Panama and the Canopy Tower: Panama Journal (March 14-18)

Sometimes the spur of the moment trips work out to be the best. I had some free time and I was in the mood for a little trip. I had always wanted to visit the Canopy Tower in Panama and US Airways had just begun service from Ft Lauderdale. A quick check at www.canopytower.com indicated discounted rooms because of a group cancellation. That’s all I needed - I'm out of here! I had planned to do this trip solo but called Scott Shalaway and asked him if he would like to head south, really south, for five days. When I told him my plan he jumped at the opportunity. 

Monday, March 14, 2005:

    We boarded the 7:30AM flight to Ft. Lauderdale with a quick connection to Panama City. We were scheduled to arrive in Panama at 1:45PM and I hoped to be at the Canopy Tower by 3PM. Our only glitch of the entire week occurred in Ft. Lauderdale when our connecting flight from Newark was delayed and we left 2 hours late. We arrived in Panama at 3:30PM, cleared Customs, met our driver and were on our way. En route we stopped at a grocery store and bought a calling card and bottled water. We arrived at the Canopy Tower at 5PM. 

    Scott and I had booked single rooms but upon arrival we were upgraded to a double room. We quickly changed and went up to the observation deck. The top deck gives a 360 degree view of the surrounding forest. Just a mile away is the Panama Canal and in the distance the high rise buildings of Panama City are visible. Not much was going on up on the deck, so we went down to check out the hummingbird feeders in the courtyard area. I photographed White-necked Jacobin, Violet-bellied Hummingbirds, White-vented Plumeleteer and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds until it got dark. Happy Hour began at 6PM with complementary wine and hot hors d'oeuvres. Dinner was served at 7PM.

    The Canopy Tower is a unique eco-lodge situated 1000 feet above sea level on Semaphore Hill in the heart of Soberania National Park. The name Semaphore Hill comes from the early days of the Panama Canal. Giant signs, or semaphores, were placed on top of the hill to help ships navigate the Cubera Cut. The tower was built in 1965 by the US Air Force to house radar used in the defense of the Panama Canal. The tower was also used by the Federal Aviation Administration for air traffic control, the Panama Canal Commission for communications and by the US Government to detect aircraft suspected of carrying drugs. In June of 1995 it was closed and left vacant.

    The tower was turned into an eco-lodge by Panamanian businessman/politician, Raul Arias de Para. Raul was a member of the Panamanian Congress and was instrumental in the fight to remove the dictator, Manuel Noriega. He renovated the old building and opened the Canopy Tower in January 1999.

    The Canopy Tower, besides being a unique place to stay, is very clean and comfortable. The ground floor houses the reception area. Internet access and a cordless phone are available here. The first and second floors are guest rooms. The third floor is the social center, consisting of the dining area, library and living room. Access to the observation deck is from the third floor. The atmosphere in the Canopy Tower is very relaxed. There are no locks on the rooms and the honor system is used for incidentals. A journal in the living area is used by guests to record their internet use, beer and other purchases. These items are totaled on the day you check out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005:

    Our first full day in Panama began at 5:45AM. Scott and I dressed and went directly to the observation deck. Before I could even get my camera out of my bag, a Keel-billed Toucan perched at eye-level not more than 25 feet away! The staff brought us hot coffee and tea and we watched the rain forest wake up. Before breakfast we tallied Keel-billed and Chestnut Mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracari, Mealy Amazon and Red-lored Amazon Parrots, Blue Dacnis, Masked Tityra, Green Honeycreeper and the songster of the canopy, a Green Shrike-Vireo. At one point, a Keel-billed Toucan sat in the same tree with four Howler Monkeys.

    Raul employs two excellent young birding guides, Carlos Bethancourt and Jose Soto. Carlos would be our guide for the first two days. Carlos, or “Hawk Eyes” as he is nicknamed, was unbelievable! Not only was he able to spot the hard to find birds, he was able to put a spotting scope on them for all to see!

    We assembled in the front of the Canopy Tower after breakfast for a walk down Semaphore Hill Road. While waiting, I saw the first blue Morpho Butterfly of the trip and watched a Coati walk along the railing of the sun deck. Our small group headed down the road with the Coati leading the way. Soon Carlos was spotting tropical birds, a Red-capped Manikin, Squirrel Cuckoo, Slaty Trogon, Broad-billed Motmot and a Crimson-crested Woodpecker. Suddenly, we had a Semiplumbeous Hawk swoop down just inches above our heads and perch on the side of the road, this bird even had Carlos excited. We had good views of some Howler Monkeys just above us in the trees and on the ground we found Leaf-cutter Ants. Large Morpho Butterflies were very common, the underside of these butterflies is very drab but the top is iridescent blue. As they fly through the forest the sun light catches the bright iridescence they look like blue strobes. I brought a butterfly net and caught some for a closer look, we all posed for photos while holding the large butterflies. At noon the “birdmobile,” a pick-up truck with padded benches bolted to the bed, showed up to drive us back up the hill for lunch.

