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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Spring at the Canopy Tower

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The 2018 Spring Panama tour combined seasonably dry weather with a wonderful array of neotropical birds. Our week at the Canopy Tower produced 293 species of birds and an incredible 19 species of mammals (387 species of birds and 20 mammals with the extension included). Some of the highlights included watching two male Blue Cotingas sitting on a canopy tree from the top deck of the tower, an unexpected and glorious adult Agami Heron along Achiote Road (as well as both principal targets there; White-headed Wren and Spot-crowned Barbet), point blank views of a singing Streak-chested Antpitta, responsive Rufous Piha and foraging Great Tinamou along the Pipeline Road, the flurry of hummingbirds and tanagers at the feeders at Cerro Azul and excellent views of all five species of possible Trogons. The lodge produced such highlights as a well-hidden but extremely cooperative Tody Motmot in a forested gully, studies of gaudy male Rosy Thrush-Tanager in the suburbs of El Valle, very close views of Brown-billed Scythebill on the trails at La Mesa, and Sepia-capped Flycatcher, White-throated Spadebill and a quick White-tipped Sicklebill at the base of Cerro Gaital. And who could fail to mention the fiesta of colorful tanagers including Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Golden-hooded, Emerald, Black-and-Yellow, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped? Beyond the color and diversity of the birds though, we enjoyed 20 species of mammals including day active Night Monkeys, foraging Kinkajou and an in-tower Central American Woolly Opossum, as well as an impressive array of Reptiles. This year’s trip participants each picked a different species as their bird of the trip, a testament to the sheer number of excellent species and sightings that we had. For my part, it would be hard to beat our views of Zeledon’s Antbird as it foraged along the trail or the wonderful array of day-roosting owls over the course of the 10 days including Black-and-White, Mottled, Spectacled, Ferruginous Pygmy and Tropical Screech. 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 began to filter in to the tower throughout the afternoon we decided to meet for an hour’s or so birding at the end of the day. 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 milling around them. 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 an aggressive White-vented Plumeleteer that was trying to push the Jacobins around and several smaller Blue-chested Hummingbirds that were mainly foraging in the surrounding Verbena bushes. The real treat though was the extremely active raptor migration that was underway for much 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. A conservative estimate of 5000 birds passed by in the hour or so that we watched, with many of the swarms of hawks passing just overhead. Seeing migration in action is always remarkable, doubly so when the numbers of birds are so impressive. As the sun began to wane we were also happy to see a male Red-capped Manakin eating fruits near the edge of the tower, in the colourful company of a male Blackburnian Warbler, two simply stunning birds that are not typically seen in such close company. We then met up for our introductory meeting and turned in for the night, looking forward to our first full day in Panama.

We greeted the sunrise on our first morning with an hour long and vigil from the top deck of the Canopy Tower. Perched atop an 800ft high hill in Soberiana National Park, the tower overlooks a great expanse of forested slopes and lowlands. From the top of the tower one has a great view of the expansive forest canopy and of the canal. Early morning on the top deck is a special place, as the dawn’s light creeps across the canopy and the birds begin to wake. Every morning is a bit different from the deck, and on our first day we were treated to a real parade of birds. The fruiting Melostoma tree that was hosting the manakin the previous day was still attracting birds, with migrants like Summer and Scarlet Tanagers and Tennesse and Bay-breasted Warblers joining resident species such as Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Palm and Plain-coloured Tanager and the dazzling Red-legged Honeycreeper plucking the tiny blue fruits. At one point we were thrilled to actually spot a pair of Green Shrike-Vireos that were plucking caterpillars out of the same trees. These beautiful vireos provide a near constant aural din in the forest, with their three-part calls that sound remarkably like a Greenshank or Tufted Titmouse. As they are one of the three birds illustrated on the tower memorabilia and a difficult species to spot as they move slowly around in the canopy (unless one is afforded a canopy perch oneself) we were happy to see them so quickly this year. One of the other species featured on the tower shirts also put in a short but glorious appearance. Two male Blue Cotingas, surely one of the most intensely blue living things on the planet perched up in the canopy for a couple of minutes, glowing from the greenery like neon signs. The larger trees around the tower played host to Keel-billed Toucans, Pale-vented and Scaled Pigeons, and we picked out a few perched Mealy and Red-lored Parrots and even a closely perched Short-tailed Hawk to round out the cast. It was a bit of a sensory overload really, and our heads were still spinning as we descended one floor to devour the cinnamon-laded French toast 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 flocks with Dot-winged, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, Black-crowned Antshrike, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and Black-bellied and White-breasted Wood Wrens. We found colourful and perched birds to be particularly well represented, with both Black-breasted and White-whiskered Puffbirds, Rufous and Broad-biled Motmots and Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogons all showing well. Typically, in march many species of birds are busily constructing nests. On this walk we found active nests of Olivaceous Flatbill, Golden-hooded Tanager, Paltry Tyrannulet and Scarlet-rumped Cacique! Little flocks of flycatchers and warblers kept popping into the canopy around us, with species like Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Forest Elaenia, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher joining migrant species such as Acadian Flycatcher, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted and Tennessee Warblers. Perhaps the most exciting finds was a pair of roosting Black-and-White Owls that were perched high up under the canopy. These very attractive large owls sport barred chests, orange feet and bills and a well differentiated black crown. Seeing owls in the day is vastly better than seeing them in the shine of torchlight, and as this species is scarce and seldom seen in central Panama we felt very fortunate indeed.

The mammals were excellent too, with the highlight undoubtedly being the trio Night Monkeys that were poking their heads out of a tree cavity for several minutes. Although these squirrel-like monkeys have been reliably using this particular cavity for several years they are not always present. We walked down below the road to gain a better view of the tree cavity and were surprised to find that several feet above the Night Monkeys was a Rufous Tree-Rat peering out of the same large cavity. Both species are rarely encountered away from known roost sites and made for quite an unusual pairing. While walking down to the tree we also flushed a pair of Ruddy Quail-Doves that flashed away just over the forest floor with a glint of bright purplish-red backs. We reached the bottom of the hill and after checking out the Lesser White-lined Bats that have colonized the main struts under the road bridge and looking at the assembled collection of dragon and damselflies that were darting around the creek-bed we caught a ride back up to the tower for lunch and a siesta.

