Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower

2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The 2024 Spring Panama tour combined seasonably dry weather with a wonderful array of neotropical birds. Over the course of the main tour and extension we tallied an amazing 386 species of birds over our ten days in the field. Some of the highlights around the Canopy Tower included watching two male Blue Cotingas sitting on a canopy tree from the top deck of the tower, point blank views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta along Pipeline Road, day roosting Black-and-White and Choco Screech Owls and several encounters with active swarms of Army Ants along with the suite of obligate followers including the dazzling Ocellated Antbird. Our day trip to the Caribbean lowlands included some truly exceptional views of Spot-crowned Barbet along Achiote Road as well as a nest-building pair of Royal Flycatchers, a male Pacific Antwren and nesting Chestnut-headed and Crested Oropendolas. Our other full day outing was again to the higher country around Cerro Azul and this year the trip was astonishingly successful, with views of Emerald, Speckled, Black-and-Yellow, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged as well as wintering warblers like Blackburnian, Black-throated Green and Golden-winged and a flurry of hummingbirds at a private feeder array.

The lodge extension produced even more spectacularly, with close views of some truly hard and exquisite birds. In just four days we encountered Black-crowned Antpitta, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, White-tipped Sicklebill, Tody Motmot, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Yellow-eared and Emerald Toucanets and Crimson-bellied Woodpecker. Any one of these could easily be labelled as bird of the trip, and in fact, over the final dinner no participant picked the same “favorite” bird.

Beyond the color and diversity of the birds though, we enjoyed an array of mammals including snoozing Night Monkeys, a day foraging Nine-banded Armadillo and lots of Sloths and Howler Monkeys as well as an impressive array of Reptiles. 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.


As most of this years’ participants arrived a day early and transferred over to the tower in the late morning there was an opportunity for some light birding around the tower grounds before our introductory meeting at six pm. This provided a gentle introduction to the common birds around the tower. The hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower were hosting a constant parade of White-necked Jacobins. The males are quite sharp with snowy white bellies and tails and are quite a nice species to have as the most common hummingbird. Virtually as common were the much smaller and equally dazzling Violet-bellied Hummingbirds. Among the throngs we also noted a few Blue-chested and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds and both Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermit. While watching the hummingbird feeders we were also treated to a brief burst of active raptor migration. Several large kettles of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures were visible passing right over the tower ball. Seeing migration in action is always remarkable, doubly so when the numbers of birds are so impressive. Around the tower top we also enjoyed up close and personal encounter with some quite tame Palm Tanagers. In the early evening we met up for our introductory meeting and turned in for the night, looking forward to a week surrounded by birds.

We greeted the sunrise on our first morning with an hour-and-a-half-long vigil from the top deck of the Canopy Tower. Perched atop the 800ft high hill in Soberiana National Park, the tower overlooks a great expanse of forested slopes and lowlands. From the top of the tower, one has a great view of the expansive forest canopy and of the canal. Early morning on the top deck is a special place, as dawn’s light creeps across the canopy and the birds begin to wake. Every morning is a bit different from the deck, and on our first day we were treated to a bit of uncharacteristic March weather, with overcast skies. This might have depressed the bird activity a bit but we were still treated to a nice array of species over the course of our vigil. Close views of Blue Dacnis, Green and Red-legged Honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers as they fed in the tower-side Cercropia trees were a nice introduction to what would become quite a large list of tanagers for the tour. A fruiting Melostoma tree near the tower top was hosting a flock of migrants including a handsome male Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Lesser Greenlet, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, a pair of actually visible Green Shrike-Vireos (a handsome canopy species that vocalizes throughout the day but can be quite frustrating to see well as it tends to lurk in dense canopy leaf clusters) and a quite cooperative Black-cheeked Woodpecker. As is generally the case in the mornings here we were also able to scope a nice assortment of birds as they perched up in the early morning light. Garrulous Red-lored, Mealy and Brown-hooded Parrots were perched quite close to the tower, feeding on some flower clusters in the canopy. A few Orange-chinned Parakeets and two Blue-headed Parrots flew by a couple of times as well, giving us a great start on central Panama’s parrot diversity. A bit further out we scoped several gaudy Keel-billed Toucans and more staid but still attractive Scaled Pigeons were admired in turn in the scopes. Perhaps the top three most memorable birds of the morning though were the male Cinnamon Woodpecker that lingered for a minute or two just off the edge of the deck, two incredibly bright male Blue Cotingas feeding in trees near eye level just a few dozen feet away and a boisterously loud Slate-colored Grosbeak, a stunning towhee-like tanager clad in lead grey and sporting an oversized crimson bill and nicely starch-white throat, that was sitting in some dense cover (or so it thought) for several minutes as it gave its loud ringing song from the canopy. It was a bit of a sensory overload really, and our heads were still spinning as we descended one floor to devour our plates of scrambled eggs, sausages and fresh local fruit juice.

After breakfast, we spent the rest of the morning walking down Semaphore Hill along the road. The forest here is older second growth, and in the dry season has patches with fairly light understory, which provides an excellent opportunity for encountering mixed flocks. Over the course of the rest of morning we slowly descended the hill, stopping wherever activity dictated. We found the forest to be much drier than usual, and perhaps as a result found understory birds to be more reticent than normal. We did find a couple of nice flocks, which enabled us to gain an introduction to some of the local antbirds including several pairs of Dot-winged Antwren, a pair of Checker-throated Stipplethroats and several pairs of Black-crowned Antshrike.  As is often the case these understory flocks contained a few other species as well including a nice array of flycatchers; everyone’s favorite new world forest bird family. We spent a bit of time working out the identification features of birds like Southern Bentbill, Western Olivaceous and Yellow-winged Flatbill, and Forest Elaenia. The walk down produced a few more charismatic species as well, with quietly sitting Slaty-tailed and Northern Black-throated Trogon, Broad-billed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, a perched Double-toothed Kite and a displaying Red-capped Manakin. We were also treated to nice views of our first Collared Aracaris, several more Keel-billed Toucans and a male Masked Tityra that were all sitting up on some bare treetops above the road.

About two-thirds of the way down the hill Alexis spotted a snoozing pair of Black-and-White Owls that were perched quite low just upslope from the road. This attractive large owl sports a smartly barred chest, orangey-yellow feet and bill and a well differentiated black crown making for quite a striking sight. A bit further down we were treated to views of a pair of Choco Screech-Owls tucked up under a large termite mound in the canopy. This is a species that we only infrequently find on the tour and given their propensity for switching roosting sites every few days is one that is rarely seen by daylight. Finding owls in the day is vastly better than seeing them in the shine of torchlight, and with two species in quick succession we felt very fortunate indeed.

Eventually we reached the small creek at the bottom of the hill, where we were surprised to see virtually no water in the riverbed, on most years this creek flows right through the dry season, but this year the water was limited to two small pools filled with rather confused fish. Underneath the bridge we spotted a roosting Lesser White-lined Bat, and a young Common Basilisk, and just a bit further down towards the main road we were happy to spot a snoozing Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth and a Tiny Hawk on an active nest right over the road. The bird was unfortunately mostly tucked into the nest, showing only its tail to us, but we vowed to check it every time we passed by in the hopes of spotting a head or perhaps even the whole bird. This is indeed tiny hawk, resembling in some ways a shrunken down and stocky Sharp-shinned. Despite its size it is a fierce hunter, taking a wide array of prey from lizards to hummingbirds and up to birds the size of trogons and thrushes! By this point in the morning our thoughts had started to turn towards food and chairs, so we caught a ride back up to the tower for lunch and a siesta.

In the afternoon, we headed out to the nearby Ammo Dump Ponds just past the little town of Gamboa. This port town on the canal is a famous area historically as it represented the terminus of the French attempt at canal construction. Nowadays the town is largely used as a base for researchers from the Smithsonian Institution who have a large presence in Panama’s canal zone, although with every passing year it seems to gain a little bit more commerce (but thankfully not more traffic). Just before reaching the town we had an impromptu stop due to some construction on the Chagres River bridge, but as we are all birders, and we were sitting outside on the back of the truck we spent the roughly ten minutes birding, finding our first Crimson-backed Tanagers, Social Flycatcher, House Wren, Thick-billed Euphonia and Great-tailed Grackles from the comfort of our bench seats.

