Panama's Canopy Tower Jan 25—Feb 01, 2015

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


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.

Black-breasted Puffbird

Black-breasted Puffbird— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our first afternoon and subsequent dawn vigils atop the Canopy Tower presented repeated opportunities for visually separating the many Band-rumped and Short-tailed swifts shooting past, and even revealed a pair of the much less common Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts carrying nesting material.  We also scored fine views of several outrageous Keel-billed Toucans, a snazzy Squirrel Cuckoo, and fly-by views of vocal groups of Red-lored Parrots, as well as exceptional eye level studies of the canopy inhabiting Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Paltry Tyrannulet, and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher.  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 exotic Broad-billed Motmots, confiding White-whiskered and Black-breasted puffbirds, and several species of antbirds.  Our afternoon excursion to the Ammo Dump marsh in Gamboa treated us to a steady procession of birds, and saw us whipsawed between duetting Barred Antshrikes and incandescent Crimson-backed Tanagers, Yellow-tailed Orioles, and Red-legged Honeycreepers.  Many other open-country and marsh inhabiting species were in evidence, including a juvenile Rufescent Tiger-Heron that offered binocular-filling views while barely taking notice of us.  It was also great fun watching a nesting Black-throated Mango repeatedly dive-bomb a Boat-billed Flycatcher, and hearing the very audible snap of the flycatcher’s massive bill each time it attempted to pluck the pestering hummer from the air.

Barred Antshrike

Barred Antshrike— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next day started before dawn, as we drove two hours east to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe.  This destination represented some last-minute improvisation on my part.  We were scheduled to visit the more distant Bayano Valley, but I had birded Bayano twice in the previous week (with the Canopy Camp, Darién tour), and had found that, for whatever reason, the birding was unusually slow.  There had been very little vocalization, and even species that are locally common were difficult to find.  Because of this, I opted to switch things over to Cerro Azul, and then crossed my fingers that it would pay off.  Boy, did it!  At our very first stop we ran into a large mixed-species flock with Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Bay-headed Tanager, Carmiol’s Tanager, and the Panamanian endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker.  We also found a pair of Black-throated Trogons, some female Blue Cotingas, and a responsive pair of Black-eared Wood-Quail that froze in place for over 20 minutes, allowing scope-filling views of one bird’s head!  We followed that with a visit to Bill and Claudia’s property, where the feeder show was non-stop.  Hummingbirds of more than a dozen species (including multiple female Rufous-crested Coquettes) swarmed about the sugar water feeders, and a parade of tanagers, honeycreepers, and even a Rufous Motmot beat a regular path to the fruit feeders.  After a frantic 90 minutes of this, we tore ourselves away and headed to The Birders’ View, another nearby private property that keeps the welcome mat out for visiting birders.  The number of hummingbirds visiting these feeders was less, but the species diversity may have been even higher, with flashy Violet-capped Hummingbirds being particularly common.  A group of 8 Shining Honeycreepers was an especially nice bonus, but the crown jewel came in the form of a pair of Blue-fronted Parrotlets nesting in a termitarium just off the driveway.  Like most members of the genus Touit, this species is seen mostly as it rockets past, and is only rarely seen perched.

