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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Fall at the Canopy Tower

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: WINGS returned to Panama after a covid-induced break of nearly two years, with three connected fall trips in the latter half of November. The first of these, a short six-day trip to the famous Panama Canopy Tower wrapped up to great success. The diversity of bird and animal life in the forested lowlands around the canal zone is exceptional, and even on such a brief trip we tallied over 260 species of birds and dozen mammals! Some of the highlights have to include the almost daily visitations of several quite special mammals that came into the proffered bananas that the tower staff supply out from the dining floor. Western Lowland Olingo, Panama Night Monkey and Geoffrey’s Tamarins from just feet away! From a bird perspective the parent and young chick White-throated Crakes running around in the late afternoon at the Ammo Dump Ponds, point-blank and lengthy views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta along Pipeline Road, a glowing Blue Cotinga and a pair of circling Black Hawk-Eagles up on the ridgelines of Cerro Azul and the litany of antbirds in the forest floor including superlative views of Great Antshrike and Jet Antbird all warrant special mention. 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 DETAIL: After a nearly two-year hiatus it was with great excitement that WINGS returned to Panama. The country weathered the COVID crisis relatively well, with early access to vaccines and a no-nonsense approach to quarantines and masking. Nevertheless, the economy, which relies heavily on international commerce through the canal and tourism, was hit hard. We navigated the new (and fairly straightforward) COVID controls for tourists without any mishaps, with most participants electing to arrive a night before the tour. This allowed a few of the keener folks to bird the grounds of our Panama City hotel in the morning and then we had a group transfer to the tower in the mid- morning. This transfer skirted the edge of the 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, we took advantage of the rest of the day with some relaxed birding around the tower. From the sweeping vantage point of the tower top (slightly more sweeping than it used to be due to the dropping of a large tree that used to stand just off the tower) we had ample opportunity to work through the identifications of passing Band-rumped, Short-tailed and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts. Raptors were in evidence as well, with a steady trickle of Black and Turkey Vultures, a few migrating Broad-winged Hawk and a single dark morph Short-tailed Hawk. The hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower were quite active, with numbers of Blue-chested Hummingbird and White-necked Jacobins buzzing about continuously, and Long-billed Hermits occasionally passing by. In the latter afternoon a small mixed flock popped by the tower, with wintering neotropical migrants like Summer Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warbler joining a few residents like Palm and Plain-coloured Tanager and gaudy Scaled Pigeons. Perhaps our best sighting came late in the day, with a distant pair of Bat Falcons sitting up on a large snag well below the tower. Although distant we could see their bold coloration in the scope, with rusty “pants”, bright orange feet and cream-coloured breast and nape collar. The quavering whistles of a Great Tinamou signaled the end of the birding day, so we descended to the dining floor for our introductory meeting and a delicious dinner of tamarind chicken, and a freshly baked loaf of bread carefully shaped into a remarkably good rendition of a caiman, complete with raisin eyes. The day was not quite complete though, as just after dinner the kitchen staff announced that an Olingo was up by the window on the prowl for bananas. These 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; welcome to Panama indeed!

We awoke on our first morning at the tower to again enjoy the backdrop of the surrounding forest, Panama Canal (complete with tall container ships seemingly drifting through the trees), and even the distant hazy Pacific Ocean. We spent a productive hour or so before breakfast scanning the adjacent treetops. Flocks of Scaled Pigeons, some Mealy Parrots and a few gaudy Keel-billed Toucans were sitting on prominent trees greeting the arrival of the sun. The trees ringing the clearing around the tower hosted a few canopy birds such as Lesser Greenlet, White-browed Gnatcatcher, Cinnamon Woodpecker, dazzling Green Honeycreepers, Red-capped Manakin and Blue Dacnis and a handsome Black-breasted Puffbird, as well as a few more visitors from the north like Red-eyed Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush and Scarlet Tanager. Two separate Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths were up in the surrounding Cercropia trees, languidly hanging out in the uppermost branches in an attempt to warm up their stomachs in the early morning sun. A troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys were also foraging around the treetops, showing off their velvety black- and coffee-colored coats (and their vocal abilities) to great effect. Eventually the lure of the smell of bacon that was wafting up to us from the kitchen one floor below pulled us downstairs for breakfast, though just out the window we were soon distracted by a lively group of Geoffrey’s Tamarins that nearly climbed into the windows in pursuit of some proffered bananas.

