Panama, final chapter: a trip for the birds

We began day 2 about 7 a.m. aboard the Canopy Tower's people mover, the Birdmobile. Six of us hung on tightly to the bench seats on the bed of a four-wheel drive pickup truck as we rocked and bumped along the first mile or two of the Pipeline Road, one of the finest birding areas in the world. Then we continued on foot.
Birds came quickly. First, almost on cue, several chestnut-mandibled toucans appeared in the tree tops, followed by three collared aracaris (another type of toucan). Both species lingered, and soon we walked away. A mealy Amazon parrot squawked overhead and simply demanded our attention. Then a pair of purple-throated fruitcrows caught our eyes.
All of these birds stayed high in the canopy and were easily seen. Our guide, Carlos Bethancourt, got each into the scope for all to see. Later in the morning, as the temperature climbed, activity in the tree tops slowed, and we were forced to focus on the dense understory jungle. The vegetation was almost impenetrable, and Bethancourt's warning that the deadly fer-de-lance is a common local snake kept everyone on the trail. So we searched the understory carefully and found 12 species of drably colored antshrikes, antwrens, antbirds and antpittas.
During a welcome midmorning break, Bethancourt focused his scope on the top of a snag not 15 feet from the edge of the trail. A cryptically colored common potoo perched atop the dead tree and blended in perfectly. Over the course of about 15 minutes, it put on quite a show -- it opened its eyes, stretched its wings and preened.
By midafternoon, we were hot, tired and ready to return to the Canopy Tower. New birds, however, repeatedly interrupted the journey home. A great jacamar and a white-necked puffbird perched patiently on an overhead branch. And a flash of crimson, the belly of a black-tailed trogon, caused everyone to shout, "Stop!" It was the fifth trogon species of the day; we nailed the "trogon slam."
Day 3
The next morning, our last day afield, Tom Pawlesh and I rose at 4:30 and drove to a mountain village, el Valle de Anton, about two hours north of Panama City. We spent the morning hiking to the top of the rim of an ancient volcano, where we were treated to a splendid view of the village more than 2,000 feet below. Along the way, I added a sixth trogon, the orange-bellied, to my species list, as well as bananaquit, scarlet-thighed dacnis, thick-billed euphonia, orange-bellied sparrow, red-faced spinetail and blue-black grosbeak. But the highlight of the trip was still to come.
We ate lunch at a private residence, and as we sat down our guide placed bananas on three platform feeders just off the covered patio. In a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock's "The Birds," a ravenous flock of chestnut-headed oropendolas descended on the feeders. Like a pack of starving hyenas, these crow-size relatives of orioles gobbled ripe banana by the mouthful.
Over the next two hours, 17 more species of fruit-eaters came to the feeders. It was a dream come true -- a parade of exciting new birds on feeders just 20 feet away. Tanagers dominated the hungry mixed flock -- blue-gray, lemon-rumped, palm, crimson-backed and white-lined. Red-legged honeycreepers, buff-throated saltators and clay-colored robins were merely window dressing. Then a rufous motmot appeared and lunched for at least 45 minutes -- it just doesn't get any better than this.
My unexpected trip to Panama exceeded all my expectations. Who could ask for more than a trogon slam and walk-away birds every day?
XTo see a slide show recapping the trip, go to, click "new images," then "Panama." For more information about the Canopy Tower, visit And if you ever get a chance to visit Panama, don't leave home without a copy of A Guide to the Birds of Panama, 2nd Ed. (1989, Princeton University Press) by Robert Ridgely and John Gwynne Jr.

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