IN BRIEF: In stark contrast to the dry conditions that we experienced on this tour over the last few years the 2016 Fall Panama tour included above average rainfall, and even a near miss by an unprecedented late season hurricane. Despite the weather, which involved periods of rain on all but two days we found a wonderful array of neotropical birds. Our week at the Canopy Tower produced 258 species of birds (354 species with the extension included) and an incredible 18 species of mammals. Some of the highlights were our amazingly close views of a perched male Blue Cotinga from the top of the tower, point blank views of Spot-crowned Barbets and a male Bare-crowned Antbird feeding in eye-level Heliconia plants along the Caribbean Coast, the sleeping Silky Anteater curled up into a small furry ball, nesting Song Wrens and a cooperative Great Tinamou on the Pipeline Road, a fiesta of colorful tanagers including Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Crimson-backed, Black-and-Yellow and Flame-rumped, and a truly stupendous showing of hundreds of hummingbirds (of 15 species) on Cerro Azul. The extension to the Canopy Lodge was fantastic, with some standout species such as a very cooperative Black-crowned Ant-Pitta and nesting Crimson-bellied Woodpecker (voted bird of the trip by a wide margin), Tody Motmot, Lance-tailed Manakin, Orange-bellied Trogon and male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem and Snowcap. This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodging make for a truly wonderful experience.
IN DETAIL: As virtually all of this year’s participants arrived into Panama in time to meet the same morning transfer to the tower we elected to do some light birding midday of our arrival day. This proved an excellent choice, as we discovered a wealth of avian diversity during an hour and a half vigil. There was a small but steady movement of Barn Swallows and Turkey Vultures streaming south in the midday heat, and by watching closely we picked out numbers of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks, Gray-breasted Martins and Short-tailed Swifts tucked into the flocks. Just before lunch we detected two soaring King Vultures, a full adult and a dark immature and were able to watch these magnificent birds at length as they languidly circled up in a nearby thermal. Some scanning around from the top of the tower also revealed a distant perched White Hawk sitting in a large Cuipo tree. We also studied the hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower that were playing host to many territorial Blue-chested Hummingbirds and several larger White-vented Plumeleteers and White-necked Jacobins. All seemed more intent on chasing away their competition and the occasional Long-billed Hermit or dazzling Violet-bellied Hummingbird as they were feeding from the provided feeders. Initially the afternoon was quite sunny, and a large hatch out of beautiful Cattleheart butterflies, clad in reflective green, black and red were bouncing around the flowerbeds. Shortly after lunch, however the skies turned dark and someone up above turned the taps on to provide a lengthy downpour that lasted most of the afternoon. A few irrepressible birders remained on the dining floor and by staring out the windows turned up some Palm Tanagers tucked under the eaves, a fairly soggy Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth hanging in a nearby Cercropia tree and a wintering Bay-breasted Warbler.
We spent three full days in and around the Canopy Tower’s immediate environs. The tower’s top deck afforded spectacular vistas of the forest around the tower, and of the canal itself. Seeing canopy species such as Green Shrike-Vireo (loudly vocal each morning and eventually showing for all), and Brown-capped Tyrannulet at eye level is always satisfying, and to be so close to swifts coursing through the air, or to a tiny Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher sallying around in the canopy is a real treat. We were especially happy with our repeated and very close views of Black-breasted Puffbird, Keel-billed Toucan and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher that paid a visit to the tower each morning. Being able to see a swath of treetops can be magical in the morning, with many Scaled and Pale-vented Pigeons, Mealy and Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrots and even a Short-tailed Hawk all sitting atop the trees to greet the sun. One particularly good sighting came when one of the local guides spotted a perched Collared Forest Falcon on a close by ridge. These very vocal forest raptors (which provide a free alarm-clock service just before dawn) are infrequently seen as they spend much of their time perched quietly in the midstory. On two different mornings a dazzling male Blue Cotinga perched on bare canopy trees a few hundred meters from the tower. This stunning cotinga seems to glow with an inner blue flame, and with its relatively restricted range is one of the signature species for a visit to Panama. On one magical morning vigil we awoke to find the valleys around the tower filled with fog, with the nearby peaks poking above the sea of gray resembling islands against the rising sun. A few small mixed flocks came by in the mornings, including several neotropical migrants such as Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Summer Tanagers often accompanied by local birds such as Lesser Greenlet, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher or Olivaceous and Cocoa Woodcreeper.
