Toucans and Coffee

Dawn at the Canopy Tower started with coffee on the observation deck.

Early morning is the best time to see birds at the Canopy Tower. And the mammals can also be active. Both were actively foraging and close to the tower.

Coffee and TVs, on the observation deck of Canopy Tower.

The Canopy Tower rises above the treetops of Semaphore Hill, meaning that most birds where at eye level or below. No strained necks here, unless you were spotting a raptor directly above. But at this time of the morning there were few raptors on the wing.

As the sky lighten, the forest around the tower came alive. The sift between the nocturnal and the diurnal was underway.

In the front of the tower was a cecropia tree that reached to the heights of the tower. The tree was in flower and it attracted both howler monkeys and Geoffrey’s tamarins.

The real stars of the show where the two species of toucan that visited the cecropia in the mornings: the keel-billed toucan and the collared aracari. I had great eye level views of both species, which remains poster birds of the lowland rain forest perhaps none more so than the keel-billed (Ramphastos sulfuratus), the National bird of Belize. This large multicolored billed bird is the quintessential toucan of the tropics. A google images search for the word “toucan” yields many images of the keel-billed toucan over other species.

Poster bird of the Neotropical lowland rain forests.

There are over 40 species of toucans in five genera found only in the Neotropics. The African and Asia continents has many colorful and unique avifauna but the Americans have the family Ramphastidae, the toucans, all to itself.

The keel-billed’s menacing looking cousin, the collared aracari.

Yet another reason to head to the Neotropics to see the birds, so often in Guinness ads and cereal boxes, in the feather!

The sketcher in his happy place, dawn on the observation deck of the Canopy Tower, Panama.


A Miner’s Gold Pouch

I wear my gold pouch with pride.

I’ve had it now for five years. That’s five trips to the Gold Fields of Coloma, five apple challenges, five dunkings into the South Fork of the American River, a few hundred students, and chaperones. It’s a bit faded now and turned up at the edges like a big leaf maple leaf in fall.

When I first was handed my pouch on my arrival at the Coloma Outdoor Discovery School (CODS), it was new, soft leather, the same pouch that all Greenhorns receive within their first few hours on the South Fork of the American River.

The gold pouch serves a few different purposes. Primarily it is a leather name tag, worn around the neck. Mine has the my miner’s name: Hawk Eye. Maybe a nod to MASH, a reference to birds or an allusion to my mother’s home state. It’s all of these but primarily it is a statement about seeing and perception. To be aware, to be present.

In our current time, our youth are inundated with artificial experience. Bright screens that can darken the mind. And our youth, I fear, will reap a whirlwind for not being “here now”.

But it the contents of the pouch that gives me hope. In my pouch is a vial filled with water. This is the container that Greenhorns use to keep their flakes of gold that they find while gold panning. Mine is empty because I seldom have time to pan for gold.

I am often asked by students to show them the gold in my vial and I tell them that the gold I find in Coloma is not contained in my vial but the gold is standing in front of me. That is my hope. That is our future.

While at CODS we learn what happened here in January 1848, setting off the largest migration of humans in history, indeed the world rushed in. But the Gold Rush that happens on the banks of the American River happens here everyday at CODS.

It is something undefinable, and unique to each individual student but it is certainly much more precious than the gold that was manically mined here after word spread of James Marshall’s discovery.

The real gold of Coloma is that fire that burns within, that we all, as educators, fan and tend to. As Yeats noted, “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Just as it’s not about filling the vial with gold but really about igniting the desire to do something for our one and only planet and to be our best selfs.

And while we head back on the bus, many students sleep but that fire, that little pilot light, that always burns, is planted in them, ready to ignite!


Bookend Bird

When I first arrived at the Canopy Tower, I headed directly up to the observation deck. Spring migration was in evidence as many swallows, mainly barn, headed north.

