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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The 2017 Spring Panama tour combined seasonably dry weather with a wonderful array of neotropical birds. Our week at the Canopy Tower produced 270 species of birds and an incredible 18 species of mammals (360 species of birds and 20 mammals with the extension included). Some of the highlights included a female Blue Cotinga feeding just feet from the group, a perched and completely unconcerned Tiny Hawk that remained in place for over 10 minutes right above the trail, excellent views of all six species of possible Trogons, an eye-level nest of Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants on the Plantation trail, point blank views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta and foraging Great Tinamou along the Pipeline Road and a surprise Ocellated Antbird and both Spot-crowned Barbet and White-headed Wrens along Achiote Road. The lodge produced such highlights as a foraging Fasciated Tiger-Heron along the rocky creek that winds through the lodge property, a well-hidden but eventually cooperative Tody Motmot in a forested gully, studies of gaudy male Rosy Thrush-Tanager at the Lodge’s compost pile and very close views of Brown-billed Scythebill and White-tipped Sicklebill at Altos del Maria. And who could fail to mention the fiesta of colorful tanagers including Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Emerald, Black-and-Yellow, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped? Beyond the color and diversity of the birds though, we enjoyed 20 species of mammals including day active Night Monkeys, and an impressive array of 14 species of Amphibians and Reptiles. This year’s trip participants each picked a different species as their bird of the trip, a testament to the sheer number of excellent species and sightings that we had. For my part, it would be hard to beat our views of Dull-mantled Antbird as it foraged along a forested creekbank just a few meters away from the group or the hard-fought but excellent views of a pair of Lesson’s Motmots below the Canopy Lodge. This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodge make for a truly wonderful experience.

IN FULL: Before dinner the first night we did a bit of light birding around the grounds of the Tower, catching our first glimpses of species that we’d become quite familiar with over the next week. After a great dinner and introductory meeting, we fell asleep serenaded by the sounds of the tropical night.

We greeted the sunrise on our first morning with an hour long and very bird-rich vigil from the top deck of the Canopy Tower. Perched atop a 300ft high hill in Soberiana National Park, the tower overlooks a great expanse of forested slopes and lowlands. From the top of the tower one has a great view of the expansive forest canopy and of the canal. Early morning on the top deck is a special place, as the dawn’s light creeps across the canopy and the birds begin to wake. Every morning is a bit different from the deck, and on our first day we were treated to a real parade of birds. A male Cinnamon Woodpecker flew in to one of the tower side Cercropia trees and showed off its namesake cinnamon feathers beautiful in the morning sun. Small mixed flocks with resident species such as Thick-billed Euphonia, Plain-colored, Golden-hooded and Palm Tanagers, Green and Shining Honeycreepers, Paltry and Brown-capped Tyrannulets and Black-breasted Puffbirds passed by at regular intervals. Early spring is an excellent time of year to visit, as many species of migrants are in active migration. This year’s tour was a few weeks earlier than is typical and we arrived during an impressive push of Turkey Vultures, all heading west towards their summer homes across North America. The larger trees around the tower played host to Keel-billed Toucans, Pale-vented and Scaled Pigeons, and we picked out a few perched Mealy and Red-lored Parrots to round out the cast. It was a bit of a sensory overload really, and our heads were still spinning as we descended one floor to devour the cinnamon-laded French toast and fresh local fruit juice. After breakfast, we drove down to the bottom of the hill and spent the morning walking out on the Plantation Trail, a wide graveled trail that winds north further into Soberania National Park, roughly paralleling a small creek. On this trip we found the creek nearly dry, with just a few pools of water dotted around here and there, a sharp contrast to the roaring flow that was evident back in November. Just inside the forest at the trailhead we stopped to admire a pair of Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants (the world’s smallest species of passerine bird) that were nest building at eye level in a trailside palm tree. Typical views of this tiny canopy flycatcher are generally distant and backlit, so it was an especially welcome treat to be able to study them at such close range. Nearby was a very conspicuous family group of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, which cooperated beautifully for us by perching on the trunks of some of the trailside trees. The walk in and back along the trail took about three hours, with frequent stops to admire birds such as Rufous or Broad-billed Motmot, Slaty-tailed or Black-throated Trogon and Olivaceous Flatbill. Along the scenic little creek that follows the trail we tracked down a calling baby Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth that had apparently become separated from its mother who was sitting unconcernedly high above her wailing charge. The high-pitched calls of the sloth were quite reminiscent of the calls of Sunbittern, and we postulated that the pair of Sunbitterns that we found just a few meters upstream from the sloth might have been attracted to the call as well! We do not generally see Sunbittern on the tour, and this pair of birds was remarkably approachable, showing off their incredibly intricate and colorful wing pattern to excellent effect. Over the course of the morning we enjoyed several small mixed flocks containing more common birds such as White-shouldered Tanager and perky little Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers, but also some more retiring species like the virtually round Golden-crowned Spadebill, and a confiding Bicolored Antbird (which would prove to be our only one of the trip). The flocks also contained White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens, which often travel together in constantly moving bands through the lower stories of the forest. We returned to the tower in the late morning, in time for lunch and a bit of a siesta in the heat of the day.