    We had a break from 12:00 to 3:00PM and then we were off to the Gamboa Ammo Dump. This is a wetland at the former US Army ammo dump near the village of Gamboa. On the way down Semaphore Hill, we spotted a Three-toed Sloth rapidly climbing a tree in a very un-slothlike manner, he was out of sight in seconds! We paralleled the Panama Canal as many large ships passed by. At the wetlands, we immediately found a Rufescent Tiger-Heron and next to it was a Basilisk Lizard. The Basilisk Lizard has large hind feet with a flap of skin between each toe and can run very fast. They are so fast that they can run on top of water, earning them the nickname, “Jesus Christ Lizard”. There were also large Green Iguanas in the trees above us. Highlight birds here were: Wattled Jacana, Barred Antshrike, Buff-throated Saltator, Crimson-backed Tanager, a Black-throated Mango hummingbird and a kettle of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks.

    The drive back to the Canopy Tower is only a few miles and in that short distance we found Tropical Kingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Lesser and Greater Kiskadee in Gamboa Park. We had a fantastic view of another Three-toed Sloth that was hanging from a dead branch by one arm directly over the road. It would move along hand over hand and then stop and scratch. There was a prison where we stopped to look at the sloth and some guards were eating dinner at a picnic table. They were very excited when we pointed the sloth out to them, they began calling to the other guards to come see the “gorilla” because of the way it was swinging hand over hand. On the drive back up Semaphore Hill we spotted more sloths, this time it was a pair of smaller Two-toed Sloths.

    Every evening during Happy Hour, the guests gather in the living area with their beverages and hors d'oeuvres while Carlos holds “court”. This is very important business, this is when the sightings for the day are put on checklists and tallied. Afterwards, Scott and I had dinner with the owner of the Canopy Tower, Raul Arias de Para and his wife Denise. Raul is an immediately likeable, soft-spoken man. He told us about the new lodge he was building. When it is complete, guests may divide their time between the Canopy Tower and the Canopy Lodge. Since Scott would be writing about our trip, Raul arranged for us to visit the new lodge on Thursday.

    Our day was not over after dinner however, we all climbed into the “birdmobile” and went owling on Semaphore Hill Road. We stopped along the road and Carlos played a tape to call in the owls, then we sat in silence and total darkness and waited. It was a beautiful tropical evening as we looking up at the stars through the forest canopy. The owls were absent but we also noticed that the bugs were also absent, I did not get a single insect bite all week! We did see plenty of bats in the spotlight and then Carlos found a Great Potoo! This is a night bird of the forest canopy, we were happy to find this unusual bird perched on a branch in full view. As we drove along we found several Common Pauraque and a Whoolly Opossum. We stopped by a pond to look for Fishing Bats that were spotted the previous evening, we did not see them, but we did find a Spectacled Caiman. We added one more creature of the night to our list when we arrived back at the Canopy Tower, a Ghost Glass Frog was sleeping on the entrance door.

    This first day in Panama exceeded all expectations Scott and I had about our trip. I told Carlos I had seen more in this one day than I did in a week in Costa Rica. His simple reply was, “Welcome to Panama!”.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005:

    Scott and I were up early again, had breakfast and headed for the famous Pipeline Road. It is possible to see 300 species in one day along Pipeline Road and a world record was set in 1985 when 450 species were observed in a 24 hour period. Carlos was our guide and driver again. Upon arriving at the beginning of the road, we were treated to excellent views of a Mealy Amazon and Collared Aracari. We walked for a few miles and then while we rested, Carlos would run back and drive the “birdmobile” up to us. We would walk another mile or so and Carlos would run back again. The “birdmobile” had coolers filled with ice cold bottled water and fruit juice, which was very welcome in the heat.

    By mid-morning we had an impressive list of birds: Purple-throated Fruit Crow, Red-throated Ant Tanager, Bay Headed Tanager, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Cinnamon Woodpecker and Pied Puffbird to name a few. Carlos retrieved the “birdmobile,’ broke out some cold drinks and snacks and we rested. We did not rest long because Carlos spotted a Common Potoo. It was perched on the top of a dead tree trunk in characteristic upright, cryptic posture. As we watched, this night bird opened its eyes, yawned and preened!

    Morpho butterflies cruised the Pipeline Road and I caught a few again for closer inspection. There were heliconia, satyrs and many species I could not identify. Another interesting insect was the Helicopter Damselfly. This is an impressive damselfly, with a wingspan of about six inches. We saw two different species, one had bright yellow spots on its wings and the other was blue with blue spots.