After breakfast, we set off to the bottom of the hill for a walk down the Plantation Road, a gravel and mud road that heads vaguely north through Soberania National Park over gently rolling terrain and largely paralleling a small and pretty creek with the occasional pool or waterfall. Recent rains had left puddles in the trail, and we stopped several times to admire Forest Toads sitting in the leaf litter. It’s an amazingly well camouflaged species, with a bewildering variety of back patterns that serve to help them blend into the leaf litter. Even from a few feet away and in the open trail they can be hard to spot until they start hopping away. Over the course of the morning, we enjoyed a nice array of antbirds in the understory, including a female Dusky Antbird in the parking lot, a pair of attractively marked Dot-winged Antwrens, several Black-crowned Antshrike, a single Checker-throated Stipplethroat (Antwren) and an amazingly cooperative pair of Spotted Antbirds that were quietly foraging right along the trail seemingly oblivious to our presence. Two separate pairs of Golden-crowned Spadebills showed off to great effect along the trail: an unusually good showing for this relatively unobtrusive species. The trail was productive for larger and brighter birds too, with multiple Black-tailed and Black-throated Trogons, a group of garrulous Purple-throated Fruitcrow and single Slaty-tailed Trogon, and White-whiskered and White-necked Puffbirds. During the walk we also encountered two mixed flocks in the canopy, which in this location is annoyingly high above the trail due to the size of the trees. We worked the flocks as thoroughly as we could, locating some nice birds such as Gray and Forest Elaenia, Masked Tityra, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Yellow-backed Oriole, and Squirrel Cuckoo. A particularly nice find was a perched Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, a little sprite-like flycatcher that vies for the smallest passerine in the world honours with its South American counterpart. As we walked back, we stopped to admire a calling White-breasted Wood-wren that rather uncharacteristically remained out in the open for us to photograph before darting back into its preferred shadowy haunts. Just before we reached the trailhead a Crane Hawk flew over the trail, and after some shuffling around and scanning Alexis located it through a tiny window of vegetation, where it lingered for several minutes as we admired it in the scope.

After breakfast, we spent rest of the morning slowly walking down the 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. The walk introduced us to our first 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, a species that specializes in foraging in clusters of dead leaves. The larger Black-crowned Antshrike and striped Fasciated Antshrike were here too, 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 repeatedly for us as it bounced around an open vine tangle. Staid Olivaceous Flatbills, drab Forest Elaenias and a single Ochre-bellied Flycatchers all appeared as well. For a break from dullish yellow birds, we also enjoyed views of male Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins, whose vivid colours seemed to almost burst from the dark green foliage. And just for a bit of extra flair we located two species of Motmots; a hulking Rufous that stubbornly remained partially hidden and a more confiding Broad-billed. We neared the bottom of the hill just before lunch, finishing the morning with views of a sleeping Rothschild’s Porcupine that was tucked well into the side of a palm tree along the road. Although not terribly rare this species is arboreal and nocturnal and thus is quite infrequently seen. Unfortunately for us, his rubbery and bulbous pink nose and cute country gentleman-like face were tucked in out of sight, but the short white quills and black body were readily visible.

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 Gamboa Rainforest Resort Marina on the north bank of the river. Here we had our first taste of lowland open-country birding, and new species came thick and fast. Around the boat docks we spotted Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, the edge of the parking area held Blue-gray and Crimson-backed Tanagers, a wonderfully cooperative Whooping Motmot, some diminutive Variable Seedeaters and several quite bold House Wrens. Perched up on surrounding trees we spotted a couple of Yellow-headed Caracaras and an immature Snail Kite, while out over the river and adjacent marshy patches we tallied Cattle and Snowy Egret, Laughing Gull, Osprey, and little groups of foraging Mangrove Swallows. A short but intense rainstorm caused a pause in the birding, but thankfully some open boat houses provided an excellent umbrella for us as we waited out the rain. Just after the rain abated, we ran across a mixed flock in the small trees near the docks. A perky and inquisitive Cinnamon Becard showed quite well here, as did our first Yellow Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Rusty-margined Flycatcher and Common Tody-Flycatcher. Our attentions were pulled away from the birds when we noticed a lot of branches swaying around in the back of the tree. We waited for about a minute and then were surprised to see a rather large Green Iguana launch itself out of the tree; diving about twenty feet down into the water. A White-faced Capuchin Monkey ran out along the same limb, clearly a bit annoyed at its lost prey. The monkey then scurried around the tree for another minute or so, scattering several more Iguanas before it came down to the ground and gave our group a rather appraising eye (thankfully we were far too large to eat, so it wandered along the water’s edge in pursuit of smaller prey).

