Canopy Family Panama

12 hours of Daylight

by Bill Maynard

Rufous-crested Coquette by David Tipling
Rufous-crested Coquette by David Tipling

At the suggestion of Cindy Lippincott and Bob Berman, I organized a group of friends and friends of friends, and together we explored Central Panama from 21 March to 1 April 2010 for 10 days of birding during the end of Panama’s dry season. Although visiting Panama is more expensive during this high season, all members of the group were available then, it offered us all a chance to escape the cold northern winter, and it gave the many photographers in the group more chances of sunny or partly cloudy skies versus overcast and rainy conditions. A variety of habitats, each one drivable in less than 1.5 hours, was selected with overnights at only two locations, Canopy Lodge and Canopy Tower. The expert guide service provided by Canopy Tower, and in particular the excellent and personable bilingual guide, Carlos Bethancourt, and supplemented at times by other guides from both lodges, was a plus.

Our requested itinerary is one that can produce a list of 350 species if done during spring or fall migration when resident species are bolstered by wintering or transient migrants (149 regular migrant species plus another 70 casual or vagrant species have been recorded). The locations visited included tropical Pacific lowland forest along the world renowned Pipeline Road and the tropical Caribbean lowland forests along Achiote Roads (twice the rainfall and more humid than the Panama City area with some specialty species such as White-headed Wren and Spot-crowned Barbet), El Trogón Trail and the beautiful historic Ft. San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River, the tourist train ride back to Panama City area (lots of Snail Kites and cold beer), the dry forests and fields at El Chirú, the seasonally flooded rice fields of Juan Hombrón, the advance permission- required gated communities of Altos del Maria in the western foothills of Panama province (1,650 - 3,800’) with pockets of native vegetation and a similar mountain development at Altos del Cerro Azul on the western extent of the eastern Panama mountains (~40 species occur here that are not found in the Canal Zone area), the winter shorebird hotspot at Costa del Este in Panama Bay, the Coclé Province foothill trails of Cara Iguana and Cerro Gaital in the El Valle area, the easternmost extent of the Talamanca Range where regional endemics are found, the trails around Canopy Adventure and the Candelaria Trail, the wetlands of the Ammo Dump Ponds, the beautiful habitat below Canopy Tower along Semaphore Hill and Plantation Roads, the habitats around the Chagres River mouth and the Gamboa Rainforest Resort grounds (permission required). In addition, we voted to substitute a second morning on Pipeline Road instead of visiting the scheduled trip to the dry forests of Metropolitan Park, knowing we were giving up our chance at the Panama endemic, Yellow-green Tyrannulet. We had chosen wisely.

After an overnight on Ancon Hill’s La Estancia B&B (highly recommended as it caters to natural history enthusiasts and has multiple fruit and hummingbird feeders viewable from the breakfast nooks, and $1 beers), we were dragged from morning birding there and collected in a Toyota 22-passenger Coaster where Carlos Bethancourt introduced us to our driver, Julio “Jackie” Chan, currently the second best bus driver in Panama. We had decided to stay at only two locations; Canopy Lodge (CL) and Canopy Tower (CT), chosen for their ease of access to central Panama foothill and lowland sites, along with there being a ton of birds in the area, good food, great guides, and comfortable rooms at both locations. Having known Carlos since meeting him at an ABA Convention, we had since become friends. Carlos is employed by the founder of CT and CL, our host Raúl Arias de Para. Carlos is responsible, in part, to market Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge internationally. Carlos heartily agreed to be our guide throughout our stay in Panama and we were indeed lucky to have him as our guide and friend. Each group member had a minimum tropical birding experience of a week in another Central American country and many had spent many months birding from Mexico to Costa Rica, while I was the only one who had birded before in Panama. The participants were: Cindy Lippincott and Bob Berman (Oregon), Jon Dunn (California), Dominic Sherony (New York), Abby and Abby Modessit, Virginia, John, Dan, and Bill Maynard (Colorado), and Joanie and Mark Hubinger (Michigan).

Our combined bird list is impressive, ~350 species seen and anther ~20 heard-only, but the list alone can not come close to showing the incredible biological diversity revealed both daily and nightly to even casual visitors to CT and CL. Even our one hour spent birding in Panama City was special as it included time sorting through thousands of shorebirds, terns, herons, and gulls at Costa del Este along the upper Bay of Panama, an estuary stretching from Panama City eastward for 40 miles. The intertidal mudflats, there provide wintering habitat to an estimated 1.3 million shorebirds including up to 30 percent of the world’s Western Sandpipers.

