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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Fall at the Canopy Tower

2023 Narrative

For 2023 we again offered a slightly shortened Canopy Tower week to lead in to the Western and Eastern Panama Tours. Some recent (peaceful) and ongoing nationwide protests were periodically closing roads around Panama City and Colon, and as a result we had to modify the trip itinerary a bit. We were eminently successful with this though and managed to reach all but one of our normal birding sites with no logistical issues. The weather was generally excellent, with pleasant (if humid) temperatures and little (with the exception of one impressively heavy downpour during our morning up on Cerro Azul) rain. Over the course of our five days in the field we encountered over 260 species of birds and 15 species of mammals. The highlights were many, but mention must be given to the crippling close views of multiple male Blue Cotingas around the top of the tower, outstanding views of male Red-capped, Golden-collared, Lance-tailed and Blue-crowned Manakins, several antswarms along Pipeline and Plantation Roads which gave us sightings of an array of antbirds and woodcreepers including the dazzling Ocellated Antbird and locally rare Ruddy Woodcreeper, a fiesta of colorful tanagers including Bay-headed, Emerald, Speckled, Golden-hooded, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped. Our visit to the feeder array up on Cerro Azul will likely live on in the participants memories for quite some time, with 8 species of hummingbirds including the near-endemic Violet-capped and dozens of honeycreepers wheeling around the yard like an avian kaleidoscope. The short visit to the coast was equally memorable, as we arrived on nearly a high tide, with literally thousands of migrant and wintering waders and waterbirds milling over the remaining mudflats at close range. We substituted our day on the Caribbean side with a visit to the Metropolitan Park near Panama City, where we added Greenish Elaenia and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager to the cumulative trip list and found our first Black-throated Mango, visible Long-billed Gnatwren and several skulking but stunning Rosy Thrush-Tanagers lurking in the forest undergrowth. We also managed to turn up a few local rarities, such as the aforementioned Ruddy Woodcreeper, a cooperative and very vocal Speckled Mourner along Pipeline Road and a fast-moving Slaty-backed Forest Falcon on the Plantation trail. Mammal highlights must include our views of multiple day active Northern Tamanduas, a mother and baby Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and daily visits from Geoffrey’s Tamarins Kinkajou and Western Lowland Olingo to the banana feeder just outside of the towers dining floor windows. This tour continues to impress me, as the diversity and richness of the region, paired with ease of access and the comforts of the lodge make for a truly wonderful quick getaway.


The majority of this year’s participants arrived a day or two early, taking in various tours of the canal and city before transferring to the tower on the late morning of the first day. This allowed a few of the keener folks to independently bird the grounds of our Panama City hotel in the morning, an area which proved an excellent introduction to some of the more common lowland birds of the region. Our transfer skirted the edge of the Panama Canal, passing the main shipping port and lochs on the Pacific side and many neighborhoods that still bore the unmistakable marks of American military architecture. We arrived at the tower just a bit before lunchtime, and as the tour didn’t officially commence until that evening and some participants were not yet with us, we didn’t plan much in the way of guided birding. We did spend a bit of time before lunch looking at the mass of hummingbirds swarming the feeders around the carpark though, with an impressive eight species on offer. Somewhat atypically the most numerous species was the dazzling Violet-bellied Hummingbird, although there were good numbers of Snowy-bellied and Blue-chested, a few White-necked Jacobin, a very territorial White-vented Plumeleteer and a pair of somewhat unexpected Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds. We particularly enjoyed repeated views of Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits coming into the feeders and often perching in the nearby scrub. A fruiting fig just behind the feeders was attracting a nice mix of birds as well, from brightly colored species like Green Honeycreeper, Fulvous-vented Euphonia and Velvety and Red-capped Manakin, to more sedate one such as Bay-breasted Warbler, Palm Tanager and a very cooperative female Blue Cotinga. Our introductory meeting and dinner were interrupted by the repeated arrivals of interesting mammals to the proffered banana bunches out the dining room windows. First a pair of Western Lowland Olingos put in an appearance, followed shortly thereafter by a larger and more muscular looking Kinkajou. Both species are long-tailed tree-dwelling mammals that resemble a cross between a cat and a mustelid, but are in fact closely related to Raccoons. It was useful to have the two similar species in close succession as the differences in their pelage colour, overall build and tail (prehensile in Kinkajou, and thicker and non-prehensile in Olingo) was more evident. After watching the Kinkajou rip into the bananas for a few minutes our rumbling stomachs reminded us of our meals sitting unattended nearby (lightly curried chicken and a freshly baked loaf of bread carefully shaped into a remarkably good rendition of a stuffed turkey. Welcome to Panama indeed!

