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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Fall at the Canopy Tower

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: For 2022 we again offered a slightly shortened Canopy Tower week to lead in to the Western and Eastern Panama Tours. Over the course of five and a half birding days around the world-famous Canopy Tower we encountered 270 species of birds and an amazing 20 species of mammals. Around the tower top on the first day, we marveled at the woodpecker diversity, with good studies of Crimson-crested, Lineated, Cinnamon and Black-cheeked. A large mixed flock came by the tower as well, keeping us busy for nearly an hour as we were pulled around the top deck by a gaudy parade of birds such as Blue Dacnis, Golden-hooded Tanager, Squirrel Cuckoo, Masked Tityra, a pair of Green Shrike-Vireos, Green Honeycreeper and a wealth of tiny canopy flycatchers including Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Brown-capped Tyrannulet and Mistletoe Tyrannulet. Pipeline Road was great this year, although the area is being impacted by some roadworks to stabilize the road bed. We wound up visiting twice, finding an array of special birds such as a furtive Streak-chested Antpitta, Red-throated Ant-tanagers, Cocoa, Plain-brown, Olivaceous and Black-striped Woodcreepers and Spotted and Chestnut-backed Antbirds. Here too were perched up Slaty-tailed, White-tailed, Gartered and Black-throated Trogons, all four of the central Panama species of Puffbirds, garrulous Purple-throated Fruitcrows and a sitting Semiplumbeous Hawk.

Our day out to the Atlantic coast was very productive, with excellent views of over a dozen Spot-crowned Barbet, a trio of Pacific Antwren, a dark-morph Hook-billed Kite, Black-chested Jays among well over a hundred species of birds. And on another day up in the highlands of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe we found our first male Blue Cotinga, a host of tanagers including such gems as Bay-headed, Black-and-Yellow and Golden-hooded as we walked around the roads. Up on Cerro Jeffe we enjoyed a close encounter with a stunning male Tawny-capped Euphonia and then topped it off with a quietly perched female Yellow-eared Toucanet that remained still for more than five minutes. As usual, the feeders at our lunch stop held a bewildering number of honeycreepers and hummingbirds (10 species) all whirling around in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour. We finished the trip on the shores of Panama Bay, with thousands of shorebirds (including Red Knots and a Roseate Spoonbill, which were both write-in species for the trip) and herons plying the exposed mudflats and dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds patrolling the rolling surf.

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 quick getaway.

IN DETAIL:The majority of this year’s participants arrived a day or two early, taking in various tours of the canal and city before transferring to the tower on the late morning of the first day. This allowed a few of the keener folks to independently bird the grounds of our Panama City hotel in the morning, an area which proved an excellent introduction to some of the more common lowland birds of the region. Our transfer skirted the edge of the Panama Canal, passing the main shipping port and lochs on the Pacific side and many neighborhoods that still bore the unmistakable marks of American military architecture. We arrived at the tower just a bit before lunchtime, and as the tour didn’t officially commence until that evening, and a somewhat steady light rain persisted for much of the early afternoon we took advantage of the rest of the day with some birding, or relaxation around the tower. Our introductory meeting was accompanied by the quavering whistles of a Great Tinamou calling near the base of the tower, and was interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Kinkajou and a small group of Panamanian Night Monkeys that came up to the window looking hopefully at the kitchen staff for some bananas. The Kinkajou is a long-tailed tree-dwelling mammals resemble a cross between a cat and a mustelid, but are in fact closely related to Raccoons. We were able to watch the animal at close range as it pulled the banana over from the window using the rope and pulley just as a human would. It then sat on a nearby branch for several minutes devouring its prize, offering truly exceptionally good views. The scene made us a tad hungry as well, but we were soon enjoying a delicious dinner of tamarind chicken and a freshly baked loaf of bread carefully shaped into a remarkably good rendition of a pig, complete with raisins for eyes. Welcome to Panama indeed!

We awoke on our first morning at the tower to a wonderful view of the surrounding forest, the Panama Canal (complete with tall container ships seemingly drifting through the trees), and even the distant hazy Pacific Ocean. Initially the overcast skies and low-lying clouds in the valleys seemed to be depressing the bird activity, but as the skies began to clear we were treated to one of the best mornings atop the tower that I can remember over the years. Two large mixed flocks graced us with extended visits, with dozens of birds (and species) perching up in the nearby treetops and flycatching from prominent perches. The first flock contained mostly larger birds, including a spectacular array of woodpeckers. At one point we had Cinnamon, Black-cheeked and Crimson-crested all in the same tree, with a male Lineated Woodpecker around the other side of the tower, and two very cooperative Squirrel Cuckoos scrambling around a tree that also contained a beautiful pair of Green Honeycreepers and two quite showy Masked Tityras. The second flock gave us a heady mix of colour, with migrants such as Summer and Scarlet Tanager, Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Great Crested Flycatcher joining resident birds like Palm, Blue-gray, Golden-hooded and White-shouldered Tanager, Green Shrike-Vireo, White-browed Gnatcatcher and Scarlet-rumped Cacique. This flock also contained our first Black-headed Tody Flycatcher (a tiny but very sharp looking bird with an amazingly loud call for its diminutive body size), a Mistletoe Tyrannulet, a few Tropical Kingbirds and a very cooperative White-browed Tyrannulet. As is typical for the early morning vigils here we also enjoyed scope views of teed up Mealy and Red-lored Parrots, Pale-vented and Scaled Pigeons and a few gaudy Keel-billed Toucans. Eventually the rumble in our stomachs and the smell of bacon overpowered our birding initiatives and we headed downstairs for breakfast, with a short detour to admire a stunning Collared Aracari that elected to swoop into a towerside tree just as we were packing up the scopes. Over breakfast we admired a little group of Geoffrey’s Tamarins that were sitting in a bare Cercropia tree just outside of the dining room windows, adding a little mammalian pizzaz to what had already been a heady morning of birds.