In the afternoon we headed out to the nearby Ammo Dump Ponds just past the little town of Gamboa. A brief stop at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast (a property that is owned and managed by the same company that runs the lodge and tower) revealed our first Red-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-backed and Blue-gray Tanagers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Red-legged Honeycreepers which all came in to feed on our proffered bananas. Enroute to the ponds we were sidetracked by a dark raptor that was flying along the roadside edge. Stopping quickly we followed the bird as it was being dived on by a mob of Tropical Kingbirds and were quite elated when it perched on a large tree that overhung the road, proving itself to be a beautiful black Crane Hawk. These delicate raptors are irregularly encountered in Panama, and with their long cherry-red legs and banded tails are quite attractive birds. Once out at the actual ponds I was surprised to see how low the water level was, quite in contrast to the massive flooding that we saw here in November of 2016. A large mat of vegetation ringed the shallows of the lake, and there was even (uncharacteristically) some open mud around the edge of parts of the lake. This exposed habitat was proving very attractive to a wide array of waterbirds, with hordes of Wattled Jacana (including many family groups) were squabbling around in the marshier sections of the wetland. Great Blue, Little Blue, Green Herons and Great Egrets joined a couple of very colorful Rufescent Tiger Herons, making quite a good showing of waders! In the vegetation ringing the lake we watched a pair of Greater Anis as they clambered around in the shrubs and teased out an actively foraging Isthmian (formerly Plain) Wren that was lurking in the grasses. A pair of beautiful Gray-lined Hawks passed over the group, circling overhead and showing off their pale gray plumage, and we enjoyed especially fine views of plum-clad Pale-vented Pigeons, several perched Black-throated Mangos, a male Barred Antshrike and a gleaming Prothonotary Warbler. As the day began to draw to a close we worked on the finer identification points that can be used to separate the similar Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers, and happily watched as White-tipped Doves waddled along the access road to the pond, with a Northern Waterthrush seemingly following them along. We drove back to the tower for dinner and our first checklist, with brains perhaps overloaded with the wealth of birds that we had found!

On our second day we set out for an all-day excursion (we thought) to 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. The forest (and all of central Panama) was noticeably dry this trip. Perhaps as a result of the strong El Nino much of Central America and the Caribbean experienced a weak wet season and high temperatures with lingering windy conditions. We started the day in the edge forest near the entrance of the Pipeline Rd. Here we teased out a White-bellied Antbird, a handsome and often annoyingly stubborn understory species that prefers dense grassy verges. A small grove of fruiting trees was attracting a pair of Cinnamon Becards and nice array of tanagers and warblers including Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, and Yellow and handsome pairs of Crimson-backed and Golden-hooded Tanagers. Here too was a very nice comparison of Piratic and Streaked Flycatchers, perched just above our heads and a very cooperative band of the colorful and oddly shaped Song Wrens that crept in to investigate our imitations of their sweet and rollicking chorus. Walking back to our open-topped car we were surprised to hear a calling Black-tailed Trogon that we tracked down to a tree directly above our car! Of the five species of Trogons that occur around the canal-zone this is generally the most difficult species to locate, so we felt fortunate to have a stunning male belting out its ringing hollow whistled song right at our car. We slowly birded the first few kilometers of the road finding the forest to be relatively quiet but encountering several nice mixed flocks, with each flock bringing one or two new species into view. The Purple-throated Fruitcrows were a definite crowd pleaser, with one male perched at the right angle to show off its claret-colored throat patch. Another flock contained a very cooperative and showy pair of Black-striped Woodcreepers (our only ones for the tour). Though most species Woodcreepers seem almost visually redundant this species is quite gaudy, with golden-buff spots across their black nape, back and chest. We even found a Great Potoo that was perched up high in a truly impressively large tree doing an amazingly good imitation of a broken off stump. We took a mid-morning snack near the entrance gate to the cordoned off section of Pipeline (past which only Smithsonian research vehicles, the tower cars and working road crews have motorized access). While munching on some tasty little sandwiches and quaffing coffee and tea we tried to decide which of the 4 species Trogons that we had seen that morning was the fairest of them all. A mixed flock of flycatchers also attracted our attention here, with a male Gray Elaenia being the standout species. When we arrived at the gate we found a road crew finishing off the last touches of a newly cemented-in gate. Unfortunately for us they declared that the gate was not to be opened that day while the cement set. This meant that we were unable to drive in to the middle and back parts of the road as we customarily do. We decided to amend the initial plan, and rather than spend the entire day on Pipeline elected to bird the first mile past the gate on foot. This strategy paid off well, with point-blank views of a foraging Great Tinamou right along the road. A bit further down were excited to see a small group of Brown-hooded Parrots perched quietly in the midstory of the forest, while a noisy family party of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers and a group of Scarlet-rumped Caciques busily hopped around above them. We found several Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins along the road as well, with males proving much harder to locate than females. Looking skyward we were rewarded with views of a soaring White Hawk and a passing Double-toothed Kite among several species of swifts and a near continual stream of migrant Turkey Vultures. We arrived back at the entrance gate in time to polish off our packed lunches and then headed back to the tower for a siesta (with plans to return to the Pipeline Road at the end of the main tour).

