Panama's Canopy Tower & El Valle's Canopy Lodge Jan 03—15, 2017

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 20-page, January 2017 journal.

Our morning began on Canopy Tower’s Observation Deck at 6 a.m. while it was still dark for pre-breakfast birding while sipping coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Those who arrived first were able to hear two Mottled Owls giving their last calls and then the Barred and Collared forest-falcons and Broad-billed and Rufous motmots. Several Howler Monkey troops had already begun letting the other troops know they survived the night and were still defending their territories. Here you met my local co-leader Carlos Bethancourt. As it got lighter, we started seeing gorgeous birds on all sides of the tower. Among them before and after breakfast were Keel-billed Toucans, Gartered Trogon, the diminutive Brown-capped Tyrannulet, even smaller Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, two Gray-headed Kites, Forest Elaenia, Masked Tityra, Blue Dacnis, Red-legged and Green honeycreepers, Red-lored and Mealy parrots, Bay-breasted Warbler, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher (my first from the Canopy Tower), Philadelphia Vireo, Black-breasted Puffbird, Short-tailed Hawk, and Palm, Summer, and Golden-hooded tanagers. However, my biggest thrill was spotting the difficult-to-see Green Shrike-Vireo that all day long sings, “You can’t see me” from high in the canopy. 

We stuffed ourselves at the 7:40 a.m. breakfast and then prepared for our walk down Semaphore Hill. At feeders at the bottom of the tower we identified Long-billed Hermit, White-vented Plumeleteer, abundant White-necked Jacobins, a few Blue-chested Hummingbirds, and one male Violet-bellied Hummingbird. We saw Black-cheeked Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker before starting our very productive walk, which produced new and cooperative birds such as Blue-crowned and Red-capped manakins, Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, Plain-brown and Cocoa woodcreepers, Long-billed Gnatwren, Fasciated Antshrike, Tropical Gnatcatcher, White-shouldered Tanager, and Squirrel Cuckoo. Half a dozen Blue Morpho butterflies entranced us during our walk. 

On the way to Pipeline Road we spotted our first Yellow-throated Toucan, then had luck with a number of difficult to see Neotropical specialties. One of the first was the Streak-breasted Antpitta. The smallest passerine in Panama, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, is normally found very high in tall rainforest trees, but most of us managed to see one. We were able to get great looks at the peculiar Brownish Twistwing, a bird that for some unknown reason suddenly lifts and twists one of its wings at a time. Each time we got off the vehicles and walked along the road, something new would be seen. Today the Helicopter Damselfly was the big insect attraction.

Charlie and Charline set up the table for our picnic lunch and brought out the chicken sandwiches with lettuce and tomatoes to add as we pleased, fresh pineapple and watermelon, sliced carrots and celery with a great dip, and carrot cake for dessert. The Canopy Family always provides a special meal for vegetarians, vegans, or participants that require gluten-free meals. At one location after lunch, Michelle called my attention to a bird that was tossing leaves. We all wound up eventually seeing four Song Wrens doing this incredible feeding maneuver. We encountered two small army ant swarms today, seeing lots of Bicolored Antbirds, and fewer Plain-brown Woodcreepers, Northern Barred-Woodcreepers, Gray-headed Tanagers, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, and Spotted Antbirds. The White-throated Thrush at the last stop was the first Carlos has seen on Pipeline Road. 

Reaching the Discovery Center just after dawn, all chugged up the 175 steps of the tower to the Observation Deck where we spent about 2 hours seeing such species as Blue-headed, Brown-hooded, and Red-lored parrots; Lineated and Crimson-crested woodpeckers; Keel-billed Toucan; Scaled and Pale-vented pigeons; Black-chested Jays; a male Blue Cotinga; and Moustached Antwren. We later watched the hummingbirds coming into several feeders near the Discovery Center. New for us were Crowned Woodnymph and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

We found a spot on the road from which we could see, with our scopes, the Night Monkeys sticking their heads out of a tree cavity. What a treat, since I have seen them only about 4 times in the previous 20 tours. When we reached the Summit Ponds, we were able to locate the Boat-billed Herons, a female American Pygmy Kingfisher, and two Ringed Kingfishers. We were very lucky in being able to call in a Jet Antbird, a species only seen a few times. Carlos and I hoped to be able to find a Spectacled Owl for you, and we were not disappointed, as it was visible from the trail as we approached their territory.

Once up in the gated community, we drove straight to the home of Jerry and Linda Harrison where the hummingbird show defies description.  Diversity was excellent, as we saw 12 hummingbird species in the 2.5 hours we spent here. Among them were Green and Long-billed hermits, Crowned Woodnymph, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed Starthroat, Green Thorntail, and Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested, and Snowy-bellied hummingbirds. The dazzling colors of Red-legged, Shining, and Green honeycreepers were stunning. Euphonias, Bananaquits, and Carmiol’s and Hepatic tanagers added to the spectacle. The Rufous Motmot even came in for the bananas. For me, the male Rufous-crested Coquette was the real treat. It was tough to leave this little paradise. 

