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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The 2022 Spring Panama tour coincided with an earlier than normal arrival of the wet season, with a few afternoon showers and generally overcast skies. This meant the temperatures were relatively pleasant, and that a lot of the local birds were busy nest building or incubating in preparation for the coming rains. We began with a week at the world-famous Canopy Tower, which over 250 species of birds and a host of mammals and other critters. Some of the highlights included watching a male Blue Cotinga sitting on a canopy tree from the top deck of the tower, day roosting Black-and-White and Spectacled Owls, a wonderfully vocal and cooperative Great Potoo during our nocturnal trip down the hill from the tower, a perched Brownish Twistwing on Pipeline Road and a very special and close-range encounter with a calling Rosy Thrush-Tanager near the banks of the Chagres River. Our day trip to the Caribbean lowlands included some truly exceptional views of Spot-crowned Barbet along Achiote Road as well as displaying Red-breasted Meadowlarks, nesting Chestnut-headed Oropendolas and an excellent showing of Pacific Antwren and a great comparison of Masked and Black-crowned Tityras. Our day on Cerro Azul was full of highlights, with the memorable hummingbird and honeycreeper show at the feeders, a dazzling array of tanagers including Speckled, Black-and-Yellow and Rufous-winged and lengthy views of the Panamanian endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker. It was at the lodge though that the true floodgates of avian rarity really opened up for us. This year we were incredibly fortunate to encounter several antswarms up in La Mesa, with attendant and very cooperative Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos (five in one day!) and Black-crowned Antpitta! We also enjoyed point-blank views of two different White-tipped Sicklebills, several male Rufous-crested Coquettes and a simply stunning encounter with a pair of vocal, and visible Black-eared Wood-Quail! And who could fail to mention the fiesta of colorful tanagers including Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Speckled, Black-and-Yellow, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped? Beyond the color and diversity of the birds though, we enjoyed 20 species of mammals including Western Night Monkeys, Kinkajou, Prehensile-tailed Porcupine and Central American Woolly Opossum, as well as an impressive array of Reptiles, Amphibians and insects. 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: As many of this year’s participants arrived a day early and transferred over to the tower in the late morning there was an opportunity for some light birding around the tower grounds before our introductory meeting at six pm. This provided a gentle introduction to the common birds around the tower. The hummingbird feeders at the base of the tower were hosting a constant parade of White-necked Jacobins. The males are quite sharp with snowy white bellies and tails and are quite a nice species to have as the most common hummingbird. We noted several smaller Blue-chested Hummingbirds and a Stripe-throated Hermit that were mainly foraging in the surrounding Verbena bushes as well. The real treat though was the active raptor migration that was underway for parts of the afternoon. Huge kettles of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures were visible in all directions from the top of the tower, stretching out as far as we could see. Seeing migration in action is always remarkable, doubly so when the numbers of birds are so impressive. Around the tower top we also enjoyed watching a pair of Blue Dacnis gathering spider webs for their nest and had an up close and personal encounter with some quite tame Palm Tanagers. A few participants also enjoyed a special treat in the form of a Northern Tamandua that was contentedly foraging just out the window of the dining floor. This beautiful arboreal anteater is amazingly agile in the treetops and we were able to watch it for about 20 minutes as it clambered around a rotten branch questing for ant eggs or some other delicacy. In the early evening we met up for our introductory meeting and turned in for the night, looking forward to a week surrounded by birds.

We greeted the sunrise on our first morning with an hour-long vigil from the top deck of the Canopy Tower. Perched atop the 800ft high hill in Soberiana National Park, the tower overlooks a great expanse of forested slopes and lowlands. From the top of the tower, one has a great view of the expansive forest canopy and of the canal. Early morning on the top deck is a special place, as 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 bit of uncharacteristic March weather, with overcast skies and wind. This might have depressed the bird activity a bit but we were still treated to a nice array of species over the course of our vigil. Undoubtedly the star of the morning show was a male Blue Cotinga, surely one of the most intensely blue living things on the planet, that was perched up in the canopy for a couple of minutes, glowing from the greenery like a brightly lit neon sign. Close views of Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper and Plain-colored Tanagers as they fed in the tower-side Cercropia trees were nice as well. The inclement weather was fueling some migration, and we were able to watch numbers of Cliff and Barn Swallows, a few Bank Swallows and a fast-moving group of Chimney Swifts all heading northwards towards their breeding grounds. Resident aerialists were around as well, with numbers of Gray-breasted Martins, Band-rumped and Short-tailed Swifts and both Turkey and Black Vultures making regular passes just overhead. A fruiting Melostoma tree near the tower top hat was hosting a flock of migrants including impressive numbers of Scarlet Tanagers, a few Bay-breasted Warblers, an Eastern Kingbird and some vocal but furtive Lesser Greenlets. As is generally the case in the mornings here we were also able to scope a nice assortment of birds as they perched up in the early morning light. Garrulous Red-lored and maniacal Mealy Parrots, gaudy Keel-billed Toucans and more staid but still attractive Scaled Pigeons were admired in turn. It was a bit of a sensory overload really, and our heads were still spinning as we descended one floor to devour our plates of scrambled eggs, sausages and fresh local fruit juice.

After breakfast, we spent the rest of the morning walking down Semaphore Hill along the road. The forest here is older second-growth, and in the dry season has patches with fairly light understory, which provides an excellent opportunity for encountering mixed flocks. We found colourful and perched birds to be particularly well represented, with White-whiskered Puffbirds, Broad-billed Motmots, Cinnamon Woodpecker, and White-tailed and Slaty-tailed Trogons all showing well. As is often the case in the forest understory we found antbirds to be well represented, with excellent views of multiple Fasciated Antshrikes, Black-crowned Antshrike, displaying Dot-winged Antwrens, and Dusky and Spotted Antbirds through the course of the morning. At one mixed flock we were stunned to see a pair of Long-billed Gnatwrens, a curious little gnatcatcher relative that seems to be all bill and tail, actually out in the open above the road for several minutes and providing exceptionally good views. At another spot we picked out a pair of Blue-black Grosbeaks darting around in the understory, and a wonderfully perched Golden-crowned Spadebill that was sitting just a few feet off the road. Some canopy flocks popped up as we slowly descended the hill, with our first Red-legged Honeycreeper, Golden-hooded Tanagers, Tennessee Warbler and Fulvous-vented Euphonias plucking fruit from melostome trees and a female Red-capped Manakin briefly perched along the road edge. Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill, where we found our first White-flanked Antwrens and an unusually cooperative pair of Checker-throated Stipplethroats foraging along the creek and checked out the Lesser White-lined Bats that have colonized the main struts under the road bridge and looked at the assembled collection of dragon and damselflies that were darting around the creek-bed before catching a ride back up to the tower for lunch and a siesta.

In the afternoon, we headed out to the nearby Ammo Dump Ponds just past the little town of Gamboa. This port town on the canal is a famous area historically as it represented the terminus of the French attempt at canal construction. Nowadays the town is largely used as a base for researchers from the Smithsonian Institution who have a large presence in Panama’s canal zone. A brief stop at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast (a property that is owned and managed by the same company that runs the lodge and tower) revealed our first Red-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-backed and Blue-gray Tanagers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Piratic and Streaked Flycatchers and Red-legged Honeycreepers around the small garden behind the building. Once out at the actual ponds I was surprised to see how low the water level was, quite in contrast to the massive flooding that we saw here a few years ago. The main lake was reduced to a few relatively small pools, with a nice selection of swallows including Southern Rough-winged, Barn, Bank and Mangrove Swallows zipping over the marsh. Wattled Jacanas, Purple Gallinule, a Rufescent Tiger Herons and both Green and Striated Herons were stalking the marshier section of the pond. In the vegetation ringing the lake we watched a small group of Greater Anis as they clambered around in the shrubs, Buff-breasted and Isthmian Wrens bouncing around in the dense underbrush, a perched Gray-lined Hawk that was overlooking the reedbeds with a hungry eye and eventually tracked down a stunning Yellow-tailed Oriole over the road. The area was alive with birds, and over the course of a couple of hours we found our first Thick-billed Seedfinch, Blue-black Grassquit, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet and enjoyed especially fine views of plum-clad Pale-vented Pigeons and a perched Black-throated Mango. A pair of Southern Lapwing were foraging close to the road, and while we were watching these boldly patterned and large plovers, we managed to coax a pair of White-throated Crakes into view, with one bird actually walking up the bank and coming to within feet of our feet. Out on the more open section of marsh we were happy to see a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks lounging on a muddy stretch of shoreline. While watching the ducks we noticed foraging Solitary and Least Sandpipers nearby, and a uncharacteristically calm Muscovy Duck that flew in and landed, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. Flycatchers were vocal and obvious, and we added several new species including Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Panama Flycatcher, Tropical Kingbird and the full quartet of similar looking Kiskadee-like flycatchers. In addition to covering some of the finer identification points that can be used to separate the similar Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers and Lesser and Greater Kiskadees we found active nests of three of the species! It seemed that new birds were in every direction, and over the course of the nearly two hours that we spent at the sight we walked at most 200m from the parked car! As the day began to draw to a close, we stopped to look at a calling Northern Barred Woodcreeper that was perched out in the narrow strip of trees lining the road, a somewhat atypical location for this large species that generally prefers proper forest. On the drive back to the tower we stopped a few times to look at a Grey-headed Chachalaca that was sitting on a somewhat derelict looking fence ringing a small basketball court in Gamboa, and a Ringed Kingfisher that was sitting along the banks of the Chagres River.

