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Panamania! May 23-June 3 2021: My first visit to the Neotropics (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
United States
A couple of years ago, as the big 40 loomed, I decided to pull the trigger and go on my first trip to the Neotropics. This was a biogeographic region I never ventured into before, so was full with entirely new families of bird and mammal to see. For the past decade, a place I was particularly interested in was Panama Canopy Tower. Panama has a lot of advantages for a first visit to the Neotropics. For one, while it has all of the classic groups and experiences, they are not quite at the levels of diversity as you can get in some places of South America. So there wasn’t much of a danger of getting completely overwhelmed with a mixed feeding flock, and I could have the time to really concentrate and experience the birds without feeling rushed. Panama also has a nice diversity of mammals, something lacking in a lot of neotropical birding hotspots like Trinidad or Andean Ecuador. It’s also relatively easy to visit and not very expensive. I went with a package deal with the Canopy Family of Lodges.

Created by Raul Arias de Para in the mid-90’s, the Canopy family is now a set of 3 lodges located in Panama. The “flagship” lodge is the Canopy Tower, a refurbished US radio tower converted into an ecolodge. Younger lodges include the Canopy Lodge, located in the foothills of El Valle, and most recently Canopy Camp, a more rustic set of lodgings in the Darien of Panama. Each of these lodges has access to a somewhat different set of birds, making them all worth a visit. Also worth pointing out that he company is beginning to experiment with the idea of hosting tours in other parts of the country, including the highlands of western Panama. As a professor at a teaching-focused university, I was constrained time wise to traveling in the summer, the “green” (AKA rainy) season, which does have the benefits of being a lot cheaper. The Canopy Family has several set packages which are convenient in that not only do they include lodging and food, but also airport transfers and guides. I went with the 7-day Tower birding package, adding on another 3 days at the Canopy Lodge. Note that I went with the birding package, however they do have various other packages, including a mammal-centric one (more later).

Of course, my plans were derailed by you know what: I had completely booked and paid for my trip only for COVID-19 to show up and shut-down travel. I was able to hold my reservation in reserve, and being fully vaccinated by the end of March, opted to take it a year later, at the end of May and early June 2021.

I was of course apprehensive in the months leading up, worried I made a mistake in going so soon, or if fate would find some other way to intervene. However, I am glad I went, and had a blast! Before I get into the trip, here are some general specific details that travelers may find useful, especially those traveling in a COVID-19 world

Panama Basics:

As mentioned, I chose the rainy season. The canopy family lodge website insists that the rain isn’t too bad, and they are MOSTLY right. However, the rain did delay or shorten several excursions. Beyond the rain, the biggest difference is the humidity. It’s generally a lot dryer in winter, although the temps are the same. So basically, with the exception of El Valle which is at higher elevation and somewhat cooler, I was perpetually damp with sweat most every day. Plan accordingly, because you really won’t want to re-wear any clothing. Thankfully there is laundry at the tower, although it does cost 7 bucks, but well worth it. It should also be noted that the Tower is not air conditioned. It is generally comfortable as it is located on a hill and gets a bit of a breeze, plus there are fans.

Panama readily takes US currency, so no currency exchange is necessary. Previous reports indicated a preference for cash over card, but this wasn’t as huge a deal as I expected. You will want to make sure however you have cash on hand for tips and any souvenirs. The suggested tip for general staff is about $6 a day. For transfers, I gave the driver a $5 tip per transfer, while the expect tip for a bird guide is about $10 a day. Don’t be cheap, especially now, as the decrease in travel also means a decrease in tip revenue all of these folks would normally be taking in. The guides spoke good English but most of the lodge staff didn’t, although there really wasn’t any communication issues. I didn’t really run around the city or anything by myself, nor did I try to drive anywhere. So I can’t speak to advice on dealing with traffic or urban safety concerns. I can say I never felt uncomfortable, and people were generally sparse in most of the places I birded.

As far as bug life and other environmental hazards, mosquitos were bad near the Chagres River and along Pipeline, although not as bad as Wisconsin in summer. I was an idiot and forgot about the no aerosol rules, so I ended up bringing neither sunscreen nor bug spray. The sunscreen wasn’t an issue, as honestly it was almost always overcast, so I only got a light tan and never burned. Worse than the mosquitos however were the chiggers, which I encountered multiple times in grassy areas, especially near Summit Ponds, the trails at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, and Metropolitan Park. I got nailed pretty badly, so make sure you read up on precautions. Stinging insects were also a problem. While trying to brush off an ant that a guide identified as a “Bully Ant”, I got stung on the palm. It basically felt like someone stabbed me in the palm with a knife and kept twisting the tip back and forth. It hurt for a whole two days. Leafcutter and Army ants are common. If you actually watch where you are going and don’t just stand in the middle of a swarm, they are not a problem. Of course, I saw people who did not take those measures and hilarity ensued. I am not a squeamish sort, so all the other bugs were not really a problem. Certainly, someone who hates insects might hate staying at the Tower, but honestly if that is the case why are you even in the Tropics?

Travel in the Age of Covid-19

Even if you are not going to Panama in the next year, odds are most of the general comments here will apply to other destinations.

First off, make sure you thoroughly read up on what is needed to travel. Panama had several restrictions in place, that at least at the time I was there, pretty much would make it impossible for anyone from Brazil or the UK to bird. Those restrictions didn’t apply to US citizens thankfully.

