New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2012—Jan 03, 2013

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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With the Christmas at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge Pre-trip behind us and the New Year fast approaching, the scene changed to the Canopy Tower for the essential segment of our Holiday Season in Panama tour. The main backdrop for the trip would be the Soberania National Park’s extensive tropical forest, the Panama Canal with international ships slowly meandering along the forest edge, and the fast-growing expansion of Panama City’s skyline in the distance.

Early the first morning on top of the tower, participants await the tropical birding theatrics to begin. The dawn chorus begins as Red-lored and Mealy parrots circle the tower before perching on open snags above the canopy, thus providing great views with the scope. A Scaled Pigeon perches in a distant tree before being upstaged by a pair of Keel-Billed Toucans as they land in a closer, leafless tree and begin to swing their heads and great bills widely in all directions, all the while calling a short, sharp, hard, and dry rattle note reminiscent of the sound of an old clock being wound or a pair of frogs in a nearby pond. Blue-gray, Palm, Plain-colored, and Golden-hooded tanagers begin to perch out in the open as if to await the morning sun, and Blue Dacnis and Green Honeycreepers take their positions among the twigs of the same tree. A Purple-crowned Fairy gives a dazzling display while feeding atop the canopy of a Kapok tree, as White-necked Jacobin and Blue-chested and Snowy-bellied hummingbirds dart back and forth around various treetop flowers. As if to emphasize the surreal situation, Black-mantled Howler Monkeys fill the air with their loud howls and wild roars, and a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, with its funny appearance and smiling expression, adds a bit of comic relief to the final scene. We have to pry ourselves away to eat breakfast and then continue our quest for more tropical theatrics along the entrance road to the Canopy Tower as it winds downhill through the Soberania National Park.

Some of the highlights of the New Year at Canopy Tower tour included two low-flying King Vultures lit up by the sun while birding along the entrance road to the tower. From the top of the Canopy Tower we had great looks at a Zone-tailed Hawk as it slowly soared around the tower. We had no less than five species of trogons, which were all seen perched nearby. These included a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons on the entrance road, plus a pair each of Gartered Trogons and White-tailed Trogons on Pipeline Road, a pair of Black-tailed Trogons near the mangroves at Gatun Locks, and finally a pair of Black-throated Trogons at Metropolitan Park. Black-breasted Puffbirds made two separate appearances, once on the entrance road and once on Achiote Road. The tiny Pied Puffbird sat out in the open as we watched in the scope from the top of the Discovery Center canopy tower. Pipeline Road also produced three species of motmots: first the Blue-crowned Motmot near the entrance to Pipeline Road, then a Rufous Motmot near the Discovery Center, and lastly a pair of Broad-billed Motmots silently perched low down as we stopped to eat a snack along the Pipeline Road. A Great Jacamar with its glittering metallic plumage flew in and perched near us for all to marvel and enjoy. Another big spectacular species which impressed the group was a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers climbing on a dead truck along Achiote Road.

I could ramble on about many other highlights and special sightings, but instead will curtail my account to two very remarkable and significant situations. The first occasion came when we watched the banana feeders at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast. The various species seemed to appear one at a time, giving long studied looks until the garden was literally full of many different species. First came the Blue-gray Tanagers followed by Palm Tanagers. Next came Crimson-backed Tanager followed by Red-legged Honeycreeper, then Green Honeycreeper. One species after another continued to appear, including Clay-colored Thrush, Buff-throated Saltator, Tropical Mockingbird, Blue Dacnis, Thick-billed Euphonia, and Golden-hooded Tanager. Each species seemed to appear briefly after each member of the group had ample time to thoroughly study the previous species until a group of Orange-chinned Parakeets dropped down from a Palm tree onto the banana feeders. What a reward to see lovely little parakeets up close, and yes, we could even see the orange spot on their chins. The final species to visit and fill the garden was a group of Gray-headed Chachalacas. The seemingly one by one appearance and long, studied looks up-close of each species made this a sensational experience.

The second remarkable and significant situation occurred when we made a day-trip to Cerro Azul and again visited a garden setting with banana feeders. This garden belonged to Jerry and Linda Harrison, who graciously received us into their home and enthusiastically shared their garden and wild “pets” with the group. Here, unlike the Canopy Bed and Breakfast, the species came incredibly fast to the feeders. Both their banana feeders and hummingbird feeders were constantly flooded with various species. They had flowers and fruiting trees which also brought in many species. It is no exaggeration to say we were all completely overwhelmed with the exhilarating and intoxicating activity. It is hard to express the highlights here because there were so many moments we were completely consumed with excitement. However, some of the highlights included a pair of Stripe-cheeked Woodpeckers, a Panamanian endemic, which flew in and noisily continued to call from a nearby tree. There was also the breathtaking moment when a pair of Blue Cotingas perched above the house and in the scope. There were the many exotic hummingbirds which included Green Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. Yet the most celebrated hummingbird of all was the pair of Rufous-crested Coquettes that fed in the Verbena flowers literally an arm’s-length away from the porch. The rufous crown and long shaggy crest, along with the glittering green throat subtended by a “necklace” of white on the male, caused one impassioned comment after another. The sheer abundance of species, the beautiful garden, and the warmhearted hospitality of the hosts made this one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip.

So many outstanding sightings of tropical birds in such a small amount of time, irresistibly implanted in the minds and memories of the participants, are one of the key characteristics of this tour. Whether a beginning birder overwhelmed by the abundance of new species, or an experienced birder thrilled by the excitement of coming across rare and harder to see species, the Holiday Season in Panama tour has yet again provided something for everyone.