Rainforest Discovery Center

I headed out early with my guide Alex, to the Rainforest Discovery Center which is just down the famous Pipeline Road and to the left.

When we got out of the truck Alex immediately heard the call of the pheasant cuckoo. As we attempted to located the sulker, the bird shot out of the trees across the road and passed within feet of our heads. That certainly put a smile on the face of the morning!

Our first destination was the observation tower. At 40 meters tall, the tower put us above the rainforest canopy. No stiff necks here, trying to locate an elusive warbler or cotinga. Now we were looking down on them!

There was plenty signs of migration in the blue sky and among the treetops. Swifts and swallows passed by and an eastern kingbird perched up on a bare branch, perhaps a brief pause on its journey north. A long line of brown pelicans crossing over the verdant hills.

Eastern kingbird, resting on a snag. Taken from the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center’s observation tower.

You know when Alex, who birds this area frequently , gets excited about seeing a bird, then you know that bird is really special. The small accipiter flew into the top of a tree pursued by hummingbirds was the source of Alex’s excitement. This was one of the smallest hawks in the world: a juvenile rufous morph tiny hawk.

The tiny hawk, usually is concealed in the understory, was now sitting out in the open, sunning itself and preening. It’s hummingbird escorts perched nearby, but not too close because hummingbirds are a part of a tiny hawk’s diet. Now why would potential breakfast be perched so close to a known avian predator? The hummingbirds where calling attention to a threat in the area and the tiny hawk loses it’s advantage: it’s ability to ambush unsuspecting prey.

After sometime in the observation tower, we headed out to the Lake Trail that ended at a deck on Lake Calamito. There was a striated heron hunting in front of us and a rufescent tiger-heron devouring a water snake. Near the far shore, a large crocodile was moving on the waters. On the tree above was perched a male snail kite.

That’s not a log but an American crocidile!

A male snail kite at Lake Calamito. He is looking up over his shoulder at something in the sky. This interesting pose served as the model for my painting.


Army Ant Swarm

“There are few sights in the rain forest as awesome as the foraging columns of army ants”

~Tropical Nature, Forsyth and Miyata

The reason army ant swarms are sought by neotropical birders is that the foraging ants force any small animals in the leaf litter to flush and escape ahead of the advancing ants. This in turn attracts professional ant-followers that perch just above the swarm and reap the rewards of a fleeing feast. If the swarm happens to be near a trail, It provides an outstanding opportunity to see many birds that may be tough to see otherwise. As long as there is a source of food, birds will tolerate humans in close proximity.

I had birded Costa Rica last summer and not once did we encounter an army ant swarm. So it was a great surprise to encounter a swarm on my first full morning in Panama, just down Semaphore Hill from the Canopy Tower on the trail called Plantation Road.

With my guide Domi, we set off on Plantation Road just as two school buses rolled in with middle schoolers from a private school in Panama City. We spent some time searching for a great tinamou whose haunting call gave us the false impression that the bird was just off the trail. We could not locate the bird, a strange sort of jungle chicken, related to rheas and ostrich.

Now that tinamou is close!

A little further down the trail, I looked off to the left and I saw a great tinamou 15 feet away! Now that was easy. Now why was this elusive chicken-sized sulker tolerating two hominids with optics? The answer was to be found in the sounds of beetles, spiders, and other invertebrates rapidly trying to escape a column of an army ant swarm that was working the edge of the trail. A great tinamou is not a professional ant-following bird but if a swarm passes through it’s territory, it will take advantage. The tinamou was also joined by two white-whiskered puffbirds, cocoa and plain-brown woodcreeper, a pair of gray-headed tanagers, and spotted antbirds.

A male white-whiskered puffbird joining the feast at the army ant swarm.

At my feet, invertebrates were fleeing to seek safely on the path. They were soon followed by army ants that covered the leaf litter but only came as far as the edge of the trail.

What an amazing experience on my fist full day of birding in Panama. It goes to show that in birding, to find an army ant swarm you need to be in the right place at the right time but you also need a good dollop of luck.




Out of the 225 species of birds I saw in Panama perhaps none was more unusual and more sought after than the bird that flushed up from the creek bed that paralleled Plantation Road.

Before going on any birding trip, before booking a flight, I order a field guide. Nothing builds anticipation and excitement than thumbing through a field guide and envisioning seeing the many species of birds. The field guide to Panama is thicker than the guild to Costa Rica, reflecting the higher number of species in Panama. In fact more species of birds are to be found on this small isthmus than in all of Central America.

The one bird that really piqued my interest from an early age, was the bird that seemed so odd and so exotic. It is the only member of its family, in its own genus . It’s very name seemed to conjure a mystical creature from the age of the Inca or the Maya. The God of the Sun, Dios del Sol, reincarnated in the form of a neotropic bird called sunbittern (Eurpyga helias). What a name! And what a bird!

