Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Fall at the Canopy Tower

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: For 2018 we again offered a slightly shortened Canopy Tower week prior to the Western and Eastern Panama tours. Over the course of five and a half days around the world-famous Canopy Tower we saw 260 species of birds and 13 species of mammals. Around the tower top on the first day we marveled at the active raptor migration, with some 7 or 8 species passing by throughout the midday vigil including a close soaring adult King Vulture and a hunting Short-tailed Hawk. The second morning up on the tower was extremely productive, with a perched Blue Cotinga, cooperative Green Shrike-Vireo and a wealth of tiny canopy flycatchers including Forest Elaenia, Brown-capped Tyrannulet and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. Pipeline Road was great this year, with a very confiding Russet-winged Schiffornis, a more furtive Streak-chested Antpitta and a wonderful antswarm with Red-throated Ant-tanagers, Gray-headed Tanagers, Northern Barred, Cocoa and Plain-brown Woodcreepers and Spotted, Bicolored and Chestnut-backed Antbirds. The daytrip out to the Atlantic coast was complicated by the lingering effects of the previous evening rain, but when we arrived we more than made up for the later than planned hour, with excellent views of White-headed Wren, Spot-crowned Barbet and Pacific Antwren among well over a hundred species of birds. And our last day out to the highlands of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe revealed another male Blue Cotinga, a host of tanagers including such gems as Bay-headed, Emerald, Black-and-Yellow and Golden-hooded as we walked around the roads. 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 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 FULL: The majority of this year’s participants arrived a day early and transferred to the tower in the late morning of the first day. The group 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, but found out that the rooms were still being cleaned. This this left us with some time on our hands, so as birders will, we elected to spend the time relaxing on the upper deck of the tower and watching the skies around us for migrating raptors and whatever else might deign to pass by. As it turned out this roughly two-hour long vigil proved incredibly productive. A large lift-off of migrant Turkey Vultures had occurred earlier in the morning and we were surrounded by kettles of them as they slowly ascended and started heading further south towards their wintering grounds in South America. Among the masses of vultures lurked a surprising variety of hawks. A few Swainson’s and Broad-wingeds were filtering south as well, and we picked out single Zone-tailed, White and Short-tailed Hawks as well. We also were thrilled to spot a distant adult King Vulture that happily wound up nearly directly overhead. Probably our best sighting was of a male Blue Cotinga that was perched up in a somewhat distant tree, but not so far that we could not see its brilliant blue plumage with the naked eye, or admire its purplish belly patch in the scope. Barn Swallows, Gray-breasted Martins and a nice mix of swifts that included excellent views of the elegant Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift formed the raptors supporting cast, making for an wonderful introduction to birding from the tower top. In the latter afternoon, we spent a bit of time down around the base of the tower, where the hummingbird feeders were being guarded by a particularly vigilant White-vented Plumeleteer that was continually chasing the lone Long-billed Hermit and several smaller Blue-chested Hummingbirds if they started drifting towards the feeders. A small mixed flock passed through as well, with some familiar northern breeders such as Black-and-White, Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers joining more tropical species such as Palm Tanager and Scarlet-rumped Cacique. The last few participants arrived in time for a second stint atop the tower in the late afternoon, which produced good comparison studies of Short-tailed and Band-rumped Swifts, a hovering Short-tailed Hawk, and our first almost comically gaudy Keel-billed Toucans; a species which looks for all the world as if it was created by a bunch of five years olds armed with their imagination and a full colour palette of crayons. We met before dinner for our introductory meeting and given all that we had already seen were very much anticipating the next morning atop the tower.