Everyone, no matter their point of origin or vaccination status, needs a negative covid-19 test (antigen or PCR), taken no sooner than 48 hours before you arrive in Panama. As my flight was on a Sunday (most canopy packages will start on a Sunday FYI), this produced some logistical headaches, as locally no one was really testing on the weekend, and antigen tests were not available. Thankfully, I was able to schedule an antigen test at Chicago O’hare airport for the evening before. As I had a 5:00 am flight from Chicago (I couldn’t really find any reasonable flights out of Wisconsin), it wasn’t too much of a hassle, and I was emailed the results in about 20 minutes. I would imagine that many large international airports probably also have testing. To LEAVE Panama for the US, even if you are a citizen, you need a negative test as well, taken within 72 hours. The Tower was able to arrange this test while I was there, and a person came out and took a sample, giving me the test results back with plenty of time. This service is only possible at the Tower, and so I had to revamp my schedule to go to the Lodge first then the Tower; it was originally the other way around. This cost me some extra time at the Lodge and probably a few lifers. The airport antigen test at Chicago cost me $120 dollars, and I think it was a similar fee for the test in Panama. Note you can get a test at the Panama airport, and there are some logistically more complicated ways such as driving into the city and getting it done by the lab, but as someone who speaks little Spanish, I wasn’t comfortable with doing this, plus it would be a distraction timewise from birding. However, this does mean I paid a little more; The tests at the Tocumen airport run from $50 to $80 bucks (different sites list different prices). By the way, print these out if at all possible: They will be checking these papers and it saves time to just show them a piece of paper versus fiddling with a phone. Non-US Citizens also have a little extra paperwork to fill out to get back into the states, although I don’t know the details as I didn’t need to worry about it.

Besides the negative COVID-19 test, travelers also have to fill out an affidavit with contact information and basically stating that you don’t have the virus. THIS was a nightmare to deal with. American Airlines will not check you in unless you have your negative test and this affidavit. However, in their computer system, its listed as a declaration. It took over a half an hour of dealing with American Airlines, with me becoming increasingly frustrated, as they kept insisting that my documents were not valid even though I filled out the form that was linked from the ticket I purchased through them. Eventually, I had to literally fill out the whole thing again from scratch, on my phone (filling out paperwork on a phone sucks) in front of them, then show them the exact same thing they refused to accept before. At any rate, they eventually gave me my damn tickets, even though I never really got any sort of statement from them that I was right and they were wrong. By the way, if you are wondering if the Panamanian authorities wanted to see this form…no…no they never asked. Airplane travel was otherwise much like normal, other than the wearing of masks. None of my flights were completely booked, however the airport and flights certainly weren’t short on people. Air travel is definitely going back to normal in the USA.

As for a Panama itself, they have begun vaccination, but they are still behind the USA, and I don’t believe the general public has full access yet, just older citizens. A mask mandate is in effect and there was pretty good compliance, although lower in the vicinity of the Canal itself. The staff at the lodges pretty much always wore masks. As a visitor, I generally only needed to wear a mask when I was around strangers or heavy people traffic areas. Visitors should plan on carrying a mask with them. It’s not a big deal really and most of the time, especially on the trails, I could be maskless.

Beyond tests and masks, a traveling naturalist will notice other differences they should keep in mind, some in their favor, and some not. First, traffic is greatly diminished at these lodges. I was told normally during the green season, their slow months, there were about 5 guests in the lodge at all times. I overlapped with 2 other guests for my 3 nights at the Canopy Lodge, however most of my time at the Tower I was by myself. There was a private group on a custom tour with Tropical Birding that stayed 4 nights during my visit, however they were hardcore birders that often came back after I went to bed and were out before 5 each day. After I left, I was told there would not be another set of folks visiting for a full week. Because of this, the lodges are running with a skeleton staff, and the guides themselves are having to do a lot of things like trail maintenance that I assume they would not normally do. They are at least using the time with few guests for infrastructure improvement, which did sometimes make it noisy mid-day. For instance they have converted all single rooms into rooms with there own private bathrooms, and were in the process of repainting the tower while I was visiting.

On the plus side, this means that for all but 1.5 days at the lodge, I basically had my own private guide. This was great, as we could go at the pace I wished and spend time looking for skulky things like antthrushes and leaftossers that more casual birders or nonbirders might get bored with. The guides also seemed to really want to go out of there way to help me. I was also upgraded to their fanciest room for no cost, which again, probably wouldn’t have happened in a normal year.

On the downside however, this means that there are fewer active guides in the field and less guided visits overall. For this reason, the guides just don’t have all the info they might otherwise, especially on things like owl roosts or stake-out dens. They also don’t have the most recent sighting info for an area. No one had reported Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo for months at the Tower, but as one guide said, a lot of that time no one as trying to check. This means that tougher species will probably be even tougher for the next year. As an example, the guides did not know any hollow trees to check for Rufous Tree Rats, a regularly seen species that I missed entirely. Access might also be reduced at some places. Barro Colorado Island was, IIRC, completely closed to visitors, and the Canopy Family was dissuading people from taking the mammal-focused tour for that and related reasons. Summit Gardens had just opened up, but was on reduced hours. This almost cost me Pacific Tent-making Bat.

So just to sum-up, if you are visiting an exotic location for wildlife observation for the next year, you might benefit from quieter trails and guides who can offer a more personalized experience, but you may also just plain miss more due to lack of good coverage of areas.

Hopefully this information is useful for those doing any foreign birding over the remainder of 2021. I will get into the specifics of my trip in additional posts.
Prologue: May 22nd travel to Chicago.

I live near Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, and while Appleton has a decent-sized airport, connections and limited routes meant that it would cost more money and take more time to fly out here. So instead I booked tickets for a 5:00 am flight through Chicago O'hare (an airport I am not too fond of). Needing a covid test the night before, I basically had all day to travel down, so I decided to hit up a few spots in the Sheboygan area to pad my trip list with some North American species I otherwise wouldn't see. Of particular interest, a male Harlequin duck appeared to be oversummering in Sheboygan, allowing me to add a fairly uncommon species to my state list, all without freezing my but off in winter when one or two are usually around.

FYI: Wisconsin State Birds and Lifers from Panama will be in bold.

So I started off checking the Lake Michigan....errr..lakefront. I was in luck as the first place I stopped was visited at the same time by a small band of local birders, including an avid gull fan, and I was able to take advantage of his skill checking through a fairly close mixed flock of gulls and terns. Of particular interest to me was an Iceland Gull and a Lesser Black-backed Gull, which ended up being state bonus state birds. More numerous were the Common Terns, a species scarce around Lake Winnebago and thus also a state bird. A pair of Dunlin were also a nice addition

No Harlequin, so I kept looking. It was getting quite warm, a nice warm-up (hah puns) for the temperature in Panama. Although the next few stops didn't reveal much other than the usual starlings, robins, and so forth, A check of the boat docks soon resulted in the discovery of the male Harlequin Duck, fast asleep but maybe 20 feet at most from shore. SCORE.

