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.


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.


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.



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!