New Year at Panama's Canopy Tower Dec 27, 2014—Jan 03, 2015

Posted by Tony Nunnery


Tony Nunnery

Tony Nunnery grew up in Mississippi, then moved to Texas, and graduated from Stephen F. Austin University. After teaching elementary school for several years, he moved to M...

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On the first morning of our tour we start the day from the top of the Canopy Tower. The excitement begins just before daybreak as we listen to the sounds of the dawn chorus. The Mottled Owl hoots its last call before going to roost as Great Tinamous usher in the day with their deep, powerful, whistled notes that are among the most stirring sounds of the tropical forest. The loud roaring, howling, and grunts made by the Black-mantled Howler-Monkeys begin, as if to threaten the sun not to rise. Then the descending “how…how” call of the Collared Forest-Falcon can be heard as the first rays of sun bring in the new day, in spite of the howlers complaints.

The excitement increases as the first light of the sun outlines a Keel-billed Toucan swinging its head and great bill in all directions while calling out a monotonous croaking like the mechanical sound of winding up an old wooden clock. New sights and sounds are added to the unfolding drama as a wide variety of squawks, shrieks, and grunts are belted out by Red-lored, Blue-headed, and Brown-hooded parrots flying in every direction over the forest canopy. They often perch out in the open as scopes and binoculars point in their direction. Soon the Cecropia tree closest to the tower fills up with Palm, Golden-hooded, and Plain-colored tanagers, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia.

After breakfast we planned to walk down Semaphore Hill Road; however, we had barely left the gate when we came across an army ant swarm. Much to our delight we found Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Spotted Antbird, and the largest and least numerous regular army ant follower, the Ocellated Antbird. We spent much time carefully examining each species as they gorged themselves on the insects that the ants were scaring up. Not only were the antbirds enjoying an easy meal, but they were joined by Plain-brown, Ruddy, and Northern-barred woodcreepers, and Plain Xenops. A Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher arrived to get in on the action. This very small flycatcher (3 1/2 inches) with large eyes, a rather long rufous tail, and prominent rictal bristles began engaging in intricate aerial pursuits of fleeing insects. A Red-capped Manakin diverted our attention with its brilliant scarlet head and bright yellow thighs. After we all got great looks at this magnificent manakin, it was joined by a Blue-crowned Manakin. Gray-headed Tanagers, which regularly accompany army ants, were there. A pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds perched quietly in the understory. A big bonus was the Black-breasted Puffbird that flew in as if to see what all the commotion was about. This species is found only from Central Panama to Northwestern Ecuador and is one of the target species of the tour.

The driver of the vehicle which came to bring us our midmorning snacks was very surprised to find us only twenty paces down the path. The army ant swarm, replete with all previously mentioned species and more, continued to snack on insects while we began to snack on tropical juices and bananas. The memorable moments mentioned above all happened before lunch on the first full day of our tour. Those who came seeking something exciting and different from the normal holiday season routine were delightfully reaping the rewards of their decision.

The rewards continued to come throughout the rest of the tour as well. Some of the outstanding occurrences included Rufescent Tiger-Heron along with Wattled Jacana and Least Bittern at Ammo Dump Ponds. The lovely afternoon we spent there was filled with various flycatchers such as Lesser Kiskadee, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher, and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet. We spent one incredibly delightful morning at the house and garden of Jerry and Linda Harrison the day we visited Cerro Azul. There was a multitude of tanagers and hummingbirds at their bird feeders. Among the twelve species of hummingbirds we saw were Green Hermit, Purple-crowned Fairy, Green Thorntail, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. The most special hummingbird of the morning was the Rufous-crested Coquette. This small (2 3/4 inch) hummingbird wanders widely seeking abundant small flowers, so we were pleased and fortunate to find it in the garden. Their banana feeders attracted various tanagers and other species. We especially delighted in seeing up-close the Golden-hooded Tanagers, numerous Blue-gray and Palm tanagers, and spectacular looks at Green, Red-legged, and Shining honeycreepers. They were joined by numerous Clay-colored Thrushes, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, and Bananaquit, as well as various other species. A Gartered Trogon and Black-throated Trogon appeared in the garden. We had lunch at Rosabel’s house overlooking a national park. Here we saw White-necked Jacobin, Crowned Woodnymph, and Violet- bellied Hummingbird at her hummingbird feeders. Collared Aracaris also visited her garden while we were there. Then we made a short drive up to Cerro Jefe where we had a fast-moving flock with Black-and-yellow, Speckled, Bay-headed, and Emerald tanagers.

