Panama's Canal Zone: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Nov 08—14, 2015

Posted by David Ascanio


David Ascanio

David Ascanio, a Venezuelan birder and naturalist, has spent 30+ years guiding birding tours throughout his native country, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, the Amazon River, ...

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As soon as there was light in the town of Gamboa, in the Panama Canal area, we were welcomed with open “birding” arms. Our first day was packed with views of antbirds, parrots, raptors, crakes, toucans, tyrant-flycatchers, and hummingbirds. Yes, a lot of hummingbirds!

Fasciated Antshrike

Fasciated Antshrike— Photo: David Ascanio


Gamboa, with its picturesque houses, was our starting point and headquarters for this week filled with wildlife. Well-maintained gardens were home for a Buff-breasted Wren nesting, an energetic male Fasciated Antshrike, and Gray-headed Chachalacas that feasted on the nuts of the palms located near the lodge. Later in the day we headed to the Semaphore Hill, a paved road that leads to the famous Canopy Tower. Along the lower part of the road we experienced our first feeding flock containing migratory warblers, vireos, greenlets, and a Streaked Saltator.

The second day found us exploring the flooded forest of the famous Lake Gatun. At the mouth of the Chagres River we enjoyed views of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and Muscovy Duck. There was also a Pied-billed Grebe and Magnificent Frigatebird. As we moved to the interior of the lake, in the “isolated islands of forest” we came across interesting mammals and reptiles such as White-throated Capuchin Monkey, Mantled Howler Monkey, Geoffroy’s Tamarin, American Crocodile, and iguanas. A bird commotion in the brush at the river’s edge revealed a Red-tailed Boa that had just digested a small bird, although the highlight for the day was a Red Brocket Deer, a lifer for Eliécer, at the forest edge of Gamboa (Thank you, Ellen for finding it).

Geoffroy's Tamarin

Geoffroy’s Tamarin— Photo: David Ascanio




Day 3 took us to a totally different habitat, the forest interior of the famous Pipeline Road. This site was originally planned to host a pipeline in the 40s, but it was never laid. Today, the road reaching to the inside of this forest is a mecca for birders, and you bet we managed to see a lot. As soon as we arrived at the Discovery Center we saw the unique Green Shrike-Vireo at the canopy of an open tree. Then, White-whiskered Puffbird showed up, and two species of trogons (Gartered and Slaty-tailed) appeared to be “periscoping” for a fruiting tree. We saw woodpeckers, motmots, a family of Purple-throated Fruitcrows, plus Golden-collared and Blue-crowned manakins. What a mix of colorful plumages! In the afternoon we experienced rain (thanks to El Niño), thus we stayed close to our van. In walking a short road to the Chagres River, Eliécer found a Common Potoo, one bird that allowed scope views for unlimited time. Yet, the highlight of the day was the show of hummingbirds: 8 species were seen in less than 15 minutes!

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher— Photo: David Ascanio











Day 4 gave us a new and different perspective of the Panama Canal forest. We reached the top of the Canopy Tower, and from there we were looking at canopy birds without having to bend our necks. Here, our eyes opened widely when we saw the diminutive but well-dressed Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, a young male Blue Cotinga, Brown-hooded Parrot in flight, and much more. Later, we visited the upper part of the Semaphore Hill road, and army ants introduced us to another bird wonder: the army ant specialists. All of you saw the beautiful Bicolored Antbird and some of you saw the bird-gem of the swarm, the Ocellated Antbird. There were also woodcreepers, antwrens, puffbirds, and tyrant-flycatchers. Seeing this show of frenzied birds going after arthropods escaping the ants rounded up a nature encounter with the Panama Canal, one that gave us the opportunity to see birds at canopy level, understand mixed species flock composition, discuss the importance of army ants in the natural history of various birds species and, above all, the enormous positive impact on bird populations when protecting large patches of forest.

Towards the end of the tour we visited the Miraflores Locks and understood the hydraulics that let the canal work, a system that was built more than 100 years ago and still works perfectly well today. We also visited the Old Panama City, birded the mudflats of the Pacific Ocean, and discussed some of the most relevant historical aspects of Panamá. 

Our last afternoon was spent at the Metropolitan Park, where we received our last and most important gift for the day: a Rosy Thrush-Tanager perched and seen through the scope. This rounded-up this compact tour that visits so many locations, in a Relaxed & Easy pace, and still offers an amazing mix of the birds, history, and culture of unique Panama. Want to see more?  Join us next year on another Neotropical bird experience!