Next up I check Kohler-Andrae State Park. It was still spring migration, and I was hoping to get luck and get some more warblers, as work hadn't given me much time to bird. Unfortunately the park was crowded and hot, and migrants were few. About the only interesting birds were some Wild Turkey, American Redstarts, and a few White-crowned Sparrows coming in to the feeder. With bird activity dying down, I preceded to continue my drive to Chicago, arriving at my hotel for the night where I would park my car the entire trip, and trip to get at least a few hours of sleep before my way too early flight.
Sept 23 was my first day in Panama, but most of it was spent just getting there. Running off just a few hours of sleep grabbed on the plane, this was probably for the best. At any rate I landed In Panama around 2:00 pm, dealt with customs (heavily accented english through a mask with my poor hearing are not a great combo), then met my driver from the Canopy Lodge, which would be my destination.

Weather was not great. A decent sized storm system was in the area; the resulting traffic accidents (plus some always fun roadwork) added an hour to the drive, causing me to arrive there at sometime after 4:00 pm.

I was met at the lodge by my guide for the the next two days, Danilo Rodriguez Jr. Danilo's father is a long time guide, and one of the most knowledgeable guides in the El Valle area, with Junior following in his footsteps. Danilo Jr. is a FANTASTIC birder and great guide...the type of guide that can put you on a silent flycatcher sitting 20 feet deep in the brush that is also partially obscured. Danilo gave me the run down for the lodge, and also pointed out the first lifer of the trip, a Common Potoo that was roosting near the bridge going over the stream that runs through the property. This was a pretty reliable bird that we saw everyday in the same position. Next up was a gorgeous Rufous Motmot and some Common Basilisks sunning on rocks in the stream (these were seen every day here). Otherwise I mostly checked out my room and the action around the feeder, which was sort of slow. Still, I managed to see my first Thick-billed Euphonias (the default feeder Euphonia and always present), Crimson-backed Tanager, Chestnut-headed Oropendola, and Gray-headed Chachalaca. A Snowy-bellied Hummingbird was visiting the hummingbird feeder. Also seen were Clay-colored Thrush (A nest with young was in the dining area, as well Tropical Kingbirds (one of the most common birds of the trip) and Great Kiskadee.

I joined Danilo for the ritual "going over of the checklist" which took place every evening, although I didn't participate in that day's trips. It was also announced that tomorrow would be an all day trip down to the Pacific Lowlands. I was pretty happy about this...this would provide me with a set of birds that I would be unlikely to get at the Tower. Then it was a delicious meal (Food was good and plentiful, ending any hopes for weight loss on the trip), then I dragged my exhausted butt to bed.
May 24

Every morning I was normally was out birding the Lodge grounds by 6:00 am. To give a brief description, the Canopy Lodge is located in the foothills of El Valle, meaning it was at higher elevations and a bit cooler temperatures, although we also had more rain here. The grounds themselves are quite birdy. Obviously there is the feeder set-up, but there is also a nice stream separating the lodge from the rest of the property, and some short trails which take you to a natural swimming hole (which was empty during my visit), a waterfall, and to the tucked away parking area. Walking around early soon revealed my first mammal, as Central American Agoutis are quite abundant and not particularly shy at the Lodge, at least in the early morning hours. By 6:30 they completely disappeared though.

Birdwise, it was a mixture of widespread species along with some birds that are more restricted to the foothills. Generally speaking, mostly I saw the same species each day. Beyond the already mentioned birds above, new birds for me this morning that I would also see in the vicinity of the Canopy Tower included Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Long-billed Hermit, Streaked Flycatcher, House Wren (the "Southern" form which will probably eventually be split), and Blue-gray Tanager. Birds that I would only see at the Lodge included Green Hermit, Buff-rumped Warbler (which were common along the stream), Bay Wren, and Bay-headed Tanager.

Surprisingly I found that the Hummingbird feeders either here or at the Tower didn't really attract a great diversity of Hummers. I was also surprised by just how difficult Hummers were to identify. I had expected to have issues with antbirds and flycatchers, simply due to the amount of diversity and how similar many flycatchers are with one another, but these were relatively straightforward. Hummers though...they may look colorful in the book and distinctive, but between there propensity to continually move, the very similar colors most species had, being various shades of green with purple/blue, and the poor lighting, I found this a difficult group to tackle, and suspect that I probably missed a few species due to failure to identify properly.

After a breakfast we would then begin our all day field trip to the Pacific Lowlands. Severe rain the day before however did require some changes, as a powerline was down across the road, and rather than stopping in the Anton dry forest first, we headed straight to El Chiru. El Chiru is a mosaic of pasture land and dry forest that is attractive to many open country and Pacific Slope species that otherwise were not possible at the Lodge or Tower. The day was overcast which actually was a blessing, as it reduced the heat somewhat. I managed about 24 lifers in this area. The fields themselves produced Yellow-headed Caracara, Southern Lapwings, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Red-breasted Meadowlark, Ruddy-breasted and Variable Seedeaters, and Blue-black Grassquit. Of particular interest were several Grassland Yellow Finches, a species with an incredibly restricted distribution in Panama; Danilo said he had only encountered this species a handful of times, so this was a nice addition to the triplist. Scattered in the pasture-land, were several large trees which served as perches for a few new birds, including Savanna Hawk and Yellow-crowned Amazon, the latter my first parrot of the trip. Yellow-crowned Amazons are a scarcer bird that is a frequent target of the local pet trade; as one of the few native Amazons that is a good mimic, they are popular cagebirds. They are rarely seen at the Tower and the Pacific lowlands are your best bet for this species in Panama.

Birding this area involved driving on a dirt road which was flanked by fairly short trees and brush, forming a quasi canopy over the road. The trees were quite attractive to a host of birds, and we recorded Boat-billed, Social and Panama Flycatchers, Yellow-green Vireos, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Red-legged Honeycreeper, and side by side comparisons of Yellow-bellied and Lesser Elaenias. My favorite bird in this area was by far the Rufous-browed Peppershrike. This is a surprisingly colorful bird whose illustration in the field guide really doesn't do it justice.

