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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The 2019 Spring Panama tour combined a spell of warm and dry weather with a wonderful array of neotropical birds. Our week at the Canopy Tower produced 273 species of birds and an incredible 15 species of mammals (368 species with the extension included). Some of the highlights included the lengthy and amazingly close views of a perched and hunting Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, a circling Ornate Hawk-Eagle during our outing to Gamboa, seeing five species of Trogons and a surprise Green Ibis at the same location along Pipeline Road, a very cooperative Ocellated Antbird, both White-headed Wren and Spot-crowned Barbet along Achiote Road, a pair of responsive Speckled Mourner along the Plantation Trail, a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets at a fruiting tree on Cerro Azul, and a fiesta of colorful tanagers including Speckled, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Emerald, Black-and-Yellow, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped. The lodge produced such highlights as an eventually quite cooperative Tody Motmot in a forested gully, furtive Rosy Thrush-Tanagers around the outskirts of the town of El Valle, very close views of Brown-billed Scythebill on the trails at La Mesa, a perched Bicoloured Hawk hunting Oropendolas just a bit up from the lodge, 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 roosting Night Monkeys, a Rufous Tree Rat placidly staring down at us from its lofty perch, a day-active Tamandua and a Central American Woolly Opossum that has seemingly taken up residence on the top floor of the tower. In addition we located an impressive array of 6 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 FULL: Most of the participants arrived the night before the tour began, staying at our canal-side hotel in Panama City for the night. In the morning, we wandered a bit around the grounds, familiarizing ourselves with some of the common open-country birds of central Panama. Little groups of Palm, Blue-gray and Crimson-backed Tanagers, Variable Seedeaters, Tropical Kingbirds and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Clay-coloured Thrushes and Great-tailed Grackles. After breakfast, we transferred to the tower, skirting the edge of the canal, and passing the main shipping port and lochs on the Pacific side and many neighborhoods that still bore the unmistakable marks of American military architecture. We arrived at the tower just a bit before lunchtime, but found out that the rooms were still being cleaned. This this left us with some time on our hands, so as birders will, we elected to spend the time relaxing on the upper deck of the tower and watching the skies around us for migrating raptors and whatever else might deign to pass by. Over the course of an hour or so before lunch and sometime in the later afternoon we enjoyed repeated views of hunting Short-tailed Hawks, as well as small groups of migrant Turkey Vultures and the odd Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawk heading north for the summer months. Barn and Cliff Swallows were steadily passing by at eye level, with the occasional Gray-breasted Martin or swift mixed in. Being able to see swifts at eye-level is always a treat, and with repeated views we were soon able to discern the smaller and longer-tailed Band-rumped Swifts from the more common Short-tailed Swifts. At one point in the late afternoon we were happy to see a pair of elegant Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts zipping around the tower top. As the sun began to set we spotted a pair of courting Red-lored Parrots in a nearby tree, and several dazzling Keel-billed Toucans gleaming in the warm evening sunlight. We met before dinner for our introductory meeting and given all that we had already seen were very much anticipating our week around central Panama.

Normally we start off the tour with a relaxed day around the immediate vicinity of the tower, but this year we spent our first day away from the canal zone, visiting the higher country around Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, a bit to the northeast of Panama City. This year though our gracious hosts who own a house atop the mountain and allow us to eat lunch on their back patio surrounded by hummingbird feeders were heading out for a vacation midweek prompting us to visit them earlier in our trip. We left the tower early and skirted around Panama City (enjoying the lack of workweek traffic in the process), arriving at the housing development on Cerro Azul a little after 7am. The development sits about 2700 ft. above sea level, roughly on the continental divide and is largely forested, provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill avifauna of central Panama. A developing El Nino condition to the west of the country seemed this year to be pushing the gradual shift to the rainy season a bit earlier in the year. Typically, this shift happens in mid-April, we found that for much of the week we had overcast skies (which frankly were welcome and kept the temperatures pleasant) and stubbornly persistent winds. After checking in with the site managers we started walking along the paved roads, passing a mix of mansions and dilapidated sheds, lots still covered in montane forest and sweeping views of the fully forested ridges around us. Pairs of vocal American Swallow-tailed Kites were soaring along the ridges and just over the tree tops, often vocalizing and passing right overhead. These stunning and elegant raptors are always a joy to watch in flight but we were especially pleased to spot three birds perched close to the road, seemingly oblivious to the many telescopes and cameras trained on them as they quietly sat preening in the morning sun.

As is often the case in montane environments much of the avifauna is concentrated in mixed feeding flocks. Near the beginning of the walk we were happy to spot a pair of Black-throated Trogons sitting on the roadside wires – an excellent bird to open our day with! We were soon alerted to the presence of our first flock when a group of Olive Tanagers (a species we regularly encounter here in March, but seldom see in November) appeared in the midstory of a partially cleared lot. Soon afterwards there were birds seemingly everywhere we looked. Perhaps the prizes of the first flock were a male Red-capped Manakin and the (for a woodcreeper) stunning Black-striped Woodcreeper, but the supporting cast included such gems as Rufous-capped Warbler, Fulvous-vented Euphonia and Golden-hooded Tanager just to name a few. Small groups of birds repeatedly appeared along the road as we walked, with migrants such as Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White and Bay-breasted Warbler joining residents such as the flighty Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, diminutive Mistletoe Tyrannulet (a recent split from the poorly named Paltry Tyrannulet complex) and glittering Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers and Scarlet-thighed and Blue Dacnis. At one particularly productive spot along the road we found some fruiting trees that were hosting several hulking Streaked Flycatchers, a placid Mealy Parrot and several Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans. While watching the show we were thrilled to spot a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets flying in towards us. These spectacularly coloured small toucans are scarce in the foothill forests, and the sighting marked the first time in march that we had encountered the species around Cerro Azul.

