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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower

2023 Narrative

The 2023 Spring Panama tour coincided with an earlier than normal arrival of the wet season, with a few afternoon showers and generally overcast and windy skies. This meant the temperatures were relatively pleasant, and that a lot of the local birds were busy nest building or incubating in preparation for the coming rains. We began with a week at the world-famous Canopy Tower, finding over 270 species of birds (371 with the extension included) and a host of mammals and other critters. Some of the highlights a pair of day-roosting Black-and-White Owls, a female Masked Duck being devoured by a Spectacled Caiman, nesting Boat-billed Herons shielding their fuzzy chicks from the afternoon sun, a Great Potoo perched along the road at night, staring down at us with its impossibly large eyes, a tiny Moustached Antwren and very cooperative Speckled Mourner along Pipeline Road, and rollicking Jet Antbirds bouncing around in an eye-level thicket. Our day trip to the Caribbean lowlands included some truly exceptional views of Spot-crowned Barbet along Achiote Road as well as displaying Red-breasted Meadowlarks, nesting Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, an excellent showing of Pacific Antwren and White-headed Wren and a great comparison of Masked and Black-crowned Tityras. Our day on Cerro Azul was full of highlights, with the memorable hummingbird and honeycreeper show at the feeders, a dazzling array of tanagers including Emerald and Rufous-winged and lengthy views of the Panamanian endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker.

The lodge produced such highlights as an eventually quite cooperative Tody Motmot in a forested gully, a fully feathered male Rufous-crested Coquette perched above some roadside flowers (one of an amazing 22 species of hummers for the trip), great views of multiple Northern Emerald and a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets, dazzling Orange-billed Sparrow calmly eating papaya from the feeders, a roadside Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture that showed off its incredibly gaudy head colouration, confident Gray-cowled Wood-Rails strutting about the lodge grounds and the resident pair of Buff-rumped Warblers hopping along the rocky stream that runs through the property. Beyond the color and diversity of the birds though, we enjoyed some excellent mammals including an eye-level Kinkajou, near daily encounters with Brown-throated Three-toed and Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloths, Mantled Howler Monkeys and the undeniably cute Geoffrey’s Tamarin. In addition, we located an impressive array of 7 species of frogs and 10 species of reptiles. This year’s trip participants each picked a different species as their bird of the trip, a testament to the sheer number of excellent species and sightings that we had. For my part, it would be hard to beat the excellent showing of Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker that we had on the first full day, or the views of Dull-mantled Antbird as it sang from along a forested creekbank just a few meters away from the group up in Altos de Maria. This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodge make for a truly wonderful experience.

IN DETAIL: We greeted the sunrise on our first morning with an hour-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 and wind. 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 Plain-colored 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. The inclement weather was fueling some migration, and we were able to watch small numbers of Cliff and Barn Swallows, and some small kettles of Turkey Vultures all heading northwards towards their breeding grounds. A fruiting Melostoma tree near the tower top was hosting a flock of migrants including a handsome male Scarlet Tanager, a few Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos, an Eastern Kingbird and some vocal but furtive Lesser Greenlets. The fruit may also have played a role in attracting a visible Green Shrike-Vireo (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 Parrots, 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 were Masked Tityra, with a beautiful pair perched in excellent light just off the tower deck, a placidly sitting Black-breasted Puffbird, and a singing Slate-colored Grosbeak; a stunning towhee-like tanager clad in lead grey and sporting an oversized crimson bill and nicely starch-white throat. 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. Around the base of the tower, we spent a bit of time watching the hummingbird feeders, which were supporting an excellent array of species including both Stripe-throated and Long-billed Hermits, Blue-chested and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin and an uncharacteristically furtive White-vented Plumeleteer. Once we started down the road we were soon stopped by a pair of White-breasted Wood-Wrens that popped out into the open just below the road edge. At the same spot we picked out an Orange-chinned Parakeet that seemed to be nest prospecting in a large arboreal termite nest high above the road and a circling Double-toothed Kite that seemed to be hunting just over the canopy. Over the course of the rest of the morning we slowly descended the hill, stopping wherever activity dictated. We found a few nice understory flocks, generally led by perky groups of Dot-winged Antwrens. The forests here support an excellent array of antbirds and flycatchers, and we were happy to spot our first Black-crowned and Fasciated Antshrikes, diminutive Southern Bentbills, rather plain looking Yellow-winged Flycatchers and several smaller charismatic flycatchers such as the comparatively gaudy Ruddy-tailed, surprisingly attractive Golden-crowned Spadebill and portly little Brown-capped Tyrannulets. Some larger and perhaps more memorable birds appeared as well, including a nesting pair of Scarlet-rumped Caciques that were bringing food into their pendulous nest that was hanging right over the road, and a pair of Broad-billed Motmots that pleasingly stayed put on their chosen perches like a pair of preening supermodels as our cameras clicked away. About two-thirds of the way down the hill Jorge 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, 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 in central Panama we felt very fortunate indeed. We spotted a nice selection of mammals along the road as well, with a mother and baby Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and single Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth tucked up in the canopy, multiple Central American Agoutis rummaging around on the forest floor and good views of both Central American Capuchin and Mantled Howler Monkey. Eventually we reached the small creek at the bottom of the hill, where we were surprised to spot a perched adult Rufescent Tiger-Heron near the bridge. Underneath the bridge we spotted a few roosting Lesser White-lined Bats, some sunning Common Basilisks and looked at the assembled collection of dragon and damselflies that were darting around the creek-bed before catching 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. A brief stop at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast (a property that is owned and managed by the same company that runs the lodge and tower) revealed our first Crimson-backed and Blue-gray Tanagers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Short-tailed Swifts, migrant Swainson’s Hawks and a few cooperative Red-legged Honeycreepers around the small garden behind the building. 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. Happily for us though the other side of the road has developed into a quite nice wetland site, with substantial emergent vegetation but a lot of open shallow water. Here we found five bonafied wild Muscovy Ducks, whose shimmering black-green plumage bears little resemblance to the more familiar barnyard version. Here too were lots of Purple Gallinule, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and Wattled Jacanas (here of the black backed subspecies that is confined from central Panama to Northwestern Colombia), a few Green, a couple of Rufescent Tiger and one Striated Heron as well as several Solitary and Least Sandpipers. Undoubtedly the most exciting find here though was of a grislier nature. We noticed a small Spectacled Caiman with a large and still quite alive prey in its mouth. Training the scopes on the scene it became apparent that the reptile had just caught a female Masked Duck (a species that is periodically seen at the site, but a new one for our WINGS Panama tours). The duck was trying valiantly to escape, but the caiman had other ideas, and soon managed to dunk the hapless duck down into the soupy mud along the edge of the wetland; holding it under until it perished and leaving the caiman with quite a large and muddy prize to attempt to swallow.