Once out at the actual ponds I was surprised to see how low the water level was, quite in contrast to the massive flooding that we saw here a few years ago. The main lake has now effectively ceased to be, with a few small pools tucked into a wet savannah-like depression, and the normally shallow marshy area on the other side of the road was completely dry (for the first time in all of our March tours to the region). Despite the relative lack of water we had a very enjoyable two hours slowly walking along the edge of the marsh. In the vegetation lining the road we watched a small group of Greater Anis as they clambered around in the shrubs, while a parade of new birds such as the undeniably punk-rock Barred Antshrike, flashy Black-striped Sparrow and a placidly perched Gartered Trogon sat in the foreground. The area was particularly good for flycatchers, and after teasing out some of the finer field marks that can be used to separate Greater and Lesser Kiskadee and Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers most participants were confidently identifying them along the road edge. Here too we located our first Streaked Flycatcher, and lots of vocal Tropical Kingbirds. The roadside wires were hosting an array of swallows including our first Southern Rough-winged and Mangrove Swallows and several hulking Gray-breasted Martins. As we were now birding in a more open habitat, we also enjoyed some of the more common edge species typical of the lowlands, such as Short-tailed Swift, Yellow-headed Caracara, Lineated and Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Pale-vented Pigeon, White-tipped Dove, Black-throated Mango and Shiny Cowbird. It seemed that new birds were in every direction, and over the course of the afternoon we walked at most 200m from the parked car! Some seeding grass clumps were hosting a nice array of seedeaters, and among the more common Blue-black Grassquits and Variable Seedeaters we picked out several Yellow-bellied and one Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. A few migrant or wintering birds showed as well, with a handsome male Baltimore Oriole likely stealing the show from the smattering of Yellow Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes. As our time in the area began to wane we walked along the actual road, finding a few spots in the main marsh that still held patches of shallow water. Here we were thrilled to spot a nice array of waterbirds including a half-dozen Rufescent Tiger-Herons, several family groups of Wattled Jacana (here of the black-backed subspecies that is endemic to Central and Eastern Panama and a small section of adjacent Colombia), a few Purple Gallinules and with some effort a couple of largely furtive White-throated Crakes that were clambering around the thickly vegetated edges of the remaining pools. Here too were our first Great Egret and Green Heron, and a couple of quite cooperative Lesser Kiskadees that were foraging over the marsh. We headed back to the tower in time for pre-dinner showers, our heads swimming a bit from a bird-rich first day (and perhaps a bit from the humidity as well).

On our second day we set out for an all-day excursion to the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberiana National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and almost 400 species of birds. The forest here is vast, stretching all the way to the Colombian border in a virtually untouched state. The region was protected during the canal construction era because some of the engineers had the foresight to realise that in order to have an even and continuous flow of water into the canal throughout the year, they had to protect the vegetation in the watershed. Such an expansive patch of lowland forest is unique in Central America and provides one of the best examples of how the ecology and economy of an area can mutually benefit. The forest near the entrance is mature, well-established second growth forest, with many large trees and an undulating topography. This first stretch of road gets some vehicular traffic (even school buses apparently) but in general is quiet, and once past the gate that lies about two kilometers in from the entrance the only traffic is the occasional walker, birding group or Smithsonian Biologist. We first stopped near the edge of the forest, in the clearing for the canal orienteering pylons where several huge flowering Tabebuia trees were in their full golden glory. While admiring the trees we also teased out a cooperative pair of Dusky Antbirds and a handsome male Red-throated Ant-Tanager that were lurking along the forest edge, and scoped a couple of Mantled Howler Monkeys sitting up in a nearby tree.

We drove in to the gate that marks the end of the public vehicle access area and walked a few hundred meters into the forest along a very shallow creek. We could hear some bird activity emanating from the area as we stood on the bridge, and our little detour was well-rewarded, with great views of several flashy Grey-headed Tanagers, incredibly tame Spotted and Chestnut-backed Antbirds, both Plain-brown and Cocoa Woodcreepers and a pair of Northern Black-throated Trogons down in the understory. For the rest of the day, which was pleasantly overcast and dry, we alternated between walking stretches of the main road and riding along in the trucks, and by the end of the afternoon we had reached roughly a kilometer past the Rio Limbo Bridge, a trifle farther in than we typically are able to go (we were helped by the firm road conditions and some recent bridge repair work).

Over the course of the day, we found a good diversity of antbirds and furnarids, from the perky little Dot-winged Antwrens and Black-crowned Antshrikes which were somewhat common, to a pair of White-flanked Antwren and several pairs of Checker-throated Antwrens (now sadly saddled with the new name of Checker-throated Stipplethroat) and a remarkably visible pair of diminutive Moustached Antwrens bouncing around in the canopy. The last is generally a species that lingers high up in the canopy, frustrating birders as they flash around in the denser clusters of leaves, so we were quite pleased to see them so well. One of the larger flocks of antwrens also held quite cooperative Tawny-faced and Long-billed Gnatwrens as well as a quite surprising female Golden-winged Warbler (a species that winters in Panama, but generally not one that occurs inside lowland forest tracts), a furtive pair of Black-bellied Wrens and a very cooperative Black-striped Woodcreeper. We had better luck with a couple of snazzy understory wrens, with excellent views of Song and White-breasted Wood Wrens that both performed extremely well for us this year. As is often the case in the neotropics flycatchers formed a large component of the avifauna, and along with several species that we had met the previous day we encountered a wide array of new ones; from wintering Great Crested and Acadian Flycatchers, to the tiny Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher and vocal but frustratingly uncooperative Brownish Twistwing. Large and flashy species were a definite highlight, with both Slaty-tailed and White-tailed Trogons seen excavating nesting cavities in arboreal termite mounds (leaving the males quite literally coating in a seething mass of irate termites). Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots showed well, and this year we were treated to astoundingly lengthy and excellent views of a perched Great Jacamar, with its copper and emerald feathers flashing in the sun. Woodpeckers were around in decent numbers, and we especially appreciated the pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers that lingered for some time on a truly huge roadside tree trunk. Just at our turnaround point we heard the telltale ringing tones of a Streak-chested Antpitta that was quite close to the road. The bird sat up near a huge buttressed tree root and stayed put as it occasionally sounded off with its ringing song. Our scope views were simply stunning, and many participants obtained digiscope images or video that would possibly make even a National Geographic photographer jealous!

Some of the other real highlights for the day included a perched Crane Hawk gazing at us with its baleful scarlet eyes, a pair of Grey-chested Doves waddling along the edge of the road, a soaring King Vulture over a clearing in the forest, lekking Long-billed Hermits with their white tails flashing in the shaded understory and our views of a flock of Purple-throated Fruitcrows over the road, with several males flaring and flashing their vinous-colored throats in the early morning sun. A few mammals graced our path as well, with several Central American Agoutis trotting around on the road, a few Red-tailed Squirrels scampering around in the canopy and Mantled Howler and Panamanian White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. As we left the forest, we stopped in for a few minutes at the Ammo Dump Ponds, this time adding several birds to our previous visit such as Little Blue and Great Blue Herons, a (rare for the canal zone) Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and our first Panama Flycatcher. It was a great way to cap off an excellent day on the Pipeline, and we arrived back at the tower in plenty of time for some refreshing showers before meeting up for the checklist and a delicious dinner of tamarindo chicken and homemade apple pie.

On day four we departed the tower early and ventured north towards the Atlantic slope lowlands and the Caribbean. These lowland forests along central Panama’s Atlantic coast support several species of birds not found around the lodge area, and the recent spate of developments that have occurred after the new bridge and locks were finished happily included some much-needed road repair around the western side of the canal. Our first stop was in the western edge of Colon, where a new petrol station provided an excellent comfort stop and also a few good birds including our first Saffron Finch, Feral Pigeon and Tropical Mockingbird around the carpark and a Eurasian Collared Dove (a recent and expanding arrival in the region) on a nearby pole. Once across the canal; using the recently finished and impressively high bridge that offers great views of both the old and new locks that step ships up and into Lake Gatun, we headed a bit to the west to our first planned stop along the recently repaved Achiote Road. We parked on the side of the Road near an 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, although with the number of farms in the area a lot of the understory and habitat-specific birds have disappeared or become markedly rarer. Within minutes of exiting the car though we were thrilled to spot one of the main targets of the area, with three very cooperative Spot-crowned Barbets in the roadside canopy. This is a spectacularly colorful species, but during the dry season when the birds are generally nesting they can be devilishly hard to encounter. Elated with our quick success we spent the next two hours or so slowly walking along the road, stopping to admire whatever crossed our paths.

The area supports an impressive diversity of birds, and although the high temperatures of the day and overall remarkably dry conditions didn’t help we spotted nearly 100 species during the morning! Along the main road we were happy to spend some time watching an active colony of Crested Oropendolas as they made repeated visits to their dangling pendulous nests high above one of the coffee farms. Nearby we ogled a Lineated Woodpecker that was hammering away on a dead trunk, and enjoyed quick views of a male Golden-collared Manakin that popped out of the understory for a brief spell before dropping back down into the thicker vegetation. As is often the case here the more open nature of the canopy allows for better viewing of larger birds in or over the trees, and on this trip we were treated to a suite of four delightful kites, with a pair of (likely) nesting Plumbeous Kites, a migrating American Swallow-tailed Kite, two Double-toothed and a perched Gray-headed Kite!  As we slowly walked over towards a quieter (from a traffic perspective) road we picked up some excellent birds along the road edge. It’s hard to pick favorites, but the more noteworthy species were likely the cooperative pair of Fasciated Antshrikes that lingered in some open vines along the edge of the woods, a very responsive pair of Cinnamon Becards, a few flyover Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, nesting Grey-capped Flycatchers, a furtive Bay Wren and very close views of Common Tody-Flycatcher and Yellow-backed Oriole.