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering along the margins of the Ammo Dump marsh making careful studies of the similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and enjoying close views of an array of species more often found in open areas. Wattled Jacanas showed extremely well, flashing their bright yellow wings as they danced around the open patches of marsh. Also, here we located several motionless Rufescent Tiger Herons, three slightly obnoxiously loud Southern Lapwing, an adult White-browed Crake with a very active baby, several Purple Gallinule, a group of Smooth-billed Ani and a little flock of Blue-black Grassquit. In the row of trees that border the main pond we picked out Panama and Great-crested Flycatchers, a cooperative Isthmian (a new split from Plain) Wren, perched Pale-vented Pigeon and Gray-lined Hawk, a Yellow-rumped Cacique, and a few sitting Red-lored Parrots. Migrants were well represented here too, with Tennesee, Yellow and Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Waterthrush providing some familiarity to our all-Eastern US based group. The tall overhead wires that line the Panama Canal were hosting a nice array of perched swallows, including several Grey-breasted Martins, a surprise male Purple Martin, lots of Mangrove Swallows and Barn Swallows and the occasional Southern Rough-winged Swallow, as well as the requisite smattering of Tropical Kingbirds. We headed back to the tower in the early evening with a truly spectacular pale orange-pin sunset complete with billowing darker clouds with our heads swimming a bit from the sheer number of birds that we had encountered on the first day (over 120 species).

We left the tower the next morning shortly after an early breakfast so we could spend the day exploring the world-famous Pipeline Road. At the bottom of the tower road, we stopped when Alexis announced from the cab of the truck that he had spotted a Great Tinamou along the road edge. The bird had walked off into the woods before we could get on to it from the back of the truck, but happily when we pulled forward we re-found it and were able to follow it for a while as it slowly walked along in the fairly open understory. A day that starts with visuals of a forest Tinamou simply has to be a great birding day! 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. On this day we found overall bird activity to be a bit depressed due to the foggy and heavily overcast conditions, but even so we enjoyed numerous new species and a number of truly special birds. For most of the morning we alternated walking and riding in an open-air safari type truck that the canopy tower employs, stopping wherever activity seemed promising. We stopped near the beginning of the road to get visuals on a noisy flock of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers that were busily foraging in the understory along the road. After a few minutes with the tanagers, we walked a bit further on and soon found a pair of Song Wren and a cooperative Chestnut-backed Antbird that were calling just down from the road edge. Here too we managed quite good views of a Black-faced Antthrush, a peculiar little antbird with a cocked tail and long legs that seems to more resemble a small rail than a thrush. Purple-throated Fruitcrows were bustling about in the canopy above us, and with a bit of shuffling around we enjoyed scope views of their gleaming throats, as well as Slaty-tailed Trogon and Scarlet-rumped Caciques that seemed to be following the cotingas around in the canopy.

As the morning progressed the daily bird list kept steadily growing, with a new species or two around every bend of the road. Trogons and Motmots were an obvious component of the birds here, with multiple Slaty-tailed, White-tailed and Black-throated Trogons and several Rufous Motmots showing in turn. At one small antwren flock our attentions were pulled up into the fruiting palms behind us when a sharp-eyed participant picked up an incoming Yellow-throated Toucan. The bird perched just a few yards away, quietly picking out ripe dates from the mass of fruit and generally ignoring our presence. This is the largest toucan species in Panama, and a very handsome one. The bird was close enough that the delicate green eyering and scarlet breastband were showing to excellent effect. We had an especially good day with puffbirds, with lengthy views of close White-whiskered and Black-breasted, and a distant Pied Puffbird high up in the canopy. Perhaps even better than these though was a single Great Jacamar that was conveniently perched right over the road on a small bare limb, with its emerald and copper feathers shimmering in the morning light. Small flocks of Dot-winged, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens appeared at intervals, often with other birds, such as Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Black-crowned Antshrike or Spot-crowned Antvireo in tow. At one unremarkable looking spot with a more open patch of understory we stopped to scan and with a bit of hopeful whistling soon had a very responsive Streak-chested Antpitta bound up right to the edge of the road. Amazingly it then popped up to nearly eye level on a small branch and proceeded to sit and sing for over 5 minutes, providing simply exceptionally good views.