The forests and small wetlands close to the tower occupied two full days of our tour, where we found over a hundred and fifty species within just a few miles of the tower. The road down Semaphore Hill passes through some forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity for encountering understory flocks with Dot-winged, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, Western Slaty-Antshrike, the gaudy Purple-throated Fruitcrow and Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots. Active groups of White-shouldered Tanagers were regularly encountered during our walk down the hill, and we even found a small troupe of Coati, including several quite young individuals that were foraging along the roadside. Trogons and puffbirds were quite common around the tower this year, with pairs of Gartered, Slaty-tailed and Black-throated Trogons, and White-whiskered, Black-breasted and White-necked Puffbirds all revealing themselves on our walks along the Plantation trail, around the tower road and Gamboa Resort. Manakins were also especially prevalent this year. Male Red-capped Manakins, dressed in their impressive black, red and yellow costumes and the equally impressive Blue-crowned Manakins were nearly daily companions through the days around the tower. The Plantation trail near the bottom of the hill was quiet this year, but we enjoyed a beautiful male Crimson-crested Woodpecker, some almost hand tame Gray-headed Tanagers, a pair of Cinnamon Woodpeckers, quietly perched Broad-billed Motmots, and an excellent array of woodcreepers including our only Northern Barred and Plain-brown. Likely our best sighting though was of a very vocal Streak-chested Antpitta that we were able to put in the telescopes repeatedly as it danced around through some fairly open forest understory below the trail. Being able to look down on this bird, rather than being forced to look through masses of vegetation that largely block one’s view was a special treat.
An afternoon jaunt to the Ammo Dump Ponds found us wandering along the margins of a marsh making careful studies of the similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, and enjoying close views of an array of species more often found in open areas. Wattled Jacanas showed extremely well, flashing their bright yellow wings as they danced around the open patches of marsh. Also here we located a motionless Rufescent Tiger Heron, groups of Smooth-billed Anis and even a surprise Least Bittern tucked in around the lakeside vegetation. The row of trees that ring the pond held Barred Antshrike, Panama Flycatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher and cooperative Buff-breasted and Isthmian (a new split from Plain) Wrens. On another afternoon we elected to visit the Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Road. This diverse area centers around a small forested lake, but includes open grasslands, viney dry forests, and scattered parkland with large emergent trees over a dense grassy understory. As you might expect such a diverse set of habitats results in an excellent birding area! On the walk through the more open grasslands that leads to the lake we paused to observe our first (and only) Thick-billed Seedfinch that was singing from the low grasses. At the small, forested Summit Lake we located some loafing Mesoamerican Sliders, a large American Crocodile and a group of Greater Ani. Some careful scrutiny of the banks also revealed a hulking Boat-billed Heron sitting amongst the vegetation lining the pond. Past the ponds we walked along the old Gamboa Road, coaxing a skulky Yellow-billed Cacique out of the dense grasses, and working on the nice diversity of birds along the edge. These included our first Mourning Warblers and Common Yellowthroats, perched Streaked Flycatchers and Streaked Saltators, cryptic Black-striped Sparrows and more conspicuous Ruddy Ground-Doves and Baltimore Orioles. Near the back of the trail we stopped to admire another perched Collared Forest-Falcon and were eventually successful at obtaining views of a female Great Antshrike that was foraging on the ground a few feet off the trail. Like most of our time around the tower this year the weather was constantly threatening, with regular showers and cooler than normal temperatures. This kept the birds fairly quiet, and made the birding more challenging than is usual.
On the morning that we were due to spend the full day exploring the world-famous Pipeline Road we awoke to rain (quite unusual in the morning). We delayed our departure a bit, and spent some time birding via a covered van around Gamboa, where we found dozens of Common Gallinules swimming around in the vegetation-choked Chagres River. A beautiful and uncharacteristically cooperative American Pygmy Kingfisher was perhaps our best sighting before we decided that the weather seemed to be drying out enough for us to attempt the rest of the day on Pipeline. