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!