Canopy Family Panama

Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge

by Toon Vernoonij & Linda van der Maas

Silver-throated d Tanager by David Tipling
Silver-throated Tanager by David Tipling

One of the main attractions of Panama is that it offers very good opportunities to spot a combination of neotropic bird species as well as nearctic migrants in a relatively small area. There are direct flights from Amsterdam to Panama City and there’s no need to take anti-malaria pills. So it’s perfect for European (and non-European) birdwatchers as a relatively comfortable place to see many new world bird species, both tropical and non-tropical, for the first time or as an easy opportunity to catch up on some species still missing on your life list. Due to the influence of the surrounding sea (Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean) the climate is mild, although it can be very humid in the rainy season. During our stay we experienced some days of heavy, persistent rain, which was, even for the rainy season, rather exceptional. It normally rains for only one or two hours in the afternoon or at night. Before noon it’s usually dry.

Canopy Tower is located in the lowland rainforest of Soberania National Park in the Canal Zone, at a distance of 1.5 miles east of the Panama Canal and at an hour driving from Panama City. The forest surrounding the tower mainly consists of undisturbed secondary rainforest and stretches all the way along the Canal until it reaches the shores of Gatun Lake. The area near the village of Gamboa is a variety of cultivation, open marshy fields, shrub, ponds and riverbanks. The platform of the tower itself is a very good birding spot as it raise above the tree tops and thus offers a panoramic view of the surrounding forest and the canopy close by. Especially in the early mornings it’s the perfect place to sit quietly and watch and enjoy the awakening forest.

Canopy Lodge is located on the outskirts of El Valle, asmall town situated in the foothills at about 60 miles to the west of the canal,in the province of Cocle. The foothills are extensively cultivated and offer agreat variety of habitats. The steep hillsides are covered with undisturbedforest, while the deep river valleys consists of gallery forest habitat. Thesurroundings close to the town as well as the nearby hilltops of La Mesa are mainlycultivated fields, gardens and orchards. The climate is, due to the higherelevation, slightly cooler than at sea level.

People considering a trip to Panama should take the time to visit both places. It will enable them to go out birding in a variety offorest habitats. There is also the possibility to make daytrips to thehighlands and to the Pacific and Carribean lowlands. Both the Canopy Tower aswell as the Lodge offer a wonderful and friendly accommodation and provide theservices of excellent local bird guides.

The following gives only an impression, no more no less, of two and a half weeks of wonderful bird watching. It is by no means written for scientific purposes. However, it may serve as a modest guidelinefor the traveler who is just interestedin birds. There is a complete list of all the 328 observed species during ourstay in Panama at the end of this report.

   "People considering a trip to Panama should take the time to visit both places. It will enable them to go out birding in a variety of forest habitats."

Canopy Tower

22 November: Plantation Trail, Ammo Ponds

The Plantation Trail is an easy path through beautiful forest. It follows the banks of a small river. At the entrance we found a Boa of respectable size, quietly sleeping in the shade of a bush. We wisely left it to its own devices. Along the trail we had our first and very successful introductionto the ‘difficult’ group of antbirds. Most species are notorious for their skulking behavior. They prefer the darkest and most hidden places in dense under storey. Nevertheless we had wonderful views of three antwren species, aswell as Chestnut-backed and Spotted Antbird.

We spent the afternoon at the so-called Ammo Ponds,where we got severel y hit by a complete army of mosquitoes and heavy rain. But those little inconveniences didn’t get in the way of enjoying the birds. Three White-throated Crakes showed very well.

23 November: SummitPonds, Old Gamboan Road

The morning started with fog and drizzle, but later onthe skies cleared and the sun came through. We were quite lucky to see an Olivaceous Woodcreeper near the entrance of the Tower, just before we left. A rather uncommon woodcreeper. Near the ponds we found White-tailed Trogon as well as a pair of roosting Spectacled Owls.

Old Gamboan Road is no longer used by traffic. It’s close to the Canal and passes through several open areas of reed vegetation,marshes and shrub. It gives therefore good opportunities to spot several species that prefer a more open terrain, such as swallows, seedeaters,grosbeaks and sparrows.