We awoke on our first morning at the tower to find a sweeping view of the surrounding forest, the Panama Canal, complete with tall container ships seemingly drifting through the trees, and even the distant skyscrapers of Panama City and the hazy Pacific Ocean. With this panorama as a backdrop we spent a productive hour or so before breakfast scanning the adjacent treetops.  Flocks of Scaled Pigeons (with a few Pale-vented Pigeons along for company), some Mealy and Red-lored Parrots and a few gaudy Keel-billed Toucans were sitting on prominent trees greeting the arrival of the sun. The trees immediately around the tower hosted a few canopy birds such as Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Lesser Greenlet, Golden-hooded Tanager and Tropical Gnatcatcher, but it was our excellent views of a foraging pair of Green Shrike-Vireos that likely won the day. Green Shrike Vireos are clad in emerald and leaf green, with a yellow throat and blue nape patch. Rarely coming down to the lower levels of the forest this canopy bird is a bit of a specialty for the tower, although even from the top deck they can be frustrating to pick out from the dense canopy trees that they prefer. Several Blue Dacnis and Green Honeycreepers were admired in turn and in one particularly productive tree we found a significant number of migrants including a bright Baltimore Oriole, several Eastern Wood-Pewee, a Summer Tanager and Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers. A placidly sitting pair of handsome Black-breasted Puffbirds and two perched Brown-hooded Parrots were nice finds here too. 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 troupe of Geoffrey’s Tamarins that nearly climbed into the windows in pursuit of some proffered bananas.

After breakfast, we spent rest of the morning slowly walking down the nearly 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 feeders at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast in the small nearby town of Gamboa. Here watched a parade of birds coming in to feed on bananas placed on the bird tables. A continual stream of Blue-grey, Palm and Plain-coloured Tanagers formed the avian backdrop for new species like the luminous Crimson-backed Tanagers (locally known as Sangre del Toro or the Blood of the Bull), noisy flocks of Orange-chinned Parakeets, pushy Clay-coloured Thrushes, Red-crowned Woodpeckers and Gray-headed Chachalacas, and a rather immobile Whooping Motmot (part of the old Blue-crowned Motmot complex) that stubbornly refused to come out from its shady perch to fully dazzle us with its plumage. Our first Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds attended the feeders, and several participants filled their camera cards with images of dazzling Red-legged Honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers. As we drove slowly out of Gamboa we stopped to admire a pair of perched White-tailed Kites and a foraging Fork-tailed Flycatcher that was sitting on the ground and then sallying out trailing its ridiculously long black tail feathers. 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 Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, and enjoying close views of an array of species more often found in open areas. Wattled Jacanas showed extremely well, flashing their bright yellow wings as they danced around the open patches of marsh. Also here we located several motionless Rufescent Tiger Herons, an Anhinga, and a number of adult and juvenile Purple Gallinule. Around the more open parts of the pond we picked out several Yellow-headed Caracaras, hardly a feat as they flapped around uttering their rather unsettling screeching calls. A single Crested Caracara was here too, providing a nice (and silent) comparison to its more common smaller cousins.  The row of trees that ring the pond held Panama Flycatcher, and a cooperative pair of Isthmian (a new split from Plain) Wren. Migrants were well represented here too, with Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow and Prothonotary Warblers joining residents like Smooth-billed Ani, Variable Seedeater and Mistletoe Tyrannulet. The overhead wires hosted perched Grey-breasted Martins, Mangrove Swallows and Barn Swallows, as well as the requisite Tropical Kingbirds and several pairs of Tropical Mockingbirds. In the vegetation around the lake we heard the unmistakable drawn out rattles of several White-throated Crakes and with some patience, were able to briefly see one of these colourful, small rails as they crept around through the grasses. It’s hard to pick out a favorite bird when so many species come at once, but I suspect that the perched American Pygmy-Kingfisher likely stole the show, with its copper and emerald green feathers shining in the sun. We headed back to the tower in the early evening, heads swimming a bit from the number of birds that we had encountered on the first day.

