Panama's Canal Zone: A Relaxed & Easy Tour Nov 06—12, 2016

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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Our first morning in Gamboa (Panamá) began with a bird feeder packed with honeycreepers, tanagers, and parakeets. As we were distracted by this mosaic of colored plumages, a flashy Whooping Motmot showed from a dark corner and landed at the feeder to take a piece of banana and fly away. Hosting warm and humid weather, Gamboa also welcomed us with a Blue-chested Hummingbird disputing a feeder with the territorial Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. What a unique welcome to Panama!

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Blue-chested Hummingbird— Photo: David Ascanio


Walking around Gamboa on our first day allowed us to familiarize ourselves with many of the common Neotropical birds. These included chachalacas, flycatchers, and tanagers, but also some of the less common species such as the attractive Violet-bellied Hummingbird and the contrasting Flame-rumped Tanager.  Once we had spent time looking at the common birds, we were ready to start searching for more restricted distribution species. For that, we chose to bird in the afternoon along the Old Gamboa Road. Despite the heavy rain we managed to see a Bat Falcon (thanks Steve!), a soaked White-necked Puffbird, and a likely-lost Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

Our Relaxed & Easy program continued the next day with a boat trip at the mouth of the Chagres River and later to Lake Gatun, the vast body of water that works as a reservoir for the Panama Canal. This was our time to enjoy waterbirds and forest edge species at an easy pace from the boat. We were able to nail the widespread (and possibly a future split) Buff-breasted Wren, as well as shorebirds and the elegant Snail Kite. In the afternoon we visited the lower part of Semaphore Hill and the entrance to the Plantation Trail. This area kept us busy for hours, and we enjoyed astonishing views of Spotted and Dot-winged antwrens, although the bonus of the day was a group of Panamanian Night Monkeys that had used a hollowed tree to sleep during the day.

Panamanian Night Monkey

Panamanian Night Monkey— Photo: David Ascanio


During the middle of the week we were ready to explore one of the best birding locations of the continent: the Pipeline Road. For that, we visited the Discovery Center and offered an optional ascend to the Discovery Tower. Those who managed to deal with the 174 steps to the top of the tower got views of a Blue Cotinga and Scaled Pigeon, while those who stayed down in the center saw their hummingbird list increase by adding Long-billed and Stripe-throated hermits, as well as White-vented Plumeleteer. Later, the group rejoined along the wide part of the Pipeline Road and enjoyed views of Broad-billed Motmot, as well as a mixed species flock containing Checker-throated, White-flanked, and Dot-winged antwrens, Fasciated Antshrike, Plain Xenops, and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. On the Pipeline Road we learned the advantages of mixed species flocks when birds are searching for insects.

As the day warmed up, we decided it was time to return to our lodge, but just before we loaded into the van we were surprised when Lorenzo, our driver, located a Great Potoo roosting on a branch in a tall tree. Back at our lodge we celebrated such a successful morning with a delicious lunch followed by the mandatory siesta time. At 3:30 PM we reconvened to visit the grounds of the Gamboa resort. This visit paid off well as we nailed 3 species of trogons, 2 species of orioles, Black-headed Saltator, White-bellied Antbird, and a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails crossing the road.

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Red-legged Honeycreeper— Photo: David Ascanio


Our last morning in the Panama Canal Zone found us in the world-famous Canopy Tower. Reaching the observation deck of it was optional, but everyone did it! Once there, we learned about canopy birds and delighted our eyes with the diminutive and comical Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and later the gorgeous Cinnamon Woodpecker.  At noontime we visited the Miraflores Locks visitor center and learned about the hydraulics of the Panama Canal. With binoculars ready, we noticed how pelicans and egrets feasted as the locks opened and stunned fish were easy prey.

Our last full day in Panama started in a different way. We offered an optional walk in Old Panama to enjoy the sunrise, the colonial architecture, and see the city wake up. Then we visited a museum and a tidal flat where we added 15 species of shorebirds to our list. In addition, we experienced raptor migrations with views of Swainson’s and Broad-billed hawks, as well as a few hundred Turkey Vultures. In the afternoon we headed to the Metropolitan Park and closed our tour with views of Slaty-tailed and Black-throated trogons, a Common Potoo, Olivaceous and Cocoa woodcreepers, Orange-billed Sparrow, Blue-black Grosbeak, and much more.

Northern Tamandua

Northern Tamandua— Photo: David Ascanio







In closing our Panama Canal tour, a pair of Rufous-and-white Wrens sang and reminded us about the importance of preserving forests to gain water for future generations. Although the primary reason to protect the forest here was to provide water for the canal hydraulics, it has turned out to be a much more favorable project and an example of habitat conservation. Today, millions of microorganisms and thousands of vertebrates inhabit the Soberanía National Park, and thanks to it, we were able to enjoy a wealth of Neotropical birds. I look forward to seeing you on another wildlife-rich Relaxed & Easy tour!