Going Wild in Panama, Part 3

Most evenings in Panama, the excitement wrapped up by the time the sun set. There were several other guests who shared my interest in checking out the rainforest in the dark, so the staff arranged a night drive about halfway through my stay at Canopy Tower. I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity for some after hours exploration. We slowly drove down Semaphore Hill Road, with Jorge operating a powerful jacklight that he used to scan every visible branch and bush for nocturnal creatures. Birds were few and far between, a roosting Great Tinamou and a Black-and-white Owl calling in the distance, but the mammal show was brilliant. Jorge’s expert spotlighting revealed a Central American Woolly Possum, several Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloths, and two Kinkajous clambering through the treetops. We also spotted a Lowland Paca dashing across the road and a Spectral Bat hunting overhead. It was a great night, but it was a late night. The delayed bedtime took its toll, and the following morning was the only day that I wasn’t the first person on the observation deck. The experience was well worth the overtime hours, though, and the excuse to “sleep in” until 5:30 had me feeling refreshed and ready for my next set of adventures.

The Canopy and the Understory

We started off on the same familiar route: down Semaphore Hill Road, west along the highway through Gamboa, past the Ammo Dump Ponds, and turning off onto Pipeline Road. This morning, however, we were heading to the Rainforest Discovery Center just before the gates at Juan Grande Creek. Canopy Tower isn’t the only name in the game for eye-level views of the treetops in Soberania National Park, as it turns out. The Discovery Center has its own observation platform, standing over 130 feet tall. The top deck is a bit more crowded than the main walkway at the ecolodge, but the views of the area are equally stunning. We gradually ascended the spiraling staircase and settled in for a stakeout atop the impressive structure.

There was plenty of action to be seen from our perch above the canopy. Toucans, honeycreepers, and puffbirds fluttered from tree to tree, and there were many species of high-flying raptors on the move. I picked out Brown-hooded and Mealy Parrots among their more common Blue-headed and Red-lored relatives, and large flocks of Neotropic Cormorants were seen headed north alongside the streams of kingbirds and swallows. The sky was completely clear during the first portion of the morning, and the direct sunlight made our vigil a hot and sweaty affair. We were all grateful when the clouds finally rolled in and provided us with some much needed shade. Jorge eventually picked out a gorgeous male Blue Cotinga, our primary quarry at this site, among the branches of a distant tree. There were quite a few relieved faces in the crowd once everyone got a look through the scope, and we started heading down to the forest floor shortly thereafter.

Back on the ground, we made our way to the Center’s hummingbird feeders to relax in the picnic area for a bit. Jacobins, hermits, Violet-bellies, Blue-chests, and Crowned Woodnymphs darted back and forth between the feeding stations. A few small parties of Army Ants were observed marching through the gardens, and we wondered if there might be a larger swarm somewhere in the woods nearby. After partaking in some light refreshment, we quietly crept along the trails through the dense understory, our ears pricked for the calls of foraging flocks. A few promising vocalizations were heard, a Spotted Antbird here, a Bicolored Antbird there, but we never found any sign of a large feeding congregation. A passing Speckled Mourner and a pair of shockingly cooperative Fasciated Antshrikes served as fine consolation prizes. The female even showed color bands on her legs, proof that she had been previously captured for a scientific study. Satisfied with the successes of the day’s first half, we started back towards the van.

Eyes on the Skies

A series of piercing whistles rang out overhead as we drew nearer to the parking lot. Jorge immediately turned his eyes skyward and pointed to the source of the cry. “Black Hawk-Eagle!” The bird cruised past at a slow, controlled pace, likely surveying the canopy below in search of monkeys, before disappearing from sight behind the trees. The midday warmth created ideal conditions for soaring, bringing a variety of other birds of prey out to play. By the time we returned to Canopy Tower, there were dozens of raptors riding the thermals rising from the surrounding landscape. Kettles of Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks, and Mississippi Kites were among the migrants observed journeying north. After multiple days of watching and waiting, I finally spied King Vultures circling high above the observation deck. One individual was a spectacular adult, with boldly contrasting white and black plumage. The second, younger bird was darker, but it still dwarfed the Black Vultures it was associating with. I was pleased that all of my hours scanning the skies had paid off with a sighting of these dramatic scavengers.