In the afternoon, we headed out to the nearby Ammo Dump Ponds just past the little town of Gamboa. This port town on the canal is a famous area historically as it represented the terminus of the French attempt at canal construction. Nowadays the town is largely used as a base for researchers from the Smithsonian Institution who have a large presence in Panama’s canal zone. 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, Orange-chinned Parakeets and Red-legged Honeycreepers which all came in to feed on our proffered bananas. 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 in November of 2016. The main lake was reduced to a relatively small pool, with a nice selection of swallows including Northern and Southern Rough-winged, Barn and Mangrove Swallows zipping over the marsh. Wattled Jacanas, Purple Gallinule, a few 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 pair of Greater Anis as they clambered around in the shrubs, some Buff-breasted Wrens bathing in the grassy verge, a perched Gray-lined Hawk that was overlooking the reedbeds with a hungry eye and eventually tracked down a stunning Yellow-tailed Oriole that was foraging in clumps of cattails near the back edge of the clearing. The area was alive with birds, and over the course of a little less than an hour 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 several perched Black-throated Mangos. A family group of Southern Lapwing were foraging close to the road, and while we were watching these boldly patterned and large plovers we were amazed to see a family group of White-throated Crakes foraging nearby. It took some patience before the adults crept out of their hiding places for the whole group to enjoy but our views of these copper/burgundy and gray rails were well worth the wait. 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 100m from the parked car. As the day began to draw to a close we worked on the finer identification points that can be used to separate the similar Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers and Lesser and Greater Kiskadees before heading back to the tower, passing trees laden with carousing Red-lored Parrots, and watching huge ships cruising along the canal.

On our second day we set out for an all-day excursion (we thought) 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. The forest (and all of central Panama) was noticeably dry this trip. As we were milling around in the parking lot of the tower before heading out for the day we spotted a Tamandua foraging above the entrance gate to the tower. These beautiful arboreal anteaters are amazingly agile in the treetops and we were able to watch this one for about 10 minutes as it clambered around the main branches and vines just overhead questing for ant eggs or some other delicacy. Buoyed by such an auspicious sighting to start the day we set off for the 20 minute drive to the beginning of Pipeline Road. 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 forest was protected during the canal construction era because some of the engineers had the foresight to realise that in order to have an even and continuous flow of water into the canal throughout the year they had to protect the vegetation in the watershed. Such an expansive patch of lowland forest is unique in Central America and provides one of the best examples of how the ecology and economy of an area can mutually benefit. The forest near the entrance is mature, well-established second growth forest, with many large trees and an undulating topography. New birds came thick and fast during our walk, with big and showy species like Slaty-tailed and Black-tailed Trogons, Yellow-throated Toucan, Whooping Motmot (a recent split from the formerly widespread Blue-crowned Motmot), a pair of diminutive Pied Puffbirds, Crimson-crested Woodpecker and a flashy pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds joining the more subtly coloured species such as the jauntily singing Song Wrens in the understory, a perched Band-tailed Barbthroat, furtive but stunning Black-bellied Wrens and a host of little flycatchers (everyone’s favorite group) including a Bright-rumped Atilla that finally gave us excellent views and several migrant Acadian Flycatchers. By midmorning we already felt like the day was a complete success but the road had many more surprises in store for us on this day. We reached the parking area for the discovery center and found it to be bustling with tourists, busy with cars, and hosting a singing Pheasant Cuckoo! It took some patience and effort with all of the cars shuffling back and forth but by walking back a bit into the woods we were able to spot two Pheasant Cuckoos foraging on the forest floor, sweeping aside the leaf litter with their wide tails and then inspecting the exposed ground for any hapless invertebrates exposed. Although resident in Panama these very cryptic large cuckoos are generally only seen when vocalizing in the dry season, going virtually undetected for most of the year. Here too we found a tiny Long-billed Gnatwren creeping around in a viney tangle over the road, and a pair of languidly soaring King Vultures that were wheeling around in the forest gap created by the parking area. All in all, an excellent spot to stop for a mid-morning snack!

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.  Roughly one kilometer past the gate a large tree had recently fallen over the road. We walked on as Alexis and Lorenzo set about the removal process (with the aid of a borrowed chainsaw from the discovery center) and just around the first bend in the road were treated to views of a pair of Black-streaked Woodcreepers. 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. In an adjacent tree, we coaxed in a pair of Purple-throated Fruitcrows, which stayed quite high overhead but eventually flashed their claret-colored throat shields at us in a most pleasing way. At a small pool of water in a largely dry creekbed we stopped to admire several lounging Brown Basilisk lizards (including one particularly fine-looking male adorned with tall nuchal and caudal crests). Our interest in the lizards was doubly rewarded when a tiny and jewel-like American Pygmy Kingfisher zipped in and perched on an overhanging vine. These copper and emerald birds are generally hard to spot as they tend to sit tucked into denser waterside vegetation, only emerging to zip off in a flash of colour. This bird though was very obliging, remaining in excellent light for several minutes. Here too we heard the distinctive whistled song of a Streak-chested Antpitta (the only one that we heard vocalize all trip). The bird was fairly far off, but by walking into the forest a few dozen meters we were able to spot it sitting at the base of a tree, occasionally puffing out its throat and singing its hollow ringing song. Although normally quite shy this individual remained quite close to us for several minutes, seemingly oblivious to our commotion and excitement. As it was the first species of Antpitta for much of the group I had to assure them that if they continue venturing south into the neotropics they should not assume that all antpittas would be so obliging! Once the cars caught up with us we stopped for a delightful picnic lunch, complete with tables and benches in celebration of an incredible morning.

We spent the rest of the afternoon past the Rio Limbo bridge, beyond which the road is quite damaged by rain runoff from the last rainy season and from the lingering effects of a passing hurricane that grazed Panama two years ago, causing some extensive damage to the larger trees along the ridges leading up to the continental divide. Although the afternoon heat always depressed bird activity somewhat we were happy to find several mixed flocks as we walked back to the beginning of the divide foothills. Perky little Dot-winged Antwrens were somewhat common, and we picked out a pair of White-flanked Antwren and several Checker-throated Antwrens foraging nearby for comparison. The short rain shower that caused us to hide under some dense canopy trees seemed to entice a lot of birds into a short burst of activity. Among the more vocal birds we found were several Russet-winged Schiffornis, an apparently common (through local mist netting efforts) but rarely encountered flycatcher that prefers areas of dense understory. One of the three birds that we found flew over the road twice, like a dark chocolate missile, while the other two remained stubbornly entrenched in their shadowy haunts. Likewise, a Brownish Twistwing called continuously but refused to come into views. We had better luck though with a lek of Long-billed Hermits that were chipping nearby. The males (like most hermits) perch in the understory in loose association calling repeatedly and flashing their elongated white tail feathers. Females drift in and evaluate the assorted males and select a partner and then after copulating are solely responsible for incubation and rearing of the young. A small flock of antwrens greeted us around the next corner, and here we found a responsive pair of Spot-crowned Ant-Vireos.