On our second day we set out for an all-day excursion to the world-famous Pipeline Road. This cross-country dirt road passes through an extensive swath of Soberiana National Park and provides unparalleled access to high quality forest and almost 400 species of birds. It is always hard to pick a favorite bird on the road, as every trip seems to bring surprises or different views of more familiar species. We spent most of the morning slowly walking between the entrance to the forest and the turn-off for the Discovery Center Tower. The forest here is vast, stretching all the way to the Colombian border in a virtually untouched state. The region was protected during the canal construction era because some of the engineers had the foresight to realize that in order to have an even and continuous flow of water into the canal throughout the year, they had to protect the vegetation in the watershed. Such an expansive patch of lowland forest is unique in Central America and provides one of the best examples of how the ecology and economy of an area can mutually benefit. The forest near the entrance is mature, well-established second growth forest, with many large trees and an undulating topography. This first stretch of road gets some vehicular traffic (even school buses apparently) but in general is quiet. New birds came thick and fast during our walk, with big and showy species like Slaty-tailed and Black-tailed Trogons, Whooping Motmot (a recent split from the formerly widespread Blue-crowned Motmot), Collared Aracari, a pair of diminutive Pied Puffbirds, colourful Crimson-crested Woodpeckers and a flashy pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds joining the more subtly coloured species such as Black-bellied Wren, Forest Elaenia, Acadian Flycatcher and (finally) Lesser Greenlet. At one spot we played a bit of mob tape and enticed a horde of birds down from the canopy to investigate the commotion. Three species of hummingbirds joined a troop of White-shouldered Tanagers, a Brown-capped Tyrannulet, some inquisitive Fasciated and Black-crowned Antshrikes and a female Black-and-White Warbler, all happily down at near eye-level. Not too far away from here we found a perched Rufous Mourner and a pair of eventually quite cooperative Black-striped Woodcreepers high up in the canopy. Though most species Woodcreepers seem almost visually redundant this species is quite gaudy, with golden-buff spots across their black nape, back and chest and are generally scarce along Pipeline Road. The forest understory was productive as well, with a quick Gray-chested Dove walking across the road, a Great Tinamou waddling downslope away from us and a pair of surprisingly showy Red-throated Ant-Tanagers that posed in excellent light before vanishing off into the shadowy depths of the forest. This stretch of road also produced several views of Panamanian White-fronted Capuchins, a species that is now split from the more widespread one that occurs in adjacent Colombia. After stopping at the Discovery center for a bathroom break and then enjoying a quick mid-morning snack at the entrance gate to Pipeline Road we spent some time at the first creek crossing. Here we had a bit of fun watching several (8!) species of fish in the shallow sandy bottomed creek, noting that several species were in full breeding coloration, and that they all seemingly loved the coffee cake at least as much as we did. Here too we picked up a quietly sitting Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and managed to track down two displaying Golden-collared Manakins that were zipping back and forth on vertical perches just overhead.

We then continued on past the gate that marks the entrance to the restricted part of the road. Here only road maintenance vehicles, scientific researchers and the canopy tower trucks are allowed motorized access. For the remainder of the morning, we slowly walked along the road, occasionally loading back up into the trucks to navigate stretches that had too much mud or water to comfortably traverse on foot. Over the course of a few hours, we found perky little Dot-winged Antwrens to be somewhat common, and we picked out a pair of White-flanked Antwren and several Checker-throated Antwrens (now sadly saddled with the new name of Checker-throated Stipplethroat) foraging nearby for comparison. One group of antwrens also held a pair of Spot-crowned Antvireos and a cute little Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, as well as a quite flashy Chestnut-backed Antbird that sat still for a minute or so allowing us to soak in its black underparts and bright blue bare orbital patch. A little while later we tracked down a pair of calling Purple-throated Fruitcrows that showed off their actually claret-coloured throats well from their lofty perch. Some Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were about as well, flashing their golden yellow tails at us as they chattered away in an adjacent tree. By the late morning the clouds had built up and we were beset by the occasional sprinkle which thankfully held off while we enjoyed a picnic lunch along the road complete with picnic tables and folding chairs.

After lunch we clambered back into the trucks and drove farther into the woods, stopping eventually at the La Seda Bridge, which currently is in a state of disrepair that makes it a bit treacherous to drive across. From here we walked out several hundred meters before a short rain shower caused us to hide under some dense canopy trees. The shower seemed to entice a lot of birds into a short burst of activity. Quite a few larger birds moved up into the treetops to enjoy a bit of a spritz, and we picked out a pair of Broad-billed Motmots, our first White-tailed and Gartered Trogons and a handsome pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons. A few other brief bursts of rain occurred through the afternoon, but none were particularly heavy or long lasting. This meant we could stay out on the road for a good chunk of the day which allowed us to spend some time watching an active Red-capped Manakin Lek. Several males, dressed up in their dazzling black, scarlet and yellow plumage were calling and occasionally moonwalking across thin horizontal vines in the midstory; tuning up for any arriving females to admire. Nearby we teased up a pair of Song Wrens, a curiously shaped and seemingly primitive species of wren that in many ways more resembles a tapaculo in shape. Just before we turned back towards the cars we were treated to a pair of Gray-headed Tanagers that came right in to the road edge, and with a bit of effort were successful at tracking down a perched Brownish Twistwing deep in the understory. This is a relatively common but rarely encountered species of flycatcher with oddly twisted flight feathers. Soon after the twistwing the rain came in earnest, and everyone piled into the cabs of the trucks to stay dry as we drove back out to the base of the road. We arrived back at the Ammo ponds to find the area in full sun, so we spent a bit of time photographing Rufescent Tiger-Herons and had our first Crested Caracara soaring over a huge ship traversing the adjacent Panama Canal.

After dinner we took a night drive down Semaphore Hill and were amazed at our success. As is generally the case nocturnal mammals stole the show, and over the course of our hour and a half crawl along the road we enjoyed excellent and lengthy views of two Central American Woolly Opossums, a Prehensile-tailed Porcupine, a group of Western Night-Monkeys and two Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths! A furtive arboreal mammal that squeaked away from us was likely a Bushy-tailed Olingo, and several folks were able to see a Common Opossum as it walked along the forest floor on a slope above the truck. On this night though, the birds really rivalled the mammals. We picked out two separate Great Tinamous on roosts, enjoyed a lengthy aural bout from a hidden Mottled Owl, coaxed a Great Potoo into revealing itself after about 15 minutes of listening to its guttural croaks from a hidden perch along the main road, and even found a trio of sleeping Black-chested Jays (a nocturnal life jay for many on the tour). It was, all in all, a truly splendid outing, and a great way to end our day.

The next morning, we were again atop the tower for an hour-long pre-breakfast vigil. Again, the early hours of the day were overcast, but even so we did pick up a few new birds, such as the Eastern Wood-Pewee that was hawking insects from an exposed snag below the top of the tower, a perched Brown-hooded Parrot, a pair of comical Squirrel Cuckoos, two Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and a Green Shrike-Vireo that seemingly misread its own directions to stay hidden at all costs when it sat up on an exposed twig and sang away for at least 10 minutes. As the clouds began to part the migration floodgates opened and swallows began to pour across the skies. We estimated both Cliff and Barns by the hundreds, but a careful count would likely have recorded four-figure totals for both species through the morning.

