Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2015

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 the participants:

Everyone made it to the Canopy Tower’s Observation Deck for a pre-breakfast morning of birding while sipping coffee or tea. The earliest to arrive heard one Collared Forest-Falcon and an incredible territorial display of sound from half-a-dozen Mantled Howler Monkey family groups who were announcing they were alive and their territory was still occupied. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds on all sides of the tower: Keel-billed Toucans with incredibly huge, colorful bills; Collared Araçari; Black-cheeked and Cinnamon woodpeckers; the diminutive Brown-capped Flycatcher; Blue Dacnis; Red-lored Parrots; Fulvous-vented Euphonia; and an assortment of tanagers. At 3 p.m. we were on our way to Ammo Dump ponds. What we found at this 100-meter stretch of road was amazing as birds kept us hopping for over two hours. My favorite was the gorgeous Crimson-backed Tanager, and a close second was the Black-throated Mango on her nest. After dinner Eusebio let me know that the Great Potoo was perched on a broken-off trunk visible from the tower’s Observation Deck…what a great end to our first day of birding.

The flock we encountered before actually getting to Pipeline Road was superb, finally allowing us to SEE a Green-shrike Vireo, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Streaked Saltator plus about 16 other species. Most saw several ages of Golden-collared Manakins at the lek. Today, Pipeline Road had some incredibly poor areas of deep mud ruts, but our drivers had no problem getting our 4×4 vehicles through them. We picked up many very difficult-to-find species. It all began with a Great Jacamar that had been calling and eventually perched above the road for us. We also added the diminutive Pied Puffbird, rare Speckled Mourner, Spot-crowned Antvireo, a close pair of Rufous Motmots, White-flanked Antwren, Black-faced Antthrush, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Red-capped and Blue-crowned manakins, White-breasted Wood-Wren, and our last specialty, Crimson-crested Woodpecker. What a treat it was!

We headed for one of the Discovery Center’s main trails. Soon we were looking at Black-throated and White-tailed trogons. At the lake, Carlos called out Masked Duck, a new Panama species for me. I sort of glossed over the female Ring-necked Duck, only to discover later that there were few valid sightings in Panama.

Around the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, we enjoyed a nice afternoon with Crimson-backed, Gray-headed, and Lemon-rumped tanagers; Whooping Motmot; Cinnamon Becard; Red-throated Ant-Tanagers; Cocoa Woodcreeper; Song Wren; and many other passerines. One of the major events that we hope to encounter on any Neotropical birding tour is a feeding frenzy when the army ants are on the hunt. They were swarming all over, allowing us to see the attendant birds catching arthropods trying to escape the advancing army ants. It was a great way to end a fantastic day of birding.

Once up in Cerro Azul we drove to the fantastic home of Jerry and Linda Harrison where we saw 9 hummingbird species. Many thought the male Crowned Woodnymph was the best looking. Our next stop at Bill and Claudia Ahren’s home was incredible. The hummingbird show defies description, with hundreds of hummingbirds fighting for space at the 10 nectar feeders. Among them were Green, Long-billed, and Stripe-throated hermits; Bronze-tailed and White-vented plumeleteers; White-necked Jacobin; and Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied hummingbirds. The rarest here was a Long-billed Starthroat. The dazzling colors of Red-legged, Shining, and Green honeycreepers were stunning. Euphonias, Bananaquits, and tanagers added to the spectacle, with the best being the Emerald Tanager. Fortunately, the Geoffroy’s Tamarins showed up to eat bananas while we were here, and the endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker put on a nice show.

This afternoon we drove to Summit Ponds. Today we managed to see four of the five Neotropical kingfisher species. The diminutive American Pygmy Kingfisher gave us tremendous photo opportunities. We had fairly good looks at our first Yellow-rumped Caciques. The class act bird on this afternoon adventure was seeing a Spectacled Owl. Tonight we went for an after-dinner spotlighting adventure and enjoyed what may be my most productive night of 19 Panama tours. We saw two adult and two young Rothchild’s Porcupines, two Kinkajous, two huge Nine-banded Armadillos, two Common Opossums, one Forest Rabbit, one Tamandua anteater, one Common Pauraque, one Great Tinamou on its night perch, and one sleeping female Slaty-tailed Trogon with its head tucked in.

We made one last visit to the Discovery Center Tower and climbed the 175 steps to the top. Best was finally getting to see a male Blue Cotinga and we had three opportunities. We also added Purple-throated Fruitcrow and Black-mandibled Toucan, and we had many more looks at the perched Great Black Hawk.

About 10 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.

At Altos del Maria, we did a lot of driving up and down VERY steep hills. Our first stop produced two Orange-bellied Trogons, soon followed by Tufted Flycatcher and a shy, difficult-to-see Gray-breasted Wood-Wren. Before heading to lunch, we would pick up Brown-billed Scythebill, Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Snowcap, Yellow-eared and Blue-throated toucanets, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, and more. As we neared the town of El Valle, we tried for Tody Motmot in a place where a territorial pair can sometimes be coaxed into view…continuing the great luck we have been having, a pair was visible within 5 minutes. Talk about frosting on the cake for today’s adventure!

As we headed up the hill, Eliecer heard a Black-headed Saltator and we stopped to try for it. What an incredible lucky break for us since this area kept us busy for over an hour. The highlight was at the end when a pair of Rosy Thrush-Tanagers came into the thicket within 12 feet of us. Everyone got to see the male, the female, or both. Some of the other birds we saw here were the very secretive Yellow-billed Cacique, Plain Wren, Yellow-bellied Elaenias with their raised crests showing some white feathers, and a few glimpsed a skulky White-bellied Antbird. For some the highlight was a soaring Black Hawk-Eagle. We stopped briefly at a side road and heard a Streak-chested Antpitta calling across the ravine. On with the rubber boots and down a little muddy trail we went. Everyone got to see this little “egg-on-legs.” At the nearby man-made lake there is a paved trail with many short bridges as it winds back and forth along the small creek. We walked along, trolling for the elusive and shy Black-crowned Antpitta, and had an answer from way up the hill. An hour later, we finally coaxed it down and Eliecer spotted it in a deep, dark opening in the thick understory. With the scope set up, a miracle occurred as the entire group was able to cycle through for views FOUR times, something I would never have thought possible. We then returned to celebrate as we ate our picnic lunches. Two antpittas in less than an hour with everyone getting to see them has to rank as one of this tour’s best events.

Who would have guessed that on day 12 we could still be adding new species to our ever-growing list? The Orange-billed Sparrow made an appearance before breakfast. A group of you decided to continue on to see if the Mottled Owls were still where we saw them yesterday. They were not, but what luck, adding 4 new birds to the list: Canada Warbler, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and both Sepia-capped and Yellow-margined flycatchers.