Leaving the pastures, we made a quick stop in the nearby town to try for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, another specialty of the Pacific coast. The guide played the owl calls, but had no luck attracting a bird. He did however attract a god-sized mob of birds seeking to drive the owl out. Besides species I had seen previously, this mob also included Streaked Saltators, Barred Antshrikes (my first antbird!), and Golden-fronted Greenlet. Not drawn to the call, but also present, was a Variegated Squirrel, a species that I would see randomly a few other times, but this one would be my lifer.

As this post has already gone on quite long, I will cover Juan Hombron and the rest of the day in a separate post.
Midday and early afternoon was spent at Juan Hombron. This area is near the Pacific coast and consists of numerous rice and agricultural field; the majority of rice eaten in Panama is actually grown here. The wetlands are attractive to a variety of wading birds, and the short scrub here can be good for some local specialties. Birding the dry (for a change!) dusty road soon got us a variety of birds familiar to those who have birded in the southern states. These included species like Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt, Glossy and White Ibis, Great and Snowy Egret, Little Blue and Green Heron plus many of the species we had seen earlier in the day. New for me today, but which proved to be an incredibly common bird seen most days, was Wattled Jacana. Many "scavengers" were present, including Crested and Yellow-headed Caracara, and three species of vulture. of particular note, Juan Hombron is a really good spot for Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, with several low-flying birds. It's really good these species are low-flying, because they are pretty much nearly identical to Turkey Vultures (also common), other than having yellow heads. Nice to see birds actually named for there most distinctive feature! Other additions on the bird of prey front would also be familiar to US birders, as we encountered Osprey as well as Common Black Hawk, the latter bird a species I've yet to make a serious effort for in the ABA area.

We also played close attention to the powerlines, as another local specialty was Plain-breasted Ground Dove, which we encountered several times. Best views were had right next to a nice male Ruddy Ground Dove, providing a nice visual contrast The latter species was a lifer that had been a nemesis bird for me within the ABA area. They are annual in winter in the southwest, including California, Arizona, and Texas, but despite NINE separate attempts over the years, I have continually dipped on the bird. Here of course in Panama they are the "default" ground dove, which I would see near the Tower as well. Also seen along the roadside were numerous Anis. We had all three species, Smooth-billed, Groove-billed, and Greater Ani. The latter Ebird flagged as rare, although the guide didn't make a huge deal of it, so not sure how unusual our sighting was.

Driving along, we found a nice shady area near a creek crossing, with some good riparian vegetation, where we stopped to have lunch. This was a productive spot, flushing a Black-crowned Night Heron early on. Red-crowned Woodpecker was new for me here, although this would go on to be the most common woodpecker on the trip, looking much like the familiar Red-bellied Woodpecker, and like that species being remarkably tolerant of human disturbance. Most exciting for me however was Straight-billed Woodcreeper, a local speciality. This was my first woodcreeper, and I didn't really realize just how impressive this group of birds are. Sure, I know their body size is listed in the field guide, but I hadn't really paid attention to it, and somehow in my brain I correlated Woodcreeper with Brown Creeper, a much more petite bird. Woodcreepers are massive however, and this bird left enough of an impression on me to become one of my favorite birds of the trip, and challenging the Peppershrike for best bird of the day.

After lunch we birded our way back out, and headed toward the ocean itself. Normally the guides take groups to a house and beach located at Santa Clara, however there seemed to be some unclear access issues, either with the home owner not around...or the home owner around? We did stop at a small beach with public access, birding in the local small town on the way. We dipped on one of the specialities and an endemic, the Veraguan Mango, however we did pick up one of the other target hummers, scoring Sapphire-throated Hummingbird alongside Scaly-breasted Hummingbird. More interestingly, I also got good views of my first Squirrel Cuckoo, a bird that would actually prove to be fairly common on the trip, but still an impressive bird. At the beach itself, we were able to pad the list with several oceanic birds, including Brown Pelicans, Brown Boobies, and Magnificent Frigatebird. The latter species I suspect I also saw on the ride to El Valle on my first day, but only distant drive bys, so it was nice to get a good look here. The beach proved to lacking in terns which are guide was hoping for, However a Ringed Kingfisher was my first Kingfisher of the trip, a group that would vex me at the Tower.

From here, it was time to head back. We made one more stop however, in Anton, at a spot that the guide thought could be good for Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. Using playback he did manage to call one in, although it was mobbed en mass and I felt sorry for it. I also had my first really good looks at Pale-vented Pigeon, probably the most common and widespread "pigeon", and Brown-throated Parakeet, a species we had only had quick flybys before that were unidentifiable to me.

We eventually made it back to the Lodge for dinner. I don't recall seeing much new there, but did sort of do a lazy watch of the Orange Nectar Bats that come into the feeder at night. They were too skittish to get a light on, and too infrequent. Ultimately, I watched them via the canopy feeder cam (which has night vision), while sitting in front of the feeder. Feels a bit weird to count them, but I was physically in front of them, and using the feeder cam wasn't too different from using any other night vision equipment. After this I headed to bed, eager to see some more local species on tomorrow's trips.

Woke up again a tad earlier than I intended, and continued my morning routine of walking the Lodge grounds, and watching the fruit feeders, which are sometimes stocked a bit late in the morning. My 2nd morning and 3rd day continued to bring me new birds, the highlight today being Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, a species which actually frequently visits the fruit feeder, although my first ones were found across the stream from the lodge. Also new for this morning were a few Orange-billed Sparrows, as well as an attractive Golden-hooded Tanager.

Today's destination was the Las Minas trail, a local hotspot that holds the promise of some foothill birds, a different assemblage of birds than what we encountered in the dry lowlands. This would also be my first morning where I didn't have to share a guide. The other two birders were more interested in hanging around the lodge this morning, and catching up with work emails, resting knees, and making some video conferencing calls.