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberiana National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and over 400 species of birds. The road was not in good shape due to the heavy rains, and with treefalls a regular occurrence we were only able to go in as far as the Rio Limbo Bridge (about 7KM from the beginning). Each trip down the road is different, a testament to the local diversity. We alternated walking and riding in the open-air safari type trucks that the canopy tower employs, stopping wherever activity seemed promising. Near the beginning of the road our attentions were diverted by a vocal pair of Purple-throated Fruitcrows just above our heads. We watched them for a while, obtaining excellent views of the male’s brilliant claret colored throat patch. While watching the Fruitcrows we noticed a silently perched White-necked Puffbird sitting high up in the canopy. This is the largest of the four species of Puffbirds in central Panama, with an impressively long and heavy bill that is likely the last thing that many large insects and small vertebrates ever see. About a week before our visit one of the local guides had spotted a Silky Anteater curled up in a vine tangle along the road. Though these seldom seen animals generally do not reuse their roost sites we were thrilled to see that this individual had elected to linger. We watched him for a few minutes, but as he was fast asleep and tightly curled up in a ball that occluded most of his face we had to content ourselves with a slightly uncurled tail and one ear. At our midmorning break spot a few Kilometers in we found a very large mixed flock that contained a wealth of birds. From bright Dusky-capped Flycatchers to dull Forest Elaenias and Southern Bentbills there was a bewildering array of flycatchers flitting about in the canopy. Slaty-tailed and Black-throated Trogons were sitting in the mid story, and we coaxed out Cocoa Woodcreepers and one stunning Black-striped Woodcreeper (arguably the most colorful species of woodcreeper) from a dense thicket of smaller trees. For those more inclined to ogle color we had Green and Red-legged Honeycreeper, and Golden-hooded Tanager and White-shouldered Tanagers to choose from as well. Eventually we walked on, leaving our coffee cups and sandwich wrappers in the van, and a heavy weight of ink in our notebooks. Just a little further down the trail we located a brightly marked Golden-collared Manakin that was half-heartedly displaying near the forest floor. At another stop we enjoyed very good views of oddly shaped and colourful Song Wrens that came in to our played calls and showed off to good effect. As it turned out they were actively nesting, and we were able to watch them repeatedly return to their large grassy ball-shaped nest just a few meters off the road. Nearby we enjoyed a truly stunning view of a very active pair of Scaly-throated Leaftossers that were busily living up to their names by turning over the forest floor in a quest for arthropods in the leaf litter. Although often vocal this species can be fairly retiring, so our point-blank and repeated views were excellent. While we were watching the Leaftossers a sharp-eyed participant saw a larger bird in the background that proved to be a quite cooperative Great Tinamou! In general we found good luck with ground dwelling birds, as we also located an extremely unconcerned Black-faced Antthrush, a somewhat furtive Kentucky Warbler and a pair of Gray-chested Doves during the day. Small flocks of Dot-winged, White-flanked, and Checker-throated Antwrens appeared at intervals, often with other birds, like Olivaceous Flatbilll or Black-crowned or Fasciated Antshrikes in tow. Although we uncharacteristically failed to find an active antswarm this year, perhaps due to the threatening and wet conditions, we did locate a couple of groups of antswarm followers waiting for the ants to become active. Several handsome Spotted Antbirds and a few more shy Bicolored Antbirds were detected, along with more Gray-headed Tanagers and various woodcreepers. Just before lunch an impromptu stop for a bathroom break revealed a mixed flock of birds foraging in a treefall gap around eye level. Among the more common species here we detected our first Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, brightly colored Bay (really copper) Wrens, and a female Fulvous-vented Euphonia. After a great picnic lunch we continued up to the Rio Limbo Bridge, where we were surprised by a large treefall that blocked our access to the rest of the road. We turned around just as the heavens opened up into an impressive tropical deluge, which caused us to beat a hasty retreat to relative cover of the trucks. The rain lessened shortly thereafter and as we slowly drove back towards the tower we were happy to note a few more special birds along the way. Likely the best, and for some participants one of the best birds of the tour, was a brilliant emerald and rufous Great Jacamar that perched motionless in the high canopy for several minutes. Another stop produced a staked-out Common Potoo that was doing a very convincing imitation of a broken off tree stump. We drove back to the tower in the late afternoon, still successful at dodging the majority of the rain, and with heads of the diversity that we had witnessed in this, perhaps the largest tract of lowland rainforest extant in Central America.
During our week at the Canopy Tower we made two full day trips afield in order to sample some of central Panama’s other available habitats. Unfortunately we encountered the effects of an incoming and extremely rare Hurricane during both of our longer days out. Hurricane Otto sideswiped the Caribbean coast of Panama, eventually making landfall two days later near the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan border as a category 2 storm. Otto formed as the latest hurricane on record in the Caribbean, and the most southerly. It was the first Hurricane to strike Costa Rica in 174 years! It brought very heavy rains to central Panama, so much so that the full canal had to be closed to boat traffic for over a day to open all the locks and spillways in an attempt to control flooding. Our first of these two longer day trips was to the Caribbean coast where despite the conditions we managed to see an excellent cross section of our target birds and avoid most of the actual heavy rainfall through the day. Due to the ongoing construction of the new wider Panama Canal we were forced to take a ferry across the mouth of the canal rather than drive over the old loch system.
