Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle Jan 05—17, 2016

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 participants. These are from the 19-page, January 2016 journal.

On our first morning on the Observation Deck of Canopy Tower our highlights were Keel-billed Toucans, a Blue Dacnis pair, Gray-headed Kite, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-breasted Puffbird, Squirrel Cuckoo, and both Mealy and Red-lored parrots. As we were starting to go back to the third floor, Cliff spotted two King Vultures soaring fairly close to the tower…what a magnificent event!

We stuffed ourselves at the 7:30 a.m. breakfast and then prepared for our walk down Semaphore Hill. It was very productive, bringing us a cooperative Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, an unbelievably cooperative White-breasted Wood-Wren, Great Tinamou, Spotted Antbird, Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, White-whiskered Puffbird, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, and more.

At 3:00 p.m. we met and rode down Semaphore Hill on our way to Gamboa and the Ammo Dump Ponds site. We managed to see/hear 52 species of birds before departing this area. Among those seen were Black-throated Mango, Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Rusty-margined and Social flycatchers, Variable Seedeater, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Plain and Buff-breasted wrens, Clay-colored Thrush, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, female Barred Antshrike, Prothonotary Warbler, and Ruddy Ground-Dove.

By 6:30 a.m. we were loaded into the open Rainfomobile and Charlie’s 4×4 for our drive to Pipeline Road. We walked along the gravel road that eventually would take us to the entrance to Pipeline Road. A cooperative White-necked Puffbird was first to catch our attention, followed by a White-bellied Antbird and Yellow-tailed Oriole. A little further along, we enjoyed great looks at a male Gartered Trogon, the first of our incredible day when we would get scope views of all five possible trogon species in this part of Panama! One of the best events took place when a very large group of White-faced Capuchins crossed the road and entertained us for about 30–40 minutes. As soon as they moved on, Carlos was able to get us on a Streak-chested Antpitta. One of my favorite birds today was the male Blue-crowned Manakin, but I was delighted when Len spotted the Black-striped Woodcreeper, my favorite of the woodcreepers.

On our way to the 175-step Observation Deck at the Discovery Center, we saw a Black-faced Antthrush. We spent about 2 hours atop the tower seeing such species as Blue-headed and Red-lored parrots; Lineated, Black-cheeked, and Red-crowned woodpeckers; Keel-billed and Black-mandibled toucans; Scaled, Pale-vented, and Short-billed pigeons; male and female Blue Cotingas; and, finally SAW a Green Shrike-Vireo. On the drive out, we lucked out with a small Army Ant swarm that added Bicolored Antbird, Whooping and Rufous motmots, Gray-headed Tanager, Black-chested Jay, and two woodcreeper species. What a great morning!

After 20 minutes with our next Army Ant swarm and the Ocellated Antbirds, we moved to the back porch where there were an amazing number of hummingbirds and others coming to the nectar, rice, and banana feeders. Diversity was excellent as we saw 10 hummingbird species in the two hours we spent here. Many of you thought the male Crowned Woodnymph was the best looking. The Rufous Motmot even came in for the bananas, along with a Black-cheeked Woodpecker, a dozen Shining Honeycreepers, Thick-billed Euphonias, and Palm Tanagers, as well as a superb male Crimson-backed Tanager. For me, the male Rufous-crested Coquette was a real treat.

Our stop at Bill and Claudia’s home was also incredible. The hummingbird show defies description, with dozens of hummingbirds fighting for space at the 10 nectar feeders. Among them were Green, Long-billed, and Stripe-throated hermits, Crowned Woodnymph, Bronze-tailed and White-vented plumeleteers, White-necked Jacobin, and Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied hummingbirds. Unfortunately, the hoped for, rare Long-billed Starthroat was only seen by half of you.

Tonight, after dinner, Alex led us on the spotlighting outing. A Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth with a baby was the first mammal seen, followed by a Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth that was very low on the tree. It was a great night as we added two Common Opossums, one Allen’s Olingo, one Kinkajou, and heard both Common Potoo and Spectacled Owl.

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.

