Canopy Family Panama

Birds & Butterflies

by Michael O'Brien, VENT

Morpho butterfly by David
Morpho butterfly by David Tipling

Our first Central Panama: Birds & Butterflies tour proved to be a fabulous way to experience the amazing diversity that this region has to offer.  With a more limited itinerary than our regular birding tours to Panama, we had the luxury of time at each location.  The result was good success finding most of the birds of those areas, plus time to enjoy the wonderful diversity not only of butterflies, but also mammals, reptiles, amphibians, dragonflies, moths, and more!  It's hard to imagine visiting an area of such biological richness as Central Panama and just looking at birds! Summer in Panama is a time of incredible abundance and a frenzy of activity.  Due to daily rains, the vegetation is lush, the flowers are blooming, the birds are either nesting or feeding their recently fledged young, and butterfly abundance reaches its peak.  Although the "green season" produces daily rain showers, they come in a predictable pattern, usually for an hour or two in the afternoon (during siesta time!).

Our tour was based at the Canopy Tower with an extension to the Canopy Lodge.  The Canopy Tower itself is wonderful.  At each level, large windows offer views of wildlife at every forest stratus.  From the top of the tower one can see Panama Canal, the skyscrapers of Panama City, the Pacific Ocean, and miles of forest including the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park that runs along much of Panama Canal.  Frequent eye level sightings of such canopy-associated mammals as Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, Geoffroy's Tamarin, and Mantled Howler monkey made us realize how unique this experience was.  During our time at the Canopy Tower, we spent a couple of mornings listening to the dawn chorus from the top of the tower, a fine way to get acquainted with songs of local birds such as Rufous Motmot, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Black-faced Antthrush, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Black-bellied Wren and White-breasted Wood-Wren.  It was also a delight to have regular sightings of Scaled Pigeon, Red-lored and Mealy parrots, Band-rumped and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, Plain-colored Tanager, Green Honeycreeper and Scarlet-rumped Cacique.  A little midday skywatching one day produced a nice raptor flight — 400 Plumbeous Kites and 100 Swallow-tailed Kites flying over in just a few minutes before some thunderstorms hit.  And after hearing Collared Forest-Falcon numerous times over the week, we finally had excellent views of it from the parking lot just before we left!

One of the most enjoyable aspects of staying at Canopy Tower was having the opportunity to get good views of some canopy-associated butterflies that are difficult or impossible to see from the ground.  These included some stunners such as Wavy-lined and Imperial Sunstreaks, Alert and Regal Greatstreaks, six species of sisters, Two-eyed Eighty-eight, and Red-patched Leafwing.  It was also fun to see a number of butterflies in the tower, including some seldom-seen species like Curve-lined and Gray Theopes, Costa-spotted Beautymark, White-spotted Prepona, and Common Ghost-Skipper (we set these butterflies free after getting good views!).

Spending two full mornings at nearby Pipeline Road was an excellent way to find a number of forest species such as Greater Ani, Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits, Black-throated, Black-tailed, and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Black-breasted Puffbird, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Dot-winged Antwren, Bright-rumped Attila, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Gray-headed Tanager and Shining Honeycreeper.  Among the more interesting butterflies at Pipeline, we found Dual-spotted Swallowtail, Cramer's Greenstreak, Sky-blue Greatstreak, Variable Beautymark, Mexican and Dot-bordered Heliconians, Guatemalan Catone, Little Banner, and Brilliant Blue-Skipper.  Also at Pipeline Road, we had the pleasure of running into some Smithsonian Institute grad students who showed us several dappled anoles, an aquatic species that they were studying there.  We had fun working on our "herp" list on this trip, but seeing these anoles in hand and hearing about their biology was particularly enjoyable.

"It was also fun to see a number of butterflies in the tower, including some seldom-seen species like Curve-lined and Gray Theopes..."