We left the tower the next morning shortly after an early breakfast so we could spend all day exploring the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberania National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and over 400 species of birds.  Every 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, 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. The very beginning of the dirt road proved a nice introduction, with almost a dozen Collared Aracaris crossing the road in front of us, perched up and calling Keel-billed Toucans and a placidly sitting Great Potoo keeping us entertained for quite some time. Just a little farther down the road we coaxed a pair of tiny Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (the world’s smallest species of passerine bird) down from their lofty haunts and watched a Black-faced Antthrush strutting around on the forest floor and a family group of Pied Puffbirds perched up in the high 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 and White-tailed Trogons, a female Black-throated Trogon and both Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots showing in turn. Flycatchers too were in evidence, and I suspect it would be difficult to top our views of a very confiding Golden-crowned Spadebill that sat motionless in front of us for nearly a minute. Small flocks of Dot-winged, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens appeared at intervals, often with other birds, such as Olivaceous Flatbill, Black-crowned or Fasciated Antshrike or Lesser Greenlets in tow. A flame headed Crimson-crested Woodpecker was a good find as it hammered at a cavity in a dead palm, with a couple of Squirrel Cuckoos seemingly watching from a nearby tree. Manakins showed well through the morning too, with gloriously plumaged male (and female) Red-capped, Blue-crowned and Golden-collared each falling within range of our expectant optics. Some nice migrants spruced up the day list as well, with a responsive Kentucky Warbler, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Acadian Flycatchers, vocal Eastern Wood-Pewees and Great Crested Flycatchers and a Red-eyed Vireo. 

About midmorning we were thrilled to locate a small swarm of army ants that were being attended by a large number of birds. 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. We were able to walk in slightly off the road to get a good view of the foraging birds as they swept down to the ground to snatch some hapless spider or beetle fleeing from the ants. The most common antbird present was the handsome Spotted Antbird, but with some patience we found a pair of Bicolored Antbirds and a very cooperative Chestnut-backed Antbird as well. A group of bright Gray-headed Tanagers and several Red-throated Ant-Tanagers provided a splash of colour, and creeping around in the trees over the swarm we enjoyed comparison views of Northern Barred, Plain-brown, and Cocoa Woodcreepers. Flush with success over the excellent showing at the antswarm we took a late snack at the newly constricted visitors center (complete with functioning bathrooms) where several participants watched a male Violet-bellied Hummingbird foraging around the small carpark, and where the coffee cake was declared a resounding success. Once back into birding mode we continued further into the forest, stopping for a vocal group of Song Wrens that paraded around in front of us for quite some time like small orangish balls on the dark brown soil. Another bright species that kept us entertained was a pair of Yellow-backed Oriole, a bright yellow and black species with a haunting melancholy song. Just before lunch we located a fairly close Streak-chested Antpitta and over the course of a half hour most were able to obtain scope views of this egg-shaped long-legged sprite as it slowly walked around through the understory vegetation uttering its ringing song and peering over fallen branches to give us a look. While looking for the Antpitta we were distracted by a calling Russet-winged Schiffornis (a recent split from the old Thrush-like Schiffornis) that came rocketing in to our tape and showed quite well. After a late lunch the heavy cloud layer looked threatening indeed and we elected to retreat back to the relative safety of Gamboa for the late afternoon rather than risk being well out on the road during a downpour.

