Panama with Avocet Tours, Part 1

Feb 15
Six members of the group were picked up in the late morning from their hotel in Panama City and driven up to the famous Canopy Tower, about 1 hour away. The tower, an old U.S. Military Radar site, is situated atop Semaphore Hill, at little more than 300 meters elevation, and although it still gets warm by mid-day, it is cooler than the lowlands below. The first six to arrive were just in time to take in a delicious lunch at the tower before they walked up and down Semaphore Hill Road, finding a few interesting species on their own (Dot-winged Antwren, Fasciated Antshrike, White-shouldered Tanager, etc). The ‘original 6’ also did well on mammals, finding Red-mantled Howler Monkey, Geoffrey’s Tamarin, Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (2 of which had a single baby), Central American Agouti and a White-nosed Coatimundi! I arrived by about 4 PM and upon arrival I was greeted by White-necked Jacobins, Long-billed Hermit and Blue-chested Hummingbirds at the feeders. Before dusk we gathered atop the viewing deck and did some birding with star attractions being several Keel-billed Toucans, as well as Red-lored Parrots, a male Blue Dacnis, and some absolutely gorgeous Golden-hooded Tanagers. We enjoyed a scrumptious dinner, did up our bird lists, which were rather short today, and then retreated for some rest with the sounds of the jungle leaking into our rooms. At about 9:30 PM, Daryll and Fern, the final two participants arrived and completed our group of 8 plus myself.

Three-toed Sloth
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth. Canopy Tower, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Feb 16
At 6:30 this morning we emerged, one by one, from our rooms and made our way up to the viewing deck of the Canopy Tower. One by one, the birds also woke up and appeared for us in the treetops. Keel-billed Toucans posed in the distance for nice scope views, as did Red-lored Parrots and Scaled Pigeon. Tiny Lesser Greenlets were heard and briefly seen, while a Bay-breasted Warbler put on a nice show in right off the edge of the platform, and Scarlet-rumped Cacique was a nice addition to the list as well.

Bay-breasted Warbler. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

In the distance Red-mantled Howler Monkeys roared, sounding much more intimidating than they really are. Several members of the group, when they first heard the monkeys, actually mistook them for a pack of very angry dogs.
After breakfast we watched the hummingbird feeders for a little bit, as Alex pointed out the different species to us. Most common were the rather stunning White-necked Jacobins, with Blue-chested Hummingbird the runner up. Also present were Long-billed Hermit, Violet-bellied Hummingbird and a female White-vented Plumeleteer. Gosh the birds in the tropics have such provocative names.

Violet-bellied Hummingbird
Violet-bellied Hummingbird. Canopy Tower, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.
white-necked jacobin
White-necked Jacobin. Panama, Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

We spent the rest of the morning strolling down Semaphore Hill Road, ticking off the species. Two types of trogons, White-tailed and Slaty-tailed trogon were a real treat to see. Lesser Greenlet, a common bird related to the vireos was seen quite well, though we only heard the elusive Green Shrike-Vireo as it sang its distinctive ‘can’t see me’ song high in the canopy.  Several attractive Dot-winged Antwrens showed nicely, while one or two Checker-throated Antwrens were slightly less obliging, though most of us got adequate views. Black-crowned Antshrikes (formerly W. Slaty Antshrike) were seen well, and a Spotted Antbird appeared rather briefly.

Olivaceous Flatbill
Olivaceous Flatbill. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Alex pointed out a Broad-billed Motmot that was killing a grub it had picked up, and proceeded to eat it. Tiny Tropical Gnatcatchers flitted to and fro in the treetops, as did one or two Ruddy-tailed Flycatchers. It was hard to keep up with the birds this morning as they came fast and furious with the likes of Green Honeycreeper, Plain Xenops, Olivaceous Flatbill, Southern Bentbill, and White-whiskered Puffbird all added into the mix.

