2013 Tour Narrative
In Brief: Our trip to Panama in the spring of 2013 was a great success. We had many species highlights, including lengthy views of Ocellated, Bicolored and Spotted antbirds attending an antswarm, a cooperative Streak-chested Antpitta, a perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and point blank views of a male Blue Cotinga. A surprise Tiny Hawk that buzzed the group before landing trailside and a pair of handsome Masked Tityras that interrupted breakfast one morning at the tower were two more exciting moments. Panama is justly known for a large number of colorful tropical birds, and we enjoyed repeated views of Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, five species of Trogons, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, gaudy tanagers such as Bay-headed, Crimson-backed and Golden-hooded, and a host of dazzling hummingbirds including the striking Purple-crowned Fairy. The fact that we can spend the week based in one lodge (the unique and excellent Canopy Tower) and access such a wide diversity in the nearby forests is one of the things which makes our Panama trips so special. And I haven’t even mentioned the fresh food, wonderful scenery, varied flora, beautiful landscapes, and the great camaraderie of the group – it was truly a wonderful trip and I am very much looking forward to next year’s rendition.
The extension to Burbayar allowed us to access a very different avifauna than that found in the canal zone. The lodge grounds held fruiting trees that attracted a wide array of fruigivorus birds, from Short-billed Pigeons and Brown-hooded Parrots to Blue-crowned Manakin, Sulphur-rumped Tanager and Rufous Mourner. Walks along the undulating trails surrounding the lodge produced several mixed flocks containing range-restricted birds like Stripe-throated Wren, and locally scarce species such as Great Jacamar. And who could forget the amazing views of a half-dozen Ocellated Antbirds foraging over an active army ant swarm? The main road to the north of the road was once again excellent for raptors in the late morming, with multiple King Vultures, a perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle and a dozen graceful American Swallow-tailed Kites. The Bayano lowlands were highly productive, with multiple sightings of the range-restricted Black Antshrike, a pair of One-colored Becards, a Barred Puffbird drying out after a midmorning shower, a handsome Royal Flycatcher, and a few sprightly White-eared Conebills. Perhaps the highlight of the extension was furnished on the last morning as we enjoyed a lengthy encounter with one of the least known birds on the continent, the enigmatic Sapayoa!
This year’s participants were very interested in non-bird fauna as well. It was a real treat to be able to spend time investigating all of Panama’s “hidden” diversity. We encountered 18 species of mammals, over 20 species of reptiles and amphibians, and innumerable insects including tiny mantids mimicking ants, huge walking sticks, and glittering emerald hairstreaks.
In Detail: We spent the morning of our first day exploring Metropolitan Park, just a few miles from our Panama City Hotel. This large park is surrounded on three sides by the city, but backs onto a larger protected area stretching well into central Panama. The forest here is drier than the forests of Soberania National Park (and the Canopy Tower), and thus supports a few species that are rare or absent close to the tower. A very enjoyable and bird-rich morning walk along on of the parks trails proved an excellent introduction to the avifauna of central Panama. An open grassy field bordered by fruiting gumbo-limbo trees kept us entertained for nearly an hour, as we studied our first Streaked Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Yellow-green Vireos, Variable Seedeaters and Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonias. A pair of Paltry Tyrannulets were busily building a nest along the forest edge, while migrant Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers, and a resident Yellow-margined Flycatcher looked on. In a small garden along the trail some judiciously placed bananas were attracting a riot of bird color, with Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, and Palm tanagers joined by Buff-throated Saltators and flashy Yellow-backed Orioles. The taller forested ridge of the park proved productive as well, with excellent views of both Black-bellied and Rufous-breasted Wrens and two pairs of Long-billed Gnatwrens. After a few hours we wandered back to the bus to complete our transfer to the Canopy Tower, arriving just in time (after a pause to admire a perched Gray-headed Kite along the road) for a tasty lunch and a short siesta. In the afternoon we headed a few miles down the road to the Gamboa Rainforest resort property, which sits at the junction of the Chagres River and the Panama Canal. The habitat here is fairly open, and just walking along the paved road through the resort property and scanning the banks of the river made for a very productive afternoon. Our prize of the trip was likely the tiny American Pygmy Kingfisher that flew past the group along the shore of the river, glinting copper and emerald in the late afternoon sun. The dozens of foraging Wattled Jacanas were a definite hit as well. We encountered several mixed flocks which held treats like Cinnamon Becard, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper and Common Tody-Flycatcher amongst the larger numbers of migrant warblers and orioles. At another stop we marveled at the antics of displaying Golden-collared Manakins as several males courted a visiting female. As we walked back to the car to head for the tower we were delayed for over a half hour as we admired a colorful show of toucans, with several Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans glowing in perfect light, and some Collared Aracaris perched nearby. All in all an incredible introduction to the birds of Panama!