Unfortunately for me, weather was bad this morning, with lots of rain which ended up resulting in us starting about an hour later than normal. While we were waiting, I spent some time at the fruit feeder, logging a Blue-chested Hummingbird and one of my main targets at the Lodge, Dusky-faced Tanager. This tanager is actually a taxonomic oddball, and recent checklist revisions have put this in the family Mitrospingidae, which has a few members scattered in Central and South America. Fairly reliable visit to the fruit feeder, Canopy Lodge is probably one of the best places to see this bird. I also had my first Buff-throated Saltators here, and while we waited Danilo was able to put a scope on a good size Green Iguana in a tree across the stream. Oddly enough, Iguanas were not as common as I expected; I only had two sightings the entire trip, versus the near daily encounters with basilisks.

Eventually Danilo decided that we should try to go out and bird, as the rain appeared to be diminishing. Danilo knew one of my major targets was Sunbittern, so we first decided to make a stop at the Canopy Adventure, a zipline enterprise also owned by the Canopy Family. Also a good place to go, as the place had been reliable lately for Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo, one of the iconic birds for both the Lodge and Tower. On the way we stopped by some blooming Heliconias, which produced a White-tipped Sicklebill. This is another thing that surprised me about Panama. Hummer feeders are not nearly as attractive to hummers as what I expected, and only a small number of species readily visit them, with many species being either specialized for very specific types of flowers (like the sicklebill), only hanging out in the canopy, or otherwise just uninterested. I guess it makes sense with how abundant food is in the tropics.

Arriving at Canopy Adventure, the very first bird seen was a neotropical classic, a Keel-billed Toucan, my very first toucan! The trail here, with it's many rock stairs, wet leaves, and moss, was actually a bit slippery and treacherous, although thankfully the rain had tapered off. Pro-tip: invest in a good collapsible umbrella...one of the smartest packing decisions I made pre-trip. Not ashamed to admit I ended up on my butt after slipping on some leaf-covered mud, although thankfully I was not injured and the leaves kept me mud free. We eventually made our way to a small stream-fed pool, and scored big: Sunbittern! I didn't actually expect to see this bird, although I hoped, so this became one of my best birds of the trip in my eye. Kind of kicking myself for not asking Danilo to take a picture with my camera through the scope. We spent some time watching this very cooperative bird, which represented an entirely new order of bird for me. The streams also had Water Anoles, new for the herp list.

Making our way back, we also took time to look for the various ant-thingies. Overall, I did quite good on antbirds on this trip, only missing one or two scarcer species. New here for me were Chestnut-backed Antbird (a quite pretty bird IMHO), Fasciated Antshrike, Checker-throated Stipplethroat, and Dot-winged Antwren. Some of these took quite a bit of effort, as due to the geography they had a habit of either being directly above us, and when they weren't they were hiding.

After a productive stop here, we decided to head to Las Minas trail. Along the way we made a couple of stops to look for barbets and other birds. Doing so added a roadside Broad-billed Motmot to the life list. Eventually we arrived at Las Minas, however the rain began again and kept us in the car. This wasn't completely a lost cause, as we were able to watch a couple of Black-striped Sparrows feeding in the road, the only ones of the trip.

With the rain somewhat letting up, we got out of the car and headed up the trail. Some flowering trees at the base of the hill provided good side-by-side comparisons of White-vented and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, the former of which would be seen on multiple occasions, and was one of the easier to ID hummers. Las Minas is an old two-track road through some mountain forest, surrounded by chicken farms. Untouched wilderness it is not, but it was still very birdy, and gave me several foothill birds I would not otherwise encounter on my trip. These included a pretty good-sized mixed feeding flock, which moved through so fast I ended up missing several birds that would have been lifers. This was probably the most intense number of species over the entire trip...during the relatively short visit I managed to see Black-chested Jay, Rufous-capped Warbler (likely to be split this year as Chestnut-capped Warbler), White-breasted Wood-Wren, Tawny-crested Tanager, Rufous-breasted Wren, Sulphur-rumped Myiobius, Bananaquit, Slaty Antwren, and Russet Antshrike. The latter two antbirds were foothill species that would not be seen later in the tour. I also saw my very first manakin, a beautiful Golden-collared Manakin, which has to overall be one of the most gorgeous members of an otherwise beautiful set of birds. A Collared Trogon also started off my trogon trip list. This is a foothill species that used to be known as Orange-bellied Trogon, but was lumped with Collared. Which probably was long overdue, as the only differences are really the shade of color of the underparts, being otherwise identical in morphology and voice. Prior to this trip I had only ever seen one species of Trogon, Elegant Trogon, an awesome bird that can be found in the American Southwest. I did well on Trogons on this trip, and saw pretty much all the expected species, increasing my Trogon list to 7. We tried for emerald toucanets, but sadly dipped on this bird, as well as Spot-crowned Barbet. As we made our way back to the car, I also managed my first sloth, a quasi-active (By sloth standards) Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.

Then it was back to the Lodge for lunch.
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The afternoon would see both of the other guests join me again, this time hitting an area called Mozas, which seems to be a new site as it's not mentioned on the Canopy Lodge website. This is largely private property, but contains dryer forest habitat, and so is home to a different set of birds including Lance-tailed Manakin, Rosy-thrush Tanager, Lesson's Motmot, and Striped Cuckoo. The guides had also had some luck finding roosting Spectacled Owl. Spoiler alert: many of these targets would not be seen, but we did overall do not bad. Parking at the end of what seemed to be a small neighborhood, we soon encountered my first lifer of the afternoon, Giant Cowbird, and appropriately named bird which I had dismissed as Great-tailed Grackle. These ended up being frustrating, as they wouldn't cooperate for me. They weren't particularly close by, and every attempt for me to look through the scope resulted in them flying off. Not exactly super satisfied, and unfortunately these were the only birds of that species for the trip.