In the vegetation ringing the lake we watched a small group of Smooth-billed Anis as they clambered around in the shrubs, a small nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques that were busily constructing their pendular nests. 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 and Panama Flycatchers, 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 Yellow-headed Caracara, Lineated and Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Anhinga, Ringed Kingfisher, Pale-vented Pigeon, (Southern) House Wren, Variable Seedeater and Blue-black Grassquit. It seemed that new birds were in every direction, and over the course of the nearly two hours that we spent at the sight we walked at most 200m from the parked car! On the drive back to the tower we stopped to look at a pair of Grey-headed Chachalaca that were sitting on a somewhat derelict looking fence ringing a small basketball court in Gamboa and near a quite active football pitch were thrilled to spot a calmly perched Bat Falcon that posed beautifully on a tall dead tree for a short photo shoot; a great way to end our first day in the field!

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 or Smithsonian Biologist. We first stopped near the edge of the forest, where a fruiting Gumbo Limbo tree was hosting a great array of migrants including our first Great Crested Flycatchers, White-shouldered Tanagers, and a female Golden-winged Warbler. Nearby we enjoyed excellent views of some perched Whooping Motmots (a relatively recent split from the formerly widespread Blue-crowned Motmot) and we tracked down some displaying male Golden-collared Manakins that were zipping back and forth over their display areas like tiny gold and black ping pong balls. Once in the forest proper we found that new birds came thick and fast, with big and showy species like Slaty-tailed, White-tailed, Black-throated and Black-tailed Trogons, Rufous Motmot, White-necked and White-whiskered Puffbirds, flashy Purple-throated Fruitcrows and Cinnamon Woodpeckers. Along one of the early creek crossings we stopped to admire several (5) species of small fish in the shallow sandy bottomed creek, noting that several species were in full breeding coloration. We were somewhat surprised to find out that the fish seemed to enjoy the little ham and cheese sandwiches at least as much as we did during our mid-morning coffee break. In a tall tree overhanging the creek a colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were flashing their golden yellow tails at us as they chattered away and busily put finishing touches on their long pendular nests.

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 few pairs of White-flanked Antwren and several Checker-throated Antwrens (now sadly saddled with the new name of Checker-throated Stipplethroat). One of the larger flocks of antwrens also held a pair of (eventually) cooperative Spot-crowned Antvireos, and another flock gifted us with remarkably close-range views of a diminutive Moustached Antwren; a species that we seldom see (but often hear) along the Pipeline Road. Although we didn’t find any active antswarms this year we still managed to locate a nice selection of species that are commonly associated with army ants, with excellent views of a pair of calling Bicolored Antbirds, as well as several very good views of Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, and quite showy Song Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Gray-headed Tanagers. Perhaps the recent road works and bridge reconstruction along the first several kilometers of road had some delirious effects on ant (and bird) activity along the road edges. Just before we reached the current functional end of the road at the Rio Limbo bridge we were thrilled to locate a perched Speckled Mourner that lingered for several minutes, showing off its richly patterned shoulders and lightly barred breast. This is a generally scarce species, and one that we only rarely encounter so seeing one so well was a real treat. Some of the other real highlights for the day included close encounters with stunning male Velvety (a new split from Blue-crowned) and Red-capped Manakins, a nesting pair of Double-toothed Kites, a Gray-chested Dove drinking at a roadside puddle, and a perched (and in the scope) Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant; a species which claims the honour of being the smallest species of passerine bird in the world. A little bit after lunch the clouds closed in and the threatening rains began to fall. We decided to head out of the forest, with most of the participants opting to climb into the sheltered cabs of our two trusty trucks rather than lingering on the outside bench seats. As we left the forest behind the rain squall ended and the rest of the afternoon proved comparatively cool, with an attractive array of cumulous clouds and sunshine above us. Bird activity seemed to pick up as the sun reemerged, and so we elected to spend an hour or so in the late afternoon birding a couple of spots around the banks of the Chagres River.

We started off at the Gamboa Rainforest Lodge’s small marina, where we encountered our first cooperative Lesser Kiskadees, a pair of tiny Common Tody-Flycatchers, some vocal and impressively glossy Greater Anis, a strutting Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, a teed-up singing Piratic Flycatcher and some close Yellow-bellied Elaenias. We then moved over to a better spot to scan up the main river, stopping to ogle a couple of Central American Agoutis and our first White-nosed Coati that was scampering around between the lodge buildings. Once back at the riverbank we spent a bit of time watching impressive numbers of migrating Turkey Vultures and a few Swainson’s Hawks that were streaming westwards across the river clearing. In the distance we picked out a single soaring King Vulture, while out in the marshy verges of the river we scoped a single Limpkin and a few Neotropic Cormorants and Anhinga. The marshy grasses on the close shore held a White-throated Crake that briefly popped out into view for most of the group before vanishing back into its dense vegetative bower. The trees around the carpark held another nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques as well as a pair of Black-crowned Tityras, a nesting pair of Social Flycatchers and (yet another, but who could ever tire of such a spectacular species) Slaty-tailed Trogon. We then headed back to the tower for a bit of a break before dinner, an affair which was enhanced by our views of a languidly feeding Kinkajou (an orangey and largely arboreal mammal that is related to raccoons but more closely resembles a cross between a big weasel and a house cat) that was just out one of the dining floor windows.

On day three 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, Blue-headed Parrot and Orchard Oriole around the carpark. 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 stopped on the grassy earthen Gatun Dam. Here we spotted an immature Savannah Hawk out on the artificial grassy meadow that covers the dam. A little further down the dam road we also admired a pair of Red-breasted Meadowlarks, with their scarlet chests on full display, that were perched up on some short poles out in the grass.

Shortly thereafter we arrived at our first planned birding destination; Achiote Road (actually signed to indicate that this is an area for the observation of birds). 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 birds have disappeared. Before going down the trail to get away from the occasional passing truck we scanned the roadside trees and were happy to spot some vocal and cooperative Black-chested Jays sitting up in a bare tree along the roadside. Once on the trail we found that large epiphyte-laden trees still line the edges of the clearing, and in the canopy of one of these trees, we soon heard a White-headed Wren calling from high overhead. It took some time to locate him as the tree was so large, and while on the search we were constantly being sidetracked by a remarkable array of birds including our first Crested Oropendolas, a pair of Short-billed Pigeons and a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets! We eventually did pin the bird down though, and even enjoyed scope views as it was not moving around in the canopy with any apparent urgency. It is an attractive wren, with a limited worldwide range, occurring on a narrow strip of the Panama lowlands and adjacent Colombia, and with a white head and body, long brown tail and brown wings cut an impressively well-dressed figure. The small clearing held a surprising array of birds, and over an hour or so we enjoyed close range views of a pair of Pacific Antwrens which danced around us at close range. The male is striking, a study in white and black and striped all over. It was the female though that really got the cameras clicking away, with her apricot-coloured head and lightly streaked body making for a very smart-looking bird. On a nearby tree, we called down a brightly coloured Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher that uncharacteristically sat out in the open near our eye level, allowing us to truly appreciate the intensity of its black, white and yellow plumage. A few less-gaudy flycatchers appeared here as well, with our first Mistletoe Tyrannulets and Yellow-olive Flycatchers being particularly noteworthy. The grassy patches around the clearing held a pair of Isthmian Wrens (a rather unfortunate name chosen for this newly minted split from Plain Wren), several Thick-billed Seedfinches, our first Flame-rumped Tanagers and a small group of perched Blue-headed Parrots. Treetops were supporting the full suite of local toucans, with multiple Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, and a small group of Collared Aracari. After admiring some elegantly soaring American Swallow-tailed Kites that were skimming over the treetops we headed back to the main road and then drove a bit further along to get away from the team of weed-whacker wielding men that were busily clearing the road edges of vegetation.