24 November: Pipeline Road, Chagres River (Gamboa Rainforest Resort)

Our first visit to the famous Pipeline Road. It’s one of the best birding spots in Central America, and rightly so. People told us it’s always good for unexpected sightings. Our big surprise was a Great Tinamou, very close to the path. It froze immediately when it noticed our presence and, thanks to its cryptic color (almost indiscernible from the color of the dead leaves on the ground), made itself practically invisible.

The afternoon took us to the banks of Chagres River and Gamboa Rain Forest Resort. Several species of heron gave a good show. On the estuary one American Coot and a female Blue-winged Teal.

25 November: Semaphore Hill Road

This was to be an easy walk down the hill from the tower, so I decided to leave my walking boots home and put my slippers on. Not a very wise decision, at least not when you meet an ant swarm. Despite my‘sorrows’ we all had a great morning. The stings of the ants weren’t too bad and the presence of those fierce insects brought along some very good birdspecies. Keeping still and silent for almost an hour inside the forest rewarded us with several antbirds. Two beautiful Ocellated Antbirds – in the same view with Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds - were the undisputed highlights. With a grin on our faces – which stayed there for the rest of the day – and covered in mud we emerged from the dark woods.

It didn’t hurt us at all that the afternoon excursion had to be cancelled due to the rain. After all we had a whole afternoon to think back to this fantastic morning.

26 November: Pipeline Road, Summit Gardens

Our second visit to Pipeline Road was even more rewarding than our first. This time we started our walk further down the path. An unexpected and very good view of a Crab-eating Raccoon was a good start   morning. It didn’t mind our presence very much and while it was searching for food we could observe this lovely mammal for several minutes. But the best of the morning was a loud calling Streak-chested Antpitta. After a long search José, our guide, finally found the bird perched on a branch.

Blue Cotinga and Tent-making Bats were the highlights of a visit to the Summit Botanical Gardens

27 November: Old Gamboan Road, Ammo Ponds

In the morning we visited the Old Gamboan Road and started our walk from the southern end. High in the treetops an immature OrnateHawk-Eagle showed itself quite well, but even more lucky we were in spotting a Gray-headed Kite in a dead tree not far from the roadside.

During the afternoon drive to the Ammo Ponds it starts to rain, so we were already wet on arrival. After a while it started to rain even harder. We decided to hide under a tree and hoped the rain would stop. Alas,it only got worse. After twenty minutes or so José fetched the car to save us from the deluge. It kept on raining for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

 "The morning started very promising with two Orange-billed Sparrows foraging under the trees, at only a couple of yards from our breakfast-table. Luck stayed with us as we had close looks at a calling Tody Motmot."

Canopy Lodge

28 November: Canopy Lodge gardens, La Mesa Road (near Lodge)

In the morning we were brought in a van to El Valle.It rained almost the whole way, until we arrived at the Lodge. The sun came through and, while drinking coffee, we enjoyed the many birds on the feeders in the garden. Several tanager species, such as Dusky-faced, White-lined and Flame-rumped. We also met Tino, who would be our guide for the rest of the week. A walk along the road to La Mesa proved to be very worthwhile despite the mist and drizzle. A beautiful male White-ruffed Manakin and several woodwarbler species offered excellent views. A Little Hermit, racing off and on along the flowers at the roadside, was a lot harder to spot.

29 November: Canopy Adventure Trail, La Samia

The morning started very promising with twoOrange-billed Sparrows foraging under the trees, at only a couple of yards from our breakfast-table. Luck stayed with us as we had close looks at a calling Tody Motmot. Linda discovered a White-throated Thrush and at the end of the trail we found an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. In the afternoon the rain returned, but we still had a good time birding at the outskirts of El Valle.

30 November: Cerro Cara Iguana Trail, El Valle

We spent the morning walking along the track to Cerro Cara Iguana, hoping to find the elusive Rosy Thrush-Tanager. We heard its calla couple of times, but it stayed out of sight in dense cover. Fortunately there were lots of other species to keep us busy, like another Tody Motmot and several wren species.

A pair of Tropical Screech-Owls had chosen a tree inf ront of the town clinic as a daytime roost. They probably hadn’t expected to attract the attention of so many birdwatchers that came to have a look at the happy couple, huddling close together on a branch high in the canopy.