Continuing on, a flowering tree soon produced two new birds along with a few more common species, Yellow-crowned Euphonia (doubling my Euphonia list) and Yellow Tyrannulet, one of many small not terribly exciting flycatchers I would sometimes struggle to see over the next few days. We then proceeded through the gates and explored the grounds. Bird activity wasn't great, and we completely dipped on the manakin, owl, and thrush-tanager, but I would have better luck for both later in the trip. We did however get really good views of Striped Cuckoo. Unlike the Squirrel Cuckoo, this is a fairly close relative to the roadrunners, and it sort of shows: it's basically an arboreal roadrunner. We ended up seeing two and getting good scope views of them as they were responsive to the tape. It was also interesting to see some mobbing behavior. This species will eat other birds, at least nestlings, so other songbirds are not exactly fans of the species. As we began to head out, we picked up a few other birds new for me: Lesson's Motmot, the local Blue-crowned Motmot split and a different species from the Whooping Motmot of the canal zone. I was glad to pick this up as I would be unlikely to see it later in the trip. Also recorded were Cocoa Woodcreeper (the most common Woodcreeper of the trip probably) Rufous-and-white Wren, Stripe-throated Hermit, and good numbers of Gray-breasted Martin. On the mammal front, I also recorded my first Red-tailed Squirrel. As we drove back, the guide observed some songbirds which soon revealed a pair of male and female White-lined Tanager, my only ones for the trip.

Got back to the lodge for a restful evening. Tomorrow myself and one of the other birders would be heading off to the Canal Zone. As we were getting picked up at 10:30, this would be my final outing from the Lodge, although I would have a bit more time to bird the Lodge itself. We all wished Danilo Jr. well, who would be taking his day off tomorrow. I can't speak highly enough of Danilo, he is really a fantastic birder and great guide.

Last morning at the lodge! Since the lodge transfer wouldn't occur until 10:30 ish, breakfast was pushed to 8, allowing a little more time to sleep in and bird the early morning hours. And by sleep in I probably slept like...and extra half hour. Oh well...sleeping in other places has always been a challenge for me. Did my morning routine of walking the lodge grounds. Incidentally, while there are "trails", most of these are not proper hiking trails and more like short walks. Saw the usual critters...later start meant no Agoutis however. Across the stream, I would encounter the first of several lifers for the day, an Olivaceous Flatbill, my only one for the trip. Had to spend a decent time with this bird to be comfortable with the ID...having a guide definitely allows one to slack off a bit more than otherwise.

Had breakfast and met Tino, the guide for today who would be taking the one remaining guest out later this morning to hit up some butterfly spots. Tino was like all the guides super nice and knew English pretty well. He did point out some interesting birds this morning, but otherwise can't really comment on his guiding. He has been doing it awhile at the Lodge however, so I am sure he is excellent

A lot of the birding this morning post lunch would be spent around the feeder set-up. Also of note, is that this was the first really sunny beautiful morning I had at the lodge, so of COURSE this would be a transfer day. While the feeder is attractive to birds, there is plenty of other activity, with birds moving through the trees basically all the time. Panamanian Flycatchers were busy building a nest, and my only Olive-striped Flycatcher of the trip made a brief visit to the area, as well as a Mistletoe Tyrannulet. Palm Tanager, a bird I would see daily at the Tower, made a visit to the feeder. There was also a good-sized Giant Amevia sunning itself on a nearby stone. Less pleasant was the bully ant that managed to sting me on my palm. Extremely painful, it felt like someone stabbing my palm with a knife and twisting the tip around. Managed to hurt all day and even the next day.

Eventually myself and another guest (who would be dropped off at the airport afterward) made our leave of the lodge. I will have final thoughts on the lodge and tower at the end of the report. Can't really report much of the drive back. Doped up on Dramanine (the roads in El Valle definitely call for motion sickness medication at times), I mostly slept on the drive.

I'll start relating my adventures at the tower in my next post.
Might I suggest that your "bully" ant is actually Paraponera clavata aka Bullet Ant?
Nope...the entomologist at campus said it was too small for a bullet ant. That was my first thought, but between my colleague and another birder who remarked that my arm would not even be usable afterward, I think it was just a nasty ant. really bad bee sting level of pain, not "I've been shot" level of pain.
Great report, very useful.
Going back to the 'Panama basics', what exactly do you mean by the 'no aerosol rules'?
Great report, very useful.
Going back to the 'Panama basics', what exactly do you mean by the 'no aerosol rules'?
For check in luggage, you are not allowed to bring aerosol cans aboard a flight. I think its fine if you check luggage? I hate checking luggage because I am always worried something will get misplaced. It's not a rule specifically from Panama, just while flying to Panama.
I arrive at the Canopy Tower sometime around lunch hour. The canopy tower is an old US radar station converted to a ecolodge. The height of the lodge and its location on a hill means that one can get a good view of the canopy from the top. Located in the middle of Soberania National Park, the lodge is basically on a small patch of private property ringed by chain link fence. Obviously the birding appeal is the top of the tower, although there are hummingbird feeders at the ground level, and the tower will also put out bananas to bring in mammals. Bananas appear to basically be crack for a lot of mammals. While I was there they were remodeling the tower, upgrading it some (now all the rooms have private baths). It's a lot more rustic than the Lodge, and my general sense is that a non-birding partner might be pretty bored there for more than a couple of nights. It was also super hot: effectively I as usually drenched with sweat on most days, and even inside it could be tough if the windows were closed at the lodge or they forgot to turn on fans.

While I was there I had two different guides: Jorge Pineda and Fidelino Jimenez. First off, Both guides are outstanding. They speak English well, know the calls, and will help you get on birds. I did feel that from a birding perspective, Jorge might have been a tad better at spotting and ID, but honestly you won't go wrong with either.

The routine at the Tower is very similar to the Lodge. Most mornings you head up to the tower deck at 6 (unless you are hitting up Pipeline or a farther afield place). After an hour or so of birding you then go down to breakfast, followed by the morning outing. Back before noon for lunch and some downtime, and then around 3 or so a second outing would be done. Then back to Tower for checklist review, dinner, and for me usually bed.

Upon arrival, I got the standard intro to the Tower, then checked out the top of the tower. At midday, other than the ubiquitous vultures, there wasn't a whole lot of activity, although I did see a few Keel-billed Toucans. While the early morning is best for songbirds, my understanding is that late morning and midday was best for raptors. However we were usually elsewhere or it was raining, so i didn't get many opportunities to test this.