We started the day with a walk along Achiote Road (actually now signed to indicate that this is an area for the observation of birds). During a nice gap in the rain we walked along the road (made less busy then normal by the punctuated nature of the ferry traffic) stopping to admire a host of birds that were perched up trying to dry off from the downpour. Trogons especially were in evidence, with multiple White-tailed, Gartered and Slaty-tailed Trogons in view. A group of icterids was busily foraging along the road including many Yellow-backed Orioles, and a few each of Scarlet-rumped and Yellow-rumped Cacique and Chestnut-headed Oropendola. Small mixed flocks passed by, mostly consisting of wintering warblers such as Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted and Yellow. One of the flocks also contained a cooperative Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant that perched repeatedly in view just over the road. This is the world’s smallest passerine bird species, and although easily heard it can be devilishly difficult to pick out from its customary canopy haunts. Our luck with the rain held long enough for us to locate nearly all of the specialty birds that we generally seek here. A beautiful pair of Spot-crowned Barbets were feeding up in a high tree, and while we watched they slowly worked down into an eye-level Heliconia thicket, providing nearly perfect views. The sharp ears of our local guide Alexis picked up on the calls of a foraging party of White-headed Wrens and we were soon looking at these elegant canopy-dwelling birds as they foraged among clusters of epiphytic bromeliads. Pied Puffbirds put in an appearance too, with a pair of these miniature Puffbirds placidly sitting for likely more than a half-hour just off the road. We even continued our lucky run of lingering stake-outs with excellent views of a sleeping Great Potoo sitting prominently in a large tree. Lastly a cagey but eventually visible pair of Orange-billed Sparrows, surely a candidate for the most attractive new world sparrow, kept us entertained for quite a while. Although the wren and the barbet are generally our main target birds here our best bird along the road was likely a male Bare-crowned Antbird that we teased out of another Heliconia thicket. These fairly scarce birds are notoriously hard to see in their preferred dense and often very wet thickets, and our views of this bird (in the scope!) would be hard to improve on. As the rains resumed we drove further west for a bit in a bid to locate another dry patch. It took a bit of searching but down a short side road that leads to the tiny community of Providencia we were able to walk in light rain through the gardens and hedgerows along the road. Here we located a very attractive (if confusingly named) male Pacific Antwren calling vigorously in a dense vine tangle. A nice mixed flock near the end of the road contained our first Flame-rumped Tanager and Golden-winged Warbler, and in the flooded farm fields amidst some soggy looking cattle we found a pair of Green Kingfishers and a good comparison between Snowy Egret and immature Little Blue Heron. After lunch, taken in a conveniently located bus stop shelter we headed back towards the Lake Gatun dam and spillway, where we found the volume of water that was being released from the lake to strain the bounds of credulity. All but 2 of the spillway gates were wide open, and a torrent of water was frothing down the channel and into the Chagres River. The waves were cresting at over 50 feet high, with water occasionally spraying over the spillway road. We found out later that this road was actually closed due to the volume of water just a few hours after our passing through. In the afternoon we drove over to the stand of mangroves near San Lorenzo, where we located a responsive Mangrove Cuckoo and several teetering Spotted Sandpipers. Concerned about the timing with the ferry we departed early to ensure that we would be able to catch the train. But due to missing the first ferry (by 1 car) and then having to wait almost 45 minutes for the next one due to boat traffic through the canal we were late to the train station and had to settle for a drive back to the tower, where we arrived just in time for dinner. Although disappointing, the afternoon rains would have made visibility from inside the train car poor, and likely would have precluded our standing in the outdoor car as well. Though admittedly a difficult day in the field we did outstandingly well with our target birds, and enjoyed very good views of some exceptional species.
Our full day trip away from the tower to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, east of Panama City provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. Unfortunately for us the effects of Otto were still being felt in full swing. We had heavy and nearly constant rain for the duration of the morning, which meant that we were largely confined to visiting two private houses nestled in the gated community atop the ridge. At our first house, privately owned by an ex-pat American couple we realized just how many hummingbirds one could fit onto a feeder. We estimated that 50-80 birds were visible at any given time, often zipping in and out right between us as we watched. The diversity here was also impressive, and in about two hour’s vigil we enjoyed Crowned Woodnymph, Stripe-throated, Green and Long-billed Hermits, pugnacious Bronze-tailed (and White-vented) Plumeleteers, Blue-chested, and dozens of Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds! In addition to the hummingbirds we had an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with lots of Red-legged and Green, and a few Shining Honeycreepers all putting in appearances at the banana feeders. At the second house we found another impressive showing of hungry hummingbirds and honeyeaters, and were able to stand nearly next to the feeders as the birds buzzed around our heads. A few additional hummingbirds were detected here too, with the tiny Violet-headed Hummingbirds feeding in the flower beds that lined the backyard, many dazzlingly green Violet-capped Hummingbirds coming into the feeders and a single large Long-billed Starthroat making repeated visits. Over a delicious cooked lunch we watched the show, and as we were preparing to depart our driver spotted a Yellow-eared Toucanet sitting quietly along the side of the house. Luckily it remained perched long enough for all of us to admire its gaudy plumage. As this is typically one of the main target species for the mountain, and we were unable to walk around to intersect with mixed flocks due to the rain I was extremely happy to see it. We elected to descend earlier than scheduled, which turned out to be wise given the several small mudslides and large cracks developing in the highway and then stopped along the coast at Panama City to marvel at the huge numbers of migrant and wintering shorebirds that use Panama Bay as a stopover or wintering site. The tide was low, and thousands of birds were feeding along the coast during our vigil. Long strings of waders were in constant motion, with Willets, Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers and peeps (mostly Western Sandpipers) being particularly noticeable. A stake-out American White Pelican (very scarce in Panama) showed off well as we drove by its regular haunts, as did hordes of herons including a striking adult Cocoi Heron, a species which seems to be expanding its range in central Panama and several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Some diligent searching amongst the gulls and terns revealed a single Franklin’s Gulls, as well as Sandwich, Gull-billed and Royal Terns. And out to sea truly stunning numbers of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans wheeled around in a swarm of constant motion capping a wonderfully varied day in the field.