In the late morning we were thrilled to locate a small group of antbirds that seemed to be foraging over a swarm of army ants. It turned out in the end that there weren’t any ants, but the experience and species mix closely matched what we would have found had the ants themselves been present. The birds are not interested in the ants as prey (as is commonly thought) but rather use the presence of the voracious insects as a Cattle Egret uses its bovine masters; snatching prey items disturbed by the hunting ants. When attending a swarm many species of birds are so intent on catching the easy prey that the nearby presence of people is taken in course. The most common antbird present was the handsome Spotted Antbird, but with some patience we found a pair of Bicolored Antbirds and an unbelievably cooperative Ocellated Antbird as well. The last is an especially wonderful species; large and gaudy, with dark centered back and wing feathers fringed with a burnished copper sheen, a huge and electric blue bare orbital patch, smart looking black throat, and almost orange breast giving it a truly exotic look. It’s a resident species along the pipeline but is rarely seen away from antswarms and one that is not encountered frequently. As would have been the case had the ants been active (we surmised that there must be a bivouacked group nearby) we also located Cocoa and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, another Rufous Motmot and a rather elusive Gray-cowled Wood-Rail that scampered across the road not too far uphill from where we were studying the antbirds.

After a late lunch, accompanied by an actively foraging Acadian Flycatcher and calling Great Crested Flycatcher we decided that the heavy cloud layer and distant peals of thunder seemed threatening indeed and we elected to retreat to the relative safety of Gamboa for the late afternoon rather than risk being well out on the road during a downpour. Just as we left the forest the sun came out and we stopped in the last 100m of Pipeline Road (within sight of huge container ships travelling through the canal). A few White-shouldered Tanagers were bouncing along the road edge, and we soon realized that we had a large flock on hand when we picked out Golden-fronted Greenlet, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted and Golden-winged Warbler, Crimson-backed Tanager, Dusky Antbird, Black-crowned Antshrike and Plain Xenops within the first five minutes. We stayed with the group for another half-hour, tallying excellent looks at Black-bellied Wren, Southern Beardless and Brown-capped Tyrannulets, Barred Antshrike, Thick-billed Euphonia and a wonderful soaring adult King Vulture that was circling just over the road. In about a half hour we had over thirty species from this one tiny stretch of road!

After we loaded back up into the truck we finished the drive over to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, where unfortunately the skies once again turned grey. Although it did rain a little bit, the darkened sky was enough to dampen the flurry of bird activity somewhat. We still very much enjoyed our visit, and before we were through with the grounds, we had found almost 50 species. 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, though the bridge could use a solid repair job. We found the forested trail to be quiet, although at a small grassy marsh we did enjoy lengthy views of a diminutive American Pygmy-Kingfisher that was preening a few feet above a pool of water. The trees around the gardens and the Chagres riverbank, however, were very active, doubtless due to several large fruiting fig trees ringing the parking area. At least a dozen Masked Tityras were foraging in the figs, as well as lots of Clay-coloured Thrush, Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, Pale-vented Pigeons and Buff-throated Saltators and an array of colourful tanagers including our first Red-legged Honeycreepers and Flame-rumped Tanagers. We headed back to the tower in light rain, with almost all but one of us happily ensconced in the cab of the truck. At dinner we went over the days impressive bird list, with so many truly emblematic species it became hard to decide what bird of the day was, although the Panama Night Monkeys that appeared at the magic banana pulley were trying their best to argue that they should win the moniker….

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 our two-year forced hiatus, it was interesting to see all the changes around the Gatun Locks. Whereas in 2019 we were still driving across the old lock doors and taking a ferry back across the channel, now the new high suspension bridge (and a host of new roads) was finally finished, allowing us to quickly navigate over to the west side of the canal zone and giving us quite a vantage point to see the new and old lock systems in operation. Many of the local roads had been recently worked on as well, but the road over to Achiote, our first birding destination was in much worse shape than I remembered, with lots of large potholes and recent roadworks bogging us down a few times. We arrived at our first birding destination; Achiote Road (signed to indicate that this is an area for the observation of birds) a bit later than we planned due to the slow road, but the hour did not seem to hamper our birding at all. In fact, our timing seemed quite fortuitous, as it did not rain during our visit and the overcast conditions of the morning seemed to keep bird activity high.

