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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!

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The Black Vulture of New Year’s Creek

I found myself, on a Saturday morning, stationed on an abandoned auto bridge in Año Nuevo State Park, not to look at the famed elephant seals, but to pick through every turkey vulture that flew over head. And there were many to pick through.

Plenty of turkey vultures. I count four.

I was here, in-between storm cells, to find the lone black vulture  (Coragyps stratus) that had been haunting the Santa Cruz and San Mateo coast.

I had seem plenty of black vultures in the Everglades and my most recent sighting was in a large kettle with turkey vultures and two impressive king vultures. This kettle was soaring above the rainforest of Costa Rica.

This lone and lost bird had first been seen on February 15 at Swanton Road in Santa Cruz County and then later above Wilder Ranch. In Late February the black had fallen in with a volt of turkey vultures (TVs). You see, the black vulture has great eyesight but their sense of smell pales in comparison to that of the turkey vulture. Black vultures soar high on thermals and look for a kettle of TVs. When the TVs locate a carcass, the black vulture make it’s appearance. It being a more aggressive bird, it will dominate the carcass, preventing the TVs from a place at the table.

After an hour and a half of searching, I was joined by three other birders on the bridge over Año Nuevo Creek. At the creek mouth, was a carcass of an elephant seal. Earlier I had seen four turkey vultures at the seal, joined by gulls and two ravens.

The clouds to the north look darkly ominous. Rain would be upon us in a short time. We saw a far off red-tailed hawk that we tried to turn into the south after scavenger. I looked up to the northeast and the bird seemed to appear out of the approaching black storm clouds. “There’s the bird!” I announced to the birders on the bridge.

12:58 PM. My first out of focus shot of the black vulture. The shape, the “flying coffee table” as Pete Dunne notes, is distinctive as well as the extremely short tail.

The vulture alighted on the top of the pine snag, a macabre Christmas Tree. It was soon joined by other turkey vultures filling in as ornaments.

We were able to enjoy the vulture for about 15 minutes before the rain started. Here the black is crowning they pine showing off it’s upright posture.

The pine snag full of vultures. The black vulture is on the near horizontal branch on the left, perched at the very end in it’s diagnostic upright posture.

The black vulture in the rain. Perching in the lone pine snag with turkey vultures.