Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 10—17, 2015

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Although I have led over 25 tours to Panama, I don’t think I can remember one that had more special moments than this year’s Canopy Tower tour. In fact, in one six-hour period along Pipeline Road, we had three of my most memorable Panama moments ever!

Natalia scored once again in finding this Pheasant Cuckoo foraging on the forest floor nearby. Hard to see anytime, this species is unprecedented in the rainy season and was a tour first!

Pheasant Cuckoo – a tour first!— Photo: Barry Zimmer

We had just come down from the observation tower of the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, when Natalia, one of the Center employees, told us she had just located a Pheasant Cuckoo along the trail. This species is hard to see anytime, but is almost exclusively found in the dry season, when it can sometimes be tracked down by its calls. October, however, is the heart of the rainy season, and we had never seen this species on this tour before. Just twenty feet off the trail we could hear the weird ruffling sounds of the bird’s wings, as it foraged in the leaf litter. Soon we had spotted it, as it crept along, alternately fluttering its wings and bobbing its tail. Nearly the size of a roadrunner, we watched this amazing bird for about ten minutes. It was only the second I had ever seen and, I believe, a lifer for everyone in the group!

Riding the high of the cuckoo sighting, we loaded up the vehicles to head further out Pipeline Road. Suddenly, Natalia came running out after us as we were backing out of the parking area. She had just found a Tiny Hawk perched behind the deck, apparently having just captured and eaten a hummingbird! This rarely seen, ridiculously small forest raptor was being bombed by other hummingbirds as it sat perched at the edge of a vine tangle right over our heads. We enjoyed scope-filled views for more than twenty minutes and eventually just had to walk away! Score two for Natalia! A wonderful several hours along Pipeline Road ensued in which we tallied King Vulture, Rufous Motmot, Russet-winged Schiffornis, Pied Puffbird, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and a host of other amazing species.

Thanks to Natalia, we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the rarely seen Tiny Hawk right over our heads.

Tiny Hawk — Photo: Barry Zimmer

The rumbling of late afternoon thunder encouraged us to start back toward the Canopy Tower. A kilometer or so from the beginning of the road, a Great Tinamou darted across the track in front of the lead vehicle. Alas, only the leaders and one member of the group had glimpsed the bird. Having reached the forest on the other side, our chances of relocating it seemed slim. As we piled out of the vehicles and started plotting strategy, the tinamou magically appeared again at the edge of the road. Everyone froze in silence and incredibly, the bird started walking towards us. Sticking to a rather open portion of the forest floor, it slowly (over ten minutes) ambled to within 15 feet of the group, foraging along and paying little attention to us. Tinamous are often heard, but seldom seen denizens of the forest. Catching a glimpse of one is lucky. This was simply unbelievable. Jaws open and in stunned silence, we marveled at such a magical moment.

Another morning up on the observation deck proved very productive with a male Blue Cotinga that knocked our socks off!

Blue Cotinga — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Of course, these events only cover six hours of an amazing week-long trip.  From the Canopy Tower on Day 1, we enjoyed a stunning male Blue Cotinga, Black-breasted Puffbird almost at arm’s-length, a flashy Gartered Trogon, stunning Cinnamon Woodpeckers, Keel-billed Toucans, brilliant Golden-hooded Tanagers, Fulvous-vented Euphonias, and more. Later in the afternoon, feeders at Gamboa were abuzz with Orange-chinned Parakeets, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped tanagers, and Red-legged Honeycreepers to name a few. The following day, we headed to the foothills of Cerro Azul. A staggering 16 species of hummingbirds were seen that day including Violet-capped Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, three species of hermits, Brown Violetear, Purple-crowned Fairy, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, and White-necked Jacobin. Other highlights included a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets right overhead, a perched White Hawk, two Crested Guans (another tour first), dazzling Shining and Green honeycreepers, and a wonderful array of tanagers that included Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Speckled, and Emerald among others. Our first day on Pipeline Road nearly rivaled the second with an immature Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon perched no more than 30 feet away calling over and over for its parents; an army ant swarm that hosted Bicolored, Spotted, and spectacular Ocellated antbirds; Streak-chested Antpitta; Black-striped Woodcreeper; Black-faced Antthrush; perched Ruddy Quail-Dove; four species of trogons; Scaly-throated Leaftosser; and Purple-throated Fruitcrow to name a few.

In a cecropia just off the deck, a snoozing Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth provided a wonderful photographic opportunity.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth — Photo: Barry Zimmer

Other highlights throughout the week included good numbers of migrating raptors (more than 24,000 over the tower one afternoon), a roosting Common Potoo, a Short-tailed Nighthawk right over the tower on three days (a lifer for two of the tower guides), a Black-and-White Owl on the night drive, Broad-billed and Whooping motmots, scope views of Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and Lance-tailed, Blue-crowned, and Red-capped manakins. The list goes on and on. We also enjoyed two species of sloths, three species of monkeys (including the adorable Geoffroy’s Tamarin), coatimundis, and more than 40 species of fabulous butterflies. This was, simply put, an absolutely extraordinary and very memorable week spent in the Canal Zone of Panama at the fantastic Canopy Tower!