It was about this time of the morning that the first unseasonable rain squall hit, so we decided to wait out the precipitation by making a short coffee break. Although the rains came and went throughout the rest of the day, we managed to stay quite dry by picking our birding walk timing well, and the overcast conditions kept the temperatures pleasantly cool. Once the rains slacked off, we walked a bit along the road, finding that a lot of birds were perching up and trying to dry off. We quickly identified our first Cinnamon and White-winged Becards, Gray-capped and Boat-billed Flycatchers and Thick-billed and Yellow-crowned Euphonias. The two flycatchers completed our sweep of the bewildering array of yellow flycatchers with striped crowns in central Panama, a fact which, I think, made several participants glad that there would be no exit exam on flycatcher identification at the end of the trip! Near where we parked, we noted a lot of toucan activity up in the crown of a large fruiting tree, and while scanning the canopy we were thrilled to spot three Blue Cotingas sitting among the fruits, including one fully blue male that is so intensely blue it seems like the bird must be literally producing and emitting light from some internal blue flame. We admired the cotingas for some time, picking out perched Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers and a bright orange Baltimore Oriole in the same fruiting tree, and then started to walk down the road towards a small gravel side road with less traffic. Although that road was only 300m away it likely took us a half-hour to reach, as we stopped several times enroute to admire birds such as Pied Puffbird, Giant Cowbird and Green Kingfisher along the way.

After another short rain squall, we walked the short gravel Providencia sideroad, which runs along the base of a mostly forested hill, with small cattle fields ringed with patches of tall trees on the opposite side of the road. It is often an excellent spot for hawk watching, and on this trip, we spotted a perched Plumbeous Kite and soaring Gray-lined and Crane Hawks along the ridge. Smooth-billed and Greater Anis were perched up in the taller trees, and in the shorter gumbo limbo lined fence line we picked up a single Golden-fronted Greenlet and several tittering Bananaquit. Near the end of the road, we found a nice patch of more open woods, and by playing a bit of scolding tape enticed a parade of birds out from the undergrowth. Some placidly sitting Buff-throated Saltators and a dainty pair of handsome Chestnut-capped Warblers were perhaps the stars, but here too we located a cooperative Yellow-green Vireo, actively foraging Plain Xenops, a smattering of migrant warblers and two excellent hummingbirds; a perched Rufous-breasted Hermit, and an elegant Purple-crowned Fairy that showed off its snow-white belly and undertail to great effect as it buzzed around in the midstory.

Usually, we stop for lunch back at the banks of the Chagres River just a bit below the Lake Gatun Dam, but since we arrived back at the van just as another rain squall started, and the Providencia roads bus stop shelter was just the right size for a picnic table and our group we decided to have lunch there instead. We then drove back to the spillway where a brief scouting trip along the old bridge revealed a few Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Heron as well as an impressive array of swallows that were likely grounded by the unseasonable rains.

In the afternoon, we drove out to the picturesque Fort San Lorenzo, an old 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 foggy and white-capped Caribbean Sea. The site has been undergoing some extensive renovations for the last several years, but most of the work has seemingly been completed. The small gatehouse that functions as a visitors center even had a short English language video on the history of the fort! We duly watched the video although I suspect most participants quickly lost count of the number of times the structure had been flattened and overrun by various ambitious sea captains and cavaliers. The fort sits on an elevated bluff, giving us an excellent vantage point to scan the mouth of the river and surrounding Caribbean. As usual we found a few Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans foraging along the shoreline, as well as a perched Tricolored Heron on the beach, and two rather distant Brown Boobies out to sea. The fort renovation has included extensive rebuilding of the main walls, and lots of interpretive signage, but happily we still managed to find a few roosting bats sitting in one of the recently scrubbed out and recobbled tunnels. The grassy lawns held a couple of pairs of Southern Lapwings, and around the carpark we found a few nesting Crested Oropendolas and a perched Common Black-Hawk. Our last birding stop for the day was in a patch of impressively tall coastal red mangrove forest, where, rather improbably, we managed excellent views of a responsive Mangrove Cuckoo! Here too were cooperative Straight-billed and Cocoa Woodcreepers, and a female White-throated Trogon that was perched out on a roadside wire. We arrived back at the tower with plenty of time for a bit of time off before the daily checklist and dinner, happy to find out from other guests that the unseasonable rains had been restricted to the Caribbean coastline.

The next morning, we were again atop the tower for an hour-long pre-breakfast vigil. In contrast to the previous time the weather was more typical of March, hot and clear, with a steady breeze. A trickle of Cliff and Barn Swallows and Chimney Swifts were passing by in pulses, along with the occasional resident Band-rumped or Short-tailed Swifts. We again enjoyed multiple views of perched up Scaled Pigeons, Red-lored Parrots and Keel-billed Toucans, and the fruiting Melastome trees were again hosting a nice array of migrants and tanagers, including dazzlingly bright Blue Dacnis, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Green Honeycreepers and Golden-hooded Tanagers. We picked up a few new species as well, with (finally) good views of Cocoa Woodcreeper, a distant pair of perched Brown-hooded Parrots, and a Green Shrike-Vireo that seemingly misread its own directions to stay hidden at all costs when it sat in place and sang away for at least 5 minutes. Over breakfast we were thrilled to see a small group of Mississippi Kite cruising by at eye-level, flashing silver and gray as they coursed over the treetops.

After breakfast, we drove down to the bottom of the hill and spent the morning walking out on the Plantation Trail, a wide graveled trail that winds north further into Soberania National Park, roughly paralleling a small creek. In recent years the trail has been discovered by hordes of mountain bikers from Panama City, making it a poor option for birding on the weekends. A benefit to their use of the trail though is that the actual trail conditions have vastly improved, with fresh gravel down in some of the often-muddy sections, and some rocks and roots smoothed out. As our visit occurred on a weekday, we saw only two bikes the entire morning, although a very large school group passed us by a couple of times on a field trip. We spent almost an hour around the car park, with a large mixed flock foraging along the edge of the forest. Migrants like Tennessee, Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers, Swainson’s Thrush and Summer Tanager joined our first Shining Honeycreepers (a luminous purple-blue bird with astonishingly bright yellow legs), Forest Elaenias, Fulvous-vented Euphonias and White-browed Gnatcatchers. Once we were able to tear ourselves away from the fruiting trees we set off down the actual trail, where we found the trailside creek nearly dry, with just a few pools of water dotted around here and there; a sharp contrast to the roaring flow that was evident back in November. There wasn’t much calling during the walk, but with a bit of careful searching we did find quite a few excellent species, including a couple of perched Blue-crowned Manakins showing off to excellent effect, a perched Crane Hawk, much improved views of the impressive Rufous Motmot, and excellent close range and lengthy views of two snazzy antbirds; Chestnut-backed and Spotted. At one particularly active bend in the trail we stopped to sift through a mixed canopy flock and were rewarded with our first (and only) Olivaceous Woodcreeper and a calmly perched Yellow-green Tyrannulet that stayed still long enough for scope views. This rather unremarkable canopy flycatcher is a Panama endemic, and one that is typically hard to find given its propensity for perching high up in the canopy. By the time we returned to the car the temperature had ramped up significantly, making our ensuing lunch and siesta quite rewarding.