The Canopy Tower is perched atop a 300ft high hill in Soberiana National Park and overlooks a great expanse of forested slopes and lowlands. The view from the top of the tower shows off the expansive forest canopy and the canal. Early morning on the top deck is a special place, as pre-dawn light creeps across the canopy and the birds begin to wake. Bare trees around the tower hosted perched Red-lored, Mealy, and Blue-headed Parrots, Keel-billed Toucans, multiple migrant tanagers and warblers, Green Shrike-Vireo and the occasional troupe of Geoffrey’s Tamarins.
We spent several early mornings atop the tower drinking in the view, watching as hundreds of migrant Swainson’s Hawks and thousands of Turkey Vultures (not to mention large numbers of swallows and swifts) coursed by. On three of our early morning watches we spotted a male Blue Cotinga perched in canopy trees. Other interesting sightings included perched Short-tailed Hawk and Gray-headed Kite and beautiful views of many striking Scaled Pigeons. And who could forget a tree festooned with a dozen Keel-billed Toucans in the early morning light? A fruiting tree near the tower attracted a small mixed flock each morning, and we enjoyed eye-level views of Shining, Red-legged and Green honeycreepers, Blue Dacnis, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, and Bay-breasted warblers, and Scarlet, Summer, Plain-colored, Palm, and Blue-gray tanagers. The hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower hosted Blue-chested and Violet-bellied hummingbirds, the occasional White-vented Plumeleteer, and many White-necked Jacobins. Flowering trees around the tower served as bases for a huge array of gorgeous metalmark butterflies.
The forests and small wetlands close to the tower occupied two full days of our tour. Over a hundred and fifty species can be found within just a couple miles of the tower. The Ammo Ponds in nearby Gamboa provided us with a great introduction to the group of yellow bellied flycatchers with black and white head stripes and we spent some time learning how to identify Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers, Boat-billed Flycatchers and Greater and Lesser Kiskadees. Also at the ponds were several Rufescent Tiger-Herons, many Wattled Jacanas, a beautiful White-throated Crake foraging in the open and a flock of bathing Yellow-bellied Seedeaters. At the Summit Ponds we found nesting Boat-billed Herons, Amazon Kingfishers, and a trio of perky Gray-necked Wood-Rails. The trail near the ponds was productive as well, as many of the Gumbo Limbo trees were in fruit and attracted a wide range of birds including beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, an array of tanagers and flycatchers and a skulking Yellow-billed Cacique. Just a little further down the trail from the ponds we had an unexpected encounter with a beautiful perched Tiny Hawk. Also here was a very active bare tree with a seemingly endless parade of colorful birds perched up in the late afternoon sun.
The road below the tower down Semaphore Hill passes through some forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity for spotting understory birds. On our first morning we walked slowly down the hill, pausing to admire birds such as Western Slaty-Antshrike, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Dot-winged and White-flanked antwrens and White-whiskered Puffbird. We also had excellent views of both Rufous and Broad-billed motmots, and a Collared Forest-Falcon perched along the roadside. Along the nicely built Plantation Road, which winds through small undulating forested hills in Soberania National Park we were most pleased to locate and enjoy lengthy studies of a pair of Sunbitterns that were foraging in a remnant puddle along the creek. A few small flocks containing species such as Olivaceous Flatbill, Dusky Antbird, and Checker-throated, White-flanked and Dot-winged antwrens certainly kept us entertained as well.
As this year’s group enjoyed all aspects of natural history we made certain to spend some time at one of the forested creeks below the tower, where a good diversity of odonates and butterflies joined Common Basilisk Lizards and Lesser White-lined Bats. Our night drive proved exceedingly productive, with Spectacled Owl, Common Pauraque, and a perched Common Potoo providing the avian highlights. It was the mammals that stole the show however, with Kinkajou, Rothschild’s Porcupine, active Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloths and a Central American Woolly Opossum!
We spent a full day on the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberiana National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and almost 400 species of birds. It is always hard to pick a favorite bird on the road, as every trip seems to bring surprises or different views of more familiar species. Early into the morning we encountered an active antswarm right next to the road that allowed us to have amazingly close views of the very attractive Bicolored and Spotted antbirds, and repeated sunlit views of the almost unbelievably colorful Ocellated Antbird. Also in attendance at the swarm were Northern Barred and Cocoa woodcreepers along with several Gray-headed Tanagers and Song Wrens. A cooperative Black-faced Antthrush even walked right past the group on its way to the swarm. After a decadent picnic lunch along a crystal clear forested creek we began to slowly make our way back towards the tower. Birds seemed even more prevalent on our return journey, and we made frequent stops whenever we encountered mixed species flocks. A canopy flock contained several sky-blue Bay-headed Tanagers and a curious Squirrel Cuckoo. At a second antswarm we watched a dozen Bicolored and a few Spotted Antbirds hunting at close range. At one point while watching this group the “wraith of the forest” made an appearance; a beautiful Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo crossed the road in front of the group, pausing just long enough to give people solid views of this impressive “roadrunner of the jungle”. In recent years Panama has become the country to see this large and generally very scarce species, but most sightings have come from a pair of semi-habituated birds near the Canopy Lodge. To encounter one along Pipeline Road is a true treat! A last stop for a calling Russet-winged Schiffornis (which remained frustratingly out of view) turned suddenly productive as a Brownish Twistwing began calling. And while searching for the Twistwing we located a silently foraging Streak-chested Antpitta walking on the forest floor not too far off the road. Getting great looks at Antpittas is hard enough when they are calling, so finding one as on accident is truly remarkable!