That afternoon we set out for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Grounds. Abutting the Chagres River, right where the river meets the Panama Canal, the lodge has an abundance of birdlife. On the vegetated banks of the river we found our first Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Common Gallinule, Anhinga, Pied-billed Grebe, and Osprey. As we scanned the river from the bank we watched Southern Rough-winged and Mangrove Swallows pass back and forth in front of us, while Southern Lapwings yelped from the nearby boat dock and Lesser Kiskadees fished from the dock edge. Around the actual lodge grounds we found our first Flame (Lemon)-rumped Tanagers, Orchard and brightly marked Yellow-backed Orioles, Masked Tityra and a single Tropical Pewee. As we walked towards the forested loop trail in the back of the property our sharp-eyed local guide picked out a silently perched Tiny Hawk that was perched above the road. This diminutive Accipiter is infrequently encountered and rather scarce. Although they live up to their name, these small raptors are voracious predators, taking surprisingly large birds as prey items, and also dining on fast moving species such as hummingbirds. This somewhat bulky (likely female) bird stared down at us unconcernedly as we watched her for quite some time, even allowing us to walk directly underneath its perch. After filling our SD cards with some Tiny Hawk filled pixels we set off down the forest path where we were quickly rewarded with a male Gartered Trogon (our fifth species of Trogon for the day). Our best birds though were found near the end of the afternoon. A female Blue Cotinga was devouring large berries from a trailside tree, and although backlit, the heavily scaled body feathers and bold eyering were visible to excellent effect.  Just a tad further around the next corner a male Golden-collared Manakin perched in a small patch of sunlight, fairly gleaming it its electric bumblebee costume. We arrived back at the tower in plenty of time for dinner. An optional after-dinner trip down the road furnished views of a distant Common Pauraque, perched Common Potoo, quick views of a very active Olingo and excellent looks at languidly foraging Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth and a nearly immobile arboreal Rothchild’s Porcupine.

The next day dawned clear but still a bit windy, and we greeted the very attractive sunrise again atop the Canopy Tower. Perched Scaled Pigeons and Mealy Parrots provided a welcome study after our brief views the previous day, and a distant Gray-headed Kite was spotted atop a tree, sitting close enough for us to discern the beautiful banded tail and ash-gray head. After breakfast we spent the rest of the morning slowly walking down the one-mile road below the tower. The road passes through some forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity for spotting understory birds. This walk took us over three hours, as we frequently paused to admire birds such as Western Slaty-Antshrike, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Dot-winged, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens and White-whiskered Puffbird. We also had excellent views of Broad-billed Motmot, a foraging Black-bellied Wren that uncharacteristically sat out in full sun for us, a hulking Bright-rumped Attila, and a lovely pair of Black-throated Trogons. A sitting and vigorously singing Slate-colored Grosbeak showed extremely well, remaining in place for several minutes while giving its repetitive whistled song. Little flocks of flycatchers and warblers kept popping into the canopy around us, with many good views of the diminutive Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Tennessee Warblers and dapper little Red-capped Manakins. The mammals were excellent too, with the highlight undoubtedly being the several Night Monkeys that were poking their heads out of a tree cavity for several minutes. Perhaps the best sighting of the morning though was a cooperative Pheasant Cuckoo that came right in to our imitations of its call and then slowly flew by the group at eye level with its characteristic floppy mothlike wingbeat. Although resident in Panama these very cryptic large cuckoos are generally only seen when vocalizing in the dry season, going virtually undetected for most of the year. We reached the bottom of the hill and after checking out the Lesser White-lined Bats that have colonized under the road bridge and looking at the assembled collection of dragon and damselflies that were darting around the creekbed we caught a ride back up to the tower for lunch and a siesta.