We awoke on our first morning at the tower to a wonderful view of the surrounding forest, the Panama Canal (complete with tall container ships seemingly drifting through the trees), and even the distant hazy Pacific Ocean. With the rains the prior day the air was remarkably clear, giving us excellent views of the mountains to the west and making scanning the treetops an easy task. One of the first birds we spotted was a handsome Gray-headed Kite sitting up in a tall bare tree on a distant ridgeline; an auspicious start to what turned out to be an excellent hour of pre-breakfast birding. The fruiting fig that we had located on the first afternoon provided an excellent backdrop for a steady parade of visitors throughout our vigil. In addition to the birds that we had seen the day before we were thrilled to have excellent views of a glowing male Blue Cotinga, (the intensity of blue on this species is hard to describe, as the lustrous color seems to emanate from deep within them like a tiny burning blue sun), Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, a female Shining Honeycreeper and a few Scarlet-rumped Caciques. The tower top is right above the majority of nearby trees, offering an excellent vantage point to pick out birds typical of the canopy. We slowly walked around the tower, finding gaudy tropical species like Masked Tityra, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and Brown-hooded Parrots as well as a few small mixed-species flocks that included tiny birds like White-lored Gnatcatcher, Brown-capped and Mistletoe Tyrannulets and migrant birds including Eastern Wood-Pewee, Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Red-eyed Vireo. As is typical for the early morning vigils here we also enjoyed scope views of teed up Mealy and Red-lored Parrots, Pale-vented and Scaled Pigeons, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and a few gaudy Keel-billed Toucans, a bird that was surely designed by a committee of 5 year-olds with access to a full pack of Crayola markers. Eventually the rumble in our stomachs and the smell of bacon overpowered our birding initiatives and we headed downstairs for breakfast, with a short detour to admire a little group of Geoffrey’s Tamarins that were sitting in a bare Cercropia tree just outside of the dining room windows, adding a little mammalian pizzaz to what had already been a heady morning of birds.

After breakfast, we spent rest of the morning slowly walking down the nearly road that winds down Semaphore Hill. The road passes through tall forest with light understory, providing an excellent opportunity to look for understory flocks and birds that use the forest floor. Our morning walk provided a great introduction to our first species of antbirds, surely one of the signature groups of birds in the neotropics. Our first was a cooperative pair of Dusky Antbirds that were bouncing around in the understory below the road. We soon added our first slightly hunchbacked Checker-throated Antwrens (now rather confusingly known as a Checker-throated Stipplethroat), a species that specializes in foraging in clusters of dead leaves. A pair of substantially larger Black-crowned Antshrikes were here too, providing an excellent illustration of the striking sexual dichromatism so often exhibited in the family. Near the bottom of the hill we encountered a small but active group of striking and spritely Dot-winged Antwrens bouncing around in the canopy above the road. As is often the case birding in closed canopy forests in the neotropics, flycatchers provide a large segment of the avifauna, and for us this walk proved productive for these often-tricky species as well. Perhaps the best sighting was of an uncharacteristically cooperative Southern Bentbill that showed well for us soon after we started down the road but over the course of the morning we admired a very cooperative pair of Western Olivaceous Flatbill, some perched up and talkative Boat-billed Flycatchers and wintering Acadian Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee. The understory is fairly open in patches, which allows for ready scanning of vine perches and midstory species. As we walked, we picked out a few such species, enjoying excellent views of Black-breasted and White-whiskered Puffbird, Gartered and Slaty-tailed Trogon, a few Cocoa Woodcreepers and a pair of beautiful Cinnamon Woodpeckers. The more open nature of the forest also aided our quest for birds active around the forest floor, and we were particularly pleased with our lengthy view of a perched and preening Scaly-throated Leaftosser, a close and well-named male Red-capped Manakin, Rufous-breasted Wrens and a pair of White-breasted Wood-Wrens that were lurking around a large tangle of downed branches. Canopy flocks were sparse, but during the morning we encountered a few, tallying our first White-shouldered Tanagers, active Lesser Greenlets, and Plain Xenops along with a selection of more numerous species that we had first found up atop the tower that morning. A few raptors soared over us during the walk as well, with quick views of passing Gray-headed Kite and a locally scarce Sharp-shinned Hawk being the standouts. Along the rocky creek near the bottom of the hill we stopped to look at a nice selection of native fish and damselflies, with a large Blue-winged Helicopter Damsel eliciting perhaps the greatest response from the group as it slowly flew overhead. Here too were our first Blue Morphos flashing electric blue beacons against the dense green forest background and a singing Yellow-backed Oriole that thankfully sat out in the open over the creek bed for us to ogle appropriately. Mammals too were in evidence, with a large troupe of White-nosed Coati (including several undeniably cute youngsters), a few Central American Agouti and a single Northern Tamandua. The Tamandua, or tree anteater, was particularly well received, as it is a large buff and black animal with an endearingly long snout and amazingly dexterous front paws. We were able to watch it at length as it tucked into a rotting trunk, ripping into the soft bark to access its preferred prey; termites and termite eggs.

