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.


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.


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!