"The list of highlights is long, longer than any of my previous four visits to the region. "


We saw two owl species on daytime roosts, including the beautiful and infrequently encountered Crested Owl, and the spectacular Spectacled Owl, both being species birders are unlikely to stumble upon during an unguided walk in the Panamanian woods. The Crested Owl was perched only about 20 feet up and looked much more colorful than birds seen at night in a spotlight. Later, without walking more than a few feet from our rooms, we all watched and listened to a Tropical Screech-Owl’s staccato serenade just overhead, followed the next night by a close-calling-but-unseen, Mottled Owl.

Even Carlos was surprised that a Fasciated Tiger-Heron walked slowly below us in a stream less than a 100 meters from CL. (We had been hoping for a glimpse of a Sunbittern, but that sighting would come later when two sunburst-winged beauties jumped into flight below us on the Plantation Trail at CT). The tiger-heron was a true rarity here, a mountain stream specialist that had only been recorded once before in our area. The other tiger-heron, Rufescent, would come later at the lowland Ammo Dump Ponds. Much later in the trip, having asked Carlos to checkout a night-heron in my scope, he laughed and said I had a Cocoi Heron in the background and a short drive brought us closer to that one, an unexpected tick. Skulking in the shadows, the enormous-bill of a nocturnal Boat-billed Heron was scoped at Summit Ponds. Rivaling the Fasciated Tiger-Heron as a rarity, a Capped Heron was seen perched near the Boat-bill, while two more lovely Capped Herons were later seen flying overhead. We saw more than our share of rare birds.

The 28 species of hummingbird were nice, the diminutive male Rufous-crested Coquette was an instant favorite, its bumblebee-like foraging behavior allowed it to compete in a favored Verbena patch, possibly viewed by the dominate Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds there as just a large insect, and not as a competing nectar thief. Luck was with us; not one but two White-tipped Sicklebills came to perch on the red floral bracts of a Heliconia and most of us looked down into a dark hole at a ridiculously closely perched individual. Other trap-lining hermits were less easy to see, but most species were eventually ticked, most coming to one or more sugar-water feeders. The Long-billed Starthroat that hovered over the stream, snapping up tiny insects, was a treat and for a color feast, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph was hard to top. At the very edge of its small range, a female Snowcap was viewed only by a few and possibly two fighting males may have been glimpsed by a few more. Listening to the names alone was a thrill, plumeleteer, emerald, coquette, mango, Jacobin, starthroat, and brilliant. Brilliant they were.

Because we visited during late spring, we witnessed a spectacular migration of raptors, an unanticipated spectacle as we watched ~3,000 Swainson’s Hawks approach the Tower before they slowly settled for the night in distant trees. A lucky few, while watching the afternoon skies from on top of the Tower, were rewarded by a high-flying King Vulture. Swifts darted by just overhead and among the common Short-tails, Band-rumps, and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts were migrant Chimneys. The White-collared Swifts would be viewed later from a different location. Amongst a flock of migrant Mississippi Kites was a single rufous-winged Plumbeous Kite.

We were surprised at the number of warbler species we would see. Bay-breasted was the most common and Dan found a Cerulean. The blaze-orange Blackburnian was brilliant, the furtive Louisiana Waterthrush walked along the rocks below, and we all watched numbers of Tennessees gorging themselves on bananas at the feeders.

Any trip to the New World tropics has to include looking for ant thingies, so the antvireos, tail-cocked Black-faced Antthrush, singing and perched Streak-chested Antpitta, antshrikes, including the red-eyed Fasciated, small-tailed antwrens, including the black-and-white warbler look-alike, Pacific Antwren, and antbirds including, Dusky, Jet, Spotted, White-bellied, and Chestnut-backed were all closely scrutinized and admired by all. How could you pick a favorite from that fine group of birds? Although there was a bivouacked group of army ants nearby, their reluctance to raid meant missing out on at least three of the professional army ant followers. Once, we were close enough to hear the bill-snapping Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo but we never saw it in spite of multiple attempts at seeing the biggest prize of all.

Few would argue against the tropical wrens’ musical talents. No one will soon forget the well-spaced notes of Scaly-breasted Wren, the duets of White-breasted Wood-Wren and the loud arpeggios and acapella utterances of Black-bellied, Bay, Rufous-breasted, Rufous-and-white, Buff-breasted, Plain, Ochraceous, and Song Wrens. In spite of the wren serenades, the shear stunning size of the large Campylorhynchus, White-headed Wren, along a trail adjacent to Achiote Road, surely topped even the finest songster as a trip favorite.

What about the motmots? The specialty bird without the racket tips, Tody Motmot, was only seen because we were with a maestro, Carlos, whose persistence with one bird finally paid dividends there in his scope. The other three more easily viewed species were seen multiple times at our leisure and the robust Rufous even made daily visits to the CL feeders. Just before our trip, we had learned about the local Blue-crowned Motmots having been split and now called Whooping Motmot by the South American Checklist Committee. Some of the males seen were displaying to females on the Cara Iguana (iguana face) trail.