By mid-morning we reached the small graveled sideroad to Providencia, where we enjoyed some shade, snacks, coffee and seats near the small bus stop. While enjoying our snack we picked up some extremely cooperative Yellow-crowned Euphonias that were nesting in a bromeliad just off the road. Here too were a couple of perched Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets, a few Smooth-billed Ani and Wattled Jacanas, and our first Western Cattle Egrets and their attendant cattle. Feeling refreshed we slowly walked back along this much quieter road (the only traffic during our hour stay was one horse). Near the end of the road we heard some singing Yellow-green Vireos, a species that had been strangely absent to this point in the tour, and were successful at spotting one of the birds as it came down out of the canopy to check us out. This little patch of forest proved quite productive, with a nearby active colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques that had built their nests around an impressively large paper was colony as well as an unbelievably cooperative male White-winged Becard that posed for photos better than any red-carpet celeb at the Oscars. Here too was a pair of Shining Honeycreepers sitting up in the canopy (with Red-legged Honeycreepers nearby for comparison). The birds were backlit so we were not able to fully appreciate their intense colouration, an issue that we would rectify a few days later up on Cerro Azul.

Before leaving the Achiote area and heading to our lunch spot we elected to spend a bit of time on the Trogon Trail; a short loop trail in San Lorenzo National Park. Our short stroll became an extended one though, as once we were in the shaded comfort of the closed canopy bird activity definitely increased. Along a shallow creek that was actually retaining a bit of flowing water we were thrilled to have a lengthy encounter with a pair of Royal Flycatchers that were nestbuilding on a nearly eye-level branch over the water. This striking bird (which is no longer in the flycatcher family) is generally scarce in the canal area, and although we did not witness either bird flare its gaudy headdress our views were simply stunning. A bit further around the loop we entered a small clearing and were successful at spotting a distantly perched Pied Puffbird, two close and seemingly agitated pairs of White-browed Gnatcatchers and another of our principal targets for the day, the small but extremely colourful and charismatic Pacific Antwren. We capped the walk off with a small but quite active swarm of army ants, where among species that we had encountered the previous day along the Pipeline Road such as Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Checker-throated Stipplethroat, and Grey-headed Tanager we added our first Plain Xenops, a Streak-headed Woodcreeper and a pair of responsive Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants. This last species is noteworthly in that it is generally regarded a as the smallest species of passerine bird in the world. It’s smaller than many heavy bodied beetles, and as it tends to stay well up in the canopy it is often a very tricky bird to see well.

Pleased with our morning we headed for a picnic lunch on the banks of the Chagres River a bit downstream from the Gatun Spillway and, under the shade of a sprawling fig tree, devoured our lunches in the company of a few fishermen, some hunting Magnificent Frigatebirds, a dapper Spotted Sandpiper in its full breeding dress and actively nesting Tropical Kingbird, Plain-colored Tanager and Great Kiskadee. In the mid-afternoon we drove to the coast, crossing over a small bridge that spans the only extant section of the original French-built canal and eventually reaching the picturesque Fort San Lorenzo, a 16th century Spanish fort perched on a bluff where the Chagres River meets the ocean, where walked out to take in the atmospheric surroundings and to scan the somewhat sun-glared Caribbean Sea. The site has been undergoing some extensive renovations for the last several years, but most of the work has seemingly been completed, and the new visitors center (complete with bathrooms and entrance fees) is now fully operational. Since the site was closing early for the day due to the imminent start to the Easter long weekend we opted to not watch the short English language video about the forts history. I suspect most participants quickly would have lost count of the number of times the structure had been flattened and overrun by various ambitious sea captains and cavaliers even if we had watched it. The views of the ocean and rivermouth from the elevated vantage point of the forts ramparts are beautiful, but our visit also held some avian interest for us. As we walked around the edge of the castle we picked up our first Southern Lapwing, Brown Pelican and Yellow-bellied Elaenias, and were captivated by another colony of Crested Oropendolas, amazed at how such huge birds could fly seemingly right into their dangling nests without even slowing down. Leaving the fort only a few minutes after their appointed closing time we then headed back to the Pacific side of the country, noting that the small patches of Lake Gatun visible from the highway held thousands of exposed treetrunks out in the water, a very striking confirmation of the rather dire water shortage that the region is experiencing this year. As we neared the tower it was evident that the Pacific side had seen some much-needed rain while we were gone, though a brief but heavy downpour is by no means enough to bring the soils and watercourses back to normal. At the base of the tower road, we stopped again to check on the Tiny Hawk nest, and this time we could make out more of the adult as it sat incubating above the road. By looking through the edge of the stick nest and being patient, most participants spotted the birds reddish-orange eyes and yellow cere; certainly a bit more satisfying than our previous views which were restricted to the birds undertail. Once back at the tower we learned that the rains had somehow partially knocked out power to the building, with some transmission lines down on the Gamboa road effected by falling limbs. We had to change plans a bit, electing to take dinner while we still had a bit of light and turn in early, but with our early start I doubt anyone minded.

The next morning, we were again atop the tower for an hour-long pre-breakfast vigil, happy to find that the power had been restored overnight. The burst of rain and obvious change in the local weather had seemingly spurred on migration, and we found the fruiting trees that ring the tower to be heaving with migrant birds. At times it was almost overwhelming with a feast of colour; Scarlet and Summer Tanagers were perched right beside Blue Dacnis, Golden-hooded Tanagers and Green Honeycreepers, little groups of Tennessee, Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted warblers and Red-eyed and Yellow-green vireos were picking at the fruits, and while watching them we chanced upon two scarce species in the lowlands with a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler and a single Philadelphia Vireo. The skies held passing Barn and Cliff Swallows, as well as a single migrant Mississippi Kite and some displaying Band-rumped Swifts. Local birds showed well too, with a particularly close Scaled Pigeon, a pair of Slate-colored Grosbeaks, a male Gartered Trogon sitting up in the treetops, lots of sitting Keel-billed Toucans, another amazing session with a cooperative pair of Green Shrike-Vireos and another perched male Blue Cotinga (sitting right next to two male Scarlet Tanagers)! Eventually we pulled ourselves away and enjoyed a well-earned breakfast.

After our time on the tower, we set off for a nearby stretch of the Old Gamboa Rd., and the nearby Summit Ponds. We pulled into the parking lot area adjacent to the border police training center and were happy to find many fruiting Gumbo Limbo trees lining the edges of the road. Before we knew it, we were simply surrounded by birds, and it took over an hour to even leave the parking area! Most of the birds that were tucking into the fruits were migrants, but we found a wealth of local species as well. One particularly excellent tree kept us occupied for well over a half-hour, as a parade of birds kept popping into view. Here we found our first Streaked Saltators, Buff-breasted Wren, Golden-fronted and Scrub Greenlets, nesting Common Tody-Flycatcher and Tropical Kingbird and a very vocal and showy Yellow-tailed Oriole. As usual the area was full of tanagers, with Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Palm, Plain-colored Tanagers, Blue Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreepers bouncing around in the roadside trees. Just a few feet down the road we stopped to admire several snoozing Three-toed Sloths, and were then distracted by the antics of an actively foraging Squirrel Cuckoo, some loud and impressively hulky looking Boat-billed Flycatchers, our first Greenish Elaenia, a very furtive Isthmian Wren, a passing Crested Caracara and an impressive passage of migrating Turkey Vultures and Cliff Swallows coursing overhead. Once at the forested ponds our attentions turned towards more water-oriented birds, with a pair of perched Green Kingfishers, foraging Green and Little Blue Herons and Anhinga, some nesting Mangrove Swallows that were using a semi-submerged hollow log as their nest cavity and, with a bit of careful scanning, a loafing adult Boat-billed Heron that was tucked into the shade of a large palm tree along the lake edge.

Past the ponds the old road traverses some viney second growth forest and then out into patches of more open forest with an extensive grassy understory. Although only a few miles away from the tower this quite different forest type supports a number of species that are not found in the taller and more humid forest of the National Park. I suspect that the favorite species of the walk would be the displaying group of male Golden-collared Manakins that we found with little effort in a dense vine patch just off the trail. We were able to watch the group of 5 or 6 males as they practiced their displays; zipping back and forth between perches just off the ground and making an impressive and loud array of sounds with their wings. Some other notable sightings for the walk included a perched immature Great Black-Hawk that was occasionally being mobbed by some irate Orange-chinned Parakeets, a very cooperative pair of Whooping Motmots that were sitting up near a large termite mound, and a vocal Jet Antbird clambering around in some midstory vine tangles. By this point the morning was waning, and we headed back to the tower just in time to get up for lunch.