Once we reached our turnaround point the birding we were surprised to find an uncharacteristically vocal and responsive Rufous Piha (quite a rare bird in central Panama and a write-in for the tour) which performed well. White-tailed, Slaty-tailed and Black-throated Trogons were spotted along the trail providing excellent comparison views and lovely splashes of colour. As we drove back out of the forest in the late afternoon we stopped to admire a Great Tinamou that crossed the road in front of us and then slowly wandered around on the forest floor below the road. It never fails to amaze me just how much diversity occurs along this relatively short road. I suspect that we could spend the entire tour simply driving along Pipeline Road and we would still only be scratching the surface of the available diversity. Our last stop of the day was back at the Ammo Dump Ponds, where a short 15 minutes of productive birding revealed our first Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Streaked Saltator, Great Blue Heron and even two male Purple Martins (an uncommon migrant in Panama).

The next morning, we were again atop the tower for an hour-long pre-breakfast vigil. In contrast to the last few days the skies were quite overcast, the air felt crisp and there was a steady breeze from the north. The winds seemed to depress the bird activity in the treetops during our vigil, but the sunrise was stunning. Even so we did pick up a few new birds, such as the Eastern Wood-Pewee that was hawking insects from an exposed snag well below the top of the tower and the group of Collared Aracaris that visited the fruiting Cercropias near the tower. Keel-billed Toucans, Scaled and both Red-lored and Mealy Parrots perched up for excellent studies as well, and the fruiting Melostome tree attracted a tiny Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and a male Red-capped Manakin. One particularly nice find was of a nesting Tropical Gnatcatcher. The small cup nest was found to be tucked into an overhanging branch just a few feet away from the top deck of the tower. I would imagine that few such canopy nests have even been found, and being able to watch the male incubating as the tree swayed in the wind was a distinctly intimate experience.

After breakfast, 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 nearly an hour to traverse the roughly 100 feet to the road down to the ponds. Palm Tanagers and Variable Seedeaters were perhaps the most prevalent species but we located our first White-necked Puffbirds, Boat-billed and Piratic Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbird (a migrant flock of nearly 20 birds), Red-eyed Vireo, Buff-throated Saltator, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and Yellow Tyrannulet, all without walking more than a few feet from the car. In fact, even the cars in the parking lot provided useful bird habitat, as a pair of Panama Flycatchers were busily attacking their images in the side-view mirrors of a small sedan. 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 was our first Anhinga of the trip, sitting Ringed and Green Kingfishers, and an excellent side-by-side comparison of Rusty-margined and Social Flycatchers, and Greater and Lesser Kiskadees.

The road then passes through some viney old second growth forest and then out into patches of more open forest with an extensive grassy understory. Although only a few miles away from the tower this quite different forest type supports a number of species that are not found in the taller and more humid forest of the National Park. I suspect that the favorite species of the walk would be the displaying male Lance-tailed Manakin that we found with little effort in a dense vine patch near the trail. Usually we only hear this exquisite little manakin at this site, so to see an adult male, clad in its black, powder blue and scarlet colours sitting up in the sun was a real treat. Some of the other mentionables from the very birdy walk were the small flock of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, a foraging pair of the brightly coloured Rufous-breasted Wrens, a pair of Jet Antbirds lurking in their preferred dense vine tangles, several handsome male Blue Ground-Doves and our first (and only) Magnolia and Golden-winged Warblers. As we neared the end of our walk we were thrilled to spot a roosting Spectacled Owl sitting right over the road. Although the Old Gamboa road region used to be a productive site for this species it had been months since the previous sighting. 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. The treasures were not quite all discovered though, as when we returned to the ponds we located swimming Spectacled Caiman and American Crocodile, marveled at the electric blue and purple sheen on several sunning Greater Anis, and were treated to lengthy views of a foraging Gray-cowled Wood-Rail that was slowly walking along the edge of the pond.

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 the buildings, with some new fencing and gates, but the trail system in the back of the property looked just as usual.  On the vegetated banks of the river we found our first Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Spotted Sandpiper, Southern Lapwing, Common Gallinule and Royal Tern. As we scanned the river from the bank we watched Southern Rough-winged and Mangrove Swallows pass back and forth in front of us, while Lesser Kiskadees fished from the dock edge. Around the actual lodge grounds we found our first Flame (Lemon)-rumped Tanagers feeding on some abandoned papaya fruit and several birds coming in to a dripping tap to bathe in the afternoon warmth. Clay-colored Thrushes and Palm Tanagers were the most common customers, but a welcome pair of Yellow-bellied Seedeaters joined the party as well.

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. A few White-bellied Antbirds sounded off from the depths of their grassy lairs, but none of them deigned to appear to our tapes. A group of Gray-headed Chachalacas were far more tractable, as was a wonderful male Barred Antshrike, complete with its punk-rock tufted crest and baleful yellow eye. Our best bird though was found near the end of the afternoon when we head the unmistakable call of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager perched up just around the next corner. It took a bit of patience but eventually the bird popped up and shot across the road in a brilliant flash of hot pink and black. This enigmatic species is neither a Tanager nor a Thrush, and has recently be placed into its own family. A quick check back on the banks of the Chagres River revealed hundreds of swallows hawking over the water in the setting sun, and a little flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks tucked in on the foreshore. We arrived back at the tower in plenty of time for dinner. An optional after-dinner trip down the road furnished views of a Common Pauraque sitting in a grassy field, a perched and quite inquisitive Spectacled Owl, sleeping Red-lored Parrot and Slaty-tailed Trogon. As usual the mammals outperformed the birds and we enjoyed excellent looks at languidly foraging Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth stuffing leaves into its rubbery face, a stunningly cooperative Kinkajou that remained in view for over 5 minutes as it hung upside down and devoured an orange fruit, and a quick run-by of a Rothchild’s Porcupine.

