Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2014

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, 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 and, finally, to cool Cerro Azul 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 participants. These are from the 17-page, January 2014 journal:

Everyone made it to the Canopy Tower’s Observation Deck for a pre-breakfast morning of birding after being awakened by the Mantled Howler Monkey roars. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds on all sides of the tower with such beauties as Keel-billed Toucans, Double-toothed Kite, Green Honeycreeper, Scaled Pigeon, Blue Dacnis, Red-lored and Mealy parrots, and Plain-colored, Palm, Golden-hooded, and Bay-headed tanagers. After breakfast, our walk down Semaphore Hill was very productive, bringing us a cooperative Great Tinamou, Spotted Antbird, Black-crowned Antshrike, both Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins, and Black-bellied Wren.

We started birding our way down the unpaved, muddy portion of Pipeline Road adding White-tailed Trogon before all hell broke loose. The army ant swarm was right next to the road and in a fairly open area for viewing. There were Gray-headed Tanagers all over the place, along with Plain-brown Woodcreepers, a few Northern Barred, and at least one Cocoa. The trick was getting all of you on the Spotted, Bicolored, and gaudy Ocellated antbirds—the latter being the most difficult to see, yet most important. Totally unpredicted was the adult Tiny Hawk that flew into the area and perched for about 45 minutes of photos. Soon we started to search for, and eventually found, the Great Jacamar that had been calling. Army ant swarms and their associated bird followers are something we always hope to find, but do not always encounter.

Once up in the gated community of Cerro Azul, Carmiol’s Tanager began the parade and was followed by Brown-capped Tyrannulets building a nest, Rufous-winged Tanager, Short-billed Pigeon, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, and a stunning male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. At Jerry and Linda Harrison’s home, the hummingbird diversity was excellent, as we saw 10 species in two hours. Many of you thought the male Crowned Woodnymph was the most beautiful. It was tough to leave this little paradise, but not 50 yards down the road, we added the rare Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and another stunning male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Only Marti saw the Rufous-crested Coquette at the Harrison’s home, but later all would see one at Rosabel’s home.

The hummingbird show at Bill and Claudia Ahren’s home defied description, with hundreds of hummingbirds fighting for space at the 10 nectar feeders. Among them were Green, Long-billed, and Stripe-throated hermits; Crowned Woodnymph; Bronze-tailed and White-vented plumeleteers; White-necked Jacobin; and Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied hummingbirds, and we added Brown Violetear, a hummingbird seen only two times in the previous 17 tours. The colors of Red-legged and Green honeycreepers were dazzling. Euphonias, Bananaquits, and tanagers added to the spectacle. Just before we left, the Geoffroy’s Tamarins arrived to eat bananas.

Around the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, we enjoyed a nice afternoon with Crimson-backed and Lemon-rumped tanagers, Gray-headed Chachalacas, and Whooping Motmot before we ran into a frantic feeding flock. I call these “heaven and hell at the same time” since one can’t decide where to look. Cinnamon and White-winged becards, Forest Elaenia, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Golden-winged and Magnolia warblers, Great Antshrike, Plain Xenops, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Black-headed and Buff-throated saltators, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and many other passerines kept us occupied for over 45 minutes. We also heard a few White-throated Crakes. There are two major spectacles we hope to encounter on any Neotropical birding tour. Two days ago we experienced an army ant swarm and today we ran into a feeding flock.

At the Discovery Center’s observation deck it was not foggy, so we had unlimited views. Our best was probably the tiny Moustached Antwren, but we also enjoyed White-collared and Black-breasted puffbirds, Black-chested Jay, and Lineated Woodpecker. On the way out to Pipeline Road, we added Scaly-throated Leaftosser and called in a Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon. We would spend the rest of the day walking down Pipeline Road listening for species we had not yet seen. Spot-crowned Antvireo was especially neat, but we picked up difficult birds to see like Rufous Mourner, Brownish Twistwing, and Russet-winged Schiffornis. My favorite bird of the afternoon was the Black-faced Antthrush, which eventually all got to see well as it walked on the forest floor with its little tail cocked up.

The Metropolitan National Park guard had a Common Potoo staked out when we arrived. Some of you also got a chance to catch up with the tiny Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher and Dusky Antbird, but the endemic Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet only gave us brief views. We saw both Slaty-tailed and Black-throated trogons and an amazing number of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers.

Our incredible spotlighting ride after dinner produced 2 Common Opossums, 4 Central American Woolly Opossums, one Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth, 2 night monkeys, 2 Common Potoos, 3 Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths (1 with a baby), 1 scorpion, and 1 Common Pauraque.

About 9 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 visit lowland grasslands, a coastline marsh, foothill forests, and often foggy, highland forest habitats, all of which have specialty birds.

From the porch, we watched the five banana-loaded platform feeders seeing Lemon-rumped, Crimson-backed, and Blue-gray tanagers; Thick-billed Euphonias; Chestnut-headed Oropendolas; and much more.

Up on La Mesa, we had great luck with Bat Falcon, Pale-vented Thrush, Rufous-capped Warbler, Emerald Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, a Broad-winged Hawk that announced itself with its diagnostic whistle, and a juvenile Barred Forest-Falcon that stole the show.

In the lowland grassland/dry scrub habitat, we saw Streaked Saltator, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Savannah Hawk at a distant nest, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Brown-throated Parakeets, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and many more. We then boarded the van and headed for the extensive rice fields where we added Yellow-headed Vulture, male Lance-tailed Manakins, Scrub Greenlet, and Southern Lapwing. We continued to Santa Clara beach where we ate our picnic lunch at Raúl’s beach house and two of you swam in the warm Pacific Ocean. After lunch we tried for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. One popped up immediately and gave us long enjoyable scope looks. Driving back to El Valle, we had a very successful stop at Caraiguana where Domi took us to see two Spectacled Owl adults and one juvenile. After dinner we headed for bed, serenaded by the river.

Our first birding stop in the huge gated community of Altos Del Maria was incredible. We did not move more than 20 yards for about an hour. Two Blue-throated Toucanets began the parade, soon followed by an incredibly cooperative male Orange-bellied Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, a tiny Ochraceous Wren, Tufted Flycatcher, Canada Warbler, Spotted Barbtail, Green-crowned Brilliant, and the first of dozens of Silver-throated Tanagers and Common Bush-Tanagers that would appear all day. After lunch we also added Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, a species that is rarely seen on this tour and, better yet, two MALE Snowcaps.

At the end of the concrete trail we gave one last try for Black-crowned Antpitta, but had no luck. Instead, we were rewarded by a flowering tree that hosted feeding male and female Green Thorntails, as well as a male Snowcap and a Violet-headed Hummingbird. The next morning we saw one of the big target birds at El Valle, a Tody Motmot.