I arrived in Panama at dusk with just enough time to go through customs, locate the driver, and arrive at the Canopy Tower in time for the introductory dinner to the WINGS tour. The other 9 guests, hailing from throughout the U.S. and U.K., had beat me to this famous birding destination and were clearly excited at what they had already seen in just a few daylight hours. My catch-up birding had to wait until dawn. The plan was to meet on the observation deck at sunrise for a pre-breakfast session.
It was a little like a childhood Christmas Eve–I couldn’t sleep. So about 5:30AM I lugged my camera and telephoto lens, binos, and scope up several flights, through the dining area, and up the ship-style stairs and hatch, onto the observation deck. It was still dark but I could barely make-out the canopy below. I was alone, but someone had stationed several pots of hot coffee there. This was going to be a great week.
Sunrise brought out the other guests, the guides, and of course the birds. They came fast and furious, the birds that is; almost too much of a good thing. It was difficult to keep up with all the sightings called out by fellow birders and guides alike. The laser pointer was a great help in locating the often sleuthy birds hiding in the thick canopy. I saw our familiar migrating warblers, now in their winter home, but the real treats were the colorful tropical residents I had never seen or photographed.
The tower is a reclaimed former U.S. Air Force radar site built in 1965 and abandoned when the Canal Zone was transferred to Panama. Luckily Raul Arias de Para had a vision for this “giant beer can” and acquired it in 1996, transforming it into a mecca for birders and ecotourism. The lower floors are for lodging, each room with a window opening to the rain forest. The upper floor houses a large dining room, lounge, and library. The tower sits on top of a tall hill within the Soberania National Park, about 2 miles from the canal.
Ants figure prominently in the taxonomy of Panamanian birds. There are Antbirds, Antpittas, Antshrikes, Ant-Tanagers, Antthrushes, Antvireos, and Antwrens. What’s their schtick? Even the tropical novice trudging through the rainforest can’t help but notice the numerous ant highways traversing the trails. At first you see a long line of upright leaves, seemingly moving by magic. Closer inspection shows the leaves are carried by Leafcutter Ants, heading to who knows where.
The birds don’t eat the crusty ants themselves, but have learned to follow the ant swarms, ambushing the other hapless creatures that are fleeing the marauding Army Ants. We birders in turn seek the birds, that seek the insects, that escape the ants. Some claim that you can hear an approaching ant swarm as their million of feet rustle the leaves on the jungle floor. In short, when encountering an ant swarm, get ready. The birds can’t be far behind.
I was in Panama this November, near the end of the rainy season. Rain, sweat, dew, puddles, mud, humidity, and any other form of moisture you can imagine were part of the experience. No AC, nothing stays dry, just get use to being hot and damp in order to enjoy birding in the rainforest. I even had difficulty keeping my eyeglasses and lenses from fogging, often when that special “rare bird” was making an infrequent appearance. You can’t win them all.
What is it about the tropics that fosters so much spectacular color in its resident birds? Oh, we have our Cardinal and Jays, but most of our residents pale against the tropical gems. The Blue Cotinga, various Manakins, Trogons, Motmots, and Honeycreepers startle one when first seen. Then there are the iridescent Hummingbirds–we saw 10 species of these beauties during the week.
Birding in the thick jungle, and bird photography in particular are difficult. Good guides are invaluable, and we had two of the best. Gavin Bieber, from Tucson Arizona, has been guiding in Panama several times a year for 10 years. His patience and expertise were readily apparent, and several in our group had birded with him before. I particularly appreciated his knowledge and discussion of avian taxonomy, explaining in the field how a particular birds fits into the greater classification scheme. His birding banter, both serious and in jest, made these day-long jaunts wonderful.
Our local guide was Danilo Rodriquez Jr., a member of the Canopy Tower staff. How does such a young person become such an expert birder? His whistles and tweets could seemingly mimic and call-in any species. I still can’t figure out how he spotted that Black-and-White Owl high in the tree, or that Great Potoo hugging the trunk. Between Gavin and Danilo I felt we were birding among the giants of their profession.
The Tower was our base of operation for the week, but the guides also took us to famous near-by hotspots including the Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Pond, Gamboa, Colon, and the amazing Hummingbird House of Jerry and Linda Harrison. I’ll have to leave a description of those to another day and post.
I know, it’s not about the numbers, but they are impressive. Panama, a small country at the narrow intersection of two continents, has recorded sightings of 978 bird species, many more than the entire U.S. Many of our northern birds reach the southern limit of their ranges at the isthmus, and likewise, many of the South American birds reach their northern limits in the same area. This creates an inviting avian menagerie in Panama. My total count for the trip was 211 species, (I would have seen a few more except for foggy glasses) and my life list jumped by 148, but who’s counting.