In the mid-morning, 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 maintains 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 30-40 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 White-necked Jacobin, Crowned Woodnymph, pugnacious Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, and dozens of Snowy-bellied, Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds! Among these more common species we were able to tease out a couple of Green and Long-billed Hermits that occasionally joined the throng. 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 (here of a markedly different type than those that occur in northern central America) and even a handsome Black-cheeked Woodpecker. With some time before lunch we decided to tear ourselves away from the feeders to check another side of the development that was happily also out of the wind that was breaking over the high ridges. We parked along the Rio Mono Rd at a likely looking spot and were surprised to spot an impressive colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas just off the road. Dozens of huge pendulous nests dangled from a small grove of introduced pine trees, with several black, chestnut and golden yellow Oropendolas busily flying into and out of the area with material for the finishing touches of their boudoirs. A somewhat menacing Giant Cowbird was lurking around the nests too, doubtless waiting for the impending egg-laying period to begin in earnest. Just down the road we found a small flock of Lesser Goldfinches feeding in some roadside sunflowers and a grove of fruiting Cercopias that was attracting a large number of frugivorous birds including our first Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos, lots of Thick-billed Euphonia and an inquisitive Squirrel Cuckoo. In a nearby tree we spotted a pair of Speckled Tanagers that were apparently nesting in a dense clump in a roadside pine. These are quite handsome birds, lime-green, white and yellow and covered in small black spots. Here too we were very pleased to locate a male Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker; a scarce denizen of the foothill forests and our first Panamanian endemic species. 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. Just before lunch we made a short stop at the higher ridges leading up to Cerro Jeffe, but the combination of high winds and dense fog made for difficult birding here.

We spent lunch back at the hummingbird house, where the show continued unabated. Our hosts go through around a ton of sugar annually, with a daily output of 4-5 gallons of sugarwater in the dry season (and up to 8-9 gallons in the rainy season). We added a few additional species on our second visit, with a flyby Grey-chested Dove, some handsome Yellow-faced Grassquits and several Bananaquits showing well. After lunch we set off downhill, stopping to admire a Black Phoebe perched on some rocks in a small rushing montane creek along the way. We elected to take advantage of the fact that due to it being Sunday we were not likely to face rush hour traffic enroute back to the hotel. Several months prior to our trip a Maguari Stork had been found by some local birders at a nearby rice farm. The bird had been reliably seen just a few days before our visit, and as it is an exceedingly rare bird in North America we decided to head a bit further east than normal for the afternoon. This did mean that we skipped our traditional shorebird workshop visit on the mudflats at Panama Este, but with a wealth of new birds to look for around the rice fields it seemed an excellent tradeoff.

We drove about twenty minutes east along the Pan-American highway and then turned south onto a series of increasingly small roads before arriving at the gate to Finca Bayano, a large complex of ricefields not too far away from the Rio Chepo. The fields were largely dried out, in preparation for harvesting, but the ditch along the roadside still held water. The drying out channel had patches of dense aquatic vegetation and small open mudflats that were attracting a nice array of herons including several Striated (with a few Green for comparison), Little Blue, Tricolored and Cocoi. Although both Striated and Cocoi Herons are scarce in the canal zone this short drive further east was sufficient for them to become the dominant species (whereas around Panama City Green and Great Blue Herons dominate). Here too we picked out a couple of pairs of Pied Water-Tyrants, a small and quite attractive marsh flycatcher that also does not occur around the canal zone. Lots of Wattled Jacanas, including several white chested young birds were gathering around the edges of the water, with a few Spotted Sandpipers and Southern Lapwings adding to the diversity. By driving along the water-filled ditch we also spotted a couple of Ringed Kingfishers hunting for fish in the drying ponds. Out above the fields we were treated to a nice mix of raptors including some migrant Swainson’s Hawks, about a half-dozen hunting White-tailed Kites, two perched Savannah Hawks and a very cooperative Great Black-Hawk. Little groups of Smooth-billed Ani were sitting in the taller grasses, and while watching them we picked out a gorgeous male Red-breasted Meadowlark sitting nearby. Fork-tailed Flycatchers and Tropical Kingbirds were hawking insects over the fields and little herds of Ruddy Ground-Doves were scuttling around the roads stuffing their bills with rice that had fallen from the workers trucks. We drove around the complex stopping wherever we found groups of wading birds. Groups of Great, Cattle, and Snowy Egrets, Cocoi, Tricoloured, and Little Blue Herons, White Ibis, and many Wood Storks revealed themselves but alas we were not able to locate the Maguari. Despite that minor setback we were more than content with the wealth of new birds, a heady list that was only enhanced when we located a couple of Bare-throated Tiger Herons lurking along some of the ditches that still held water. These bulky herons are yet another species not found in the Canal Zone, and like the Pied Water-Tyrants were a write-in for our tours cumulative list. In the early evening, we headed back to the tower, arriving in plenty of time before dinner thanks to the continuing lack of traffic, heads spinning from the incredible diversity (well over 100 species) that we had encountered on our first day in the field.

We greeted the sunrise on our second morning with an hour-long vigil from the top deck of the Canopy Tower. Perched atop an 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 the 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 parade of birds. A large fruiting Melostoma tree was attracting many birds, with migrants like Summer and Scarlet Tanagers and Tennesse and Bay-breasted Warblers joining resident species such Palm Tanager, Lesser Greenlet and Tropical Gnatcatcher in plucking the tiny blue fruits. At one point, we were thrilled to actually spot a pair of Green Shrike-Vireos that were plucking caterpillars out of the same trees. These beautiful vireos provide a near constant aural din in the forest, with their three-part calls that sound remarkably like a Greenshank or Tufted Titmouse. As they are one of the three birds illustrated on the tower memorabilia and a difficult species to spot as they move slowly around in the canopy (unless one is afforded a canopy perch oneself) we were happy to see them so quickly this year. The Cercropias were in fruit as well, and in their more open branches we spotted a cooperative and pleasantly tiny and rotund Brown-capped Tyrannulet as well as several Tennessee Warblers and our first White-shouldered Tanagers and Cocoa Woodcreeper. The larger trees around the tower played host to Keel-billed Toucans, Scaled Pigeons, perched Mealy and Red-lored Parrots and even a distantly perched Short-tailed Hawk to round out the cast. It was a bit of a sensory overload really, and our heads were still spinning as we descended one floor to devour our provided breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs and some delicious fresh local juices.