Over the course of the 7 or so days we hit up most of the expected sites, however because I was the only person there I suspect my schedule of tours was a lot more flexible. I think we pretty much visited everyplace mentioned on the default tower tour, most places multiple times. The only exception was the Gamboa B&B feeders, which I suspect given the lack of tourists probably wasn't open. Since

The first afternoon I was with Jorge and we visited the Ammo Dump Ponds. I always get a kick out of places like this: How many nonbirders would on vacation visit someplace with that name? The Ammo Dump Ponds are next to the canal and it's basically a munitions storage chamber, where they store all the explosives used in canal construction. Each side of the facility borders a small marsh, with some scrubby woodland and grassy edge habitat. I think we went here 4 times total, but the first trip was the longest.

Although it started out kind of slow, this ended up being an incredibly productive spot. Near the canal itself were many flying Southern Rough-winged Swallow (distinct from our northern species by the pale rump), along with Tropical Mockingbirds. The latter are not native to the canal zone and presumably hitched a ride into the area via the freighters constantly moving through the region. A good-sized Gray's Spiny-tailed Iguana sunned itself on the entrance road. The grassy borders were good for seedeaters, but sadly only the two species I had already seen. We also had two species of Ani here, including great views of Greater. An American Kestrel was also recorded here, which made the guide very excited as I don't think this is a typically encountered bird, at least not at this time of year.

The Ammo Dump Ponds is a great place to get a crash course on flycatcher ID, and I was able to soon learn how to separate Rusty-margined Flycatcher from Social Flycatcher. Other flycatchers present, beyond the ubiquitous Tropical Kingbirds and so forth, included Lesser Kiskadee, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, The scrubby trees adjacent to the road housed other new lifers, including Scrub Greenlet, Buff-breasted Wren, "Tropical" Gnatcatcher (which is apparently now White-browed Gnatcatcher), and Violet-bellied Hummingbird.

Of course being a marshy habitat this site also held the promise of various waterbirds, some of which would be new for the trip. Wattled Jacanas were of course abundant, in fact one big thing on this trip I was surprised about was just how common Jacanas are. Other familiar species included Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Green Heron, Purple Gallinule, and Snail Kite. Snail Kites were formerly rare in the canal zone, but similar to Florida, the introduction of apple snails has led to an increase in the population of this specialized bird. There are of course a few specialties here. One of them if Rufescent Tiger-Heron. We encountered these on every visit, although the first ones proved challenging. Another one is White-throated Crake. We had these birds calling and spend a substanstial bit of time trying to lure one in, but while they were responsive they kept to deep cover. We would try again later for this species. The adjacent trees, especially later in the afternoon, proved attractive to parrots, allowing me to add Orange-chinned Parakeet and Red-lored Amazon to the list, the latter the most common parrot in the canal zone (at least on my visit). I also got my first new mammal of the canal zone, with some Mantled Howlers right alongside the road as we were leaving. These were the second most commonly encountered monkey, although they tended to be hard to capture photos of.

Soon we headed back to the Tower for dinner. While eating I was able to enjoy another lifer mammal, this time in the form of Pallas's Mastiff Bat (also called Little Mastiff Bat). These are the default bat inside the tower, as they roost in the building and actually fly around the dining room. Some were visible most evenings. The guide put out some bananas on a clothes line, and another more exciting mammal was soon on display: A Western Lowland Olingo! Also known as Allen's Olingos, my understanding is that this carnivore is a bit less common than Kinkajou, which are also supposed to be common. Indeed, the week before they had woolly opossums, olingos, and Kinkajous all coming in to the Bananas. Spoiler alert. I would not be so lucky. While the Olingo came in reliably most nights, I never did see a Kinkajou the entire trip, and only had one view of an opossum. Not that olingos are not cool...they are sort of a intermediate between kinkajous and ringtails.

Night tours, due to a combination of rain and I think disinterest by staff, were not being done regularly. However the guide was okay with doing a little walk around the Tower itself. While not adding any new mammals or birds, we did see some interesting herps, including Turnip-tailed and Yellow-headed Geckos, Common Dink Frogs, and some impressive Mesoamerican Cane Toads.

After that, it was off to bed, to my first morning at the tower!

First morning at the tower saw me up top sometime before 5, soon to be joined by Jorge, my guide for the morning. It was still pretty dark out which made visibility a bit more limited. Activity was a bit slow to warm up, but once it did, it was almost a nonstop parade of new birds. In fact I would say of all my mornings at the tower, this was probably my most productive. First, there were the mixed flocks of songbirds, some of which came quite close to the tower. These flocks included Plain-colored Tanagers, White-shouldered Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Lesser Greenlet, and Scarlet-rumped Cacique. Distant snags contained Southern Mealy Amazon parrots and Scaly Pigeons. Closer to the tower were Collared Aracari, while Black-cheeked and Cinnamon Woodpeckers could be seen scaling the tree trunks. I also managed great views of Green Shrike-vireo, one of the tower's specialties. A shy canopy dwelling species, this bird can be difficult to see from the ground, but performed well at eye-level next to the tower. Another specialty seen was a female Blue Cotinga. While not as colorful as the male, the females are still neat looking birds, with large eyes that given them an almost dove like quality. As the day warmed, swifts appeared around the tower, including Band-rumped and Short-tailed Swift. More rare was a couple of Black Swift of the Central American subspecies, a possible future split. This was actually a pretty rare bird for the tower, but did give good views; a few had been seen the last couple of mornings apparently.

New on the mammal front were my first Geoffrey's Tamarin, as well as better looks at Mantled Howler. The Tamarins were probably the most regularly seen species. A small family group composed of three adults and two babies made regular visits every morning and then again around lunch time. Just great little critters and always fun to watch, especially the cute babies

After breakfast it was time for our morning excursion, which would be too Plantation trail. This trail is located at the base of Semaphore Hill Road, and follows a small creek through some good forest.

As we drove down Semaphore Hill, we happened upon a pair of researchers who were studying army ant swarms, and there was a tiny swarm right next to the road. Not a lot of birds, with only a single Bicolored and single Spotted Antbird, however both were new, so awesome!

