Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 25—Feb 01, 2014

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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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. That maxim played out once again during this year’s Canopy Tower tour.

White-whiskered Puffbird, Semaphore Hill, January 2014

White-whiskered Puffbird, Semaphore Hill, Jan. 2014— 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 views of vocal groups of Red-lored and Mealy parrots, as well as close, but brief looks at an excited Brown-capped Tyrannulet. 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 White-whiskered and Black-breasted puffbirds, Black-bellied Wren, and nice studies of several species of antbirds (including a dapper male Spotted Antbird). Our afternoon excursion to the Ammo Dump marsh in Gamboa treated us to a non-stop procession of birds, and saw us whipsawed between duetting Barred Antshrikes and incandescent Crimson-backed Tanagers, Yellow-tailed Orioles and Red-legged Honeycreepers, as well as many other open-country and marsh inhabiting species.

Black-tailed Trogon, Bayano Valley, Panama, January 2014

Black-tailed Trogon, Bayano Valley, Panama, Jan. 2014— 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 pair of Black Antshrikes, a species with a microscopic global range (limited to eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia). We also enjoyed stellar views of Black-tailed Trogon (typically the most difficult trogon to find in the Canal Zone, but the easiest to find in the Bayano region, where it is common), Slaty-tailed Trogon, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, an incredibly responsive male Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Bright-rumped Attila, the diminutive but very vocal Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, an elusive One-colored Becard, Rufous-winged Antwren, and multiple White-eared Conebills. Scope views of a distantly perched Semiplumbeous Hawk were also a treat. For all that, top honors for the day probably should go to the bizarrely beautiful male Bare-crowned Antbird that we taped in to point-blank range. This species is hard to come by in the Canal Zone (at least on the Pacific side), and is typically extremely shy and not prone to offering up good views even where it is common. We returned to the Canopy Tower in time for some late afternoon birding from atop the tower, which was highlighted by nice comparative studies of Band-rumped and Short-tailed swifts.

Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Bayano Valley, Panama, January 2014

Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Bayano Valley, Panama, Jan. 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

In contrast to previous tours, this year we had the luxury of two days of birding famed Pipeline Road (Days 3 & 5), sandwiched around a day at the adjacent Rainforest Discovery Center (Day 4). The two days on Pipeline were particularly productive. On Day 3 we devoted the entire day to birding what is one of the premier birding tracts in the Neotropics, spending nearly the entire morning working the first two kilometers of the road. This yielded a variety of prizes, among them, sensational studies of Song Wren, White-necked Puffbird, Slaty-tailed and Gartered trogons, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Rufous Mourner, and the world’s smallest passerine bird, the Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant. After a sumptuous picnic lunch, we spent the remainder of the day birding farther out Pipeline Road, picking off still more goodies ranging from Whooping and Rufous motmots to whacking big Crimson-crested Woodpeckers to dazzling male Red-capped Manakins to the aptly named Brownish Twistwing. Streak-chested Antpitta proved more difficult than usual, although most folks got scope views of the head of a singing bird. On our return visit to Pipeline on Day 5, we went directly to the outer reaches (Km 7 or so of the 8.8 km of road that are accessible to the public), where we spent the entire morning birding between the Rios Mendoza and Limbo. Late in the morning, we finally managed to locate a swarm of army ants (Eciton burchelli), and more important from our perspective, the attendant birds that follow the swarm in expectation of feasting off of arthropod prey flushed by the ants. In attendance were the typical obligate followers, including Bicolored Antbirds, Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and a family group of spectacular Ocellated Antbirds, as well as some opportunistic ant-followers such as Spotted Antbird and Gray-headed Tanager. A Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner was unexpected, and a rare Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo caught us completely off-guard, darting out of sight the moment it was spotted. On this second day, we went back to the Canopy Tower for lunch, with an optional return to Pipeline as the scheduled late afternoon activity. Only a few folks opted for more time on Pipeline, but those that did were rewarded with our only Great Jacamar and White-tailed Trogons of the tour, as well as with views of a perched Gray-headed Kite, an acrobatic Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, and encore performances from Streak-chested Antpitta and Black-breasted Puffbird. We capped off the day with a most productive night drive along Semaphore Hill. A rarely seen Rothschild’s Porcupine, plus Three-toed and Two-toed sloths, filled the mammalian side of the ledger, balanced on the avian side by superb spotlight studies of Mottled Owl and a Vermiculated (= “Chocó”) Screech-Owl, as well as a roosting Great Tinamou that looked just a tad annoyed to be awakened by a truck full of birders.

Ocellated Antbird, Pipeline Road, January 2014

Ocellated Antbird, Pipeline Road, January 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

On our fourth day we also visited Pipeline Road, but this time focused our attention on the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. After a quick bathroom stop and check of the hummingbird feeders at the visitor center, we headed directly for the RDC tower. One-hundred seventy-six steps later, we found ourselves at the top, staring out at a sea of green (but with the incongruous backdrop of an occasional ship passing through the Canal in the distance). 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 nice studies of Scaled Pigeon, Gartered Trogon, Keel-billed Toucan, White-necked Puffbird, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Blue Dacnis, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and a distant, but identifiable male Blue Cotinga that was nicely spotted by Dean. The RDC trails netted us superb studies of Great Black-Hawk (at the lake), Fasciated Antshrike, Southern Bentbill, and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, among others, but the real action on this morning was at the RDC hummingbird feeders, which were literally buzzing with activity. As usual, White-necked Jacobins were the numerically and behaviorally dominant species at the feeders, but the showy little Violet-bellied Hummingbirds were a close runner-up. Sprinkled amongst these two common species were occasional Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed hummingbirds, Black-throated Mangos, Crowned Woodnymphs, White-vented Plumeleteers, and Long-billed Hermits. 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. Best of all was securing repeated scope views of a perched male Rufous-crested Coquette, a spectacular bonus bird anytime it is seen in the Canal Zone.

Great Tinamou on evening roost, Semaphore Hill, January 2014

Great Tinamou on evening roost, Semaphore Hill, Jan. 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our final full day found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which featured a number of special birds, among them Whooping Motmot, White-bellied Antbird, flashy Lance-tailed Manakins, a day-roosting Common Potoo, and the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet. A stop at Panama Viejo was less productive than usual, because the tides were way out, leaving the vast majority of shorebirds, gulls, and terns beyond our reach. We did, however, pick up a sprinkling of herons, egrets, and ibis, along with a few shorebirds and a Mangrove Warbler. Following lunch, we capped off our tour with an afternoon excursion to Miraflores Locks and the Canal Museum, which always provides a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the Canal.

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 Carlos Bethancourt 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. I hope to cross paths with each of you on another trip to some birdy corner of the world!