    This was extreme birding! By lunch I asked Scott if he was having fun, his reply was, “not anymore.” This was work but, no pain no gain. Soon we had what Scott called a “Trogon Grand Slam.” Meaning we had seen all five species of Trogon that inhabit Pipeline Road, the White-tailed Trogon, Violaceous Trogon, Black-throated Trogon, Black-tailed Trogon and the Slaty-tailed Trogon.

    Finally, we began to make our way back to the Canopy Tower, but Pipeline Road was not done with us yet. We found more Trogons and a Fasciated Antshrike. I had visions of a cold beer and a cold shower when Carlos skidded the “birdmobile” to a stop and pointed to a large glittering iridescent green bird. Rufous breast, coppery back and a long black bill, a true tropical beauty, a Great Jacamar!!

    Tired, hot and sweaty we drove up Semaphore Hill, ready to call it a day when someone shouted, STOP! There against a blue equatorial sky was a beautiful White-necked Puffbird. Panama, what a country!

    Happy Hour consisted of cold beer and hot birds as Carlos tallied the days sightings. Another excellent dinner of fish, rice, mixed roasted squash and fresh baked bread. Cake and ice cream with coffee finished our meal and our long day. It can’t get any better than this, or can it? We still have tomorrow!

Thursday, March 17, 2005:

    Today is the day Scott and I visit Raul’s new Canopy Lodge. We were up at 4:45AM, had a quick breakfast and departed for the town of El Valle de Anton at 5:30AM. Along the way we crossed the Panama Canal where it enters the Pacific Ocean. We arrived in El Valle at 8:00AM. El Valle is a clean little town nestled 2,300 feet above sea level in the crater of a gigantic extinct volcano. It is a lush landscape where the roads are literally lined with wild Impatiens.

    In El Valle, we met Raul’s other guide, Jose Soto. Jose took us birding along a trail that would take us to the top of the caldera rim. Along the way we spotted an Orange-bellied Trogon, our sixth Trogon species of the trip. Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Green-crowned Brilliant and Rufous-tailed hummingbirds were also added to our list. At the summit, we found a Red-faced Spinetail, which was only the second sighting on the mountain. We enjoyed spectacular views of El Valle far below us and then began our descent. On the way down, I photographed a few butterflies and two tiny frogs, one which was identified as a Talamanca Rocket Frog.

    We were invited to Raul’s vacation home for lunch. We ate outside under a roofed patio area, Raul could not make it, but his kitchen staff was there to wait on us. Hot pasta salad, fried plantain and cold fruit juice followed by cake and coffee. Jose put some bananas on three platform feeders that were in the garden next to the patio. When we said it could not get any better, it suddenly did. Eighteen species of birds descended on the feeders, including: a flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Blue-gray Tanagers, Summer Tanagers, White-lined Tanagers, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Bananaquit and a pair of Rufous Motmots. Tropical feeder birds! A pair of Orange-chinned Parakeets watched from a high tree but did not join in. This afternoon ranks very high on my list of spectacular wildlife encounters.

    The new Canopy Lodge is situated in a lush valley between steep forested cliffs. The dark green rain forest rises rapidly up the slope behind the Lodge while a fast flowing mountain stream tumbles over large boulders in the front. Next to the Canopy Lodge is the Canopy Adventure. The Adventure consists of a series of steel cables suspended from trees through the rain forest. By using the same equipment as rock climbers, you simply hook on to the cables and zip through the canopy. I had to do this!! While I was swinging through the trees 180 feet above the ground, Scott elected to swing in a hammock on the patio.

    El Valle has one of the best Sunday markets in Panama, locally produced handcrafts such as pottery and baskets are sold there. Scott and I made a quick stop to buy a few souvenirs before driving back to the Canopy Tower.&

Friday, March 18, 2005:

    Up at 5:45AM again to watch to sunrise. We took it easy this morning as we slowly packed and birded from the roof. The trip home was uneventful, we departed the Canopy Tower at 11:30AM for our 2:45PM flight to Ft. Lauderdale, continuing on to Pittsburgh and arriving at 10:00PM. Scott and I had a wonderful adventure. We were pleasantly surprised with Panama and the wildlife more than exceeded our expectations. We listed 182 species of birds in three days, 102 of which were life birds for Scott.

The Canopy Tower should be high on any birder’s list. If the birds have not convinced you to visit Panama, here are a few more reasons. The Canopy Tower is only one hour from Panama City Tocumen Airport. It is possible to leave Pittsburgh in the morning and be on the afternoon bird tour. Panama is in the same time zone as Pittsburgh, uses the same electrical current as the US and uses US Dollars. Because the Canal Zone was controlled by the US Government, Panama has excellent roads, yellow fever and malaria do not exist and it is the only Central American country where the tap water is potable. Once you are there you can call all of your birding friends back home for $.05 a minute.

Check out www.canopytower.com tell Raul that Scott and Tom sent you. For pictures of our trip visit my web site at www.tompawlesh.smugmug.com. — by Tom Pawlesh

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Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!