1 December: Las Minas Road, Road to Pan-American Highway

The day started with sunshine as Tino took us to Las Minas Road, which is actually more of a track following the steep valley of a small brook bordered by a narrow gallery forest habitat. Near the entrance of the track we spotted a couple of Blue-throated (or Emerald) Toucanet and further down the path we walked into a male and female Orange-billed Trogons. But the highlight of the morning appeared to be a magnificent Rufous-ventedGround-Cuckoo we spotted, just by sheer luck, from the car on the way back to the lodge only yards away from the entrance to the Canopy Adventure. We were still standing outside the car happily talking about the amount of luck we were granted to spot this much wanted bird, when Danielo called from behind his counter at the entrance to draw our attention to the wonderful male Rufous-crested Coquette feeding on the flowering bush right in front of our noses. That made our joy complete.

We planned to spend the afternoon along a small valley road, about halfway along the road from El Valle to the Pan-American Highway but torrential rain forced us back into the van. Nevertheless, we managed to spot Hepatic Tanager (male and female) a few miles further down.

2 December: Lowlands and Pacific Coast

The next morning the weather had improved considerably. We left early to spend all day in the Pacific Lowlands. It turned out to be a true raptor day. Apart from the usual and more common species we were lucky to see Pearl Kite (very close!), Savanna Hawk, Gray Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk (also at very close range!). Two Peregrine Falcons passed over our heads and far away in the marshes a lonely Wood Stork attracted our attention. On top of all that we had close-ups of what might be the most beautiful American woodwarbler: Prothonotary Warbler. In the reed marshes closet o the Pacific beach we spotted, thanks to Tino’s efforts, a Pale-breasted Spinetail. Although it must be said we saw it ‘in bits and pieces’ – a tail, apart of the wing, the head, its back – but that seems to be the usual with this ovenbird species. And a Veraguan (Green-breasted) Mango gave a good show while we were having our lunch in the shade of a tree.

3 December: La Mesa and Cerro Gaital, Cerro CaraIguana Trail

We spent a sunny morning in La Mesa and Cerro Gaital Natural Monument. And still our luck had not yet ran out as, after half an hour patiently waiting, a fantastic White-tipped Sicklebill appeared at the appointed spot to feed on a large heliconia flower. What a strange hummingbird. It has a huge bill, that seems first to curve upward and then downward and that’s almost the same size as the rest of the body. At the end of the trail a large group of White-collared Swifts, a species that’s rather uncommon in the region, soared low over our heads.

The afternoon wasn’t too bad either, as we finally spotted two Rosy Thrush-Tanagers and, by doing so, accidently flushed no less than 3 Common Pauraques who became almost completely invisible as soon as they landed again in the leaf litter underneath the trees.

4 December: Altos Del Maria

Another dayt rip. This time we went to the highlands of Altos Del Maria. It’s a large area of cloud forest, owned by a rich industrial.Part of it is developed as a housing area with expensive looking villas. There are no public roads, you have to get permission to get in. Most of the area consists of undisturbed cloud forest. Our goals of this day were the uncommon and hard to find Snowcap, a beautiful purplish hummingbird with a snowy whitecap, and Black-crowned Antpitta. It didn’t take us long before we found our Snowcap and quite a lot of other good species as well, such as Red-faced Spinetail. We had already been blessed with a lot of woodcreeper species, butt he two Brown-billed Scythe bill won the award of weirdest looking woodcreeperwe had ever seen in our lives. It has an enormous curved bill – hence it’s name– which gives the bird an almost alien look. Probably the best bird of the day was the Black-crowned Antpitta. Tino and Danilo knew the exact spot where we could expect it and they were quite confident about finding the bird. It wasn’tl ong before we heard one calling and coming nearer when Danilo played a tape. After a while we didn’t see just one bird, but even two: a male and female. After that we couldn’t keep quiet any longer and started whooping and shouting. What a morning! During lunch it started to rain and we packed for the ride back. Ont he road down the rain stopped and during a short brake we saw large groups ofs everal species of swifts, two White-tailed Hawks and a pair of Crested Oropendola.

5 December: Canopy Lodge gardens

No more birding today, as we had to leave for the airport. We spent the morning packing our things, saying goodbye to everybody who had given us such a good time. For the last time we took a walk through the gardens of the lodge and look at all the birds that had become so familiar.


We wish to express our thanks to the owner, staff and guides of the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge for their hospitability, their good care and lovely cooking, their fantastic birding skills and sense of humor. Thanks to all of you we had the birding holiday of our lifetime!


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