The gray sky was also filled with black and turkey vultures. To the north I saw two white hawks come together, interlock talons, and spiral towards the ground, wings held out at a tight angle. Spring was definitely in the air!

Directly above, vultures turned. A black, a turkey, pause, and then, the king! The two-toned adult with the head of many colors shouted our: king vulture!

The king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)  was and is an amazing bird to see on my first stint on the Canopy Tower’s observation deck and I would not see another king anywhere else in Panama until . . .

April 12, 2018 6:20 AM.

My final day in Panama

When I assented the stairs to the observation deck, I had added 98 lifers to my list and my world lifelist stood at 1,037 species. I had finally reached a personal birding milestone.

This was no mean feat that took almost 20 years, six countries, 11 states, thousands of miles, many shoes, and four pair of binoculars.

This morning on the observation deck I was seeing the usual suspects keeled- billed toucan, palm rangers, scaled pigeon, red-lored parrots, and migrating swallows.

To the north I spotted the unmistakable profile of the wanderer. Peregrino as it’s known in Panama, the peregrine falcon. There was much rejoicing as the peregrine passed over our heads and out of sight.

Peregrine falcon.

Shortly afterward, as most of the observers headed down for breakfast, I saw a small kettle pf vultures was over head. Black and turkey and then a much larger vulture was among them, the king, my bookend bird: the king vulture.

This was a great bird to end my time on the observation deck of the Canopy Tower on my last birding on the isthmus of Panama.

King vulture.


Creatures of the Night

El viento de la niche gira en el cuelo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos mas tristes esta noche.

Yo la quise, y a veces ella tambien me quiso.

Puedo Escribir, Pablo Neruda

Nocturnal avifauna can be very tricky to see by day or night. Nocturnal birds remain the holy crucible for most birders. To see a creature of the night can be very fulfilling because the birds can be so mysterious and illusive. And to see them well can take time and a lot of patience.

During the day, their cryptic colors helps them blend into their daytime roosts, which can often be deep inside the rainforest foliage or hidden in a cavity in the trunk of a towering tree, high up in the canopy.

When we think of nocturnal birds, one group always comes to mind: owls. Panama has 13 species of owls, featured in The Birds of Panama by George R. Angehr and Robert Dean (my Holy Bible while I birded the Isthmus). But owls are not the only birds that earn their living in the dark. The members of the Caprimulgidae family (nighthawks, pauraques, and nightjars) are represented by nine species in Panama. The potoos (family: Nyctibiidae) are represented by the great and common potoo and are only found in the neotropics. The oilbird is the only member of it’s family (Steatornitthidae).

In my time in Panama I was lucky to see six members of these night phantoms. All where seen in the daytime as they roosted, awaiting their graveyard shifts and two of them were sitting on nests

The first nocturnal bird we saw was sitting on an egg in a tree by the side of the busy Gamboa Road. Oddly enough the large bird was out in the open and it’s cryptic color and posture made the great potoo (Nyctibius grandis) look like a vertical branch with its back facing the road. Here was a bird I had not anticipated seeing. What are the changes of seeing a roosting bird that can be scarcely distinguished from a snag? Full credit must be given to my Canopy guides who pointed the great potoo.

One bird that topped my wishlist is one of the largest owl in Central America. How hard would it be to see a large owl in the Neotropics? Again I hadn’t anticipated seeing this owl so getting my bins on Pulsatrix perspicillata would be a pure bonus. I wanted to see this owl so badly that it took two attempts.

We walked down the Old Gamboa Road, attempting to find the bird in its daytime roost in a palm. The owl flushed and I got a fleeting glimpse of the spectacled owl in flight. It felt a bit dishonest, even to myself, to calm to have seen a spectacled in the wild.

So on my last day in Panama, we again attempted to get a good look at Pulsatrix perspicillata. This time we used stealth, planting each footfall with care not to rustle any leaves and restricting any conversation. We slowly moved on the right side of the road and I crouched down and looked up under a palm and there was the adult spectacled owl looking right back at me. So much for stealthy humans.

