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ABA's Winging It: A Week at Panama's Canopy Tower

A Week at Panama's Canopy Tower

Recycled radar tower combines easy access and a bounty of birds

Winging It, July 2004

 

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The Canopy Tower Ecolodge in Soberania National Park, Panama, is the grand recycling project of Raul Arias de Para, businessman/politician turned ecotourist innkeeper. Built as a U.S. military radar installation in the 1960s, the tower has been transformed into a unique lodge, replete with comfortable guest rooms, dining area, library/living room, and, best of all, an observation deck on the roof at treetop level. Canopy-dwelling species that often frustrate birders are easily visible from this vantage point. Birding was surely what he had in mind when Raul developed this facility.

All-inclusive, one-week "Green Season" packages for the "budget-minded birder" are advertised on the Canopy Tower website [here]. (The green or "wet" season runs roughly May to December, but the weather is often fine during this season despite the name.) This sounded good to me, an independent traveler. I flew to Panama last September 11 with only a modicum of anxiety and wholly without incident. Panamanian customs and immigration were quick and straightforward. I arrived at the Canopy Tower Saturday afternoon and immediately climbed to the observation deck, where four species of swifts zipped by so closely I could hear the wind whizzing through their wings. In short time I racked up a delightful list of colorful tropical birds: Shinning Honeycreeper, White-necked Jacobin, Collared Aracari, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Red-lored and Mealy Amazons, and Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans. Then out of nowhere a stunning turquoise-blue bird appeared: Blue Cotinga, the marquee species of Canopy Tower! We were dazzled by it from only a few feet away for several minutes. Quite a welcome to the Canopy Tower.

Our guide for the week was Carlos Bethancourt, a native Panamanian who, though young, was experienced and knowledgeable. He was an excellent birder and the perfect host, always working tirelessly to get us the bird. One of the most enjoyable surprises of the week was the presence of two special guests among us. Spending several nights at the Canopy Tower were Robert Ridgely and John Gwynne, the author and illustrator, respectively, of The Birds of Panama. John joined us for lunch one day and Bob for dinner another (if only they'd had time to bird with us!). They were attending a conference in Panama City with the goal of promoting ecotourism in Panama, which lags behind neighboring Costa Rica in this area but is working to catch up.

Days at the lodge began by 6 a.m. on the deck, where a 360-degree view takes in the nearby Panama Canal, hills covered in lush tropical forest, and distant high-rise towers in Panama City. You can see almost coast-to-coast. The spectacular view will distract you from birding, but not for long. Honeycreepers, tanagers, and hummingbirds flit about at eye-level. Breakfast is served at 7:30, followed by morning trips lasting until noon. Lunchtime is at 12:30, followed by a siesta, which I spent studying the hummingbird feeders, hawk-watching on the deck (where I tried unsuccessfully for King Vulture), or relaxing in the library/living room. Afternoon trips depart between 2:30 and 3:30, returning at 5:30 or 6:00. Cocktails are available at 6:00, the daily checklist follows at 6:30, and dinner, served with generous volumes of wine, starts at 7:00.

Sunday morning I was on the deck by 6:10 as clouds and fog soon gave way to exciting birds. A Black-chested Puffbird perched nearby for excellent views. Soon we were goggling at Red-capped Manakin, Brown-hooded Parrot, and Scaled Pigeon. After breakfast, we walked down the road from the tower. With little effort we tallied Western Slaty-Antshrike, White-whiskered Puffbird, Violaceous Trogon, Southern Bentbill, and Checker-throated Antwren. The road down Semaphore Hill is only one mile long, yet we hadn't even reached the bottom by noon, there was so much to see.

The afternoon excursion took us to the Chagres River in the nearby village of Gamboa, where we quickly found a high-soaring White Hawk (my 1200th world bird). Along the way, enormous green iguanas sunned themselves on the pavement. We studied many "kiskadee-type" flycatchers including Boat-billed Flycatcher, as well as many herons and egrets. Rufous-capped Warbler, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Yellow-headed Caracara, and White-bellied Antbird rounded out the bird sightings.

The Monday morning trip took us to the Ammo Dump Ponds, named for the active military installation adjacent to the wetlands but not as bad as the name suggests, home to the elusive White-throated Crake. A few minutes of tape-playing lured out not one but two crakes. We then walked down the road to the entrance to Pipeline Road, billed as the best hotspot on the tour. We soon learned why, as Golden-collared Manakin, Fasciated Ant-shrike, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and Black-tailed Flycatcher appeared without a fight. By 11:30 it was hot and humid and we were happy to return to the lodge for lunch.

A light shower postponed the 3:30 departure to Summit Ponds for only a few minutes. Moments later we were at the ponds enjoying Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Green Kingfisher, and a Gray-headed Kite that swooped by and landed in a nearby tree. Upon my return to the lodge, I found a Violet-bellied Hummingbird trapped in my bathroom. The staff member who rescued it showed it to us cupped quietly in the palm of his hand.

