone as it sat in a tree near the beach. Various flycatchers made an appearance including Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Lesser Elaenia, as well as migrants like Gray Kingbird and Fork-tailed Flycatcher. One exceptional moment came when a male Lance-tailed Manakin sat in the open of a nearby thicket. This species is often frustratingly difficult to see in the dense undergrowth it normally favors, but fortunately perched various times in an open area providing the opportunity to view its curiously unique appearance. It was a spectacular day of birding, as well as a refreshing and relaxing moment taken to enjoy the Pacific Ocean from a beach house at Santa Clara during our lunch break.

Our last day at Canopy Lodge was spent birding along the road at Las Mesa. While watching a slow-moving flock in a small forested ravine next to the road, we had magnificent views of a pair of Tawny-faced Gnatwrens. The pair remained close to the ground as they actively hopped through the lower growth and vine tangles. The accompanying mixed flock provided great looks at Plain Xenops, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Plain and Spot-crowned antvireos, Checker-throated and Slaty antwrens, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, and Scaly-breasted and Song wrens. The fact that the flock moved so slowly gave everyone ample time to spot and gaze at each species. But the climax for the day came when a Rosy Thrush-Tanager responded to playback by sitting on an open perch just below eye level for everyone to see. Not only is this one of Panama's loveliest birds, but its characteristic of being shy and hard to see in its dense habitat made it all the more exciting as it sat out in the open and performed loudly its energetically rich song.

Panama, with its awesome list of avifauna, wildlife, and fascinating scenery, is one truly memorable and festive way to spend the holiday.