After lunch we found that a short siesta in the early afternoon suited us perfectly and as the afternoon began to cool off, we headed downhill and across the Chagres River to visit the Gamboa area and the famous (in Panama birding circles at least) Ammo Dump Ponds. We didn’t get particularly far down the hill before some motion in the understory made us stop. Just after we turned the engine off a large raptor jumped off a nearby perch and quickly vanished. Cobbling together our collective quick views we decided it could only have been a Collared Forest-Falcon, but as the views were so brief we elected to leave it off the official list. It soon became apparent that the raptor had been hunting over a large army ant swarm that was just downslope from the road. The ants were attracting a host of smaller birds that were hunting over the swarm in search of hapless insects fleeing from certain death at the hands of the army ants. The most common species were Gray-headed Tanager, a flashy and large tanager clad in sunny yellow and silvery gray and Plain-brown Woodcreeper, but we enjoyed excellent views of pairs of Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds as well. All of these species seemed remarkably calm in our presence, sitting out in the open just a few feet away from our vantage point, providing a wonderful introduction to the joys of neotropical antswarm birding. Once down on the main road to Gamboa we made a somewhat impromptu stop along the main road just before the Chagres bridge, at a location that Jorge had recently found a Streak-headed Woodcreeper. It proved an excellent stop, with a host of new species in addition to the woodcreeper. Along the edge of the clearing, we found a pair of Fasciated Antshrikes lurking in some high vine tangles. Nearby a pair of Black-bellied Wrens were clambering around in another tangle, showing off their bright white bibs to great effect in the shadowy bowers that they were lurking in. A little mixed flock contained our first Yellow and Magnolia Warblers, as well as a busy group of Crimson-backed Tanagers. Eventually the pace of discovery slowed and we loaded back up and continued on to our main location for the afternoon just past the small town of Gamboa. Here we spent a relaxed hour and a bit slowly birding around the margins of the marsh. It’s a bird-rich area, particularly for that suite of yellow-bellied and black-and-white headed flycatchers. We were able to make careful and instructive studies of the similar Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers and Lesser Kiskadees as they perched in low vegetation, often in close proximity. The open patches of water hosted a dozen or more Wattled Jacanas, here of the range-restricted black-backed subspecies, as well as a half-dozen Rufescent Tiger-Herons and our first Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Purple Gallinule and Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. Brush emergent patches of shrubs and reeds out in the marsh held Greater and Smooth-billed Anis, a passing Ringed Kingfisher and several remarkably visible White-throated Crakes; one of which was actually up in the reeds and at least temporarily completely out in the open! In some taller trees along the road, we picked out a pair of quietly preening Yellow-tailed Orioles that posed well for pictures, seemingly nonplussed by our obvious excitement at their presence. A bit more sedately hued Yellow-olive Flatbill popped into view briefly in the canopy nearby, and a bit further out we added to our burgeoning list of migrants and wintering birds with a few Baltimore Orioles and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Low grassy patches held our first Northern Waterthrush, Variable Seedeaters and Blue-black Grassquits, as well as a group of three long-legged Southern Lapwing and a perched and occasionally singing Tropical Mockingbird. With the more open character of the habitat, we found a few more aerially oriented species including Southern Rough-winged and Mangrove Swallows, Gray-breasted Martins and little groups of passing Red-lored Parrots and circling Black Vultures. The marshes lie right along the canal, and as is often the case, we found a couple of more coastal species like Magnificent Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and Brown Pelican using the canal as a corridor to cross the peninsula. In the early evening we headed back to the tower, where over our bird log we were thrilled to discover that we had found more than 120 species over the course of the day!     

We left the tower the next morning shortly after breakfast so we could spend the day exploring the world-famous Pipeline Road. Our progress was cut a bit short though just halfway down the hill, when we stopped to check a site that is often a reliable roost location for a pair of Black-and-White Owls. The previous day the birds were not present, but our luck was with us this time, with one bird sitting up in a high vine tangle just a few meters off the road edge. 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 and seldom seen in central Panama we felt very fortunate indeed. We also made an impromptu stop in the town of Gamboa, where a huge fruiting fig was literally heaving with birds. Along with a gaudy parade of tanagers, honeycreepers and warblers we enjoyed good views of our first Gray-headed Chachalacas, Thick-billed Euphonias, Plain-colored and Golden-hooded Tanagers and a pair of very handsome and photogenic Keel-billed Toucans. Eventually though we reached the Pipeline Road, where we were greeted at the entrance by a pair of garrulous Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, a small group of Mantled Howler Monkeys and some annoyingly furtive Black-chested Jays.

The Pipeline Road is a cross-country dirt road which passes through an extensive swath of Soberania National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and over 400 species of birds. The park abuts a large swath of protected forest around the Chagres River and is generally contiguous with the coastal forests that are controlled by various indigenous well east of the canal zone; making for perhaps the largest block of mostly untrammeled tropical forest in the lowlands of North America. Each trip along Pipeline Road is different, and a visiting naturalist soon gets the feeling that they could spend months here and still be picking up new sightings. During the pandemic years the road had been allowed to deteriorate somewhat, with one of the bridges (about 5KM in) virtually collapsing. During the summer of 2022 the canal authority decided to repair the damage, but in doing so they had to open up the road edges, creating a wider gap on the forest floor and disrupting the forest that had been growing right up to the road edges. This clearing definitely did improve the road from a driver’s perspective, with far fewer pot holes and muddy patches and a firmer road base. In the intervening year a lot of the road edge vegetation has managed to grow back, and understory birds again seem to be largely comfortable near the road. The first two kilometers or so is accessible to the public by vehicle, and we covered this section relatively quickly, not really finding much bird activity to speak of until we reached the small carpark near the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Here a large canopy flock was milling around the clearing, with the standout species was almost certainly the diminutive and remarkably colourful Moustached Antwren that rather uncharacteristically came down from its normal treetop haunts to show off for us a bit. Here too though were our first Black-tailed Trogon, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Forest Elaenia and strikingly beautiful Black-striped Woodcreeper.

