Since 2004, we have on average taken an international birding trip about once every two years. This year our trip was a two-week jaunt with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours to central Panama. Aside from a couple days in Panama City, our bases of operation were at Canopy Lodge, about 2.5 hours southwest of Panama City, and at Canopy Tower, about half an hour northwest of the city. We have previously done trips to both countries bordering Panama, Costa Rica (in 1994) and Colombia (in 2014). So the potential number of life birds was fairly low, but the trip was attractive because of the quality of the birding locations, the possibility of interesting mammals, and the simple itinerary with little time spent in travel once in the country. The trip dates were Dec. 21 to Jan. 3, and our leader was Carlos Bethancourt, whom we enjoyed greatly and who did an excellent job.
We arrived one day early in case of flight problems, and spent most of that day birding on the hotel grounds in Panama City with one of the other participants who arrived early, finding 53 species of birds. We also saw Variegated Squirrel, a handsome new species for us, and I recorded bats in the evening, detecting another new species, Pallas’ Mastiff Bat. There is much less information on acoustic identification of bats in the neotropics than in North America and Europe, but I did quite a bit of research in advance, and was able to identify about half of what I recorded during three evenings in three different locations.
The tour convened the next day and headed for Canopy Lodge, an excellent ecotourist destination located in the caldera of an extinct volcano, at an elevation of about 2400 feet, near the town of El Valle. The lodge has a fine array of nectar and fruit feeders, conveniently viewed from the covered dining area, which attract a number of birds and mammals. Day trips took us down to the Pacific Coast, and up to elevations as high as 3300 feet, including sampling both Caribbean and Pacific slopes, which had significantly different birds.
By the end of four days at the Canopy Lodge, our personal trip list was around 170 birds and 9 mammals. We then headed to the Canopy Tower, a famous birding destination, which would be our base for the rest of the trip. The tower was a radar station built on top of a hill (elevation 940 feet) in 1965 by the U.S. for protection of the Panama Canal. After it was transferred to Panama in 1996, it was developed as an ecotourist lodge. This hill-top structure has four floors plus a wrap-around observation deck on top, which sits slightly above the height of the forest canopy, providing eye-level views of tree-top species. Sloths, monkeys, and an array of birds are regularly seen from this astonishing viewpoint!
Day trips were taken to a number of nearby low-elevation locations in Soberania National Park and near the town of Gamboa (including the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal), and also to Cerro Azul, at 3000 feet elevation, a 2-hour drive away. The premier destination was the legendary Pipeline Road, a rough single-lane track about 11 miles long one-way, paralleling a pipeline built by the U.S. during World War II in case of disruption of oil supplies. The road is open to foot traffic and is easy to hike, but is narrow enough that it does not disrupt the canopy, so secretive deep forest birds can be seen from it.
A highlight, so to speak, was climbing the 105-foot high Rainforest Discovery Tower, which rises well above the forest canopy, providing an incredible vista and superb birding. It was here on the last full day that we finally saw my most-wanted bird of the trip, Green Shrike-Vireo! We heard this bird every day after arriving at the Canopy Tower, but it can be very difficult to see. At last one cooperated by singing in the open near eye level at moderate range, allowing a leisurely view and photography. It is a luminous green with a yellow throat and turquoise nape — what a bird!
This trip was our first good opportunity to try out a thermal scope we purchased in October. This compact monocular unit provides a heat map image that allows detection of warmer animals against cooler backgrounds. The 384×288 sensor (about 0.1 megapixels), refreshing at 50 Hz, features 17-micron microbolometer pixels that are sensitive to far infrared radiation, but not to visible light. Until recently, this technology was extremely expensive ($5K and above), and it was little tested for recreational mammal-finding. The primary applications are for military, law enforcement, and emergency purposes (far IR radiation passes through smoke, haze, and fog with little scattering, and so is ideal for imaging during wildfires). But as costs came down, hunters began adopting the technology, and recently Jon Hall at mammalwatching.com extensively tested one unit and provided advice based on his experience.
With that info in hand we bought a Pulsar XQ23V for $1700. At Canopy Lodge we used it to find a new opossum species and it also led us to sleeping birds as small as hummingbirds. But at the Canopy Tower, the thermal scope really proved its worth. On one 90-minute night drive, using the scope, I spotted three Rothschild’s Porcupines, Panamanian Night Monkey, Kinkajou, and Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth. This was more mammals than were detected by the guide and an expert participant combined, both armed with spotlights. Of course, after the animals were picked up in the thermal scope, they still needed to be located with spotlights to see them properly – in the scope they are mostly just small blobby shapes that can be detected but usually cannot be identified. Lots of sleeping birds were also found, including Black-faced Antthrush, which is a challenge to see in the daytime!
Other birds that we enjoyed during the trip included many species of hummingbirds and tanagers (a family of very colorful songbirds), and several each of toucans, honeycreepers, motmots, manakins, and parrots. There were many species of flycatchers, some challenging to identify, and a number of antbirds, some of which are very difficult to see in the dense forest vegetation (the group is named after a few species that exclusively feed while following swarms of army ants). A few particular favorites were Snowcap, a deep purple hummingbird with a clean white cap, and Ocellated Antbird, with a striking scaly appearance created by rusty tips on the otherwise dark feathers. Perhaps the most exciting mammal from quite a good list was the Spectral Bat, also called Great False Vampire Bat, the largest bat in the western hemisphere, with a wingspan of 30 to 40 inches!
We finished the trip with a personal list of about 274 species of birds, 48 of which were lifers; and 24 mammals, 15 of which were lifers. We also saw about 17 new species from other groups, and so accumulated another 80 species towards our goal of 10,000.