For the afternoon outing that day we elected to drive back down to Summit and walk out the old Gamboa Road which passes through some patches of Gumbo Limbo trees, dry tropical forest, open cane-grass fields and a couple of small freshwater ponds. It was quite a walk! For whatever reason the birds were out and very active. It took us over an hour to leave the parking area, with excellent views of Golden-fronted Greenlet, Blue-black Grosebeak, a pair of Buff-breasted Wrens, Buff-throated and Streaked Saltators, Variable and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters and Thick-billed and Fulvous-vented Euphonias each vying for our attentions. Once we eventually started walking to the ponds we were sidetracked by sitting Boat-billed Herons, Ringed Kingfisher and a sitting Muscovy Duck. At the far edge of the pond a pair of the large and colorful Gray-cowled Wood-Rails were quietly foraging and preening in the dappled sunlight, showing off to incredible effect. Overhanging vegetation held Greater Ani and Giant Cowbirds, and a very active Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet that briefly became entangled in a hefty looking spiderweb, thankfully escaping before it could fall prey to a Shelob-esque predator. As we entered the drier forest behind the ponds a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers flew overhead, alighting on a large tree that they were actively drilling impressively large holes into. The trail had been recently cleared, and it seemed that a large number of grass seeds were strewn across the widened gap. A host of birds were browsing on the bounty including a bright Orange-billed Sparrow and an incredibly cooperative male Painted Bunting, quite a scarce and unexpected species in central Panama. Even a few normally shy insectivores were out in full view, such as a single Rufous-and-White Wren that repeatedly darted out of cover to nab beetles that were walking along the trail edge. Although our hoped for roosting Spectacled Owls were not at any of their customary perches the walk to the back of the trail produced several small mixed species flocks and a steady trickle of bird species. Most of the group also spotted a distant Lesser Capybara that crossed the trail in front of us. We headed back to the tower in time for dinner, eager to set off the next day for our first of two full days away from the local hotspots.

The next day we left early for a full day trip to the Atlantic slope forests of San Lorenzo National Park and Achiote Road. These lowland forests along central Panama’s Atlantic coast support several species of birds not found around the lodge area. We were delayed a bit as we had to wait to drive over both the new loch door and the old loch doors, and for a huge container ship that was passing through the second set of lochs. The canal-widening project is nearing completion, with the new canal loch system now in operation and a new bridge over the canal set to be complete by the end of 2017. Once this bridge is complete we will no longer have the opportunity to see the inner workings of the loch systems as we drive over the loch doors, so this years tour may be the last to enjoy such an intimate view. Once we reached Achiote Road the birds started coming thick and fast. I think that participants had a wide array of favorites from the day, from perched Chestnut-mandibled and Keel-billed Toucans, tiny Pied Puffbird, an active nesting colony of Crested Oropendolas, or the passing ribbon of over 50 American Swallow-tailed Kites in active migration all being mentioned. In a small coffee plantation just of the road we found a family group of White-headed Wrens, and were able to study Piratic and Gray-capped Flycatchers with some detail. Along the main road we were thrilled to hear a pair of calling Ocellated Antbirds (an antswarm obligate that we generally only encounter along Pipeline Road at an active army ant swarm). We tracked down the calling birds and were able to watch one of them at some length, close enough to observe the incredibly intricate copper scaled upperparts, and large blue orbital patch of bare skin on the face.  Ocellated Antbird is a crowned-jewel among the diverse and often beautiful antbird family, and one of the highlight species for a visiting birder to Panama. We walked down a small side road and were thrilled to locate a pair of furtive but beautiful Pacific Antwrens, popping in and out of a shade-grown coffee plantation. Streaked and Boat-billed Flycatchers dotted the wires along the roadside, and we spent a bit of time digging out a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher that was lurking in a rather dense roadside shrub. Here too we found a rather placid pair of Spot-crowned Barbets that popped into view just overhead in a flowering Cecropia tree. This is a specialty of the area, and a spectacularly colorful species, but during the dry season when the birds are generally nesting they can be devilishly hard to encounter. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the guardhouse for the San Lorenzo National Park, accompanied by two quite tame and brazen Coati which were intent upon begging for handouts. In the afternoon we drove out to the picturesque Fort San Lorenzo, perched on a bluff at the mouth of the Chagres River, where walked out to take in the atmospheric surroundings. From the top of the old ramparts we scoped a Brown Booby floating by in the relatively calm Caribbean, and spotted foraging Sandwich and Royal Terns feeding in the choppy waters where the Chagres mixed with the sea. A walk on one of the trails through the national park produced exceptionally good views of perched and foraging Mealy Parrots, (finally) satisfying views of a sprite-like Long-billed Gnatwren dashing around a dense vine tangle, and a sedately circling adult King Vulture flying over a gap in the canopy. Because of the timing of Mardi Gras this year we were unable to take the customary train ride back to the Pacific Coast, which generally affords excellent views of the flooded valleys formed by the creation of lake Gatun. Although this meant that we missed out on Snail Kite and Limpkin (which we generally see on the train ride) it did mean that we would not be stuck in traffic at the end of the day, and that we would have more time to bird on the Caribbean side. Our last stop for the day was in the dense and impressively tall mangrove forest on the coast near Fort Sherman. Here we found large mangrove crabs scuttling over the tangled roots, a garrulous Belted Kingfisher, and an audible but not truly responsive Mangrove Cuckoo. We then took the temporary ferry back across the canal, a treat that allowed for truly excellent views of the Caribbean lochs and shipping traffic, and then headed back to the tower in time for a brief break before dinner.