After dinner we joined Alexis Sanchez (spotter) and Eliecer Rodriguez (driver) for a 1.5-hour spotlighting adventure. We were very lucky, seeing two 2-toed Sloths, one sleeping 3-toed Sloth, one Olingo, four Kinkajous, and two Central American Woolly Opossums.

We arrived at the entrance to Metropolitan National Park about 7 a.m. It is about 265 hectares in size and said to be the largest city park in Central America. The best bird here was the endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet. When we returned to the van, the guard had located a Common Potoo, and we were able to take great photos.

About 10 years ago, Raúl finished building the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Antón, 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.

At the luxurious Canopy Lodge, my co-leader Tino Sanchez and the birds visiting the wonderful fruit feeders greeted us. We gawked at a dozen Gray-headed Chachalacas, Green Kingfisher, a few Lemon (Flame)-rumped, Crimson-backed, and Blue-gray tanagers, Thick-billed Euphonias, and more. But the best for me were the male and female Spot-crowned Barbets. As we crossed the bridge over the “Yellow River” we saw our first Jesus Christ Lizard. Along the trail that follows the bridge, we saw Bay Wren, the amazing Orange-billed Sparrow, Buff-rumped Warbler, and Gray-cowled Wood-Rail.

Our first main stop on the drive to Altos del María and Valle Bonito was incredible. We did not move more than 30 yards for over two hours. Top of the list goes to White-tipped Sicklebill and male Snowcap. Also seen here were Spotted Barbtail, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Spotted Woodcreeper, Black-and-yellow Tanager, Stripe-throated Hummingbird, and the first of dozens of Silver-throated Tanagers and Common Chlorospinguses that would appear all day.  

We had a delightful flock at the manmade lake at Valle Bonito that kept us busy for nearly 30 minutes. It was mostly full of North American wintering warblers and vireos, but did have several Neotropical tanagers and flycatchers too. A gorgeous Yellow-throated Vireo and male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis were special treats. After the flock dispersed, we started our long walk along the paved path that follows the edge of the lake. Plain Antvireo, Black-throated Trogon, and Dull-mantled Antbird gave us great looks, with the tiny White-throated Spadebill seen by most on the slope across the stream. We returned to the kiosk in time for our picnic lunch.  After lunch we visited a side road that produced Tufted Flycatcher and then headed for an intersection that had a fruiting tree visited by Yellow-eared and Blue-throated toucanets.

We traveled west toward Costa Rica before turning onto a side road to Juan Hombrón. Here in lowland grassland/dry scrub habitat we quickly picked up new species such as Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Savanna Hawk, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Crested Caracara, and Crested Bobwhite. Near the extensive rice fields we added Yellow-headed Vulture, Lance-tailed Manakin, Scrub Greenlet, Gray Kingbird, Glossy Ibis, Giant Cowbird, Solitary Sandpiper and more. A road along the beach brought us Sanderlings and Straight-billed Woodcreeper. 

Raúl’s beach house at the Santa Clara beach provided a wonderful place to have lunch and the opportunity for several of you to swim in the ocean. Here we saw a male Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, and soon after we left the beach home I was able to call in a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that perched in a close tree. 

Santiago Aposto Forest is an incredible patch of climax forest area with gorgeous tall trees crawling with epiphytes. Almost immediately upon arrival, we heard Brown-billed Scythebill and were able to get all of you to see this rare species. At the parking lot, a flock of Black-faced Grosbeaks worked its way over us. Leafcutters were diligently carrying little clumps of soil out of three burrows. Walking on the paved trail in this lush rainforest is almost magical. Upon our return to the building, four new species appeared: Ochraceous Wren, Orange-bellied Trogon, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch.

The first stop on our final morning at Canopy Lodge was an area where I have seen saltators in past years.  We lucked out getting to see a Black-headed Saltator almost immediately, but had to work hard for the Black-striped Sparrow and Streaked Saltator. Who would have guessed that on day 12 we could still be adding new species to our ever-growing list? While here we had a great show from the huge Chestnut-headed Oropendolas that were constructing their long pendulous nests in a nearby tree. Stopping at a place where Tropical Screech-Owl has been seen, we found two perched owls in a new location. One was the rare rufous morph. We then continued all the way to the entrance trail to El Gaital, the last place we had a chance to call in the rare Black-crowned Antpitta. When I played my tape, Tino spotted it right next to the trail. It eventually moved to the other side of the road, and was seen/glimpsed by all of us…SUCCESS at finally seeing one of the two most desired target birds during any visit to Canopy Lodge.