After breakfast, we spent rest of the morning slowly walking down the nearby road that winds down Semaphore Hill. The road passes through tall forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity to look for understory flocks and birds that use the forest floor. Before we set off downhill, we spent a bit of time watching the hummingbird feeders around the base of the tower which were quite active, with numbers of Blue-chested Hummingbird and White-necked Jacobins buzzing about continuously, and Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits occasionally passing by. Our morning walk provided a great introduction to our first species of antbirds, surely one of the signature groups of birds in the neotropics. Small groups of spritely Dot-winged Antwrens often led the flocks, and we soon were able to confidently identify the striking black males with their bold white wing patterns and beautiful copper and black females with ease. Along with the Dot-winged Antwrens were often pairs of the slightly hunchbacked Checker-throated Antwrens (now rather confusingly known as a Checker-throated Stipplethroat), a species that specializes in foraging in clusters of dead leaves. The larger Black-crowned Antshrike and some largely uncooperative Dusky Antbirds were here too, with both species providing an excellent illustration of the striking sexual dichromatism so often exhibited in the family. As is often the case birding in closed canopy forests in the neotropics flycatchers provide a large segment of the avifauna, and for us this walk proved productive for these often-tricky species as well. Perhaps the best sighting was of an uncharacteristically cooperative Southern Bentbill that showed well for us in the canopy tower parking lot, but over the course of the morning we admired a husky Olivaceous Flatbill, an amazingly cooperative pair of Golden-crowned Spadebills, and two garrulous pairs of Boat-billed Flycatchers. The walk also gifted us fine views of our first of many woodcreepers, with a small and gray headed Olivaceous Woodcreeper up high in the canopy, and a large rusty Plain-brown Woodcreeper down below eye level on a roadside trunk. For a break from dullish yellow or brown birds we also enjoyed views of female Red-capped and male Velvety Manakins (a recent split from Blue-crowned), whose vivid colours seemed to almost burst from the dark green foliage. And just for a bit of extra flair we located a couple of Broad-billed Motmots, a group of Keel-billed Toucans foraging in a fruiting palm, a male Black-throated Trogon, a quietly perched White-whiskered Puffbird and, perhaps the bird of the morning for some of the participants; a day-roosting Black-and-White Owl. This attractive large owl sports a smartly barred chest, orange feet and bill and a well differentiated black crown making for quite a striking sight. Seeing owls in the day is vastly better than seeing them in the shine of torchlight, and as this species is scarce and seldom seen in central Panama we felt very fortunate indeed. We spotted a nice selection of mammals along the road as well, with a largely motionless Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth up in the canopy and multiple Central American Agoutis and White-nosed Coatis rummaging around on the forest floor. Just as we reached the bridge at the bottom of the hill it began to lightly rain, so we boarded the waiting van and were driven back up to the tower. By the time we arrived the sun was out, with a significant brightening of the sky. We bookended our lunch with some time back on top of the tower, where we found a steady trickle of raptors passing by on their southbound migration or milling around in the rapidly warming mid-day air. In amongst the Turkey and Black Vultures we found an excellent mix of species, with single Swainson’s and Short-tailed Hawks, a few Broad-winged Hawks, a locally rare Sharp-shinned Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, and two King Vultures (a dark young bird and a gleaming white and black adult).

A short siesta in the early afternoon suited us perfectly and as the afternoon began to cool off, we headed downhill and across the Chagres River to visit the margins of the Ammo Dump marsh making careful studies of the similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers 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. Here too we located a pair of Purple Gallinule, lots of foraging Southern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows, a sunning Great Blue Heron and a beautiful adult Rufescent Tiger Heron that was sitting up on an eye level branch. With the more open birding conditions we tallied a few passing waterbirds and raptors, with perched Osprey, Gray-lined Hawk and Yellow-headed Caracara and a few Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls flying over the nearby canal. Along the edge of the pond a thicker stand of young trees kept us entertained for nearly an hour as they were hosting a seemingly inexhaustible array of species. There was something to suit everyones individual taste. For those that like more unobtrusive species we found Barred Antshrikes, Variable Seedeater, Blue-black Grassquit and a pair of vocal Scrub Greenlets, for those that enjoy bright colours there were Crimson-backed Tanagers, Red-crowned Woodpeckers and Buff-throated Saltators, for those who favor seeing more familiar birds in unfamiliar settings we picked out Yellow and Tennessee Warblers, Smooth-billed Anis and a Northern Waterthrush, and for those that have a penchant for identification challenges we enjoyed close views of Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet. We even turned up a couple of impressive non avian highlights including multiple Green Iguanas, a large Spiny-tailed Iguana, a dark Variegated Squirrel and a portly Lesser Capybara that was initially out on the lawn, but later was spotted munching happily away on some large grasses down in the marsh.

