After five days at Canopy Tower, we made the two hour drive over to the equally delightful Canopy Lodge. This beautiful facility is at higher altitude and has a different mix of birds than the tower. It is situated in the town of EL VALLE DE ANTON (known as EL VALLE) about an hour and a half west of Panama City. The town is well known weekend getaway spot for wealthy Panamanians, and even has its own "Millionaires Row" of outrageous weekend homes.
The lodge is away from the main town site and is beautifully designed. You cross a small stone bridge over a creek which almost always has COMMON BASILISK lizards (also known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because it runs over water) in view on the rocks and stream edges below.
Another great feature of the lodge are the fruit and nectar feeders around the grounds. A great diversity of birds attend the feeders throughout the day, and one of the most common is this THICK-BILLED EUPHONIA (this is a male).
The feeders are not to be ignored at night too, as LEAF-NOSED BATS (unknown species) come in to sip nectar at the hummingbird feeders right by the rooms! They only stay for a split second but if you take enough pictures and have a patient companion with a flashlight (thanks Kathi!) then you have a shot an image like this.
The shot I really wanted was the 'business' end of things though, and this took at least thirty shots before the odds were on my side. Here you can see that long nectar lapping tongue!
Again, as with the tower, we basically birded in the mornings and took the afternoons to relax and read and nap (and in my case, to process photos). We spent one particularly productive morning with our guide Moyo (my apologies for the spelling!). One of the birds I was really hoping to photograph on this visit was TODY MOTMOT, and Moyo made a real effort to get us great views of this bird. It was elusive at first but he knew the territories cold and we eventually got fantastic views of this difficult species. El Valle certainly has to be one of the best places to see this species.
And so ended our delightful ten day trip to Panama!
When we left the Canopy Tower, we drove slowly down the entrance road along Semaphore Hill. We made a couple of stops where we heard small parties of birds foraging nearby. About two thirds of the way down the hill we made our last stop at a small party of antbirds feeding in the canopy near the road. There were at least three WESTERN SLATY ANTSHRIKES and a pair of FASCIATED ANTSHRIKES, plus several DOT-WINGED ANTWRENS and - we got out first decent look at GREEN SHRIKE-VIREO!
As we watched this small group of birds, we were soon surprised as they moved rapidly towards the ground and began to scold and display. The WESTERN SLATY ANTSHRIKES even showed large white patches of puffed up feathers on their backs as they scolded just a few feet from the road and a few feet above the ground. I alerted Kathi to the possibility that they had spotted a snake and only a few seconds later she said "There IS a snake and the antshrike is attacking it!!!". We both edged forward as close as possible and there on the ground was a small yellow/orange viper, about two feet in length and a male FASCIATED ANTSHRIKE standing a few inches away - POISED TO STRIKE IT!!!
As we watched, the ANTSHRIKE lunged forward with his massive bill and grabbed the snake by the head.
He would shake the snake violently back and forth and then drop it back on the ground.
Initially, the snake would recoil and move after these attacks. But the antshrike was relentless and kept on grabbing and shaking the snake violently by the head. The video below gives an idea of this process. I have a longer clip but its too big to upload.
The antshrike continued this process for about five minutes, and then grabbed the snake by the tail and dropped it, as if to check to see if it was still alive. It seemed non-responsive to me.
At this point, greedy 'photographer' Tom took over, when 'scientist' Tom should have prevailed. I decided to take a stick and drop it onto a small plant that had been blocking my view of the event. This scared the antshrike off. I thought it might return, but after about five more minutes there was no sign of activity so we decided to leave. The snake was motionless. The big question to me was did the antshrike just kill the snake, or did it intend to eat it and I scared it off? If anyone has any insight into this, it would be greatly appreciated. Also if anyone has any thoughts on the species of viper that would be helpful.
In any event, this was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed in the wild, and both Kathi and I were on a high for several days after this!
Pipeline Road has a reputation as being one of the best places in the world to chance upon an ant march and this trip did not disappoint. Don't confuse army ant marches with groups of commonly seen leaf cutters. Army ants predate insects, spiders and even small vertebrates such as mice and birds if they don't flee the marauding ants. Unlike the movie "Army Ants" they are no danger to humans, though they can inflict a painful sting/bite if you blunder into the swarm.
Birders are attracted to ant swarms because of the birds that follow them. They dont eat the ants but instead feed on the insects that try to flee from the ants. We spent a full morning on Pipeline road with our guide from the Canopy Tower, Danilo. Below is an image of the army ants swarming across Pipeline Road right in front of us!
This ant march was a fairly good one for attracting quality birds. Here is an image of PLAIN-BROWN WOODCREEPER with a food item it has found. This species is a common follower of army ants.
Although it can be a bit unnerving to be around the ant swarm (as they frequently climb up your legs if you get in their path!), the photography opportunities can be fantastic. I find if you get into a spot in the path of the ant swarm and just stay there that the birds calm down and come right to you. You can get some amazingly close views and images. In many cases the birds will come within a few feet if you stay still! Below are female and male SPOTTED ANTBIRDS . This is a rather common species in Panama but a really beautiful antbird.
Another "professional" antbird is the BICOLORED ANTBIRD. At ant marches you can often get great views of this bird, but they are exceptionally difficult to see well in other situations. In fact, outside of ant marches I have only seen this species on two other occasions.