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. Likely due to the particularly hot and dry year to date (our rainy afternoon on the coast 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. Normally in March there are fruiting figs along the trail here that bring in a lot of frugivorous birds, but on this visit we found little fruit and virtually nothing in flower. Around the carpark we encountered our first Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, perched Lineated Woodpecker and Cocoa Woodcreeper and our first of several rather confusingly named Flame-rumped Tanagers, whose intensely yellow rumps hardly harken back to your average flame. We walked back onto the short loop trail that winds through the riverine forest. Here we found a marked increase in palm trees and vines; which gives this riparian forest a very different feel to that of most of Soberania National Park. A vocal pair of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers played hide and seek with us for a while as they bounced back and forth in the understory, but eventually everyone managed decent views. Nearby we tracked down a singing Yellow-backed Oriole that was perched high up in the canopy, glowing like an orange and black beacon against the greenery. The area proved quite productive, with excellent views of a male White-browed Gnatcatcher, female Black-tailed Trogon, Whooping Motmot, a quietly foraging pair of Cinnamon Woodpeckers, several displaying Golden-collared Manakins and a Forest Elaenia that was sitting quite low in the canopy. Near the end of our walk, we located a pair of Spotted Antbirds and a Black-faced Antthrush down on the forest floor, and in one of the grassier sections of the trail we finally set eyes on a pair of Dusky Antbirds (after trying for multiple days to coax one into view) as well as a posing male Fasciated Antshrike and some garrulous Scarlet-rumped Caciques. Overall, though the woods were unusually quiet, and after spending a bit of time trying (more or less successfully) to get views of a foraging Buff-breasted Wren and wintering Mourning Warbler that were lurking on a small knoll in out in the dry marsh we decided to head over to the riverbank for a quick scan. Here we found a marked increase in the water levels, with the marshy verges largely flooded due to the heavy rains upstream the previous day. Some scanning of the river revealed a smattering of herons, Muscovy and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and an impressive number of migrant Barn and Cliff Swallows hawking insects over the water. We then headed back to the tower for the checklist and dinner, with plans to take a short night drive down the Semaphore Hill Road afterwards.

Since we had quite an early morning planned the next day, we decided to do a bit of a truncated night excursion, focused mainly on nightbirds rather than mammals. As is generally the case we did not find any owls during the outing, but we did have wonderful views of a hulking Great Potoo that was perched up high along the road edge and that allowed us to park nearly underneath it for several minutes. Near the summit park we also picked up a quietly sitting Common Pauraque that was well camouflaged as it sat nestled in a patch of dense leaf litter just off the road. If not for the peachy glow of its eyeshine it would have been nearly invisible!

Our other full day trip away from the tower was to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, east of Panama City. These mountains provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. 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. Here we spent much of the morning and early afternoon birding the forest patches and gardens along the road edges. The weather here was less than ideal, with steady and strong winds and for much of the visit bright sunlight. For some reason higher elevation birds seem to shirk from the sun, and generally the best weather for finding active flocks is overcast with the occasional very light drizzle and little wind; roughly the exact opposite to what we had on the day. As one might expect on such a day, we found that birds were unusually reticent, but with a bit of perseverance we found a large percentage of our hoped-for highland species including several of the traditionally difficult local specialties. After stopping in at the We started the day over on the Maipo loop, where we found the wind to be more numerous than the birds. On our brief visit here we did locate a very cooperative pair of Chestnut-capped Warblers, our first Streaked Saltator and, just as we were getting ready to head back to the van, a very vocal and responsive Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker. This is a scarce denizen of Panamanian foothill forests and our second endemic species for the trip. It’s an attractive woodpecker, clad in an olive suit with a nicely patterned front and bright red crown, and one that we see on only about half of our visits to Cerro Azul, generally with some effort. To see one so well and so quickly in the day was a real coup! Leaving the still yelping woodpecker behind we headed over to the dirt road that winds up to the microwave towers and observation platform on Cerro Jefe, with a brief sidetrip to retrieve a lost speaker along the Maipo Trail. The short Krummholz-like vegetation on the top of Cerro Jeffe supports many species that are less common or absent just a little lower down the mountain. Here too we found conditions to be quiet, managing just a few species including an Olive-striped Flycatcher, two foraging Green Hermits (a truly lovely species of hummingbird with an outrageously long curved bill) and another of the sometimes-tricky specialties; the glitteringly green Violet-capped Hummingbird. The latter species is nearly a Panama endemic, with the bulk of its world range along the higher ridges of mountains in the Darien and immediately adjacent Colombia.

After a mid-morning snack and coffee, we decided to walk a bit back through the housing development near the Cerro Jeffe Trail. 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 Rufous-winged and a pair of Emerald Tanagers (surely two of the most striking birds in the country), as well as Tawny-capped, Yellow-crowned and Thick-billed Euphonias, Blue-gray, Palm, Crimson-backed and Plain-colored Tanagers and a couple of Bananaquits. At times each of these were foraging down below eye level in short largely open shrubs and in good light. Simply put it was a photographers’ dream, and our views of Rufous-winged and Emerald were particularly excellent, as generally these two highland species stick to the canopy of dense leafy fruiting trees and are often backlit or partially obscured by fog when we see them on the mountain. As the activity here started to wane, we held a brief roundtable discussion on which species of tanager or finch was the fairest of them all without managing to come to much of a consensus (my vote went to the brilliant male Emerald Tanager) we moved over to another side of the ridge along the El Frente loop. Here we were a little bit out of the wind, and as we walked the well forested road, we picked up a few small flocks of birds working in the understory. Among the more noteworthy species were Carmiol’s Tanagers, a large olive species that is actually in the cardinal family, some very closely perched Keel-billed Toucans, our first Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, and a pair of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, with the black and turquoise male perching just a few feet from us out in the sun.

As lunchtime approached, 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, two Bronze-tailed (and at least one White-vented) Plumeleteer, 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 and Fulvous-vented 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.

