Panama – Canopy Tower & the Canal Zone day 1

 

final approach - destination Panama!

final approach – destination Panama!

After four hours, we finally began our descent, crossing over Panama’s mountainous interior from the Caribbean to the Pacific. We banked over the ships lined up waiting for passage through the canal, looping the modern cityscape of Panama City and lined up for final approach at PTY from over the water to the SW. On approach we noted many Frigatebirds & Brown Pelicans below, then as we approached the runway many egrets and Black Vultures. Touchdown! We cleared customs and immediately found our smiling driver holding the familiar sign “Canopy Tower”!

Red-tailed Boa Constrictor trying to blend in with the hummingbird feeder

Red-tailed Boa Constrictor trying to blend in with the hummingbird feeder

I dropped my bags at the Canopy B&B in Gamboa and Athena her cordura case, and we were immediately taken back to join a birding group that was amassing for an evening trip to the Summit Ponds and Old Gamboa Road. A stubborn little Red-tailed Boa Constrictor that had been relocated numerous times, had just returned to stake out one specific hummingbird feeder when we arrived at Canopy Tower. The hummingbirds present (Blue-chested, Snowy-bellied, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Long-tailed Hermit, White-necked Jacobin, & White-vented Plumeleteer) seemed to be well aware of the snake’s presence though and avoided that feeder altogether, the snake claimed to merely have a sweet tooth! ;p

closing in on great birding

closing in on great birding

Athena had recorded a number of new birds as we drove along and as we waited outside the Canopy Tower. Birds like Social Flycatchers & Ruddy Ground Doves were tallied near the airport. At the Tower, new hummingbirds were added including a high Purple-crowned Fairy flashing in the treetops. Winding down Semaphore Hill there were vaguely familiar calls that by the end of the trip I would remember but for now only elicited “Oh man, what is that again!”. Mere minutes later we’d arrived at the start of Old Gamboa Road and parked the vehicle and walked toward the Summit Ponds.

Smooth-billed Ani dries its wings along Old Gamboa Road

Smooth-billed Ani dries its wings along Old Gamboa Road

Familiar species like Cliff & Barn Swallows freshly migrated in from points North, mixed with Southern Rough-winged Swallows, as Euphonias squeaked away nearby. Saltators perched in distant snags while Blue-black Grassquits, Smooth-billed Anis, and Stripe-headed Sparrows worked the closer grasses.

Clay-colored Thrush - Old Gamboa Road

Clay-colored Thrush – Old Gamboa Road

While undoubtedly tropical species, the Anis and the Clay-colored Thrush (the national bird of neighboring Costa Rica) barely reach the United States. The former was once widespread in Florida but had dwindled to a mere handful of individual birds now, while the latter is ever-increasing along the south Texas border.

Streaked Flycatcher digiscoped through Leica APO Televid spotting scope

Streaked Flycatcher digiscoped through Leica APO Televid spotting scope

Further along we were afforded great studies of varying Flycatcher species including the Streaked Flycatcher which I digiscoped (above), Boat-billed Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, and Lesser & Great Kiskadees were also here. The list of new birds for Athena was erupting, but for me it was just being re-acquainted with old friends. All of those mostly forgotten calls started coming back, as sleepy neurons were awoken one by one. Black-faced Antthrush gave its distinctive 4 note calls from back in the brush (one that is always heard far more than seen), then a trogon calling – a Slaty-tailed Trogon, and then a rarer one – a Jet Antbird! After some shuffling it finally showed itself looking much like an over-sized Dot-winged Antwren (also here for comparison). A nice bird to see!

Boat-billed Heron roosting in low bushes - digiscoped at Summit Ponds

Boat-billed Heron roosting in low bushes – digiscoped at Summit Ponds

At the ponds proper we compared Green & Striated Herons, saw Greater Anis, and 3 species of Kingfishers – Green, Amazon, and American Pygmy Kingfisher! Also, present here were as many as 7 Boat-billed Herons roosting in bushes overhanging the ponds here. Some were close enough to digiscope images of.

In the distance another bird which is often heard but seldom seen in the tropical regions of Central America… “Goww!”… it called again “Goww!” The call of the Collared Forest-Falcon was another familiar sound that I’d heard on every visit to Panama at numerous locations in the Canal Zone. The sound would ring from Sobernia National Forest each morning and evening at Canopy Tower. But this time it was different, this wild call of the forest grew closer and then took shape as a large, winged creature swept up the path & landed on a sturdy horizontal branch in the sub-canopy. My first and best view of a perched Collared Forest-Falcon through Athena’s brilliant glass.

juvenile Collared Forest-Falcon digiscoped through Leica APO Televid spotting scope

juvenile Collared Forest-Falcon digiscoped through Leica APO Televid spotting scope

As if this weren’t treat enough, when we’d returned to the vehicle I spotted what appeared to be a dingy (bordering on creamy) “egret” species fly across and drop into the area near the pond. Alexis our guide stated flatly we need to go back, and drove the vehicle in to the end of the drive closer to the pond. In the distance, my “egret” proved to be a rare Capped Heron, a new bird for me even. Apparently, Athena’s lucky too!

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The bird was distant, and the sun had already dropped below the horizon so the image above is horrible, technically speaking, but it was special to me as it documented my first (hopefully of many) sighting of this amazing species. Even as an ill-defined, small blob, I can make out the creamy underparts contrasting with grayish-white upper parts, see a long blue bill and blue facial skin, topped with a dark black cap for which this bird is named. I can prove it really was there, but still enters the B.V.D. list (better view desired). With this third bonus bird sighting, our happy group returned to the Canopy Tower where a barbecue style dinner awaited. We toasted our good fortune with wine, delicious food, and good company. It was already a great trip and it had barely begun!