We pulled over on the side of Achiote Road where we found a small entrance road to one of the many little coffee and chocolate farms that have sprung up over the last few years. The farmers have cleared a lot of the understory (in what is, on paper at least, San Lorenzo National Park) but happily they have generally left the overstory in place. Large trees laden with epiphytes still line the edges of their clearings, and in the canopy of one of these trees, conveniently located right by our car we soon found a pair of White-headed Wrens that were foraging high overhead. These attractive wrens have only a limited worldwide range, occurring on a narrow strip of the Panama lowlands and adjacent Colombia, and with their white heads and bodies, long brown tail and brown wings they cut an impressively well-dressed figure. Soon afterwards we located a fruiting fig tree and were thrilled to locate a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets devouring the apparently tasty fruit in the lower section of the tree. These two species are perhaps the marquee birds of a trip to Achiote, and to see both so well and so easily this year was a real coup. With the pressure off we were able to slowly bird down the road for several hours, enjoying the wealth of birdlife that occurs in the lowlands here. Among the many memorable finds were Rufous-breasted Hermits feeding on roadside Heliconia flowers, a perched pair of Blue-headed Parrots, our first Fulvous-vented and Yellow-crowned Euphonia, a wheeling flock of hulking White-collared Swifts, a little Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher chipping away from an exposed perch in a roadside Cercropia tree and, of course, several species of raptors including a sitting Great Black-Hawk, and flying White-tailed and Gray-headed Kites.

After a light mid-morning snack, we walked down a gravel side road, finding several vocal Grey-capped Flycatchers, a tiny and charismatic Pied Puffbird perched in a roadside Cercropia, unusually cooperative Forest Elaenia and Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, our first Bananaquits 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. It was the females that really got the cameras clicking away though, with their apricot-coloured heads and lightly streaked bodies making for a very smart-looking bird. Near the end of the road, we stopped at a tall fruiting tree, quickly finding our first Baltimore Orioles and Black-crowned Tityra among the many tanagers and Masked Tityras that were plucking berries out of the crown of the tree. Nearby a male Lineated Woodpecker gave us quite the show as it allowed an unusually close approach while it hammered away at a potential nest cavity in a large roadside tree stump. A male Sapphire-throated Hummingbird showed here too, a somewhat unexpected species over on the Caribbean side of the country.

As it was still only late morning, we elected to visit another site a bit further to the east down a remarkably well-paved and maintained road that winds up and over several very steep hills only to dead end in a semi-forested valley. Although it was hot and sunny by the time, we arrived near the end of the road the birding here was excellent, with a Tropical Pewee perched just above our parking spot and an amazing variety of birds in the thickets surrounding one of the small cleared fincas. We stopped at this seemingly random spot because we heard Yellow Tyrannulets calling from a section of thick grasses along the road. They proved incredibly responsive, giving us lengthy looks as they sat up in some small roadside trees. While watching the tyrannulets we were happy to locate a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher that was behaving in a most uncharacteristic way by sitting out in the open and remaining still. Here too was a pair of Buff-throated Saltator, both Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped Tanagers, a Bay Wren, and a pair of Great Antshrikes. This large and spectacularly pattered antbird is widespread across the neotropics but is always maddeningly difficult to actually see as it prefers dense thickets and rarely comes out into the open. Our run of luck was holding though, and with some deft scope work we were able to study the black and white male, with his deep ruby eyes at length as it sat deep in cover. Our planned 20-minute stop stretched to almost an hour, but with so many good birds on offer I doubt anyone minded!