All six possible trogons were viewed, the last one, Black-tailed, spotted at the 11th hour by sharp-eyed Dan. The pair of Orange-bellied Trogons that eerily came out of the fog to perch within a few feet of us provide a long-lasting memory. The other species, Black-faced, White-tailed, Slaty-tailed, and Violaceous (now called Gartered Trogon) were leisurely ogled here and there.

You can’t visit the New World tropics without seeing tanagers, and over 20 species showed for us. Jon Dunn noticed the differences in the local Hepatic Tanagers’ call notes as compared to our birds back in the States. In 1987, Isler and Isler in The Tanagers, Natural History, Distribution, and Identification noted the range of Hepatic Tanager is discontinuous and that the lutea group, Highland Hepatic Tanager, prefers open broadleaf woodlands and forest borders. Restal et al., in Birds of Northern South America, treat this group as a separate species (along with Northern and Lowland) and along with the AOU, they extract all of the Piranga tanagers from the Tanager family and place them into the Cardinalidae, while keeping the common name, tanager. (Jon told us he voted for the name Piranga as the English name, something the Committee agreed to do with Spindalis, but the name Piranga was not accepted in this instance by the other committee members.) Some of the true tanagers we saw were knockouts, especially those representatives of the fabulous tanager genus, Tangara, including, Bay-headed, Emerald, Speckled, and Golden-hooded. There are always exceptions, of course, and in this case the dull genus representative is the feeder-loving Plain-colored Tanager, a study in grays. Tawny-crested Tanager, should be noted because the area around the CL is one of the best places in Central America to see this often difficult-to-observe-species. Banana feeders, stocked multiple times daily, attract the common Blue-gray and Palm (ho-hum) Tanagers in addition to the fabulous Lemon-rumped and Crimson-backed Tanagers, two species known to cause retinal overloads in bird watchers. Other members of the family that dazzled and produced many ooohs and ahhhs were the numerous Red-legged and Green Honeycreepers and Blue and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises. With the full color wheel spectrum represented here by certain tanager family reps, it was possibly the last day, last minute, scope view of a male Rosy Thrush-Tanager that converted the last diehard to a thraupophile. There are pinks but only one Rosy Thrush-Tanager pink!

Other new members of the Cardinalidae, the Cardinal and Allies family, are the ant-tanagers, Habia, other recent cast-offs from the Tanager family. The two representatives we had chances to study were the look-alike species, Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant-Tanagers and we learned to check for color contrast between the head, back, and upper tails. The same color of red in those areas pinpoint the more common Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, another banana slut. Three species of saltator made interesting comparisons and the migrant Rose-breasted Grosbeak was present along with the resident Blue-black, making sure we were never too far from a big-billed species.

Besides watching birds, our group members wanted to see other critters and a fine display of mammals, insects, amphibians, and reptiles complimented the daily birding party. Both sloth species reps moved so slowly that close inspection revealed algae growing on some individuals’ long-haired backs. The rarest mammal was found by Carlos on a trail perpendicular to Pipeline Road, a silky anteater, a small ball of golden fur that eventually awakened and climbed slowly to a higher perch. Being able to leisurely study animal behavior is always a treat. A Geoffrey’s tamarin troop was upset with our entry into their territory and one individual above us dramatically leapt from one tree the adjacent one, a leap of faith taking it from one side of the road to the other. The pre-dawn thunderous calls of mantled howler monkeys made setting an alarm unnecessary. One troop groomed, with a few had babies clinging to adult breasts, and all fearless in the trees directly overhead on Pipeline Road. An enormous basilisk lizard sprang onto a fruit feeder temporarily scattering gorging birds, the uninvited lizard also here to feast on the free banana banquet. Smaller basilisks demonstrated why they are also called Jesus Christo lizards, spreading wide their hind toe skins to “walk” on water below us. Although we were too busy with birds to study the butterflies, only a blind person would have missed the morphos, owl butterflies, 88s, clearwings, hairstreaks, and Heliconids. Lessons in Müllerian and Batesian mimicry will have to wait for our next trip. At Raúl’s beach house in Santa Clara we saw some tent-making bats and during our night drive at Canopy Tower some we witnessed some very large, but unidentified bats, illuminated by spotlights. It was during that night drive that we were rewarded with a Central American woolly opossum in a tree and on our trip to Altos del Maria we had a very rare daytime sighting of a kinkajou. Two species of squirrels were common with both variegated and red-tails being seen on most days. Two other mammals, Central American agouti and white-nosed coati were seen while more than one person remarked at the amazing natural laboratory into which we had been dropped.