The first of two days that we visited Pipeline Road was different and exciting indeed.
There were both Blue-crowned (Whooping) Motmot and Rufous Motmot. An American Pygmy Kingfisher was fishing near the bridge at one of the streams. Here we had incredible looks at Cinnamon, Lineated, and Crimson-crested woodpeckers. We were blessed yet again to come across an ant swarm where we had up-close and extended looks at Fasciated Antshrike, Bicolored Antbird, and even a young Ocellated Antbird being repeatedly fed by the adult. At this ant swarm we saw Royal Flycatcher, Brownish Twistwing, and a group of Song Wrens. Farther down the road we happened upon a group of Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and Golden-collared Manakin.

Early the next morning we went to the Discovery Center Observation Tower. One of the first birds we saw was the lovely Blue Cotinga as it perched out in the open, lit up by the morning sunlight. Everyone had a look in the scope before it flew away. Then there was a Scaled Pigeon in the scope, as well as Keel-billed Toucan and Black-mandibled Toucan. Next we had sunlight views of Black-breasted Puffbird and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. Furthermore, there were six species of parrots seen from the tower flying and perching in the morning light. These included Orange-chinned Parakeet, Blue-fronted Parrotlet, Brown-hooded Parrot, Blue-headed Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, and Mealy Parrot. The activity slowed down as the sun rose higher in the sky and the birds retreated into the shade under the canopy, so we did the same. We took a short hike down a forest trail to a large freshwater marsh. Here, in the cool breeze and shade, we watched a Snail Kite flying over and around the marsh searching for snails. We called in a pair of Yellow-tailed Orioles from the other side of the marsh. They flew right up to us and began to display all around us. A group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and a few Blue-winged Teal were resting on the water. Then amid the water hyacinths and aquatic vegetation landed a male Masked Duck. It remained out in the open, preening for some time, for us to enjoy. A pair of Greater Anis landed in the brush next to us. Then we heard a Black-tailed Trogon calling from the forest behind us. We were able to see it in the scope through a small window in the vegetation. Leaving the serene and shady marsh behind, we returned to the Canopy Tower for lunch.

After lunch we drove to the nearby area of Gamboa. Here, in a small patch of scrub forest behind the Gamboa Lodge, we had an incredible mixed feeding flock that contained, among others, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Streaked Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Buff- breasted Wren, Crimson-backed Tanager, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Streaked Saltator, and Yellow-rumped Cacique. A few of us saw a male Great Antshrike skulking in the dense brush. We also had great looks at Gartered and Slaty-tailed trogons.

No matter how many times one visits Pipeline Road, it is always different from the time before. This was the case as we paid another visit to this world-renowned birding destination. This time we saw both Slaty-tailed Trogon and then White-tailed Trogon in full view, up-close and perched over the road. This sighting of White-tailed Trogon completed all possible trogons available on the Holiday Season Tour. Another distinction was the Great Jacamar that responded to our call and alighted just over the road above us. This large (12 inches) and robust jacamar displayed its glittering metallic-green upperparts, deep rufous underparts, and slightly decurved sharp pointed bill, ideal for catching butterflies. A Southern Bentbill entertained us as it gleaned for insects beside the road alongside an Olivaceous Flatbill.

On our last full day we spent the morning at Metropolitan Park. Here a Gray-headed Kite flew in under the canopy and briefly perched on a branch. Gray-chested Dove fed along the trail beside a pair of Rufous-and-white Wrens. We managed to coerce a White-bellied Antbird into an opening in the dense underbrush. A mixed feeding flock moved slowly along the trail giving us ample time to work through all the many species that included Greenish Elaenia, the Panamanian endemic Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Rufous-breasted Wren, Plain Wren, and a number of New World Warblers. We had great looks at Black-and-white, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Yellow, and Chestnut-sided warblers. These plus the Louisiana and Northern waterthrushes, Golden-winged Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, Buff-breasted Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Rufous-capped Warbler gave us 14 warbler species spotted and seen well throughout the tour.

No tour would dare to visit Panama without a visit to the Panama Canal. On our last afternoon we spent some leisurely time visiting and enjoying the Mira Flores Locks and Museum. It is always interesting to see the ships as they move in and out of the locks before continuing their journeys out into the Pacific Ocean and other parts of the world.