That afternoon we set out for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Grounds. Abutting the Chagres River, right where the river meets the Panama Canal, the lodge has an abundance of birdlife. Some recent management decisions have resulted in a large amount of clearing near some of the buildings, with some new fencing and gates, but the trail system in the back of the property and the riverbanks looked much as usual, if a lot busier than normal due to the holiday Easter weekend. Likely due to the particularly hot and dry year to date (the tower’s brief rain spell the prior day excepted) we found the forest around the grounds to be much drier than usual, with no water in the small marshy impoundments, and a lot of bare trees, but the birding was still excellent. We started off by scanning a wide area of the Chagres River upstream from the canal, and with the low water levels there was a significant amount of marshy edge vegetation that was holding a nice array of waterbirds. Here we tallied our first Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Snail Kites, as well as some very close views of perched Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows and a passing pair of Southern Lapwing. The trees around our vantage point proved even more productive, with our first good views of our first Flame (Lemon)-rumped Tanagers feeding on some ripe papayas, a pair of very cooperative Black-crowned Tityra just overhead, Fasciated Antshrike and a quite close Southern Beardless Tyrannulet. Here too we watched a female Black-throated Mango hawking insects over the marsh and enjoyed a second view of a calling Scrub Greenlet. The edge of the developed part of the property was hosting an impressive colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques and Chestnut-headed Oropendola that were both still busy in the complicated task of nest construction, with birds coming and going at regular intervals and bringing in long strips of dry grass to weave into their ever-growing nests. We watched them for a bit, and then after ogling the array of birds that were perched up on the roadside wires (Ruddy Ground-Dove, Streaked Flycatcher, Crimson-crested, Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers and several Tropical Kingbirds and Clay-colored Thrushes) we walked towards the forested loop trail in the back of the property, taking about an hour or so to explore the mix of grassy fields and semi-open forest. As we entered the woods another birding group let us know that they had just spotted a Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher in a tiny creek just off the road. We hastened over and were initially puzzled as we found a perched American Pygmy-Kingfisher in roughly the same spot, but while watching this little sprite we moved to a slightly different vantage point and found our hoped-for bird. Amazingly it stayed put for many minutes (even when we semi-collapsed a bamboo bridge while taking photos). This was only our second-ever spring sighting of this flashy copper and emerald Kingfisher which is not a common species anywhere over its large range. After spending some time taking in our views of the kingfishers we moved a bit further down the road, successfully chasing a calling Yellow-throated Toucan that we eventually found perched high up in a sunlit tree. After hearing this large and quite spectacular bird several times over the previous several days it was great to finally be able to watch one as it clambered around in the canopy and uttered its incredibly loud yelping calls. We completed the small loop trail that winds through some drier forest with a tangled grassy understory. Here we found several more fruiting Gumbo-Limbos, and a smattering of birds including our first Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a calling but invisible (as usual) Little Tinamou and an active pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers. In addition, our string of good luck held here with a Panamanian Night Monkey sticking its head out of its chosen roost hole and giving us a sleepy-eyed stare.

Our last stop for the day was over on the opposite side of the resort, where a small marina sits tucked just off the main Chagres River a few hundred meters upstream from the canal. It’s usually a good spot to take in the view in the late afternoon, with a nice assortment of waterbirds and passerines to look at. Here we watched a gang of Greater Anis harassing an obviously stressed-out little Common Tody-Flycatcher at its nest, had close views of a second pair of Black-crowned Tityras, and were able to again sort out the differences between Greater and Lesser Kiskadees and Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers. Our main memories though will likely concern the sky above us, as against the backdrop of the river and the forested hills covered in flowering Tabebuia trees we watched a river of vultures streaming westward towards Costa Rica. Amongst the vultures were at least a dozen Swainson’s Hawks, a few thermalling Brown Pelicans and a couple of high-flying Broad-wingeds. We scanned the ridgeline in earnest, picking up a circling Short-tailed Hawk in amongst the throngs of local Black Vultures, and, just as we were readying to leave, a brilliantly crisp-white White Hawk that was circling right along the ridge. This is a truly wonderfully plumaged raptor, with a snow-white head, body and wings offset by an elegant black trim and tail band. It was a fitting end to a truly whirlwind day in which we tallied over 140 species of birds, all within just a few miles of our lodge and we were able to celebrate over a special barbeque dinner on the lower deck.

Our last full day of the main tour was spent visiting Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, east of Panama City. These mountains provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. The ridges and adjacent valleys around the top of the mountains here are privately owned by one of Panama’s wealthy families. Much of the developed land is set aside for chicken farming, but extensive forest remains away from the roads. The section that we visited has been turned into a large gated community for locals and expats. The myriad paved roads that snake around various parts of the mountain are variably developed, with opulent and less exuberant houses interspersed with tracts of good forest or small cleared plots. With the lower slopes of the mountains clad in primary forest the road system allows a visiting birder to access a surprising diversity of birds in comfort.

We first stopped briefly at a small overlook along the road, where the normally quite impressive waterfall in the valley below was but a mere trickle. The forest around the viewing platform though held our first (of several) flocks of Carmiol’s Tanagers, a calmly sitting Yellow-olive Flatbill and a very perky and well-received Chestnut-capped Warbler that was bouncing around in the low vegetation and giving us repeated renditions of its cheerful song. A bit further up the road we called in to the development office, where we dealt with our entrance fees, used their facilities and tallied our first Lesser Goldfinches that were busily dismembering some flowering sunflowers along the properties back fence. Here too we scoped a few perched Scaled Pigeons and a Streaked Saltator and spent a bit of time watching a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites as they languidly circled over a nearby ridge. We then we decided to walk a bit back through the housing development near the trail up to the ridgeline of Cerro Jeffe. This proved an exceedingly good decision as in the front yard of the first two houses we found some fruiting trees that were at times heaving with birds. The striking Bay-headed Tanager was likely the most common visitor, but over the course of a nearly hour-long vigil we were thrilled to spot a pair of Emerald Tanagers (surely one of the most striking birds in the country), as well as singles of Golden-winged, Blackburnian and Black-throated-Green Warblers, our first Mistletoe Tyrannulets, a nesting pair of Isthmian Wrens and an amazingly cooperative pair of diminutive (and quite cute) Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants which actually perched out in the open for us for several minutes!

Once we arrived at the initially steep road that heads up to the Cerro Jeffe ridge our progress really slowed down, with birds furtively appearing at random along the first few hundred meters of trail. Perhaps due to the generally sunny conditions the birds were sticking in cover, making each new species a bit of a challenge for the entire group to achieve decent views. But our efforts were rewarded many times over as we slowly but surely came to grips with a host of new and dazzling tanagers. One by one our hoped-for targets popped into view, here a Speckled Tanager, there an Emerald or Black-and-Yellow, and over in the next tree a group of Carmiol’s leading with some Tawny-capped Euphonias for company. We enjoyed particularly excellent views of a male Rufous-winged Tanager as it foraged in a near eye-level bromeliad just off the trail, and even bumped into a male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis perched up high in an introduced Caribbean Pine tree. With close-up views of our first Olivaceous and Spotted Woodcreepers, a pair of perched Hepatic Tanagers (here of the very distinctive and obviously different highland subspecies) and a fairly showy Olive-striped Flycatcher our mid-morning snack soon risked falling at lunchtime. We headed back to the beginning of the trail (after covering barely 300m over an hour’s walk and happily tucked into the provided coffees, cold drinks and snacks.

We still had a bit of time before lunch and decided to try walking down one of the older roads in the development, where larger houses on much larger lots result in a nice mix of clearings and tall epiphyte-laden trees. Here we found a pugnacious and uncharacteristically bold Black-striped Sparrow that was involved in a fierce territorial battle with a parked Toyota pickup truck (or at least the birds’ reflection in the underside of the chrome bumper). Nearby we were thrilled to spot several Bay-headed Tanagers that were foraging down at eye level, our first Swainson’s Thrush in a still unsold woodlot and another very vocal Chrstnut-capped Warbler. As we walked slowly downhill we found some larger clearings, and in one of the isolated trees were treated to views of Northern Tropical Pewee and Lesser Elaenia; a pair of rather unremarkable flycatchers that we often miss around the tower portion of the tour. In some roadside flowers we also tracked down a foraging Violet-headed Hummingbird; a cute but stocky species that sports a diagnostic pale patch of bare skin behind its eyes and a squared off, almost Anna’s-like head shape.

Near the end of the development road we noticed some movement in the understory below the road and were shocked that the bird was an Ocellated Antbird! We soon realized that there was a family group, with five individuals bouncing around on the forested slope. The Ocellated is perhaps the most attractively patterned species of antbird in the world. It’s a big species, clad in coppery-brown feathers with large dark centers, giving the back a highly patterned mosaic of scales. On top of this gaudy pattern, the bird sports a large and bright blue patch of bare skin around the eyes offsetting a black face and throat, and an almost orange chest. We rarely encounter this species around Cerro Azul, and over the last few years have been seeing them with a lower frequency around the Pipeline Road (likely due to the persistent drought reducing their food base in leaf litter or depressing ant activity). As an added bonus there was a pair of Bicolored Antbirds and a responsive pair of Black-faced Antthrushes travelling with them. All three species showed extremely well for us in the end; an event that caused more than one participant to break into a happy dance after the birds eventually crossed the road and headed upslope.