Our other full day trip away from the tower was to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, east of Panama City. These mountains provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. We started the day walking along the well-paved road that winds through this sprawling housing development. With many lots still either completely or mostly forested, and the lower slopes of the mountains clad in primary forest the road system allows a visiting birder to access a surprising diversity of birds in comfort. The stubbornly persistent winds kept activity generally low through the morning, but our patience was rewarded with views of such gems as Short-billed Pigeon, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, and Blackburnian Warbler. Perhaps the highlight of our early walk though was the pair of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis that we found and watched at length as they fed in a fairly open tree along the road. The gleaming black and electric-blue male sported its namesake carmine thighs and showed off its color palette to our admiring gaze. After devouring the dacnis we elected to spend some time visiting a private house that is nestled within the gated community adjacent to a nice patch of remaining forest atop the ridge. The house is owned by an ex-pat American couple that maintain an amazing array of feeders in their backyard.  It was here that we realized just how many hummingbirds could fit onto a feeder. We estimated that 50-60 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 an hour’s vigil we tallied Crowned Woodnymph, pugnacious Bronze-tailed (and White-vented) Plumeleteers, and dozens of Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds! A special treat greeted our arrival as well, with a tiny male Rufous-crested Coquette repeatedly coming in to feed on a thicket of flowering Verbena below the deck.  These dazzling little hummingbirds attend flowering thickets mainly in the dry season, and are generally shy around hordes of larger hummers. In addition to the hummingbirds we had an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with lots of Red-legged, Green, and Shining Honeycreepers all putting in appearances at the banana feeders. Eventually we tore ourselves away from the house and spent about another hour birding along another road in the housing development. Here we located a very large mixed flock containing mainly migrant birds including another Blackburnian Warbler, our first Yellow-green Vireo and a surprise Yellow-rumped Warbler (scarce in central Panama). We took lunch at a second house, owned by the president of Panama’s Audubon Society. Here too there were hummingbird feeders, and we added the dazzling Violet-capped and tiny Violet-headed to our burgeoning hummingbird list while enjoying a typical Panamanian lunch of Chicken and rice. Just as we arrived an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle buzzed by in the backyard, but unfortunately a lot of the participants were queuing for the bathroom at the time. After lunch we drove up to the entrance of the Cerro Jeffe road. Here we found a large fruiting tree that was attracting a wonderful array of birds. A pair of Emerald Tanagers, an electric green species which seems to almost fluoresce in the sunlight, an adult Rufous-winged Tanager, several Bay-headed Tanagers and a pair of White-vented Euphonias were all studied in turn coming into the fruiting sections of the tree. We then elected to head down the mountain, so that we could stop enroute back to the Canopy Tower along the coast just east of Panama City to take in the extensive mudflats at an absurdly high tide. Here throngs of waders were milling about in an endless cloud over the water, unable to find any open areas to rest along the coast. A small flock of mixed shorebirds including Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Willet, Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers were sitting amongst the detritus along the shoreline, but the number of birds in constant flight over the water was staggering (we estimated well over 10000 birds in the main flock alone). Although all the species here are familiar to most North American birders, it is nice to see such abundance, and many of the birds made repeated close flights along the shore to look for receding tides. We were able to pick out Marbled Godwits, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel and several others as the small groups passed by. Further out to sea we watched as hundreds of Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, various terns and Magnificent Frigatebirds plied the currents along the low tide line. We also made a quick stop in at Panama Viejo, where the tide was also too high to support any open shoreline. Here though we picked out a nice array of wading birds including our first White Ibis and lots of Great Blue Herons that were waiting for the tides to recede by roosting in the clumps of mangroves. The hordes of loafing Laughing Gulls were difficult to pick through as they bobbed up and down in the water, but one sharp eyed participant noticed a larger gull in the distance that proved to be an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, a vagrant to Panama. We reluctantly pulled away from the coast in order to avoid the worst of the Panama City traffic, which thankfully due to the fact that it was actually Mardi Gras never materialized for us. Dinner that night was down at the base of the tower on the outside deck, accompanied by a dazzling array of stars.

