A Birder’s Safari – Birding in Panama

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July 13, 2017
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August 10, 2017

Trip report: A Birder’s Safari – Birding in Panama
Hosted by the Columbus Zoo and Columbus Audubon

By Barbara Revard

Sixteen nature enthusiasts traveled from Columbus to Panama in June for the trip of a lifetime. Hosted by the Columbus Zoo and Columbus Audubon, participants spent some time at the Canopy Tower in the green and pristine Soberania National Park before moving on to the Canopy Lodge in El Valle de Anton nestled in the enormous caldera of a long-extinct volcano which was surrounded by a lush, jagged, forest growing out of the emerald slopes of the crater walls.

Although most of the first day was spent traveling, the group started a trip list while at the airport with good looks at a Giant cowbird, Black vultures and Great-tailed grackles. White-necked Jacobin and Blue-chested hummingbirds greeted us at the doorway of the Canopy Tower, feeding from the flowers and abundant feeders. The remainder of the late afternoon was spent soaking up the incredible view from the observation deck, spotting birds at eye-level and watching a sloth make its way up a nearby Cecropia tree while following the progress of massive ships as they transited the Panama Canal in the distance.

The next four days followed a similar pattern – up early to enjoy coffee on the rooftop deck, breakfast, and then heading out to hike local hotspots until lunchtime. Our first breakfast was made all the better by toucans and mantled howler monkeys settling in the tree branches just outside the windows of the dining area! Many in the group were avid gardeners, so the multitude of flowering plants along Semaphore Hill was a delight. We were also accompanied by a White-nosed coati, who snuffled along searching for insects in the margins of the roadway.

While staying at the Canopy Tower, a structure originally built by the U.S. Air Force as a radar station, highlights included visits to the Ammo Dump Ponds, Pipeline Road and the Chagres River. A morning boat excursion took the group out on Lake Gatun and the Panama Canal. The group had great views of American crocodile, Green iguana and Basilisk lizard as the 20-foot boat cruised around the small channels and islands throughout the lake. Immature Snail kites were abundant, diving, hovering and calling to one another. Beautiful, close-up views of a pair of adult Limpkins with three chicks were an unexpected delight! A stop along the shoreline of Monkey Island did not disappoint, as several White-faced Capuchin monkeys came to the edge of the forest to inspect the visitors. Another nearby islet was home to the miniscule Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, and the group was delighted with views of a father Tamarin holding his baby.

As the group enjoyed dinner each night, the guides were carefully watching the nearby Cecropia trees for any nocturnal visitors. Species spotted included Central American wooly opossum, Panamanian (western) night monkey, Allen’s olingo, kinkajou and Black and white owl.
The last morning in Gamboa was spent at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Here the group climbed up 176 steps to the top of an observation tower where they had lovely views above the tree canopy. Nearby trails also added to the growing bird list and a stop for a cool drink at the center’s deck allowed for amazing numbers of hummingbirds, attracted by the many feeders and flowering plants nearby. At the end of the day the group had spotted 8 species of hummingbirds – White-necked Jacobin, Long-billed hermit, White-vented Plumeleteer, Crowned wood-nymph, Blue-chested, Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed and Violet-bellied hummingbirds.

The fifth day had the group move west to the Canopy Lodge in El Valle. The Lodge sits alongside a rushing mountain stream in the foothills of western Panama. Arriving late in the afternoon, the group settled in to watch bird activity from the beautiful veranda which overlooked feeding platforms and the more ambitious strolled along the streambank for close views of a Rufous motmot and a Gray-necked wood-rail.

The remaining two full days of the trip were spent hiking along ridgeline roads in Las Minas, along the Cara Iguana Trail in a dry Pacific forest, and visiting Cerro Gaital Natural Monument. Such varied habitats allowed for spotting birds in nearby finca (farm) fields and soaring over the forested mountains surrounding the area. Species seen included: Black vulture, Roadside hawk, Southern lapwing, Black-chested jay, a kaleidoscopic rainbow of tanagers and ever-boisterous wrens, Green honeycreeper, Yellow-billed cacique, and Chestnut-headed oropendola.

Exceptional sightings included a White hawk, Tody motmot, Whooping motmot, Black-throated and Orange-bellied trogon and a pair of Spectacled owls with their large, fluffy-feathered owlet!
For anyone thinking about a trip to Panama, the hospitality, warmth, professionalism and knowledge of everyone at both the Canopy Tower and the Canopy Lodge cannot be surpassed!

The food was plentiful and very good – accommodations were made for special diets. The Canopy Tower is likely one of the most unique birding accommodations in the world and the Canopy Lodge is serene and luxurious. Every aspect of the trip and activities was well thought out and efficiently planned. The canal museum at Miraflores was added to the schedule when rain threatened an afternoon bird walk. A few of the avid birders braved the possibility of rain while most of the group visited the museum, which was reported to be very educational, excellent and interactive.

The birding guides at both locations were top-notch and put forth extra effort to help out the less experienced birders in the group. Everyone remarked on their amazing ability to whistle the song or call of seemingly every bird seen! This first joint birding trip between the Columbus Zoo and Columbus Audubon exceeded expectations and was a fantastic success! Oh, and two new birds were added to the trip list on the way to the airport as well!