I awakened well ahead of daybreak after my first night in the Canopy Tower. The local Mantled Howler Monkeys were up shortly afterwards, their wild, thunderous shouts ringing out from all directions around my lofty perch on the observation deck. Slowly but surely, the dawn chorus of birdsong stirred to life as light returned to the landscape. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a more memorable sunrise.
The other guests and guides gradually found their way to the top level, and we were treated to a marvelously lively breakfast performance. A mixed flock of migrants had joined the resident birds, providing a great opportunity to watch Scarlet Tanagers feeding alongside Palm Tanagers and Red-eyed Vireos calling in unison with Green Shrike-Vireos. Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Yellow Warblers picked their way through the branches, and a handsome male Golden-winged Warbler was a lifer for some of the world travelers standing beside me. I picked up a handful of new species, too, in the form of Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-breasted Puffbird, and Slate-colored Grosbeak. Tamarins bounded from limb to limb, and a variety of butterflies and moths fluttered around our heads. There was some temptation to linger at the tower and continue enjoying its abundance of wildlife, but we had other plans. Pipeline Road, the crown jewel of Panama birding, was waiting.
The Canal Zone
Driving back and forth along the Panama Canal provides ample opportunities to see some truly massive ships and heavy-duty machinery. The strictly scheduled operations associated with the waterway stand in stark contrast with the wild, natural habitats fringing its banks. In truth, though, many of the amenities that have made the region so accessible to visiting birders only exist thanks to the Canal. Pipeline Road itself was constructed during World War II as a contingency plan for transporting fuel and supplies across the Isthmus in case the Canal itself was ever attacked. It never was, and the 17.5 kilometer path-pipe combo was never used for its intended purpose. Instead, the route now serves as an access point for researchers and recreational naturalists to explore mature rainforest habitat with relative ease. I’ve been regaled with countless legends about the marvels of Pipeline Road over the years. At long last, I was going to experience it firsthand.
We paused briefly by the Ammo Dump Ponds at the head of Pipeline Road. Ongoing construction along the highway made the scene a bit noisier than I had anticipated, but we still managed to find some great birds. Jorge pointed out a White-necked Puffbird perched on a bare branch high above the road, and a Rufescent Tiger-Heron could be seen stalking the grassy pools. I spotted my first Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Yellow-green Vireo, species regularly encountered as long-distance vagrants in the United States far from these southern lands that they call home. Huge flocks of Eastern Kingbirds winged their way north overhead, a daily sight that served as a constant reminder that migration is in full swing. Not wanting to dawdle too long and miss the action in the deeper portions on the woodlands, we were soon on our way once again.
Once we passed through the gates at Juan Grande Creek, the air of anticipation was electric. The forest was alive with unfamiliar sounds and flashes of activity. A steady stream of lifers kept flowing all morning long: White-whiskered Puffbird, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Streak-chested Antpitta, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Song Wren, Squirrel Cuckoo, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Southern Bentbill, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, and more. Before I knew it, I was tallying my 900th species, less than 48 hours after my 800th. Black-throated Trogon had the honor of marking that milestone, taking me one step closer to quadruple digits. My tour companions congratulated me with nostalgic smiles. I knew that they had passed 1000 several times over in their international travels, their life lists containing a solid majority of the world’s bird species. Some of them had discovered first records for entire continents, or described new species all their own! Even so, they shared my excitement and enthusiasm as we birded Pipeline Road together. Jorge proved to be a fantastic guide, picking out new species from barely heard vocalizations or fleeting glances among the foliage and doing his best to make sure everyone got on them. His passionate, friendly demeanor made birding with him that much more wonderful.
The crew had elected to break for lunch at the Canopy Tower rather than pack snacks for an all-day excursion in the wild. I was initially a bit disappointed that we were losing some time in the field, but we ended up stumbling into some of our best encounters on our way to and from home base. Jorge spotted a strikingly iridescent Great Jacamar perched just off trail, and the bird sat cooperatively for several minutes after sallying out in pursuit of prey. As we drove out past the Ammo Dump Ponds, I heard the growling chatter of a White-throated Crake hidden somewhere in the marsh. We paused on Semaphore Hill Road after we ate to check on a tree cavity where Panamanian Night Monkeys like to hide, and were fortunate enough to find one of the bug-eyed primates staring down at us when we arrived. Once we made it back to Pipeline Road in the early afternoon, the hits kept on coming. Semiplumbeous Hawk, Rufous Mourner, Cinnamon Becard, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker were among the avian highlights, and we also enjoyed great views of Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths and White-faced Capuchins.