Along the Shore

Jorge swapped out for our afternoon outing to the marina downstream from the Rainforest Resort, trading places with Igua for the evening. Our casual walk along the water’s edge was a mellow, pleasant wrap-up for the day. A Snail Kite repeatedly passed at close range as it coursed low over the muddy shoreline, where Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Common and Purple Gallinules, and Glossy Ibises sifted through the shallows. We scoped a group of Greater Anis moving through the tangles across the river, and a Panama Flycatcher was kind enough to post up nicely and provide identifiable views of its relevant field marks. Green Iguanas of various ages and sizes were basking throughout the area, with the largest males claiming the choicest branches for sunbathing. We also noted the presence of Yellow-headed Geckos and several types of turtles. The most surprising discovery was a mother Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth and her baby, ascending to the canopy with surprising haste after we disturbed them at ground level. We all appreciated the special opportunity to watch this nocturnal species under better lighting conditions.

The following morning, Mottled Owl joined the list of species I heard from the top of the Canopy Tower during the predawn chorus of wildlife. We headed into the field with Jorge at the helm once again, pausing at the Ammo Dump Ponds to give them a proper once-over instead of our usual drive-by glance. The local White-throated Crakes were quite vocal, and we were surprised to see a Sora picking its way through the grassy marsh. A good-size American Crocodile was spotted floating in the open channels while Striated and Green Herons worked the smaller pools. After a few minutes, we all loaded back into the truck and struck out again. For my last full day in Panama, I had a score that I was hoping to settle with the rainforest. I knew it was my last-chance dance for ants.

Return to Pipeline Road

We parked our ride a bit beyond the gates at Juan Grande Creek and continued on foot, finding good numbers of birds and birders alike out on Pipeline Road. A particularly friendly Black-crowned Antshrike captured the interest of most of the team, posing for photo opps right along the edge of the trail. Jorge and I turned our attention towards the forest, where we could hear several different ant-following birds calling from the same general area. First came the voice of a Streak-chested Antpitta, then a Bicolored Antbird, followed by a Northern Barred-Woodcreeper. We carefully examined the understory, looking for evidence of Army Ant activity.

Suddenly, a large bird swept through my field of view, sailing by in a low, swift glide. I was immediately struck by its size and distinctive shape, with short, rounded wings and a lengthy tail trailing behind it. It had dark brown plumage on top, the underparts paler tan with a hint of buffy orange. The tail feathers were dark and glossy, without any bands, bars, spots, or similar patterns. It quickly disappeared into dense cover, and Jorge looked back at me with a no-nonsense expression on his face. “Did you see that bird?” he asked. I confirmed that I had, my brain processing the combination of field marks I’d seen and realizing there was only one creature that fit them. He turned in the direction it had flown, glanced toward our still-distracted group mates, and took a few paces off the trail to further scrutinize the scene. The bird was gone, and there was little hope of tracking it down, but there was no doubt about its identity. We’d just experienced a surprise encounter with one of the Holy Grail birds of the Neotropics, a target I’d desperately wanted and dared not hope for, the “Pipeline Roadrunner” itself: Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

I was thrilled to have gotten a look at the elusive ground-cuckoo, however fleetingly. Finding this secretive species is a game of long odds even under the best of circumstances, and short-lived sightings like mine are the norm despite the birds’ penchant for feeding at ant swarms. It immediately took top honors as one of the highlights of the trip despite its brevity; sometimes the moments that leave you wanting more are the ones that really stick with you! On the other hand, close encounters of the bird kind are always welcome, too. A little ways down the road, Jorge locked in on the piping song of a Pheasant Cuckoo. When he played a recording in response, it apparently slipped past us and began singing from the opposite side of the path. This time, Jorge managed to follow up on the cuckoo’s flight and lead the whole party to its prominent perch. With the light of the sun streaming through its extended wings and fanned tail, this unique-looking bird was a dazzling sight to behold. It proved to be incredibly confiding, sitting calmly at close range for several minutes and countersinging with an unseen rival until a truck rumbled down the road and sent it back into the depths of the rainforest. Another dream-bird in the bag!