After breakfast, we spent the rest of the morning walking down the mile-long road that winds down the side of Semaphore Hill. 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 flocks and animals on the forest floor. A bit down the hill we spotted a pair of Bright-rumped Attilas perched uncharacteristically close to eye-level and remaining for long enough for us to study in the scope at length. Although the walk was initially surprisingly quiet our first flock was well worth the wait. In a tall vine tangle near the road we paused to study a small mixed flock with several Dot-winged Antwrens and a pair of Black-crowned Antshrike working in the mid canopy. While studying these two often common antbirds we noticed more motion in the vines, and were soon happily watching a pair of sprightly Long-billed Gnatwren (a tiny bird that seems to be comprised mostly of beak and tail), a female Fasciated Antshrike and a single Rufous-breasted Wren clambering around in the same vines. The activity attracted more than just our group of intrepid birders. As we were studying the flock a small raptor swept over our heads and landed in the center of the vines. Any forest raptor sighting would be exciting, but we quickly realized that the bird was a Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon; a very rarely encountered species in Panama that is heard far more than seen. The bird lingered for some time, switching perches but generally staying in the open before dropping down to the ground and moving steadily away from the road. The last time a WINGS tour had encountered this handsome slate-gray, white and yellow falcon in Panama was over a decade prior! Although it was certainly hard to compete with such marvelous views of a rare raptor we were also thrilled to spot a pair of quietly perched Broad-billed Motmots, some furtive Collared Aracaris and several busy groups of White-shouldered Tanagers often with a few other birds like Tropical Gnatcatcher, Lesser Greenlet or Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher in tow. Near the bottom of the hill we were happy to locate the local pair of Black-and-White Owls that were roosting quite close to the road with their fairly old chick sitting a bit higher up under the canopy. These very attractive large owls sport barred chests, orange feet and bills and a well differentiated black crown, making them look a bit like a Barred Owl that was done up for an especially glamorous night on the town. Seeing owls in the day is vastly better than seeing them in the shine of torchlight, and as this species is scarce and seldom seen in central Panama we felt very fortunate indeed.  The mammals were excellent too with a very tame White-nosed Coati, a few slumbering Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths and countless Central American Agoutis. The mammalian highlight of the walk though was undoubtedly the pair of Night Monkeys that were poking their heads out of a tree cavity for several minutes. Although these squirrel-like monkeys have been reliably using this particular cavity for several years they are not always present. We walked a bit off the road to gain a better view of the tree cavity and were surprised to find that several feet above the Night Monkeys a Rufous Tree-Rat was peering out of the same large cavity. Both species are rarely encountered away from known roost sites and made for quite an unusual pairing. All in all, the walk was a testament to the diversity of life and quality of habitat that surrounds the immediate vicinity of the tower. We returned to the top of the hill by car, arriving just a bit before lunch, which we followed with a short but quite relaxing 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 House Wrens, Red-crowned Woodpeckers, Rusty-margined Flycatcher and Isthmian Wren around the house and a couple of Gray-headed Chachalacas and flocks of Short-tailed Swifts in the surrounding neighborhood.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering along the margins of the Ammo Dump marsh making careful studies of the similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, and enjoying close views of an array of species more often found in open areas. Wattled Jacanas showed extremely well, flashing their bright yellow wings as they danced around the open patches of marsh. Also here we located several motionless Rufescent Tiger Herons including a wonderfully close nest complete with an adult and a fuzzy bright orange chick, and a couple of Purple Gallinule. Perhaps due to the abnormally dry conditions prevalent in the area this year the wetland was hosting a number of generally scare waterbirds including a small group of wild Muscovy Ducks, a few Solitary Sandpipers, a Least Sandpiper and a nice comparison of Green and Striated Heron. The row of trees that ring the pond held Panama Flycatcher, a somewhat menacing Greater Ani, a male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and a female Black-throated Mango. In the span of an hour we covered only about 100m of road, as nearly every bush held something new. A pair of Barred Antshrikes showed well for us as they lurked in the understory, while tiny Common Tody-Flycatchers and migrant Yellow Warblers bounced around above them. Overhead wires hosted perched Grey-breasted Martins, Mangrove Swallows and Barn Swallows, as well as the requisite Tropical Kingbirds and several pairs of Tropical Mockingbirds. Swallows were zipping down to the ponds for a late afternoon drink, which allowed us to discern the differences between Northern and Southern Rough-winged Swallows. The pond was surrounded by dense vegetation, and emanating from the depths of the grasses we heard the unmistakable drawn out rattles of several White-throated Crakes that remained stubbornly out of view. A happy couple celebrating their impending nuptials was using the background of the pond for a series of engagement photos, seemingly oblivious to the wealth of birdlife surrounding them. I wonder if they will notice the bright yellow-orange burst of colour made by the splashy Yellow-tailed Oriole that may well be in the background of many of their photos. We drove back the tower in the early evening, watching several large container ships being guided along the canal, and pairs of chortling Red-lored Parrots passing overhead.

We left the tower the next morning shortly after an early breakfast so we could spend all day exploring the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberania National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and over 400 species of birds. Every trip along Pipeline Road is different, and a visiting naturalist soon gets the feeling that they could spend months here and still be picking up new sightings. We began with a short stop near the beginning of the road, in the more open forest near the canal. Some fruiting Gumbo Limbo trips were attracting a nice mix of birds, and over the course of a half-hour or so we tallied our first Black-chested Jays, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets, Cinnamon Becards and Streaked and Buff-throated Saltators. Heading further into the woods we were soon looking at species more characteristic of the forest interior. Little flocks of understory birds appeared at intervals throughout the day, mainly led by the trio of small antwrens that are locally known as the three amigos. Male black Dot-winged Antwrens, with their flashy chestnut and black females often in tow were the most common species, but we regularly spotted the browner and more hunchbacked Checker-throated Antwrens poking about in their preferred foraging habitat of dead leaf clusters and also several pairs of the short-tailed and paler White-flanked Antwrens with their slow-paced nasal call notes. Often with the antwrens were pairs of Black-crowned Antshrike or perhaps a Plain Xenops or Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. By mid-morning we had reached the gate that blocks vehicular access to the main part of the road (to all but researchers and the canopy tower guides). Near the gate we found a pair of Moustached Antwrens clambering about in a fairly short tree. This 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. We stopped at the gate for a mid-morning snack; a choice which proved to be a most fortuitous one. The trees lining the small creek just past the gate were heaving with birds. Amazingly here we found all five species of trogons that occur in central Panama; an unprecedented feat. Several Slaty-tailed, a pair of Black-throated and a pair of White-tailed and single Gartered and Black-tailed Trogons were each admired in turn. Here too was a handsome family group of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers and a bathing Bay Wren that was quietly hopping along the edge of the water seemingly oblivious to our presence. As if all that colour and motion were not enough we also encountered a Green Ibis along the creek; a truly scarce bird in central Panama. It walked back and forth staying largely out of sight for several minutes but then flew over the small bridge and landed in the middle of the shallow water, likely hunting some of the small tetras that were holed out in the deeper patches of water. Just before heading further back on the road we spotted one more treat along the creek, with a pale Great Potoo perched motionless up high in the canopy, doing an amazingly good impression of a stump. The rest of the day we slowly worked our way back to the base of the hill that marks the continental divide, alternating stretches on foot and by car. As is generally the case once the heat of the day arrives the birding activity slowed down but we would periodically locate new species every few hundred meters of road. Likely the highlight of the afternoon was our incredible encounter with a pair of Streak-chested Antpittas that lingered just a few feet off the road for us to ogle for nearly 10 minutes. Our repeated sightings of Purple-throated Fruitcrows, a female Ruddy Quail-Dove, a perched Crane Hawk, and a jewel-like American Pygmy-Kingfisher perched above a small pool along the road certainly made for quite a great afternoon. It never fails to amaze me just how much diversity occurs along this relatively short road. I suspect that we could spend the entire tour simply driving along Pipeline Road and we would still only be scratching the surface of the available diversity. We arrived back at the tower with enough time that several participants took a short vigil atop the tower, reveling in the sights of hundreds of Swainson’s Hawks, Turkey Vultures and Barn Swallows migrating past in the early evening sun.