We took a late lunch on the Chagres River, just a bit downstream from the Lake Gatun Spillway. The riverbanks were productive, with a flock of Blue-winged Teal (our only species of waterfowl for the trip), lots of foraging Gray-breasted Martin and Mangrove Swallows, and a perched Belted Kingfisher for company as we enjoyed a quick picnic. In the late 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 and to ogle a passing dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk. The site is undergoing some extensive renovations at the moment, so instead of the usual solitude we found the structure teeming with workers and scaffolding. The view of the Chagres River Mouth though was unchanged, and after scoping a flock of loafing Royal (and one Caspian) Terns that were sitting on a river sand bar we turned our attention to the slightly choppy Caribbean Sea below us. At first, we spotted only a Gull-billed Tern and a few Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans, but a second scan produced a large flock of American Black Terns that were foraging where the mixing freshwaters of the river met the open sea. While watching the terns we were totally shocked to find two larger all-dark terns in the mix as well; Brown Noddies! This is a seriously rare coastal bird on the Caribbean side of the country, and a definite write-in for the tours cumulative list. We spent some time admiring the Noddies as they drifted around the more frenetically flying smaller terns but eventually had to pull away. Our last birding stop of the day was at the nearby Fort Sherman Mangroves, where we experienced what will likely be the easiest Mangrove Cuckoo viewing ever. Within two minutes of getting out of the van we had scope views of a chuckling Mangrove Cuckoo sitting out in the open canopy of a roadside mangrove. This usually retiring species generally requires extreme luck and/or quite a bit of perseverance to find in its preferred haunts of muddy and often mosquito infested mangrove thickets. Here too we were amazed to find a Northern Tamandua (Tree Anteater) down on the ground along the roadside. These beautiful buff and black animals have a delicate grace, and we were able to watch it at close range as it tore apart a small stump in search of a termite dinner. At one point a passing car caused it to rear up with open arms; a defensive posture that is, all to sadly, the last thing one should do with a car bearing down. The car passed by uneventfully and the animal soon shimmied up some remarkably thin mangrove branches to get away from the road. We arrived back at the tower in plenty of time for dinner, again this time with both Western Lowland Olingo and Panama Night Monkey as most excellent dining companions.

The next day we again left the tower early on an all-day excursion, only this time we headed south and then a bit east, to the delightfully cool mid-elevation sites of (around 3000ft) 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 mountaintop, but the change in habitat and wealth of birds 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. While Alexis worked on the paperwork we birded a bit in the backyard, spotting our first good looks at Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, as well as our first Yellow-faced Grassquits and Shining Honeycreepers. Our normal routine here is to visit one of the more forested loop roads that have been cut into the ridges here by the housing development and then to visit a house owned by a couple of ex-pat American biologists for lunch. Unfortunately for us though, the couple were away, happy to visit family over the Thanksgiving break after a long period of not being able to freely travel back to the States. Since the weather didn’t look threatening (in fact, the day remained happily rain and fog free for our entire visit) we decided to switch things up from our normal routine, and we started the morning by walking up 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. We found the initial climb to be relatively quiet, but soon after the trail flattened out we located a section with some fruiting trees. With some patience we were able to pick out a handsome pair of Rufous-winged Tanagers, several Bay-headed Tanagers, a Grey-cheeked Thrush and perhaps the best of the bunch two Emerald Tanagers; a rich emerald green species with black ear-spots and back streaks and a golden nape that is adept at alternating at will between glowing like a beacon and blending in perfectly with the background. Once out of the woods and up on the ridge the sunny conditions seemed to depress bird activity, but we did find our first Hepatic Tanager, here of the very distinctive highland subspecies that scarcely resembles the northern birds that reach the US, and a perched Merlin that allowed us quite close approach. The observation deck on the peak can offer excellent views of both Oceans , but we found that the low-lying cloud cover out to the north occluded our view of the Caribbean. On the way back down the trail to the van we were happy to spot a couple of perched Violet-capped Hummingbirds (a local specialty and one that seems a good candidate for the brightest green of any hummingbird), a species that I was concerned about due to our lack of available feeders to visit. Green Hermits buzzed us a couple of times as well but failed to show well. More tractable though was a stunning male White-ruffed Manakin, a study in satiny navy blue with a gleaming white throat that perched in good positions for us several times before eventually disappearing further into the forest. As we neared the vans we were surprised to find a Northern Schiffornis that seemed quite curious about our presence. A bit of a taxonomic mystery, this species (and the four others that were recently split) were once placed in the Manakin family, but now are regarded to belong with the Tityras. A tiny but quite vocal Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant rounded out the cast for our first walk, appearing along the trail just a few feet from the trailhead.