Leaving the Calle Mono Road behind, we switched gears a bit and visited a private house that is nestled within the gated community adjacent to a nice patch of remaining forest in a sheltered valley. The house is owned by an ex-pat American couple that maintain an amazing array of feeders in their backyard.  It was here that we realized just how many hummingbirds could fit onto a feeder. We estimated that 50-60 birds were visible at any given time, often zipping in and out right between us as we watched. The diversity here was impressive, and in about an hour’s vigil we tallied an amazing number of White-necked Jacobin and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, lots of very attractive Crowned Woodnymphs, Bronze-tailed and White-vented Plumeleteer, Green and Long-billed Hermit, a slightly out-of-range Black-throated Mango and a few Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds! The visual fiesta was not limited to hummingbirds here though as the feeders and some proffered bananas and rice attracted an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with lots of Red-legged, Green, and Shining Honeycreepers in constant view and regular visits from Thick-billed Euphonia, Summer, Bay-headed, Crimson-backed and Hepatic Tanagers. The constant whorl of colour and activity was mesmerizing, somewhat akin to an open-air aquarium. Our gracious hosts were welcoming as always, and in addition to the birds we enjoyed a nice lunch spread out on the tables on their back patio.

Our last stop on the mountain was along a scenic rocky stream, where we stopped to admire a perched pair of Black Phoebes, here of the southern subspecies which sports more white in the wing than birds to the north show, sitting on the boulders in the middle of the creek. After admiring a teetering Spotted Sandpiper in the creekbed and a cooperative Green Kingfisher sitting on the cement dam wall below the road we headed 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 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. We can’t gear our arrival for a specific tide condition, but this year we arrived on an incoming tide, with plenty of exposed mud and clouds of foraging waders milling around the shoreline. Normally the beach here is comprised mainly of an amazing amount of plastic waste that washes out of the city only to be circulated around in the bay and deposited back along the shore. In recent years though, a local conservation organization has organized regular beach clean-ups to remarkably good effect. Most of the shorebirds were at scope distance due to the tide position, but along the small river channel below the bridge we obtained excellent views of foraging Least, Semipalmated, Spotted and Western Sandpipers as well as single Black-necked Stilt and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and a seemingly inexhaustible number of Neotropic Cormorants.

We then spent some time scoping the crowded masses of birds farther out on the flats, finding foraging Willet, Marbled Godwit and Whimbrels as well as a smattering of Short-billed Dowitchers and Black-bellied Plovers and single Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone and Greater Yellowlegs. A huge flock of roosting Larids was comprised mainly of Laughing Gulls, but we turned up a young Herring Gull and first-year Lesser Black-backed Gull as well as quite a few Royal Terns and the occasional Sandwich Tern. The black-backed has only recently become somewhat regular in the country, mirroring the large uptick in numbers for the species over much of the eastern half of North America. Out on the bay we could see hundreds more Pelicans plunge diving in the water, with white splashes popping up as far out as we could see. Dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds and squadrons of Neotropic Cormorants were in the fray as well, making for a truly impressive spectacle. The drive back to the tower from the coast was a breeze, as there was virtually no traffic due to the fact that it was the middle of the Easter long weekend.

We spent our last morning around the tower again with a pre-breakfast vigil from the top deck. In contrast to our previous morning, we found little evidence of forest bird migration, with no busy flocks of vireos, tanager and warblers in the fruiting trees near the tower. The skies though held an abundance of migrants, with a near-constant trickle of Cliff and Barn Swallows, occasional pulses of Mississippi Kite, Broad-winged Hawk and Swainson’s Hawks and even a few passing flocks of Eastern Kingbirds. Our only new species for the triplist was a Zone-tailed Hawk that passed close by the tower at eye-level, but our hour was full of birds. Being able to study birds like Blue Cotinga, Keel-billed Toucan, foraging Mealy and Red-lored Parrots, Scaled Pigeon, Black-cheeked, Crimson-crested and Cinnamon Woodpeckers and Masked Tityra from a comfortable angle and in good light is truly a special experience.

After breakfast we took a bit of time to get our luggage organized for our early afternoon transfer and then spent a few hours back along the first few kilometers of the Pipeline Road. This normally quiet area was astonishingly busy with families and birders enjoying an Easter Sunday outing. Nevertheless we found a nice selection of birds, with our first Black-tailed Trogons (our fifth species of trogon for the tour, giving us the clean sweep of central Panama species) and White-necked Puffbird and a very satisfying mixed species understory flock that kept us busy for well over a half hour. In this flock we picked out all of the “three amigos”, with foraging White-flanked, Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, as well as a pair of active Plain Xenops, several Black-crowned Antshrike, Cocoa and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, a single Black-and-White Warbler and our final addition to our main tour list with a preening Spot-crowned Antvireo that stayed put for long enough for repeated scope views. Our visit also produced point-blank views of Slaty-tailed and Northern Black-throated Trogons, a chick and adult Great Potoo and perhaps our best views of White-browed Gnatcatcher of the trip. Once back at the tower we had our final lunch and bade farewell to our gracious local guide Alexis and readied ourselves for the roughly two-hour transfer over to the Canopy Lodge, where this year nearly all participants had elected to take the optional extension to our Canopy tower week. The drive was a bit longer than usual as officials had made one of the outbound lanes from the city a makeshift third inbound lane. Seeing the huge lines of cars filled with holiday-goers returning to the city made us really happy that we were heading westwards!


Nestled in a forested valley just uphill from the picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, in the eastern (but isolated) edge of the Talamanca range that stretches westward into Costa Rica, the lodge offers a wealth of birds not accessible around the tower. Although the dry season is the time for a lot of the local birds to be off nesting, the daily show at the fruit feeders just outside the dining hall is still a treasure for the eyes. After we checked into our rooms, we spent a relaxing hour and a bit watching the feeders and trees along the creekline. There was virtually always something to look at, from the first moment that the feeders came into our sights when we saw a huge Gray-cowled Wood-Rail cleaning up the last scraps of rice to the end of our session when a gang of Collared Aracaris came in and quickly snapped up the last papaya pieces. In between we enjoyed excellent views of Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Red-crowned Ant and Dusky-faced Tanagers. Dusky-faced is another normally retiring species that has become semi-tame at the lodge. It’s an odd bird, now no longer regarded as a species of tanager but rather a member of the Mitrospingid family, a tiny family of oddball ex-tanagers from the Caribbean side of South America. Clay-colored Thrushes, Black-chested Jays and Thick-billed Euphonias were competing with Red-tailed Squirrels and even the occasional mob of Gray-headed Chachalacas for the best pieces of banana all within just a few meters of our comfortable chairs. We enjoyed dinner on their open-air deck, and then headed off to bed, with the cooler foothills air providing a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the tower and the white noise created by the rushing stream that passes through the property and the and myriad frogs chortling away making for a most comfortable environment.

The next day we elected to spend the morning above the lodge exploring a few of the roads around La Mesa. Before breakfast we were treated to excellent views of an adult Sunbittern that was casually foraging below the bridge for well over a half hour. It was working the edge of the creek, repeatedly turning over submerged leaves and grabbing small fish or invertebrates that had been hiding underneath and the bird seemed completely unconcerned by our presence on the nearby bridge. There has been a pair of these unique and striking birds on the creek for several years, but as they tend to use more than a mile of creek, we do not always connect with them. To see one so easily, and for such length out in the open sun was truly special. At one point the bird jumped down from a larger rock in the creek and flared its butterfly-like patterned wings for long enough for a couple of people to obtain that once-in-a-lifetime photo. The creek held a cooperative Buff-rumped Warbler as well; a unique new world warbler that acts a lot like an apricot hued Dipper as it bobs around along rocky streams. The feeders were busy as well, with mostly the same cast of characters as the prior day, but with much better views a trio of copper and black Bay Wrens and a female Lance-tailed Manakin near the parking area.

For the bulk of the morning, we explored the trails around the nearby Canopy Adventure. This site is a well-known tourist destination, with some suspension bridges, a multi-step forest zipline, a few waterfalls and a “natural” swimming hole adjacent to the creek and just a kilometer or so upstream from the lodge. Although all of these attractions are certainly wonderful in their own right, we chose to explore the trails around the back of the property. It proved a fortuitous choice, as we recorded a suite of mouth-watering birds that included several of the most sought-after species in Central America. Just past the first bridge we picked out a pair of Orange-billed Sparrows that were bouncing around in the understory above the trail. This is a flashy mossy-green sparrow with a fancy black and white pattered head and carrot-orange bill. As is customary the birds largely stayed in the undergrowth, but occasionally one or the other bird would sit in an open enough spot for some of the group to appreciate its beauty. A bit further down the trail we connected with one of our main targets for the morning; the small and secretive Tody Motmot, a bird which eschews the customary extravagant nature of the other species in its family and spends most of its time in dense tangles in the understory. We found a likely spot just uphill from the trail where we could see well into the understory, and within just a minute or so we succeeded in eliciting a response, although it took nearly a quarter-hour to spot the bird as it sat motionless on a small vine above our vantage point. In the end we managed scope views from another angle, with the birds’ blue mascara glinting in a patch of bright sunlight. Often it takes us several attempts to track this species (which features on the lodge T-shirts) down, so to see it on the first morning was a treat.