We spent our last really enjoyable morning around the Ammo Dump Ponds and the town of Gamboa. Initially we had planned to drive back into the Pipeline Road, but the road was blocked by floodwaters and we likely would have had trees over the road to contend with as well. The flooded waters around Gamboa were attracting a lot of attention from the Canal authority and general local tourists as well. WE walked along the road spotting Greater Ani, Wattled Jacana, Prothonotary Warblers, and herons that had been pushed out of the marshes by the high water. Even a young Spectacled Caiman was found basking on the road edge! We found a few new species here too, with a distantly perched Gray-lined Hawk and a male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater perhaps the highlights. Along the banks of the very swollen Chagres River we watched as workers tried to clear away huge floating mats of vegetation that had been carried downstream and threatened to choke the canal. A young Common Black Hawk was foraging at eye level along the riverbank, looking for unsuspecting frogs that were trying to find new hideouts. In the huge bamboo thickets that line this part of the riverbank we found Scrub and Golden-headed Greenlets to be conspicuous and also enjoyed an instructive comparison between Panama and Dusky-capped Flycatchers. Among the hordes of Common Gallinules that were picking at the floating vegetation we located a single American Coot, and atop one of the nearby towers we spotted an attractive adult Peregrine Falcon. After we returned to the tower for lunch we loaded up the van and took the 2.5 hour transfer to our base for the tour extension, the beautiful Canopy Lodge.
EXTENSION: Nestled in a forested caldera valley just uphill from the picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, in the eastern edge of the Talamanca range that stretches westward into Costa Rica, the lodge offers a wealth of birds not accessible around the tower. The daily show at the fruit feeders, just outside the dining hall is a treasure for the eyes, with dozens of colorful tanagers, including some normally restricted to the dense forest understory (like Dusky-faced and Red-crowned Ant-tanager), competing with Red-tailed Squirrels, honeycreepers and even Rufous Motmots and Collared Aracaris for the best pieces of banana. This year we were also treated to daily sightings of Spot-crowned Barbets that came in each afternoon for a midday banana snack. The cool air and light breezes of EL Valle combined with the white noise provided by the rushing stream that passes through the property and the comparatively huge and opulent rooms leads to a most comfortable environment. We only had a brief time on the first afternoon to explore, but we used it to good effect, watching the parade of birds coming in to feed on the provided banana tables. Collared Aracaris, Gray-headed Chachalacas, and Dusky-faced Tanagers were all regular visitors, but the stunning male Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped Tanagers likely stole the show. Along the creek we located a handsome Buff-rumped (Buff does not begin to describe the intensity of colour on these birds rumps) Warbler that was teetering along the retaining wall that lines the far bank. These very attractive tropical warblers occupy a niche along rushing creeks that is exploited by many birds in Asia like Forktails and Water-Redstarts, but seems oddly little used in the new world. That evening we ate dinner on the open-air patio of the lodge, accompanied by Orange Nectar Bats that were coming in and draining the hummingbird feeders.
The next day we elected to spend the morning above the lodge exploring a few of the roads around La Mesa. The forests here are laden with epiphytes, and at 3000 feet above sea level the air is relatively cool. At our first stop just a couple of Kilometers above the lodge we found a nice mixed flock with cooperative Buff-throated Saltators, a perched Tropical Pewee, foraging Crested Oropendolas and a flyby Giant Cowbird. A few hundred meters above that we stopped at a seemingly unremarkable bend in the road and found a pair of Long-billed Gnatwrens (a tiny bird that seems to be mostly tail and bill) and a pair of roosting Tropical Screech-Owls that were sitting almost directly over the road. For most of the morning we slowly walked along a short road with patches of cloud forest along the banks. Mixed flocks were common here, and each flock contained several species new for our trip. Orange-bellied Trogons perched above the trail, while Bay Wrens lurked in the underbrush. One of our first flocks contained dozens of Tawny-crested Tanagers, a striking bird with the jet-black males sporting flaming orange-tawny crests and our first Olive-striped Flycatcher. We found the handsome Silver-throated Tanager to be quite common here as well, often accompanying the more garrulous Tawny-crested. Perhaps the most visually arresting bird species of the morning was a pair of the exquisite Scarlet-thighed Dacnis that we located in one of the flocks. The male, jet black and electric blue, with bright red thighs performed especially well for us, and was not at all phased by the incessant clicks of camera shutters as he foraged at eye level over the road. We walked out far enough to enter the grassy cattle pastures along the ridge, where we tracked down a very cooperative Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch (now newly classified as a tanager) that was singing from a low bush. The more open skies here permitted us to find a calling Black Hawk-Eagle that was slowly climbing up on a morning thermal with a few Black Vultures for comparison. We eventually