The next day we left early for a full day trip to the Atlantic slope forests of San Lorenzo National Park and Achiote Road. These lowland forests along central Panama’s Atlantic coast support several species of birds not found around the lodge area. We were delayed a bit as we had to wait to drive over both the new loch door and the old loch doors, and for a huge cruise ship that was passing through the second set of lochs. The canal-widening project has recently been finished, and the new canal loch system is now in operation. The giant bridge that will cross over the canal near the lochs is mostly complete now as well. Once this bridge is complete, we will no longer have the opportunity to see the inner workings of the loch systems as we drive over the loch doors, so this year’s tour may be the last to enjoy such an intimate view. Once we reached Achiote Road the birds started coming thick and fast as we spent about two hours slowly walking along the paved road and scanning the trees along the forest edge. Although the region around Achiote holds an incredible diversity of birds there are perhaps two species for which the site is famous. The road is likely the best spot in central Panama for the attractive Spot-crowned Barbet and large and garrulous White-headed Wren. Luck was with us on this day, as within just 100m of where we chose to park we located a trio of White-headed Wrens. Related to the Cactus Wren these slim and oddly coloured (white heads and bodies with brown wings and tail) canopy wrens have a small worldwide range and are nowhere abundant. We were able to follow one of the birds as it clambered around in the upper canopy and led us to a nesting site in a large bromeliad. Nearby we found a flowering tree with no fewer than six Yellow-backed Orioles foraging in it. As we had unsuccessfully tried for this species several times over the previous few days it was nice to see so many, so well. We then started walking along the main road, soon finding a couple of perched Spot-crowned Barbets in the canopy. This is a spectacularly colorful species, but during the dry season when the birds are generally nesting they can be devilishly hard to encounter. Elated with our quick success we spent the next hour or so slowly walking along the road, stopping to admire whatever crossed our paths. Perched Blue-headed Parrots and Pied Puffbirds were scoped at length, and we found a mostly cooperative Rufous-breasted Hermit hunting along the road edge. As was the case for the rest of the day Raptors formed an important part of the avifauna, and during the walk we found our only Double-toothed Kite and our first elegant American Swallow-tailed Kites.

Just before reaching the end of our walk and a nicely set-up midmorning snack we paused at a small creek under the road and were shocked to find an adult Agami Heron sitting quietly along the edge of the creek. These slim and shy herons are arguably the world’s most attractive heron, and are extremely rare in central Panama (and generally difficult to encounter anywhere in their large range). This bird flew a bit away from us in a flash of purple. Burgundy, white and cobalt but luckily for us it did not go too far; remaining visible on a shadowy branch perhaps 100 feet downstream. Put simply this sighting was high on everyone’s tour highlight list, and was wholly unexpected. Near the little town of Achiote we stopped to have a snack of coffee, sandwiches and cake. During our repast we found our first Yellow-bellied Elaenia and had a lovely time with a hunting Zone-tailed Hawk that eventually grabbed a lizard from the adjacent field and a pair of soaring Plumbeous Kites. Down a small gravel side road we located a flyover Hook-billed Kite and another Crane Hawk, as well as a beautiful and close Crested Oropendola with its flashy sky-blue irises and a trio of the very well-marked Pacific Antwrens in the roadside brush. As it was still only late morning we elected to visit another site a bit further to the east down a remarkably well-paved and maintained road that winds up and over several very steep hills only to dead end in a semi-forested valley. Although it was hot and sunny by the time we arrived near the end of the road the birding here was excellent, with perched Masked and Black-crowned Tityra, Yellow-faced Grassquit, nesting Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and our only Lineated Woodpecker of the trip. As with the rest of the day it was raptors who perhaps stole the show, with a soaring White Hawk and a pair of perched Bat Falcons (one of whom successfully caught and brought in a male Black-throated Mango which it proceeded to defeather as we watched). We then headed back to the Gatun spillway, where we were surprised to see another construction project ongoing. Another new bridge was being built near the original, perhaps so that both lanes could be active at once. The bustling activity of the construction seemed to have a dampening effect on the avifauna, but we enjoyed views of dapper male Red-breasted Meadowlarks and several perched American Kestrels and Mangrove Swallows before leaving the canal area and heading to the coast.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the guardhouse for the San Lorenzo National Park, accompanied by a nesting pair of Common Black-Hawks that had built a large nest just next to the parking lot and under the watchful gaze of a young male Howler Monkey who seemed just a bit too curious about the contents of our picnic baskets. In the afternoon, we drove out to the picturesque Fort San Lorenzo, perched on a bluff at the mouth of the Chagres River, where walked out to take in the atmospheric surroundings. From the top of the old ramparts we scoped a Brown Booby floating by in the choppy Caribbean, and spotted a pair of Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts and two flyover Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers. We also stopped in on the ground floor of the fort, where in some of the old storage rooms we located a small camp of roosting Greater White-lined Bats hanging from the walls.  Due to our desire to go on a nighttime mammal trip after dinner and our lack of a desire to be stuck in the Easter weekend traffic in Panama City we forwent our customary train ride back to the Pacific Coast, which generally affords excellent views of the flooded valleys formed by the creation of lake Gatun. Although this meant that we missed out on Snail Kite and Limpkin (which we generally see on the train ride. Our last stop for the day was in the dense and impressively tall mangrove forest on the coast near Fort Sherman. Here we found large mangrove crabs scuttling over the tangled roots, a quietly perched American Pygmy-Kingfisher, another nice Streaked Flycatcher, some quarrelling Scarlet-rumped Caciques and a very sharply-dressed Chestnut-sided Warbler. We then took the temporary ferry back across the canal, a treat that allowed for truly excellent views of the Caribbean lochs and shipping traffic, and then headed back to the tower in time for a brief break before dinner.

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) and stubbornly persistent winds were near constant companions. As Cerro Azul is a 3000 foot isolated peak and we were largely on the prevailing windy side the birding there was more difficult there than is typical. We started the day walking the dirt road that winds up to the microwave towers and observation platform on Cerro Jeffe. The short krumoltz vegetation here supports many species that are less common a little lower down. The misty conditions and wind did not help us on the walk, although we did find our only White-vented Euphonias of the trip, and our first Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, several female Violet-capped Hummingbirds (a local specialty of the region) and a flock of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers. Back at the beginning of the track though we lucked into a small flock while we were enjoying a mid-morning snack. A fruiting tree just downslope was hosting a dazzling array of colour, with Emerald (an electric green species which seems to almost fluoresce in the sunlight ) and Rufous-winged Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and a flame-orange Blackburnian Warbler. Here too were two Spotted Woodcreepers and a Lesser Elaenia and a curious male Violet-capped Hummingbird which redefines the colour green. The rest of the morning was spent walking along the well-paved road that winds through this sprawling housing development. 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. The walk was productive, with migrants such as American Redstart and Ovenbird (a scarce species in Panama) joining residents like Hepatic Tanager (here a quite distinctive subspecies that should surely be split from its northern relatives), Bay-headed Tanager, Paltry Tyrannulet and a Common Pauraque that we accidentally flushed off its nest revealing two small pinkish eggs.

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 White-necked Jacobin, Crowned Woodnymph, pugnacious Bronze-tailed (and White-vented) Plumeleteers, and dozens of Snowy-bellied, Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds! Among these more common species we were able to tease out a couple of Green Hermits, with their incredibly long bills, a Long-billed Starthroat that was forced by its namesake bill to feed nearly sideways on the feeder, and a few more Violet-capped Hummingbirds. The visual fiesta was not limited to hummingbirds here though as the feeders and some proffered bananas and rice attracted an excellent showing of honeycreepers, with lots of Red-legged, Green, and Shining Honeycreepers in constant view and regular visits from Thick-billed Euphonia, Summer, Bay-headed, Crimson-backed and Hepatic Tanagers and even a pair of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. As one participant remarked “I think lunch and some hummingbirds is much better than dinner and a movie”.