Trees right around the parking lot proved productive, and contained Brown-hooded Parrot, Masked Tityra, and Yellow-rumped Cacique.

Along the trail itself, given the wet conditions, we encountered a variety of herps, including Yellow-headed geckos, Central American Whiptails, Rainforest Toads, some small unidentifiable rocket frog, and Tungara Frog egg masses. Bird activity was a bit hit or miss, with some lulls followed by good stretches of activity. Birds seen along the trail included Red-capped Manakin (female only, although I would see male birds later in the trip), Black-crowned Antshrike (one of the most common antbirds in the canal zone), Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Plain Xenops, and Gray-chested Dove. Jorge heard a call that soon revealed itself to be a Double-toothed Kite, the first of many neck pain inducing birds I would see around the tower. Hell with warbler neck...tyrannulet neck is way worse. Other snags revealed Purple-tufted Fruitcrow and Crimson-crested Woodpecker.

One of the specialties of the trail and a bird we put in a good amount of time trying to see is Golden-crowned Spadebill. This was especially wanted by me for not only being a neat looking bird, but spadebills are often split from flycatchers as their own family. Eventually, after much persistence, I was able to get great looks at this species.

New on the mammal front was Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloth

With earlier than expected rain threatening to soak us (most days rain wasn't an issue until midday), we began to walk back towards the parking lot. However the walk back was also productive, allowing me to add my first puffbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, and my second trogon of the trip, Black-throated Trogon. Broad-billed Motmot was also seen. Oddly enough, while I saw all four expected puffbirds, I only ever saw each species once, and this would be my sole encounter with White-whiskered.

Then it was back to the Tower for lunch
As mentioned in my last post, It had already started raining before the morning trip had even completed. This would not be a good omen for today, and sure enough, rain became and issue off and on in the afternoon. This would be my first afternoon with Fidelino, and I would be lying to say if the slow birding this afternoon compared to the success this morning and yesterday with Jorge probably didn't at least somewhat color my opinions of both guides.

With showers continuing during the afternoon, we ended up getting a bit later of a start. The goal today was to check out the Gamboa Rainforest, private property that the Canopy Tower has access to. This large resort complex felt eerily quiet, with COVID turning the area into somewhat of a ghost town. A mixture of garden, scrubby forest, and river side woodland, We would make usually brief stops here multiple times over the trip. Usually with Fidelino. May have just been a coincidence, but the different guides definitely seemed to prefer visiting certain locals. In overcast conditions, our first stop was near some small docks on the river, which provided an assortment of wetland birds, largely species seen earlier in the trip and nothing terribly rare. Mangrove Swallows hunting over the river were new however, as well as an Isthmian Wren in some nearby shrubs.

Then the rain began again, So Fidelino suggested we head on over and check out Pipeline, which he would be taking me tomorrow. Rain meant that this would be largely vehicle based birding, however several stops did reveal new birds. Most exciting for me was a Great Potoo on a roost. This bird had been seen reliably for a few days, and it was a great adoption. Great Potoos must be my favorite nightbirds of the world. They look like evil puppets in bird form, although this bird looked much more like a snag in its current position. Also seen here were several Red-throated Ant-Tanagers as well as Black-bellied Wren. I did pretty well with Wrens on this trip, knocking off every likely one at the tower.

The rain started to let up, so Fidelino decided we should try the resort again. Saw much of the same birds, but we did add Whooping Motmot, the last of the likely motmots (failing to get Tody at the Lodge) I would be likely to see.

After mostly running around, we ended up going back a bit early, with the only new addition being a mostly black Green-and-Black Poison Dart Frog hopping around outside the tower.
As mentioned in my last post, It had already started raining before the morning trip had even completed. This would not be a good omen for today, and sure enough, rain became and issue off and on in the afternoon. This would be my first afternoon with Fidelino, and I would be lying to say if the slow birding this afternoon compared to the success this morning and yesterday with Jorge probably didn't at least somewhat color my opinions of both guides.

With showers continuing during the afternoon, we ended up getting a bit later of a start. The goal today was to check out the Gamboa Rainforest, private property that the Canopy Tower has access to. This large resort complex felt eerily quiet, with COVID turning the area into somewhat of a ghost town. A mixture of garden, scrubby forest, and river side woodland, We would make usually brief stops here multiple times over the trip. Usually with Fidelino. May have just been a coincidence, but the different guides definitely seemed to prefer visiting certain locals. In overcast conditions, our first stop was near some small docks on the river, which provided an assortment of wetland birds, largely species seen earlier in the trip and nothing terribly rare. Mangrove Swallows hunting over the river were new however, as well as an Isthmian Wren in some nearby shrubs.

Then the rain began again, So Fidelino suggested we head on over and check out Pipeline, which he would be taking me tomorrow. Rain meant that this would be largely vehicle based birding, however several stops did reveal new birds. Most exciting for me was a Great Potoo on a roost. This bird had been seen reliably for a few days, and it was a great adoption. Great Potoos must be my favorite nightbirds of the world. They look like evil puppets in bird form, although this bird looked much more like a snag in its current position. Also seen here were several Red-throated Ant-Tanagers as well as Black-bellied Wren. I did pretty well with Wrens on this trip, knocking off every likely one at the tower.

The rain started to let up, so Fidelino decided we should try the resort again. Saw much of the same birds, but we did add Whooping Motmot, the last of the likely motmots (failing to get Tody at the Lodge) I would be likely to see.

After mostly running around, we ended up going back a bit early, with the only new addition being a mostly black Green-and-Black Poison Dart Frog hopping around outside the tower.
I can tell you that the Gamboa Rainforest Resort was barren like that since 2019, if not earlier, when I visited and made the mistake of using that hotel as the place for my family to stay. The staff is undertrained and overworked, so the hotel has a history of being managed into the ground and most people working there just do it to get something on their resume before going to work in better places.

As a result, a lot of the great things of the location, like access to protected rainforest and shrubby habitat close to the lake, is badly treated and you see a lot of trash, one of my few decent photos I took of Wattled Jacana was of a few birds that were foraging over the trash in the lake.

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