We greeted the sunrise the next morning again standing atop the tower and surveying the forest below us. Among the more common species that we found during our pre-breakfast session were a few birds that were new for the trip or that showed particularly well. The perched trio of Brown-hooded Parrots and the (finally) cooperative pair of Lesser Greenlets were particularly appreciated. But our views of bright Keel-billed Toucans, chattering Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, and some very close Scaled Pigeons were certainly noteworthy as well. While eating breakfast a Great Crested Flycatcher appeared just outside our window, proving that while birding at the tower one should never be too far away from a handy pair of binoculars. After breakfast 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 the buildings, with some new fencing and gates, but the trail system in the back of the property looked just as usual. We first stopped at the marina side of the complex, where the very low water levels of the Chagres had created some wide and well vegetated banks. Here were dozens of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, a flock of Glossy Ibis, perching Mangrove Swallows and a smattering of Purple and Common Gallinules. The trees around the carpark held our attention for a while as well, with a nesting Streak-headed Woodcreeper (actually a quite scarce bird in the canal zone), a pair of confiding Common Tody-Flycatchers, and a rather alarmingly large troupe of Black Vultures that seemed to be eyeing us with an appraising air. Around the actual lodge grounds we found our first Flame (Lemon)-rumped Tanagers, White-winged Becard, Streaked Saltator, Forest Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatcher; all feeding in a tall row of fruiting fig trees. A bit further into the wilder part of the grounds we picked out a pair of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers chattering to each other from some low viney perches along the road. We then 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. At a clearing in the woods we tried to tease out a Rosy Thrush-Tanager that was calling from some very dense grasses. Although the bird refused to come out into the open our time waiting was rewarded when an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle lazily circled overhead, low enough to pick out the bright orange cheeks and heavy barring that make this one of the most attractive new world raptors. In another clump of dense grasses we played a bit of White-bellied Antbird tape and were shocked to see two of these quite handsome antbirds slowly working along near the front edge of the thicket and even coming well out into the open several times. Even better we also found a coal-black Jet Antbird at the same spot! This is a scarce species, and one that generally remains under dense cover. With two excellent antbirds achieved so quickly we walked back into the more heavily forested trails where the previous day another birding group had detected an active army ant swarm. It took us a little while to locate an area that showed some promise, but soon we heard the calls of a Spotted Antbird and the flashes of several Plain-brown and Cocoa Woodpeckers well off the trail. Army ants are somewhat fickle in their foraging schedule; often waiting until early afternoon before venturing out to lay waste to the surrounding forest. Antbirds and other animals that use the ants to drive prey to them are thus forced to hang around the site where the ants are bivouacked, waiting for the insects to start moving. That was precisely the situation we found when we arrived. The first species that we obtained good views of was a striking Ocellated Antbird! 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 were able to see the bird through telescopes as it remained still on a small vertical branch just a few feet off the trail. Several well-marked Spotted Antbirds were about too, with one handsome male showing quite well and at very close range. Hearing a bit more activity further back in the woods we found a short cleared trail and walked around to get a closer look. On the back side of the patch of woods we located the third of the understory antswarm antbirds, with several perky Bicolored Antbirds bouncing around nearly at our feet. Here too were some photogenic Greater Ani and Yellow-backed Oriole and a lumbering Coati shuffling around in the leaves. As the morning came to a close we stopped back at the Chagres River, where some scanning with telescopes revealed a couple of Pied-billed Grebes and almost a dozen Anhingas among the more common waterbirds.

After a siesta, we headed back down the road, this time turning left and visiting the nearby Old Gamboa Road at the tiny hamlet of Summit. 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 nearly an hour to traverse the roughly 250 meters to the road down to the ponds. The trees were attracting hordes of tanagers and migrants, including our first Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and many handsome Baltimore Orioles. Lots of flycatchers including Boat-billed, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Piratic and Streaked were eating the fruit as well, and in one of the bushier trees we were surprised to find a large Empidonax flycatcher with a very thin and incomplete eye-ring. Both Willow and Alder migrate through Panama in March, and thankfully for us the bird called a couple of times, confirming the id as an Alder, a write-in species for the tour. It wasn’t all flycatchers though, as several Lance-tailed Manakins called from the undergrowth but remained stubbornly out of sight, both Buff-throated and Streaked Saltators came in to feed above us and a low flying Zone-tailed Hawk buzzed by and then circled above us for quite some time. Eventually though, lured by the welcoming shade we made it to the forested Summit Ponds. Along the way we paused at a small trickle of water along the road, where Flame-rumped, Crimson-backed, Palm and White-shouldered Tanagers were coming in to bathe and a female Garden Emerald was hawking insects over the water. Once at the ponds we found a couple of nesting Boat-billed Herons with a half-grown chick, and several more roosting birds with their oddly shaped bills clearly visible. Here too was our first Amazon Kingfisher of the trip, an excellent side-by-side comparison of Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers, and a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail foraging on the far bank. Lots of Mesoamerican Sliders were out sunning themselves on logs, while Green Herons stalked the shore and we picked out a couple of interesting birds such as another American Pygmy-Kingfisher and a Solitary Sandpiper lurking in the shade.

The road then passes through some viney old 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. Down a short side trail we successfully located a roosting Rufous Nightjar; perfectly camouflaged in the thick leaf litter and sitting just a few feet off the trail. Here too we tracked down some calling Golden-collared Manakins and were thrilled to find two male birds in full display mode, bouncing back and forth between some upright sticks with their lemon-yellow beards at full extension. Many participants also spotted a perched male Blue Cotinga here, feeding in some small fruits directly overhead like a gleaming blue and purple beacon that seemed to outshine the background blue sky. Unfortunately, the bird was behind leaves from some angles and it shot away quicker than we would have liked and then refused to return for more food despite our persistence. At the end of our walk we came out onto one of the back roads used by the Panama Canal Authority. Here the open skies allowed us to appreciate hawk migration in action, with hundreds of Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures streaming west overhead. In all we recorded 90 species of birds on the roughly mile long walk – not bad at all for an afternoon outing!