On this year’s tour we made an all day trip to the Atlantic slope forests of San Lorenzo National Park and Achiote Road. These lowland forests are along central Panama’s Atlantic coast and support several species of birds not found around the lodge area. We began the day birding along Achiote Road and a developed side trail. Participants had a variety of favorite sightings from the day, including perched Chestnut-mandibled and Keel-billed toucans, Purple-throated Fruitcrows displaying their namesake fieldmark, and a pair of tiny Pied Puffbirds. Also high on the list were skulking Bay and Plain wrens, a dazzling Green Kingfisher hunting over a small creek, several Limpkin, a pair of fighting Rufous-breasted Hermits and a perched Laughing Falcon. At the spillway area below the Lake Gatun Dam we found a few Red-breasted Blackbirds, our only American Kestrels of the tour, and an impressively large American Crocodile lounging in the shallow waters below the spillway gates. Later we ate an enjoyable picnic lunch on the coast at Fort San Lorenzo, a picturesque fort built atop the delta of the Chagres River. Lunch guests included a male Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and several feisty Lesser Greenlets. The Caribbean coastline was beautiful as usual. Although quiet for birds, we very much enjoyed a brief trip to a coralline beach shelf, where the tidal flats held several colorful reef fish, a small Barracuda and a few bright red tubeworms. At some nearby mangroves we stopped to admire a female Black-tailed Trogon, and several in the group enjoyed lengthy views of a pair of Mangrove Cuckoos, while the rest of us looked at a foraging Cinnamon Woodpecker, Cocoa and Streak-headed woodcreepers, our first Black-and-White Warbler and an eye-level Yellow-margined Flycatcher. En route to Colon and the train terminal we greatly increased our kingfisher diversity for the trip with both Ringed and Belted Kingfishers (scarce this far south), and also spotted several Common Black Hawks and one beautiful White Hawk along the road. We capped a delightful day along the coast off with a train ride alongside the canal back to Panama City. The train affords a unique look into the flooded valleys and small islets created by the canal project, and also provides views of Snail Kites feeding on the introduced Apple Snails that have colonized the canal’s lakes. On this year’s train trip we were delayed a bit as crews worked to clear a small fire along the tracks, but we arrived at the tower just in time for dinner and a well-earned rest.
We closed the main tour off with a stop along the coast just east of Panama City to take in the extensive mudflats and their bounty of wintering and migrant waders. Unfortunately we hit the tide at the wrong time this year, arriving at nearly low tide. There was a thick band of exposed mud and sand stretching about a quarter mile from the coast, but everywhere we looked there were hordes of birds. A small channel that was draining from the main bank held dozens of foraging Neotropic Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and Great Egrets. Although all the species here are familiar to most North American birders, it is nice to see such abundance, and many of the birds were molting into their bright breeding plumage. A beautiful Peregrine Falcon also took interest in the throngs of shorebirds, and several times caused big flocks of birds to wheel around in panic. It was a truly amazing spectacle to see an estimated 20,000 birds in view at once, although most were at a range too distant for certain identification. Closer to the banks (and to us) were Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Willet, Whimbrel and Spotted Sandpipers. During our week at the Canopy Tower we encountered 261 species of birds, consistently wonderful weather (warm and sunny with cooler nights and some overcast afternoons), as well as great food and local guides!
Extension (Note: Extension replaced for 2014 with Canopy Camp Darien Tour)
Our spring Panama tour offers an extension to the eastern part of Panama. Here several range-restricted species like Black Antshrike, Spiny-faced Antshrike and White-eared Conebill join several hard to find foothill birds like Sapayoa, Black-headed Antthrush, Olive-backed and Purplish-backed quail-doves, and Great Currasow. Tanager flocks include Sulphur-rumped, Tawny-crested, Speckled, Rufous-winged and Black-and-Yellow, which make for a very different avifauna from the canal zone of Panama. The government of Panama is making a real push to improve the country’s infrastructure, and this year there was some road construction along the stretches of highway near Lake Bayano as they worked on widening and repairing the damage done by the 2010 floods. We arrived at Burbayar Lodge in time for lunch, and then after checking in and enjoying a brief siesta we spent the late afternoon walking along the main road past the lodge where we found a nesting pair of Lineated Woodpeckers, and a displaying male Long-tailed Tyrant showing off his ridiculously long upper tail covert feathers. We also encountered a flock of tanagers which included our first Tawny-crested Tanagers and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and spent some time trying to coax out an uncooperative but very vocal Central American Pygmy-Owl that remained just too far off the road for us to see.