Eventually we had to leave the comfort of the back porch and as we still had some time available we decided to visit the Maipo Trail, a short and forested trail that offers an opportunity to actually get into the highland forest without any very steep descents. About 200m from the trailhead we found a mixed flock which was led by a group of Olive Tanagers and contained Black-striped and Spotted Woodcreepers, Green Shrike-Vireo and a little flock of Tennessee Warblers. At a nearby rocky creek we stopped to admire a perched Black Phoebe sitting on the boulders in the middle of the creek. A fruiting tree here was attracting Baltimore Orioles, Buff-throated Saltator and several vocal Social Flycatchers, and some participants enjoyed a brief showing by a Green Kingfisher just below the bridge. Eventually though it was time to head down the mountain, so that we could stop enroute back to the Canopy Tower along the coast just east of Panama City to take in the extensive mudflats and their attendant waders. Panama Bay is a RAMSAR-designated shorebird site, which supports over a million birds during migration and several hundred thousand through the winter months. Although almost all of the species here are familiar to most North American birders, it is nice to see them in such abundance.  We arrived to find an incoming tide with the birds generally close enough for easy identification in the scopes. The city has recently broken the old wall which kept people away from the shoreline and is turning the area into a pedestrian access road, which made viewing the shorebirds much easier than in past years. The most common species were likely Short-billed Dowitcher, Willet, Western Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover. Among the throngs though we picked out Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers as well. Neotropic Cormorants were abundant, and we enjoyed a fine showing of herons that included several dozen Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and our only Tricolored Heron of the trip. Gull-billed, Royal and Sandwich Terns joined the loafing flocks of Laughing Gulls on the flats, and further out to sea we watched hundreds of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds ply the currents along the tide line. The tall mangroves along the shoreline here were also of interest, as within then we spotted a pair of quite responsive “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers (a subspecies group that may well be recognized as a species in its own right later this year) and a pair of subtly coloured Northern Scrub-Flycatchers.  We reluctantly pulled away from the coast in order to avoid the worst of the Panama City traffic. Our luck held, likely due to the fact that it was the Thursday before Easter Long Weekend. It seemed like virtually the entire city had emptied out to celebrate the holiday in the countryside and we made it back to the tower in record time. We ate a barbeque dinner that night down at the base of the tower on the outside deck, accompanied by a dazzling array of stars.

We spent the last morning back up on top of the tower, taking in the views of the canopy at dawn. A perky little Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher showed well, as did a group of cackling Scarlet-rumped Caciques and some distant foraging Geoffrey’s Tamarins. A liftoff of nineteen Mississippi Kites and several Ospreys occurred quite early in the morning, and our position above the treeline afforded unparalleled viewing as these elegant and colorful hawks circled up and rapidly headed west towards their breeding grounds in the United States. Two brownish Chimney Swifts shot past at an impressive rate as well, and we also were pleased to find a perched Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and a very cooperative Black-breasted Puffbird near the tower top. After breakfast we went back to the Pipeline Road, this time spending our time solely along the first two kilometers of road. A walk along a side trail near the beginning of the road revealed a small swarm of army ants (sadly the smaller species which tends to be less attractive to birds). At the swarm we found a couple of Gray-headed Tanagers which were much more confiding than the previous ones and our first Plain-brown Woodcreepers of the trip. Some tapping overhead alerted us to the presence of a pair of impressive Crimson-crested Woodpeckers. Near the entrance we eventually tracked down some displaying male Golden-collared Manakins that were zipping back and forth on vertical perches just above the forest floor. Once on the main Pipeline Road we slowly drove back listening for any bird activity. We found one excellent understory flock containing Fasciated and Black-crowned Antshrikes, Dot-winged, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwren and Black-bellied Wren. Perched Whooping and Broad-billed Motmots along the road edge were nice as well. At the first creek crossing we took some time out from birding to walk along the waters edge, identifying a few of the small fish in the creek (and watching as a pair of Blue-spotted Cichlids guarded a horde of small fry from potential predators) and a few small Litter Toads that were hopping about in the leaf litter. We made our way back to the tower for an early lunch, and after spending a bit more time at the feeders watching the Blue-chested and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds vie with the more dominant White-necked Jacobins those continuing onto the extension set off for the 2.5 hour transfer to the Canopy Lodge.  

EXTENSION: Nestled in a forested valley just uphill from the picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, in the eastern 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, Flame-rumped and Plain-colored Tanagers, Collared Aracaris and Thick-billed Euphonias compete with Red-tailed Squirrels and even the occasional Rufous Motmot 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 Thick-billed Euphonia, Crimson-backed and Flame-rumped Tanagers and Rufous Motmot adding some colour. We walked over to the lodge compost pile that has thoughtfully been tucked into a dark corner of the woods and thus attracts a wide array of wildlife to the fruit and insects. Here we found a pair of raucous Gray-cowled Wood-Rails stalking the edge of the clearing, several Central American Agoutis quietly nibbling on the remains of a cantaloupe, and a handsome Orange-billed Sparrow that was feeding out in the open. Often quite shy, these multicoloured sparrows are a bit habituated to humans here, allowing one to properly study their incredibly bright colour scheme. We waited around to see if a calling Rosy Thrush-Tanager might come in but the bird seemed to vanish suddenly. A minute or two later a small raptor flew in overhead, landing above the compost as if it owned the place. Its partially barred underparts, yellow cere and eye ring and half-collar identified the bird as an immature Barred Forest-Falcon; certainly an auspicious start to our birding around El Valle! Along the rocky creek that winds through the grounds we watched a parade of birds coming down to bathe and drink in the late afternoon sun. And around the natural swimming pool we were happy to find a pair of perky Rufous-capped Warblers (here of the all yellow Chestnut-capped subspecies) and an instructive side-by-side comparison of Dusky-capped and Panama Flycatchers. We finished the trip around the grounds back at the feeders, with Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed and Violet-headed Hummingbirds foraging in the Verbenas and a portly Red-tailed Squirrel attempting to eat its weight in bananas.

The next day we elected to spend the morning above the lodge exploring a few of the roads around La Mesa. We started the day exploring the walkways and trails around the Canopy Adventure grounds, a zip-line attraction owned by the canopy tower family just a few hundred meters up the road from the lodge. Along the rocky creek that winds through the property we found a pair of attractive Buff-rumped Warblers that were busily feeding on one of the rocky trails, flashing their butterscotch-apricot rumps from the dark forest floor. Here too we located a single Louisiana Waterthrush feeding in the creek, with its characteristic slow southern sway. The hoped-for pair of Sunbitterns were sadly not present but we felt confident that given a few attempts we would find them as less than a week earlier the chick of the resident pair had just fledged.  