After breakfast, we drove down to the bottom of the hill and spent the morning walking out on the Plantation Trail, a wide graveled trail that winds north further into Soberania National Park, roughly paralleling a small creek. In recent years the trail has been discovered by hordes of Panama City mountain bikers, making it a poor option for birding on the weekends. A benefit to their use of the trail though is that the actual trail conditions have vastly improved, with fresh gravel down in some of the often-muddy sections, and some rocks and roots smoothed out. As our visit occurred on a Wednesday, we saw only one bike the entire morning. Although the trail was quiet from a human perspective, it was incredibly busy from a birding one. It took us almost an hour just to leave the parking lot and actually start on the trail. Some fruiting trees right at the entrance were drawing a huge number of birds, with migrants like Swainson’s Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak sitting right next to Golden-hooded Tanagers, Shining and Red-legged Honeycreepers, Golden-fronted Greenlets, White-browed Gnatcatchers and Black-chested Jays (likely the same three birds that we had spotted during the previous nights outing). Trogons were obvious around the trees as well, with Slaty-tailed, White-tailed and Gartered all showing well. We were even successful at finding a calling Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher up in the canopy, no mean feat given their quick movements and miniscule proportions.

Once we were able to tear ourselves away from the fruiting trees we set off down the actual trail, soon stopping to admire a pair of perched Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and a small group of Geoffrey’s Tamarins, incredibly our fourth species of monkey for the trip, that were clambering around the limbs of an impressively large fig tree. One tamarin had a young baby on her back, who seemed quite content just hanging on as the adult scampered along an open limb that was likely 60 feet off the ground. On this trip down the trail, we found the creek nearly dry, with just a few pools of water dotted around here and there, a sharp contrast to the roaring flow that was evident back in November. There wasn’t much calling during the walk, but with a bit of careful searching we did find quite a few excellent species, including a couple of perched Blue-crowned Manakins that were fussing at a family group of White-whiskered Puffbirds, a young Tiger Heron, which by habitat should have been a Fasciated, but by elevation and likelihood was probably a Rufescent (separating the two species in their juvenile plumage is a challenge), our fifth species of Trogon for the trip in the form of a female Black-throated Trogon, a perched Olivaceous Flatbill, and a pair of White-breasted Wood-Wrens that were bouncing along the open slope on the other side of the creek. We often walk out about a mile on the trail, but on this morning (due to the extending birding side trip at the entrance) we just made it a kilometer before deciding to turn back. The fruiting trees by the parking area were still full of birds when we returned, and just before heading back uphill we stopped and added our first Yellow-green Vireo and Purple-crowned Fairy for the trip. We returned to the tower a little later than expected, but just in time for lunch and a siesta in the heat of the day.

That afternoon we set out for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort Grounds. Abutting the Chagres River, right where the river meets the Panama Canal, the lodge has an abundance of birdlife. Some recent management decisions have resulted in a large amount of clearing near some of the buildings, with some new fencing and gates, but the trail system in the back of the property and the riverbanks looked much as usual. We started off by scanning the Chagres, where we began with a bit of a surprise when we discovered a large kettle of circling Laughing Gulls over the water. The vegetated bank held a few Wattled Jacana and Purple Gallinules, as well as our first Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, Osprey, and a good-sized Spectacled Caiman that actually made an unsuccessful lunge at one of the gallinules before sinking down into the vegetation. This dampened our enthusiasm for a swim, so we started walking towards the more forested back of the property, stopping to admire our first Flame-rumped Tanagers, Boat-billed Flycatchers, and Black-striped Sparrow along the way. The sparrow was particularly nice, as instead of lurking deep in a grove of dense grass as this species tends to do, our bird was out on the lawn collecting food for its nestlings that were somewhere nearby. As we neared the row of ornamental fig trees that mark the entrance to the wooded section of the property, we were happy to spot a very cooperative Cinnamon Becard that was sitting up on the roadside wires, and watched a pair of Tropical Kingbirds diving into a small puddle in the carpark. 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. Soon after entering the woods we successfully coaxed a Jet Antbird into view. This handsome medium-sized antbird has a small global range, entering North America only as far as central Panama. It’s preferred habitat of rank grasslands near water can be hard to see into at the best of times, and the few pairs around the resort grounds 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. A bit further down the trail we encountered a nice mixed flock that contained our first Buff-throated Saltator, several glowing Golden-crowned Manakins, an eye-level Forest Elaenia (which to be fair doesn’t really look much more interesting than one up in the canopy), as well as a few dapper Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers and Lesser Greenlet that was a bit less twitchy than normal. Jorge spotted a Golden-winged Warbler higher up in the tree but just as he called it out, we heard the ringing notes that marked the nearby presence of a calling Rosy Thrush-Tanager. We quietly crept further down the trail and were soon thrilled to spot the bird sitting on a low branch in a thicket just a few feet off the road. Amazingly, despite our shuffling around and setting up scopes and cameras the bird continued to stay put, giving us superlative views of its incredibly bright rosy-pink underparts, long bill and dark back. Neither a thrush nor a tanager, this truly exceptionally beautiful bird is in a monotypic family and occurs in only a few scattered populations from Mexico to Venezuela. It is never common and can be nigh on impossible to see if they stay hidden in the viny understory that they tend to inhabit. The bird eventually moved on, but within a few meters we were stopped again, this time to watch a pair of White-bellied Antbirds (another typically skulky species) foraging in the open along the grassy verge of the trail! We always head back into the woods hoping for Jet and White-bellied Antbirds, Golden-collared Manakin, and Rosy Thrush-Tanager, but often only see one or two of the four. To see them all, and to see them all well and at close range was truly exceptional. Also exceptional was the amazing raptor migration that greeted us once we came back out of the woods. Huge kettles of Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks were circling over the ridge behind the property, with seemingly endless ribbons of more birds streaming westwards out as far as we could see. This huge push of migrants (including the swallows in the morning) was in part likely due to the previous three days of more unsettled weather finally breaking into a sunnier and less windy day. The spectacle of migration in action never fails to impress and is often a feature of our March trips to Panama.

Our final stop for the day was at the small marina attached to the resort that sits on a small and well-vegetated backchannel of the Chagres but overlooking the main river. Here we enjoyed close-up views of perched Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows, a maniacal chorus from a group of Greater Anis, our first Neotropical Cormorants, and a flyby Snail Kite. The woods lining the banks of the channel were excellent as well, with a pair of White-winged Becards, a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and more comparison views of Lesser and Greater Kiskadee, Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers. We were treated to a surprise here too, with a responsive Straight-billed Woodcreeper, a handsome species with a buffy-gold face and bright pink straight bill, that came right in overhead to our tape. It’s a species generally confined to the Pacific coastal forests in Panama, but occasionally birds are found on scattered locations throughout the low canal zone (and even out on the Caribbean slope of the canal zone). This sighting though marked the first one ever on the main week of the tour! The area proved good for reptiles as well, with a write-in Spiny-tailed Iguana and our first Mesoamerican Slider. At the daily log that evening we were surprised by the length of time it took to go over all our sightings for the day, and a quick tally revealed that we had seen an astounding 142 species: without straying more than five miles from our lodge!

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. After our two-year forced hiatus, it was interesting to see all the changes around the Gatun Locks. Whereas in 2019 we were still driving across the old lock doors and taking a ferry back across the channel now the new high suspension bridge, several years in the making, was finally finished, allowing us to quickly navigate over to the west side of the canal zone and giving us quite a vantage point to see the new and old lock systems in operation. Many of the local roads had been recently worked on as well, with newly laid pavement over virtually all of Achiote Road. Near the old loch system, we stopped along the road to look at a perched Yellow-throated Toucan that was sitting above a group of Keel-billed Toucans like a malevolent overlord. Unfortunately, the bird flew off before everyone managed to exit the van, but as there was a small colony of Crested Oropendolas, a perched Savannah Hawk and lots of Yellow-rumped Caciques in the area it was still a worthy stop. About a half-mile on, while still traversing the huge earthen dam built to create Lake Gatun, we stopped to scope a couple of perched Red-breasted Meadowlarks that were sitting up in the knee-high grasses, with their scarlet chests on full display. Shortly thereafter we arrived at our first planned birding destination; Achiote Road (actually signed to indicate that this is an area for the observation of birds).