The next day we left early for a full day trip to the Atlantic slope forests of San Lorenzo National Park and Achiote Road. These lowland forests along central Panama’s Atlantic coast support several species of birds not found around the lodge area. We were delayed a bit as we had to wait to drive over both the new loch door and the old loch doors, and for a huge container ship that was passing through the second set of lochs. The canal-widening project was finished last year and is now in operation and a new bridge over the canal is set to be complete by the end of 2019. Once this bridge is complete, we will no longer have the opportunity to see the inner workings of the loch systems as we drive over the loch doors, so this year’s tour may be the last to enjoy such an intimate view of the workings of the lochs. Once we reached Achiote Road the birds started coming thick and fast. Unbelievably we secured three of the area’s top target birds within the first half-hour! The first species that we looked at was a tiny Pied Puffbird perched atop a bare sapling just outside of our parked van. In a small coffee plantation with huge emergent and bromeliad filled trees providing shade we found a nesting pair of White-headed Wrens busily nest building high in the canopy. This large and attractive wren white and brown wren has a very small worldwide range; from central Panama down the pacific side of Northwest Colombia and for our tower tours to Panama is only ever encountered on this short stretch of Achiote Road. Another specialty of the area appeared shortly thereafter, as a sharp-eyed participant picked out a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets perched in the canopy. We spent the rest of the morning slowly walking down the road, taking in sights such as a nesting Southern Bentbill (whose nest was just inches off the ground), a responsive Black-headed Tody-Tyrant sitting in a small Cercropia, perched Blue-headed Parrots and flyover Crested Oropendolas, Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites, and some quite cooperative Collared Aracaris.

A late-morning snack and coffee break provided and excellent pick-me-up and gave us the energy to continue walking down the short side road that leads to Providencia. A Yellow-bellied Elaenia put in a quick appearance over the snack table, and while finishing off the sandwiches we enjoyed views of a cooperative pair of Yellow-crowned Euphonia, a flyover Fork-tailed Flycatcher and a migrant bunch of Eastern Kingbirds. In the fruiting mangos, open gardens and along the hedgerows that lined the road we found a nice mix of birds during a short walk. Two pairs of quite vocal Grey-capped Flycatchers completed our sweep of the bewildering array of yellow flycatchers with striped crowns. Other interesting sightings that we enjoyed along this side road included a mating pair of Plumbeous Kites on the slope above the road, and a dazzling male Crimson-backed Tanager perched in the perfect light to show off its crushed velvet-like plumage. A brief stop at a small coffee market in the nearby town allowed for a comfort break and also the purchase of kilo bags of local coffee at a mere five dollars a bag. We drove a bit farther west and inland to an isolated valley with pockets of forest on the slopes, here we found the late morning heat was depressing bird activity, but a flyby King Vulture, photogenic Isthmian Wren and some (finally) perched Orange-chinned Parakeets kept us amply entertained. We took our picnic lunch back on Achitote Road, this time at the trailhead to the Trogon trail; a short loop trail in a protected section of San Lorenzo National Park. Since we were parked at the trailhead, we elected to walk the half-kilometer trail after polishing off lunch. The trail proved quite productive, with a perched light-morph Hook-billed Kite, and a small mixed flock which contained cooperative Song Wrens and several Chestnut-backed Antbirds (oddly the only sighting of this normally fairly common understory antbird we had on this year’s tour).

After returning to the van we spent the afternoon driving out to the coast and the historic Spanish fort that sits on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Chagres River. Here we walked out to take in the atmospheric surroundings. From the top of the old ramparts we scoped a couple of foraging Brown Boobys soaring over the choppy but sparkling Caribbean, while overhead we were surprised to spot numbers of migrating Chimney Swifts and several male Purple Martins. As we drove back towards the Gatun lochs we stopped to admire a pair of plump and somewhat supercilious looking Black-breasted Puffbirds that were sitting over the road. We then took the temporary ferry back across the canal, a treat that allowed for truly excellent views of the Caribbean lochs and shipping traffic, ice cream from an enterprising guy that seemed to be just riding the boat back and forth, and a loafing American Crocodile hauled out on a small beach. We arrived back at the tower in good time, which allowed us to enjoy the special end-of-week barbeque on the lower deck and then also go out for a short nighttime drive to see what mammals or birds we could drum up under the clear and inky-black sky. Most nocturnal trips from the tower in March feature mainly mammals, but this year we found a roosting Great Tinamou sitting about 10 feet off the ground, a young Keel-billed Toucan that seemed perhaps too young to be out on its own, and a quietly sitting Common Pauraque along the main road below the tower. Of course, mammals figured prominently as well, with a sedate Central American Woolly Opossum sitting on a swinging vine above the road, and a placid Rothschild’s Porcupine that just sat staring back at us with its short quills and large rubbery nose making it look like a bleary-eyed darts champion from some dark pub in the midlands.

We spent the last morning back up on top of the tower, taking in the views of the canopy at dawn and enjoying a mix of species that by now were more familiar. The only new species for the trip was a pair of migrant American Redstarts that came in with a little mixed flock. The air was clear and cool, and in the distance, we could see the peaks around Altos de Maria; beyond which lay El Valle de Anton and our eventual destination for the day at the Canopy Lodge. Our transfer over to the lodge was scheduled for just after lunch, so for those continuing on to the extension we spent the morning slowly walking along the Plantation trail, which takes off at the bottom of Semaphore Hill. We arrived at the carpark at the same time as a large mixed flock, and it took over an hour to get out of sight of the bus. A large Gumbo Limbo tree was in fruit, and White-tailed and Gartered Trogons, Great Crested and Boat-billed Flycatchers, Fulvous-vented Euphonia and a host of tanagers were enjoying the bounty. A Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth was speedily climbing around in a large bare tree, hugging the branches as it hung underneath them and fairly rapidly (for a sloth) moved out of the morning sun into the shade of some thicker vines. Our time on the trail proved incredibly productive, with a remarkably large number of species that we had not encountered before gracing us with their presence. The most exciting sighting was of a pair of responsive Speckled Mourners, a large and rufous tityra-relative that is extremely scarce in central Panama. A perched Grey-headed Kite high in the canopy provided excellent views as well. It was everyone’s favorite neotropical bird family though that really put on the show during the walk; the tyrant flycatchers. Several canopy flocks passed over the trail through the morning and among the tanagers and warblers we picked out some sitting Forest Elaenias, a pair of Grey Elaenias, a Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (ostensibly the smallest passerine in the world), and even a pair of Yellow-green Tyrannulets. The Tyrannulet is a Panamanian endemic, and a species that we very seldom encounter around the tower. Not all the new flycatchers were high up in the canopy though, as in the understory we located a Yellow-margined Flycatcher, a couple of Olivaceous Flatbills and several pairs of pretty Golden-crowned Spadebills. As we started the walk back towards the bus we tracked down a perched male Blue-crowned Manakin, a strikingly plumaged inky-black bird with an amazingly bright azure crown. A few each of Checker-throated, White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens and a quite cooperative male Fasciated Antshrike and great views of Plain-brown, Cocoa, and Olivaceous Woodcreeper and a Plain Xenops rounded out a really fun morning’s walk. After lunch, we bade farewell to Alexis, our local guide at the tower, and set off across the canal for the roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Canopy Lodge.