The next day we spent walking several of the lodge trails, which wind up and down through the undulating valleys surrounding the lodge, often paralleling small forest creeks. On our longer walk of the day we found an extremely agitated Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (the world’s smallest passerine) that came down from the canopy in response to our imitations of its call. Nearby was a pair of Olives-striped Flycatchers, and just a little further down we found a very active army ant swarm centered right on the trail. Almost a half dozen Ocellated Antbirds were in attendance, as well as a few Song Wrens, woodcreepers and Bicolored Antbirds. After watching the feast for a little while we gathered the courage to run across the field of ants to continue on our way. Perhaps the highlight of the walk was the large foam nest filled with active tadpoles along the trail and an even more active snake foraging inside the mass of foam. Watching the snake move around in the surprisingly dense nest and occasionally coming up to breathe was a unique natural history experience! As we hiked back along the main road we stopped to admire some soaring vultures, only to have a beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle swoop in and perch just a few meters away. Our lengthy study of this bird, surely one of the most attractive raptors in the world, was interrupted only briefly by our excitement of finding a soaring King Vulture circling overhead. A nice lunch and a siesta followed, and then we spent a leisurely afternoon hiking along a forested creek below the lodge, where numerous frogs, our first bullet ants, and some very attractive butterflies almost edged out the birds for our attentions. The birds were still great though, such as our first Blue-black Grosbeaks, some lekking Violet-headed Hummingbirds and a singing White-vented Euphonia. We went to sleep with the sounds of Common Pauraques and Common Tink Frogs echoing off the buildings.
For the next day we drove down into the Bayano Lake Lowlands. Below the lodge lies Bayano Lake, a large hydroelectric project adjacent to the Pan-American Highway. The highway just east of the lake passes through an area of intact dry forest, with a host of interesting birds. We spent the first few hours of the day dodging the occasional rain squall (highly unusual for this location in March), but in between bands of rain the birds were very active. From the Rio Mono Bridge (which crosses a deep gulch, and thus acts as a defacto canopy tower) we located several of the specialties of the region, including the very attractive (even imposing) Barred Antbird, several active Rufous-rumped Antwrens, a nest-building One-colored Becard and a stunning male Blue Cotinga perched at eyelevel. Eventually we tore ourselves away from the bridge and then spent the rest of the day hiking along two level trails through the forest. Mixed flocks were much in evidence, and included such interesting birds as White-vented Conebill, Black Antshrike, White-winged Becard and Streak-headed Woodcreeper. The heliconia thickets held foraging hummingbirds, and active groups of White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens. Along a mostly dry rocky riverbed we watched entranced as a Black-and-Green Poison Dart Frog hopped around the drying pools of water. On our way back to the car for the drive to Burbayar we found another mixed flock with at least four Plain Xenops, a host of woodcreepers, a pair of Western Slaty-Antshrikes and a beautiful Royal Flycatcher.
For the last morning we elected to take the longer hike out for a targeted attempt at locating one of the least known birds in the country, the Sapayoa. Once thought to be a manakin or a tyrant flycatcher this bird is now known to belong in its own family, closely related to the old world broadbills. Nowhere is it common in its very limited range, but the trails around Burbayar offer perhaps the most reliable access to this enigmatic little bird. Somewhat damped by the continuing unseasonable weather we(literally) trudged on for about an hour and a half, arriving at a broad creek in a deep and forested valley. I played a little tape and was thrilled to hear a response from just around a bend in the creek. After some repositioning we were soon looking at a pair of Sapayoa attending a large grassy nest. These deep olive green birds, with a golden sheen on the nape and crown are much more attractive than the field guides would suggest! Also present in the area were several Olive Tanagers, and a pair of extremely vocal Stripe-throated Wrens. On the walk back to the lodge we stopped to admire another canopy tanager flock, this time led by many Sulphur-rumped and Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, with a single Rufous-winged Tanager trailing behind. Adding to the color show were Shining and Green honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers. All too soon it was time to depart for Panama City. One last birding stop at the Costa de Este was very productive, as we managed to arrive right at high tide. Throngs of Willet, Yellowlegs and Marbled Godwits were lined up on the small patch of remaining beach, while hundreds of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds filled the skies. A fitting end to a bird-rich and very fun trip to Panama!
Updated: April 2013