White-whiskered Puffbird
White-whiskered Puffbird. Panama, Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Mammals also put on a nice show this morning on our walk down Semaphore Hill. Several White-faced Capuchin monkeys obligingly frolicked about in a palm tree. Central American Agoutis were seen several times, as were the very long tailed Red-tailed Squirrels. Howler Monkeys could be heard in the distance, and we had both Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth this morning. We were picked up by the birdmobile around 11 AM and brought back up to the tower for lunch. Along the way the driver stopped and pointed out a Blue-chested Hummingbird nest found by the group the previous day.

white-faced capuchin
White-faced Capuchin. Panama, Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

This afternoon we made our way into Gamboa, and along the way we paused to see a White-faced Ibis which had been present for several days and represents the first record of this species in Panama! According to guides this is the 1002nd species of bird recorded in the tiny country. In Gambo  we stopped in at the Canopy B & B. Here, Alex put a few bananas out to attract the birds and it didn’t take long for them to show up. A nice selection of birds came in, including several very obliging Orange-chinned Parakeets.

orange-chinned parakeet
Orange-chinned Parakeet, Gamboa, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Next stop was the fantastic Ammo Dump Ponds where our list of birds this afternoon was over 50 species. Rufescent Tiger Herons showed themselves quite nicely, with two immatures and an adult seen. One of the adults gulped down a nice fish. Green Heron and Striated Heron were new to the list, and Daryll spotted an adult Snail Kite across the pond.

Striated Heron
Striated Heron. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

White-throated Crakes called incessantly from the wetland, though remained unseen. June spotted a Masked Tityra in the trees and a few of us got good looks at it before it ‘flew the coup’. Amongst the long list of firsts for the trip here, was a cute little Common Tody-Flycatcher.

common tody flycatcher
Common Tody-Flycatcher. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

At this, the end of our first full day of birding, we were rather overwhelmed by birds so after dinner we tallied up our bird list to recap what we had seen.

Feb 17
At 6:00 AM we gathered for an early breakfast and not long after 6:30 we were on our way in the Birdmobile, to Pipeline Road. A brief shower sprinkled us as we toddled along the road towards Gamboa, but this didn’t dampen our spirits one little bit. Once on the world famous Pipeline Road we parked and walked for the first hour or so of the day.

Thick-billed Euphonia
Thick-billed Euphonia. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Yellow-tailed Oriole was one of the first birds pointed out by our fantastic guide Alex, followed quickly by the rather large White-necked Puffbird. On the forest floor we caught glimpses of Chestnut-backed Antbirds, and the few times we saw this species they were always accompanied by Song Wrens. Other mixed flocks encountered had Dot-winged and Checker-throated antwrens, Black-crowned Antshrike and Cocoa Woodcreeper to name a few species. Alex whistled in a very obliging Streak-chested Antpitta which was a real treat since this family of birds is often quite hard to see.

Streak-chested Antpitta
Streak-chested Antpitta. Pipeline Rd, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Every so often a stunning Blue Morpho butterfly would flop by, always grabbing our attention. After a bit of searching we finally laid eyes on our second species of toucan, the Black-mandibled Toucan, even bigger than the chunky Keel-billed Toucan. Liz was quite intrigued by the red rump of this species, which it uses to display in order to fend off intruders and attract a mate. A few tanagers were about including the ever popular Golden-hooded Tanager, along with White-shouldered Tanagers and Crimson-backed Tanagers.

White-shouldered Tanager
White-shouldered Tanager. Panama, Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Alex pointed out the ‘Tourist Tree’, named so because of its red peeling bark, reminiscent of peeling skin of sunburned tourists. Alex pulled the birdmobile up and offered us snacks and cold drinks and like a flock of hungry hummingbirds we jostled for position to get our share. After this refreshing break we carried on walking down the road, picking up more goodies; Gray-headed Kite, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Spot-crowned Antvireo, and a gorgeous little Purple-crowned Fairy that fluttered at flowers right in front of us. A few groups of Purple-throated Fruitcrows were seen well, including one building a nest. These birds, which are not related to crows at all, are part of the cotinga family. Another highlight was watching a Cinnamon Woodpecker excavate its nest hole.