There is something special, if not slightly unsettling, at looking an alpha predator in the eyes. It certainly not the gaze you want to encounter if you are a small mammal.

Spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)

The final nocturnal bird featured in the triptych is the black and white owl (Strix nigrolineata). Again my guides at Canopy Tower made owling easy as they knew of a pair that were roosting just off of Semaphore Road on the way down the hill from Canopy Tower.

A very cryptic rufous nightjar on it’s nest.


Camino del Oleoducto, Pipeline Road

April 10, 2018

Today was the day we where going to bird one of the most famous birding locations in Central America. Some say this is the best birding location in all of Central and South America. This is Pipeline Road.

Welcome to the Jungle. The entrance to Camino del Oleoducto.

Pipeline has a species list that exceeds 400. It is a point in Panama where bird species of the Caribbean and Pacific Coast come together in one location. The road allows access deep into the rainforest.

The road was built during World War II as a service road that paralleled an oil pipeline that was a Plan B if the Panama Canal was attacked. The Canal was never attacked and the pipeline was never used. The road is now a hotspot for tropical birding in the Canal Zone.

The Canopy Tower Mobile on Camino del Oleoducto.

At the end of the day we ended with 58 species including spotted antbird, black-breasted puffbird, and white-tailed trogon (birds featured in the Pipeline Road triptych).

A male white-tailed trogon.

Birds of the Neotropics have an eclectic collection of English common names. It’s as if the European and American ornithologist didn’t quite know how to name each odd and strange new species they discovered in the Neotropics and you get such Frankenstein names such as the red-throated ant-tanager. These scientists had been hording up their hyphens and they used them with abandonment when naming these species. A few highlights from a day’s birding on Camino del Oleoducto included: pheasant and squirrel cuckoo, purple-crowned fairy, black-crowned antshrike, checkered-throated and dot-winged antwren, the stunning ocellated antbird, a singing streak-chested antpitta, southern bentbill, brownish twistwing, black-capped pygmy-tryant, olivaceous flatbill, rufous piha, blue-crowned, golden-collared, and red-capped manakin, speckled mourner, green shrike-vireo, and chestnut-headed oropendola.

A very small bird with a very long name. The black-capped pygmy-tyrant is one of the smallest passerines in the world.



April 7, 2018.

992 World Life Birds

On the trail back from Lake Calamito, unbeknownst to me, I saw my 1,000th world bird species!

I knew when I started the day that I was close to 1,000 and in fact I would reach this milestone because I was only eight species away. As I was ticking off birds, it was hard to keeps track of whether I had seen the species before. I had seen about 350 species the previous summer in Costa Rica and there is some overlap between the two countries.

As we recrossed the footbridge, some movement to the right caught our attention. Some drab birds were working under the dark understory. They were long-tailed birds, about the size of a California towhee. Alex identified them as the doubled hyphenated red-throated ant-tanager. These birds lacked the red throat because they were females, three in fact.

Now my 1,00th bird could have been tiny hawk, great black-hawk, or brown-hooded parrot, but if I counted correctly (an almost 20 year effort) then my 1,000th world bird species was a rather drab, towhee-sized bird that, in reality, is not a tanager but is related to cardinals.

A male red-throated ant-tanager later seen on Pipeline Road.

Somehow this seems fitting because while we place the larger or more colorful “sexy” fauna such as the harpy eagles, king vultures, or blue continga on a higher plane, it is the smaller, drabber birds that force us to look more closely and notice the details. Details that whisper in your ear instead of smacking you with full force in the face!

And the rain forest does not always give up it’s secrets, sometimes it’s a fleeting glance of a small brown bird, but to look at the three females foraging in the understory is to see a piece of the ecosystem and they will be such, whether I had a good look or a poor look, whether it was bird 999 on my life list or 1,001.