Blue-fronted Parrotlet

Blue-fronted Parrotlet— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

For the second consecutive 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).  On Day 3 we devoted the entire day to birding what is one of the premier birding tracks in the Neotropics, spending nearly the entire day working about 6 kilometers of road between the Juan Grande and Limbo bridges.  But even before reaching our intended starting point, we hit the jackpot with two fledged juvenile Tiny Hawks that were perched above the initial stretch of Pipeline Road.  I had stopped the vehicle to point out a Scarlet-rumped Cacique when, without warning, the perched Tiny Hawks began calling from overhead.  We piled out of the truck and soon had one of the diminutive bright rufous Accipiters filling the scope.  After this auspicious beginning, we crossed the gate at Juan Grande, intent on getting farther out the road before any further birding on foot.  Once again, we stopped unexpectedly, this time for a pair of Sunbitterns feeding in a semi-secluded pool below the road.  Eventually, we made it to my desired starting point, already with several good birds under our belts.  Alternately walking and driving the next several kilometers of Pipeline produced a variety of prizes, none more sought-after than the Great Jacamar, which Gus had told me at the start of the trip was his most desired bird.  I already knew from talking to Alexis that the “old reliable” jacamar territory had not produced any jacamars for several months, so I was less than confident of our chances.  Nonetheless, I trolled periodically, and was excited to finally get a distant answer.  After further playback, the jacamar went completely silent, seemingly disinterested.  But I knew that this species almost always responds, so I hung in and started picking through a mixed-species flock that had settled into the area, hoping that after enough time, the jacamar would vocalize again.  It didn’t.  But as predicted, the bird had come in.  Rich called my attention to a likely candidate perched high in a patch of sunlight above the road ahead of us, and we soon had the Great Jacamar in the scope, where we could appreciate the golden iridescence to his green upperparts.  Gus had his bird!  Other highlights were many, among them, sensational studies of Black-striped Woodcreeper, Moustached Antwren, Spotted Antbird, Rufous Mourner, Brownish Twistwing, and a family group of Song Wrens.  Streak-chested Antpitta proved more difficult than usual, although most folks eventually scored scope views.  As we drove back to the Canopy Tower in the late afternoon, we spotted a perched White Hawk along the highway at the forest edge.  It remained perched for an uncommonly long time, just long enough for us to stop and dismount from the truck.  Little did we realize then, that this stunning forest raptor was just a harbinger of what was to follow over the next 48 hours.

White Hawk

White Hawk— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

On our fourth day, we also visited Pipeline Road, but this time focused our attention on the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center.  Our goal of getting up on the RDC tower early took a big hit when we heard Bicolored Antbirds singing along Pipeline Road near the turnoff to the RDC.  Thinking that there might be an ant swarm nearby, we stopped and exited the vehicle, but not before we spotted an adult Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon perched on the opposite side of the road.  Before we could stop or even point the bird out, it glided across the road and disappeared, not to be seen again, at least not on this day.  Further investigation failed to reveal any army ants, but playback brought a pair of Bicoloreds in for close views.  The pair was almost certainly in search of a swarm when we interrupted them.  While checking out the antbirds, we heard a Pheasant Cuckoo call softly from nearby.  The bird was not responsive, but after some searching, we managed to locate it in the gloom of the forest floor.  So much for getting to the tower early!
Upon arrival at the RDC, we headed directly for the tower.  One hundred seventy-six steps after starting our ascent, 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).  As I had feared, it was already warm and sunny by the time we made it to the top of the tower, and the initial wave of bird activity had long since subsided.  The tower prospects were not looking promising.  I heard a Gray-headed Kite call in the distance, and a touch of playback brought an adult coming at us like a heat-seeking missile.  The raptor flew right past us and settled into the bare tops of a nearby tree, allowing leisurely scope views for all before eventually flying right past us again and disappearing in the direction from whence it came.  Before long, someone noticed that another raptor was perched in nearly the same spot as previously occupied by the Gray-headed Kite.  This time it was a Double-toothed Kite, and it appeared to be drying the dew from its plumage as it sat in the sun with its wings drooped.  After hearing a distant vocalization from a Semiplumbeous Hawk, I tried another bit of playback, and got an almost immediate response.  Within seconds, a pair of Semiplumbeous Hawks came winging their way toward the tower, then glided to a halt in a large emergent tree less than 100 m distant, but in plain view.  Elegantly bicolored (slate gray above and white below, with a single white tail band), with fierce, golden eyes and bright orange cere and legs, they posed admirably for crippling scope studies.  Hardly had the Semiplumbeous Hawks and Double-toothed Kite continued on their way before we noticed another raptor slowly drifting toward the tower amidst the now kettling vultures.  It was a stunning male Hook-billed Kite, and a few more lazy circles brought it directly over the tower, treating everyone to superb looks. 

Bicolored Antbird

Bicolored Antbird— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

A pair of Great Black-Hawks, some distant Snail Kites, and a couple of adult King Vultures sailing overhead provided the finishing touches to a truly exceptional morning of raptor watching.  Besides providing an awe-inspiring view of the rainforest canopy and more raptors than we could reasonably ask for, the tower gave us nice studies of a number of other canopy dwellers including Scaled Pigeon, Keel-billed and Black-mandibled toucans, White-necked Puffbird, and multiple Blue Cotingas.  The RDC trails were uncharacteristically bird-free, but the lake surprised us with several Masked Ducks, and entertained us with the antics of Wattled Jaçanas escorting broods of downy chicks.  The hummingbird feeders at the visitor center were literally buzzing with activity, dominated, as usual, by the abundant and aggressive White-necked Jacobins.  We were also treated to smaller numbers of Blue-chested, Violet-bellied, and Rufous-tailed hummingbirds, 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 not one, but two perched male Rufous-crested Coquettes, a spectacular bonus bird anytime it is seen in the Canal Zone.