We spent the last morning back up on top of the tower, taking in the views of the canopy at dawn. A perky little Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher showed well, as did a group of cackling Scarlet-rumped Caciques and some distant foraging White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. The Mantled Howler Monkeys were right up at the tower, and we spent some time watching their antics. After breakfast we went back to the Pipeline Road, this time with the capacity for driving further back into the forest. It was a magical couple of hours, with excellent views of some truly special species. I suspect that the memories of our point-blank and extended views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta will linger in the minds of the participants for quite some time. Some of the other highlights included a pair of perched Blue-headed Parrots, our only Northern Barred Woodcreeper of the tour, a very cooperative Chestnut-backed Antbird, a responsive Rufous Mourner and roosting Common Potoo. It never fails to amaze me just how much diversity occurs along this relatively short road. I suspect that we could spend the entire tour simply driving along Pipeline Road and we would still only be scratching the surface of the available diversity. We made our way back to the tower for an early lunch, and after spending a bit more time at the feeders watching the Blue-chested and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds vie with the more dominant White-necked Jacobins those continuing onto the extension set off for the 2.5 hour transfer to the Canopy Lodge.

Extension: Nestled in a forested 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. Although the dry season is the time for a lot of the local birds to be off nesting, the daily show at the fruit feeders just outside the dining hall is still a treasure for the eyes. Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Flame-rumped and Plain-colored Tanagers, Collared Aracaris and Thick-billed Euphonias compete with Red-tailed Squirrels and even the occasional Rufous Motmot for the best pieces of banana. Our tour this year was almost a month earlier than typical and we were unfortunately beset by the strong winds that typify December-late January which did complicate some of the birding locations and depress activity especially in the afternoons. Nevertheless the cooler air provided a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the tower, and the white noise provided by the rushing stream that passes through the property and the comparatively huge and opulent rooms led to a most comfortable environment. We only had a brief time on the first afternoon to explore, but we used it to good effect, observing a young Fasciated Tiger-Heron foraging along the creekbed near the hotel, perky little Rufous-capped Warblers bouncing around the grounds, and several raucously calling Gray-cowled Wood-Rails near the compost pile. Also along the creek we watched a few large Brown Basilisks sunning on the streamside rocks, and after dinner a short expedition for frogs yielded a several species, including many Brilliant Forest Frogs and brutish Cane Toads.

The next day we elected to spend the morning above the lodge exploring a few of the roads around La Mesa. We started the day exploring the walkways and trails around the Canopy Adventure grounds, a zip-line attraction owned by the canopy tower family just a few hundred meters up the road from the lodge. Along the rocky creek that winds through the property we found a pair of Sunbitterns that soon flew up into a creekside tree, showing off their incredibly beautiful upperwing patterns to excellent effect. Although the hoped for pair of roosting Mottled Owls were not sitting in any of their usual haunts we found a huge mixed flock of birds that included a wide array of flycatchers including an Eye-ringed Flatbill, a pair of Sepia-capped Flycatchers, an actively foraging Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and a group of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers. Further up the road we found the forests to be laden with epiphytes, and as we reached 3000 feet above sea level the air was relatively cool. 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. Silver-throated Tanagers seemed to be omnipresent, and with them were often other gaudy birds like Tawny-crested or Bay-headed Tanagers. One particularly good flock kept us entertained for some time, with an inquisitive male Slaty Antwren, a very cooperative and sprightly Wedge-billed Woodcreeper and a more ponderous Spotted Woodcreeper. We stopped in at a bank of Heliconias where we hoped to encounter a White-tipped Sicklebill visiting the flowers. Despite waiting for almost 45 minutes we had to content ourselves with a visit from a Stripe-throated Hermit and a male Crowned Woodnymph. We returned to the lodge for lunch and a bit of a siesta and then set out in the afternoon 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. At one of the houses we walked into the backyard and were very happy to find the resident and sleepy Spectacled Owl tucked well down in a ravine below the house, likely finding a lower perch to roost in during the strong windy conditions.

In the front yard of the same house a lawn sprinkler was creating pools of water in the shade and several birds including a surprising male Indigo Bunting, a Lesser Goldfinch and several Tennessee Warblers were hanging about and bathing. Nearby we stopped to admire a female Garden Emerald quietly tucked into a remarkably exposed nest site right at the road edge. We found most of the road to be rather uncharacteristically quiet, but at our final stop in a densely forested ravine we heard the unmistakably answer of a Tody Motmot coming from up the slope. Despite our best efforts we could not entice the bird any closer to the road, but a judicious scramble down the slope and then a short walk along the rock and leaf-litter strewn creekbed allowed us to get close enough to pin the bird down from its well-hidden perch. Tody Motmots are not common anywhere in their largely Central American range, with perhaps the forests around El Valle providing one of their most reliable haunts. We were able to watch the Motmot at length through the telescope, in bright enough lighting to clearly see its electric blue eyestripes. 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. After dinner we set out in search of frogs, and perhaps due to the brief bout of afternoon rain were amazed to find 5 species of frogs including the giant and colorful many Brilliant Forest Frogs and two species of Glass Frog.

