June 19, 2020
PANAMA’S CANOPY TOWER AND CANOPY LODGE
By Jeri Langham
When Victor and Barry asked VENT tour leaders to write about a special event or experience for our new Messages & Memories series, I was at a loss. I have been leading VENT tours all over the world since June 1986, and every tour has its special moment(s). It was difficult to make a choice, but I have settled on a recent one from the Canopy Tower in Panama.
Every time I lead an international VENT tour, I make sure I have a co-leader who speaks the language and knows the birds there as well as I know mine in California. Carlos Bethancourt has always been my co-leader at the Canopy Tower, where the staff treats me like family on every visit.
At the end of our last full day at Canopy Tower in 2019, Carlos reminded me that this year he would not be co-leading the Canopy Lodge section of our tour because he was asked to co-lead Erik Bruhnke’s first tour to Canopy Camp Darien that was offered at the same time. Since we would only bird from the Observation Deck the next morning before breakfast and then depart for Canopy Lodge, he asked if it was okay to sleep in and get ready for Erik’s tour.
Of course, I told him it was okay since this was my 23rd Canopy Tower tour. I should be able to do that with no problem; besides, there is always another Canopy Tower leader available for other birders staying there. As always, I woke up early so I could be up on the Observation Deck sipping coffee before dawn. Most of the tour participants would soon join me if they had already packed for our departure after breakfast.
I think we counted over a dozen Mantled Howler Monkey territories as they woke up and roared to announce having survived the night. We were lucky to hear all three forest-falcons and the usual sounds of Rufous and Broad-billed motmots, Green Shrike-Vireo with its never-ending “Can’t see me” song (actually let us see it this morning), and so many others. The much desired Blue Cotinga was seen earlier on Pipeline Road. We began to see species in the treetops around the tower, as dozens of bird guides and thousands of other birders have done since the Canopy Tower first opened.
While listening for sounds of any bird we have not yet seen or heard, I like to scan the distant hilltops for perched birds. Around 8 a.m., as the smell of bacon and other breakfast goodies was wafting up from the kitchen below us, I spotted a huge raptor. The volume and excitement as I immediately yelled for all the participants to get on this bird made them come running.
For many years now, Harpy Eagles have been released on the nearby, famous Pipeline Road, and once in a while lucky birders have seen one from the tower. So, my first thought was that I was getting to see my first Harpy Eagle in Central Panama, but something was not quite right. The single long, white-tipped black feather sticking out from the head and the color of the breast were not what I have seen on adult Harpy Eagles. Was this an immature bird? As all these thoughts raced through my mind, I was making sure everybody had seen it through a spotting scope, and we were all taking as many digiscope photos as possible.
My adrenalin level was over the top. I did not want this bird to leave before we had identifiable photos. Looking at the field guide, it was now certain I was looking at my lifer Crested Eagle. I phoned Carlos and sent him a couple of my digiscope photos…the one morning he was not with me, I found a bird that had never been seen by anyone from the Canopy Tower. There was no way he could get to the tower from his home before it flew away. To my knowledge it has not been seen again.
One of the things I love about birding is that one can never really predict what special event might take place on any given outing. For example, with my incredible luck at Canopy Tower, I would never have predicted that I would get another lifer at Canopy Lodge, but that is a story for another time. This lucky group of participants got to share two great lifers with me.
Myriads of magazine articles have touted Panama’s incredible Canopy Tower, a former U.S. military radar tower transformed by Raúl Arias de Para when the U.S. relinquished control of the Panama Canal Zone. It sits atop 900-foot Semaphore Hill overlooking Soberania National Park. While its rooms are rather spartan, the food is excellent and the opportunity to view birds at dawn from the 360º rooftop Observation Deck above the treetops is outstanding. Twenty minutes away is the start of the famous Pipeline Road, possibly one of the best birding roads in Central and South America. From our base, daily birding outings are made to various locations in Central Panama, which vary from the primary forest around the tower to huge mudflats near Panama City and, finally, to cool Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe forests.
I am often asked if I get tired of leading so many tours to the Canopy Tower and why I don’t go where I can get lifers. I laugh and say that each year my first pre-dawn arrival on the 360º Observation Deck is still as exciting as on my very first visit several decades ago. As I view the distant lights of Panama City and the modern Centenario Bridge, I listen for the last sounds from Mottled Owl and the first frightening, loud roars of Mantled Howler Monkeys letting all the other troops know they have survived the night and will still defend their territories. As many as three species of forest-falcons may call as the marvelous dawn chorus begins. Soon there will be enough light to see many spectacular birds from my perch above the forest canopy. Two of the most desired birds by participants are Green Shrike-Vireo and Blue Cotinga.
If you have never visited Panama’s world-famous Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge, you should consider taking one of our many VENT tours to these two fascinating Neotropical birding paradises. Our leaders emphasize the birds but do not ignore other aspects of natural history. We even offer a tour that specializes in butterflies. I am the only VENT leader who combines these two locations into one tour. Other leaders offer one at a time for birders who do not have as much vacation time. This past January, I led my 24th Canopy Tower tour and my 14th to Canopy Lodge, which only became available for tours in 2007. If you do not know about it, please visit the webcam set up there by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
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