Late in the morning, we returned to the birdmobile and began the journey back towards Canopy Tower. We passed another tour group on the way out, and Jorge paused to ask his fellow guides what they were looking at. They informed us that there was a large, lively swarm of Army Ants just off the road within the forest, featuring a wide variety of ant-followers in attendance. YES! Even after multiple visits chock full of unforgettable experiences, Pipeline had pulled out all the stops for one last hurrah! We quickly hopped off the truck and began beating a path into the woods, determining our heading from the buzzy songs of antbirds up ahead. At long last, we reached the edge of the swarm and saw the spectacle of the feeding frenzy unfolding before us.

Dozens of birds were scattered throughout the area, tracking the movements of the ants from the roots and vines above and swooping down to snatch prey as they desperately attempted to flee the front lines. Most of them were so intent on nabbing morsels that they couldn’t have cared less about the assemblage of humans standing nearby. Greater Anis, Gray-headed Tanagers, Song Wrens, and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers were all observed getting in on the fun, with Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds leading the charge. I couldn’t help but gasp when I saw my first Ocellated Antbirds, their bright blue faces and boldly spangled plumage glowing even in the sun-dappled shadows of the understory. The overall effect of the scene was every bit as hectic and awe-inspiring as the stories would have me believe. Wave after wave of Army Ants fanned out through the leaf litter, scattering insects directly into the jaws of the waiting birds. Absolutely fantastic. Panama wasn’t pulling any punches for my last full day of adventures, and I still had one final outing yet to come.

Loose Ends

Even with all of the marvelous distractions on Pipeline Road, we managed to make it back to Canopy Tower in time for lunch. Afterwards, Jorge took us down to the Summit Ponds along Old Gamboa Road for my last guided tour. This site promised great opportunities to clean up with an array of species that I had failed to connect with in the previous days. The ponds themselves are wonderful spots to search for waterbirds, including roosting Boat-billed Herons and multiple species of kingfishers. The semi-deciduous forest along the road is also quite different from the evergreen woodlands at most locations around Gamboa. A number of birds that are specialized for life in this type of habitat, such as Lance-tailed Manakin, Jet Antbird, and Yellow-billed Cacique, are more common at this hotspot than they are elsewhere in the Canal Zone. I also picked up Black-chested Jay, Greenish Elaenia, and a handful of others that I had somehow managed to miss during the week prior. We located a beautiful male Rosy Thrush-Tanager singing in the brush along the parking lot, and enjoyed exceptional views as he moved from perch to perch. I considered this a fantastic high note to end the trip on, but that honor instead went to the pair of Black-and-white Owls roosting on a low, open perch along Semaphore Hill Road. There is truly no limit to the surprises and delights Panama has to offer!

Heading Home

With an early flight home to the United States scheduled for Friday morning, I took the time to say my goodbyes over a final delicious dinner at Canopy Tower. I exchanged thank yous, farewell hugs, and contact information with all of the new friends I’d made over the course of my vacation. This expedition wouldn’t have been the same without the company of the guides and my fellow traveling birders. I turned in relatively early that night, but I knew I couldn’t resist climbing up to the observation platform to listen to the dawn chorus before my airport shuttle arrived the next day. The tinamous, forest-falcons, and monkeys serenaded me one last time while I waited for my ride, a perfect ending for a truly magical trip.

It was difficult to leave the wonderful people, wildlife, and scenery of Panama behind, but it was helpful to know I’d be taking countless incredible memories with me for the journey home. Of the 246 species of birds observed since my arrival, I’d managed to track down 177 amazing lifers. The final tally also included 14 new mammal species and a diverse variety of herps, insects, and plants. After all these years of planning to visit Panama, trying for so long to find the right opportunity, there was a portion of me that feared it might not live up to the hype and high expectations I held in my heart. In the end, it turned out to be better than I ever dreamed it would be. The staff at the Canopy Tower were invaluable in helping me make this dream a reality. All in all, this vacation served as an outstanding introduction to the Neotropics. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the region has to offer!