No one will likely soon forget the Great Jacamar, the spotlighted Great Tinamou on a high night perch, the Rufous Mourner pair, the Hoffmann’s two-toed and brown-throated three-toed sloths, the white-faced capuchins, Panamian coffee, flan, the Panamanian people, the helicopter damselfly, Gatún Lake, fly-fishing for peacock bass, the Brown and Blue Boobies from the beach, the guides, Carlos, Moyo Rodriquez (M-Rod) and Alexis Sanchez, the owl-buster, that ridiculous raspberry sauce, the curry chicken, the close encounters with a Pheasant Cuckoo, the Panama Canal and its locks, the Bridge of the Americas, Altos del Maria, Cerro Azul, Achiote Road, the Pan-American Highway, Costa del Este, the Tower, the Lodge, comparing the two tityra species, Gray-breasted Martins and migrant swallows, close encounters with all five manakin species (how about that Golden-collared!), the Green Shrike-Vireo at breakfast, and later, their monotonous calls seemingly everywhere, the huge Black-chested Jays, the Rufous-browed Peppershrike, missing all forms of chiggers, mosquitoes, and ticks, the intensity of purple wattles on the Purple-throated Fruitcrows, the graceful flight of Fork-tailed Flycatchers, the thievery of Piratic Flycatchers, the schnoz on the Boat-billed Flycatchers, the subtle plumage differences in Social and Rusty-margined Flycatchers, the attitude of the Barred Antshrike, the black hues of the Jet Antibird, the bouncing-ball calls of Western Slaty Anshrikes, the industrious leaf-cutter ants, the massive Azteca ant colonies, the two large replacement species for our Pileated and Ivory-billeds, the large Lineated and Crimson-crested, the Spot-crowned Barbets and their large-leafed Cecropia trees, the liana tangles, the dead-leaf specialists, the ubiquitous Melanerpes, Red-crowned Woodpecker, so many lifers, endemics like Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, the intense coloration of a Cinnamon Woodpecker, the Acadian Flycatcher calls in the tropics, Jon Dunn’s ornithology lessons, the pies with homemade ice cream, that incredibly small, but large-billed Golden-crowned Spadebill, Carlos’ humor, Carlos’s family and hugs for dad from his daughter, Cristy Massiel, studying the Plain-breasted Ground-Doves, the Spotted Antbird from a different world, hearing, but never seeing the elusive Striped Cuckoo, a greeting from Raúl, the nightly ghostly gecko noises, the varying wingbeat patterns of the parrots and parakeets, the intense purple of the jacarandas, the non-existence of the quail-doves, the enormous feet of, and varied pronunciations for, Wattled Jacanas, glimpsing the White-throated Crake, the penetrating calls of Gray-necked Wood-Rails, finding NO ARMY ANT SWARMS, the Black Hawk-Eagle cries, the woodcreepers, common Cocoa and a Straight-billed at the beach, the rice fields frenzy with low-flying Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures looking like something from the movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, Wood Storks, four Russet Antshrikes in the fog-enshrouded bromeliads, only one species of duck, Black-bellied Whistlers, the perched Black Guans, the brownish Blue Cotinga, Alexis and his spot-lighted Vermiculated “Choco” Screech-Owl in the fer de lance woods at night, the daily sounds of: tinamous, parrots, tree frogs; the massive dangling nests of the caciques and oropendolas, along with the attendant brood parasites including Bronzed, Shiny, and Giant Cowbirds, the euphoric euphonias, the nest-building of the a pair of Scarlet-rumped Caciques, the daytime perch of the Great Potoo, an adult Blue-footed Booby on the beach, the intense yellows of Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Orioles, Colón, the French Canal, historic Fort San Lorenzo and the Welsh Pirate, Henry Morgan, large container ships in the Canal, crossing the one-lane swing bridge at Gatún Locks, Lesser Nighthawks at dusk over the Tower, flushing Pauraques on Cerro Azul, the abundance of White-necked Jacobins, Crested Bobwhites on the road, the incredible tails of Fork-tailed Flycatchers, hearing a different-sounding Eastern Meadowlark and seeing a Red-breasted one, the paucity of sparrows, but handsome Orange-billed and Black-striped, many Brown-throated Parakeets in the dry forest at El Chirú, the common, singing Yellow-faced Grassquits, the variability in Variable Seedeaters, green iguanas, the monotypic Bananaquit, the locally common resident warbler, Rufous-capped, the ubiquitous Clay-colored Thrushes, the best train ride ever, the Snail Kites, the wine without whine at dinner, the group, the guides; el hermoso país, Panamá.


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