Eventually we had to leave the comfort of the back porch and as we still had some time available, we decided to visit the one more spot up in the mountains, along the Romeo and Juliet loop. This area was one of the first parts of the complex to be developed, with only a few larger houses on large lots. Extensive forest blocks remain, and as the road curves around one edge of the complex it abuts the continuous forest downslope. Even though the afternoon sun was by now quite strong we found the area to be quite active, with flocks of migrants and tanagers moving around in some of the flowering trees. A Rufous Motmot was perched down below eye level in one of the undeveloped lots, providing a better and longer view than those we had seen on Pipeline Road a few days prior. Nearby we spent a bit of time watching several American Swallow-tailed Kites languidly wheeling around over the canopy, and enjoyed some views of Cocoa Woodcreeper, American Redstart and Blackburnian Warbler and a pair of very responsive Streaked Saltators.

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 carpark and pair of quite cooperative Green Kingfishers that were actively foraging right under the bridge, we then 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 though, and on this day when we arrived, we found that the tide was well out. We initially stopped at the more inland of the two traditional viewing areas tucked in just to the west of the original Spanish settlement of Panama City. There wasn’t much water here, but an array of waders were foraging in the remaining leads on the mudflat. We quickly tallied our first Blue-winged Teal, Wood Stork, White Ibis, Whimbrel, Willet and Laughing Gulls as well as a handsome Cocoi Heron. This species is very similar in size and structure to our more familiar Great Blue, but is dressed in a much smarter white, black and grey plumage. The central canal zone is about as far west into North America that one can find this species, which effectively replaces the Great Blue throughout South America.

We then moved over to the outer coastline, on the shores of Panama Bay in Panama Este. 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 months though, a local conservation organization has organized beach clean ups to remarkably good effect. Most of the shorebirds were still well offshore due to the tide position, but along the small river channel here was a throng of birds. Most were Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls and various Herons and Egrets, but among the crowded masses we picked out several Yellow-crowned Night Herons, some Black-necked Stilts and Short-billed Dowitchers and single Herring, Ring-billed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. 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. We spent a bit of time scoping the throngs of distant shorebirds, finding a few Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plover, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Ruddy Turnstone that were close enough to confidently identify. The carpet of distant peeps swarming over the wet mud along the shore, doubtless both Semipalmated and Westerns we left unlabeled. At one point a large Peregrine burst onto the scene, sending thousands of birds up in panic as it coursed down the shoreline looking for dinner. The sight sent our thoughts wandering to our next meal, and since the tide wasn’t about to deposit the birds at our feet, we elected to head back to the tower where we were greeted by a delicious barbeque dinner on the lower deck.

Since our scheduled transfer over to the lodge was for just after lunch, we had the opportunity to spend the morning of the next day birding near the tower. We started, as usual, with a pre-breakfast vigil around the tower top, where hordes of migrating swallows were streaming by in the early morning. Among the by now more familiar species we coaxed a very cooperative pair of Gartered Trogons into view on some eye-level perches, found our first (unfortunately) silent Wood-Pewee (statistically likely an Eastern, but showing more Western characteristics) sitting on a tall snag just off the tower deck. We ate breakfast a bit early, and then finished packing up our rooms and checking out before setting off for the Old Gamboa Rd., and nearby Summit Ponds. Around the carpark we stopped to scan the skies, which were full of not only more lines of migrating swallows but also kettles of vultures, with good numbers of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks in the mix. A single Great Black-Hawk briefly joined the rapidly climbing birds, and we also picked out the odd Osprey and a single flyby Crested Caracara. 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 along with our first Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and a small troupe of Geoffrey’s Tamarins that were launching themselves over the roadside gap with an impressively cavalier air. Eventually though, lured by the welcoming shade, we made it to the forested Summit Ponds. Here we found a couple of roosting Boat-billed Herons, with their oddly shaped bills clearly visible. One bird was panting heavily in the sun, shielding two quite awkward-looking chicks on its flimsy stick nest. Here too were Amazon and Green Kingfishers, a Greater Anis that was glowing blue in the morning light, Green Herons, sunning Central American Sliders, a loafing Spectacled Caiman and some perching Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows.

Once past the ponds the old road passes through 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. Just a few feet into the woods past the pond we stopped to watch a pair of Whooping Motmots that were gleaming in a small patch of sunlight on the forest floor, looking like they were coated in finely wrought metallic paint. In some tall vine tangles we coaxed a pair of Long-billed Gnatwrens, a small bird that seems to consist mostly of bill and tail, into view as they flitted around in the dense canopy. Some more cooperative White-browed Gnatcatchers, Yellow-tailed Orioles and Golden-fronted Greenlets were plying the same bushes. In the next dense vine tangle we located an unusually cooperative Jet Antbird which popped into the open several times as it uttered its staccato jaunty song. Unfortunately, White-bellied Antbirds were not so willing to show themselves, and despite hearing several pairs along the track we couldn’t entice any of them out of their dense grassy lairs. The path comes out of the forest a couple of times, passing through some patches of grass but retaining an overstory thanks to some huge spreading trees. Here we found a bright Magnolia Warbler, a scarce wintering bird in the region, as well as a female Black-tailed Trogon, a pair of Dusky Antbirds and a veritable who’s who of dull yellow flycatchers including Forest Elaenia, Yellow-crowned, Southern Beardless, Mistletoe and Brown-capped Tyrannulets; giving the participants a bit of an exit exam on flycatchers after all. Further back on the road we found one of the massive bamboo thickets to be in full seed, providing a bounty of food for several hundred seedeaters. Most were Yellow-bellied, with the dark headed males and staid females common enough around the thicket that a few were in view from any angle. Among them though we picked out numbers of Variable and Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, a few more Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and a single female Slate-coloured Seedeater. The slate coloured is a bamboo specialist, showing up in an area when local bamboos are seeding and then vanishing after the crop dries up; it’s unpredictable around the canal zone and this sighting was only our second on the spring tours. On the walk back towards the car we successfully tracked down a singing Rufous-and-White Wren; a striking wren of drier forest with a mellifluous call as it bounced around at the base of the huge bamboo thicket. A mixed flock kept us entertained for some time, with a locally scarce Magnolia Warbler, a perched and singing Grey-chested Dove and Buff-throated and Streaked Saltators all showing well.

Once back at the tower we had our final lunch and bade farewell to our gracious local guide Jorge and readied ourselves for the roughly two-hour transfer over to the Canopy Lodge, where this year all participants had elected to take the optional extension to our Canopy tower week. The drive was a bit longer than usual as a peaceful street protest had the main highway blocked due to a community along the road lacking dependable water service. Droughts are not common in Panama, but the last several dry seasons have been exceptionally hot and windy, and the government is having to scramble to ensure dependable water service for its populace, and for the efficient operation of the canal.

LODGE EXTENSION: 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. Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Plain-colored and Dusky-faced Tanagers, Clay-colored Thrushes and Thick-billed Euphonias compete with Red-tailed Squirrels and even the occasional Rufous Motmot, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail or gang of Gray-headed Chachalacas for the best pieces of banana. Our tour this year was unfortunately beset by continuing strong winds that typify the shift to the wet season which did complicate some of the birding locations and depress activity especially in the afternoons. Nevertheless, the cooler air provided a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the tower, the white noise provided by the rushing stream and myriad frogs that passes through the property and the comparatively huge and opulent rooms led to a most comfortable environment.