Our main reason for visiting the Canopy Adventure grounds though was to see if a recently reported Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo was still in the area. The five species of Neomorpha Ground-Cuckoos of South and southern Central America are a nearly mythical group of birds, rarely seen in the field despite their large size and often bright colours, and we simply couldn’t pass up a chance, however slight, that the birds might still be in the area. Our run of luck held, as Danilo came running down the somewhat rough trail in breathless fashion saying that the bird was right where he had seen it the previous day. We hurried uphill too, and soon were able to see a cuckoo walking slowly just off the trail. It perched up for few seconds before dropping down and ducking under an overhanging log. It reappeared several times, showing various bits of crest, back or long tail before it scampered off uphill. We congratulated ourselves on a most excellent sighting, and while talking about their range and biology a bit were startled to see the bird pop out of the woods a bit upstream, sitting still on a large boulder in the creek in the full sun. It’s a large and surprisingly attractive bird, with a purplish wash to the mantle, bifurcated crest, pale yellow bill, scaled throat and thin breast band. Elated, we headed back downhill, adding our first Blue-black Grosbeak, Canada Warbler and Tawny-crested Tanagers as we made our way back to the entrance gate.

With only a bit of time remaining in the morning we staked out an often-productive spot for Rufous-crested Coquetes. Although we didn’t spot any of these tiny and highly ornamented hummingbirds during the vigil we did enjoy excellent and close-up views of foraging Violet-headed and Blue-chested Hummingbirds, a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and our first Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Once back at the lodge several participants opted to spend a bit more time watching a bank of flowering Verbena bushes in the hopes of a Coquete. While waiting we noted a Panama Flycatcher gathering nesting material and bringing it in to a newly constructed nest right next to the lodge entrance gate. No coquete appeared, but we were surprised to spot a female Blue-throated Goldentail (an uncommon and quite unexpected species in central Panama) that came in and foraged for about a minute, flashing its golden-green rump and tail and bright red bill at us before zipping off upslope.

After lunch and a siesta, we met up and set off downhill to the Las Mozas area, where a friend of the founder of the canopy family has allowed lodge guests to enter and bird a section of his quite large property. It’s a fairly open grass trail that winds around a large area of overgrown weedy second growth. Thankfully a significant number of the large spreading canopy trees remain, shading the understory and making the area useable for a wide array of local species. Shortly after starting down the trail, we carefully checked a known roosting area for Spectacled Owls and were thrilled to spot a pair of these huge owls tucked into the dense shade of one of the largest trees. It’s a widespread but impressive species, in many ways filling the niche of the more familiar (in the temperate new world) Great Horned Owl. In roughly the same spot as the owls we could hear a calling Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and with a bit of patience and playback managed to get first the male and then the female to come over to our side of the trail. They were, as usual, quite furtive, but most of the participants were able to catch at least their shapes as they moved through the undergrowth. A few lucky folk were able to make out the hot pink chest of the male or burnt-orange underparts of the female when the birds briefly stopped in a low tangle of vines. Neither a thrush nor a tanager, this truly exceptionally beautiful bird is in a monotypic family, and occurs in only a few scattered populations from Mexico to Venezuela. It is never common, and can be nigh on impossible to see if they stay hidden in the viny understory that they tend to inhabit. Once back on the main trail we heard them again, and a few more participants were able to make out the birds’ coloration as the male scratched around in the leaflitter well off the trail. The hot and windy conditions were depressing bird activity a bit, under a large spreading fig tree we could hear a calling Rufous-and-White Wren deep in the underbrush. We scanned the area carefully, spotting the handsome and well-named wren as it popped briefly into view. The bird was clearly agitated, and while scanning a sharp-eyed participant noted a larger bird quietly sitting just above the ground and deep under cover. It took several minutes to resolve the bird in the scopes, but eventually we realized that it was a Striped Cuckoo that was sitting facing away from us, occasionally moving its head but basically remaining motionless (perhaps in search for the wren’s nest to lay an egg into as this species is an obligate brood parasite). A pair of largely uncooperative White-bellied Antbirds played hide and seek with us near the end of the trail, and on the way back we encountered a couple of perched Garden Emeralds, two foraging Long-billed Starthroats and a pair of Yellow Tyrannulets as well as a few by now familiar migrant species and tanagers. Dinner was a fun affair, with lots of high-quality birds to chat about over our well-seasoned meal. After dinner a few participants joined me on a short stroll around the grounds to look for frogs. In only about a half-hour, we tracked down an impressive four species, including several hulking Cane Toads, one gigantic Savage’s Jungle Frog, a very approachable baby Red-webbed Treefrogs, and a Brilliant Forest Frog, not a bad haul for the dry conditions.

After breakfast the next morning we headed a bit uphill, bound for the forested plateau above the Anton caldera; which is actually a second older and higher caldera. We made a quick impromptu stop to scope a trio of Blue-headed Parrots that were perched in a roadside tree. After seeing this species in flight nearly a dozen times over the past week it was great to finally be able to discern their deep blue heads and red vents in the scopes. A bit farther uphill we reached the La Mesa plateau, a region that has been partially developed for chicken farming but ringed with forested ridges that are largely protected as national park and significant intact forest remaining in the basin. At this elevation (roughly 3000ft) the relatively short forest is heavily laden with epiphytic growth and a lush undergrowth and we spent most of the morning slowly exploring the private loop trail that winds around a small farm. Although we were only just a few dozen meters into the forest for much of the walk it’s an extensive block of woods, supporting a wealth of birdlife. Along the entrance road through the open farm field we played hide and seek with both Bay and Rufous-and-White Wrens, enjoyed a second view of a pair of handsome Barred Antshrike and our first White-lined Tanager, Mourning Warbler and Giant Cowbird.

Just a few meters into the woods we heard a flock of Tawny-crested and Dusky-faced Tanagers chattering away. We moved closer and were soon close enough to a dense patch of understory where we quickly realized that a swarm of army ants were just waking up. The tanagers took off, but we lingered, watching a pair of Bicolored Antbirds, Spotted, Wedge-billed and Cocoa Woodpeckers and a calling Scaly-breasted Wren who were all working the area above the ants. As we waited, we heard a series of high piping whistles that indicated that somewhere nearby was a calling Black-crowned Antpitta! This large and spectacular bird is one of the top birds of Panama, if not all of Latin America. It is almost a Panama endemic, occurring in a narrow elevation band through part of Costa Rica, and in a very remote corner of far Northwestern Colombia. Not a true Antpitta, but rather a large species of Gnateater it is a scarce species that requires good quality forest and one that can be hard to spot in the dense wet undergrowth that it prefers. To our amazement the bird soon appeared near the trail, feeding unconcernedly as we watched from only 5 meters or so away. It even hopped out onto the trail several times, once grabbing a large grasshopper that was fleeing from the onslaught of ants while keeping a wary eye on our battery of watching camera lenses and binoculars. It is a striking and dramatic bird, with a coal-black crown, large bill, heavily scalloped underparts and deep chestnut mantle and neck. It’s moments like these, with a group of participants able to study such a rare and beautiful bird at length and at such close range that really make memories on a tour; and we felt lucky indeed to experience both this Antpitta and the earlier Ground-Cuckoo so incredibly well this year.

We found mixed flocks to be fairly common in the woods, if hard to see well given the rather dense understory. Each flock contained one or two new species for our trip, such as Slaty Antwren, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Russet Antshrike and Plain Antvireo. We glimpsed a Chestnut-capped Brushfinch that furtively popped up a few times in the dense underbrush, showing its gleaming white throat to a few participants lucky enough to be standing in the right place. At the same spot a few folk watched a Scaly-breasted Wren creeping around on the ground and, briefly, a quickly strutting Black-faced Antthrush. At one point the trail runs along a steeper slope, and here we were amazingly successful at teasing up a pair of responsive Dull-mantled Antbirds that came right up to us, lingering for nearly 10 minutes as they flashed their often-hidden bright white mantles and crimson eyes as they calmly moved around in front of us giving uncharacteristically excellent views. Just before we left the forest, we noted a freshly flowering heliconia flower cluster and decided to set up a bit of a vigil in the hopes that the flowers might be attractive to a foraging White-tipped Sicklebill. Normally seeing one of these unique looking hummingbirds, with streaked chests and bellies and an almost recurved bill is either a matter of extreme luck or great patience. Like hermits, Sicklebills are trapline feeders, visiting a series of flowers widely spaced around the forest, stopping at each only briefly at a time. Our run of good luck held, with a bird appearing only 6 minutes after we started our stakeout. It visited the flowers only briefly, stopping and clinging on to the flower bracts for a quick feed before zipping away to its next meal. Although fast we could make out the stocky body and streaked breast, and most folks got a decent view of the highly curved bill. We waited around for a further ten minutes or so but lighting didn’t strike twice. Once out in the open we scanned the skies and ridges and picked up a few wheeling Swallow-tailed Kites and Vultures, a single Broad-winged Hawk and a few migrating Cliff Swallows. Filling up on cool drinks we headed back to the lodge for lunch and a siesta in the heat of the afternoon.

