Venture to Canopy Lodge and Tower, Panama: March 15-23, 2012
Most of us met at the Albrook Inn a day before the trip actually started and enjoyed a morning playing tourist at the Bridge of the Americas and a bird walk around the grounds of the hotel. Despite the hotel being in town, the grounds and surrounding neighborhood were quite forested and produced an excellent selection of the more common Panamanian birds including Keel-billed Toucan, Social Flycatcher and Double-toothed Kite. There were also hundreds of Cliff Swallows moving north, as well as hundreds of broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks also “kettling” above the city as they moved north.
Once we were all happily ensconced at the Tower it was time to relax, have a glass of wine and enjoy the surrounding forests within Soberania National Park. Our first full day was to Achiote Road and the Caribbean lowlands. This stretch of somewhat busy road is home to a lot of great lowland birds that we would not see anywhere else such as Spot-crowned Barbet, Black-cheeked Woodpecker and the very cute Pacific Antwren. A Montezuma Oropendola flew over (our only one of the tour) and both White-tailed and Slaty-tailed Trogons showed well enough for photographs. A brief drive over to Fort San Lorenzo and the Caribbean made for a nice end to the day with Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring overhead and a handful of shorebirds along the seashore- such as Willet and Spotted Sandpiper. Pipeline Road is always a “must-do” on any trip to the Canal Zone as it gives us an easy walk into the rainforest and that outside (very!) chance of a Harpy Eagle. Well, needless to say, we did not see a Harpy, but it’s tough to come up with the best bird of the day.
We had Great Jacamar, Spotted and Bicolored Antbirds, Cinnamon Woodpecker, and a very obliging Streak-chested Antpitta. Pipeline Road is also great for mammals and who could forget watching a Collared Anteater (Tamandua) rearing into a termite nest? Summit Ponds is always good for kingfishers and we found Ringed, Amazon and Green and a couple of nesting Boat-billed Herons. The trail past the pond (Old Gamboa Road) has been damaged over the past year or so but our quest was still there. It’s incredible to think that this pair of Spectacled Owls has been giving visiting birders so much pleasure for years. Semaphore Hill is the long hill down to the road from the Canopy Tower and we always walk down hill (some walk back up!) and bird the rich forests. Highlights on our walk included the stunning Broad-billed Motmot and a very obliging Black-faced Antthrush that walked below us allowing some great views. Sometimes we take some time off birding and with the Panama Canal just down the road, what better place to go to enjoy a few hours away from using binoculars!
The new Miraflores Locks Museum is very good and as well as enjoying the ships moving through the locks, the people watching is terrific. As well as enjoying the great birding around the Tower, enjoying birding from the roof is one of the attractions of this great birding lodge. First thing in the morning (armed with coffee) Keel-billed Toucans and Collared Aracaris move through the treetops, Scaled Pigeons and Red-lored Parrots sit in the treetops and the forest birds begin to wake up. A Pheasant Cuckoo sang its distinctive song one morning but stayed concealed in the foliage and the three note song of a Black-faced Antthrush rose above the forest canopy; waking up this way is always popular with folks. The national bird of Panama is the Harpy Eagle and the only dependable bird is that in the aviary at Summit Gardens, a park within Soberania National Park. Seeing a Harpy at close range is always spectacular and this bird is a great ambassador for habitat protection in Panama. The grounds are drier than the surrounding forest and always good for more open forest species, such as Lesser Nighthawk and Streak-headed Woodcreeper.
It's a 3 hour drive across the Canal to El Valle and the beautiful Canopy Lodge; a very different building to the Canopy Tower but attractive in its own right. Very open-plan and situated on the banks of a small rocky stream which is home to Sunbittern and both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush. One of the latter was seen daily and seemed to be late in leaving on its summer vacation up in the US. The fruit feeders in front of the lodge were popular with a myriad of tanagers, euphonias, Rufous Motmot and most surprising of all, at least 4 Prothonotary Warblers that were coming in to feed on the ripe bananas. Maybe I should try this at home!! The forests above the lodge have a different avifauna to the Canal Zone with a different gang of tanagers, honeycreepers and antbirds. We spent a couple of mornings and afternoons looking for mixed-species flocks and local specialties, such as Spot-crowned and Plain Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Spotted Woodcreeper and Emerald Toucanet. A walk along the Cariguana Trail at the edge of town was rich in "garden" birds but the numbers were incredible- and even included another stakeout Spectacled Owl. The Las Minas Trail goes through broken habitat but still retains some excellent birds. Another stakeout was the Black-crowned Antpitta that appeared like a mirage between the dense ferns- what an amazing looking bird. Another local bird that gets a lot of press is the Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo and this valley is THE place to find this very uncommon bird. The local guides indicated that there was still an antswarm around the waterfall and if there are ants, the Ground-cuckoo is usually around. A brief walk along the stream produced quick views of the cuckoo as it climbed a steep bank only to disappear into the vegetation and a search for it the following day also produced some pretty good views.
While in the El Valle area we always take one day and explore the hot, dry lowlands along the Pacific Coast. Our normal cattle pastures had been converted to corn so the birding had been compromised. This time we went to a working rice farm to look for raptors and waterbirds. Well, we hit the jackpot with a working combine stirring up the frogs and mice and attracting the predatory birds. Hundreds of Cattle and Great Egrets were working ahead of the rotating blades catching the small animals trying to escape. At one stage we had 13 species of raptor in views- all intent on the feast being supplied to them. As I had attended the Rice and Rails Festival in Louisiana last year, I encouraged the group to move closer to the working combine to see if any rails were being flushed – and boy, were they! As we moved closer to the edge of the field we noticed Soras flushing out of the remaining rice and crash-landing in the ditch. Then we noticed the Peregrines and Aplomado Falcons coursing the air above our heads and when a rail would flush from the field a falcon would dive down to snag the bird in mid-air. Despite our close proximity to the rails, the falcons ignored and sailed over our heads to snag their quarry. We even watched an Aplomado Falcon take a Yellow-breasted Crake from the ground in front of us and then sit above us eating the whole thing..... and the crake was a lifer for everyone, including Simon and Eliecer, our local guide from the Canopy Lodge. Wow! and we dubbed this whole experience the "killing fields"! Hmmmmmm..... this is not something we will forget in a hurry. Our last morning was a repeat visit above the Lodge to Cerro Gaital- not much was added except for better views of the Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. It was then back to Panama City for all of us and either a flight back to the US or an excursion onto Chiriquì for more birding (!) - a great trip with many highlights from all things snaky, 2 anteaters, rail-snacks and great guiding from Dani and Eliecer and a birdlist of just under 400 species. Thanks to everyone for making the trip enjoyable.