We started the second full day with a brief stop in at the lodge’s compost pile, thoughtfully tucked away in the forest. Here we were able to spot wintering Gray-cheeked Thrush and Wood Thrush, as well as the resident Orange-billed Sparrows and Gray-cowled Wood-Rails which were all feeding on insects attracted to the rotting vegetables and fruits. With a bit of judicious use of tape we also coaxed a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager into view, watching it for several minutes as it contentedly foraged in the dense leaf litter near the compost pit. Our point blank views of this incredibly gaudy black and hot pink bird were for some the highlight of the tour. This enigmatic species is neither a Tanager nor a Thrush, and will likely soon be placed into its own family. We then headed uphill, this time to the well forestyed Candelaria trail that are on a private property in La Mesa. In the cleared fields before the trailhead we stopped to admire flocks of Tawny-crested and Silver-throated Tanagers, a beautiful Black-striped Sparrow singing in the early morning sun, and several family groups of Southern Lapwings (and a somewhat unusual Killdeer) that were guarding the fields. Once on the trail system our attention turned to the roving mixed flocks that we occasionally found during the morning. One particularly rich group of birds contained very confiding Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, both Spot-crowned and Plain Antvireos, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Spotted Woodcreeper, Song Wren, several pairs of Orange-bellied Trogons and our only Russet Antshrike of the trip.  A grove of flowering trees along the trail was attracting a nice selection of hummingbirds including two territorial Brown Violet-ears and several pugnacious Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds. Just before heading back to the lodge for lunch we encountered a very large flock of birds that provided exceptionally good views as the birds repeatedly crossed the trail in front of us and foraged along the trail edge. A beautiful pair of Chestnut-capped Brushfinch vied with a male Spotted Antbird for the prettiest birds in the flock, but our views of White-flanked Antwren, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Tawny-capped Euphonia were also excellent.

We spent the afternoon after taking lunch and a siesta back at the lodge by slowly walking along the paved road to the tiny hamlet of Chorro Las Mozas. At a relaxed pace we were able to watch some of the more familiar birds that by now had become seemingly old friends. Little groups of mixed tanagers, Social Flycatchers, an inquisitive Barred Antshrike and flocks of Black-chested Jays all appeared on cue. A few new bird species also graced our binoculars, such as Rufous-breasted Wren, Panama Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet and Yellow-crowned Euphonia. Some huge colonial orb weaver spider webs caused a bit of a stir (and maybe some uncomforting dreams for some). All in all it was a quite relaxing couple of hours of birding, with nearly universal good views of each of the birds and enough butterflies, lizards and even a few fish to keep the afternoon buzzing.

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. Much like the rest of Panama though there were significant signs of the extreme drought conditions. We set off in two four by four pickup trucks, as our usual van was not up to the task of the steep paved roads in the highlands. Our day around Altos del Maria was simply fantastic, with new birds at every stop, and a lot of bird activity throughout the day. Perky and very attractive Tufted Flycatchers greeted our arrival to the highlands, along with a mixed flock containing a pair of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers and a very cooperative Red-faced Spinetail. A large flowering Heliconia plant held foraging Stripe-throated and Green Hermits and with just a little patience also a perched White-tipped Sicklebill. This large and highly specialized hummingbird visits certain species of Heliconia plants to feed on their oddly 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. We were able to watch one bird for quite some time as it repeatedly perched on the flowers, dipping its almost comically curved bill into the nectary. After our unsuccessful vigils of the previous two days it was a sighting that was very much appreciated by the group.

The overcast conditions held for much of the day, and although we were still beset by the annoyingly constant windy conditions the bird activity remained steady throughout our visit. Flocks appeared at intervals as we alternately drove and walked along the seemingly deserted roads around the backside of the housing allotment. At one of our first stops we were able to observe some foraging Tufted Flycatchers that happily were sallying out to catch the small moths disturbed by our passing. Perching within just a few feet of the group these gaudy little orange and crested flycatchers were a certain crowd-pleaser. Also here was a pair of sharp looking Spotted Barbtails, creeping along the branches like oddly shaped Nuthatches. A bit further down the road we stopped at some fruiting trees and were happy to find a pair of Emerald Toucanets picking fruits from the canopy. The local blue-throated subspecies is likely to be recognized as a distinct species later this year, prompting at least one participant to check on all the countries that they had previously seen these tiny toucans before. Migrant warblers were relatively common during the day, with several Blackburnian and Black-throated-Green Warblers and a few Golden-winged Warblers joining the more common Tennessee, Black-and-White and Canada Warblers.