Further up the road we found the forests to be laden with epiphytes, and as we reached 3000 feet above sea level the air was relatively cool. The previous day some other birders had found a large antswarm at the base of the trail up Cerro Gaital, so we decided to head to that area first to see if the ants (and their attendant ant birds) were still in the area. Although we did not have any luck locating the ants the birding along the short trail to the beginning of the steep ascent was excellent. The national park service has recently completed some improvements in the area, with a large new gatehouse (perhaps larger than strictly necessary) and some welcome trail maintenance. Just a few feet in from the entrance we stopped at a mixed flock finding our first Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, Silver-throated Tanager, some Spotted Woodcreepers and a delightfully cooperative pair of Orange-bellied Trogons. Warblers were well represented along the trail as well, with gems like Golden-winged, Canada, Mourning and Chesnut-sided livening up the canopy. The undergrowth harboured Spotted Antbird, White-breasted and Scaly-throated Wrens, and a handsome pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds. We stopped in at a bank of Heliconias where we hoped to encounter a White-tipped Sicklebill visiting the flowers. Despite waiting for almost 45 minutes we had to content ourselves with a visit from Stripe-throated and Green Hermits and a brief flyby from the Sicklebill. We had better luck a bit higher on the hill, with another flower cluster producing fine views of a feeding Sicklebill for about half of the participants. Also a bit higher up the trail we enjoyed incredibly lengthy eye-level views of a Sepia-capped Flycather (a typically uncommon and often furtive species), tracked down a calling White-throated Spadebill and found several loud flocks of Tawny-crested Tanagers. The rocky trail here soon becomes steeper than we wished to attempt, so in the late morning we walked back down to the van and moved over to a flat trail through more open woodland. This proved an excellent choice, as the walking was much easier and the birding was extremely busy. A large mixed flock was foraging along the trail, with an amazing four species of Antwrens (the three amigos from the tower area and a newcomer for us – the Slaty Antwren), both Spot-crowned and Plain Ant-Vireos, Spotted Antbird, Spotted Woodcreeper, and a fantastic pair of Brown-billed Scythebills. This highly unusual woodcreeper possesses an amazingly long, thin and curved bill which it uses to deeply probe into the bromeliad clusters in the canopy. They are never common, and usually if we are lucky enough to encounter them at all it takes some work and patience at a higher elevation. To see them so well, and so easily this year was quite a coupe. Well pleased with an excellent morning’s birding we returned to the lodge for lunch and a siesta.

In the afternoon, we set off downhill to explore the Cara Iguana Rd, across the caldera on the other side of El Valle. This alternatively paved and dirt road skirts the lower slopes of the mountains that ring southern lip of the caldera, passing through semi-developed housing areas with some wild lots, and many semi-cleared properties. We found quite a bit of recent clearing here, with several of the historically forested lots partially opened up and for sale. Nevertheless we spent about an hour walking around the brushy edges of one of the new lots, enjoying a wealth of primarily migrant birds. Many species of Warblers including our first Mourning and Black-throated Green joined Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, making it feel a bit like a late spring day in the southeastern US. Although the background din of Piratic and Social Flyatchers, chucking of Barred Antshrikes and flashes of colour from honeycreepers and tanagers did disabuse of that notion. We then drove over to another section of town where we stopped along the main road where in a densely forested ravine we heard the unmistakably answer of a Tody Motmot coming from below the slope. A short imitation of its unmistakable whistled calls drew the bird a bit closer upslope and we were soon enjoying lengthy views of this tiny motmot as it placidly sat in a tangle of vines. Tody Motmots are not common anywhere in their largely Central American range, with perhaps the forests around El Valle providing one of their most reliable haunts. We were able to watch the Motmot at length through the telescope, in bright enough lighting to clearly see its electric blue eyestripes. Elated at our sighting (as the species figures prominently on the T-shirts for the Lodge Staff) we finished the day over on another road out of El Valle, where even the busy Easter weekend traffic couldn’t stop us from finding a perched Lesson’s Motmot, an active Black-striped Sparrow in a vine tangle near the road, a Yellow-billed Cacique lurking in the grasses and ultimately perhaps the bird of the day for some; a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager that remained perched in the sun for long enough to enjoy in the telescope. After our many brushes with the species calling from dense cover or flying across the trail in front of us it was especially welcome to be able to really study its incredibly bright plumage.

For our second full day at the lodge we started out 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 Sunbittern that were foraging in a shallow and slow-moving bend of the creek. The birds were shy, as is typical for the species, but they remained in view for a good while. At one point one of the birds carried a pile of wet leaves up into the mid-canopy in an apparent bid to construct a nest, signaling to us that this was likely not the same pair as below the waterfall (which had recently fledged young). Also here on the trail we found our only White-winged Becard of the trip and spotted a calling Black-throated Trogon in the canopy. Back on the main road we stopped to admire an active colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas that were busily fixing up their impressively large pendulous nests. The stop proved quite fortuitous, as we also found a pair of Black-headed Saltators (a species that we used to encounter more often on the tour, but now see only once or not at all), a perky Yellow-bellied Elaenia, several Shiny Cowbirds and a breathtakingly good view of a trio of Golden-hooded Tanagers that were sitting on the top of a short bare tree.

We then headed uphill, this time to the well forested Candelaria trail that lie on private property in La Mesa. In the cleared fields before the trailhead we stopped to admire flocks of Tawny-crested and Silver-throated Tanagers, a sneaky Rufous-and-White Wren that eventually slipped up and showed well in the morning sun, and several groups of Southern Lapwings tucked in on the downwind side of the furrows in the fields in a largely vain attempt at avoiding the wind. Once on the trail system our attention turned to the roving mixed flocks that we occasionally found during the morning. The first trail that we walked seemed oddly quiet, perhaps due to the buffeting winds that were whipping the canopy around. We did stop at a flowering heliconia to have excellent views of another Green Hermit, and of a foraging Rufous-breasted Wren that was clambering around in the epiphytes of a nearby fallen tree. Further on we stopped to admire a pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds that were hopping around in the undergrowth. Orange-bellied Trogons showed well again for us along this track, calling from a quite open midstory perch. The trail ended abruptly in a grove of flowering trees that were attracting Crowned Woodnymphs and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds with a large tree fall that blocked any hope of progress. Veto, a guide in training with the canopy tower family had checked out the Cerro Gaital trail for us and reported back that there was no sign of any active antswarm along the first kilometer or so of trail. Taking in this somewhat disappointing news over cold drinks and trail mix we decided that since it was only mid-morning we should revisit the trail on the other side of the road, where activity had been so good the previous morning.  This second trail was again quite productive, as we encountered several small mixed flocks over the half kilometer or so of mostly level trails. One particularly rich group of birds contained very confiding Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, both Spot-crowned and Plain Antvireos, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Spotted Woodcreeper, a host of migrant warblers and a pair of delightful Tawny-faced Gnatwrens that eventually popped up to provide excellent views.