A little further down the road we bumped into our first understory flock, with all three of the local understory antwrens (Checker-throated, White-flanked and Dot-winged) as well as a pair or two of Black-crowned Antshrikes and both Spotted and Bicolored Antbirds! We found a few similar flocks throughout the day on Pipeline, with each one bringing a couple of new species along with this core composition. By this time the overcast conditions had given way to mostly sunny ones, and we took a short break for a mid-morning snack, happily accompanied by some very vocal Purple-throated Fruitcrows, both Scarlet-rumped and Yellow-rumped Caciques and a Yellow-backed Oriole that was rollicking along in full song. We then continued on, eventually reaching a bit past the La Ceda Bridge, alternating between walking stretches that seemed to have some bird activity and slowly driving other sections using our custom-built truck with outdoor bench seating. Flycatchers were particularly diverse, and through the day we tallied a bewildering array of them; virtually all sporting hyphenated names such as Ruddy-tailed, Yellow-winged, Ochre-bellied, Olivaceous, and Brown-capped. The day wasn’t all about flycatchers though, and before reaching our normal lunch spot we had ogled both Rufous and Broad-billed Motmot, Velvety and Red-capped Manakins, a handsome Rufous Mourner, quietly perched Song Wrens and some extremely close Collared Aracaris. Just as we polished off the last of the lunch we heard the telltale descending wicker of an Ocellated Antbird coming from just inside the forest edge, we positioned ourselves at the corner of the clearing and shockingly were soon treated to amazingly close range views of no fewer than four of these spectacular birds as they slowly moved to the road edge and eventually crossed the road and quickly disappeared upslope. 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. Their population has been dropping in the central Panama region, and we unfortunately encounter them on fewer than half the trips to the area now, so to see what appeared to be a family group was particularly exciting.

After lunch we drove a bit further back into the forest, into the section that rolls gently up towards the continental divide. It was quite apparent that few (if any) Smithsonian vehicles had been back this far in quite some time. The road here was spared the recent improvements and was much muddier and narrower than the first 5 kilometers. We walked a stretch past the La Ceda bridge, where we encountered a cooperative Speckled Mourner (a quite scarce species throughout its limited Central American and Colombian range), a wonderfully approachable pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds and a large mixed species flock that included two pairs of Spot-crowned Antvireos and both Pied and White-whiskered Puffbirds. As it was now mid-afternoon we turned around and started the slow drive back towards Gamboa, with stops along the way to admire some active Capuchin Monkeys, a trio of perched White-necked Puffbirds (amazingly our 4th species of puffbird for the day), some Slaty-tailed Trogons and a mixed flock that contained Northern Barred Woodcreeper and an impressive suite of woodpeckers including a huge Crimson-crested, a pair of Cinnamon and several Black-cheeked.

We spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the open area around the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Marina, which lies on the banks of the Chagres River. Around the boat dock we were thrilled to spot a huge American Crocodile sunning itself on a nearby bank, as well as some perched Mangrove Swallows, a foraging Little Blue Heron and our first Osprey, Snail Kite and Western Cattle Egrets. We walked along the edge of the small canal, finding the adjacent forest to be excellent birding. A lot of the birds were migrants from further north, but among those species that we had already seen during the day we added a locally uncommon Indigo Bunting, and a couple of Prothonotary Warblers. Resident birds were on offer too, and picking through the trees we located Golden-fronted and Lesser Greenlet, a pretty Cinnamon Becard, our first Panama Flycatcher and Orange-chinned Parakeets and even a somewhat distant pair of actually visible Green Shrike-Vireos. At one point a Laughing Falcon soared overhead, landing on a distant (and sadly invisible to us) perch and then giving its namesake chortling cries (kind of the falcon way of saying neener-neener you can’t see me I suppose). The marsh edge of the canal was hosting some hulking Greater Anis, as well as quite approachable Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers and Wattled Jacanas. One large tree along the walk was particularly productive for a few more flycatchers, although I suspect that most participants were happy that there would be no exit test in the separation of Yellow-olive Flatbill from Southern Beardless or Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets or Forest Elaenias. The area was amazingly productive for a short late-afternoon visit, and in less than an hour we amassed a location list of 50 species! Some rumblings of possible impending traffic blockades due to the ongoing large-scale protests against a newly approved mine made us rethink our schedule for the following day, and since we would be departing quite early the following morning for our all-day trip up to the mountains of Cerro Azul we elected to head back to the tower a bit earlier than originally planned so as to have time for showers and the daily log before dinner.