It’s not possible to know whether rain fell further out the Pipeline Road that day, but our couple of hours of birding Gamboa and the Rainforest Resort Grounds netted a stunningly good species list (almost 90 species) and a lot of highlights. Before even reaching the grounds we stopped to admire a House Wren that was hopping about on a lawn. This stop stretched to almost 40 minutes as more and more birds flew into view. A large bare tree was hosting an impressive flock of birds, with a Mistletoe Tyrannulet, our only Cinnamon Becard of the trip, and our first good looks of Ruddy Ground-Doves and White-necked Jacobins as well as heaps of tanagers. Along the forest edge behind the lawn we picked out a pair of beautiful Bay Wrens; a large copper, white and black species with a particularly loud and bold voice. Here too was a dayglow orange female Barred Antshrike, a migrant Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a perched Roadside Hawk. The actual resort abuts the Chagres River, close to where the river meets the Panama Canal, with 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 an abundance 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 everywhere we turned there were birds to look at. No sooner had we exited the cars we located a male Gartered Trogon that was calmly dismembering a huge green Katydid just over the carpark. The Chagres Riverbank held some tame Wattled Jacana, quite approachable Lesser Kiskadees and even a Clay-coloured Thrush that was foraging inside an abandoned dugout canoe! For the rest of the afternoon we walked around the trail system in the back part of the resort. In the more open sections we found our first Flame-rumped Tanagers, Masked Tityra and Common Tody-Flycatchers as well as strutting White-tipped Doves, and a pair of White-tailed Trogons. Once in the forested sections the birdlife changed, and near the first trail junction we found a particularly active spot with a male Blue Cotinga (surely one of the most brightly coloured species in the world) perched up in a tall tree. Here too was a Black-striped Woodcreeper; a particularly attractive species for this normally staid group. The dense grassy understory was active as well, with a vocal pair of Yellow-tailed Orioles showing well, and vocal but more reluctant White-bellied Antbirds and Mourning Warblers. As the daylight began to fade and the chorus of flyover Red-lored Parrots heading to their roost began to drown out the voices of birds in the woods we walked back to the van, stopping to watch a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers above us on the trail and then made the short trip back to the tower.

The next day dawned slowly, as heavy overnight rain caused a light fog layer to linger over the treetops. We again met for a prebreakfast vigil atop the tower. Although the normally extensive view was curtailed by the shifting fog the trees immediately around the tower were simply heaving with birds. Several large mixed species flocks passed by us at close range, and we tallied a far larger species total than on a typical sunny morning. Quite a few of our sightings were new for the trip, from the tiny burnt orange Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, somewhat less remarkable Yellow-margined Flycatcher and downright washed out Forest Elaenia to more boldly marked species such as Green Shrike-Vireo, Scarlet and Bay-headed Tanagers and Black-cheeked Woodpecker. A young male Mantled Howler Monkey spent much of the morning contemplatively munching on some fresh leaves below the tower ledge and largely ignoring the fact that another species of primate was occupying its canopy purview.

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. Over the course of the morning we studied a few pairs of Dot-winged, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwren, Black-crowned Antshrike and Chestnut-backed Antbird along the margins of the trail. At one particularly open patch of understory we could see across the small creek to the adjacent hillside, where Northern Barred, Cocoa and Plain-brown Woodcreepers showed well as they clambered about on tree limbs just a few feet above the ground. Nearby we were alerted to the presence of a Scaly-throated Leaftosser when it cried out its piercing descending rattle. It took only a minute or two before we located the bird below the trail and in an open section of the forest floor. It’s an amazingly camouflaged bird, closely mimicking the colour of the wet leaves that it was repeatedly throwing up in a seemingly endless quest for invertebrates. The trail was productive for larger and brighter birds too, with multiple Slaty-tailed and Black-throated Trogons, several White-whiskered Puffbirds and excellent views of close Broad-billed Motmot and a handsome Cinnamon Woodpecker. With the overnight rain the areas amphibians seemed quite active as well and during the morning we found a Green-and-Black Dart Frog (a species we encounter very infrequently around the tower), several Litter Toads and a tiny Common Rocket Frog, as well as many egg masses and tadpoles in pools along the edge of the track. Once back at the van we stopped on the way back up the hill to admire a Double-toothed Kite that was sitting on a low branch overhanging the road.

