Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 26—Feb 02, 2013

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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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.

Keel-billed Toucan, Canopy Tower, Panama, January 2013

Keel-billed Toucan, Canopy Tower, Panama, January 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our first dawn vigil atop the Canopy Tower eventually produced nice views of Green Shrike-Vireo, that persistent (some would say annoying) voice from the canopy. We also scored fine views of several outrageous Keel-billed Toucans and more distant scope views of vocal groups of Red-lored and Mealy parrots, as well as close, but brief looks at an excited Brown-capped Tyrannulet. Best of all, perhaps, was the group of three Black-breasted Puffbirds that came into the open branches of a nearby Cecropia, offering up fabulous close studies. 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 close views of gorgeous Broad-billed Motmots; confiding Slaty-tailed and White-tailed trogons; a most inquisitive female White-whiskered Puffbird; a dazzling male Red-capped Manakin; and nice studies of several species of antbirds (including Dusky Antbird and Dot-winged Antwren). We also scored nicely with mammals, finding a tree full of Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloths and a rarely seen Rothschild’s Porcupine, not to mention a White-throated Capuchin Monkey. Our afternoon excursion started with a visit to some feeders in Gamboa, and then quickly shifted to the nearby Ammo Dump Ponds, which produced nicely, including Rufescent Tiger-Heron, a duetting pair of comical Barred Antshrikes, breathtaking Crimson-backed Tanagers and Yellow-tailed Orioles, and a nice variety of other open-country and marsh inhabiting species.

Black-breasted Puffbird, Canopy Tower, Panama, January 2013

Black-breasted Puffbird, Canopy Tower, Panama, January 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


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 a male 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 a pair of White-eared Conebills, 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 five on the day, including close studies of both sexes. Other highlights on the day included scope views of an electric male Blue Cotinga; great looks at a perched Laughing Falcon; responsive Black-cheeked and Cinnamon woodpeckers; a boisterous family group of Purple-throated Fruitcrows; a pair of diminutive Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers; and an unexpected Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. A stop at Bayano Reservoir on our return drive yielded Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and Cocoi Heron, as well as a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants at their nest. We returned to the Canopy Tower in time for some late afternoon birding from atop the tower, which was highlighted by nice studies of a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk and repeated excellent comparisons of Band-rumped and Short-tailed swifts.

Great Jacamar, Pipeline Road, Panama, January 2013

Great Jacamar, Pipeline Road, Panama, January 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

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 a Great Tinamou crouched next to the road to crippling views of a responsive Scaly-throated Leaftosser and an even more responsive pair of Golden-crowned Spadebills (almost close enough to touch at one point!), to two rarely seen Speckled Mourners, and a virtual parade of “ant-things” ranging from blood-eyed Fasciated Antshrikes to tail-pounding Chestnut-backed Antbirds, dead-leaf foraging Checker-throated Antwrens, noisy Dot-winged Antwrens, and skulking Black-faced Antthrushes. We also enjoyed scope views of a White-necked Puffbird, a whacking big Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and a close serenade from some bizarre Song Wrens. A late morning snack stop morphed into a picnic lunch stop when a male Great Jacamar appeared on cue and then stayed glued to his perch for the next hour, while we alternated between eating and frantically picking through a mixed-species flock that contained everything from Northern Barred-Woodcreeper to Blue Cotinga to a variety of tanagers. 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. Post-lunch birding produced a Gray Elaenia that I lured down from the canopy, a striking Black-striped Woodcreeper, the enigmatic but decidedly drab Brownish Twistwing and Thrush-like Schiffornis, Spot-crowned Antvireo, and a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons busily excavating a cavity in a termite nest (and seemingly eating lots of termites). 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 one of these endearing little “eggs with legs,” making for a nice conclusion to a most productive day.

Day four found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which featured a number of special birds, among them, Whooping Motmot, White-bellied Antbird, Scrub and Golden-fronted greenlets, Rufous-breasted Wren, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, as well as an inquisitive troop of goblin-faced Geoffroy’s Tamarins. A stop at Costa del Este produced good numbers of shorebirds and waders. Following lunch and an afternoon excursion to Miraflores Locks and the Canal Museum, we capped off the day with a most productive night drive along Semaphore Hill. In addition to seeing several sloths of both species, we enjoyed great spotlight studies of a singing Common Potoo (while a Black-and-white Owl hooted in the background), not to mention Nine-banded Armadillo, Western Night Monkey, and Allen’s (Bushy-tailed) Olingo. Sadly, the Chocó Screech-Owl never offered up any views, despite calling at close range from a vine tangle for some time.

Streak-chested Antpitta, Pipeline Road, Panama, January 2013

Streak-chested Antpitta, Pipeline Road, Panama, January 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer


On our fifth day we returned to Pipeline Road, but this time, focused our attention on the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Finding a pair of Pied Puffbirds perched above the parking lot as soon as we dismounted from the vehicle was a good omen for birds to come from the RDC 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, four species of trogons, Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Blue Dacnis, White-shouldered Tanager, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. A low soaring Crane Hawk and a Gray-headed Kite overhead were also a treat, as was seeing yet another male Blue Cotinga. The RDC trails netted us superb studies of a flashy Rufous Motmot and an unobtrusive White-whiskered Puffbird, as well as close looks at a Southern Bentbill, the bizarre little flycatcher that had, to this point, eluded our binoculars, despite having been heard every day. The hummingbird feeders at the visitor center were buzzing with activity, and between visits from the abundant White-necked Jacobins and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, managed to attract Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, and Long-billed Hermit. It was even more fun to watch a couple of the hermits on their song perches, belting out their squeaky songs with gusto through their improbably curved bills, while constantly keeping time with their wagging, elongated central tail feathers. Our afternoon excursion found us once more in the Gamboa area, this time on the grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, where, in addition to a parade of tanagers, flycatchers, and caciques, we enjoyed a close encounter with a male White-bellied Antbird that responded to playback by approaching closely and then lapsing into a trance.

Long-billed Hermit, Rainforest Discovery Center, Panama, January 2013

Long-billed Hermit, Rainforest Discovery Center, Panama, January 2013— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our final day once again found us up well before dawn, and headed to Colón on the Caribbean side of the Canal Zone. Our destination here was Achiote Road, which required us to cross the canal at Gatun Locks. Shortly after our arrival, we spotted a perched, female Hook-billed Kite which, obligingly, stayed put for prolonged scope studies. As the morning wore on, we continued to pick off one new bird after another, from noisy Black-headed Saltators to silently soaring Short-tailed Hawks and dazzling Flame-rumped Tanagers. A confiding pair of Pacific Antwrens was particularly noteworthy, as was a pair of big White-headed Wrens that seemed to be less interested in us and more interested in protecting their nest from a nearby large Ameiva lizard. We ate our picnic lunch at nearby Trogon Trail, where we also enjoyed some forest-interior birding that was most notable for offering excellent views of Black-throated Trogon and a wonderful close encounter with a dapper pair of Spotted Antbirds (later to be voted “Favorite Bird” of the trip). 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.

All in all, we enjoyed a wonderful introduction to the natural riches of the Canal Zone, and had a lot of fun doing it. Special thanks to our Canopy Tower guide Alexis Sanchez for all of his hard work, and to all of the Canopy Tower staff for taking such good care of us. Thanks to all of 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!