Our last stop for the day was to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Marina on the north bank of the Chagres River. Around the boat docks we spotted Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, perched Mangrove Swallows and two puttering Spotted Sandpipers. The edge of the parking area held Blue-gray and Crimson-backed Tanagers, several quite bold House Wrens, a female Summer Tanager that seemed very interested in letting us know where the restrooms were, and our first Tropical Mockingbirds, Ruddy Ground Doves and Clay-coloured Thrushes. Along the riverbank we picked out a pair of Common Moorhens and a small group of Greater Ani, a large glossy-blue ani with a long tail and bright yellow eyes. As dusk began to fall we were thrilled to spot a couple of foraging Snail Kites soaring low over the river in search of their preferred prey; the large introduced Apple Snail. Little flocks of Pale-vented Pigeons and a steady stream of Little Blue Herons and the occasional Great, Snowy or Cattle Egret came in to a large submerged tree which has acted as a roost site for many years. Many participants managed to get onto a foraging Plain Xenops that was clambering around in one of the larger trees near the carpark; amazingly our 130th species for the day! As with all of our other spots we found a couple of noteworthy animals here too, with a large American Crocodile showing very well as it slowly cruised along the bank, and a nice selection of Central American Sliders (a colourful species of water turtle). Once again over dinner we paused to admire the mammal show out the windows, with a Western Lowland Olingo, two Kinkajous and a small troupe of Night Monkeys admired in turn.

We left the tower the next morning shortly after breakfast so we could spend the day exploring the world-famous Pipeline Road. The Pipeline Road is a cross-country dirt road which passes through an extensive swath of Soberania National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and over 400 species of birds. The park abuts a large swath of protected forest around the Chagres River and is generally contiguous with the coastal forests that are controlled by various indigenous well east of the canal zone; making for perhaps the largest block of mostly untrammeled tropical forest in the lowlands of North America. Each trip along Pipeline Road is different, and a visiting naturalist soon gets the feeling that they could spend months here and still be picking up new sightings. During the pandemic years the road had been allowed to deteriorate somewhat, with one of the bridges (about 5KM in) virtually collapsing. During the summer of 2022 the canal authority decided to repair the damage, but in doing so they had to open up the road edges, creating a wider gap on the forest floor and disrupting the forest that had been growing right up to the road edges. This clearing definitely did improve the road from a driver’s perspective, with far fewer potholes and muddy patches and a firmer road base. It did seem to impact the normal flow of understory birds which seemed to be less keen on foraging along the edges of the road. We spent the majority of the time actually walking along the first two and a half kilometers of road which is open to the public, not crossing over to the closed section behind the gate until late morning. At the beginning of the road we spotted a nice mix of birds including some Keel-billed Toucans, Masked Tityras and Mealy Parrots sitting up in the trees that mark the entrance to the pipeline. A White-necked Puffbird showed well here too, as it sat up along the road on a tall broken off limb seemingly oblivious to our presence. Overall during the morning, we found bird activity to be a bit depressed, perhaps due to the heavily overcast and somewhat cool conditions, but even so we enjoyed numerous new species and a number of truly special birds. A perched Great Potoo just a few hundred meters into the forest was a definite crowd pleaser, especially so when the bird woke up in order to have a good scratch before staring down at us with its oversized dark eyes and quickly going back to sleep. A little further down the road we bumped into our first understory flock, with a few Dot-winged Antwrens and Black-crowned Antshrikes and a pair of Dusky Antbirds that deigned to actually present themselves (unlike the quite skulky pair the day before). Here too was another Olivaceous Flatbill, a couple of Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers and our first Scarlet-rumped Caciques. Another flock a bit further in made it plain to us how dominant the tyrant flycatcher family can be in the neotropics. We worked through the flock, adding an array of flycatchers with multi hyphenated names. Ruddy-tailed, Yellow-winged, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Choco and Forest Elaenias and Brown-capped Tyrannulets were each admired in turn, leading some of the participants to make up some dramatic new combinations of their names in an effort to keep them all straight. Luckily not all the birds were flycatchers, and we were thrilled to pick up our first Black-striped and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Yellow-rumped Caciques, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Yellow-backed Orioles and Rufous Motmots during the morning as well. We reached the gated part of the road just a little after we enjoyed a mid-morning snack, accompanied by two troupes of very vocal Mantled Howler Monkeys and a soaring King Vulture. At the little creek that marks the beginning of the less travelled section of the road we admired a few species of freshwater fish that were amazingly attracted to the movements of our green laser pointers, as well as a couple of specie of odonates (including a perched Blue-winged Helicopter Damsel; one of the worlds’ largest species of damselfly). Just a tad past the creek we ran into what was likely the best mixed flock of the day, with a horde of birds foraging near eye level in a recently fallen tree. Here we picked up a pair of stunning Orange-billed Sparrows, as well as Black-bellied and Song Wrens, a perched Violet-bellied Hummingbird, a migrant Baltimore Oriole and some Lesser Greenlets. We continued to pick up new species as we walked a bit further in, with a White-breasted Wood-Wren showing fairly well in a dense tangle of vines, female Blue-crowned, Red-capped and Golden-collared Manakins, a vocal but annoyingly unresponsive Streak-chested Antpitta and a surprise in the form of a quietly perched Semiplumbeous Hawk that was sitting very close to the road edge. This is an attractive gray and white species that we rarely encounter on our Panama tours, as it is a forest hawk that tends to sit under the tree canopy and rarely soars about in the open.