The next day we deviated a bit from our normal order by leaving the tower early for an all-day excursion, heading south and then a bit east, to the delightfully cool mid-elevation sites of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, not too far from the international airport. It’s a bit of a drive around Panama City and then up to the nearly 3000ft heights of the ridgeline, but the change in habitat and wealth of birds definitely makes it worthwhile, and given the announced impending road blockages due to the ongoing anti-mining protests we wanted to make sure that we could get to the mountains before travel became restricted around the city. Once we reached the controlled access housing development that covers much of the higher reaches of the mountain, we immediately headed over to a house owned by a pair of ex-pat Americans who have a long relationship with the Canopy Tower staff. Despite our last-minute change of dates they were happy to accommodate us on their back porch, providing comfortable seats and a panoramic view of their dozen or so hummingbird feeders. Within just minutes of our arrival, we realized just how many hummingbirds one 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. Apparently, the owners were going through an impressive 4 gallons of sugar water daily, a testament to just how many birds were using the feeders! The diversity here was impressive, and in about an hour-long vigil we tallied Crowned Woodnymph, pugnacious Bronze-tailed and White-vented Plumeleteers, Blue-chested, Rufous-tailed, and nearly uncountable numbers of of Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and White-necked Jacobins! The star of the show though was undoubtedly the two or three individual Violet-capped Hummingbirds that were occasionally coming in or perching below the feeders. This is a range restricted, small and luminously green bird, with a bright purple crown, and one that is almost endemic to Panama. In addition to the hummingbird species, we had an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with a simply absurd number of Shining, a few Red-legged and Green all crowding in at the feeders. The owners of the house also put out cooked rice at separate feeders just off the back deck. At those feeders we studied our first Yellow-faced Grassquits, and a pair of Hepatic (here of the quite distinctive looking and sounding Central American highland subspecies; which is a shoe-in for full species status once some grad student does a bit of appropriate fieldwork). The show was simply amazing, with birds constantly whirling around in a festival of colour and noise in virtually every direction. We thanked our hosts, who were eager to head off downhill for a day’s shopping and stocking up in advance of the impending traffic disruptions and then spent a bit of time birding along the road near their house. This proved a productive area, with a lovely Bat Falcon perched atop a bare tree just about in their front yard, our first of several female White-ruffed Manakins and a responsive male Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker just a few hundred meters up the road. 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!

After quite an excellent start to the day we loaded up and headed over to another section of the development where we walked up the beginning of the road that winds along the ridgetop of Cerro Jeffe. This track starts out several hundred feet higher than much of the housing development, and winds through patches of thick and dwarfed cloudforest as it climbs up to the top of the ridge. Just before we started the ascent, we stopped to admire a perched Gray-headed Kite, amazingly our third of the trip, that was sitting atop a distant bare tree. Clouds were rolling over the ridge as we started the walk, and we found conditions challenging with the fog layer enveloping the treetops. We found a few small groups of tanagers, managing glimpses of a few snazzy birds like Tawny-capped Euphonia and Golden-hooded and Emerald Tanagers before the clouds descended even more and it started to rain. We initially tucked ourselves under some cover, finding a cooperative Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant that may have had the same idea, but after a few minutes it became apparent that this was not to be a quickly passing storm. By the time we reached the van we were definitely sodden, but thankfully the winds were light and the conditions quite warm so we weren’t particularly uncomfortable. We decided to head over to the community office to pay our entrance fee, visit the restrooms and enjoy a coffee and snack break under the cover of their back patio roof. It took about an hour for the rains to slack off, during which time we devoured a prodigious amount of fresh pineapple and enjoyed close views of a foraging Violet-headed Hummingbird just off the deck. Our luck held, as for the rest of our time in the mountains the weather was very pleasant although much of the rest of central and Southwestern Panama though continued to experience heavy rain throughout the rest of the morning and early afternoon, with widespread flooding in the low-lying areas (even the domestic airport runways!) We left our perches on the patio and spent the rest of the morning walking along the paved roads, passing a mix of mansions and dilapidated sheds, lots still covered in montane forest and sweeping views of the fully forested ridges around us. As is often the case in montane environments much of the avifauna is concentrated in mixed feeding flocks, where neotropic migrant warblers join tropical tanagers and flycatchers in often noisy little traveling parties. By far our most productive spot was back along the road leading to Cerro Jeffe, where in the yard of one of the last houses a couple of fruiting trees were attracting a large milling flock of tanagers. . 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, a few Emerald Tanagers and a single stunning Speckled Tanager (surely three of the most striking birds in the country), as well as a couple of Bananaquits. At times each of these were foraging down below eye level in short largely open shrubs and in good light. The parade of birds wasn’t limited to tanagers though, with our first clear views of Tawny-capped Euphonias, a pair of Olive-streaked Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Swainson’s Thrush, a female Blue-black Grosbeak and Chestnut-capped, Blackburnian and Golden-winged Warblers. This heady mix of birds made a few participants muse a bit about how good their yardlists might be if they were to purchase a lot… Eventually the birds moved on, and so did we, taking a picnic lunch back at the Cerro Jeffe access road and enjoying the clear view of the ridgelines covered in stunted palm forest.