For the afternoon we again headed uphill to La Mesa, this time visiting the first few hundred meters of the trail that winds up to the top of Cerro Gaital, a well-forested mountain that dominates the skyline above El Valle. The forests here are laden with epiphytic growth, with stands of bamboo in the understory and moss and tree ferns seemingly everywhere, although like everywhere else that we visited this year the understory seemed much drier than usual; even for the tail end of the dry season. Virtually right at the trailhead we encountered a very responsive pair of Rufous Mourner, a handsome and large flycatcher that somewhat resembles a large-headed Myiarchus dipped in cinnamon icing. The birds kept us busy for some time as they perched right along the trail. It was good that they did, as while standing around and watching them we noticed some motion higher up that revealed itself to be a pair of quietly feeding Northern Emerald Toucanets! As if that weren’t enough we also spotted a vocalizing Collared Trogon (here of the Talamancan subspecies with an orange breast and belly) that sat placidly for us for several minutes, posing for photos like a model a fashionable multihued haute couture.

Leaving the trailhead, we headed slowly uphill, finding several lekking Green Hermits perched on their chosen song perches and a more cooperative Chestnut-capped Brushfinch which stayed deep in the shadows, but remained visible for several minutes as it foraged in the leaf litter. Once at the beginning of the steeper section we paused, eventually tracking down a calling Northern Schiffornis and a diminutive White-throated Spadebill that were one flight of stone steps up from the loop trail junction. The Schiffornis is an odd understory bird has been shuffled around several families (and split into many species) recently, and is now regarded as an aberrant Tityra. It can be a difficult bird to see well, as it flies quickly and low, and then typically perches motionless for quite some time. On the way back down we noted a female Plain Antvireo foraging in some low shrubs and encountered a large mixed flock led by a large group of Tawny-crested Tanagers feeding on some fruiting bushes. Often this species functions as the nuclear species for mixed flocks in the area, but in this case, they were accompanied by a couple of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, a few warblers including Black-and-White and Bay-breasted, two Mistletoe Tyrannulets and our first Silver-throated Tanagers.

The next day was reserved for spending out time in the highlands around Altos de Maria, a large housing development several thousand feet above El Valle. Here the orchids and bromeliads seem to outweigh the trees, and a profusion of flowers play host to hummingbirds and an array of butterflies. We set off in three four by four pickup trucks, as our customary van was not up to the task of the steep paved roads in the highlands. The drive up soon proved the worth of our vehicles, as we slowly crawled up the sometimes incredibly steep grades laid down by some particularly overambitious civil engineer with a mandate to use as little asphalt as possible. Our first stop was at a bend close to the gatehouse of the development where we spent about an hour birding a short stretch of mostly level road, finding several small mixed flocks working the sides of the adjacent valley. Tawny-capped Euphonia, Common Chlorospingus (a well-marked social tanager-like bird that is actually a tropical sparrow), and Silver-throated and Tawny-crested Tanagers were numerically dominant, but we teased out our first charismatic pair of the undeniably cute Tufted Flycatcher, several Blackburnian Warblers and an incandescent pair of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. A fruiting tree along the road was hosting several White-ruffed Manakins, including our first indigo-blue and snow-white males. While watching the manakins we noticed a tiny hummingbird buzzing through the canopy, foraging on some small white flowers, although distant we could make out the point-like long tail and short bill that cemented the identification as a male Green Thorntail. Here too we tracked down a responsive pair of White-throated Spadebill, a very photogenic Collared Trogon and a couple of handsome Black-and-Yellow Tanagers that were plucking tiny fruits from a roadside tree.

Our next stop was near the entrance to the Valle Bonito subdivision, where we found a few fruiting trees that were attracting a host of frugivores. White-throated, Clay-colored and Pale-vented Thrushes joined Thick-billed and Tawny-capped Euphonias and several Keel-billed Toucans, Broad-billed Motmots, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and Masked Tityras for the feast. We then started to walk up into the subdivision, where most of the lots are undeveloped, although some have cleared understories but do have a network of well-maintained roads, lined with streetlights which provide excellent (if a bit eerie) access. Just a few dozen feet past the gatehouse we heard the guttural croaking of a Yellow-eared Toucanet, and amazingly within seconds had spotted the male as it perched up at length atop a nearby tree. These spectacularly coloured small toucans are scarce in foothill forests, and this sighting marked only the third time in march that we had encountered the species around Cerro Azul. Normally such as sighting would easily become the bird of the day, but on this day we had a few more surprises in store. Just a few hundred meters around the corner we stopped in another flat area with good blocks of forest on both sides of the road. Initially we stopped to watch a Western Pygmy-Squirrel that was scampering up a nearby trunk, but while doing so we noticed some motion up in the canopy that turned out to be a pair of White-vented Euphonias (our fifth, and last, species of possible Euphonia on the tour) plucking fruit from a clump of mistletoe. A Spotted Woodcreeper showed here as well, but while looking at that bird Danilo caught a bit of motion further off the road. Amazingly the bird turned out to be a Crimson-bellied Woodpecker!

We watched the bird as it hopped along the trunk, admiring its rich red underparts, jet black back, and flaming rounded red head. The bird then took flight, landing a few meters back into the forest, revealing its boldly patterned yellow-banded wings as it took off. As this feature is not illustrated in any of the pertinent field guides it was quite a shock to all of us just how bright the wing pattern is. There are two subspecies of this rare woodpecker, and the form that inhabits a small swath of southern Central America in wet foothill forest is sometimes split out under the apt name Splendid Woodpecker.  Splendid indeed! The entire encounter was over in a minute, but it didn’t look like the bird had gone far so we walked a bit towards it off the road. We didn’t see it again (from that vantage point) but the change in positions revealed that there were also a couple of Black Guans in the forest block (which also disappeared). A pair of Northern Emerald Toucanet showed well though, foraging around eye-level just across the clearing. We moved back to the road and walked quietly around the corner where incredibly we re-found the woodpecker, and its mate, and were able to follow them for a few minutes as they continued foraging on low trunks below the road. In over 35 tours to Panama this marked only the third time I had encountered this species (with all three sightings occurring within a square mile of this one and likely pertaining to the same pair of individuals). As if this sighting weren’t enough this tiny woodlot also gifted us with very close views of a Spotted Barbtail, an attractively patterned highland furnariid that can be hard to track down as it feeds rather unobtrusively along epiphyte-laden branches as well as a cracking pair of tiny burnt-orange Ochraceous Wrens that that were down near eye-level and a singing Black-crowned Antpitta!

Slightly overwhelmed by our luck we paused to enjoy a coffee and snack break, accompanied by some very photogenic White-ruffed Manakins and Tawny-capped Euphonias, a vocal and eventually perched Bright-rumped Atilla and a wheeling mixed flock that contained a pair of Mistletoe Tyrannulets, a few Blackburnian Warblers and yet more Common Chlorospingus and Silver-throated Tanagers. We then moved over to the small lake that was installed by the developers as a bit of a social hub. We took a stroll down the (paved!) continental divide nature trail that winds along a small, forested creek at the bottom of a large protected swath of forest. Before entering the woods, the track follow the lake margin, where we watched a male Giant Cowbird displaying to a few females out in the grass, with their soon-to-be victims (Chestnut-headed Oropendolas) putting the finishing touches on their dangling nests. Here too was a lovely male Long-tailed Tyrant sitting up on the top of a tall snag. This is a unique little flycatcher, jet black with silver trim and amazingly long uppertail coverts that are significantly longer than the bird itself. Once into the forest along the creek we found the area to be incredibly tranquil, a nearly perfect place for the quintessential forest bathing experience. The tranquility was soon broken by the rollicking calls of a group of Black-eared Wood-Quail coming from somewhere upslope. Wood-Quail are near mythical birds, generally uncommon to rare across Central and northern South America. They have loud calls, but as they tend to occur in dense forests, often in mountainous areas with poor access they are seldom seen. Although the birds did come closer they stayed out of view for all but one participant as they occasionally called from across the creek. This is a little-known species (even for a Wood-Quail), with only one nest ever discovered and scant natural history information available. The rest of the walk was beautiful but not particularly birdy, but we did locate another Northern Schiffornis, a perched female Snowcap and one small flock that contained a few Slaty Antwren, a pair of Olive-striped Flycatchers and a Plain Antvireo. Once we were back at the lake we successfully coaxed a White-throated Crake out of a dense thicket of Elephant Ears. The bird, a handsome rufous-faced individual showed briefly but well; a welcome sight after our repeated aural-only encounters around the tower.

We then enjoyed a picnic lunch at the gazebo near the lake, with Green Kingfishers, passing White-collared and Band-rumped Swifts and even a soaring Bat Falcon for company. Our first afternoon stop was at a relatively new site for our tour over on the Caribbean side of the development.