As we worked our way towards the depths of Pipeline, we listened and looked for signs of activity that might lead us to an ant swarm. Army Ants, especially larger species like Eciton burchellii, rove the forest floor in nomadic raiding parties in search of food. The menu includes animals ranging in size from other insects to small reptiles, and the voracious hordes are incredibly efficient at flushing potential meals from their hiding places. These predators are such a force of nature that entire families of Neotropical birds have evolved to specialize in foraging at ant swarms. By following the daily movements of the Army Ants, the birds can position themselves to feast on the bounty of creatures fleeing from the onslaught. Some of the most sought after, elusive bird species in Central America are professional ant-followers that are most regularly observed associated with these unpredictable events. We only found a modest congregation of tiny ants that afternoon, with just a handful of common birds in attendance. I knew there would be other search opportunities, though, and this first visit to Pipeline Road had certainly lived up to my sky-high expectations. What a way to celebrate Earth Day!
The Forest’s Edge
My morning routine remained more or less the same throughout my stay at the Canopy Tower, but each new dawn brought fresh surprises. Even though the numbers of migrant passerines were greatly reduced the next day, I heard Black-and-white Owl and Barred Forest-Falcon calling from the woods before the sun came up. Jorge, who stayed on as my guide even when I rejoined my original tour group, showed me one of the owls at its day roost on Semaphore Hill after breakfast. Our drive down to the highway also featured a parent and fledgling Gray-headed Kite, along with a Northern Tamandua trundling through the leaf litter and digging for ants.
The day’s morning trip took us back to Pipeline Road, this time focusing our efforts on the more open habitat along the early stretches of the route. Our first stop was the edge of a power line cut just beyond the Ammo Ponds. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Jorge turning his scope on a tree, not saying a word and waiting to see our reaction. Already suspecting what I would find when I turned to look, I quickly spotted the object of his attention. The Great Potoo was one of my top priority species for this vacation. Finally seeing this bizarre, burly nightbird, perfectly camouflaged atop its nest, was everything I’d hoped it would be. A second individual sighted further down the road even offered a peek at the downy fluff of its chick sticking out from underneath its belly.
The clear skies and warmer temperatures meant there was less activity overall in the forest compared to the previous day. Even so, we tracked down goodies like Moustached Antwren, Yellow-backed Oriole, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. The manic displays of Red-capped Manakins and periodic appearances of mixed flocks dominated by Dot-winged Antwrens and White-shouldered Tanagers kept us entertained throughout the morning. We started to turn around at the Juan Grande Creek gate, only to have a regionally-rare Green Ibis fly in overhead and start feeding along the streambed. There’s never a dull moment on Pipeline Road!
Back at the Tower
I settled into a nice routine for my midday lunch breaks while staying at Canopy Tower. After stuffing my face with copious amounts of delicious food, usually doused with a healthy helping of house-made Fiery-throated Hot Sauce, I retreated to the observation deck until it was time for the afternoon outing. From there, I scanned the skies for soaring raptors and flyby migrants while savoring remarkably close views of arboreal wildlife. Honeycreepers, tanagers, and parrots were among the most confiding denizens of the canopy, but the real stars of the show were the Collared Aracaris. Their larger cousins, Keel-billed and Yellow-throated Toucans, were heard and seen regularly on a daily basis, but they seldom came close enough for good photo opps. Aracaris, on the other hand, love Cecropia fruits and were not shy at all about dining with an audience.
Even though they served as a reliable natural alarm clock, Mantled Howlers were heard much more often than they were seen around the tower during my vacation. One afternoon, however, found a large troop of the monkeys lazing about in the boughs just outside the library windows. Eye-level encounters like this a special treat, one of the unique perks offered by the spectacular accomodations at Canopy Tower.
An afternoon visit to Summit Gardens Municipal Park caught me by surprise for several reasons. For one thing, the busy public multi-use area looked more like a New York state park than a tropical birding destination, apart from the decidedly Panamanian flora and fauna. It was also the only time during the trip that I got seriously rained on in the field. My vacation time fell at the very end of the dry season, and most of the few showers I witnessed rolled through while I was safely indoors or within the confines of a vehicle. This time, we were stuck out in the open when the droplets started falling. Ever the strategist, Jorge led the party to the nearby Harpy Eagle exhibit, where we watched the storm pass in the company of the massive captive bird. Not a bad spot to sit and wait, I’ll admit.
In the wake of the deluge, the gardens absolutely came to life. A tiny Snowy-bellied Hummingbird was spotted bathing in the precipitation as the rate of rainfall began to slow down. The cooler temperatures and sudden increase in flying insect movement saw a corresponding boost to avian activity. Boat-billed Flycatcher, Golden-fronted Greenlet, and many other species emerged to take advantage of the new feeding opportunities. A Lesser Nighthawk that we’d seen roosting on a nearby limb took flight and began hawking bugs over the fields. Jorge continued to point out new birds as we roamed the grounds, including Giant Cowbird, Dusky Antbird, and Yellow-crowned Euphonia. We even found a colony of Common Tent-making Bats hiding under the fronds of a large palm tree. The experience served as a reminder that great birding opportunities can pop up anywhere, and having a knowledgeable guide can make all the difference in finding them.
That said, I was thrilled when I heard that my next two days would see me back in the rainforest again!