We parked on the side of the Road near an entrance road to one of the many little coffee and chocolate farms that have sprung up over the last few years. The farmers have cleared a lot of the understory (in what is, on paper at least, San Lorenzo National Park) but happily they have generally left the overstory in place. Before going down the trail to get away from the occasional passing truck we scanned the roadside trees, and were happy to pin down a calling Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant that obligingly sat out on a mid-story limb for long enough for extended scope views. A hulking Crested Caracara, several Squirrel Cuckoos and a little flock of Short-billed Pigeons put in appearances here too. Once on the trail we found that large epiphyte-laden trees still line the edges of the clearing, and in the canopy of one of these trees, we soon heard a pair of White-headed Wrens foraging high overhead. It took some time to locate them as the tree was so large, and unfortunately, they never really completely sat out in the open, but with patience we managed to piece together their field marks. It is an attractive wren, with a limited worldwide range, occurring on a narrow strip of the Panama lowlands and adjacent Colombia, and with their white heads and bodies, long brown tail and brown wings they cut an impressively well-dressed figure. We had much better luck around the main clearing, with a pair of very cooperative Pacific Antwrens that danced around us at close range. The male is striking, a study in white and black and striped all over. It was the female though that really got the cameras clicking away, with her apricot-coloured head and lightly streaked body making for a very smart-looking bird. By scanning around the scattered treetops, we also picked up a distantly perched male Blue Cotinga, lots of sitting Orange-chinned Parakeets, a Black-bellied Wren, some close Pied Puffbirds and a locally rare young male Blue Grosbeak.

Once back on the main road we slowly walked about a half mile, stopping wherever activity dictated. Likely due to continuing road construction somewhere downstream there were more trucks going by than normal, but we persevered, finding some sprightly Bay Wrens, a cooperative Bright-rumped Atilla, some very showy Geoffrey’s Tamarins that were acrobatically leaping from tree to tree, two separate Double-toothed Kites, a Swallow-tailed Kite, and a pair of Gray-capped Flycatchers, which completed the possible set of 6 yellow/black/white Kiskadee-like tyrants that we could encounter in central Panama. By the time we reached a short gravel sideroad the heat had already become quite noticeable, making our mid-morning snack break with cold drinks all the more enjoyable. While snacking we noted several Smooth-billed Anis, Lesser Kiskadee and Commmon Tody-Flycatcher and a passing pair of migrant Mississippi Kites, not to mention a pair of actually visible Yellow-throated Toucans which came right in at us and proceeded to investigate a potential nest cavity right by our parked van! We then walked down the sideroad, where we were soon enthralled by a fruiting tree along the verge that contained two male Spot-crowned Barbets that were investigating the bright red fruits and large clusters of dead leaves. Uncharacteristically, the birds were low in the tree, at times sitting still down near our eye-level and out in full sun. It was without a doubt the best showing of this range-restricted (limited from central Panama to NW Colombia) and very attractively patterned species that I have had over my two-dozen plus visits to the Achiote road area. As an added bonus we sampled the large red pear-like fruits that the Barbets were investigating and found them to be quite tasty. The road held some other nice finds as well, with an Isthmian Wren clambering around in a low palm tree, an excellent comparison of Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, a couple of Bananaquits gathering nesting material along the fenceline and a perched pair of Blue-headed Parrots; a generally common species that seemed oddly absent this year. After a quick pit stop in the nearby town of Achiote we opted to take a short walk inside the park on the nearby Trogon trail. Soon after entering the woods, we did indeed spot a pair of Black-throated Trogons overhead, with a Checker-throated Stipplethroat in the understory and a perched Gray-chested Dove sitting on a nearby vine. A bit further down the trial we encountered a small foraging flock which included three quite bold Gray-headed Tanagers, a pair of Song Wren and both Cocoa and Plain-brown Woodcreepers.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the banks of the Chagres River a bit downstream from the lake and, under the shade of a sprawling fig tree, we enjoyed the occasional passing Gray-breasted Martin or Mangrove Swallow and our first Snowy Egret as dining companions. As we departed the area after lunch, we scanned the spillway below the lake and noted a large but distant American Crocodile and four immature White Ibis. In the afternoon, we drove out to the picturesque Fort San Lorenzo, an old Spanish fort perched on a bluff where the Chagres River meets the ocean, where walked out to take in the atmospheric surroundings and to scan the sparkling Caribbean Sea. The site is undergoing some extensive renovations at the moment, so instead of the usual solitude we found the structure teeming with workers and scaffolding, with freshly scrubbed and mortared walls and even an entrance fee! There’s normally a large loafing flock of terns and gulls on the sand spit below the fort, but on this day a bunch of fishermen were using the area to clean out their nets. Out on the water we picked out a few foraging Royal Tern and Brown Pelican, and three distant Brown Boobies. Around the fort itself things were a bit busier, with a small colony of Crested Oropendolas near the car park, a family group of Southern Lapwings with little chicks in tow out on the lawns and a few fruiting trees that were attracting some migrants like Red-eyed Vireo and Scarlet Tanager as well as resident species like Yellow-bellied Elaenia and Thick-billed Euphonia. While we were out enjoying the scenery Jorge got a text from the folks back at the tower that a day-roosting Black-and-White Owl had been found along the Semaphore Hill Road. We decided to forgo a short visit to the coastal mangroves so that we could make it back to the tower with some daylight to spare in the hopes that the owl would still be in place. The plan worked a treat, and after the hour and a half drive home we literally parked right underneath the snoozing owl. 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.

Our other full day trip away from the tower was to Cerro Azul and Cerro Jeffe, east of Panama City. These mountains provided us with a taste of the highland/foothill forests of central Panama. Our tour this year was about two weeks later than average, and as a result we found ourselves abutting the gradual shift to the rainy season. Typically, this shift happens in mid-April, but it was early this year, and as a result overcast skies, which frankly were welcome and kept the temperatures pleasant, were near constant companions. We started the day walking the dirt road that winds up to the microwave towers and observation platform on Cerro Jefe. The short Krummholz vegetation here supports many species that are less common or absent just a little lower down the mountain. Soon after we started the walk a quick moving flock of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers popped out of a fruiting tree. We managed to see this attractive species a few times during our time at Jefe, and the bold yellow and black males never failed to impress. Also here, we were treated to a nice comparison view of male Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, a Streaked Saltator and a Mistletoe Tyrannulet. We walked further up to the ridge and then along the trail as far as the Vistamares observation deck (where on a clear day you can see both the Caribbean and the Pacific from one vantage point). Most of the walk was fairly quiet for birds, although we did find several Hepatic Tanager (here a quite distinctive subspecies that should surely be split from its northern relatives), perched Scaled Pigeons and some amazingly dense and complicated colonial spider webs stretched through the low vegetation. Around the observation deck the trees are a bit larger, with an amazing variety of epiphytic growth on the larger trunks. Here we found a cooperative female Violet-capped Hummingbird (a local specialty of the region), our first brightly coloured Bay Tanagers, some incredibly vocal but somehow invisible Chestnut-backed Antbirds, a Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and our first (of many) Yellow-faced Grassquits.

Back at the beginning of the track though we lucked into a small flock around the same section of fruiting trees. We stopped when we noticed some motion in the canopy, and were happy to find a pair of Rufous-winged Tanagers. They were leading the flock, and over a happy ten minutes or so we were treated to views of Speckled, Bay-headed, Black-and-Yellow, Golden-hooded and Crimson-backed Tanagers, a flame-orange Blackburnian Warbler, a Spotted Woodcreeper foraging in some mossy branches and a male White-vented Euphonia. Here too was a perched Great Crested Flycatcher, an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a hulking Streaked Flycatcher and a trio of Carmiol’s Tanagers (actually a cardinal relative) that zipped through a bit too quickly for our taste. It was an exceedingly nice way to end our initial foray around the mountain! After a mid-morning snack and coffee, we stopped back in at the restrooms and then drove over to a well-paved road that winds through the sprawling housing development of Cerro Azul. With many lots still either completely or mostly forested, and the lower slopes of the mountains clad in primary forest the road system allows a visiting birder to access a surprising diversity of birds in comfort. Here we had to dodge the groundskeeper crew who were busily employing some rather large leafblowers in a quixotic quest to keep the drainage ditches clear of vegetation, but we soon found a small and quiet sideroad that allowed us to get far enough away to bird in comparative peace. In this patch of woods we located a pair of Rufous Motmot; our third species of Motmot for the trip. Here too we noted some movement in the leaf litter and with some judicious searching turned up a small lizard with a red tail that we initially thought was a juvenile Skink. A bit of research at the end of the day revealed it to actually be a Golden-spectacled Tegu, a type of micro-teiid lizard that is not often encountered. A bit further down the trail we stopped to admire a male Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth that was hanging by his back feet and having a good scratch. Our attentions were soon diverted when a calling Bat Falcon zipped overhead at close range, only to reappear moments later chasing and diving on a soaring American Swallow-tailed Kite! We were able to watch the falcon repeatedly driving off the kites for several minutes, twisting and changing direction with all the precision of a finely trained naval aerobatic team pilot. The falcon was eventually successful at driving away the kites, but as we turned to leave we noticed a male Red-capped Manakin and a pair of Ochre-bellied Flycatchers in the adjacent woods. We stopped to watch them for a bit, and also found a female White-vented Plumeleteer, our first Crowned Woodnymph of the trip and cooperative Lesser Greenlets and White-browed Gnatcatchers.