After lunch we made one last stop in the highlands, along the romantically named Romeo and Juliet loop. This part of the development is down in a somewhat protected valley, with larger trees and well-vegetated yards and quite a few native forest blocks. Here we chanced across several more small mixed flocks, finding a nice selection of warblers including our first American Redstarts and Black-and-White Warblers. A handsome male Lineated Woodpecker was perched along the edge of the forest behind the flock`, fairly glowing in the soft afternoon light. Just before we started back down the mountain, we were distracted by some chipping a bit further down the road, and after walking a bit were thrilled to find another flock, this time including a single Olivaceous Woodcreeper crawling around a bromeliad filled dead tree and a calling Northern Tropical Pewee perched in a nearby exotic pine.

We reached the lowlands to find that the heavy rain had largely abated, and since no apparent protests had started while we were up in the mountains we decided to head down to 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 well 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 parked near the creek mouth at Costa de Este, and immediately realized that we had arrived on a rising tide that had pushed an incredible number of birds right up to the breakwall. The narrow shoreline along the beach was hosting literally thousands of foraging waders and herons; more than enough to keep a birding group occupied for hours. We worked our way slowly through the masses of shorebirds, scoping Black-necked Stilt, Willet, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Southern Lapwing, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Short-billed Dowitchers, Spotted Sandpipers and Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers in turn, and picking out a few less numerous birds such as Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Plover, Greater Yellowlegs from the masses. Apart from the shorebirds there were many other species to keep us busy, with an incredible eight species of herons including Black-crowned Night-Herons and a couple of dapper Cocoi Herons; a species that is very similar in size and structure to our more familiar Great Blue, but one that dresses 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 Great Blue throughout South America. A smattering of Wood Storks, Brown Pelicans and Gull-billed Terns and an impressive number of Neotropic Cormorants and Black Skimmers were about as well. After a short review of the assembled bird species and a glance through a loafing group of Laughing Gulls where we picked out a couple of slightly smaller Franklin’s Gulls with their distinctive white wingtips and shorter bills we headed back to the tower, a process that was heavily complicated by the heavy rush hour traffic and some closed roads due to the flooding we arrived back at the tower just in time for dinner; tired but elated with our excellent day in the field.

The next day we started with another dawn vigil atop the tower, which was delayed a bit by the lingering nighttime rains. Thankfully at about 6:30 the clouds lifted, and the conditions were excellent for the entire morning. Each morning on the towers upper deck brings a different experience, and on this day, we were thrilled to spot no fewer than four male Blue Cotingas perched around the forest. Three birds came into the fruiting fig in the carpark at once, making the tree resemble a huge Christmas tree bedecked with bright blue baubles. Other notable species included a perched Crane Hawk, some passing Lesser Swallow-tailed and Band-rumped Swifts and a locally rare Blackburnian Warbler. The “normal” birds though were excellent as well, from the tiny Brown-capped Tyrannulet that was perched at eye level in some bare branches, to Keel-billed Toucans, Collared Aracaris and various parrots perched on distant trees or the busy little flock of Green Honeycreepers and Blue Dacnis, Summer, Scarlet, Golden-hooded and Palm Tanagers that were attacking some nearby Melostome fruit with even greater gusto than a crowd of participants descending upon a plate of canopy tower dessert there was always something to catch our attentions.

After breakfast, and a bit of time spent looking over the amazing array of moths and other insects sitting on the Canopy Towers moth sheet, 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. In the carpark we paused to admire a perched Black-breasted Puffbird and an active pair of Black-crested Antshrikes before loading up on water bottles and setting out for our roughly mile and a half stroll on the trail. Initially the trail seemed quiet, but as we walked further into the woods we began to pick up a few birds. Several White-breasted Wood-Wrens forgot that they were supposed to be skulking around in dense shrubbery, with one or two even sitting up just off the trail and allowing us to really appreciate their understated but striking colours. Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots appeared as well, and near a small waterfall in the creek we located a locally scarce Louisiana Waterthrush. It took a couple of tries but we eventually coaxed a pair of Golden-crowned Spadebills into view; a small but portly short-tailed species with an intricate head pattern and expressive face. A bit past the one kilometer marker the birding really got interesting when a steely-grey backed raptor with a barred black tail swept off its understory perch and buried itself into some denser trees across the creek. Our views were brief, but the bird was unmistakably a Slaty-backed Forest-falcon; an uncommon denizen of the forest understory that is heard far often than seen. We waited a bit to see if it would reappear, but just around the next bend we could hear the calls of Cocoa and Plain-brown Woodcreepers and Bicolored Antbird almost pleading with us to come over for a closer look. Once we turned the next bend it became apparent that there was an active army antswarm just of the trail. We hastened over and were soon picking out a wealth of birds milling around over the foraging ants. In addition to the aforementioned species we found Gray-headed Tanager, White-whiskered Puffbird, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens, a single Song Wren and a truly impressive assemblage of furnarids including a few huge Northern Barred Woodcreeper and a very active pair of Ruddy Woodcreepers. This last species is truly uncommon, and seldom seen away from antswarms. In our 14 years of November tours it was only our second sighting, and the pair performed extremely well, sitting low and just off the trail and showing off their rusty-red plumage, large heads and gray eyerings to excellent effect. A couple of vocal Black-faced Antthrushes were more reticent, treating us to lengthy audio of their whistled calls but refusing to come down from the ridgeline above the trail for us to see them through the understory vegetation. This particular antswarm was holding the attention of at least thirty individual birds (of about a dozen species), and held our attention for nearly an hour as well. Eventually though we started back towards the trailhead, stopping to admire our first Chestnut-headed Oropendola and a handsome pair of Northern Black-throated Trogons that were quietly perched near eyelevel. As we neared the van we could hear the whistled two-part call of a Black Hawk-Eagle coming from above the canopy. We shifted over to a spot with a bit more open sky and managed to spot the bird as it slowly circled up in the clouds. Back at the carpark we found that the conditions for raptor movement must have been perfect for migrant birds as well, as over the course of just 15 minutes or so we tallied several hundred Turkey Vultures as well as a smattering of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks drifting overhead in a vaguely eastwards direction. During our early afternoon siesta a few participants stayed up on the tower top to take in the migration, commenting that the day count for Turkey Vultures was probably in the low thousands!