Leaving Cerro Jeffe behind, we next moved over to the far west end of the housing development, spending 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. We found the birding to be somewhat slow, but steady, and by the end of the morning we had amassed a quite heady birdlist. In a dense patch of viney forest near our starting point we teased out an eventually cooperative Long-billed Gnatwren; a funny shaped species that seems to be mostly bill and tail. Nearby in a flowering Inga tree we spent a bit of time with foraging hummingbirds, including our first Snowy-bellied and a dazzlingly bright male Crowned Woodnymph. Raptors were showing well also, with two Black-hawk Eagles lazily circled overhead uttering their ringing calls as they passed just overhead, a hunting Bat Falcon whizzing by on a few occasions and a soaring King Vulture. At one point later in the morning we were virtually attacked by a passing mob of Carmiol’s Tanagers, that came rocketing across the road and literally between us in twos and threes for well over a minute. We tallied 38 of them in the end, along with a single Olive-striped Flycatcher and a little group of Fulvous-vented Euphonias. Likely the star bird of this section of the day though was the luminous blue and purple male Blue Cotinga that eventually sat out in the sun for us to ogle for several minutes. 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. Initially we saw it only in flight, and then after a long time scanning the trees Alexis picked it out deep in a flowering tree canopy. Happily, it moved soon thereafter, settling on a nicely open perch and allowing us to practice our digiscoping skills.

We had lunch at our customary local house, where we set up a few hummingbird feeders and put out some bananas in the hopes that the local birds would come swarming in. They didn’t exactly swarm, but we were able to have very close views of White-necked Jacobin, Crowned Woodnymph and Rufous-tailed, Blue-chested and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds that came into our feeders, as well as Rufous Motmot and Shining and Red-legged Honeycreepers that found the proffered bananas irresistible. As the afternoon was starting to reach its peak, we made a quick stop at the Maipo forest trail, where a fruiting tree was attracting a little flock of Golden-hooded Tanagers, several Red-capped Manakins and a male Violet-headed Hummingbird and another flock of Carmiol’s Tanagers popped into view like an invading army storming the slope. As we started to drive out of the mountains, 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 but we were graced with a local rarity in the form of an adult Fasciated Tiger-Heron that was perched on one of the large boulders in the center of the creek. This is a large and quite attractive species, and one that proved to be a write-in on the tours now quite lengthy cumulative checklist.

After descending the mountain in the late afternoon we stopped along the coast at Panama City to marvel at the huge numbers of migrant and wintering shorebirds that use Panama Bay as a stopover or wintering site. The tide was still fairly high so thousands of birds were roosting along the shoreline and in the quite considerable rubbish piles, and thousands more had begun to feed in the patches of exposed mud on the outgoing tide. We worked our way slowly through the masses of shorebirds, scoping Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers and peeps (mostly Western Sandpipers) in turn, and picking out a few less numerous birds such as Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and Greater Yellowlegs from the masses. Lots of Laughing Gulls and Gull-billed Terns were loafing around as well, and with some judicial scanning we picked out a few Franklin’s and a surprise adult Lesser Black-backed Gull as well. A steady stream of Neotropic Cormorants, Brown Pelican and Magnificent Frigatebirds passed along the shoreline too. It was not easy to judge the total number of birds present, but a very conservative count as we went over the days checklist resulted in, at a minimum 10000 individuals; a small fraction of the estimated quarter million birds that overwinter around Panama Bay. The stop produced couple of interesting passerines as well, with our only Streaked Flycatcher and Mangrove Yellow Warblers of the trip. A fine route selection by Alexis allowed us to avoid most of the (often unbelievably bad) Panama City traffic, and we arrived back at the tower with some time to spare before dinner.

Our final day of the tour found us again atop the tower in the pre-breakfast hour. Bands of low clouds alternated with bright 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! A flock of Brown-hooded Parrots popped into view below the tower and we followed them as they passed. Amazingly, they turned around and promptly landed in a bare tree just a few yards off the tower, remaining for nearly a half-hour and showing amazingly well. Brown-hooded Parrots can be difficult to see well, as they often seem to vanish into the canopy of thick trees upon landing, so to see these so well and for so long was a special treat. We had a few other nice sightings too, such as a sitting Masked Tityra at eye-level, a perched Slaty-tailed Trogon up in the canopy and a smattering of Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, Keel-billed Toucan and Scaly and Pale-vented Pigeons perching up on various treetops. Just as we were descending to enjoy breakfast our attentions were drawn to a bird moving around in some dense leaves; it popped out and we were surprised to see that it was a Philadelphia Vireo, a scarce species in the lowlands of the Canal Zone.