We made one more stop on our way back to the lodge, in a small sheltered patch of forest along a currently dry creekbed. Here we hoped to find Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, a small and somewhat unobtrusive species that we often see in the forested patches around La Mesa. Luck was with us, as just as we exited the van we detected the telltale callnotes of a flock of birds just down the road. White-flanked and Slaty Antwrens seemed to be the main members of the group, but we also found both species of Ant-Vireo, another Sepia-capped Flycatcher, some skulky Bay Wrens (is there any other kind of Bay Wren?) and our quarry. A single Wedge-billed Woodcreeper was quietly foraging in a large forked tree near the road, and it seemed oblivious to our presence and excitement.

Lunch back at the lodge and a short break followed, and in the late afternoon we set off again for some birding within a few miles of the lodge. Our first stop was back at the Canopy Adventure grounds where we walked out on a newly constructed streamside trail and were able to catch up with a sleeping Mottled Owl that had been located a few hours earlier by the staff. 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. For the rest of the afternoon we traveled up the road that leads to Altos de Maria, a housing development that sits high above EL Valle in the cloud forest around the peaks. The paved access road becomes too steep for regular vehicles about a kilometer before the entrance gate, but we were able to reach high enough for a couple of higher elevation birds after birding the lower stretches of the road and the village of Mata Ahogado. Our first stop along the road was at a partially cleared field with dense grasses and lots of small shrubs and trees. Here we located a nesting pair of Lesser Elaenia, found a territorial Bran-colored Flycatcher, our first White-collared Swifts coursing overhead against the pillowy clouds, and a quite vocal Grey-capped Flycatcher. Our second stop, a little higher up the road, was equally productive. A responsive Striped Cuckoo came right in to our imitations of its call, perching on some dead sticks along the road edge and slowly raising and lowering its bushy crest as it looked around for the intruder. A pair of White-lined Tanagers were perched along the fenceline, remaining in view for quite some time. Down below the road in some thick scrub we teased out a pair of Yellow Tyrannulets and listened to the plaintive whistles of a Little Tinamou (safely ensconced in its grassy lair). We stopped just below the beginning of the incredibly steep climb to the entrance gate. Here we found a few fruiting trees, with Bay-breasted Tanager, our only Common Chlorospingus of the trip, and brief views of an abnormally hyper White-ruffed Manakin. Driving back through El Valle we found much of the Easter weekend merriment was abating, though the grocery store still had a huge inflatable slide full of children, and all the restaurants and street stalls were still doing brisk trade.

Our third full day from the lodge has always in the past been spent up around the peaks at Altos de Maria. This year though conditions seemed perfect for an exploratory jaunt to General Omar Torrijos National Park (better known to birders as El Cope) on the other side of the state of Cocle. The peak around Altos is an isolated highland, well separated from similar elevations to the west. El Cope, on the other hand, is much more closely connected to the highlands that wind all the way to the Costa Rican border. The foothill forests at El Cope are beautiful, with dense epiphytic growth on the larger trees, large tree ferns in the understory, and lots of melastomes and other fruiting trees. I had been waiting for over a decade for a small, adventurous and mobile March group of participants to make the trip. And this was the year. An early start had us arriving at the park entrance (after some interesting and creative driving on the last 3 or so Kilometers which proved the worth of one of the 2 4X4 trucks) at about 7:15. After signing in and getting organized we set off down the main road, stopping to admire a female White-ruffed Manakin that was busily devouring small fruits in a tree that overhung the road. We then spent the morning walking a few of the developed trails that link up around the seemingly overbuilt but nevertheless impressive (and locked) visitor center.  The short loop trail that is actually paved and stepped produced a large mixed flock of birds, with several species that we have never recorded around the Canopy Lodge in El Valle. Boisterous and loud Stripe-breasted Wrens sang from the canopy as they investigated mossy trunks, while more secretive Striped Woodhaunters sat in the undergrowth uttering their grating call notes until we were able to track them down. Some more familiar birds were in the flock as well, with Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants, White-flanked Antwren and Russet Antshrike (a species that we usually see around La Mesa, but one that we had missed this trip) showing exceptionally well.

On a longer trail that started out quite rough but then leveled out for about a half a kilometer, passing through tall humid foothill forest we encountered several truly scarce species that inhabit only these largely inaccessible Atlantic lowland slopes. Perhaps the most exotic and special species was the male Lattice-tailed Trogon that responded to a random trawling of its call, flying in overhead and eventually showing well for all of the participants. This large and exquisite trogon is more commonly encountered in the Costa Rican portion of its tiny world-wide range, and is an exceedingly scarce species in Panama. Only slightly less rare was the small flock of Yellow-throated Chlorospingus, which are common in the Andes from Colombia to Peru, but very local (and only in difficult to access forests) in Panama. A bit further down the trail we were alerted by an odd, repeated sharp call that seemed reminiscent of a woodpecker chip note. As none of the group had any idea who the author of the call was we made a quick field recording and with playback called it in. To our surprise the bird turned out to be a female Zeledon’s (formerly Immaculate) Antbird that came right in along an earthen bank on the edge of the trail. She swished her fanned out tail and flashed the bright blue orbital skin from root tangles just a few feet away from us. Noisy flocks of Olive and Tawny-crested Tanagers were regularly encountered during the walk, with a few interesting species adding to our tally such as a pair of responsive Smoky-Brown Woodpeckers, a very vocal Northern Schiffornis that was spotted briefly by a couple of participants, and a little flock of Pale-vented Thrushes high up in the canopy. With our stomachs registering that lunchtime was nigh we hiked back up to the road for a picnic lunch at the ranger’s house. At lunch, we befriended a local dog that was able to capitalize on our excess tuna pita sandwiches (much to its obvious delight). A pair of Isthmian Wrens was eventually tracked down in the thick grasses lining the roads, and in a nearby flowering heliconia we found a male Violet-headed Hummingbird quietly feeding on the bright red flowers. We then packed up and started walking towards the park entrance, stopping to debate whether or not it was worth attempting to retrieve a lost hat that flew down the slope during a particularly strong gust. Our last little stop in the park was in the more open area a few hundred meters past the gate. Here, with a judicious imitation of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl we were thrilled to see a shimmering male Snowcap come in and perch at a below eye-level perch just a few feet away. These iridescent hummingbirds appear black in most light, with a gleaming white crown, but in good light (which we had) the body has traces of electric purple throughout. Although we do typically see Snowcap at our “normal” site in Altos de Maria the birds there are typically females and high up in the canopy so this was a truly wonderful sighting.