For many years I have lamented the fact that none of the occupied houses in the development have had hummingbird feeders. Fortunately for us the canopy lodge guides have recently found an ex-pat American woman named Kathy who is a hummingbird enthusiast and who lives full time on one of the highest loop roads around the mountains. We were able to visit with her, and her feeder, for about a half-hour in the early afternoon and were treated to amazingly close views of six species of hummingbirds as they vied for positions at the feeder ports, perched on nearby sunlit vines or foraged in the well-planted garden around her front yard. Along with many of the by now familiar White-necked Jacobin, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Crowned Woodnymph and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds we were treated to several Green Hermits (whose bills were so long that they couldn’t perch on the feeder and reach the ports) and a few glittering and impressively large Green-crowned Brilliants. Kathy has recently added a fruit-table to her yard as well, and here we were treated to close up views of more Silver-throated Tanagers as well as Bananaquit, Black-throated Sparrow and a few Thick-billed Euphonia.

Bidding farewell to our gracious host we drove a bit further uphill and stopped to walk a short stretch of more forested road. Our first target bird appeared right on cue, with a responsive Red-faced Spinetail that uncharacteristically came down to near eye-level and showed its namesake red head (and wings and tail) off to excellent effect. Just down the road we found a medium-sized hummingbird foraging in a large bank of Brazilian Redcloak. Initially it was buried in the shrub but soon it worked its way out onto the roadside flowers, flaring a white tail on its bright green body and revealing itself to be a male White-tailed Emerald! This was another write-in for the tour, and is quite a scarce bird locally, generally remaining in the slightly higher mountains to the west that connect to the Talamanca Highlands which stretch well into Costa Rica. Near the far end of this section of the development we spent the last part of the day along the forest edge (with this forest stretching well downslope and out onto the Caribbean lowlands). Here we enjoyed excellent views of a perched Rufous Mourner, a pair of highland Hepatic Tanagers, two Black-faced Grosbeaks and both Mistletoe and Rufous-browed Tyrannulets up in the canopy. At one point some reeling screeches alerted us to the swift passing of a pair of Blue-crowned Parrotlets winging overhead (as is customary for this very difficult to see well genus). Once back at the cars we enjoyed a round of cold drinks. Just before heading back to the lodge, we spotted another Black Guan at the forest edge. Happily, this one stayed put, coming down to nearly ground level and showing off its blue cere and satiny black feathers. This highland species is yet another Costa Rica/Panama shared endemic, and one that is right on the eastern edge of its range in the hills around El Valle. It was a great way to cap off what must go down as our best-ever visit to Altos del Maria!

The next morning, our last of the tour, we set out for the dry savannah-like lowlands along the pacific coast, with white sandy beaches, rice fields in the lower swales, and dense hedgerows were a completely new habitat type for us, and we added a remarkable number of species (over 30) to our trip.  Our first stop was along a patch of grassland near the ridgeline of the caldera, where a very recent fire had burned one entire side of the road. Happily for us though, a pair of Wedge-tailed Grassfinches showed extremely well, perching up just a few feet from us and chattering angrily, as if accusing us of the recent fire. About halfway down from the ride we stopped to loop on a weedy slope for Bran-colored Flycatchers. At our first slope we attracted an impressive array of birds, including our first Thick-billed Seed-Finches, a pair of Lesser Elaenia, a very inquisitive female Barred Antshrike and a perched Black-striped Sparrow. About 100m further down the road we tried again, and this time successfully found our hoped-for Bran-colored Flycatchers and also a stunning male Blue Ground-Dove and perched Garden Emeralds as well as a nice selection of open country flycatchers and tanagers. We made one other stop before reaching the lowlands, this time at a small creek crossing with a substantial amount of native scrub and a tall grove of introduced pines. Here we watched a group of Crested Oropendolas coming and going from their nests, and also found a Lesson’s Motmot perched in the back of a small spreading tree just off the road. This is another newly recognized species that was split from the old Blue-crowned Motmot complex. It occurs from the El Valle region westwards into southern Mexico, and marked our 5th (of 5 possible) Motmots for the tour.

At our final stop along the El Valle Road we pulled off when we spotted a surprising number of calling and perching Brown-throated Parakeets in some tall roadside trees. This is a species that seems to have become much more common along the dry Pacific slope in recent times, even moving into the more wooded areas along the coast in Panama City itself. This proved a fortuitous stop, as while watching the parakeets we birded the surrounding fields as well, picking up a female Plain-breasted Ground-Dove that was scuttling along the nearby dirt farm road, teased a very responsive pair of Northern Mouse-colored Tyrannulets out of the shrubs and even enjoyed repeated views of a pair of Crested Bobwhites as they repeatedly crossed an open area just a few feet in front of us.

A much-needed mid-morning stop along the Pan-American Highway revealed the hoped-for restroom facilities as well as our first, and only, House Sparrows. After our comfort stop, we spent much of the rest of the morning slowly exploring a network of roads to the south of Anton that eventually reach the coast. We stopped a bit south of the end of the paved section of road where we spotted a few tubular orange flowers up in the canopy. Within a minute or so a large and dark hummingbird popped into view; a male Veraguan Mango! This species is restricted to these dry lowlands, and is nearly endemic to Panama. At the same spot we tallied our first Eastern Meadowlarks and Groove-billed Ani, a very close Fork-tailed Flycatcher and a hunting Northern Harrier, which is a scarce species in the region. The road proved good for raptors overall, with several striking Savannah Hawks, a couple of Roadside Hawks, our only American Kestrel, close fly-bys from several adult Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures and a perched juvenile White-tailed Kite. A few kilometers further to the south we stopped for a late-morning snack under the shade of an impressively large fig tree. The densely tangled understory here contained a couple of jet-black, powder blue and scarlet male Lance-tailed Manakins which several participants managed to see even while holding their sandwiches. A pair of Rufous-browed Peppershrikes played hide-and-seek with us for a while in the canopy, but eventually they dropped down and everyone could see their swollen pink bills, rusty eyebrows and bright yellow and green plumage. Here too we were happy to spot two Straight-billed Woodcreepers clambering around on some of the larger tree trunks in the hedgerow. This is a particularly attractive woodcreeper, with a distinctive and straight pink bill and bright rufous mantle. Before leaving the area we slowly walked a few hundred meters further (quite a feat in the now quite hot and sunny conditions). A few weeks prior to our visit Danilo had spotted a roosting Striped Owl and our careful scanning resulted in our accidentally flushing an adult Barn Owl from its roost in a dense tangle. The bird flew over to another hedgerow and perched for a while before clambering down into the more shady understory. As if that weren’t enough Danilo volunteered to walk back to get the van and on his way spotted a juvenile Striped Owl hunkered low down along the road. We hurried over and were shocked to find that there were actually four nearly fully grown owlets all huddled together in the shade! Both species were write-ins for the tour list, and together gave us an incredible 8 species of owls detected (with two being only heard) for the trip; far and away a record for us.

We then moved over to another coastal road that leads eventually down to the Pacific Ocean and a scenic sandy beach. Recent road improvements here likely belie that other folk have some development ideas for the beachfront here (likely part of the slow but steady spread of increased development all along the central Pacific coast of the country), but at least for now it just meant that our customary bumpy and slow drive to the ocean was much quicker. This road passes through several areas set aside for rice farming, and although most of the fields were bone-dry a few had been recently burned and replanted, with just enough surface water to attract dozens of wading birds. Here we found our first Glossy Ibis and Wood Stork, and were able to spend a bit of time teasing apart the differences between immature Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets. The usual marsh near the coast was also completely dry, but we still managed to get good views of an unusually cooperative Pale-breasted Spinetail, a female Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and a furtive Isthmian Wren that were all using the weedy edge of the old marsh margin. The beach was hosting a few Whimbrel and Willet, and impressive numbers of passing Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans. As it was at this point past noon we headed back to the north, stopping at a small pond of lingering water where we picked up two (paradoxically) Solitary Sandpipers and a few Black-necked Stilts on the way. We then drove east towards Panama City, bound for another beach access point in the small town of Santa Clara, where the owners of the Canopy Tower and Lodge have a small beach house. Here too were huge numbers of Frigatebirds and Pelicans, and a flock of loafing Laughing Gulls and Royal and Sandwich Terns sitting on the shore.

Our trip back to Panama City took a bit longer than expected, likely due to the ongoing construction of the West Panama City elevated train network, but we made our canal-side hotel with time for a brief walk around the grounds before meeting up for our final checklist and dinner. Since our birding trip this year had been spectacularly successful from a birdlist perspective (with a near record 386 species) there weren’t many new species that we could reasonably hope to find on the walk, but we managed one with three distant but identifiable American Oystercatchers on the gravel bank of the Pacific entrance to the canal. We also improved on our views of Ruddy Turnstone, Yellow-headed Parrot, Orchard Oriole and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, and just enjoyed the stroll in the by now cooler and overcast conditions.

I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Alexis and Danilo, 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: 19 April 2024