As lunchtime approached, we switched gears a bit and visited a private house that is nestled within the gated community adjacent to a nice patch of remaining forest in a sheltered valley. The house is owned by an ex-pat American couple that maintain an amazing array of feeders in their backyard. It was here that we realized just how many hummingbirds could fit onto a feeder. We estimated that 50-60 birds were visible at any given time, often zipping in and out right between us as we watched. The diversity here was impressive, and in about an hour’s vigil we tallied an amazing number of White-necked Jacobin, several more Crowned Woodnymph, one Bronze-tailed (and at least one White-vented) Plumeleteer, a few Blue-chested and dozens of Snowy-bellied and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds! Among these more common species we were able to tease out a female Green Hermit, a remarkably good-looking species with an incredibly long decurved bill. 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 and even a Black-cheeked Woodpecker. As one participant remarked “this is way better than a fish tank”. Our gracious hosts were welcoming as always, and in addition to the birds we enjoyed a nice lunch spread out on the tables on their back patio.

Eventually we had to leave the comfort of the back porch and as we still had some time available, we decided to visit the Calle Mono Trailhead, which lies at the end of a short and forested road still inside the boundaries of the housing development. This turned out to be a wonderful choice, with some excellent birding near the largely undeveloped end of the road. From just a few feet away from our parked van we were thrilled to find a male Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker that was contentedly sitting on a high open branch. This is a scarce denizen of Panamanian foothill forests and our first endemic species for the trip. It’s an attractive woodpecker, clad in an olive suit with a nicely patterned front and bright red crown, and one that we see on only about half of our visits to Cerro Azul. As if that were not enough some yellow flowers below the road were attracting hummingbirds, and we tallied a cooperatively foraging Violet-headed Hummingbird and a young male Rufous-crested Coquette that made repeated forays to the flowers right on the road edge. A Yellow Tyrannulet showed briefly here as well, lurking down in its preferred weedy thickets. The open skies over the trailhead provided an excellent vantage point for the forested ridges down the slope, with several more Swallow-tailed Kites languidly circling and a steady trickle of migrant vultures and swallows passing below us.

Our last stop on the mountain was along a scenic rocky creek, where we stopped to admire a perched pair of Black Phoebes sitting on the boulders in the middle of the creek. By then the afternoon was waning, so we headed down the mountain in order to stop along the coast just east of Panama City to take in the extensive mudflats and their attendant waders on the way back to the tower. Panama Bay is a RAMSAR-designated shorebird site that supports over a million birds during migration and several hundred thousand throughout the winter months. Although almost all of the species here are familiar to most North American birders, the abundance of birdlife here is often spectacular. We can’t gear our arrival for a specific tide condition though, and on this day when we arrived, we found the shoreline flooded with a particularly high tide (in part due to the new moon the day prior to our visit). Instead of extensive mudflats and the odd rocky islet laden with frantically feeding shorebirds we found the waves lapping right up to the coastal mangroves. Lots of herons and Black Vultures were crammed into the very narrow coastal strip (unfortunately largely covered in washed up detritus). In scanning the crowded masses we picked out our first Great Blue and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, a large flock of Black-necked Stilt (likely the only local shorebird with long enough legs to not drown). The muddy waters of Panama bay though were literally teeming with birds. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Brown Pelicans, Neotropic Cormorants and Laughing Gulls were plying the flooded shoreline in search of food. With dozens of pelicans plunge diving out in all directions and easily a hundred Magnificent Frigatebirds patrolling above it made for quite an active scene. We picked out a few Royal and Sandwich Terns in the mob, and a passing trio of Whimbrel that seemed more than ready to find somewhere to land before walking over a small bridge towards the parked van. The mangroves lining the canal were thick with more herons, pelicans, White Ibis and cormorants, and while scanning the trees we also found a handsome Cocoi Heron perched under some fully plumed Great Egrets. The Cocoi Heron is very similar in size and structure to our more familiar Great Blue, but is dressed in a much smarter white, black and grey plumage. The central canal zone is about as far west into North America that one can find this species, which effectively replaces Great Blue throughout South America. We checked the nearby Panama Viejo shorebird spot but it too was underwater, so we decided to head back to the tower for a well-deserved rest and some preparation time for our transfer to the lodge the following day.

As our scheduled transfer was for just after lunch, we had the opportunity to spend the morning of the next day birding near the tower. We ate breakfast a bit early, and then spent about a half-hour back up on the top of the building, where we soaked in our last views of the surrounding forest and nearby canal. Despite the fact that by now we had been birding in the area for almost a week our short time atop the tower revealed some new birds such as an Olivaceous Woodcreeper and a migrant Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. We also were happy to find an eye-level male Gartered Trogon, a stunning pair of Cinnamon Woodpeckers that we were able to look down on, and a tree that was just stuffed with bright red Scarlet Tanagers. After our time on the tower, we set off for a nearby stretch of the Old Gamboa Rd., and the nearby Summit Ponds. We pulled into the parking lot area adjacent to the border police training center and were happy to find many fruiting Gumbo Limbo trees lining the edges of the road. Before we knew it, we were simply surrounded by birds, and it took over an hour to traverse the roughly 300 feet to the road down to the ponds. Most of the birds that were tucking into the fruits were migrants, with Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, Eastern Kingbird and Red-eyed Vireos being the most prevalent. Resident birds were busy constructing nests, and we spent a bit of time watching a pair of Common Tody-Flycatchers building their nest within a few feet of where a pair of Greater Kiskadees were putting the finishing touches on theirs. As we started to walk towards the ponds, we noticed first one or two, and then dozens of Broad-winged Hawks and Mississippi Kites lifting off from the trees and circling overhead. Some more fruiting trees were attracting our first Greenish Elaenias, some eye-level Yellow-green Vireos and a handsome Panama Flycatcher that showed well. As usual the area was full of tanagers, with Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Palm, Plain-colored Tanagers, Blue Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreepers bouncing around in the roadside trees.

Eventually though, lured by the welcoming shade, we made it to the forested Summit Ponds. Here we found a couple of roosting Boat-billed Herons, with their oddly shaped bills clearly visible. Here too were Amazon and Green Kingfishers, several Greater Anis glowing blue in the morning light, a great comparison of Striated and Green Herons, loafing Spectacled Caiman and American Crocodile and a pair of Gray-cowled Wood-Rails that were slowly working along the edge of one of the ponds. Once past the ponds the old road passes through some viney second growth forest and then out into patches of more open forest with an extensive grassy understory. Although only a few miles away from the tower this quite different forest type supports a number of species that are not found in the taller and more humid forest of the National Park. In the first forested section just past the ponds we were able to coax a calling Black-faced Antthrush into view, and were thrilled that it decided to just sit in the leaf litter a few feet off the road and have a bit of a preen as we looked on. From the same spot we also admired a perched Whooping Motmot sitting deep in a vine tangle. A bit further down the trail our progress ground to a halt, as we found a very large mixed flock foraging along both sides of the trail. Antbird diversity was high, with White-bellied and Dusky Antbirds, Fasciated Antshrike and Dot-winged Antwren. Also down in the understory were several dashing Golden-collared Manakins conducting their snappy breeding displays to some onlooking females, a pair of Blue-black Grosbeak, several Buff-throated Saltators and a trio of quite cooperative Black-bellied Wrens. In the midstory we found a pretty Black-tailed Flycatcher that was foraging with its tail and wings outspread like a giant yellow and brown American Redstart. The trunks of the roadside trees held foraging Cocoa and Olivaceous Woodcreepers and a single Plain Xenops, and up in the tree crowns we were treated to our first (and only) Magnolia Warbler, and a nice array of colorful tanagers. Before continuing on we also were successful at teasing a Yellow-billed Cacique out of the dense grasses, no mean feat for what is often a very skulky species.