We reached our normal lunch spot right at lunchtime, but just as we did so the threatening skies elected to treat us to a quite impressive downpour. Happily we were all able to stay dry inside the cabs of the three trucks (although a couple of stalwarts decided to stay out and enjoy the rain), but is soon became apparent that this was no quickly passing storm and that the overcast skies and dripping forests would take some time to dry out. Rather than waiting for that to happen we drove back out of the woods and a short distance back to the tower where we enjoyed lunch under the roof of the Canopy Bed and Breakfast building in Gamboa. This proved an excellent decision, as the rains soon slacked off and we were able to watch a steady stream of birds coming down to the fruit feeders while we munched on our lunches. The proffered bananas were quite well accepted, with hordes of Gray-headed Chachalacas, Clay-coloured Thrushes, Palm, Crimson-backed (including our first dazzlingly beautiful males), Plain-coloured and Blue-gray Tanagers crowding the bird tables. Over a half-dozen Central American Agoutis were bouncing around the lawn, waiting for bits of banana to fall off the tables. Amid this throng of activity we picked up a few new species as well, with Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds at the feeders, Red-crowned Woodpeckers, a pair of Whooping Motmots gobbling down banana chunks with obvious pleasure, several Red-legged Honeycreepers, Buff-breasted Wren and our first perched Orange-chinned Parakeets. With Collared Aracaris, a pair of Tropical Mockingbirds and an array of birds perched up and trying to dry out in the treetops in the front yard it was a very enjoyable lunch spot!

We spent the rest of the afternoon investigating the grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve grounds. The resort abuts the Chagres River, close to where the river meets the Panama Canal, and encompasses a sprawling and complex grounds with patches of big trees mixed with gardens and open clearings. The abundance of edge habitat and mix of open and closed forests leads to a good variety of birdlife. Some recent management decisions have resulted in a large amount of clearing near the buildings, and some new fencing and gates, but the trail system in the back of the property looked just as usual, and there were plenty of birds about. Our first stop was at the banks of the Chagres River, where after admiring some close Southern Lapwings out on the manicured lawns we scanned the river, picking up some high-flying Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and three locally scarce Lesser Scaup (which were actually a life bird for our local leader Jorge!). The gardens around the developed part of the reserve grounds held our first Flame (Lemon)-rumped Tanagers, Northern Waterthrushes, Prothonotary Warblers, several female Violet-bellied Hummingbirds, a male Gartered Trogon sitting up on roadside power lines and a dazzling Purple-crowned Fairy that was uncharacteristically feeding on an eye-level flower for almost a full minute before it flickered away in a flash heading back up into the canopy. Once back in the more forested section of the grounds we quickly found a nice mixed flock which contained a pair of portly Yellow-olive Flycatchers, another cute little Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlets, a single Golden-winged Warbler and the triumvirate of local toucans (Collared Aracari, Keel-billed and Yellow-throated). We walked further into the forest on one of the smaller and muddier trails, where we found things to be fairly quiet. Here though we did track down a pair of Fulvous-vented Euphonias, both Whooping and Rufous Motmots, and a flowering Dutchman’s Pipe (quite a stunning and large flowering vine with an evocative shape). White-bellied Antbirds were calling off and on from deep within the damp grassy understory, but we couldn’t persuade any of them to pop up for a view. As we walked back to the cars we stopped a few times to admire more toucans, foraging Violet-bellied Hummingbirds, a pair of bathing Flame-rumped Tanagers and our final new species of the day; a pair of small but aptly named Golden-fronted Greenlet that came in to our calls and showed off their namesake coppery-gold foreheads.

The next day we left the tower early on an all-day excursion, heading south and then a bit east, to the delightfully cool mid-elevation sites of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, not too far from the international airport. It’s a bit of a drive around Panama City and then up to the nearly 3000ft heights of the ridgeline, but the change in habitat and wealth of birds definitely makes it worthwhile. Once we reached the controlled access housing development that covers much of the higher reaches of the mountain, we had to make a brief stop at the office to take care of entrance fees. Unfortunately, the clerk that normally works the morning shift was on vacation and we found the office closed, which meant that we had to make a bit of a detour to find a restroom. Happily, this task was accomplished at the house that we would later eat lunch in, and after our brief delay we started our morning birding by walking up the beginning of the Cerro Jeffe Rd. This track starts out several hundred feet higher than much of the housing development, and winds through patches of thick and dwarfed cloudforest as it climbs up to the top of the ridge. The road was not in good shape, with recent four-wheel drive activity digging large ruts into the muddy patches on the slope, but we picked our way up the short steep entrance so that we could access the flatter section of good forest a few hundred meters from the carpark. Likely due to the sunny and windy conditions we found this normally quite active section of the road to be fairly quiet, although we did enjoy good views of a female White-ruffed Manakin, our first Bay-headed Tanagers, several Black-crowned Antshrikes and a male Tawny-capped Euphonia. A few folks also managed to get onto a furtive male Black-and-Yellow Tanager as it clambered through a dense tree canopy. On the walk back down the slope our luck greatly improved when we spotted a quietly perched female Yellow-eared Toucanet sitting a few feet off the trail. This is a spectacularly colourful small toucan, and a fairly scarce bird throughout its limited range. The bird decided to be really cooperative, staying put on an open limb for long enough for all to have second views in the scope, and showing off her burgundy cap, red vent, bicolored bill and stunning yellow-green eye makeup to excellent effect.