The rains were threatening and the sky was remarkably heavy and dark as we set off for an afternoon around the Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Road. As we went down the hill we stopped at a seemingly random spot where one of the other local guides had found a roosting Black-and-White Owl earlier in the day. To our relief the bird was still tucked up above the road in a fairly dense tangle. This very attractive large owl sports a 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. Once down near the newly upgraded Senafront (border police) training area we parked and spent the rest of the afternoon slowly walking out the old and abandoned road between Panama City and Gamboa. 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. At the small lake we located some loafing Meso-American Sliders, a distant Spectacled Caiman and two quietly perched Boat-billed Herons that were sitting amongst the vegetation lining the pond. By scanning the edges of the lake we also picked up several Greater Ani, a male Prothonotary Warbler, and perched Amazon and Green Kingfishers. Past the lake we found bird activity remarkably low, likely due to the very dark and overcast conditions. A singing Rosy Thrush-Tanager refused to come the extra twenty feet closer to us necessary for a view, staying stubbornly back behind some particularly dense thickets. A pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers proved much more confiding as they hammered away on a mostly destroyed tree stump and we had excellent looks at a pair of Whooping Motmots sitting motionless in the understory. The occasional calls of White-bellied or Jet Antbirds emanated from the dense thickets but both species were sadly completely unresponsive. Though it was still relatively early the skies were dark enough that we headed back to the tower in the late afternoon to prepare for our first of two all-day outings away from the central Canal Zone the next day.

Our trip to the north coast of the Canal Zone never fails to entertain, and this year was no exception. Apparently very heavy rain fell along the Atlantic side of central Panama overnight. The effects of the deluge were complicated by a non- functioning city water pump system in Colon and the resulting flooding was extensive. Large sections of the city were swamped in ankle to knee deep floodwaters and when we arrived in the outskirts of town it quickly became apparent that we would have to wait a bit before skirting the edge of the city and crossing the canal. The wait was punctuated by a few birds, such as our only Solitary Sandpiper of the trip and some very close views of foraging Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, as well as some time to extensively study the locals who seemed as taken aback by their interrupted morning commute as we felt. Drivers were going to extraordinary lengths to drive the flooded streets, and we witnessed an impressive array of maneuvers from pedestrians, motorcyclists (who among us know that one could ride through knee deep water on a bike?), and truckers. Eventually the traffic eased off a bit and we were able to get through, watching a large bus filled with passengers pulling an errant pickup truck out of a flooded roadside ditch as we passed. The bridge over the Atlantic side of the canal seems to be almost finished after about two years of construction, but for our visit it was necessary to take the very short ferry ride across the canal. The ride over takes all of five minutes, but seeing the huge container ships and distant lochs while watching Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds wheel overhead makes for an interesting trip. We stopped at the old lochs for a restroom break and were distracted by perched Yellow-headed Caracara, the antics of circling Magnificent Frigatebirds over the canal, and by the opportunity to watch a massive cruise ship come through the loch system.

We arrived at our first birding destination; Achiote Road (actually signed to indicate that this is an area for the observation of birds) much later than we planned, but the late hour did not seem to overly hamper our birding. 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. Soon after we began walking along the road we stopped at a particularly large set of trees to admire a small group of Purple-throated Fruitcrows that were perching up and giving their distinctive querulous call notes. We watched them for a while, obtaining excellent views of the male’s brilliant claret colored throat patch. In the same tree were Yellow-rumped and Scarlet-rumped Caciques, several bright Fulvous-vented Euphonias and a small flock of the impressive and boldly marked Black-chested Jays. Just across the street from that tree was a tall snag with a perched pair of Bat Falcons and a very bedraggled Turkey Vulture that was trying its best to dry out in the late morning sun. As is generally the case our morning around the Achiote area was punctuated repeatedly by raptors flying between the steep-sided forested ridges. During the course of the four or so hours that we wandered down the road and side trails we found a young Hook-billed Kite, dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk, a perched and luminous White Hawks, and brief views of a circling Savannah Hawk that quickly dropped behind a ridgeline. We also encountered the chief target species around Achiote when we found a quietly sitting pair of large and long-tailed White-headed Wrens in the canopy of a large and epiphyte laden tree. These attractive wrens have only a limited worldwide range, occurring on a narrow strip of the Panama lowlands and adjacent Colombia. As we walked towards a small and lightly trafficked side road we paused to scope a quartet of interacting Yellow-throated Toucans (the new name for the old Chestnut-mandibled Toucan) that were having some in-depth chat about fruit futures (or whatever toucans discuss when gathered together). After having only fleeting glimpses around the tower it was very nice to get a lengthy view of this exotic looking species. Trogons were much in evidence, with White-tailed, Gartered, and Slaty-tailed all putting in appearances, often even sitting out on the exposed electrical wires along the road.