Cinnamon Woodpecker
Cinnamon Woodpecker at nest. Pipeline Rd, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

On our return, Alex paused to point out a Rufous Tree Rat that had its head poked out of a hole in a tree, apparently to cool down from the slight breeze that was whispering through the jungle. Not much of the breeze made it down to the forest floor however.
As we passed by the Chagres River we again saw the resident celebrity White-faced Ibis from the vehicle and some spotted a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. We had lunch and then took a little siesta in the mid-day heat. Some of us sat atop the viewing platform and were rewarded with some raptors including Short-tailed Hawk, Plumbeous Kites, Osprey and an adult King Vulture!
At 2:30 we headed out again, this time to Summit Park, about 15 minutes away from the tower. First stop was at the Harpy Eagle enclosure where we watched a short video on the eagles and then saw a captive bird, aptly named ‘Panama’.

Great Kiskadee
Great Kiskadee. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Wild birds were quite numerous in the park and we saw three different species of cowbird here, Bronzed, Giant and Shiny. Flycatchers were common too and we saw Piratic Flycatcher and its larger cousin the Streaked Flycatcher, in addition to Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee and Social Flycatcher. Summer, Golden-hooded, Gray-headed, Blue-gray, Palm and Crimson-backed tanagers put on quite a nice show as did a lovely little bird, the Fulvous-vented Euphonia.

Crimson-backed Tanager. Panama, Feb 2016. Daryll Myhr.

Our first Squirrel Cuckoo chased down insects in the trees and had quite a bit of success. As we left the park Alex paused to point out some Common Tent-Making Bats up in palm trees. This species chews the palm fronds until they bend, creating a tent-like structure under which they roost.

Tent-making Bats
Common Tent-making Bats. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

We also had a Variegated Squirrel at Summit Park, and we all agreed that it was a very attractive squirrel. After a great day out we returned to the tower, where we did our bird list, had dinner and retired for some rest. Just before dinner, we were treated to a real show as a group of Howler Monkeys came into the trees right next to the tower, causing quite the commotion.

Red-mantled Howler Monkey. Canopy Tower, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Feb 18
We greeted the day atop the Canopy Tower and watched the sun rise once again while sipping coffee and watching the birds. The usual suspects, Keel-billed Toucan, Scaled Pigeon, Red-lored Parakeet and Palm Tanager, species that we are becoming familiar with, were again seen. One or two of the Red-mantled Howler Monkeys from the evening prior, were still in the trees nearby and our guide Alex told us we were quite lucky since the group only comes this close to the tower about once a month on average. After breakfast we headed down Semaphore Hill Road to the Plantation Trail, along the way stopping to look at a secretive Great Tinamou as it slinked off into the underbrush. Before we left the parking area, Alex pointed out a Double-toothed Kite as it circled above us. We walked about 2 km down the old road, through the forest of large trees, including Ceiba trees, the favored nesting location of Harpy Eagles. Though we didn’t see this iconic bird, which is extremely rare around here, we did see quite a bit including several firsts such as Golden-crowned Spadebill, Black-tailed Trogon and a Slaty-backed Forest Falcon. One or two small mixed flocks contained three species of antwrens, Dot-winged, Checker-throated and White-flanked antwrens, as well as Olivaceous Flatbill, Southern Bentbill and a male Blue-crowned Manakin moved through the forest. A Geoffray’s Tamarin, a smaller primate species, was noted as it was scared off by the larger, more aggressive Howler Monkeys.
Back at the tower we enjoyed lunch then took a couple hours off to reboot our batteries before heading out again at 3 PM to the Chagres River. We walked up the river from the main highway towards the Gamboa Resort, ticking off a nice selection of new birds along the way. A small group of mixed warblers included a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Bay-breasted Warbler and a lovely Rufous-capped Warbler.

Chagres River, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Along the edge of the river we again saw the continuing White-faced Ibis, and added Glossy Ibis to the list as well. Our first ducks of the trip, Blue-winged Teal and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were added, and we finally got good views of Mangrove Swallows here. All too briefly, a Lesser Capybara, one of the largest rodent species in the world, crossed the road and disappeared before everyone got onto it. We had a cold drink while scoping the river from a restaurant patio where Snowy and Cattle egrets, Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons and a Limpkin were noted. June spotted a second capybara, but this one stuck around for an even shorter time than the first one. Alex pointed out a distant White-tailed Kite, new for the trip, and an Osprey also circled over the slow moving waters of the river. Common Gallinule and its more colorful cousin the Purple Gallinule were both also added to the bulging trip list here. One of the best birds of the afternoon was spotted by Don, an American Pygmy Kingfisher. We had great looks at this strikingly tiny kingfisher as it zipped to and fro.

pygmy kingfisher
American Pygmy Kingfisher. Gamboa, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Another highlight was watching a Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet sit atop the tiniest nest we had ever seen while it shuffled a lone egg about. On our way back to the vehicle, a single Amazon Kingfisher and a Ringed Kingfisher were also seen quite well, perched a few feet apart from one another on the bridge. We enjoyed dinner, tallied up our daily list and got some much needed rest.