We drove back to El Valle through a lot of the countryside of rural Panama, with small but generally tidy villages, fincas and forested creeks winding through small rolling hills. As one might expect the drive was punctuated with birds too – and we stopped to look at a male Bronzed Cowbird, strutting Eastern Meadowlarks, and cackling Gray-headed Chachalacas. We made a scheduled stop at a small valley where the lodge guides sometimes see a group of White-thighed Swallows. These tiny and very local swallows are a bit of an enigma, and used to occur regularly around the watercress fields near El Valle but have not been seen there for almost a decade despite the general lack of habitat degredation. We found seven swallows perched on the overhead wires in short order, and were even able to spot the White-thighs of one or two of the birds in the scope. Here too was a vocal Tropical Pewee (oddly our only sighting of the tour) that sat up near the swallow flock, and a nice mixed group of tanagers and euphonias that included a surprising Fulvous-vented Euphonia and several gaudy Crimson-backed Tanagers. Just a bit down the road from there we found a nesting colony of Montezuma Oropendola, a very fancy and large oropendola that is typically confined to the northeast coast of the country. A few valleys around this area support nesting birds, and we were happy to see them perched on their pendulous nests flashing their bright pink bill, blue face wattle and chestnut backs.

Just as we would have scripted the winds finally subsided as we neared the lip of the caldera above El Valle. This enabled us to make a successful stop to look for the Wedge-tailed Grassfinches that inhabit the sparse grassy ridgeline. One cooperative bird fluttered in and landed on a small rock out in the grasses, peering over at us before climbing up on to the top of the rock and showing its trademark long tail. With the sun at our backs and a very enjoyable exploratory day behind us we drove the last 10 miles or so to the lodge ready for dinner and some time for packing up, as the following day we had to move back to Panama City.

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 30 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 Crested Bobwhites which dashed across the road, providing exceptionally close views for about half of the participants (luckily we found a few more later that remained put for more lengthy study). Our first stop of the morning revealed a calling Rufous-browed Peppershrike that was more furtive than typical, as well as a singing Black-striped Sparrow and a perched Roadside Hawk. As we dropped down out of the mountains we stopped at an overgrown soccer field where we a pair of nesting Brown-throated Parakeets were sitting next to their chosen nest site in an arboreal termitaria.  Here too were several Groove-billed Anis, several elegant Fork-tailed Flycathers and our first Ruddy-breasted Seedeater of the trip.  A bit further down towards the highway we found a nesting pair of Savannah Hawks that were busily snapping twigs off a large tree and then flying up to a nearby platform in a palm tree. These are beautiful birds, closely related to Common Black-Hawks but coloured in a very bright rusty plumage with a banded black and white tail. A much-needed stop once we reached the main highway revealed the hoped-for restroom facilities and several House Sparrows…

We spent the rest of the morning slowly working our way to the coast, stopping wherever looked promising. Mouse-coloured Tyrannulets performed well for us this year, and we managed an instructive comparison between the tiny Plain-breasted Ground-Dove and their more common Ruddy cousins. Also cooperative was a foraging Veraguan Mango (our first and only Panama endemic for the tour) in some roadside coral bean flowers and a perky and atypically bold Pale-breasted Spinetail that perched well above eye level to check us out. These dry pacific forests have been largely cleared to make way for cattle ranches, so most of the birding here is confined to dirt roads, hedgerows and coastal mangrove forests. We found flycatchers to be particularly well represented, with Panama, Streaked, Northern-Scrub and Social Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees dotting the roadside. We eventually reached the thicker forests near the coast and were able to tease out a very responsive Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant that perched for an eternity (for this generally active and furtive birds). Here too our raptor count swelled with a flyover male Aplomado Falcon and adult and juvenile Common Black-Hawk that were circling overhead.  We then moved over to another coastal road, where we found the rice fields bone dry, perhaps awaiting the onset of the rainy season to replant and flood the fields. Small pools were still scattered about, with a few Glossy and White Ibis, various herons, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers and strutting Wattled Jacana. Over the fields we observed several Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures flying low or sitting on the ground. These gorgeous vultures are a bit undersold by their common names, with brilliant yellow, orange, red and purple hued heads. Perhaps prismatic vulture, or rainbow-headed vulture would be a more appropriate moniker. As we made our way to the coast we stopped to look at a perched Long-billed Starthroat and were further rewarded with several very accommodating Barred Antshrikes with their punk-rock hairdos showing to good effect. Here too we found a Straight-billed Woodcreeper, perhaps one of the more highly pattered and attractive members of a generally poorly differentiated group of birds. A patch of flowering trees right along the coast held about a half-dozen Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds including several bright males all intent on chasing each other around the grove. Once at the coast we were pleasantly surprised to have the beach all to ourselves, with dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds wheeling in the sky, Willets, Whimbrels and a single American Oystercatcher plying the shoreline and a flock of terns that included three Elegant Terns sitting on the dry sandy beach. As it was at this point past noon we drove over to another beach access point a few miles to the east, where the owners of the Canopy Tower and Lodge have a small beach house. From the coast here we could spot about a dozen Blue-footed Boobies sitting on a cement pier piling well offshore. Although distant the birds regularly took flight, showing their white rump band. Among the perched birds we also found a single sitting Brown Booby for good comparison. The beach here held dozens of Sandwich Terns and a few Royals as well. And on the tiny bobbing fishing skiffs were lots of roosting Brown Pelicans.

After a relaxing lunch and even swimming in the Pacific (for some) we stopped one more time near the beach house where we eventually attracted the attentions of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The bird flew in and called vigorously, and was then attacked by a wide array of birds that harried it relentlessly as it moved from perch to perch. We then headed for our hotel in Panama City where we arrived back in time for a short stroll around the hotel grounds of the Country Inn. The open fields, large fig trees and shoreline of the Causeway are always quite bird rich, and on our stroll we found a nice array of birds including one new for the trip; Yellow-crowned Parrot. A nesting Lineated Woodpecker peered down from its high cavity in a small palm, and mixed flocks of birds contained many now familiar species for us like Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Palm, Plain-colored, Blue-gray and Crimson-backed Tanagers as well as a few more novel birds like Lesser Goldfinch and Garden Emerald. I want thank this year’s wonderful participants and our two local leaders, Alexis Sanchez and Danilo Rodriguez Jr., for making this a great tour to lead. I look forward to many more trips to this dynamic and rich country in the coming years.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 12 April 2018