After checking in and getting organized we had only an hour or so to make a quick tour of the lodge grounds. The feeding tables were attracting a few Thick-billed Euphonias, Summer Tanagers, Clay-coloured Thrushes and Buff-throated Saltators, along with the occasional visit from the local Rufous Motmot. Along the pretty rocky creek, we stopped to admire several loafing adult Brown Basilisks and found a Northern Waterthrush plying the edge of the water. Near the back of the property a noisy group of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were setting up a nesting colony in a Creekside tree, with Giant Cowbird and Piratic Flycatcher waiting in the nearby trees for the birds to finish. Some perched Blue-headed Parrots, a croaking Keel-billed Toucan and a group of well over a dozen Eastern Kingbirds were here as well. I suspect though that the star species of our little walk was the pair of Bay Wrens that popped out of their customary dense tangles to forage in the open garden. This is an exquisitely colourful species; coppery rust with a striking black hood and white throat and boldly striped tail. We then retired for a bit of a break before meeting up to do the birdlog and enjoying dinner in the wonderful open-air Creekside dining area.

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 Orange-billed Sparrow feeding on the bird table. Normally a shy species of dense undergrowth the sparrows around the lodge are somewhat used to people (and fond of cooked rice), often coming out into full sunlight to feed and really showing off their bold olive, black and white bodies and glow-in-the-dark orange bills. Also new for us around the lodge deck was a remarkably bold Dusky-faced Tanager that checked out the sofas, tables and glassware around the dining area, perhaps even eager than we were for breakfast! 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. Once sated with breakfast we set off for the forested plateau above the Anton caldera; a second higher caldera coined La Mesa. About halfway up to the plateau we stopped at a small pond along the road, where a few houses and a small shop are nestled into a verdant valley. Our hoped-for Black-headed Saltators responded but failed to show themselves, but we found a wealth of other birds including Gray-capped Flycatcher, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Yellow-bellied and Lesser Elaenia, White-winged Becard, Thick-billed Seed-Finch and both Crested and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas. Surprisingly in just a scant half-hour we tallied over 40 species over at most 150m of walking!

The La Mesa plateau has been partially developed for chicken farming but the ridges around the area are largely protected as national park and there is significant intact forest remaining around 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 walking along a short road with patches of cloud forest along the verges. Mixed flocks were common here, and each flock contained several species new for our trip. One of our first flocks contained dozens of Tawny-crested Tanagers, a striking bird with the jet-black males sporting flaming orange-tawny crests, a couple of Emerald, Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers, a trio of cooperative Northern Emerald Toucanets that were busy sampling figs from a roadside tree, our first Rufous-breasted Wren and overwintering Canada Warbler, and two pairs of Red-crowned Ant-tanagers. Another flock contained birds with a bit more subdued color schemes, with Spotted Woodcreeper, Bicolored Antbird and both Spot-crowned and Plain Antvireos showing well. In the undergrowth we could see displaying Golden-collared Manakins, as well as a furtive (and therefore normal) Bay Wren and foraging Crowned Woodnymph and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. We walked out far enough on the road to leave the forest and pass through a section of overgrown grassy cattle pastures along the ridge. Here we quickly were successful in locating a pair of Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch (now newly classified as a tanager) that were perching up on some grass tussocks. The birds were close, and lingered for some time, allowing us to take in their namesake tail shape, as well as the attractive yellow edgings on their wing feathers; truly most field guides do not do these elegant birds justice. Once back at the car we enjoyed a late morning cold drink and then headed back downslope for a second attempt at finding Black-headed Saltators. This time we didn’t even hear them, but we were thrilled to spot a small group of White-thighed Swallows flying over the valley and even perching on some roadside utility wires. These tiny and very local swallows are a bit of an enigma, and historically used to occur regularly around watercress fields and wetlands near El Valle but have since largely disappeared. This marked only our second sighting of the species on our spring lodge tours!

Our last stop for the morning was near the canopy adventure grounds. 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. Although all of these attractions are certainly wonderful in their own right, we chose to simply walk a bit down the road and stand around near some flowers for about 20 minutes; leaving the more physical delights to the younger crowd that was gearing up for the ziplines when we arrived. We decided that we had made the correct choice when a scan of some bare branches up above the flowering bush revealed an adult male Rufous-crested Coquette perched! With a crazy threaded and wispy flaming orange crest and white streaks in its gorget the Rufous-crested Coquette is a truly stunning hummingbird. As we neared the lodge, we were surprised to gain an escort in the form of a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail that was strutting along the road in front of our van for several hundred feet before it scampered off into the forest.

After lunch and a bit of 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. The pair seemed a little bit nervous at our presence so after a couple of views in the scope and a few photos we backed out and continued along the trail. The hot and windy conditions were again depressing bird activity, but a large fruiting fig was hosting migrant Scarlet Tanagers, Tennessee and Bay-breasted Warblers and a vocal squadron of Gray-headed Chachalacas. A bit further along we teased out singing Yellow-green Vireos, a nicely perched Panama Flycatcher, foraging Lineated Woodpeckers, and displaying Golden-collared Manakin. Here too we located a singing Rufous-and-White Wren that was a bit more out in the open than the one along Old Gamboa Road. Along the trail several gaps in the canopy gave us a decent view of the sky, and in those gaps, we found a circling light-morph Short-tailed Hawk, and a quick pass by a Roadside Hawk. Some White-bellied Antbirds, an intermittently calling Rosy Thrush-Tanager and a Yellow Tyrannulet played hide and seek (admittedly excelling at the hiding more than the seeking) with us in the dense undergrowth, but a Long-billed Gnatwren was much more cooperative. Just before we returned to the car a small hummingbird zipped past us, perching quietly on the edge of the trail. It proved to be a moulting male Garden Emerald, showing a bright emerald throat and shimmering bluish tail, but largely dull underparts. We then moved over to another nearby side road, where we have had success in prior years locating Tody Motmots along a vine choked patch of forest edge. We spent about a half-hour in the area, getting a quick glimpse of a female Lance-tailed Manakin that was perched up in the canopy (before the winds picked up and seemingly blew the bird out of the tree and into oblivion) and hearing two Tody Motmots which frustratingly refused to budge from their upslope perches. We decided that we were merely building up a karmic surplus for success on our following afternoon and headed back towards the lodge for dinner. A few participants joined me on a short stroll around the grounds after dinner to look for frogs. In only about a half-hour, we tracked down an impressive six species, including several hulking Cane Toads, one gigantic Savage’s Jungle Frog, a very approachable Red-webbed Treefrog, two or three Brilliant Forest Frogs, a single Dwarf Glass Frog and what may prove to be a Fitzinger’s Robber Frog. Throw in a few fishing spiders and one rather speedy scorpion and it was quite a wonderful nature outing!