By mid-afternoon our sunshine had given way to overcast skies, with peals of thunder indicating that perhaps our luck with the weather was about to change. We spent the afternoon around the palatial grounds of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort 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, and the local birds seemed to have adjusted to the new layout. Unfortunately for us it began to rain just as we parked, and although it was not a heavy rain it was strong enough to depress bird activity and make the lighting (and optics maintenance) difficult. We waited out the first stronger spell and then spent some time scanning the Chagres River, which has wide marshy banks and lots of floating mats of vegetation slowly moving downstream. Here some scanning revealed a few hunting Snail Kites, lots of migrant Barn Swallows, a few Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Anhinga and Wattled Jacanas and a distant Common Tern. The riverside vegetation had a lot of bird activity, including a good selection of migrant warblers, a male Barred Antshrike, a largely uncooperative Scrub Greenlet and our first striking Flame-rumped Tanagers but the rain eventually drove us into a more forested section of road, where, apart from a nearly motionless adult Rufescent Tiger-Heron that allowed us an incredibly close approach we found conditions to be wet, quiet and prematurely dark. We decided to forgo our planned more lengthy walk, and instead made a short stop in at the resort, where we spent some time scanning the grounds and river from the comfort of their very well laid out bar patio up on the top floor of their surprisingly modern and elegant main lobby. From this vantage point we were happy to spot a somewhat bedraggled looking Bat Falcon that was sitting atop a tall snag below our position. Here too we enjoyed the show as dozens of pairs of Red-lored Parrots passed by at eye level, and a Gray-headed Chachalaca tilted virtually performed a 360 spin on its perch in an effort to reach some ripe palm fruits near the pool. As we loaded up and started the trip back to the tower we noticed that, despite the inclement weather we had still spotted a few more than 50 species on the grounds in just a bit over an hour!

The ongoing protests around the country meant that we had one other deviation from our normal itinerary, as going over to the Caribbean side around Colon was deemed to be far too risky. Rather than getting stuck on the wrong side of the country for several days we decided to substitute that day with a visit to the much closer Metropolitan Park. This small national park (about 600 acres) is the southern-most part of the preserved biological corridor in central Panama. It’s a popular spot with locals, as it abuts the city and offers a paved walking/jogging trail up to the peak of a low hill which provides a wonderful view of the city and Pacific coastline. Almost 300 species of birds have been recorded here, and as the park is not too far from the coast the character of the forest is notably different and drier than the forests of Soberania National Park around the tower. After paying our modest entrance fee and admiring some perched Black-throated Mangos that were feeding in a tall flowering Flame Tree we started up the paved trail that heads up the ridge. We took the gravelled and smaller forest trail back down, completing an almost two-mile loop over the course of the morning. The walk was punctuated with several large mixed flocks, which kept us amply entertained. A lot of the species were by now at least somewhat familiar, but we also found our first Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, Long-billed Gnatwrens, and Greenish Elaenias tucked into the flocks. The pretty Rufous-breasted Wren was common throughout the morning, and we were happy to spot a cooperative male Gartered Trogon glowing emerald and yellow against the forested background. Mammals were around as well, and we particularly enjoyed our views of a snoozing (and bedraggled looking) Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth tucked up in the canopy and a Northern Tamandua stretched out in a very relaxed pose on a large horizontal limb. Without a doubt though our two marquee sightings were of Lance-tailed Manakin and the incredible Rosy Thrush-Tanager. The latter species is neither a thrush nor a tanager, and is a truly exceptionally beautiful bird in a monotypic family, occurring in only a few scattered populations from Mexico to Venezuela. It is never common, and can be nigh on impossible to see if they stay hidden in the viny understory that they tend to inhabit. We were treated to views of a very cooperative female (a tad less fancily coloured than the male, but still pretty with her copper-orange underparts and dark brown upperparts) as she fed in the leaf litter just a bit off the trail. Two males were nearby, flashing their deep pink breasts as they squabbled in the understory, zipping through the low vegetation with amazing ease for such large birds. We sometimes encounter this species on our regular tower tour locations, but generally have better luck in the spring, so this sighting was a definite win for Metro Park. The male Lance-tailed Manakin was lovely too as it sat up in some mostly open vines for long enough to really appreciate its beauty. It’s hard to pick a favorite manakin on this tour, with five excellent contenders for evaluation. For me though, the jet-black Lance-tailed, with their flaming scarlet cap, powder blue back and pointed tail might just be the winner. Just before we left the park we were told that a taxi driver had spotted a female Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth with a baby near the other end of the small carpark. We wandered over, since when tracking sloths speed is not generally of the essence and were soon drinking in excellent views of the female with her small pale brown baby and a nearby male to boot!