For a change of pace, we also visited two spots along the Chagres River where marsh and edge species were more prevalent.  Between a relatively brief afternoon visit and a mostly rainy morning visit we still managed to see a remarkable variety of birds here, including Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Anhinga, Least Bittern, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Cocoi and Striated Herons, Snail Kite, Bat Falcon, Purple Gallinule, Southern Lapwing, Wattled Jacana, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Blue-crowned Motmot, Barred Antshrike, Common Tody-Flycatcher (building a nest!), Lesser Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Rusty-margined Flycatchers, Mangrove Swallow, and Shiny and Giant Cowbirds.

There were many other favorite spots.  At Old Gamboa Road we found Boat-billed Heron, four species of kingfishers, a family group of Spectacled Owls, and an abundance of butterflies including Chiapas White, Golden Melwhite, Melpomene Heliconian, and Leucodesma Crescent.  A walk up the hill at Metropolitan Park produced many "little green jobs," including Southern Beardless, Yellow, and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets, Forest Elaenia, Southern Bentbill, Black-tailed Flycatcher and Scrub and Golden-fronted Greenlets.  But without a doubt, the highlight of that day at Metro Park was the group of Night Monkeys that were peering at us from a dead tree!  An afternoon visit to the Rainforest Discovery Center produced nine species of hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Violet-crowned Woodnymph and Violet-bellied Hummingbird.  We also climbed to the top of the tower there where the vista was spectacular, and in a quick scan we found several stunning Blue Cotingas!

Our four-day extension to Canopy Lodge brought us to some new habitats and a new array of wildlife.  Nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano and at an elevation of nearly 2,000 feet, El Valle is both picturesque and refreshingly cooler than the lowlands of Panama.  The lodge itself is not only very comfortable, but also full of life.  Right on the grounds we had regular encounters with White-tipped Dove, Violet-headed Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, Bay Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Bananaquit, Lemon-rumped and Bay-headed Tanagers, Orange-billed Sparrow, Buff-throated Saltator, and Thick-billed Euphonia. The lodge area was amazingly good for butterflies, with some highlights including Broad-banded Dartwhite, Salome Yellow, Chiapas Stripestreak, Blue-winged Sheenmark, Sara Heliconian, Narva Patch, Orange Mapwing, Yellow-bordered and Boomerang Owl-butterflies, and Black-and-yellow Prestonian. Another highlight at the lodge took place after dark — hundreds of bats, mostly orange nectar bats, visiting the hummingbird feeders!

Our day-trips included two to the highlands at Las Minas and Altos del Maria.  Here we found a number of exciting birds including White Hawk, Brown-hooded and Blue-headed Parrots, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Green Hermit, White-tipped Sicklebill, Orange-bellied Trogon, Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet, Spotted Woodcreeper, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Bran-colored Flycatcher, Black-and-yellow and Silver-throated Tanagers, and White-vented Euphonia.  Some very interesting butterflies also occur at these higher elevations, and we found Satyr and Deep-blue Eyemarks, Ucubis Metalmark, Circle-spot and Golden-banded Sisters, Tiessa Satyr, Klug's and Yellow-tipped Clearwings, and Virginia's Ticlear.

For a real change of pace, we also went on a day-trip to the Pacific lowlands near El Chiru, Santa Clara, and Juan Hombron.  This brought us back to warmer, more humid climes, but also to a completely new set of habitats including pastures, cultivated fields, beach, and ocean.  Not surprisingly, we found a new set of birds such as Crested Bobwhite, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, White-tailed Kite, Savannah Hawk, Aplomado Falcon, Blue Ground-Dove, Barn Owl, Brown-throated Parrot, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Red-breasted Blackbird, and Grassland Yellow-Finch.  We also found a few butterflies in this area including Barred Yellow, Mexican Fritillary, Red Cracker, Veined White-Skipper, and Satyr Skipper.  And a relaxing siesta on the beach while watching Blue-footed and Brown boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds sail by (along with a single Heart-spotted Heliconian flying offshore) was a delight!

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