On our second full day we again headed uphill, this time to the lower slope 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. We parked near the trailhead, and the first sounds we heard after exiting the bus were emanating from 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 mostly solo, with a couple of nearby Bicolored Antbirds chuckling away in the undergrowth and a pair of Bright-rumped Attilas that were uncharacteristically out in the open as they casually wove mosses into their nearly finished nest. We walked on a bit along the main road, finding more Tawny-crested Tanagers and a handsome Scaled Pigeon that was singing from atop a tall snag. Once at the trailhead we only had to walk a few feet into the woods before stopping to successfully tease out a singing Northern Schiffornis. This 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. A little further up the trail we found a small mixed flock, with our first good views of Slaty Antwrens, a lekking Green Hermit, and a few Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers. We then wound up spending some time lingering around the base of the steep steps that wind well up the mountain. Here we located the very tail end of a foraging swarm of army ants, with a few attendant birds including a young Barred Forest-Falcon that put in an all too brief appearance as it shot upslope after the ants in a brown blur. We lingered hoping that the nearby ants might attract some more birds, and while waiting were accompanied by the aerial stylings of a half-dozen Swallow-tailed Kites that were gliding overhead and occasionally calling and chasing each other along the ridge. Another small flock appeared near the stairs as we began to head down, with both Plain and Spot-crowned Antvireos, a Spotted Woodcreeper and a pair of Gray-breasted Woodwrens in evidence that were furtively creeping around in the leaf litter that they so closely resemble, occasionally showing off their flared white eyeline or speckled cheek.

Leaving the Gaital area behind, we headed to a nearby private property with an extensive network of trails. Just off the road we were happy to hear a calling Collared Trogon. It didn’t take long to track the bird down. It’s a handsome trogon with a strikingly barred tail and bright orange underparts that is now regarded as a local subspecies (confined to the Talamanca highlands which straddle the border between Costa Rica and Panama) of the more widespread Collared Trogon. The male was moving around a lot an was unusually low, and we surmised that a nest was close by. A small flock nearby held a Russet Antshrike that was lurking around in the canopy, a pair of White-flanked Antwren and yet more Tawny-crested Tanagers. We walked back about a kilometer of trail, surrounded by another world, far removed from the open skies and chicken farms that cover most of the tablelands around La Mesa. The forest along the maintained but not heavily used trail was shady and cool, with a semi-open understory dotted with tree ferns and thickets of flowering heliconias. It’s usually an excellent area for mixed flocks and antswarms, but on this day we encountered neither. We did, however, enjoy a steady drip of new birds. A few of the more memorable sightings were the Pale-vented Thrush that was gobbling down fruits, an immature male White-ruffed Manakin perched just over the trail, and a Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant that deigned to stay put long enough for us actually see. By this point in the morning, we were running a bit late, so we headed back down to the lodge for lunch and a bit of time off in the early afternoon.

After our naps (or vigils at the bird feeders) we decided to travel a bit down downslope to spend a bit of time birding the drier forest around the edges of the town of El Valle. Our main target for the afternoon was to be the small and secretive Tody Motmot, a bird which eschews the customary extravagant nature of most motmots and spends most of its time in dense tangles in the understory. We found a likely spot just off the main road into town, and within just a minute or so we succeeded in eliciting a response, although it took nearly a half-hour to spot the bird as it sat motionless on a small vine below our vantage point. In the end we managed spectacular views from another angle, with the birds’ blue mascara glinting in a patch of bright sunlight. We then moved over to another section of town and located a Tropical Screech-Owl at a known roost site just over the road. Our stop became an extended one, as after studying the owl for a bit we noted a calling Long-tailed Tyrant and tracked it down on a tall snag. When popping the bird in the scope I was shocked to see it fly off and be immediately replaced by a spectacular adult Gray-headed Kite which lingered for several minutes before flying off itself. We then relocated the Long-tailed Tyrant, a pretty black flycatcher with an attractive silver ringlet and two astonishingly long uppertail coverts.

Our last stop for the day was along the Cara Iguana Road, a spot that we traditionally visit on the first afternoon. Although a significant amount of new building has occurred here (especially since the pandemic) the end of the road still supports an excellent patch of habitat that often produces views of our last main target for the day; the handsome Lance-tailed Manakin. As we walked towards the end of the road we were happy to spot a Lesson’s Motmot perched in a gap in the roadside hedge. This is another split from the old Blue-crowned Motmot, occurring from roughly El Valle west into southern Mexico. Nearby (and in the same hedge) we caught some motion along the ground and were soon treated to views of a pair of White-bellied Antbirds bathing in a tiny puddle. After trying to see these often-retiring birds so many times (and hearing them nearly daily) we watched them for a minute or two with a bit of a sense of relief. Eventually we reached a patch of forest and soon heard the distinctive haunting mechanical calls of several manakins coming from upslope. It took some jockeying around and a bit of walking up the steep back section of the road, but a young male Lance-tailed Manakin did drop down enough for us to get a nice view. Younger males are admittedly not as well dressed as the breeding adults but they do possess a brilliant scarlet cap, paired with a dusky green body. The road had one more treat in store for us, when an ethereally pale White Hawk popped over the canopy and proceeded to circle overhead for several minutes. This is a spectacular species, snow white with a contrasting black tail band and dusky wingtips. Our checklist that night took a bit of time, and we were accompanied by a vocal pair of Tropical Screech-Owls that were chatting away from just out front of the dining area.

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 two 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. Just before the steepest spot on the climb we stopped at a little creek crossing where we were soon successful at teasing out a pair of Dull-mantled Antbirds lurking in the Creekside vegetation. These poorly named antbirds are actually quite bright, with ruby red eyes and bright silver-white flashes on their backs. Here too we found our first Common Chlorospingus, a well-marked social tanager-like bird that is actually a tropical sparrow that can be quite common up at elevation throughout its range.

At our next spot, a bend close to the gatehouse of the development, 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, 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, amazingly it settled on a nest, revealing itself to be a female Green Thorntail! Once in the development we made an impromptu stop at one of the cleared lots where activity was high around a large fruiting tree. Here we enjoyed good comparison views of Pale-vented and Clay-colored Thrushes, a trio of fast-flying White-collared Swifts, and our only Bay-headed Tanagers of the trip.

For most of the rest of the morning we slowly walking along the paved roads that snake through the Valle Bonito neighborhood of the project. Here most of the lots are undeveloped, although some have cleared understories but the well-maintained roads, lined with streetlights provide excellent (if a bit eerie) access. Once we entered the area we stopped for a bit of a coffee break, and soon discovered that we had selected a stupendous location for a break. Birds were buzzing all around us, with a very close pair of Rufous Mourners in excellent light, several White-vented Euphonia (our fifth, and last, species of possible Euphonia on the tour), a tiny burnt-orange Ochraceous Wren in the canopy, our only Northern Tropical Pewee, and what may have been the bird of the day; a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets. These spectacularly coloured small toucans are scarce in foothill forests, and this sighting marked only the second time in March that we had encountered the species around Cerro Azul. We walked a bit further down the road, finding a spot where only a thin strip of trees lay between a clearing and our path. Here we found a pair of Chestnut-capped Brushfinches that (due to the narrowness of their habitat) showed off uncharacteristically well for us in the undergrowth. A small flock here also contained a Spotted Barbtail, a smallish ovenbird that forages much like a woodcreeper, as well as both Plain and Spot-crowned Antvireo, and a foraging Gray-breasted Woodwren. Eventually we moved over to the small lake that was installed by the developers as a bit of a social hub. Before picking out a lunch spot we scouted a short back road, where we were surprised to find some active mist nets set up around a grove of fruiting trees. It turned out that a research team from Kansas State was working on a project with White-ruffed Manakins; although judging by the number of manakins feeding up in the canopy well above the nets (and the lack of birds in the nets) it wasn’t quite clear how much success the biologists were enjoying.