Canopy Lodge’s luxury accommodations and its wonderful fruit feeders amazed all of you. Crossing the walking bridge, we saw several Jesus Christ lizards. On the feeders we gawked at Lemon-rumped, Crimson-backed, and Blue-gray tanagers, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Thick-billed Euphonias, and more. Before lunch I showed you to your wonderful rooms.

During siesta time, Cliff and Jennifer added Green Thorntail, Rufous-crested Coquette, and Garden Emerald. Prior to our planned 3:00 p.m. departure many of you were looking at the banana feeders and witnessed the arrival of the Collared Araçaris. As we crossed the bridge over the “Yellow River” we saw Buff-rumped Warbler and Green Kingfisher. Along the trail that follows the bridge, we saw Bay Wren and Orange-billed Sparrow. Out on the main road we added a Chestnut-headed Oropendola and later had great views of Black-chested Jay.

By 6:15 a.m. we were getting into the van for our drive to the lowland pastures, dry scrub, rice fields, and beach. Here in lowland grassland/dry scrub habitat with the trees and shrubs on both sides of the unpaved road, we had a great hour in a stretch about 600 yards long. In no particular order, we saw Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Savannah Hawk, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Brown-throated Parakeets, Crested Caracara, and many more. The unfenced rice fields next to the main road were visible, and we added Yellow-headed Vulture, Lance-tailed Manakin, Scrub Greenlet, Gray Kingbird, and Solitary Sandpiper. From here we drove to the Santa Clara beach where we ate lunch at Raúl’s beach house, and Laurel, Jennifer, Sue, Cliff, and I swam in the ocean. Very high on today’s list were the Blue-footed Booby on the bow of the boat just off shore and the 8 Brown/Blue-footed boobies on the offshore metal stand. High on my list was the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that Moyo called in to perch in a tree in the yard.

Our first main stop today was incredible. We did not move more than 20 yards for about an hour. Top of the list goes to White-tipped Sicklebill! Also seen here were Spotted Barbtail, Black-and-yellow Tanager, Stripe-throated Hummingbird, Band-tailed Barbthroat, and the first of dozens of Silver-throated Tanagers and Common Chlorospinguses that would appear all day. Next was the spot with a male Snowcap.

Long-tailed Tyrant was one of the first birds we saw on the trail by the man-made lake, but there were many as we walked the long concrete trail that crossed back and forth over the creek: Red-faced Spinetail, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Plain Antvireo, Brown-billed Scythebill, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Slaty Antwren, Dull-mantled Antbird, and more. At the end of a paved road above the lake we hit paydirt with Orange-bellied Trogon, Rufous Mourner, Russet Antshrike, Golden-winged Warbler, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

Moyo thought we would have our best chance for Black-crowned Antpitta if we first went to the incredible patch of climax forest area with gorgeous tall trees crawling with epiphytes. At the parking lot, Ochraceous Wren put on a show at eye level and a female Green Thorntail was seen. We had superb looks at Dull-mantled Antbird at the bathroom building where one of the two bathrooms had nearly a dozen bats hanging from its ceiling. Walking on the paved trail in this lush rainforest is almost magical. On our return the Black-crowned Antpitta finally responded below us, and then Moyo’s magic allowed scope views…WOW is all I can say! Not a flashy, colorful bird, but a very difficult one to see.

We received a phone call from Danilo that changed everything. He was watching THREE Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos at Chorro Macho…we drove down from the distant side of Altos del Maria and 50 minutes later were entranced. We must have spent nearly an hour watching as the two adults and one juvenile came into and out of view.

Who would have guessed that on day 12 we could still be adding new species to our ever-growing list? Moyo arrived saying that he had found two Spectacled Owls at Cariguana so off we went to try to locate them. They were way down in the forest and skittish, but we all got looks at them through the scope. What a way to start the day…and it just got better. I heard Rosy Thrush-Tanager so we walked over to get closer and were able to get everyone to see at least part of one in the tangles. As a parting gift, a Rufous-and-white Wren sat for scope views. Moyo then heard a Yellow-billed Cacique and I was able to call a pair in for quick views. This is a rarely seen bird because it is so shy and loves tangles. From here we headed up to La Mesa to see if we could find any mixed flocks. On the drive up, Moyo heard a Black-headed Saltator and we not only got out to add this one, but also had a Black-striped Sparrow sit for scope views.