Near the side road where we planned to have lunch we discovered that the normally fallow fields that host grazing cattle along the road were instead large lakes, complete with dozens of foraging egrets and herons, our first Ringed Kingfisher and even a female Lesser Scaup (which would prove to be our sole waterfowl species of the trip). While scanning the “lake” we picked out a pair of Wilson’s Snipe and spent a bit of time sorting out the various lookalike yellow, black and white flycatchers that seemed to be sprinkled around in nearly every tree emerging from the water. After lunch, we walked down the gravel side road, finding a pair of Grey-capped Flycatchers, several tiny and really charismatic Pied Puffbirds perched in a roadside Cercropia, a Yellow-bellied Elaenia and our first Bananaquits and a beautiful pair 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’s the female that really got the cameras clicking away though, as her apricot coloured head and lightly streaked body are a sight to behold. Near the end of the trail we stopped at a spot where a host of birds were mobbing some unseen snake or other predator in a dense tangle. Among the more common species here we picked out a small Stripe-throated Hermit, and a few Thick-billed Euphonia. Walking back to the bus some sharp-eyed participants located a Streaked Flycatcher and when we went back to look for it we noticed that one of the nearby Gumbo Limbo trees was in fruit. Not only did we refind the flycatcher, but the return visit netted us the other major target species for the area when Danilo picked out a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets foraging in the same tree. There’s really no such thing as a dull species of barbet, and these handsome black, yellow, orange and white birds hold their own among the family. The tree was also attracting our only Orchard Oriole of the trip, as well as a particularly bright orange Baltimore Oriole; well worth the hundred meters or so of backtracking!

We would normally continue from Achiote out to the coast and the Fort San Lorenzo perched atop a bluff at the mouth of the Chagres, but with the very late arrival it was mid-afternoon by the time we wrapped up the Achiote Road area. We made a quick stop in at the mangroves near the old US base at Fort Sherman, where several Common Black-Hawks were lurking in the taller mangroves. The woods seemed quiet, but driving out that way allowed us to spot three White-necked Puffbirds that were perched on roadside wires, a soaring Zone-tailed Hawk, and a small segment of the original French Canal. We boarded the ferry in the late evening, and with a male Blue-black Grassquit displaying on the shore behind us crossed back to the eastern side of the canal. This time we breezed through Colon, taking about ten minutes to traverse the area that had taken us over three hours in the morning, and arriving back at the familiar comforts of the tower in time for a special barbeque dinner.

Our full day trip away from the tower to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, east of Panama City provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. 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 definitely worthwhile. As we neared the top we paused at a pretty rushing and rocky stream to look at a pair of Black Phoebes that were sitting on the creekside rocks. Once in the housing development that covers much of the higher reaches of the mountain we started 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. Our first few groups were heavy on migrant warblers and resident tanagers. The stunning sky blue and green Bay-headed Tanager was common along the road, joined by equally stunning birds like Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Red-capped Manakin, Green Honeycreeper and the montane form of Hepatic Tanager (surely a different species than the ones in the United States). Warblers included male American Redstart and Golden-winged Warbler, as well as a multitude of Bay-breasted and Tennessee and a few Rufous-capped. At one point, we stopped to watch some Dacnis and were surprised to find three sedately perched Short-billed Pigeons gorging themselves in a fruiting shrub and completely ignoring our presence. At another bend in the road we located a luminous blue and purple male Blue Cotinga that 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.