dragged ourselves away from this first road and spent about an hour at a stake-out spot for White-tipped Sicklebill. This large and highly specialized hummingbird visits certain species of Heliconia plants to feed on their bent flowers. An individual bird will have several clusters of active flowers at any given time, and conducts a circuit, stopping to feed only briefly and then moving on to the next cluster. After about an hour many of us elected to walk further down the road, leaving the more serious hummingbird watchers in place at the flowers. This proved an excellent plan as just a few hundred meters around the bend we located a perched pair of Orange-bellied Trogons that remained in view for quite some time, giving us the sweep of the 6 possible trogon species on the tour. As we watched the trogons a large mixed flock came up the slope below us that contained some furtive Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, a sprightly Sepia-capped Flycatcher, a pair of very tame Rufous-breasted Wrens, an inquisitive male Fasciated Antshrike and our first Spotted Woodcreepers. We returned to the flower watchers with a bit of a guilty look on our faces (made doubly so when we discovered that the Sicklebill had still not visited) and then headed back down to the lodge for lunch and a short siesta. Our lunch was interrupted by a Louisiana Waterthrush that was perched on the streamside boulders in the creek, but I doubt that anyone minded. In the afternoon we set off downhill to explore the Cara Iguana Rd, on the other side of town. This alternatively paved and dirt road skirts the lower slopes of the mountains that ring the town of El Valle, passing through semi-developed housing areas with some wild lots, and many semi-cleared properties. Once again we were beset by regular rain showers, as the effects of Otto continued to be felt across much of central Panama. At one of the houses we walked into the backyard and were very happy to find three sleepy Spectacled Owls tucked up in a large roost tree. This likely proved the highlight of the walk however, as the dark and threatening skies and occasional rain kept much of the bird activity to a minimum. We did see some furtive Rosy-thrush Tanagers bouncing through the understory, and found a couple of slowly moving mixed flocks that gave us excellent views of female and male Barred Antshrikes, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and Black-throated Green Warblers. Some singing Little Tinamous were a nice aural treat near the end of the day, but we could not coax them into view.
On our second full day we again headed uphill, this time to the lower slope of Cerro Gaital, a well-forested mountain that dominates the skyline above El Valle. The forests here are laden with epiphytic growth, with stands of bamboo in the understory and moss and tree ferns seemingly everywhere. We spent the majority of the morning walking along the slightly muddy Candelaria trail, a well-marked path that winds around a large area of mostly flat forest around La Mesa. The current landowners have cleared small lanes marking the edge of potential housing plots here, but most of the understory is still intact, and the overstory is untouched. During our walk we encountered a few small flocks of antbirds lurking in the denser underbrush. Although it did take a while for us to obtain good views some sprightly orange-headed Tawny-faced Gnatwrens eventually stood still long enough for us to look at. Nearby a family group of Spotted Antbirds was an especially nice treat as they sat up in an open tangle of branches. We spent a bit of time watching a pair of White-breasted Wood-Wrens carrying food to their nestlings along the trail, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. A large mixed flock kept us entertained here for quite some time, with four species of Antwren in view at the same time! Another pair of Orange-bellied Trogons, several diminutive Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Plain Antvireos and a few bright yellow Silver-throated Tanagers, sky-blue breasted Bay-headed Tanagers and Tawny-capped Euphonias provided some color-intensive accompaniment. As we walked back out on the trail a perky little Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant distracted us by giving its buzzy song from just over the road edge and zipping back and forth in front of us. As we moved over to the trailhead for Cerro Gaital we paused to successfully look for a Bran-coloured Flycatcher that was perched along the fenceline. These rotund little flycatchers sport a back colour that is strikingly like Raisin Bran Cereal, and are one of the few birds in the world with a grain in their name (perhaps an new category for a party game – Name all the bird species with a grain in their common name…) We found the Cerro Gaital trail to be oddly quiet this year, with the highlights likely being another pair of Slaty Antwrens, some more Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers and a small group of Pale-vented Thrushes that were feeding in a fruiting tree along the mid-point of the track. On the way back downhill we stopped in at the Canopy Adventure at Macho Falls, a tourist park featuring a five parted zipline trail that crosses a scenic waterfall tucked into a richly forested canyon. Our main reason for the stop though was not the zipline but rather was to check on some spots that occasionally hold roosting Mottled Owls. To our delight one spot was occupied, and we had excellent views of this handsome owl perched just a few feet above our heads. After our successful owl chase, our third species of day-roosting owl in two days we headed back to the lodge for lunch.
