Canopy Tower – Pure Panama Magic
After our Darién adventures, Athena and I returned to the Canal Zone near Gamboa to join the amazing tour group assembling at the Canopy Tower for the Eagle Optics / Leica Sport Optics tour here. Representing Eagle Optics, was our friend Ben Lizdas whom I’ve birded with and chased many life birds with at MANY birding festivals all across the US over the past decade!
The Canopy Tower is a world famous eco-lodge converted from an abandoned US military radar station. It offers one of the most unique lodging experience one as apt to ever experience and a visit here can only be described as pure magic.
The radar station was naturally built atop the highest hill in the area for maximum effectiveness. Semaphore Hill sits in the middle of the amazingly, diverse Sobernia National Forest, so you are literally surrounded by wildlife on all sides and you don’t know what you may see just peering out the windows here! The only neighbors you will see will be furred, feathered, or scaled there are no other human habitations for many miles.
The typical morning starts before dawn with the Howler Monkeys starting the morning chorus at the first hint of light. Shortly there after Great Tinamou haunting wavering calls ascend from the forest floors and echo through the dark forest. Then Motmots join the predawn chorus adding soft bass notes with subtle “whoop, whoop” notes! This has always been my signal to get out of bed, get dressed and head for the top deck. A great cup of coffee in one hand binoculars in the other as I watch the rest of the forest wake up below me… as I said before, “Pure Magic!” and the binocular this time is Athena, the Wandering Ultravid.
Next, the frog-like croaks of singing Keel-billed Toucans resonate from the tree tops. Their bright yellow breasts gleaming as tell tale beacons whether near or far. Then the forest rings with the raucous cries of Amazona parrots sweeping along the ridges leaving their evening roosts searching for breakfast.
They fly by in small flocks from 2 to 10 birds one after the other. Red-lored & Mealy Parrots, are the most common followed by the smaller Blue-crowned, with the lovely little Brown-hooded Parrots being the least common. When seen close one can see the pink feathering on the side of the face of the latter. These are the typical sights and sounds that one can absolutely expect and set their watches by when enjoying the morning on the Canopy Tower’s amazing top deck. However, there are always bonus surprises that one will bump into on every trip and on this trip it didn’t take long at all.
It was not the best morning we’d see on our visit – largely overcast with patches of fog sweeping along the forest ridges sometimes engulfing the tower and impeding our view of the magnificent surrounding landscape and keeping the lighting levels low. Our eager group of 14 was amassed and getting their very first taste of the canopy express waking up below us and taking in the regular bird species. Our guide and my dear friend, Carlos Bethancourt, was skillfully and patiently pointing out the local specialties as he has done countless times before. As enthusiastically as he did on his first day on the job, Carlos was calling these common species and skillfully explaining why they are what they are, “the male Blue Dacnis is on the top left and the female is below. She is shaped like the male but is green with a pointed bill…” I’d moved to another side of the circular platform and was scanning the distant treetops for raptors when I heard Carlos’ tone change to a rushed, half-whispered tone that was clearly filled with excitement. I hadn’t heard what he’d said, but knew my friend well enough to know I needed to get back over there and quickly. I snatched my spotting scope and shepherded the other attendees back toward Carlos’ position. “Oh man, a Tiny Hawk… Tiny Hawk RIGHT HERE!” he whispered, and he meant it.
The amazing little bird was just below eye-level and less than 30 feet off the deck perched on the backside of the closest Cecropia Tree. Welcome to the incomparable Canopy Tower! It was a gorgeous rust-colored juvenile bird and as the name implies it was indeed tiny. Males are just barely larger than an European Starling and females a bit larger, making it the smallest Accipiter and hawk species in the Americas! It’s also amazingly difficult to see. I’d seen the species one time before, an adult bird gliding over the treetops from this very spot for mere moments and at great distance. There was fog between us and this little stunner, slightly obscuring the view and adding some extra haze to the images. None-the-less, I knew this was a once in a lifetime view and encouraged everyone to really soak up this particular bird, realizing all of the other species around us would be easily seen again throughout our stay. It stuck around for a good 15 minutes (maybe a bit more) and after a while all had gotten their fill of this little beauty and had moved back to the other species around us.
There were Green Honeycreepers here, feeding with Plain-colored & Palm Tanagers, VERY common species for the area but new to most of this group still in their first hour of birding in Panama! Lesser Greenlets flit along and mixed with migrant species we all knew from our homes in the U.S. including American Redstarts and Eastern Wood-Pewee.
A young Blue Cotinga swept through to grab some of the ripe Cecropia fruit nearby while species like Green Shrike-Vireo, Cocoa Woodcreepers, & Cinnamon Woodpeckers called but remained unseen (for now). Also calling though was “breakfast is served”, so we all shuffled downstairs to the common and dining area one level below.
After a hot breakfast complete with fresh fruit and various fruit juices, we headed downstairs to explore the surrounding terrain from ground level to see a completely different group of birds. Between floors we did some show and tell with a Broad-billed Motmot perched right out a third story window!
We began slowly wandering down the paved road that winds from the top of Semaphore Hill, enjoying many new species along the way. Spotted Antbirds eyed the group warily as we hiked downhill. Neotropical migrants joined tropical residents here, and we saw Red-capped Manakin and Canada Warbler side by side. Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers fed frenetically just under the canopy of tall tropical trees as Crowned Ant-Shrikes & Dot-winged Antwrens performed at eye level.
We saw numerous sloths moving along at sloth-speed in search of tender shoots to eat.
The lush vegetation generally meant no direct lighting on most subjects we were seeing, so I was thankful to be carrying Athena a brilliant 7×42 Ultravid HD binocular with unmatched light delivery. Even in this dark environment the 6 mm wide exit pupil insured all the cones & rods in my pupil were filled, allowing the most vibrant views of the amazing Panamanian wildlife species like the tiny Geoffery’s Tamarin monkeys.
A pair of White-whiskered Puffbirds sat perfectly still on low branches in the shadows at roadside but with Carlos guiding they would not go undetected! We had sauntered slowly along for perhaps an hour when a vehicle from the Tower pulled up and offered us our mid-morning snack with more fruit, coffee cakes, trail mix and a cooler full of water, fruit juices, and soda. Even though, I’d eaten more than enough at breakfast, I didn’t hold back on this fourth meal that the folks at Canopy Tower generously offer daily. We all took a short break enjoying the butterflies and leaf cutter ants while snacking quietly. Then the vehicle pulled further downhill to wait for us to shuttle us back to the Tower to insure we weren’t late for our delicious, hot lunch! I’m not suggesting that they spoil you here at the Canopy Tower, BUT I don’t think it’s JUST the unique accommodations that has made this place such an amazing & popular destination for wildlife lovers everywhere!