We returned to the Canopy Tower for lunch and a break, and then visited the Gamboa Rainforest Resort in the late afternoon.  Here, we enjoyed intimate, below eye level views of Long-billed Gnatwren (previously a jinx bird for Gary & Jan) and Fasciated Antshrike (two species more characteristic of mid-story vine tangles), along with equally close, but entirely typical views of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and White-bellied Antbirds.  A dazzling male Red-capped Manakin and a pair of Gartered Trogons provided splashes of bright color, but a Jet Antbird and a Rosy Thrush-Tanager etched themselves into our collective memory only as repetitive phantom voices that never materialized.  We capped off the day with a most productive night drive along Semaphore Hill.  Western Night Monkeys, a Common Opossum, and a couple of Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloths, filled the mammalian side of the ledger, balanced on the avian side by superb studies of a striking Spectacled Owl found by my spotlight, and by a Common Potoo that taped in for a melancholy, yet virtuoso musical performance (“dear me all alone”) and impressive in-flight and perched views.

Spectacled Owl

Spectacled Owl— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

We returned to Pipeline Road on Day 5 and devoted the morning to working the first few kilometers of the road.  We scored another fly-over from one of the juvenile Tiny Hawks, and followed that with birds ranging from Cinnamon Woodpeckers and Collared Aracaris to Brown-hooded Parrots and Whooping Motmots.  But two birds stood out from all others on this morning.  The first was a Scaly-throated Leaftosser that gave us every angle, and then proceeded to put on a first class exhibition of leaf tossing, just in case there were still some doubts as to the identification—leaves were flying everywhere!  The second came as we were trying to track down a calling Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon that seemed to be stuck in one spot.  The calling bird (which was most likely a food-begging juvenile) simply wouldn’t budge, and its general location precluded our going to it.  Alexis had leapfrogged us with the truck some time earlier, and we were nearly caught up to him.  He was out on the road ahead of us, and also appeared to be intent on spotting the calling falcon.  Suddenly, I heard Alexis whistle, and looked around to see him frantically motioning us forward.  We scrambled to the spot as he pointed to an adult Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, perched, with its back to us, and at eye level.  The vocalizing bird was still calling away upslope—it hadn’t budged, and we no longer cared!  The adult bird appeared to be in full hunting mode and paid little attention to us as it peered slowly about while the photographers among us fired away.  A minute or two later, it was gone.  It was only then that I realized how close we were to the spot where we had seen an adult Slaty-back glide across the road the day before.

Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon

Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our final full day found us exploring semi-deciduous forest at Metropolitan Park, which, although producing nice looks at a number of special birds (Orange-chinned Parakeet, Whooping Motmot, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Bright-rumped Attila, Rufous-breasted and Plain wrens, Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, etc.) and the always endearing Geoffroy’s Tamarins, was unusually quiet, with many of the specialty birds seemingly not in breeding mode (and hence, not vocalizing and unresponsive).  By contrast, a stop at Panama Viejo was more productive than usual, particularly for gulls.  As I mentioned at the time, a gull in Panama is best considered a Laughing Gull until proven otherwise, and, indeed, that species constituted 99% of the gulls present on this day.  We did, however, pick out individual Ring-billed, Herring, and Franklin’s gulls from amongst the hordes, and thanks to a tip from a Panamanian birder that we encountered, we also got onto an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull that he had first found an hour earlier.  That gave us 5 species of gulls for the day, a difficult total to achieve anywhere in Panama!  I was particularly astonished to spot an American White Pelican shortly after getting out of the van—the first I can remember seeing for Panama, and seemingly one of very few records for the country ever.  We also enjoyed a sprinkling of herons, egrets, and ibis, along with a few shorebirds (the large flock of Marbled Godwits was noteworthy) and a Mangrove Warbler that Kay got on briefly.  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 Canopy Tower guide Alexis Sanchez for driving us around for much of our stay, and for his sharp-eyed assistance in finding and scoping many birds, 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!