In the late morning, we decided to take advantage of the stable weather conditions by exploring the dirt road that leads up Cerro Jeffe. This track is several hundred feet higher than the housing development, and supports a thick and dwarfed cloudforest as it winds along the top of the ridge. On the way up to the viewing platform which sits atop the peak and affords views of both the Caribbean and Pacific the clouds closed in on us. Just as a light rain began to fall though we finally located an active flock of birds along the trail. Led by about a half-dozen Blac-and-Yellow Tanagers, the group also contained our first Tawny-capped Euphonia, a perched Violet-capped Hummingbird (a local specialty and one that seems a good candidate for the brightest green of any hummingbird), a couple of Mistletoe Tyrannulets and a male Green Hermit. On the way back down to the car we found a responsive Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant in a thick stand of bamboo, and a small understory flock that contained Checker-throated Antwren and Black-crowned Antshrike. Just as we returned to the car (of course) another mixed flock came through, with a pair of 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. A male Speckled Tanager was in the flock as well, but somehow managed to avoid most of our binoculars before flitting off downslope.

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. The diversity here was impressive, and in about a ninety-minute vigil we tallied Crowned Woodnymph, Green and Long-billed Hermits, pugnacious Bronze-tailed (and White-vented) Plumeleteers, Blue-chested, Violet-capped, Rufous-tailed, and dozens of Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and White-necked Jacobins! In addition to the hummingbirds we had an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with a simply absurd number of Shining, a few Red-legged and Green and several Bananaquits 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, several of blue and black Thick-billed Euphonia, and some pugnacious little Yellow-faced Grassquits. The show was simply amazing, with birds whirling around in a festival of colour and noise in virtually every direction. Out in the front of the property we found a female Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker near the foot of their driveway. This attractive olive green and red woodpecker is endemic to Panama and can be quite difficult to locate in its preferred foothill forests. In fact we had missed this species for three tours running to Cerro Azul prior to this sighting! Eventually we pulled ourselves away, stuffed with vanilla cake and arroz con pollo, and made a quick stop in at the forested Maipo Trail. This somewhat steep but short trail provides one of the few access areas inside good quality forest in the developed part of the mountain. We found it quiet, but well worth the visit as near the beginning of the trail we located a cooperative adult male White-ruffed Manakin, a deep navy blue/black bird with a gleaming white throat, quite an excellent species with which to cap off our visit to the highlands.

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 unfortunately very low, but thousands of birds were foraging out as far as we could see and in all directions. Occasionally flocks of thousands of birds would wheel around out over the mudflats before settling back down, making us wonder just how many individual birds were actually present. Luckily for us there was a large assemblage of birds much closer in, using the small islands of mud formed by the stream outflow to loaf. Among the dozens of Neotropic Cormorants, Egrets and Brown Pelicans we picked out some sitting Laughing Gulls, several Black-necked Stilt and Marbled Godwit and an attractive adult Cocoi Heron (which replaces Great Blue Heron in far eastern Panama and throughout South America). On the more open mud were Willets, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers and peeps (mostly Western Sandpipers) were all scoped in turn, with a steady stream of birds coming and going all the time. Some close scrutiny of the plovers revealed one distant Wilson’s Plover, and some sleeping Ruddy Turnstones. Just a bit before we left we spotted three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons flying in to start feeding on the incoming tide, and marveled at the hordes of distant Frigatebirds plying the surf. A bit of creative driving allowed us to avoid most of the Friday night traffic in Panama City, and also gave us a nice view of the historic section of downtown and the recently completed Biomuseum building designed by Frank Gehry. We finished the tour over dinner on the banks of the canal, amazed by the diversity and beauty of the birds of central Panama. AS a group over twenty different species were mentioned for bird of the trip honours, with the manakins as a collective and the day roosting Black-and-White Owl capturing a joint top spot. Although this shortened trip takes place over only six days we found 260 species of bird and 13 species of mammals! Thanks to the participants and our local guide Danilo this year, whose good spirits and comradery made it fun trip to lead!

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 07 December 2018