We had some logistical hurdles to deal with in the afternoon with the departing participants needing to complete COVID tests in order to board, which meant that in the afternoon we had to wait at the tower for the testing agents to arrive. All of that worked out seamlessly, and it left us with a full morning to simply enjoy some more birding. We elected to visit the Old Gamboa Road and Summit Ponds that are tucked behind the sprawling border police training facility. 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. The birds started appearing right where we parked, with a little Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, our first Streaked Saltator and a pair of Buff-breasted Wrens that almost sat out in the open for us. At the small lakes we located some loafing Meso-American Sliders, and two distant perched Boat-billed Herons that were sitting amongst the vegetation lining the pond. One of the birds was actually on a messy stick nest, and while we were watching it in the scope, we realized the adult was protecting two downy chicks, complete with stubby little bills poking out of their fluffy faces. Scanning the edges of the pond we picked out perched Green and Amazon Kingfishers, a few Green Herons and a family group of White-nosed Coati foraging on the roadside.

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. Here we spent likely an hour and a half, progressing just a few hundred more meters since there were so many birds to look at. Up in the canopy migrant warblers including a locally scarce Magnolia were bouncing around, and while we watched them foraging we picked out a tiny Ocellated Piculet (quite a rare species in the canal zone) hammering away on some small branches over the trail. Below the treetops a pair of Southern Bentbill slipped up and gave us repeated and excellent views; quite a contrast to the others that we had so far only heard daily to that point. We continued our run of excellent luck with antbirds, teasing out cooperative Jet Antbird and White-bellied Antbird from their respective tangles of vines and grasses. A female Fasciated Antshrike showed well too, completing our antbird tally for the trip at a more than respectable 16 (out of a possible 18 species). A bit further down the trail we reentered the woods, finding Northern Barred and Cocoa Woodcreepers, a foraging Purple-crowned Fairy and perched White-tailed Trogon and Whooping Motmot. Some heavy rains a few months before our visit had washed out the old culvert, creating a small waterfall and rushing creek where the road used to continue across a small valley. This blocked our progress, so after looking at a few colourful dragonflies that were enjoying the more open habitat created by the wash-out we started heading back. The return trip yielded a perched Grey-chested Dove up in the mid-canopy (a forest dwelling dove that we regularly see in the spring, but rarely do in the fall – despite the fact that they are resident), a Black-faced Antthrush that was quietly walking and tossing leaves around in the forest understory and a White-necked Puffbird sitting up in the treetops like an overdressed Kingfisher in a black-tie dinner jacket.

It was sunny and hot when we reached the car, but as we still had a bit of time before lunch, we made a quick stop at the small bridge near the bottom of Semaphore Hill. This allowed us to find the roosting Lesser White-lined Bats that frequent the support beams under the bridge, as well as a few species of dragonflies that were zipping around the edges of the creek. Just before we loaded back into the van we could hear a calling Olivaceous Flatbill, and with some patience and a bit of luck were soon watching this large billed and somewhat brooding looking flycatcher as it moved around in the midstory above the creek. We figured that Flatbill would likely be our last new bird of the trip, but after lunch and the requisite COVID testing we had a last treat in store. The transfer shuttle picked us up and as we drove down the Semaphore Hill Road for the last time we stopped to admire a little group of Gray-headed Tanagers that were bouncing around on the forest floor just off the road. Somewhat resembling the more common female White-shouldered Tanagers that frequent the canopy these Gray-headeds are notably larger and brighter yellow, and prefer the lower reaches of the forest. They are particularly fond of following foraging groups of Army Ants around, and this little group was doing just that, chasing down the fleeing prey from a small antswarm that was just a bit off the road. Here too we found another cooperative pair of Spotted Antbirds, a quite belligerent Bicoloured Antbird and a tawny-throated and vocal Song Wren that were also attending the small swarm. Although there were precious few ants on the ground the birds were behaving just as if they were atop a huge swarm, and they completely ignored our presence as we watched them foraging for several minutes providing quite an excellent end to our tour! Thanks to the participants and our local guide Alexis this year, whose good spirits and comradery made it fun trip to lead.

-          Gavin Bieber

Updated: December 2021