Feb 19
Breakfast was at 6:30 this morning and after we were fully satiated we got into an air-conditioned bus and began the journey to Metropolitan Park on the outskirts of Panama City. Friday morning traffic was rather brutal but we made it eventually and it was well worth it. We walked a circular path through the forest, which is a dry forest, compared to the rain forests of Soberania National Park. Our walk took us up to a lovely viewpoint where we had great views of Panama City, the canal and many large ships awaiting entry into the canal. At first the birding was a bit slow, but eventually it improved and we saw quite a few new species. Our first new bird was a Zone-tailed Hawk that sailed high overhead. Next, a Red-throated Ant-Tanager appeared next to a clearing, another new tick. We eventually found a couple of mixed species flocks that included some warblers; The usual Bay-breasted Warblers seemed quite common and we saw one or two Black-and-white Warblers creeping along the branches of the massive trees. Alex pointed out two very nice warbler species to us here as well, Canada Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler. Near the viewpoint we peered into the understory and noted two new wren species, Black-bellied Wren and Rufous-and-white Wren. Also at the same spot we had views of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager, one of Metropolitan Park’s specialty birds, as it tossed about the leaves on the forest floor.

Rosy-thrush Tanager
Rosy Thrush-Tanager. Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

As we made our way back down to the van Alex spotted the mammalian highlight of the day, a baby Rothschild’s Porcupine snoozing in a cavity in a large tree.

Rothschild's Porcupine
Rothschild’s Porcupine. Metropolitan Park, Panama City, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

We encountered another nice mixed flock on our walk back down the hill, this one including a female Blue-black Grosbeak, Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers, a Whooping Motmot, Dusky Antbird and a Golden-fronted Greenlet. Another highlight, just before we made it back to the van, a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers put on a fantastic show for us in the trees next to the trail.

Crimson-crested Woodpecker
Crimson-crested Woodpecker. Metropolitan Park, Panama City, Panama, Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

After lunch we had a little break then geared ourselves up for some more excitement, this time at the Summit Ponds, which did not disappoint. Before we even left the parking lot area we had already tallied up an impressive list of birds, including Squirrel Cuckoo, Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Green Honeycreeper and much more. An adult Boat-billed Heron was spotted roosting in the trees in vegetation around the pond, and later on Alex spotted two young Boat-billeds in the same area. Continuing the Boat-billed theme, we spotted our first Boat-billed Flycatcher of the tour here as well. We carried on along the trail beyond the ponds where we saw a very obliging Slaty-tailed Trogon swinging back and forth in the breeze on a branch above the trail.

Slaty-tailed Trogon
Slaty-tailed Trogon. Summit Ponds, Panama. Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Patience paid off as a continuing rarity, a male Painted Bunting, appeared along the path and showed its gorgeous colors quite well for the group. This bird was a lifer for our leader Alex when he first saw it the previous week.

Male Painted Bunting at Summit Ponds, Panama, Feb 2016. Chris Charlesworth.

Overhead a steady stream of hundreds of Turkey Vultures heading north was encouraging for us ‘northerners’. We enjoyed views of both Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth and another Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, the latter of which had a youngster clinging to its belly as she climbed through a cecropia tree. We made our way back to the vehicle and were rewarded with cold soft drinks out of the cooler. At dinner we tallied up our bulging trip list which now sits just below the 200 species mark.

Chris Charlesworth


One thought on “Panama with Avocet Tours, Part 1”

  1. Great pics and summary of a memorable trip, even if we missed a couple of days due to a cold. Stunning birds, good food and lodging with forest/jungle to die-for. Too many lifers to mention and a wonderful experience for Fern( first-time on a biding trip). It will take her awhile to recover.
    Daryll and Fern Myhr

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