Since we still had some time available before we needed to get back to the tower for lunch we decided to make a small detour, stopping along the edge of the Clayton development (a large suburb to the north of the city with a healthy population of ex-pat Americans). Here among the manicured lawns and the edge of a very full lake we encountered our only Buff-breasted Wren and Black-crowned Tityras of the trip, as well as our first Ruddy Ground-Doves and a quite cooperative Prothonotary Warbler. In one of the fruiting trees we also spotted a large Variegated Squirrel; a colorful species clad in buff and brown that prefers a more open/edge habitat to the largely forest-based Red-tailed Squirrels. We arrived back at the tower in time for lunch, and then had a bit of down time to enjoy the hummingbird feeders or the top of the tower before striking out for our final birding destination of the trip; the nearby Old Gamboa Road and Summit Ponds that are tucked behind the sprawling border police training facility near the base of the tower road. This diverse area centers around a pair of small forested lakes, but also includes open grasslands, viney dry forests, and scattered parkland with large emergent trees over a dense grassy understory. We started with a bit of time spent to the north of the parking area, in a large clearing that serves as a horse training area for the police force. Around the paddock we found the forest edge to be quite birdy, with a big bottlebrush tree hosting a mixed flock and an impressive number of colourful butterflies. In the shrubs behind the bottlebrush we were thrilled to connect with a stunning male Golden-collared Manakin. Over the course of the trip, we had already encountered this species a few times, but all of the previous birds were in the much drabber female or immature plumage. This male sat up in full sun, and with its bright golden-yellow and black plumage was a sight to behold. Here too was a male White-winged Becard, an understated bird compared to the manakin but still decidedly handsome in its own right and some very attractive Barred Antshrikes, which proved to be among the top birds of the trip from the participants perspective. Along the access road we spotted a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail stalking through the roadside grasses. For those used to rails as exclusively a marsh/reedbed bird the sighting of this large and brightly colored bird along a forest edge came as a bit of a revelation! For the remainder of the afternoon, we headed south of the parking lot, initially heading to the small forested summit ponds where we finally found a few Amazon and Green Kingfishers (with all the recent rains these species seemed to be very thin on the ground, likely spreading out into flooded forest areas to hunt for fish trapped in shallow pools away from the rivers) as well as a single distant Boat-billed Heron and some impressively large Mesoamerican Slider turtles. Leaving the ponds behind we walked further down the trail, actually the remnants of the original road between Panama City and Gamboa, and after a few hundred meters came out of the woods to a more cleared area with dense grasses and sprawling open canopy trees. Just before reaching the grassy section, we successfully tracked down a calling Jet Antbird that was lurking in a midstory vine tangle just off the trail. This handsome medium-sized antbird has a small global range, entering North America in localized patches as far west as the canal zone in Panama. It’s preferred habitat of rank grasslands near water can be hard to see into at the best of times, and only a few pairs occur along the Old Gamboa Road area. They have become generally less responsive over the many years of dealing with visiting birding groups, so we were quite choughed to see this bird so easily. Further down the trail we heard the repetitive calls of a distant Great Antshrike, which, as is customary for this large but unreasonably shy bird, refused to move any closer to the trail in response to playback. With audio-only encounters of this species and the equally reticent White-bellied Antbird included we managed to encounter 16 of the 18 possible Antbirds for the tour this year; no mean feat! The back part of the trail hosted a few smaller mixed flocks, a foraging Mourning Warbler, some furtive Black-chested Jays and a very cooperative male Black-tailed Trogon that lingered just over our heads for several minutes. As we walked back to the parking area we added our final species for the trip with a responsive Isthmian Wren popping up in the cane grasses and giving fairly length views for this often retiring species. Once back at the parking area we met up with our driver and luggage and made the half-hour transfer over to our nearby hotel on the Amador Causeway at the base of the Pacific entrance to the canal, where we wrapped the trip up with dinner at the hotel restaurant and packed up for our flights home or onwards to the Western Panama tour. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our local leader Jorge, 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: 01 December 2023