We then made our way to the far west end of the housing development, where we spent the rest of the morning walking along the paved roads, passing a mix of mansions and dilapidated sheds, lots still covered in montane forest and sweeping views of the fully forested ridges around us. As is often the case in montane environments much of the avifauna is concentrated in mixed feeding flocks, where neotropic migrant warblers join tropical tanagers and flycatchers in often noisy little traveling parties. Our first stop was to one of the quiet dead-end roads that make up the housing development, picking a lower road on the other slope to avoid the windy conditions up on the ridge. Here we took a short snack and coffee break next to a large, forested lot between some houses, and were thrilled to find a large mixed flock working the edge of the woods. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, our first Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, Black-and-White, Tennessee, Golden-winged, Bay-breasted and Blue-winged (a surprise here, and a life bird for our local leader Jorge) Warblers and American Redstarts all putting in a good showing as did a nice array of tanagers, Yellow-faced Grassquits and both Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonias. At times there were almost too many birds zipping through our optics at once, with people calling out various names from all directions. Eventually things calmed down a bit, and we took care to get a good view of a calling Streaked Saltator, Cocoa Woodcreepers, a very cooperative Chestnut-capped Warbler and a confiding Southern Beardless-Tyannulet. Our attentions were suddenly changed when we heard the ringing calls of a nearby Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker coming from a bit up the road. We hurried over and were soon looking at a male perched high up in some introduced Caribbean Pine trees. This is a scarce denizen of Panamanian foothill forests and our first endemic species for the trip. It’s an attractive woodpecker, clad in an olive suit with a nicely patterned front, bronzy wings and mantle and a bright red crown, and one that we see on only about half of our visits to Cerro Azul. Initially the bird lingered only high up in the trees, but it remained in the area, and we eventually enjoyed it at a much more forgiving angle as it dropped down into the midstory. Here too we found our first of many Hepatic Tanagers, here of the very distinctive highland subspecies that scarcely resembles the northern birds that reach the US and is surely an excellent candidate for full species status.

At a second site we again slowly walked down the road looking and listening for any activity. Here too we found a couple of mixed feeding flocks, this time centered around a large fruiting fig tree that was attracting a steady stream of frugivores including lots of Golden-hooded, Plain-coloured and Bay-headed Tanagers, our first Olive-striped Flycatcher, some fat looking Clay-coloured Thrushes and a Buff-throated Saltator. Another flock a bit further along the road gave us better views of Olive-striped Flycatcher and Mistletoe Tyrannulet, as well as our first dazzlingly purple and green Crowned Woodnymphs, a pair of Fulvous-vented Euphonia, another glowing Golden-winged Warbler and two quite cooperative Streaked Flycatchers. Near this flock we found what was likely the star bird of this section of the day, when Jorge spotted a luminous blue and purple male Blue Cotinga that was sitting out in the full sun. The intensity of blue on this species is hard to describe, as the lustrous color seems to emanate from deep within them like a tiny burning blue sun. We took lunch on the back porch of a house owned by a pair of ex-pat Americans with a long relationship with the Canopy Tower staff. With comfortable seats and a panoramic view of their nearly one dozen feeders it makes for an ideal respite in the midday. Within just minutes of our arrival 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. Apparently, the owners were going through an impressive 4 gallons of sugar water daily, a testament to just how many birds were using the feeders!

The diversity here was impressive, and in about a ninety-minute vigil we tallied Crowned Woodnymph, Green Hermit, pugnacious Bronze-tailed and White-vented Plumeleteers, Blue-chested, Rufous-tailed, and nearly uncountable numbers of of Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and White-necked Jacobins! In addition to the hummingbird species, we had an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with a simply absurd number of Shining, a few Red-legged and Green all crowding in at the feeders as well. The owners of the house also put out cooked rice and bananas at separate feeders just off the back deck. At those feeders we studied multicoloured Bay-headed Tanagers, a nice comparison of Thick-billed, Yellow-crowned and Fulvous-vented Euphonias, some pugnacious little Yellow-faced Grassquits, a pair of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and both Hepatic and Summer Tanagers. The show was simply amazing, with birds constantly whirling around in a festival of colour and noise in virtually every direction. From the vantage point of their top balcony, we were also able to enjoy excellent views of a perched Bat Falcon that was sitting up in the top of a bare tree above the house. At one point the bird became agitated, uttering its short clipped callnotes as three King Vultures soared overhead; perhaps having a Bat Falcon along as a raptor detector would be a good birding strategy! It was difficult to pull ourselves away from such a birding paradise, but eventually we did; full of some delicious lemon chicken and wild rice, and with little space remaining on our camera cards.

