Panama: Christmas at El Valle's Canopy Lodge Pre-trip Dec 22—27, 2013
Posted by Tony Nunnery
While the United States was beginning to feel the effects of the polar vortex, those of us participating in the VENT Holiday Season in Panama tours were gearing up for a pleasantly warm tropical birding experience. The dry season had arrived early and other than a short shower the first day of the trip, it would remain dry except for an even shorter shower the last day of the trip. With the weather in our favor, we set out to make Christmas at the Canopy Lodge and New Year at the Canopy Tower a truly memorable Holiday Season.
We began by observing the birds coming to feast on bananas in the outdoor dining area at the Canopy Lodge. Clay-colored Thrushes made a futile attempt to prevent Palm Tanagers, Blue-gray Tanagers, Crimson-backed Tanagers, Flame (Lemon)-rumped Tanagers, and Thick-billed Euphonias from eating on the bananas they were guarding. Accepting defeat, they surrendered and began to eat alongside the very birds they were trying to chase away. Then all the birds would yield and fly up into the nearby trees whenever the Collared Aracaries would arrive at the feeders. We watched excitedly as the aracaries would get their fill of bananas, fly away, and all the other birds would drop down to the feeders again. A little later all the birds would yield and fly up into the nearby trees to allow Gray-headed Chachalacas their fill of bananas. To our delight, it was an ever-changing display of tropical birds at the bananas. The feeders allow us an up-close, long, and studied look at some of the more common species. This provides a valuable source of knowledge once we venture out to look for other less common species. With these images firmly implanted in our memories, participants are better able to sort through a mixed flock and pick out any new species. In this way everyone has their proud moment of spotting a new bird and sharing it with the rest of the group. Following are some of the highlights we came across during our Christmas at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge Pre-Trip.
The first afternoon we birded the area around the Canopy Lodge property. Even before we left the entrance trail to the lodge, sitting low to the ground and a few feet away was a Rufous Motmot. It allowed each of us to step up and take a look before moving along the trail. Leaving the entrance trail, we birded along the road outside the lodge. A White Hawk slowly glided against the backdrop of the forest. Entirely white with black markings on primaries and secondaries and a broad black subterminal band on the tail, the bird provided a striking contrast as it flew in front of the various shades of forest green before rising up to soar against the blue sky. It was a short but nonetheless exciting moment for all. We then left the road to look for a Mottled Owl along the Canopy Adventure trail. There, tucked inside a dense tangle, the owl watched us as we peered through the scope. Strictly nocturnal and hence not often seen, it was a great pleasure to be able to observe this owl on its day roost. Along the trail we came across a pair of Bay Wrens displaying and calling loudly. Here we also had our first of many subsequent views of the Cocoa Woodcreeper. Back along the road we attempted to call out a Tody Motmot. Tody Motmots seem to favor forest or tall woodland with a tangled viny understory which can make them difficult to locate. They often perch unobtrusively and motionless among the vines as they seem to teasingly call and tempt us to find them. This first of many attempts to locate and see it allowed only a glimpse of breast and beak, but more on this later.
As anyone who has birded in the Tropics knows, the most memorable moments always seem to happen unexpectedly. This trip was no exception, as one magical moment after another unfolded before our very eyes. Of course, there were the expected views of the abundant and common species, which themselves proved memorable and exciting, but it is the unexpected moments that seem to implant themselves in our memories for years to come. One such moment occurred as we stood on the bridge crossing the stream to the Canopy Lodge. We were admiring the Basilisks sunning themselves on the rocks when a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails walked out of the dense brush and began to feed along the stream. These birds usually keep to thick cover and are not regularly seen. So imagine our surprise to have them below us, in the open, before moving upstream and then disappearing again in the brush. Another extraordinary moment occurred when we stepped into a trail off the road at La Mesa in search of Panama’s most spectacular antbird, the Black-crowned Antpitta. With no response to playback, we had almost given up on seeing it. Then suddenly a small understory flock appeared and we began to sort through and view Plain-Antvireo, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Rufous-capped Warbler, and Gray-breasted Wood-Wren. Then a Black-crowned Antpitta hopped out onto the trail for most of us to see before hopping back into the brush. A little patience and playback brought it out into the open again for all to see. Unmistakably large and essentially tail-less with very long legs, it hopped out to show off its black crown contrasting with chestnut cheeks and underparts, which are white, boldly and broadly scalloped with black. The “oohs” and “aahs” from the group confirmed that it is one spectacular antbird.
The fascinating moments continued on our day-trip to Altos de Maria. There the flocks included Emerald Toucanet, Keel-billed Toucan, Lineated Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Slaty Antwren, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, White-throated Spadebill, Ochraceous Wren, Black-and-Yellow Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush-Tanager, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. There were also fantastic looks at Dull-Mantled Antbird along a forest stream. However, a magical moment occurred when we got an excellent view of a male Snowcap perching in a nearby tree, long enough for us to put it in the scope. This exquisite male’s white cap and tail render it very conspicuous in spite of its diminutive size. Known only from Honduras to Western Panama, this amazing little hummer sat for all to admire before darting off to feed on nearby Ericacea flowers and then returning to its perch.
Content with the birding the day had provided, we decided to head back down the mountain to the Canopy Lodge. But there was one more stop. We decided to once again try to lure a Tody Motmot out into view. This being our fifth attempt to do so, I sensed the reluctance as the group piled out of the van. Late in the day and ready to return to the comfort of the lodge, the group obediently trekked up a small path and waited as the call of the Tody Motmot rang out toward a silent thicket. Magic! An answer came from just a few feet away in a dense tangle. The energy level and excitement arose as a Tody Motmot was put in the scope.
The magic did not end with the Tody Motmot. There was the moment when a pair of Aplomado Falcons, several Peregrine Falcons, an American Kestrel, a Savanna Hawk, several Yellow-headed Caracaras, and Crested Caracaras were feeding alongside scores of Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, dozens of Southern Lapwings, and various other birds. This feeding frenzy was brought on by half-a-dozen combine tractors harvesting rice at Juan Hombron. Furthermore, we had stunning views of Lance-tailed Manakin on two separate occasions—one at Juan Hombron and one at Cariguana. There were enchanting views of Orange-bellied Trogon at La Mesa and of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl at Santa Clara.
Yes, the Christmas at El Valle’s Canopy Lodge in Panama tour unfolded one magical moment after another to be firmly fixed in our memories for years to come. But remember, this was just the pre-trip to the New Year at Canopy Tower tour where many more memorable moments would occur. As the polar vortex blew cold across much of the United States, the warm weather and spectacular tropical avifauna proved more than enough reason to make the first part of the Holiday Season in Panama a wonderfully fascinating birding experience.