Tuesday was a full-day trip to Pipeline Road, with its bird list of over 380 species. Traveling the Pipeline Road in the Birdmobile is a true jungle adventure, with overhanging branches brushing against you depositing their leaves, spiders, ants, and an assorted other tropical insects. The road was muddy and rutted, but the many in our group who wore sneakers managed fine. One by one we saw the birds we came to see: Brownish Twistwing, Black-striped Woodcreeper, White-vented Antwren, Tawny-crested Tanager, White-tailed Trogon, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Blue-crowned Manakin, and Bicolored Antbird. Even the birds' names are colorful! A delicious picnic lunch with cold drinks was a refreshing break in the steamy rainforest. Patience and persistence paid off when we finally located a Streak-chested Antpitta and even viewed it in the scope. We celebrated with cold bottled water.

But something even more exciting awaited us later that day. After dinner, we set out on a search for creatures of the night. Within a few minutes we found a Common Potoo, then a two-toed sloth. A little farther down Semaphore Hill another pair of eyes reflected the searchlight. "An owl!" someone exclaimed. "A potoo!", I cried. Then Carlos called out the unbelievable: "Oildbird!" Perched on a branch overhead was this strange and enigmatic bird, a totally unexpected stroke of good fortune. When I met Carlos on the deck the next morning, he, too, had read in The Birds of Panama that there had been only three previous records of Oilbird in Panama. He had shown the bird later that night to Robert Ridgely-a Panamanian lifer for the author of The Birds of Panama!

Our Wednesday morning trip started with a nice easy walk down Old Gamboa Road, a discontinued highway through secondary forest and scrub. On the nearby golf course, we saw Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Southern Lapwing, and Masked Tityra. Along the road we added Panamanian Flycatcher, Lance-tailed Manakin, Yellow-backed Oriole, Streaked Flycatcher, and Jet Antbird. Heard only were Crane Hawk and Black Hawk-Eagle. Incredibly, we saw a Spectacled Owl again, possibly the same individual we had seen the evening before. Perched nearby was its newly-fledged chick. The end of the road brought us back to Summit Ponds capped off with a Capped Heron.

After a brief lunchtime rain shower, we visited Summit Gardens to see the Harpy Eagle exhibit and to bird the park. The exhibit featured a short film and lecture and a close look at two live birds. We all wished we could see them soaring in the sky instead. Bird highlights in the park, which was large and spotlessly clean, included White-winged Becard, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Black-throated Mango. Just as we returned to the tower, the skies burst open in a torrential tropical downpour.

The long trip to Achiote Road Thursday morning meant breakfast at 4:30. We left the tower at 5:00 and arrived at 7:15 after stopping briefly at the Chagres River Dam for Red-breasted Blackbird. We were now deep in the Caribbean slope with high hopes for new species. We were not disappointed. Flame-rumped Tanager, White-headed Wren, Spot-crowned Barbet, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Crested Oropendula, Blue-headed Parrot, and Black-headed Saltator filled our list. And that was only the first hour. Still to come were Long-tailed Tyrant, Cinnamon Becard, Pied Puffbird, Yellow-tailed Oriole, and a lovely flock of migrating Swallow-tailed Kites.

The afternoon was spent exploring Fort San Lorenzo, a sixteenth-century Spanish fort where the Chagres River meets the Caribbean Sea and which had been visited recently by some of the contestants of a Miss Universe pageant being held in Panama City. Although the contestants had long since departed, Saphire-throated Hummingbirds and Violet-crowned Woodnymphs dazzled us with their own beauty. The trip back to the lodge was thrilling. We boarded the Panama Canal Railroad in Colon, rode in the observation car, counted at least twenty-five Snail Kites along the way, and, by the time we arrived in Panama City, had traveled coast-to-coast in one hour!

On our final day we returned to Pipeline Road for the morning walk. Along the way we stopped at the bottom of Semaphore Hill where a Tiny Hawk, a small and rare accipiter, perched in a snag. Minutes later we found a perched Semiplumbeous Hawk that was joined by no fewer than eleven toucans in a single tree. The highlight at Pipeline Road was a close look at both male and female Spotted Antbird, a visual feast for antbird lovers such as myself.

Not until our final walk of the week, on Plantation Trail that afternoon, did we endure our first rain shower while birding during the rainy season. But it lasted only minutes and was, in fact, refreshing. At 5:30, at the end of the final day, as time ran out, we found three Black-chested Jays high in the trees for my final and eighty-first life bird of the trip. The final tally for the week was 245 species.

The Canopy Tower opened in January 1999 and is perched high on a hill in the heart of the 20,000-hectare Soberania National Park, about a forty-minute drive from Panama City. The many magazine articles written about it adorn its walls, as do photographs of past visitors, from Jimmy Carter to Jimmy Buffet. Birders new to the tropics will find it especially appealing: access is easy, the food is great, the rooms are simple but clean, the birds are easy to see, and the lodge is a fun place to stay. Further information about the Canopy Tower can be found on their website at .

Rob Woodward is an attorney in Concord, NH, and a volunteer field trip leader for the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. He has birded nine countries on three continents. For more information about his trip, contact him at (603) 224-0889 or at rwoodward@dhhs.state.nh.us.

by Rob Woodward

 

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