As we started to drive down the mountain, we paused at a little rushing rocky stream to look for the resident pair of Black Phoebe. Not only did we have fine views of the Phoebe perched up on a building near the creek but we also found an Amazon Kingfisher perched up on a wire over the water. This handsome and large emerald and white kingfisher is relatively common across Panama but is generally found more in the lowlands, with relatively few records around Cerro Azul. By then the afternoon was definitely waning, so we continued down the mountain in order to stop along the coast just east of Panama City to take in the extensive mudflats and their attendant waders on the way back to the tower. Panama Bay is a RAMSAR-designated shorebird site that supports well over a million birds during migration and several hundred thousand throughout the winter months. Although almost all of the species here are familiar to most North American birders, the abundance of birdlife here is often spectacular. The local tide tables indicated that we would be best off birding at the top of the bay, so we drove over to the museum parking lot next to the old Panama City ruins in the hopes of finding some exposed mud along the coast. When we arrived, we could see that the shoreline was still way out, although the tide was coming in quickly. Well out in the distance we could see throngs of birds along the actual shoreline, but the shoreline and wide mudflats around the head of the bay held literally thousands of foraging waders and herons; more than enough to keep a birding group occupied for hours. We worked our way slowly through the masses of shorebirds, scoping Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Southern Lapwing, Whimbrel, Short-billed Dowitchers, Spotted Sandpipers and Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers in turn, and picking out a few less numerous birds such as Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot and Greater Yellowlegs from the masses. Apart from the shorebirds there were many other species to keep us busy, with an incredible eight species of herons including both Yellow- and Black-crowned Night-Herons, several Tricoloured Herons, White Ibis, Wood Storks and a locally rare Roseate Spoonbill were all on offer as well, and the skies were filled with soaring Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds. Here too we were thrilled to find two dapper Cocoi Herons, a species that is very similar in size and structure to our more familiar Great Blue, but one that dresses in a much smarter white, black and grey plumage. The central canal zone is about as far west into North America that one can find this species, which effectively replaces Great Blue throughout South America. After a short review of the assembled bird species and a glance through a small loafing group of Laughing Gulls to see if there were any wayward species tucked into the flock we headed back to the tower, with our driver selecting an excellent, if convoluted, route which allowed us to avoid most of the (often unbelievably bad) Panama City traffic, and we arrived back at the tower a little before dinner; tired but elated with our excellent day in the field.

Our daytrip to the north coast of the Canal Zone never fails to entertain and is often the most diverse day of the tour. After skirting the rather industrial city of Colon and spotting a pair of perched Collared Doves up on wires (but alas no House Sparrows) we crossed over the canal on the newly finished and quite impressive Atlantic Bridge. This suspension bridge is over two miles long and over 500 meters high and from the top we could see both the old and new lochs in operation. With the completion of the bridge there has been a marked increase in repair and development of roads and facilities on the western side of the canal; with the National Park receiving much of the attention with a new visitor center, lots of new signage and a much-improved road. Along the earthen dam that holds back the massive Gatun Lake we spotted an adult Cocoi Heron, which is a scarce species on the Caribbean slope of Panama. The new roads continued past the dam, which allowed us to get to our birding site near the little town of Achiote in good time. For much of the drive it was raining, but happily once we parked and had a quick coffee break the skies cleared, and for the rest of the morning we had quite pleasant, if a bit humid, weather.

We started with a slow walk along the main road, a site that proved incredibly productive for an amazing array of species. Perhaps the marquee bird was, as is often the case, the attractive Spot-crowned Barbet. Most years we eventually find one or two birds, but this year we were amazed to spot over a dozen individuals, with some foraging right down at eye level and offering themselves up as excellent photographic subjects. With the slackening rains a lot of larger birds popped up onto prominent perches in an effort to dry out a bit, and we spent some time picking out Blue-headed Parrots, Yellow-throated Toucans, a wonderful dark-morph Hook-billed Kite, Scarlet-rumped and Yellow-rumped Caciques, Common Black-Hawks and lots of Yellow-headed Caracara and Vultures. At a large open field with a few grazing cattle we picked up a handsome male Red-breasted Meadowlark and a hunting Rufescent Tiger-Heron. A fairly large mixed flock was foraging around the hedgerows of the field, providing us with a parade of species including our first Cinnamon and White-winged Becards, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, several dazzling male Golden-collared Manakins, Bananaquits, Blue Dacnis, and an annoyingly uncooperative Panama Flycatcher. The flock also held a nice mix of more familiar species, with the comparison views of Fulvous-vented, Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonias, and Yellow-winged Flycatcher, and Southern Beardless Tyrannulet particularly instructive. As we walked further down the road we picked up some very vocal and furtive Bay Wrens, which eventually showed off their copper, black and white plumage as they clambered up in a large vine tangle above the road. Nearby we watched a group of Black-chested Jays chasing what was likely the same dark Hook-billed Kite that we had seen perched atop the canopy and admired a group of Collared Aracaris and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers that were busily devouring fruits in a roadside tree. The electrical wires along the road were providing excellent drying perches as well, and on them we picked up a pair of tiny Pied Puffbirds (looking like a miniature White-whiskered Puffbird) and several Gartered and White-tailed Trogons. The skies were often active as well, with mall groups of Band-rumped, Chimney and Short-tailed Swifts, a soaring Short-tailed Hawk and a passing Great Black-Hawk. We found Nearctic migrants and wintering birds to be quite prevalent during the walk as well, with an array of warblers including our first Mourning Warblers, Baltimore and Orchard Oriole, Eastern Wood-Pewees and a locally scarce Willow Flycatcher all showing well.

