After meeting The Canopy Family at the British Birdfair, Leica Optics Ambassador Luke Massey and I were looking for any excuse to visit. Luckily our opportunity arose last August, having moved to Nicaragua for four months it didn’t feel a million miles away, and so we hopped on a plane down to Panama to pay them a visit.
A delayed flight, due to migrating birds, meant we arrived at the Canopy Lodge in the hills of El Valle de Antón, in the dead of night. However, arriving after dark means that as the sunrises the next morning you get to experience the full effect of your new surroundings – and what a wake up call Canopy Lodge put on!
The lodge is perfectly hidden amidst the cloud forest which means the bird song comes from right outside your window. It was undoubtedly the perfect place to start our Panama bird watching adventure! During breakfast on the verranda we were ideally positioned to watch the feeding tables, which were a hive of activity. In fact there was so much going on in Canopy Lodge’s garden that we chose to spend our first day decompressing onsite.
The following day we ventured out to Watercress Trail, in Mato Ahogado, with the incredibly knowledgeable Eliecer Rodriguez Madrid, who has been a guide for 9 years. His eagle eyes showed us Golden-hooded Hummingbird, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Green Hermit and a very distant White Hawk – a mere fleck of white on a sea of green. We heard the Tawny-faced Gnatwren but for that day he eluded us. The rain began to fall so we headed back to camp for a coffee, but the beauty of the area is that whatever the weather there are birds to be seen, and back at the lodge we enjoyed sightings of Gray-necked Wood Rail, Rufous Motmot and Buff-rumped Warbler. When the rain had stopped and we’d warmed ourselves with Canopy Lodge hospitality, we popped up around the corner from the camp for another very successful couple of hours – Spot-crowned barbet, a flock of Collared Aracari who gave us a lovely show, Keel-billed toucans who once again refused to come down from the tree-tops, Blue-headed parrot, Cocao Woodcreeper, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Boat-billed Flycatcher and my first Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth!
After lunch we headed to the Cara Iguana Trail for another birding bonanza – Long-billed Starthroat, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Barred Antshrike, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Rufous-breasted Wren to name but a few. However it was the Motmot’s that got me most excited. Firstly we came across a flock of Whooping Motmots who were hanging out with the army ants and taking advantage of the fleeing insects. Secondly after a long old search down by the river, we were rewarded with two Tody Motmots! Both were encounters I shall never forget.
The vegetation in the area was made up of cecropia, inga, melastoma trees and sprinkled with all manner of bromeliads which explained not only the astonishing variety of birdlife but also the abundance of Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth. In Nicaragua I had seen only one sloth in my four months living there, in two days in Panama I had already seen three sloths!
To finish off our second day, we were just about to sit for dinner when a porcupine nonchalantly walked through the lodge.
On our third day we began our journey to Canopy Camp in the Darién National Park, a place once synonymous with drug smuggling and rebel warfare, the area is now being lauded as an eco-tourism eden. En route our guide Moyo knew all the best spots for birding with our first stop at Bayano Lake gifting us Cocoi Heron, Striated Heron, Purple Gallinule, Neotropic Cormarant, Great Blue Heron, a hunting Osprey, two Bat falcons sat on the bridge, Jet Antbird, Common Tody-flycatcher, Pied Water-tyrant, Scrub Greenlet, Buff-breasted Wren, Blue-black grassquit, Sapphire-throated hummingbird and a Neotropical River Otter (who not wanting the birds to get all the attention) got out of the water to spraint on a rock in perfect view for us all.
We stopped for lunch in Torti Town at the Hummingbird Restaurant which lived up to its name with Long-billed Starthroat and Snowy Bellied visiting its feeders.
And finished off with a spot more birding to break up the journey at Torti River where we saw Striped Cuckoo, Limpkin, Spotted Sandpiper, Woodstork, Gray-lined Hawk, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, fighting Amazon Kingfishers, Ringed Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Yellow-headed Caracara, a Beautiful Spot-breasted Woodpecker who presented itself wonderfully on a dead branch and a stunning Pacific Antwren tending to its nest in a lime tree.
Near the end of the Pan-American Highway we took our turning and arrived at The Canopy Camp’s safari-style camp. White-necked Jacobin and White-vented Plumeleteer whizzed about our heads as sat for the welcome in the lounge, whilst Geoffreys Tamarin swung through the trees. I fell asleep that night to a wonderful symphony of owls and frogs.
