Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 12—19, 2013

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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On the final night of our Fall at Panama’s Canopy Tower tour, we gathered before dinner for the last checklist session, followed by the ritual of selecting the group’s three favorite birds of the tour. Our week had been a very successful one, during which we had tallied 269 species of birds, so narrowing it down to three would be hard indeed.

Streak-chested Antpitta along Pipeline Road, October 15, 2013.

Streak-chested Antpitta along Pipeline Road, October 15, 2013.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

Hummingbirds, of which we saw 16 species, drew much attention in the vote-getting. Gems such as White-necked Jacobin, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Violet-capped Hummingbird, and the improbable Green Thorntail all garnered votes as favorites. The toucan family was also well-represented; from the widespread Keel-billed Toucan (a species which exudes the essence of the Tropics) to the bands of Collared Aracaris that foraged in Cecropias around the Canopy Tower, to the highly-sought and localized Yellow-eared Toucanet pair that we found on Cerro Azul, this group had much appeal. The massive raptor migration that final day was another crowd pleaser. Swainson’s and Broad-winged hawks and Turkey Vultures heading for South America poured over the Miraflores Locks late in the afternoon, with an estimated 46,000 individuals seen. What a show! A Streak-chested Antpitta singing its mournful song in the scope for ten minutes, an unexpected Collared Forest-Falcon perched in a palm while a marching band passed below, a pair of Song Wrens building a nest along Pipeline Road, a King Vulture sailing lazily right over us on the Tower, and Green Shrike-Vireos below us from the Tower so that you could peer down on them and see their blue napes—all of these and more were mentioned as favorites by various group members.

Violet-capped Hummingbird on Cerro Azul, October 14, 2013.

Violet-capped Hummingbird on Cerro Azul, October 14, 2013.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

In the end it came down to five species that stood out above and beyond all others. A stunning Great Jacamar along Pipeline Road that posed cooperatively in the scope, a pair of roosting Spectacled Owls near the Canal, and a totally unexpected Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo (a nearly mythical species) at an ant swarm all tied for third place. The jacamar is seen on about a third of trips here, and the ground-cuckoo had not been seen on any of the 13 Canopy Tower trips that I had led previously. Owls, being owls, are simply awesome, and Spectacled is among the best.

All by itself in second place was the family group of Ocellated Antbirds at the ant swarm just beyond the Juan Grande bridge on Pipeline Road. This wonderful species with brilliant bare blue skin around the eyes and stunning coppery, scalloped plumage is very uncommon, and generally only seen around bigger ant swarms. We spent over fifteen minutes with them at close range as they fed at the swarm, unconcerned at the presence of our group.

Yellow-eared Toucanet (female) on Cerro Azul, October 14, 2013.

Yellow-eared Toucanet (female) on Cerro Azul, October 14, 2013.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

Finally, the favorite bird was seen on our night drive. A Common Potoo responded along Semaphore Hill not far below the Tower. It was close to the road, giving its haunting song as we sat in the darkness in the open air vehicle. At first we were unable to locate the bird, but just the experience of hearing it under the moonlit sky and the stillness of the night was awesome. Then one of our local guides found the potoo perched atop a small palm no more than 40 feet away. Over and over he let out his mournful whistles as his fiery orange eyes glowed in our light. This memorable experience was the leading vote-getter for the favorite bird of the tour!

Then, just as we finished and were preparing to head downstairs for an outdoor barbecue dinner, we heard a commotion below. Was that an owl hooting or a person? There was excitement in the parking area and soon word drifted up that a Black-and-white Owl was calling just above the patio tables. We hurried down the stairs and poured out into the raised dining platform below. The owl was so close, but initially hidden by a layer of trees. Michael, one of the local guides, was imitating it, and the bird was responding. Soon it flew in right over our heads—the black facial disc, finely barred black and white underparts, and red eyes peering down at us as it barked out its territory. Quickly, its mate arrived and now two Black-and-whites serenaded us in an amazing send-off at our final dinner.

When the owls disappeared into the night, a rousing round of applause ensued. This was perhaps the most memorable ending to a tour I can recall. A quick show of hands revealed that the potoo had been displaced. The Black-and-white Owl was king!