After a couple of hours on the main road we walked back to the bus to have a late morning snack, accompanied by a beautiful Crested Oropendola atop a nearby tree, a nesting Lineated Woodpecker poking its head out of a cavity in a dead palm, and some foraging Thick-billed Seedfinches. We then walked down a happily truck-free unpaved side road, finding an unusually cooperative Forest Elaenia that seemed determined to take our heads off as it aggressively bombarded us in response to tape, and a beautiful trio of Pacific Antwrens that were popping in and out of a tall mango tree along the road. The male is striking, a study in white and black and striped all over but it was the females that really got the cameras clicking away, with their apricot-coloured heads and lightly streaked bodies making for a very smart-looking bird. In a small lemon tree across the road, we found a pair of Isthmian Wrens (a recent split from the old Plain Wren complex) that uncharacteristically came up into the treetop and then sat for quite some time, even allowing us to get them in the scopes! This side road held a couple of Streaked and Common Tody Flycatchers as well as some ungainly looking bare-necked Chickens that some found unsettling and others thought to be quite good-looking.

Leaving the Achiote Road behind we headed back east, stopping again along the top of the earthen dam that forms Gatun Lake. Here we found a perched Gray Kingbird along a barbed wire fence; a species that is a regular wintering bird in parts of the Pacific coast, but one that is scarce on the Caribbean slope. We then dropped down below the spillway to have a picnic lunch along the banks of the Chagres River. The riverbank was productive, with lots of foraging Gray-breasted Martin and Mangrove Swallows, Royal Tern and Osprey, and a perched Belted Kingfisher for company as we enjoyed our meal. After lunch we passed by the rest of the canal zone lochs, stopping to look at the huge container ships that were being guided around by tugs, or floating up or down in the multi-chambered loch system. It’s truly an amazing operation, and the lifeblood of the entire economy of the country. The grassy slope near the lochs had recently been mowed, and as we drove past, we were thrilled to spot an adult Savannah Hawk sitting out on the ground and two American Kestrels up on nearby wires.

As we neared the coast the skies opened up, and our visit to Fort San Lorenzo was a wet affair. Their restrooms were clean and dry though, and after we purchased some ponchos many participants took a quick wander around the fort property, which sits beautifully up on a bluff at the mouth of the Chagres River. The weather was such that we couldn’t effectively scan the sea, but we still picked up a few bedraggled Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls down on the beach, and Swainson’s Thrushes, and an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher foraging on the forested slope behind the visitors center. This was the only birding site for the entire week that we were really affected by rain, which we otherwise were able to dodge quite well. During our trip back we picked up a quietly sitting Semiplumbeous Hawk in the forest of San Lorenzo National Park, and a flyby Peregrine Falcon up at eye-level on the top of the Atlantic Bridge. Happily as we headed back south towards the tower the rains stopped, allowing us to take a night drive down and up Semaphore Hill.

Usually, we spot a few species of mammals and perhaps a roosting bird or two and then near the bottom of the hill try to drum up interest from one of the resident Common Pauraques or Common Potoos that are often near the highway junction. This time though we were fortunate to have Stephen Menzie along with his excellent spotting skills and new generation night vision thermascope. Within just a few feet of the tower we had already stopped, when he spotted the heat signature of what turned out to be a Fulvous Pygmy-Rat that was climbing around in some vines just over the road. The fact that the thermal scope could capture the body heat of such a small mammal was frankly astonishing, but over the next nearly two hours we were able to really see the true advantage that such technology has for a visiting naturalist. Although we did spot a few things like a Central American Woolly Opossum, a foraging Andean (Rothschild’s) Porcupine, a few sleeping Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths, a Savage’s Thin-toed Frog, and two roosting Great Tinamous the “natural” way of detecting eyeshine or movement in our torchlight the scope gave us another Fulvous Pygmy-Rat (which was a write in for the tour), two Nine-banded Armadillos, a Lowland Paca (a nocturnal spotted relative of the much more numerous Central American Agouti), a snoozing Mantled Howler Monkey and a second Central American Woolly Opossum. The technology proved a boon for roosting birds too, with our first Rufous-breasted Wren and Gray-chested Dove for the trip, snoozing Green Honeycreeper, Dot-winged Antwren and White-whiskered Puffbird and, likely best of all, a quietly sitting Choco Screech-Owl that stayed put for several minutes as we all jockeyed around for the optimal angle. Simply put it was an astonishingly good outing, although I suspect a costly one, as several participants (and leaders) may all run out and buy their own night vision equipment in an attempt to replicate such success!