My guide, Domi, told the story of some birders seeing a sunbittern for the first time. They exclaimed, “Its a heron, no, it’s a rail, no a crane!” The sunbittern is an odd duck. It’s not a bittern or a heron but a distant relation of the rails. It spreads its wings above its head to reveal large eye spot when it feels threatened, looking like a huge owl.

The sunbittern had been foraging among the pools of the mainly dry creek. The wet season does not begin until the end of April. Luckily for us, the sunbittern flushed up to a branch above the creek where we were able to get great scope views and take in the beauty of this splendid neotropic creature.


Ammo Dump Ponds

On my first day at the Canopy Tower, after a brief attempt at an afternoon siesta, it was time to go birding at a location 15 minutes from the tower with the inviting name of Ammo Dump Ponds.

I spend a fair amount of time at sewage ponds in the States and I know then to be excellent places to see birds and the Ammo Dump Ponds was certainly no exception and a wonderful introduction for my Panama birding experience.

The ponds were located just past the US built town of Gamboa. Across the dirt road from the ponds was the rails of the Panama Canal Railroad which paralleled the famous Panama Canal itself at the narrows known as Culebra Cut. It was hard to keep your eyes from large sea worthy container ships that seemingly passing through the lowland forest. But we turned our eyes towards the ponds and the plentiful bird life.

Wattled jacana.

On one pond was wattled jacana, striated heron, and lesser capybara (a life mammal!). All of these animals I was seeing for the first time! We turned to look at the other pond and that’s when I saw a low flying vulture that I did not need optics to tell that this was not your ordinary turkey vulture that was passing 25 yards in front of my eyes. It’s yellow, and not red, head stood out like the North Star. This was a rare bird for this area: lesser yellow-headed vulture! Lifer!

We then looked at the pond across the road from the Ammo Dump and a greater ani flew into the trees in front of us.


The greater ani, a Dickensian undertaker bird.

A little further to the left and up in the trees revealed a rufescent tiger-heron on the nest. A lifer on the nest!

We headed around the other side of the pond to get better views of the tiger-heron and then tried from the elusive and sulky white-throated crake. We had been hearing them and with patience and perseverance we saw the crake through a window in the reeds.

A note about the featured image. Instead of going for a photorealistic illustration for my Panama birds, I opted for a woodcut-black-ink and watercolor style. More pictorial than realism. I present each birding location with a triptych of birds. All illustrations are based on photographs that I took in the field in Panama.

Life birds at Ammo Dump Ponds: rufescent tiger-heron, striated heron, lesser yellow-headed vulture, gray-lined hawk, white-throated crake, wattled jacana, pale-vented pigeon, greater ani, rusty-marginated flycatcher, fork-tailed flycatcher, southern rough-winged swallow, gray-breasted martin, Isthmian wren, blue-black grassquit, variable seedeater, and black-striped sparrow.


Canopy Tower, Panama

I hastily left my bags in my room, unpacked my binoculars, and climbed the spiraling stairs to the Canopy Tower observation deck.

Some have noted that the Canopy Tower looks like a beer can topped with a golf ball. The tower was built in 1965, by the United States Air Force as a radar tower to help defend the Panama Canal. It was transferred to the Panamanian government in 1996 and then developed as a ecolodge in 1997.

The tower is surrounded by Soberania National Park and the 360 degree views from the observation deck are jaw dropping. In the foreground are the upper canopy of the forest featuring toucans, blue coatings, and tanagers. The cecropia tree near the tower was routinely visited by howler monkey and Geoffrey’s tamarin. To the southeast was the Miraflores Locks and beyond, the skyline of Panama City. To the west was the narrows of the canal where container ships seemed to be moving through the forest. This was going to be my home away from home for the next week.

A sketch from the Canopy Tower, looking south, towards Panama City.

As I stood half-awake (I took a red-eye from SFO), I scanned the skies which were full of migrating swallows heading north and the ubiquitous black vultures (didn’t I just spend almost three hours looking for this scavenger in San Mateo County?)

Then I fixed my bins on two white birds flying to the north. White hawks! The birds came together, locked talons and spiraled to the ground, separating as they neared oblivion . Did I just witness that or was it a hallucination of a sleep deprived brain?

The large bird that flew over my head, on a northernly course was no hallucinations. The two toned vulture with the gaudy colored head could be only one bird: king vulture! I hastily took some photos to confirm its existence.

In my first morning in Panama, on the observation deck of the Canopy Tower in the rainforest watching the passing of migrants and watching the local fauna below, I knew I was going to have an amazing time in Panama!