Just before lunch we walked down the (paved!) continental divide nature trail that winds along a small, forested creek with a protected swath of forest on both sides. Here we found the beginnings of an army ant swarm, strangely the only one that we encountered during the entire trip. A few Bicoloured Antbirds were calling above the swarm and when we quickly crossed the creek to get a bit closer we flushed a Barred Forest-Falcon that was quietly perching above the moving ants. Although we waited for a bit it seemed that the ants were mainly moving, perhaps decamping for a new nest site rather than actively foraging, and as a result the swarm was not attracting much birdlife. Our main quarry showed well however, with a pair of the normally furtive Dull-mantled Antbirds foraging out in the open along the trail in perfect light. These poorly named antbirds are actually quite bright, with a ruby red eye and bright silver-white flashes on their backs. A nice picnic lunch at a shelter next to an artificial lake greeted our return from the trail. The good birds continued in the afternoon, with Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Bat Falcon, Lesser Elaenia and Philadelphia Vireo all showing well. We drove over to a different section of the development in the late afternoon where we enjoyed an excellent study of a huge Leafcutter Ant nest, and with some patience a Brown-billed Scythebill that performed very well for us, repeatedly perching at close range. On the drive back to El Valle we stopped for some panoramic photos of the impressive Picacho Peak. Unfortunately our two vehicles became a bit separated by the photo stop and the first car was the only one that was able to enjoy views of three Tayra scampering across the road. These huge black weasels are not often encountered, and are usually seen singly, so this family group was an excellent sighting and a testament to the quality of habitat that remains around the development. To further compound the consternation of the occupants of the trailing car we also spotted a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove running up the side of the road towards us. Although this led to a bit of good- natured grumbling during the evening log the wealth of new bird species (almost 30 new birds for the tour) and excellent sightings throughout the day made for a celebratory mood.

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 30 species to our trip list in a very enjoyable morning’s birding. The winds persisted in the early morning and we also experienced some quite unexpected rain. Our first stop was along a new highway that leads south from El Valle. A stop along a weedy hillside revealed a perky little Bran-colored Flycatcher, and a pair of White-lined Tanagers; an excellent start to the day. Just a bit further down the road we stopped when three Crested Bobwhites wandered repeatedly across the road, providing exceptionally close views. As we dropped down out of the mountains we stopped at an overgrown soccer field where we a pair of soggy Brown-throated Parakeets, perched along the road.  Here too were several dapper Lance-tailed Manakins that actually perched for us in the open rather than remaining in their preferred vine tangles. As the skies began to finally clear birds began to sing and perch up, and we were able to track down a calling Striped Cuckoo that was trying to dry out in the morning sun. While watching the cuckoo we heard the calls of a Blue-crowned Motmot coming from behind a fence. After quite a bit of coaxing a pair of these beautiful birds flew in and perched near the road. Some complicated taxonomic shuffling with the Blue-crowned Motmot complex was finalized in late 2016, and the birds that occur near El Valle are now regarded as Lesson’s Motmot, which is distinct from the Whooping Motmots that occur around the tower. A much needed stop along the main highway revealed the hoped for restroom facilities and several House Sparrows…

We spent the rest of the morning slowly working our way to the coast, stopping wherever looked promising. Patches of flowering heliconias held Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and foraging Veraguan Mango (our first and only Panama endemic for the tour). Mouse-coloured Tyrannulets performed well for us this year, and we managed an instructive comparison between the tiny Plain-breasted Ground-Dove and their more common Ruddy cousins. Of particular note was the apparent wave of migrant Fork-tailed Flycatchers, which were passing overhead in ones and twos for much of the morning.  The rice fields were mostly dry this year, but one or two paddocks near the north end held enough water to attract an impressive horde of herons and raptors. Among the throngs were hundreds of Little Blue Herons and our first Wood Storks, and White and Glossy Ibises of the trip. Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures were foraging low over the field, and we especially were elated to see a few sitting close to the road, allowing us to fully appreciate their rainbow-hued heads. Savannah Hawks and a young Great Black Hawk were perched in the rice fields, perhaps hunting for large insects or small mammals that were likely disturbed by the recent flooding of the fields. Wires along the road were continually dotted with Barn Swallows and Tropical Kingbirds, and with some scrutiny we picked out a few Gray Kingbirds as well. The end of the road was quite dry, with no trace of its usual wetlands, although we still managed to coax out a vigorously singing Pale-breasted Spinetail from its dense grassy home.  Just before lunch we located a cooperative Straight-billed Woodcreeper (surely one of the more attractive of the ovenbirds), a single Northern Scrub Flycatcher and a Rufous-browed Peppershrike from the hedgerows near the beach. A repositioning to a beachside house in Santa Clara owned by Raul allowed us to enjoy a warm cooked lunch, in the company of an impressive number of Magnificent Frigatebirds and some foraging Willet, Whimbrel and Royal Terns. After a relaxing lunch and even swimming in the Pacific (for some) we headed for our hotel in Panama City where we arrived back in time for a short stroll around the hotel grounds of the Country Inn. The open fields, large fig trees and shoreline of the Causeway are always quite bird rich, and on our stroll we found a few new birds – like Yellow-crowned Parrot and Saffron Finch, among the more common open-country species that we were now identifying with ease. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Alexis Sanchez and Danilo Rodriguez Jr., for making this a great tour to lead. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 20 March 2017