EXTENSION: The lodge is nestled in a forested valley just uphill from the picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, which sits in an old caldera on the eastern edge of the Talamanca range that stretches westward into Costa Rica. As it is roughly 2600 feet above sea level the lodge offers a wealth of birds not accessible around the tower. Our time around El Valle 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, and the white noise provided by the rushing stream that passes through the property and the comparatively huge and opulent rooms led to a most comfortable environment.

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 a treasure for the eyes. We arrived in the late afternoon and after checking in to our spacious and very comfortable rooms spent a bit of time watching the feeders, where Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Golden-hooded, Flame-rumped, Red-crowned Ant- and Plain-colored Tanagers, Collared Aracaris and Thick-billed Euphonias competed with Red-tailed Squirrels and even the occasional Rufous Motmot or gang of Gray-headed Chachalacas for the best pieces of banana. A short walk around the grounds of the hotel revealed a nesting pair of Common Tody-Flycatchers, a noisy group of Dusky-faced Tanagers, bathing Bay Wrens and several bold Grey-cowled Wood-Rails that were working the edge of the creek. The rails have become quite tame here, even jumping up onto the fruit tables at times and eating fruit! We walked over to the lodge compost pile that has thoughtfully been tucked into a dark corner of the woods and thus attracts a wide array of wildlife to the fruit and insects. Here we found a pair of handsome Orange-billed Sparrow that were feeding out in the open. Often quite shy, these multicoloured sparrows are a bit habituated to humans here, allowing one to properly study their incredibly bright colour scheme. Down around the natural swimming pool we found a little group of birds along the creek edge that included a cooperative Northern Waterthrush, a furtive Mourning Warbler, and Yellow-olive and Panama Flycatchers. The immediate impression of the lodge area was just how different it looks and feels to the forest and environment around the tower, as one participant put it “it’s like we’ve come to a different country”.

For our first full day of the extension we began with a bit of birding around the lodge, where we located a pair of very cooperative Buff (a colour description that utterly fails to capture the intensity of the colour) rumped Warblers that were bouncing around on the rocks in the creek looking remarkably similar in shape and habit to the old-world Water-Redstarts. We headed uphill, on the freshly paved road that winds up to the little community of La Mesa. An impromptu stop around the main part of town (really just a little shop and a few houses in a small valley) started off our morning with a bang. In the partially cleared slopes and gardens around the store we were treated to several very cooperative Black-striped Sparrows giving their rich bouncing song from short shrubs along the road. A pair of Spot-crowned Barbets appeared in a mostly bare tree, vastly improving our views compared to the ones at Achiote Road a few days before. A pair of White-lined Tanagers showed well here also, with the rich rusty female providing a nice contrast to the jet-black male. We had an opportunity at this first stop to again work on separating the suite of yellow bellied and stripe headed flycatchers, with Great Kiskadee, Social, Rusty-margined and Gray-capped all in view. The regular colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas was in full swing, with dozens of raucous birds perched around their nests. The activity was attracting Shiny and Giant Cowbirds, which both posed nicely for a comparison view. It was also attracting the attentions of one of Panamas least encountered raptors. While watching the Oropendolas we were startled when the tree emptied en masse, with birds flying out in all directions as a mid-sized hawk rocketed past the tree. Luckily for us the bird perched in a nearby tree, and we were able to study the coal-black back, yellow-orange eye, and grayish-white underparts that marked the bird as a Bicoloured Hawk at length in the scope. The bird lingered for a couple of minutes and then took off at a truly impressive pace chasing a Social Flycatcher across the clearing. After some celebrating we headed a bit further up the road, stopping at a seemingly random bend in the road where we were almost instantly successful in finding our hoped for Black-headed Saltators, with a bonus Northern Emerald Toucanet, an incredibly confiding Chestnut-capped Brushfinch and some frustratingly elusive but marvelously vocal Scaly-breasted Wrens for good measure.

Further up the road we found the forests to be laden with epiphytes, and as we reached 3000 feet above sea level the air was relatively cool. For most of the morning we slowly walked along the road that leads to the town of Las Minas. Although partly lined with chicken farms and pastures there are significant patches of cloud forest along the road as well. Mixed flocks were common here, and each flock contained several species new for our trip. At one point early on in our walk we found a pair of Tawny-capped Euphonia nest building right on the side of the road. Stopping to watch them expertly weaving their tightly balled nest we noticed a group of birds moving in the background. Most were Tawny-crested Tanagers, but with some patience we picked out a pair of Silver-throated Tanagers, an Olive-striped Flycatcher, a pair of Russet Antshrikes and several Plain Antvireos and Spotted Woodcreepers. Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants called from the thickets, and at some flowering banana trees we enjoyed our first views of the tiny Stripe-throated Hermit as it sped around us busily foraging. The skies overhead were partly cloudy, with the higher elevation winds really pushing the clouds along at an impressive pace. A lone Barred Hawk soared over us at one point, providing our second write-in raptor species of the day, and several White-collared Swifts zipped over at an astonishing pace (indeed too fast for all of us to even raise our binoculars!). We walked out as far as the first open pastures, where with a bit of judicious scanning we were successful at locating a singing Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch (ostensibly a species of aberrant tanager) and then retraced our steps back to the bus. We then spent a bit of time at a nearby bank of flowering Heliconias where we hoped to encounter a White-tipped Sicklebill visiting the flowers. Despite waiting for almost 45 minutes we had to content ourselves with the flock of Blue-and-White Swallows wheeling overhead as no hummingbirds of any kind deigned to visit during our vigil. We returned to the lodge for lunch and a bit of a siesta and then set out in the afternoon to explore a few places below the lodge around the margins of the town of El Valle. At the steep side road towards Las Mosas we spent quite some time trying to get solid views of Rosy Thrush-Tanager and Tody Motmot, two difficult marquee species for the area. We heard one Motmot which remained deep in its viney haunts, and most saw a female Rosy Thrush-Tanager and glimpsed a male in flight. We had much more success with a big mixed flock which contained our first Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, a Swainson’s Thrush, a Long-billed Starthroat and a stunning male Scarlet Tanager though. The larger Motmots were also much more cooperative here, with several Rufous and a quite responsive Lesson’s (a recent split from the widespread Blue-crowned Motmot) both sitting nicely for us. We then moved over to another side road on the south side of town, where some recent heavy clearing had taken out a lot of the understory along the roadsides. At one of the houses we walked into the backyard and were very happy to find the male of the resident pair of Spectacled Owls still present despite the surrounding clearing. Up until recently the female had also been roosting with the male, and the landowners are hopeful that she is now back in their customary palm tree nesting. Hopefully the birds will hang on here, as for the last 6 years or so this particular pair has thrilled a huge number of visiting birders and it would be a shame to lose them just for the sake of a couple more mansions. Further up the road we again heard but could not locate a calling Tody Motmot. We decided that we were merely building up a karmic surplus for our following afternoon and headed back towards the lodge with a quick stop at yet another side road on the outskirts of town where we found a couple of male Lance-tailed Manakins zipping around in the canopy, a fitting end to a whirlwind day of birding!