Near the end of the accessible part of the trail a strong storm during early 2020 had washed out the trailbed, leaving the remnants of a rocky stream and some high banks. Since the flood a new trail had been cut in that diverted around the destruction, and while we were navigating the short detour, we noticed a medium sized Speckled Racer hunting minnows in a small pool below the new trail. Watching this pretty green and black snake slowly hunt around the pond like a legless heron was fascinating, although the minnows, in their rapidly shrinking pool, were likely less enthused. As we neared the end of our walk, we were thrilled to spot a roosting Spectacled Owl sitting right over the road. Seeing such a large and brightly patterned owl gazing back at us with baleful yellow eyes was a great way to end the mornings walk. Once we were back at the car and enjoying some cool drinks and we realized that the morning bird list stood at an impressive 98 species. We decided to see what else we could turn up, and in response to a broadcast mob tape on the edge of the parking lot we quickly added Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-breasted Wren, Violet-bellied Hummingbird and Streaked Saltator! Back at the tower we had our final lunch and bade farewell to our gracious host Tatiana and readied ourselves for the roughly two-hour transfer over to the Canopy Lodge, where this year all participants had elected to take the optional extension to our Canopy tower week.

LODGE EXTENSION: Nestled in a forested valley just uphill from the picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, in the eastern (but isolated) edge of the Talamanca range that stretches westward into Costa Rica, the lodge offers a wealth of birds not accessible around the tower. Although the dry season is the time for a lot of the local birds to be off nesting, the daily show at the fruit feeders just outside the dining hall is still a treasure for the eyes. Crimson-backed, Blue-gray, Plain-colored and Dusky-faced Tanagers, Clay-colored Thrushes and Thick-billed Euphonias compete with Red-tailed Squirrels and even the occasional Rufous Motmot, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail or gang of Gray-headed Chachalacas for the best pieces of banana. Our tour this year was unfortunately beset by continuing strong winds that typify the shift to the wet season which did complicate some of the birding locations and depress activity especially in the afternoons. Nevertheless, the cooler air provided a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the tower, 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.

After checking in to our rooms and getting organized we had only an hour or so to make a quick tour of the lodge grounds. The feeding tables were attracting a nice assortment of birds, with Gray-headed Chachalacas and Clay-coloured Thrushes dominating, but Crimson-backed and Blue-gray Tanagers, a one-eyed Rufous Motmot and a two-eyed Lesson’s Motmot adding some colour. Hummingbirds were making use of the ornamental and native flowers around the lodge deck, with a male Black-throated Mango joining the more regular Rufous-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds. We then took a slow walk up along the road that heads towards La Mesa. Along the edge of the Canopy Lodge property, we found a spot where we could look down on a stretch of rocky creekbed and were rewarded with lengthy views of a Sunbittern that was standing quietly along one of the banks. There has been a pair of these stunning birds along the creek for years, but finding them is never easy as they use a long section of the creek to forage. We were fairly confident that such a bird would prove to be the highlight of the walk, but soon afterwards Danilo spotted an adult male Rufous-crested Coquette sitting on a bare branch above a large flowering shrub. Although we had seen a juvenile of this species the day before at Cerro Azul this sighting felt like a life bird. With a crazy threaded and wispy flaming orange crest and white streaks in its gorget the Rufous-crested Coquette is one stunning little bird! Also on our walk we found a small group of Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, flyover Blue-headed and Brown-hooded Parrots, our first Chestnut-capped Warblers (a recent split from the Rufous-capped Warbler of Mexico and the US borderlands) and some foraging Violet-headed Hummingbirds that were occasionally flashing their dull purple faces at us. Back at the lodge we found an Orange-billed Sparrow feeding underneath the bird table. Normally a shy species of dense undergrowth the sparrows around the lodge are somewhat used to people (and fond of cooked rice), often coming out into full sunlight to feed and really showing off their bold olive, black and white bodies and glow-in-the-dark orange bills.

The next day we elected to spend the morning above the lodge exploring a few of the roads around La Mesa. We altered the original schedule a bit when we heard that over the previous few days the local guides had found a slow-moving swarm of army ants down one of the rougher trails that was being regularly attended by Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos. The five species of Neomorpha Ground-Cuckoos of South and southern Central America are a nearly mythical group of birds, rarely seen in the field despite their large size and often bright colours, and we simply couldn’t pass up a chance, however slight, that the birds and ants might still be in the area. We parked at the trailhead, and after admiring a perched Collared Trogon, here of the orange-bellied race that was only recently lumped into the greater collared complex we started the short but muddy walk into the woods. The forest here is dense and largely second growth, but has a lot of heliconia thickets in the understory, and a few very large trees heavily laden with bromeliads and other epiphytes. Given the foggy conditions on this day it was dark in the understory, with droplets of water coming off the trees from the previous nights’ rainfall. It took us about 15 minutes before we were close to the area where the ants had been the previous day, and sure enough we soon found a few Bicolored Antbirds and Plain-brown Woodcreepers hunting low over the forest floor; an indication that the ants were still active. Also evident almost upon our arrival were nearly a half-dozen Black-faced Antthrushes that were strutting around on the forest floor with cocked up tails. We stayed put for about 10 minutes watching the show and then a little behind the aforementioned birds we noticed a dark and fast-moving shape bounding through some denser vegetation. We held our breaths, but didn’t have to wait long before the shape resolved itself as a Ground Cuckoo. It’s a large and surprisingly attractive bird, with a purplish wash to the mantle, bifurcated crest, pale yellow bill, scaled throat and thin breast band. We watched the bird for many minutes as it scampered around in search of food amongst the ant swarm, occasionally stopping and slowly swishing its tail around in a contemplative fashion. After a time, the bird moved further away from us, vanishing amazingly quickly into the forest for such a large bird. If that was the sum total of our cuckoo experience it would have been fantastic; a once in a lifetime kind of sighting but we had more in store. We moved around to a small valley on the back of the ridge that had a more open understory and settled in for a bit more of a vigil. The ants were working their way downslope towards us, and soon we were surrounded by foraging Song Wrens, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, brief appearances of a Northern Schiffornis and a Scaly-throated Leaftosser and several Spotted and Plain-brown Woodcreepers. Soon we picked out one, and then two Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos working the small slope above us, repeatedly showing themselves out in patches of open ground. We stayed with the swarm for about an hour, and by the end two Cuckoos had come to within 20 feet of us, providing unparalleled views. Another pair of cuckoos were lurking a bit further back as well; a true embarrassment of riches! We lingered until the birds started to move back upslope and then we picked our way back up to the trail still a bit dazed by our luck. As we headed back to the trailhead, we ran into a nice mixed flock that contained both Plain and Spot-crowned Antvireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tawny-capped Euphonia and our first Golden-winged and Canada Warblers. After a midmorning snack we moved over to the other side of the property, where the trail starts off winding around a small section of agricultural fields where we stopped to watch Smooth-billed Ani’s, a singing Black-striped Sparrow, a male Barred shrike, hordes of Southern Lapwing, our first Mourning Warbler, and a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail that was climbing up in some trailside bushes. Once in the forest we found things to be a but quiet and foggy. The previous day there had been another antswarm on the trails here, and we wandered around a bit looking for a repeat performance. After a little while we decided to stake out a likely looking patch of flowering Heliconia flowers hoping for a visit from a wandering White-tipped Sicklebill while Danilo went out to check a few side trails for ants. Normally seeing one of these unique looking hummingbirds, with streaked chests and bellies and an almost recurved bill is either a matter of extreme luck or great patience. Like hermits, Sicklebills are trapline feeders, visiting a series of flowers widely spaced around the forest, stopping at each only briefly at a time. Our amazing luck held though, and within just a few minutes of our vigil a Sicklebill zoomed in and spent a full minute checking out a series of heliconia flowers and perch feeding repeatedly in front of us! Even better, Danilo returned and told us that he had indeed found the antswarm. We hurried over and were soon again surrounded by foraging antbirds, this time with a very cooperative Chestnut-backed pair as well as Bicolored and Spotted. Here too were more Spotted and Plain-brown (and Cocoa) Woodcreepers, another Northern Schiffornis and, unbelievably another Ground-Cuckoo! In the over 15 years that the canopy lodge has been operating birding tours around El Valle this marked the first time that so many cuckoos were seen in a day; in fact, often more than 6 months go by without a single sighting! Another birding group visited the same trails the following day and reported no army ants, and no cuckoos; proving that in birding, as in so many endeavors, timing is everything. We headed back down to the lodge for lunch and a bit of time off in the early afternoon.              