At breakfast the next morning Luke spotted White Tailed Trogan and White Necked Puffbird, and that morning around camp our list ballooned with sightings of Plumbeous Kite, Black Antshrike, Black-headed Today Flycatcher, White-eared Conebill, Long-tailed Tyrant, Olivaceous Piculet, Swallow-Tailed Kites, Blue Cotinga, Pearl Kite and Golden Collared Manakin.
In the afternoon we headed to Las Blancas Road or as we called it ‘Woodpecker Alley’!! – for Black-cheeked woodpecker, Red-crowned woodpecker, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Golden-green woodpecker, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Lineated Woodpecker and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. We did see some other birds too, notably a Black-tailed Trogan, Barred Puffbird, two Red-throated Caracara, a female blue cotinga (who was very underwhelming in comparison to her male counterpart), and an Orange-Crowned Oriole.
Our second day at Canopy Camp was one that I had been particularly excited about…..we were going in search of a Harpy Eagle!! We woke at 4am, jumping out of bed like it was Christmas! The first leg of the journey was an hour by car to the end of the Pan American Highway where the dock was to catch our boat another hour down the Cauqunaque River (named after an old chief of the Embera Indians). It was still dark when we began our journey, but as the sun rose it revealed the deep jungle that lay either side of us, the water a silky grey beneath us. We took a left down the Tuira river until we arrived at Ylbica Town where we were supposed to be met by a car but no car was there, and half an hour later still no car had turned up. By this point we were beginning to get nervous as we had been told that earlier was better for seeing the Harpy Eagle. Thankfully a man on a bicycle offered to go and find one of the other two men in the village who owned a car.
An hour after we had arrived, Papi pulled up in his beat up black pick-up. Papi, a grisly old army general with one eye had us to our walking meet point, through some pretty treacherous track, in under an hour. At the entrance to the Darien National park we met our three guides for the day, including Climero, who had first located the nest. The men led us quickly through the dense jungle, stopping only for a quick rest by a beautiful little stream, before striding off once more, this time up the streams opposite, nearly vertical, bank. As we approached the Harpy Eagle’s nest our pace slowed and my heart sank a little as I surveyed the tree packed jungle that surrounded us – how on earth were we going to spot it in here?! And no sooner had I had the thought when – ‘I’ve got it’, said Luke, and sure enough in the tallest tree that rose towering above us, there it was, with its beak peaking out through the main fork in the trees limbs. It was a glimpse of a Harpy Eagle, but a glimpse nonetheless! Our five hour, multi-vehicle adventure now had us staring up at one of the world’s most powerful birds. The symbol of Panama and a creature so highly regarded by the local Embrera Indians – one of our guides even had a shirt that said #soyunharpyfan.
Then the raucous calls of Great Green Macaws alerted us to their presence in the neighbouring tree! Once they had moved on we returned our attention back to the Harpy Eagle who had now moved up the fork and was devouring something. As it shifted a little more into view we saw that it was eating a Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth. We watched as it tore great chunks from its meal and once it was done with the meat it swallowed whole one if the sloth’s legs.
We did have some other fantastic sightings that day – Great Black Hawk, Black-collared Hawk, White-whiskered Puffbird, Spectacled Parrotlet, American Kestrel, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Buff-rumped Warbler, Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Black Oropendula, but of course the Harpy Eagle took the prize.
We spent our final day at The Canopy Family’s Canopy Tower, in the National Park Soberanía. It is the most extraordinary building, which was built in 1965 by the United States Air Force as a defence for the Panama Canal. Then in 1997, Raul Arias de Para (the founder of The Canopy Family) bought the property and transformed it into the centre for neotropical-rainforest observation and ecotourism that it is today. We began our whirlwind last day on the Canopy Towers impressive looking roof where we spotted two Black-breasted Puffbird. Next we explored the access road in search of the Tower’s resident Panamanian night monkey’s, and we found the delightful little family snuggled up in a tree hollow from where they stared down at us with those huge doe eyes. Back on the road we found two Broad-billed Motmots hunting. From the access road we headed to the Pipeline Road where we spotted the stunning Blue-crowned Manakin lekking.
And finally it was to the Police Academy in search of Spectacled Owl, something we had been searching for in Nicaragua but to no avail. This time we got lucky when the female flew from her perch, leaving the juvenile in clear view. Such magnificent birds – it was the ultimate way to end our birding extravaganza in Panama!