Monday 26th December 2011

Christmas in the Canopy by the Panama Canal

Following our excellent day on Barro Colorado island, we spent one more night in the gloomy but adequate Davis Suites, and then moved to the much more attractive Shelter Bay Marina Hotel, where we were able to enjoy the swimming pool after sunset, followed by the amazing sight of a Two-toed Sloth walking on the ground (apparently these ungainly animals come down from the trees once a week to perform their ablutions – why they cannot just poop from the branches I am not sure, rather than placing themselves in considerable danger from predators).

The following morning we headed back to the Gatún Locks, where we were treated to the spectacle of the cruise ship Island Princess nosing her way inch by inch into the lock itself, after which we retraced our route to Gamboa, from where we had taken the boat to Barro Colorado a couple of days previously. This time, however, we were due to stay in the village itself, and after a short search, we found our way to our accommodation, the Canopy Bed and Breakfast. This is the poor (well, all things are relative – at $135 per night, the truly poor would not be staying here) man’s little daughter of the renowned Canopy Tower, a disused U.S. radar installation on a hilltop deep in the forest of the Parque Nacional Soberanía, which commands a panoramic view of the Panama Canal and the jungle-covered hills surrounding it. My parents stayed here while on a Wings/Sunbird bird tour in 2008, and had absolutely loved this magical place, but at $1800 for three nights I felt that this was really beyond my budget, especially at this stage in my journey, so the next best option seemed to be the Canopy B and B.

Island Princess entering the Gatun Locks

First impressions did not disappoint, as the bird feeders in the garden were awash with birds: Blue-grey, Palm, Plain-coloured (a misnomer) and Crimson-backed Tanagers, impressive Blue-crowned Motmots and Orange-chinned Parakeets, among many species, were fighting over the bananas that had been put out for them, and almost unbelievably colourful Red-legged Honeycreepers were competing with highly territorial Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and White-necked Jacobins at the hummingbird feeders.

As it turned out that no dinner was available (contrary to what we had been informed beforehand), we were forced to venture into the enormous Gamboa Tropical Forest Resort, the only option in the Gamboa area, where we enjoyed a Christmas Eve buffet dinner – and we have been there all three nights since!

View from Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Yesterday was one of the most unusual Christmas Days I have experienced, and I must say it felt totally un-Christmassy! We left the accommodation at 06.00 AM, and drove the short distance to the start of the ornithologically world-renowned Pipeline Road, where more than 400 bird species have been recorded, making it perhaps the most bird-rich location in the Neotropics. However, as I have experienced many times, finding birds in thick tropical forest, especially if one is unfamiliar with the calls, can be challenging, to put it mildly. My worst ever performance was at the incredibly rich Jatún Sacha forest reserve in eastern Ecuador, where I once spent an afternoon with my parents many years ago, and we failed to connect with a single bird!

Some "INTESIVE" English teaching needed here!

And Spanish too. Biodiversdad seems to be missing an i!

At first it seemed that our Pipeline experience would be similar, but finally the birds began to show, until eventually we ended up having managed to see some real delights, including Slaty- and White-tailed Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, a pair of magnificent Crimson-crested Woodpeckers at the nest, at least four extraordinary Purple-throated Fruit-crows, a splendid White Hawk perched in a tree, and several really difficult, elusive small birds including Jet and Spotted Antbirds, Russet Antshrike and Checker-throated Antwren…all in all, not a bad haul, considering our lack of knowledge of the “vocalizations” (the current in-term among birders). Apart from a few mountain-bikers, the only other people we met were a Dutch couple who were also staying at the Canopy B and B, and we teamed up with them to organize a visit to the Canopy Tower itself for today. This involved some negotiation, as the cost of the visit was $95 per person, and we then discovered that not only would we end up paying for two breakfasts but only receiving one, but that they were planning to charge us for the transport from the Canopy B and B to the Canopy Tower as well. This I did not agree with at all, and I expressed this clearly to the management, who later called to say that transport would indeed be laid on for us at no extra charge.

Broad-billed Motmot

And so it was that we were picked up at 06.00 AM this morning, and driven the 7 kms or so to the Canopy Tower itself, and it did indeed live up to expectations. Watching the forest awaken from the roof, with its panoramic views over the canopy, with the mist rising over the jungle-covered hills, and the Panama Canal below us, was indeed magical. Keel-billed Toucans were displaying in a bare tree, no less than three different species of parrot were present – Red-lored, Blue-headed and Mealy, a beautiful Blue Dacnis was feeding in a nearby tree, and what appeared to be a tangle of branches turned out to be a Three-toed Sloth. Howler Monkeys were clambering through the branches, and a distant white blob turned out when viewed through the telescopes to be a Semiplumbeous Hawk.

Sunrise from the Canopy Tower

Birding from the Canopy Tower

Canopy Tower

After enjoying this wonderful morning sight, we descended into the tower, where breakfast was provided, after which we were treated to a hummingbird bonanza, with White-vented Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobins, Blue-chested and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds all buzzing around the feeders by the entrance. We then set off walking down the entrance road accompanied by Alexis, our expert resident guide, and he certainly came up with the goods! Among the many sightings we experiened were a pair of huge Lineated Woodpeckers, both White-necked and Black-breasted Puffbirds, a brief view of an amazing Red-capped Manakin, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, plus several more obscure flycatchers and woodcreepers. But Alexis had kept the very best till last (as many bird guides do) – just before we boarded the vehicle that would take us back up to the tower (a much appreciated luxury!), he set up his ‘scope on a truly wonderful Great Potoo, a cryptically camouflaged nocturnal bird that looks for all the world like a gnarled, broken-off branch, but which turned out to be “the bird of the day”.

Three-toed Sloth in rapid action!

White-necked Puffbird

And so ended our visit to the Canopy Tower. We much enjoyed it, and Alexis’ guiding was impeccable, but I feel it is important that the so-called “Canopy Family” do not price themselves out of the market, and that Canopy B and B guests like ourselves do not feel totally excluded from the Canopy experience – the B and B is not cheap either, and with an internet connection that does not function, perhaps a little more attention could be paid to these lesser mortals, and they could easily be made to feel a little more integrated into the “family”.

The Great Potoo

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