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. In talking with Raul, the owner of the Canopy Family lodges, we discovered that the dry season of 2018/19 was in fact the driest season recorded in the country since rainfall totals began to be measured in 1904! We parked near the trailhead, and the first bird song we heard after exiting the bus was an Orange-bellied Trogon. It didn’t take long to track the bird down. It’s a handsome trogon with a strikingly barred tail and bright red-orange underparts and one with a limited world range centered on the Talamanca highlands which straddle the border between Costa Rica and Panama. We walked along the main road a bit, stopping to admire a female Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and an approachable Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant which actually posed well for a short photographic session before shooting back into the depths of the undergrowth. We passed through the new entrance gate to the park and were almost instantly set upon by a mixed flock led by a noisy and active Tawny-crested Tanagers. It’s a common bird at elevation around the lodge, but an attractive one, with the black males sporting a punk-rock orange crest. A little further up the trail we found an understory flock, with our first Slaty Antwrens, White-ruffed Manakin, Olive-striped Flycatcher and a handsome male Blackburnian Warbler. Nearby a group of Black-faced Grosbeaks (generally a scarce and seldom encountered species in El Valle) were noisily feeding high above the trail, eventually showing well as they clambered around in the dense foliage.

After spending a bit of time at the base of the steep steps that wind well up the mountain, hoping for some hummingbird activity in the many flowering shrubs and admiring the courtship flights of several pairs of Swallow-tailed Kites we headed back down to the bus and moved a kilometer or so down the road to an unmarked trailhead. Again, we were diverted from the trail entrance by a mixed flock out on the main road. This group held several Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, Spotted Woodcreeper, a bright male Golden-winged Warbler and a pair of Lesser Greenlets. Once on the actual trail system we entered 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 and dotted with tree ferns and thickets of flowering heliconias. Although the trail is less than a kilometer long it took us nearly two hours to cover, as we encountered several large mixed flocks and a wealth of excellent birds. A pair of chacking Chestnut-backed Antbirds played hide and seek with us for a bit before finally revealing their unique two-toned plumage and blue eye masks. They were with a small flock of Plain Antvireos, a calling Sepia-capped Flycatcher, and likely the most interesting bird of the morning; an extremely cooperative Brown-billed Scythebill that stayed in sight for nearly ten minutes as it foraged in some trailside trees. This highly unusual woodcreeper possesses an amazingly long, thin and curved bill which it uses to deeply probe into the bromeliad clusters in the canopy. They are never common, and usually if we are lucky enough to encounter them at all it takes some work and patience at a higher elevation. To see them so well, and so easily this year was quite a coupe. Another flock a bit further down the trail gave us a distant Scaly-throated Leaftosser, acting out its name as it flicked a seemingly inexhaustible supply of leaves from one side of a stump to another like an avian Sisyphus. Here too was a small woodcreeper that gave us a bit of a run around before we could confirm it to be a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, our eighth species of woodcreeper for the tour! Another nice group of birds was back near the trailhead on our return, with excellent comparison views of White-flanked, Slaty, and Checker-throated Antwren, some very close Tawny-crested Tanagers and a couple of Canada Warblers.

In the afternoon, we decided to go a little further afield than usual, leaving the caldera valley for a paved side road a few miles down towards the Pacific Slope that leads to the town of Valle Chiquito. We stopped to walk a section of the road with a mix of brushy clearings and forest blocks. It didn’t take long at all for us to hear the hollow ringing tones of a Tody Motmot emanating from a particularly dense patch of underbrush. We navigated down a conveniently placed side trail and found a likely spot to try to pull the bird in for a view. Tody Motmots are not common anywhere in their largely Central American range, with perhaps the forests around El Valle providing one of their most reliable haunts. We were able to follow the Motmot at length as it repeatedly changed perches, occasionally sitting out in bright enough lighting for us to clearly see its electric blue eyestripes. Already elated by our success (as the species figures prominently on the T-shirts for the Lodge Staff) we were doubly excited when from the same thicket we heard a calling Rosy Thrush-Tanager. This time though we had to content ourselves with extensive audio and about a half-dozen flight views of the male as it zipped back and forth over the road in a streak of black and pink, always immediately burying itself back into dense cover. A little down the road we spent a busy forty minutes slowly birding a short stretch of well forested valley, with grassy scrub lining the road. Here we tracked down a responsive Dusky Antbird, oddly a species which we missed around the tower this year, two stunning Yellow-backed Orioles that were gathering nesting material, and a beautiful male Lance-tailed Manakin that actually sat out in the open for us. Several Isthmian and Rufous-breasted Wrens lurked in the undergrowth, even popping out for a brief photographic session, and a wealth of flycatchers including an Ochre-bellied and yet another Yellow-olive showed well here too. After our somewhat frustrating experience the previous afternoon with the Manakin and Motmot we were in high spirits after this birding session. We stopped once on the way back to El Valle, at a weedy patch along the main highway where we located a responsive Yellow Tyrannulet and a foraging Lesser Elaenia in the shrubs and noted an odd sight in the form of a Yellow-headed Caracara eating something from a bird table on a nearby balcony just a few feet away from a large bird cage containing some somewhat terrified looking Orange-chinned Parakeets. We returned to the lodge early enough that a couple of participants had time to wander around the grounds, finding Rufous-and-White Wren and Violet-headed Hummingbird in the process!

