Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower Oct 16—23, 2010

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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A river of raptors. As far as the eye could see, boiling kettles of Turkey Vultures, Swainson's Hawks, and Broad-winged Hawks filled the sky in a 360-degree circle around the top of the Canopy Tower observation deck. It seemed impossible, yet everywhere you looked from the ground to the highest level of the sky, from directly overhead to the greatest distance the eye can see, from left to right there were raptors. Arguably rivaling the great wildebeest migration in Africa or the sights of millions of bats exiting a cave, this spectacle of raptor migration in Panama is something everyone simply must see in their lifetime. Cries of, "Oh my God, look at this kettle over here!" and, "I can't believe there are even more coming!" rang from the group. Though I have seen this spectacle on several occasions now, I remain absolutely awestruck each time and feel privileged to witness such an event. On day 5 of our recent Fall at Panama's Canopy Tower tour we estimated 31,800 raptors (mostly Swainson's Hawks) came over the tower in a four-hour period. Little did we know that it was just a precursor to things to come the next day. From roughly 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM they came in waves, squadron after squadron of raptors heading to their wintering grounds in South America. Estimating numbers of such events is always difficult, but I feel if anything we underestimated in arriving at a total of 200,500 individuals in two hours! It is something that cannot be comprehended by reading. It simply must be seen. Over 200,000 raptors. Simply jaw-dropping.

If you came to Panama to see nothing else except this marvelous spectacle of raptor migration, it would be well worth it. Of course, Panama is about so much more. Over a week we scoured areas in and around the Canal Zone using the wonderful Canopy Tower as our base. From the Tower itself and along the entry road on Semaphore Hill we tallied the likes of King Vulture; Gray-headed Kite; Crane Hawk; Great Potoo; Keel-billed Toucan; Collared Aracari; Mealy and Blue-headed parrots; Broad-billed Motmot; Ocellated, Bicolored, and Spotted antbirds (all at an army swarm); Fasciated and Western Slaty antshrikes; White-whiskered Puffbird; Blue-crowned and Red-capped manikins; Green Shrike-Vireo; Golden-hooded Tanager; Green Honeycreeper; Blue Dacnis; and more. Mantled howler monkeys literally 15 feet away greeted our arrival at the Tower, and a three-toed sloth and a troop of Geoffroy's tamarins entertained us close by as well. Hummingbird feeders at the base of the Tower hosted six species including the striking Violet-bellied Hummingbird and White-necked Jacobin. A nearby residence in Gamboa had a dazzling array of tanagers, honeycreepers, and parakeets coming in to bananas.

The foothills of Cerro Azul east of Panama City yielded a different group of birds. The endemic Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker topped the list. Other highlights included prolonged scope views of three White-tipped Sicklebills, Violet-capped and Violet-headed hummingbirds, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Shining Honeycreeper, and Emerald and Bay-headed tanagers.

World-famous Pipeline Road lived up to its reputation with four species of trogons; Crimson-crested Woodpecker; Streak-chested Antpitta; Chestnut-backed, Dusky, and White-bellied antbirds; Purple-throated Fruitcrow; Brownish Twistwing; Gray Elaenia; and Yellow-backed Oriole among others. Feeders at the recently built Panama Rainforest Discovery Center had eight species of hummingbirds buzzing around our heads literally feet away.

A trip to the Caribbean slope near the town of Achiote may have been our most successful day of all with Rufescent Tiger-Heron; Savannah, White, and Common Black hawks; Pied and Black-breasted puffbirds; White-tailed and Black-tailed trogons; Chestnut-mandibled Toucan; a pair of marvelous Blue Cotingas (with the male performing in a low cecropia for over ten minutes); Spot-crowned Barbet; Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant; and a rarely seen jaguarundi topping the list.

Old Gamboa Road produced Boat-billed Heron, American Pygmy Kingfisher, White-necked Puffbird, Black-crowned Tityra, Lance-tailed Manakin, and more, while Metropolitan Park had Rufous-and-white Wren, the incomparable Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and the flashy Orange-billed Sparrow.

In all we tallied 274 species of birds for the week, had wonderful encounters with mammals, recorded 40 species of butterflies (including many dazzling, colorful varieties), and enjoyed the comforts of the Canopy Tower. For me, the most lasting memory, however, will always be the spectacle of that raptor migration.