After lunch we decided to take advantage of a break in the weather to revisit the area around Cara Iguana Road. We were especially keen on tracking down a few target species that had not appeared during the first afternoon. We started by walked down a different road that follows the contour of the bottom of the caldera ridge, with semi-cleared forest on one side and large housing lots on the other. With just a few minutes we heard the unmistakable song of a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager emanating from the crown of a tree in someone’s front yard! These brilliantly coloured birds (the male being black and bright rosy-pink, and the female black and a deep orangey-chestnut) are often maddeningly difficult to locate, with an oddly scattered worldwide distribution (occurring along the pacific coasts of Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama and then Ecuador), and may one day be regarded as being in their own family. This male was extremely cooperative, remaining tucked in but in full scope view for over 5 minutes as it threw its head up in full song. Also along this road we watched a male Blue-black Grassquit perform its aerial pogo stick display and tried to coax out a calling Lance-tailed Manakin to no avail, although the Rufous-breasted Wrens that came in to investigate were some consolation. Next we headed back up onto the main Cara Iguana Road, where we tracked down a pair of Rufous-and-White Wrens, a handsome large wren with a beautifully liquid flutelike song. For the rest of the late afternoon we checked out known sites for Tody Motmots, finding little evidence of their presence, but marveling at the swollen creeks that were running high from the rains and in some places washing over the roads. After a brief rainburst and near the end of the day we actually heard a response from a Motmot, and after some time slowly working our viewing angles until an errant flight landed the bird in view we enjoyed scope views of this often dastardly little tropical sprite. Nowhere common in its largely Central American range the forests around El Valle are perhaps one of their most reliable haunts. Elated at our sighting (as the species figures prominently on the T-shirts for the Lodge Staff) we happily headed back to the lodge for dinner. That night we were treated to a real feast, with a very large Thanksgiving day turkey, local yams and an all too good pineapple upside down cake for dessert. There’s something to be said for Thanksgiving dinners set in an open-air restaurant in the tropics, paired with Chilean Wine and passing Orange Nectar Bats.
Our last full day around the lodge was spent up in Altos de Maria, a large housing development several thousand feet above El Valle. Here the orchids and bromeliads seem to outweigh the trees, and a profusion of flowers play host to hummingbirds and an array of butterflies. Our day around Altos del Maria was simply fantastic, with new birds at every stop, and a lot of bird activity throughout the day. Although perhaps a bit wetter at times than we would have liked the majority of the day was rain free, overcast, and cool; just perfect conditions for birding cloudforest. At our first stop we encountered about a half-dozen species, most of which new for the tour. An active tanager flock was foraging on some short fruiting trees along the road, and also on some damaged trees that seemed to have suffered some serious wind damage from hurricane Otto. The primary species was the bright Black-and-Yellow Tanager, with several electric yellow males on display at eye level. More drab Common Chlorospingus were in evidence as well, as were a nice array of Thick-billed Euphonias and Golden-hooded Tanagers. We arrived at the gatehouse for Valle Bonito a few minutes before it opened, but our decision to walk a bit around the entrance road proved fruitful indeed. Another mixed flock kept us busy here for over a half-hour, with perky and very attractive Tufted Flycatchers flitting about, and a pair of bright orange Ochraceous Wrens busily investigating the lush epiphytic growth in some of the larger trees. At least one pair of Red-faced Spinetails, a colorful canopy spinetail that is relatively common at elevation was a nice find here too, as they crept along the branches surrounded by a host of wintering warblers including Canada, Black-and-White, Tennessee and Bay-breasted. Just past the gatehouse we spent some time staring at a grove of flowering trees, and were eventually rewarded with views of a perched male Snowcap and foraging male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem. Although we see the Snowcap almost every visit here the birds seem to be mostly females or young males, which although nice, are a far cry from the glossy purple-black male with its snow-white cap. Here too we located a small party of Emerald Toucanets (here of the central American Blue-throated form) and were especially delighted to find a single Black Guan that was furtively walking around in the canopy of some large trees. Our main area for the morning around Altos though was a walk along the (paved!) continental divide nature trail that winds along a small, forested creek with a protected swath of forest on both sides.
This walk proved far more rewarding than usual, with several new species of birds for the trip, and the bird of the trip (as voted by the participants, and by a large margin) all showing well. As we began the walk we noted a flyby Belted Kingfisher zipping over the artificial lake at the trailhead, but soon afterwards we were walking along the creek in hushed tones as we neared a stake-out active nest site for a pair of Crimson-bellied Woodpeckers, perhaps the rarest woodpecker in North America. Although the nest was known to be active previous visitors had lingered for hours without seeing any sign of the birds. Luckily for us one of the adult birds was in attendance at the large nest hole in a big rotting stump and prominently facing the trail. We watched the bird as it hopped along the trunk, and admired its rich red underparts, jet black back, flaming red crest and black throat. The bird then took flight, landing a few meters back into the forest, and revealing its boldly patterned yellow-banded wings. As this feature is not illustrated in any of the pertinent field guides it was quite a shock to all of us just how bright the wing pattern is. There are two subspecies of this rare woodpecker, and the form that inhabits a small swath of southern Central America in wet foothill forest is sometimes split out under the