Our last full day around the lodge was spent up in 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. Much like the rest of Panama though there were significant signs of the extreme drought conditions. 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. Our first stop proved perhaps the most productive of the entire day, as at a bend close to the gatehouse of the development we found a row of fruiting melastomes that were attracting a wonderful array of frugivores. The bulk of the birds were Silver-throated and Tawny-crested Tanagers, but amongst them we picked out quite a few Tawny-capped Euphonia, and two stunning highland tanagers. A pair of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers more than lived up to their name, with the intensely yellow male showing very well and posing for a lengthy photoshoot. Also here was a pair of Emerald Tanagers, a study in luminous green and black. Some vociferous and eventually cooperative Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens livened up the understory, and several busy groups of Common Chlorospingus passed by through the treetops as well. We spent the rest of the morning slowly walking along the paved roads 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. We found Pale-vented Thrushes to be extremely common this trip, with over a dozen birds during the morning. Pairs of perky Tufted Flycatchers sallied out from bare twigs, re-alighting with quivering tails. A tiny orange-ish Ochraceous Wren was foraging up in the canopy of an epiphyte-laden tree, looking for all the world like an out of place Winter Wren dressed up for carnival. Just before lunch we walked down the (paved!) continental divide nature trail that winds along a small, forested creek with a protected swath of forest on both sides. Our main quarry for the trail showed well, with a very responsive of the normally furtive Dull-mantled Antbirds foraging out in the open along the trail in perfect light. These poorly named antbirds are actually quite bright, with a ruby red eye and bright silver-white flashes on its back. We also found two different Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, a Louisiana Waterthrush, some lekking Green Hermits and a small mixed antwren flock that also held a couple of Spotted Barbtails. We also were happy to find a nesting pair of Red-faced Spinetail that were busily bringing beakfuls of moss to their quite large mossy nest that was hanging high above the creek. After lunch the fog began to roll in and out over the mountain tops, making birding sometimes difficult. Nevertheless, we found a few new species for the trip including a perched Green-crowned Brilliant, several male White-vented Euphonia, a couple of female-plumaged White-ruffed Manakins, a bright Black-throated Green Warbler and two pairs of Rufous-browed Tyrannulet (an uncommon canopy flycatcher largely restricted to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama). As we began to descend back towards El Valle we made a couple of quick stops along the Mata Ahogado Valley, where we successfully found a male Garden Emerald (a welcome sight after a few quick views of females) and a nice mix of more open country birds. We pulled back into the carpark at the lodge with enough time to wander around a bit, finding a nesting Rufous-and-White Wren and our only Violet-headed Hummingbird of the trip.

The next morning, we set out for the dry savannah-like lowlands along the pacific coast, where the 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 22 species to our trip list in a very enjoyable half-day’s birding. Our departure from the lodge was delayed a bit by a flat tire repair, but soon enough we arrived in the flat coastal plain south of the small town of Anton. Open fields held Eastern and Red-breasted Meadowlarks, Fork-tailed Flycatchers with their filamentous tail streamers, hunting White-tailed Kites, and seemingly omnipresent groups of Black and Turkey Vultures. These dry pacific forests have been largely cleared to make way for cattle ranches, so most of the birding here is confined to dirt roads, hedgerows and coastal mangrove forests. We found flycatchers to be particularly well represented, with Panama, Streaked, Boat-billed and Social Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees dotting the roadside. Most of the area proved to be remarkably dry, and the birds were concentrating wherever some surface water or fruiting trees persisted. At one of our first stops we were amazed to find dozens of Yellow-crowned Parrots perched on roadside trees and flying around uttering their oddly low-pitched croaks and whistles. Another new parrot appeared a bit later, when, as we neared the mangrove covered coast two Brown-throated Parakeets appeared on the top of a scrubby tree. At denser patches of trees we found several more rare species, such as Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet and Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and in every small body of water lurked Wattled Jacanas, Southern Lapwing and an array of herons including our only Black-crowned Night-Herons of the trip. We reached the very end of the road in the mid-morning, stopping to look at some very responsive “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers in the tall stand of mangroves along the shore. Here too we enjoyed a remarkable show of raptors, with Short-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks, Great and Common Black-Hawks and an Osprey all flying over the dry shrimp ponds. As we drove back towards the main road we were surprised to flush a few White-winged Doves, a species that until recently was limited to the eastern side of the Azuero Peninsula in Panama but that seems to be spreading across the Pacific lowlands. Nearby we stopped to look at a dainty Pearl Kite sitting along the road edge being harassed by a pair of Fork-tailed Flycatchers that seemed to be at least the same size as the hawk. Pearl Kites too are spreading into Panama (from South America) following the clearing of the pacific lowlands for cattle pastures. They’re pleasing little birds, with a palette of white, yellow, black and rust and bear a striking resemblance to the falconets of Asia.

In the late morning, we moved over to another coastal road, where again slowly drove past several miles of dusty pastures, until reaching a tiny remnant wetland where we looked at Groove and Smooth-billed Anis, a small group of Blue-winged Teal and a pair of vocal and responsive Pale-breasted Spinetails. As we neared the coast we drove through a stretch of dry rice fields, although a few small pools were still scattered about, with Glossy and White Ibis, various herons, Solitary Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs and strutting Wattled Jacana. Over the fields we observed several Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures flying low or sitting on the ground. 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. Once at the coast we spent a bit of time watching the hordes of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans that were plying the beach. We then turned our attentions to the few scattered flowering trees near the shoreline. With the drought and the seemingly early start to the rainy season impending many of the plants that we normally would find in flower in March were not blooming this year. Luckily for us though one large tree was in full and glorious yellow blossom. A short stake-out at the tree soon revealed a half-dozen Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds as well as a young male Veraguan Mango. This large hummingbird is a Panama endemic (though a few birds have recently been identified in Costa Rica close to the border), and was for many the bird of the day. On the way back to the Pan-American highway we closed our trip list with the addition of a Northern Scrub Flycatcher and a Roadside Hawk near the coast and three tiny Plain-breasted Ground-Doves picking rice off the road margins. At a private beach house owned by the canopy family we feasted on a cooked lunch on the patio, with the rolling surf and hundreds of wheeling Magnificent Frigatebirds providing an excellent accompaniment. After lunch, we bade farewell to a couple of participants who were continuing on at the lodge for one more day, and made our way back to our hotel in Panama City for a final dinner on the banks of the canal. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Alexis Sanchez and Tino Sanchez for making this such a rewarding tour to lead. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.

-          Gavin Bieber

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