Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2013

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. While its rooms are rather spartan, the food is excellent and the opportunity to view birds at dawn from the 360º rooftop Observation Deck above the treetops is outstanding. Twenty minutes away is the start of the famous Pipeline Road, possibly one of the best birding roads in Central and South America. From our base, daily birding outings are made to various locations in Central Panama, which vary from the primary forest around the tower to huge mudflats near Panama City, to cool Cerro Azul forest and, finally, to humid Caribbean lowland forest.

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. These are from the 12-page, January 2013 journal.

Everyone made it to the Observation Deck of Canopy Tower for a pre-breakfast morning of birding. The earliest to arrive heard one Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, several Collared Forest-Falcons, one hoot from the Mottled Owl, and an incredible territorial display of sound from the Mantled Howler Monkeys. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds on all sides of the tower. We added such beauties as Keel-billed Toucans, Scaled Pigeon, Crane Hawk, Blue Dacnis, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, and Red-lored and Mealy parrots.

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 two hours. We had Crimson-backed Tanager; Black-throated Mango; Smooth-billed Ani; Great Kiskadee; Boat-billed, Social, and Rusty-margined flycatchers; White-tipped Dove; Variable and Yellow-bellied seedeaters; and a rare Gray Catbird. You enjoyed the immature Rufescent Tiger-Heron that Carlos called in, along with Red-legged Honeycreepers, Clay-colored Thrushes, both Barred and Fasciated antshrikes, two fighting Streaked Flycatchers, Black-throated Mango, and many more.

In Cerro Azul, at Jerry and Linda’s home we had a total of 11 new species in the two hours we spent here. Clearly, the three Rufous-crested Coquettes were the highlight, but actually the Brown Violetear was the rarest for this tour. Many of you thought the male Violet-crowned Woodnymph was the best looking. 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 three hummingbirds: Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied.

We reached the city of Colon and had our first crossing of the Panama Canal at the Gatun Locks. At the Golden-collared Manakin lek, Carlos performed his magic and got a male in his scope for all to see with its throat feathers extended forward. The new circular trail was terrific today, producing Crested Oropendola, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Olivaceous Flatbill, Spot-crowned Antvireo, and a monster Leafcutter Ant colony that must have been 3.5 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter. The treat of the day for some of you was the great ride on the new train from Colon, on the Caribbean side, to Panama City on the Pacific side. Our car had air-conditioning and a glass ceiling for better viewing.

Carlos received a phone call that there was an army ant swarm, so we went directly to the area to see this magnificent spectacle of swarming ants and attending birds. We counted at least six Ocellated and over a dozen Bicolored antbirds, Gray-headed Tanagers, Blue-crowned and Red-headed manakins, and three species of woodcreepers.

About 8 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 is second only to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The Cerro Gaital Natural Monument surrounds it. Here, the rooms are magnificent, the food is as good as that of the Canopy Tower, and the bird feeders are amazing. From this base we will visit lowland grasslands, a coastline marsh, foothill forests, and often foggy, highland forest habitats, all of which are abundant with birds.

Up on La Mesa we had great luck with Tawny-crowned Tanagers, Spotted Woodcreeper, Chestnut-backed Antbird and more. On the way down the hill, Moyo stopped to see if the White-tipped Sicklebill was roosting near the huge waterfall. It was, and you all got to see this incredible hummingbird. It took me over a decade to see my first one.

Today we headed to Juan Hombrón and the extensive dry scrub and rice fields. We had a great two hours in a stretch about 100 yards long with Savannah Hawk, Garden Emerald, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, Yellow-crowned Parrot, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Brown-throated Parakeet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Scrub Greenlet, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Lance-tailed Manakin, and many more. Further on a side road we hit paydirt with three male Lance-tailed Manakins (2 full adults and one youngster) and super looks at a Straight-billed Woodcreeper. From here we drove to the Santa Clara beach where we ate lunch at Raúl’s beach house, and seven of you swam in the ocean. Later Moyo took us to his favorite spot to get Spectacled Owl and we called in three Tody Motmots, the toughest of all motmots to get anywhere.

We were halfway through lunch when Danilo roared back in the 4×4 to say that a Black-crowned Antpitta had responded to his whistle imitation of its call. We had never seen one in prior years. When we arrived at the spot, Danilo insisted it would come closer if he kept playing the tape he made at La Mesa last year. Miraculously it soon was closer and Danilo lowered the tape volume. I could not believe my eyes when I saw it hop through a close opening in the forest. Moyo again did the impossible and got his scope on it. It stayed long enough for all of us to see the magnificent head and upper body view, and then bounced away. Later we had my best ever look at Dull-mantled Antbird as it jumped up on a fallen log by the crystal-clear water.

As we were starting to enjoy breakfast, Moyo said the Orange-billed Sparrow was coming down to the breadcrumbs; we were over there in a flash. Before we left for Valle Chiquito, we looked for the Green Thorntail in the tall flowering plant over the main building and soon had the female in the scope for everyone to see. Who would have guessed that on Day 12 we could still be adding new species to our ever-growing list?