After our naps (or vigils at the bird feeders) we decided to travel a bit down downslope to spend a bit of time birding the drier forest around the edges of the town of El Valle. Our main target for the afternoon was to be the small and secretive Tody Motmot, a bird which eschews the customary extravagant nature of most motmots and spends most of its time in dense tangles in the understory. We found a likely spot a bit off the main road down a side trail that leads to a small water tank. It took quite some time to elicit a response, but eventually a single Motmot popped into view, lingering for enough time for half the group to see it in the scope. We vowed to try again in a different spot the next afternoon, but our time in the area was definitely not just about the Motmot. This same dry forest supports a good population of Lance-tailed Manakins, and we managed close range views of two males along the forest edge. 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. The peals of thunder eventually gave way to a light rain, and we decided that heading back to the lodge a bit early seemed the best course of action; a decision that proved correct when the rain began in earnest a short while later.

The next day was reserved for spending out time in the highlands around Altos de Maria, a large housing development several thousand feet above El Valle. Here the orchids and bromeliads seem to outweigh the trees, and a profusion of flowers play host to hummingbirds and an array of butterflies. Much like the rest of Panama though the wet season seemed to be arriving early, and we spent periodic parts of the day with swirling fog and heavy overcast conditions. Perhaps counterintuitively this type of weather is often excellent for birding up at elevation, where the birds seem to retire to the thicker understory under full sunshine. 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, a few Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, a trio of Russet Antshrikes, a Spotted Barbtail and a small group of Common Chlorospingus. Certainly the rarest and most impressive species at the stop though was the pair of Black Guans that came in overhead, grunting as they walked around on some high limbs above the road. These dark and large cracids are endemic to the Costa Rican-Panamanian mountains, and are decidedly uncommon around Altos de Maria, which is basically right on the far east spot of their range. Our main reason for picking this particular stretch of road was to look for Dull-mantled Antbird, and on that front we succeeded greatly, with two birds coming right to the edge of the road and posing for us actually out from the shadowy depths of the creekside vegetation that they prefer. These poorly named antbirds are actually quite bright, with ruby red eyes and bright silver-white flashes on their backs.

A bit further up the road (but still before the official entrance to the housing development) we stopped again, this time on a stretch with shorter trees. Here we again found a flock, with many of the same species as earlier in the morning but also a pair of Red-faced Spinetails, a female Snowcap, an inquisitive Northern Emerald Toucanet, a male Golden-winged Warbler and a pair of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. 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. Pairs of perky Tufted Flycatchers sallied out from bare twigs, realighting with quivering tails. A male Snowcap was perched down near eyelevel, with its namesake crown glowing like a white beacon in the understory. Some fruiting trees nearby held multiple male White-ruffed Manakins, which we found to be quite common this year and a very cooperative Rufous Mourner. The local workers were unfortunately deploying the leafblower army along one of the better sections of road, but despite the noise we still managed to drum up a pair of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, a few Spotted Woodcreepers and a little flock that had several bright Blackburnian Warblers, some Tawny-crowned Euphonias and a frustratingly furtive Ochraceous Wren.

A little before lunch the clouds parted, so we decided to fit another location in before heading to the small lake and its conveniently located picnic gazebo (which we discovered later now also features a restroom). Down an unpaved road at the very back of the complex we went for a short walk far away from the bustle of landscapers. The walk turned out to be short indeed, as within a minute or so we heard the rollicking calls of a pair of Black-eared Wood-Quail coming from just a little downslope. Wood-Quail are near mythical birds, generally uncommon to rare across Central and northern South America. They have loud calls, but as they tend to occur in dense forests, often in mountainous areas with poor access they are seldom seen. We found a spot where we could get into the woods off the road, and settled in for a vigil. To our shock and amazement, the birds actually walked upslope and out onto the patch of flat land that we were waiting on. Although they stayed about twenty feet away from us our views were good as the understory was mostly open. Black-eared Wood-Quail are subtly attractive, with a chestnut crown, dark face, and lighter brown underparts. Little is known about the species, with only one nest ever discovered and scant natural history information available. The species was a write-in (and not expected) for the tour, and a lifer for everyone (including Gavin). We then enjoyed a late lunch at the small artificial lake out in by the developers of Altos. While eating our sandwiches and fruit we were accompanied by hunting Green Kingfishers, a nice comparison of Social, Rusty-margined and Great Kiskadee, our only Tropical Pewee of the trip and some Band-rumped Swifts that were coming in to drink. Our walk down the (paved!) continental divide nature trail that winds along a small, forested creek with a protected swath of forest on both sides was atmospheric, with long peals of thunder reverberating overhead and dark clouds building above the treetops. Perhaps due to the weather we found the forest to be quite quiet, with a brief showing of a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, a perky little White-throated Spadebill, some Plain Antvireos, a female Collared Trogon and another Dull-mantled Antbird. The rains started in earnest while we were watching a pair of Long-tailed Tyrants and a Boat-billed Flycatcher that were perched up in some thin dead trees out in the marsh.

As we descended from the heights of the mountain the weather improved, and we were able to stop for a bit of birding near the town of Mata Ahogado. Here we found several flowering Inga trees that seemed primed for hummingbirds, so we imitated a bit of pygmy-owl to see what was around. This proved incredibly productive, as within no time several dozen species were bouncing around in a large bare tree in front of us. Among the more common species we picked out a shimmering male Garden Emerald and a Blue-throated Goldentail (a rare species in this part of Panama) as well as a female White-winged Becard, and a pair of cooperative Bay Wrens. We picked this particular stretch of road because Danilo knew of a Tody Motmot territory near the road, and on this front too we were incredibly successful, with excellent scope views of one bird sitting on a horizontal vine just a few feet into the woods. After our struggle the previous day this sighting was most welcome, and a fitting way to wrap up what was an incredible day in the field.

We started the next day with a return visit to the La Mesa area a bit uphill from the lodge. As we started up the road, we noticed a large black raptor flying over and passing behind a ridge. As luck would have it the road also bent behind that ridge, so we pulled over to scan the area in the vain hope that the birds might have landed somewhere nearby. Our excellent run of luck held, and we were soon looking at an adult Black Hawk-Eagle perched in a dense tree canopy. After a short while the bird took off and sailed across the ridge, carrying what looked like either a large snake or small iguana. Since we were out of the car we did a bit of general birding here as well, finding a wealth of birds along the roadside edge. New species included Black-headed Saltator, Olive-sided and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and a Roadside Hawk that was living up to its name. The up close and personal comparative views of Fulvous-vented and Thick-billed Euphonias, a really showy Chestnut-sided Warbler and a Ringed Kingfisher sitting on top of a nearby greenhouse were quite nice as well.