Our final day of the tour found us again atop the tower in the pre-breakfast hour. Bands of low clouds alternated with sunshine as we spent an enjoyable hour scanning the surrounding forest. Undoubtedly the most surprising species was a cruising Brown Booby that we spotted as it passed by the tower at eye-level heading towards Lake Gatun. A quick check of local bird data revealed that the species had been seen once or twice before from the tower, but it looked decidedly out of place as it soared along a forested ridge! Initially the birding was a tad slow, but as the clouds receded and the sun started gaining in intensity we found a nice array of birds bouncing around below the tower’s upper deck. Once again we enjoyed excellent views of foraging Crimson-crested, Cinnamon and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, some Masked Tityras and perched up Scaled and Pale-vented Pigeons, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari. Among these by now more familiar species though we teased out our first Red-eyed Vireo, a dazzling male (and muted female) Blue Cotinga, perched Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kites, a little Long-billed Gnatwren that was clambering around in a vine tangle, Scarlet Tanager and much improved views of Plain Xenops.

Since we were planning a repeat visit to the beginning of Pipeline Road for the morning though we pulled ourselves downstairs for breakfast and then headed out to see what treasures we could find back in the forest. Over the course of the rest of the morning we found a few flocks along the road, and happily found the understory to be quite a bit more active than on our previous visit. It’s remarkable how different our two visits to the area were, with the second pass adding birds like Black-breasted Puffbird (our fourth out of the possible 4 species of local puffbirds), a startlingly bright Rufous Mourner, our only Spot-crowned Antvireo, and better views of things like White-tailed Trogon, Southern Bentbill, Long-billed Gnatwren and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. Undoubtedly the highlight bird though was a Streak-chested Antpitta that popped into view (after some effort), standing on an open patch of ground for most of the group to admire before it bounded back into the depths of the forest on its spindly pogo-stick legs. The understory of the forest was also hosting a couple of pairs of attractive Chestnut-backed Antbirds, a species which was strangely quiet during our previous visit, as well as Great Tinamou and Gray-chested Doves walking away from the road. A few non-birds were noteworthy as well, with a small but brilliantly coloured Black-and-Green Dart Frog, here of the green spotted ecomorph, and a small Spectacled Caiman grabbing our attentions too.

We headed back to the tower for a latish lunch, and then after a bit of time relaxing in the hammocks, or in some cases birding from the tower top and watching displaying Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts we elected to visit the Old Gamboa Road and Summit Ponds that are tucked behind the sprawling border police training facility as our last birding spot of the trip. This diverse area centers around a pair of small, forested lakes, but also includes open grasslands, viney dry forests, and scattered parkland with large emergent trees over a dense grassy understory. As was the case around Gamboa and the Pipeline Road some recent construction work conducted over the summer by the Canal Authority had impacted the site, and the birding, to a degree, but our time here was still very much well spent.

The walk from the parking area to the beginning of the trail was productive, with excellent views of Yellow-headed Caracaras, Gray-headed Chachalaca, perched Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Baltimore Oriole and a handsome pair of Buff-throated Saltators. At the small lakes we located some impressively large Meso-American Sliders, five distantly perched Boat-billed Herons that were sitting amongst the vegetation lining the pond. Often, they are quite tucked into the overhanging palms but on this occasion two birds were right out in the open, showing off their curiously wide ridged bills. While scanning the edges of the pond we picked out perched Green and Amazon Kingfishers, a few Green Herons (and some hybrid StriatedXGreen for comparison) and Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Waterthrush. Leaving the ponds behind we walked further down the trail, actually the remnants of the original road between Panama City and Gamboa, and after a few hundred meters came out of the woods to a more cleared area with dense grasses and sprawling open canopy trees. Just before reaching the grassy section we spotted a quietly foraging female Dusky Antbird just a little of the trail. While watching her move around in a cluster of bare vines we noted a larger bird in the same area, which proved to be a female Blue-black Grosbeak. Once out in the more open forest we successfully tracked down a pair of calling Jet Antbirds, and most folks managed to be in a good position to see a close but even more furtive than normal pair of White-bellied Antbirds as well. These two species marked our final antbirds for the week and were our twelfth and thirteenth species (out of a possible 18) of Formicid. A bit further down the trail we found a small grassy marsh and were successful at coaxing a responsive White-throated Crake out of hiding. This is a boldly coloured species of rail, with a bright orangey neck and breast, barred flanks and silvery-grey head. After hearing them several times over the course of the trip it was especially nice to finally see one. Near the end of the accessible part of the trail a strong storm during early 2020 had washed out the trailbed, leaving the remnants of a rocky stream and some high banks. Since the flood a new trail had been cut in that diverted around the destruction, and we were able to navigate the short but muddy detour around the area without any mishap. We noted with some dismay that a new gravel road had been cut into the area here, and although the condition of the road suggested that it was hardly going to be a highway significant forest loss had occurred. Nevertheless, our hoped-for Spectacled Owls were still present. It took a while to spot the birds as they were tucked well back from the road, but when we did find them, we enjoyed excellent views in the scopes. Seeing such a large and brightly patterned owl gazing back at us with baleful yellow eyes was a great way to end the walk. We headed back to the bus in good time, so that we could transfer and check-in to our nearby hotel on the edge of Panama City (a process that was annoyingly protracted due to a large wedding and a sweet 15 party that were both scheduled for the night of our visit). I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our local leader Jorge, for making this such a rewarding and bird-rich tour. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 13 December 2022