apt name Splendid Woodpecker. Splendid indeed! A quietly perched White-throated Spadebill and a vigorously calling Dull-mantled Antbird rounded out the prizes for the walk. These poorly named antbirds are actually quite bright, with a ruby red eye and bright silver-white flashes on their backs. As we walked back to the van most of the group paused at yet another mixed flock which held a single Spotted Barbtail (a small woodcreeper-like ovenbird with a dark chest lined with bold cream spots), and part of the group paused to watch yours truly get thoroughly mired in some deep mud, nearly losing what was left of my sandal in the process. A nice picnic lunch at a shelter next to an artificial lake greeted our return from the trail. In the later afternoon we located a few more highland species by walking along the main roads. A large fruiting tree held a wide array of birds including a male Masked Tityra, a single Lesser Elaenia with multiple Yellow-bellied Elaenias for comparison, Shining, Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers and our only Philadelphia Vireos of the trip. Just a few meters further on we heard a singing Black-crowned Antpitta just as the heavens opened with a vengeance. This large and spectacular bird is one of the top birds of Panama. Not a true Antpitta, but rather a large species of Gnateater it is a scarce species that requires good quality forest and one that can be hard to spot in the dense wet undergrowth that it prefers. The stalwart among us braved the rain and coaxed the bird to the edge of a muddy track, where it actually perched up on a large tree root for several minutes, in nearly full view! It is a striking bird, with a coal-black crown, large bill, heavily scaled underparts and chestnut wings and collar. We hurried back to get the rest of the group, and by the time everyone was back at the sight the bird had moved to a less visible location. After another five minutes or so though it came back to the trail edge, where it showed well again for most of the participants. With two of the rarest and most spectacular birds in the country appearing for us, and the rain looking unlikely to cease several folks elected to head back to the lodge to warm up and dry out. The remaining participants checked out a few more spots along the road out, finding a pair of Rufous-browed Tyrannulets, an adult Green-crowned Brilliant, and lots more tanagers for our troubles. We arrived back at the lodge in time to watch the waning hour of light at the feeding tables, with Collared Aracaris devouring bananas in seemingly single bites, and a host of tanagers picking up the scraps.
The next morning we set out for the dry savannah-like lowlands along the pacific coast, with white sandy beaches, rice fields in the lower swales, and dense hedgerows were a completely new habitat type for us, and we added a remarkable 40 species to our trip list in a very enjoyable mornings birding. Our first stop was along a new highway that leads south from El Valle. As we dropped further down out of the mountains we stopped at an overgrown soccer field where we found our first Eastern Meadowlarks, a perched White-tailed Kite, a flock of Groove-billed Ani and a pair of perched Brown-throated Parakeets, an auspicious start to the day! Along with the Parakeets was a surprise Common Potoo that we found hunched over the road in a large tree. At another stop along the road our imitated toots of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl revealed not only the owl itself but a host of birds intent on driving it away. This included our first Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-crowned Euphonias, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher of the tour. Nearby two brilliant male Lance-tailed Manakins revealed themselves in all of their satiny black, blue and red splendour.
Once down on the Pan-American Highway we made our way to the dirt road leading to the coastal village of Juan Hombron. A Savannah Hawk perched in a distant tree delayed our arrival, but was a welcome sight after we missed them around the Gatun Spillway on the main tour. We spent the rest of the morning slowly working our way to the coast, stopping wherever looked promising. Mixed flocks in the hedgerows contained hulking Rufous-browed Peppershrikes and aptly named Mouse-colored Tyrannulets and Northern Scrub Flycatchers, and patches of flowering heliconias held Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and (our only Panama endemic of the tour) a few Veraguan Mangos. A fast moving Straight-billed Woodcreeper eventually calmed down and lingered on a large tree for us, and just as we arrived at the coast we dug out a Pale-breasted Spinetail calling from the fenceline along the coastal marsh. At the coast we picked out a couple of Blue-footed Boobies floating out in the calm Pacific, and picked through a mixed flock of terns and shorebirds roosting on the beach that included several Ruddy Turnstones, Willets and Whimbrel and two Sandwich Terns. Although the rice fields were sadly dry this year, in preparation for the harvest we did watch a few threshing machines working one corner of the marsh, with masses of Egrets, Barn Swallows, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures circling over the fields. Wires along the road were continually dotted with Tropical Kingbirds, and with some scrutiny we picked out more elegant Fork-tailed Flycatchers and staid Gray Kingbirds mixed in. A roadside pool held a sedate Solitary Sandpiper, and every little puddle seemed to attract Wattled Jacanas and anis (of all three species). The quiet and bumpy little side roads held a few good birds as well, such as our excellent views of the truly tiny Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, some perched Yellow-crowned Parrots, and a quick flyby of an adult Pearl Kite. A repositioning to a beachside house in Santa Clara owned by the Canopy Tower Family allowed us to enjoy a warm cooked lunch, in the company of yet more Frigatebirds and Boobies. After a relaxing lunch and even swimming in the Pacific (for some) we headed for our hotel in Panama City, arriving in the late afternoon, to another rainstorm which precluded our customary walk around the grounds of the hotel. I want thank this year’s two local leaders, Alexis Sanchez and Danilo Rodriguez, for making this a great and easy tour to lead, and to this year’s participants for braving an unusually wet trip with good grace and humour. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.
- Gavin Bieber
Created: 06 December 2016