Further up the hill we visited the lower section of the trail that winds up to the peak of Cerro Gaital, one of the prominent features visible from the town of El Valle. It took a bit of time to actually start on the trail though, as just around the parking lot we located a pair of Black-faced Grosbeaks (a scarce species in the area), some cooperative Isthmian Wrens and a bright pair of Green Honeycreepers. Once on the trail proper we were amazed to spot a perched White-tipped Sicklebill that was sitting almost on the forest floor right next to a cluster of Heliconia flowers. The bird lingered for several minutes, with our entire group standing just a few feet away from it, providing unbelievably good views (and photo ops). Here too were a couple of Northern Schiffornis that stayed put for us for a few minutes as they repeatedly gave their distinctive three-note song from the understory. A few groups of Tawny-crested Tanagers passed over the trail during our visit as well, with the males’ flashy orange crests really standing out against the dark green forest backdrop. It wasn’t until we reached the beginning of the steeper section of the trail that we found our first understory flock. It was worth the short wait though, as the flock contained our hoped for Slaty Antwrens along with more Plain Antvireos, an Olive-striped Flycatcher, several Red-crowned Ant-Taangers and a male Collared Trogon that seemed intent on showing off as it repeatedly landed on perches within just a few feet of us and down at eye-level. After the Cerro Gaital trail, we decided to revisit one of the Candelaria Trails that we took on our first full day of the extension. Here we took a longer route than before, winding roughly around the cleared farm area on a meandering series of mostly level forest trails. Right at the entrance we were happy to watch a trio of Spotted Woodcreepers that were having some kind of territorial dispute and chasing each other around, repeatedly sitting down at eye level right by the trail. A nice selection of hummingbirds including a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, male Crowned Woodnymph and Snowy-bellied and Blue-chested were foraging on dangling hot lips flowers. About half-way around the trail we found a diverse understory flock which contained Russet Antshrike, Checker-throated, Slaty and White-flanked Antwren, Plain Xenops and both Plain and Spot-crowned Antvireos. Shortly thereafter we heard the unmistakable distant chacking call of a Black-crowned Antpitta coming from further down the trail! This large and spectacular bird is one of the top birds of Panama, if not all of Latin America. It is almost a Panama endemic, occurring in a narrow elevation band through part of Costa Rica, and in a very remote corner of far Northwestern Colombia. Not a true Antpitta, but rather a large species of Gnateater it is a scarce species that requires good quality forest and one that can be hard to spot in the dense wet undergrowth that it prefers. We hurried over to a more open section of the trail and tried to coax the bird into view. We were all set up for the bird to appear right in front of us in a very open section of the understory but it popped up only briefly and in dense cover far to the right of the clearing. Unfortunately, only a few folks saw it before it bounded away at an impressive speed. It appeared to be heading towards a nearby canyon, and as the trail angled in that direction, we hustled a few hundred meters (likely at a slower pace than the bounding antpitta was capable of). As we neared the ridge the bird ran across the trail behind us, and when we stopped and started scanning it then hopped into the open just a few feet away and proceeded to linger for over 5 minutes as it preened and sat up on a small log. It is a striking and dramatic bird, with a coal-black crown, large bill, heavily scalloped underparts and deep chestnut mantle and neck. It’s moments like these, with a group of participants able to study such a rare and beautiful bird at length and at such close range that really make memories on a tour; and we felt lucky indeed to experience both this Antpitta and the earlier Ground-Cuckoo so incredibly well this year. The walk back to the car seemed to take no time at all, and soon we were celebrating our morning over lunch.

For our last afternoon at the lodge, we began by spending a bit of time checking the creek above the lodge. Along a short trail well upstream from the Canopy Adventure’s waterfall we were ecstatic to find a pair of Mottled Owls that were tucked up under some dense vines. The birds seemed nonplussed by our arrival, with one bird completely ignoring us and the other shuffling its feathers a bit and giving us a short glare before going back to sleep. Although Mottled Owls are generally present around the grounds here, they seem to switch perches fairly regularly, and are often quite well hidden in dense vine tangles; making detecting them an uphill struggle (literally). This sighting was a testament to how useful it is to have keen local leaders that check the areas that we bird daily; for we would certainly not have detected this roosting owl without their knowledge and efforts. The rest of the day was spent along the lower stretch of the road that leads from El Valle up towards Altos de Maria. Near the small village of Mata Ahogado, we stopped several times along the road. It’s a scenic mixed-habitat, with brushy clearings, small homesteads, a little creek and patches of dry forest nestled in between two largely intact ridges. We found the area to be rich in birds, and spent a quite enjoyable two hours or so just soaking in the local diversity. A few new species for the trip were especially nice, with several White-collared Swifts coursing overhead against some huge rolling clouds, an extremely tractable Rufous-and-White Wren that allowed for scope views as it sat up in a tree and preened in the afternoon sun, a quartet of tiny Blue-and-White Swallows, a few Lesser Goldfinches and several White-lined Tanagers.

The next morning, we set out for the dry savannah-like lowlands along the pacific coast, with white sandy beaches, rice fields in the lower swales, and dense hedgerows were a completely new habitat type for us, and we added a remarkable number of species to our trip list in a very enjoyable morning’s birding. Our first stop was along a new highway that leads south from El Valle. A stop along a weedy hillside revealed three Wedge-tailed Grassfinches singing from the grasses. Although these long-tailed and streaked back birds closely resemble sparrows recent genetic work has revealed them to be tanagers, closely related to the seed-finches. As we descended from the mountains, we had the windows open and our eyes peeled. A quick stop revealed a singing Striped Cuckoo that was audible from our moving van and happily remained perched just a bit off the road after we screeched to a halt. A little further down we successfully found a Bran-colored Flycatcher at one of Danilo’s known territories, and spent some time watching a half-dozen Crested Oropendolas bringing food into their impressively large and pendulous nests.

As we dropped further out of the mountains and out into the dry and generally hot lowlands, we stopped at an overgrown soccer field where we found a surprising number of calling and perching Brown-throated Parakeets, a species that seems to have become much more common along the dry Pacific slope in recent times. Here too were our first Groove-billed Anis and Eastern Meadowlarks, a brief showing of a female Veraguan Mango at a flowering tree and a calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that we eventually located as it sat up in a huge spreading tree. A much-needed stop once we reached the main highway revealed the hoped-for restroom facilities and several House Sparrows…

After our comfort stop, we spent a bit of time south of the town of Anton, exploring a network of roads that eventually reach the coast. Mouse-coloured Tyrannulets performed well for us this year, as did the impressive Rufous-browed Peppershrike, and perhaps not-so-impressive Northern Scrub-Flycatcher. Here too we found a female Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, some stubbornly reticent Crested Bobwhite, a perky and atypically bold Pale-breasted Spinetail that perched well above eye level to check us out, and a more cooperative (male) Veraguan Mango. The mango is a Panama endemic (not withstanding a couple of individuals recently located within a few miles of the border over in Costa Rica), and the male, with its gleaming green/blue throat and deep purple tail is quite attractive. We then moved over to another coastal road, where we found most of the roadside rice fields bone dry, perhaps awaiting the onset of the rainy season to replant and flood the fields. Small pools were still scattered about and in the distance, we could see the rice harvesters working with a few Glossy and White Ibis, various herons, and Wood Storks milling about over the tractors. 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. Near the coast we found a few small puddles with loafing shorebirds including Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper. Some dense tangled forest held a few Lance-tailed Manakins but we were not able to drum up any interest from the Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrants or Slate-headed Tody-Flycatchers that sometimes occur here. Eventually we reached the coast; a postcard-perfect white sand beach with a few low-key beach houses and some local fishermen plying the sparkling Pacific waters. One of the small skiffs had just come ashore, and literally hundreds of Magnificent Frigatebirds were swarming above the beach, hoping to pick up any unwanted small fish cast out of the nets. Out at sea we found a loafing flock of Blue-footed Boobys and a few Brown Boobys as well as a small movement of Sandwich Terns, Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls flying along the shoreline.

As it was at this point past noon, we drove over to another beach access point a few miles to the east in the small town of Santa Clara, where the owners of the Canopy Tower and Lodge have a small beach house. Here too were huge numbers of Frigatebirds and Pelicans, several flocks of loafing Laughing Gulls and Royal and Sandwich Terns on the shore. There were a couple of Whimbrel and Willet and one distant Black-bellied Plover as well. We departed here after a relaxing lunch and drove back west to fulfil our COVID testing requirements for our outbound flights the next day. When we arrived at the site, we found that it was closed, resulting in a bit of a scramble to form a backup plan. We wound up using the site near the international airport that we had used for the previous November WINGS tour. This required some extra driving across the city, but the testing site was efficient and open. Since the actual process took very little time, we were able to stop again on the coast, this time on a much better incoming tide. There were thousands of birds foraging along the shoreline, and over about 15 minutes we added a host of new birds that were familiar to most of us; Blue-winged Teal, Short-billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Western Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover and Black-crowned Night-Heron. A beautiful adult Cocoi Heron was here too, with two dusky Great Blues nearby for comparison. So too were Wood Storks and lots of White Ibis, a perched Osprey and truly impressive numbers of birds farther out running around on the edge of the incoming tides. It was a much more impressive site than on our first visit, and a nice complement to our largely forest and savannah based ten days in the field. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Jorge and Danilo, for making this such a rewarding and bird-rich tour. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 26 April 2022