After lunch on the lakeshore, accompanied by circling Broad-winged Hawks and Swallow-tailed Kites as well as some nesting Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and very talkative Social Flycatchers 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. We found trail incredibly tranquil, a nearly perfect place for the quintessential forest bathing experience. Birding was slow, with very little calling or visibly active in the understory, but we did pick up our first Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, a perched female Snowcap that was sitting just overhead along the trial and a similarly diminutive Violet-capped Hummingbird foraging over the crystal-clear water. Another fruiting tree near the trail entrance was keeping a pair of Masked Tityras occupied as we walked virtually underneath them on the way back to the vehicles.

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 had recently found Kathy, an ex-pat American woman and hummingbird enthusiast 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 late afternoon and were treated to amazingly close views of her 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 half-dozen glittering and impressively large Green-crowned Brilliants. Kathy had one other species that irregularly visits her feeders, and we managed to complete the sweep when we spotted a male Purple-throated Mountaingem sitting in the shade near the feeder with its purple throat, white eyeline and blue forehead gleaming through the shadows. We bade our host a fond farewell, and made one last stop at the very top of the road, where we tracked down a calling pair of Red-faced Spinetails that were chattering around in the canopy of an epiphyte-laden tree. It’s an attractive species, far prettier than most field guides suggest and an excellent species to wrap up what was a species rich and very rewarding day in the field.

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 to our trip. We often stop on the ridgeline of the caldera, where we look for Wedge-tailed Grassfinches in the patch of grassland along the ridge. Thankfully we had connected with them earlier in the trip, as when we crested the ridge high winds buffeted the van and our chances at finding skulky grass birds would have been nearly nil. Also thankfully, as we descended from the upper ridges the winds subsided substantially, making for quite pleasant birding conditions. Our first stop was about halfway down from the highlands, where we successfully found a Bran-colored Flycatcher perched on a weedy slope. We tried to coax out a distant calling Black-striped Sparrow that was further downslope, and in the process attracted the attentions of Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and a Garden Emerald, as well as a nice selection of open country flycatchers and tanagers. As we were about to board the bus, we spotted a Common Nighthawk flying over the adjacent ridge, and to our amazement it changed direction and flew directly over us twice, uttering its distinctive flight call as it careened overhead. A bit further downslope we stopped at a known Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl territory tucked behind a small country church. The owl responded vigorously, and we were able to study it at length in the scope as it tooted back at us from a nearby mango tree. We made one other stop on the way down to the lowlands, where we found a surprising number of calling and perching Brown-throated Parakeets, a species that seems to have become much more common along the dry Pacific slope in recent times. A much-needed stop along the Pan-American Highway revealed the hoped-for restroom facilities and several House Sparrows. After our comfort stop, we spent a bit of time south of the town of Anton, exploring a network of roads that eventually reach the coast. Mouse-coloured Tyrannulets performed well for us this year, and we enjoyed excellent studies of Groove-billed Anis, a perched White-tailed Kite, a pair of Straight-billed Woodcreepers and an amazingly diverse assemblage of vireos in a fruiting gumbo limbo. The flock held both Scrub and Golden-fronted Greenlets, as well as Yellow-green and Yellow-throated Vireos; it’s not often that one can have four species of vireos in view at once!

We then moved over to another coastal road that leads eventually down to the Pacific Ocean and a usually quiet sandy beach. About a mile or so south of the highway we stopped near a small pond to watch a few Solitary Sandpipers and Black-necked Stilts working the margins. It proved a lengthy stop, as here we also located a cooperative Zone-tailed Hawk and rather zippy Pearl Kite. We then walked a bit down the road to check out a small forest patch along a creek. Lance-tailed Manakins showed well here, with several snazzy black, red and blue males bouncing around in a patch of vines just a foot or so off the ground. We also spotted an Amazon Kingfisher sitting over the creek, and just a bit further down the road flushed two male Blue Ground-Doves. Once we reached the rice paddocks, we found the fields bone dry, perhaps awaiting the onset of the rainy season to replant and flood the fields. Small pools were still scattered about, and in the distance, we could see the rice harvesters working to get the basins ready for the onset of the rainy season. One particular field still held a bit of water, and here we sifted through a mass of wading birds, including impressive numbers of Glossy Ibis (and some White Ibis), a few Wood Storks and a nice mix of herons. While watching these birds foraging in the muddy patches between the rows of rice we noticed a perched Savannah Hawk on a distant snag and were surprised to spot a (locally scarce) Northern Harrier coursing over the field. After admiring a male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater that was sitting in some tall seeding grass by the road we continued on for a bit, finding a few more small pools stuffed with dozens of Wattled Jacanas. On a recent visit to the area Danilo had located another wetland basin down a side road, so we decided to skip the beach and head over to see if there was still water on that road. Enroute we spotted a couple of tiny Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, occasionally with slightly larger Ruddies nearby for comparison. We were also treated to superlative views of a perched Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture that was sitting on a roadside tree at eyelevel. These gorgeous vultures are a bit undersold by their common names, with brilliant yellow, orange, red and purple hued heads. Perhaps prismatic vulture, or rainbow-headed vulture would be a more appropriate moniker. We found the lake basin to be still quite full of water, and unsurprisingly quite a few birds were tucked along the shoreline. Most were by now quite familiar to us, but in the middle of a group of loafing Wood Storks we found a young Roseate Spoonbill! This is quite a rare species in Central Panama and marked the first time we (or Danilo) had encountered it in the region. A patch of dense vines along the road edge near the lake provided excellent habitat for a remarkably confiding Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant that perched at eye level for us for several minutes. Nearby we scoped a sitting Olive-sided Flycatcher and several close Fork-tailed Flycatchers.

As it was at this point past noon, we drove over to another beach access point a few miles to the east 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 large flock of loafing Laughing Gulls and Sandwich Terns sitting on the shore. The gardens around the house proved unusually productive this year, with a large mob of birds responding to our pygmy-owl imitation. At one point a Tropical Mockingbird was sitting just feet from us, seemingly trying to work out exactly where the noise was coming from. The surrounding trees were at times swirling with agitated birds, from colourful Red-legged Honeycreepers, glittering Garden Emeralds and zebra-striped Barred Antshrikes, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers, Streaked Saltator and our last addition to the triplist; a handsome Greenish Elaenia. Our trip back to Panama City took a bit longer than expected, likely due to some roadworks and the fact that it was Easter weekend, but we made our canal-side hotel with plenty of time for a bit of a break before our final dinner. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Jorge 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: 20 April 2023