Another professional ant follower is the GRAY-HEADED TANAGER. We tend to think of tanagers as frugivores, and indeed most are, but the GRAY-HEADED is a frequent follower of army ants.
A lot of guides move on fairly quickly from ant marches once they feel they have exhausted the birds present. However, I like to spend at least an hour with a good march and will often return to it later on to see if any new birds have popped in. The quality of birds seen at these marches is so good that is often worthwhile. Here is another representative (again from Pipeline Road) of a family that I have seen a number of times at ant marches - puffbirds. This is a WHITE-WHISKERED PUFFBIRD.
The importance of hanging with ant marches as long as possible was brought home with this one. One of THE prize birds of an ant march is OCELLATED ANTBIRD. Although we spent a full hour with the march our first time around we didnt even get a whiff of this species. Nonetheless on our return journey past the march, our guide Danilo heard one singing and we soon had great point blank views of this amazing bird.
This was definitely designed to be a 'vacation' so we spent most mornings birding and exploring, and then had a leisurely lunch and relaxed and read most of the afternoons.
On one afternoon foray, we had lunch in Gamboa at the Los Logartos restaurant which has a deck overhanging the water. The staff feed the birds, fish, lizards and turtles with old bread and it creates quite a stir. This juvenile GREEN HERON was one of the attendant guests though I never did him see go after the bread!
Another bird that definitely DID partake of the bread handouts was this adult PURPLE GALLINULE. In fact, until the bread was brought out this bird remained completely out of the sight in the vegetation.
At one point, we watched one of the gallinules at the edge of the water eating its prize. Then along came a small AGOUTI who tried to steal a bite. I was amazing that the gallinule stood its ground and turned and pecked the agouti firmly on the head chasing it off!
Continuing on the baby theme, Kathi spotted this group of frog eggs in a small puddle along the old Gamboa Road when we were searching for roosting SPECTACLED OWLS (unfortunately a no show).
The pattern of the eggs might make a good screen saver!
Nearby was the nest of a LINEATED WOODPECKER. This stunning bird is reminiscent of our PILEATED WOODPECKER. This pair put on a great show staying low to the ground and feeding near us for several minutes. Later we saw them at this large cavity, which the one bird entered. We presumed that this was an active nest?
If you look carefully you will notice that the nest of this woodpecker is in bamboo. Yes, thats right - this huge woodpecker has chosen to nest in GRASS! How amazing is that!
Another very showy family which I enjoy are the trogons. The canal zone area is excellent for viewing trogons with four or five regularly seen species. This VIOLACEOUS TROGON male was one of the most frequently seen species, but still a great sight!
From Panama City we moved to the renowned CANOPY TOWER about thirty minutes north, and perfectly positioned on top of Semaphore Hill. This was my third visit to the tower, but it was Kathi's first.
After lunch we spent about an hour watching for raptors from the top of the tower. Kathi was thrilled to see a flight of SWALLOW-TAILED KITES on the move. They had already begun their southward migration, and we tallied over 150 of them in just an hour.
Even better than the kites were two stunning adult KING VULTURES that soared low over the tower for nearly half an hour! I have seen this bird many times over the years but this was certainly THE best view I had ever had.
One of the great aspects of a visit to the tower is an early morning spent on the viewing deck. Even in the rainy season, when we were visiting, the mornings are usually fairly clear. The view below gives an idea of the magical feeling of being up there listening to the world come to life. All around you there are incredible sounds - howler monkeys roaring.... the tremelo whistles of great tinamous... and a host of antbirds and others greeting the day.
Every time I have visited the tower, the dynamic has been a bit different. On this occasion there was a CECROPIA tree right next to the tower which was fruiting. This attracted a parade of wonderful birds for incredible close views as they fed only a few feet away and below us! Again below the COLLARED ARACARI is a common bird, but I was thrilled to get a series of great images.
We spent five days at the Canopy Tower exploring the surrounding sites. One of my top memories was a crystal clear morning with a full moon visible from the top of the tower just before dawn.
Just got back from ten great days in Panama. I am going to do a series of quick posts on highlights of the trip. Upon arrival we spent two nights at La Estancia bed and breakfast on Ancon Hill in the centre of the city. This is a fantastic base for exploring the city. The facilities and staff are excellent and really good value. The b and b is located on Ancon Hill which is forested and lush on the upper half and the b and b feeds birds and monkeys bananas near the deck. The views are incredible.
I know BLUE-GRAY TANAGER is a common and widespread species but this photo is indicative of the viewing from the deck, and it is the best photo I have ever gotten of this bird. Below is another common bird, VARIABLE SEEDEATER. This male was one of several dozen that mobbed the feeders almost all day long.
So here is a more showy and difficult bird to photograph - ORANGE-CHINNED PARAKEET. This is a widespread species in the lowlands of central Panama. Again this was photographed from the deck at La Estancia.
So you have been patient and looked at the birds... now its time for the mammals that we enjoyed at La Estancia. The star attraction has to be the GEOFFREY'S TAMARIN monkeys that appear in small troops once or twice a day. They are addicted to the bananas that the staff hang in the forest next to the balcony. This is a gorgeous primate.
One morning we took a walk up Ancon Hill. Starting right from the door of the b and b this walk is through beautiful lush tropical forest and interspersed are fantastic views of the city below. The highlight of the walk was seeing several THREE-TOED SLOTHS including this comical individual who was scratching vigorously while hanging from his back legs!!