Wednesday 29 September 2021

Canopy Tower and Pipeline Road: Antpittas, Manakins, Snakes, and Much More

Our first full day in Panama had been a success. The Canopy Tower is surrounded by high quality rainforest (with its resulting species), while the entrance road up Semaphore Hill had provided us with a fantastic track to hike at night. We couldn't wait to do it again.

I have to say, it was pretty convenient to be able to walk up two flights of stairs and be on a canopy tower. We rolled out of bed at 5:20 AM, quickly checked the Canopy Tower's moth light on the ground level (it had been running all night), grabbed a coffee and were above the canopy before 6 AM just as the sky began to lighten. First, here are a few moths from the morning haul. We had to be sure to check the sheet early, before the brightening sky gave the moths (and other insects) incentive to disappear back into the forest. 

Check out this awesome planthopper!

The sun slowly rose, cutting through the fog and brightening the landscape enough to see the first birds of the day. 

I love watching the sun rise over steamy tropical lowlands, and it was beautiful on this morning. 

The first sounds of the morning included distant roars from Mantled Howler Monkeys, eerie whistles of Great Tinamous, and the clear piping notes of a Black-faced Antthrush. A few birds passed through the treetops including these next two species.

Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher - Canopy Tower, Panama

Canada Warbler - Canopy Tower, Panama

We enjoyed excellent comparison views of Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, and I worked on my identication of these two species' flight calls. 

Mealy Parrots - Canopy Tower, Panama

The first hour of light passed far too quickly and we made our way down one level to the dining area. Even during breakfast, new birds kept making their way onto my eBird checklist as their vocalizations filtered through the open windows. Binoculars were always within arms reach when dining here!

We met up with Carlos Bethancourt and formulated a plan to explore nearby Pipeline Road for the morning. Laura and I had met Carlos on a scouting trip in southern Colombia back in the Before Times, i.e. late autumn, 2019. We had kept in touch since that tour. Here in Gamboa, Carlos was excited to show us some Panamanian birds on his home turf. 

Blue-crowned Manakin (female) - Pipeline Road, Panama

El Camino del Oleoducto, translated to Pipeline Road, is considered one of the better birding locations in Central America, and for good reason. It was built alongside an oil pipeline during World War II that runs across the isthmus of Panama, and it passes through the high quality lowland rainforest of Parque Nacional SoberanĂ­a. Around 500 species of birds have been found in this park, many of them along Pipeline Road itself. 

The road is now gated at the 2 km mark (only researchers as well as Canopy Tower guides have vehicle access beyond here), but it can be visited on foot for the first 6 km. After that, the road is off-limits to anyone who isn't conducting research. 

Golden-crowned Spadebill - Pipeline Road, Panama

I had only one potential "life bird" that could be reasonably expected in the Canal Zone, and Carlos was eager to take us to Pipeline Road to search for it. That species is the Moustached Antwren, a tiny canopy dweller that sometimes can be found in pairs alone in the forest, and other times in mixed flocks. Well, it only took a few minutes upon our arrival near the Juan Grande bridge until we heard the telltale call notes of a Moustached Antwren with a mixed flock. And soon we enjoyed excellent views at nearly eye-level. A great start to the morning! My photos were a little distant, but the views were excellent. 

Moustached Antwren - Pipeline Road, Panama

We slowly walked along, stopping a few times to sift through mixed flocks. Soon, we had added fantastic birds such as Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, White-whiskered Puffbird, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon (heard only), Song Wren, Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins, and a whole host of "ant-things". It was clear that Carlos was in his element here. Not a single chip note, trill, or call series went by unidentified. 

Blue-crowned Manakin (male) - Pipeline Road, Panama

One of the various "ant-things" that we detected was a Streak-chested Antpitta. Carlos quickly spotted the little fluffball on toothpicks, sitting on a diagonal vine in the dark, shaded understory. I had never seen this species this well before, and so we all soaked it in through the scope. I finagled the settings on my camera until I was able to obtain some photos that I was really happy with. What a bird!

Streak-chested Antpitta - Pipeline Road, Panama

Streak-chested Antpitta - Pipeline Road, Panama

Birding in a mature rainforest is a slightly different experience than what newcomers might expect out of a place that is home to so many species. There are periods of frenetic activity as mixed flocks move through, followed by long stretches with nary a bird in sight. It is during these lulls in activity that Laura and I often focus a little more on some of the smaller creatures, such as reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Below are a few of them from this hike along Pipeline Road. 

Fork-tipped Knobtail (Epigomphus quadracies) - Pipeline Road, Panama

Owl Butterfly (Caligo sp.) - Pipeline Road, Panama

Green-and-Black Poison Frog (Dendrobates auratus) - Pipeline Road, Panama

Dot-winged Rubyspot (Hetaerina fuscoguttata) - Pipeline Road, Panama

Paryphes sp. - Pipeline Road, Panama

We passed a small creek and noticed a tiny kingfisher keeping watch near the rushing water flowing out of the culvert. It was the smallest kingfisher species native to the Americas, the American Pygmy Kingfisher. 

American Pygmy Kingfisher - Pipeline Road, Panama

Because Pipeline Road receives very little foot traffic, shy forest-dwelling birds like doves and tinamous can often be seen walking furtively across. We enjoyed a few minutes with two rather tame Great Tinamous. 

Great Tinamou - Pipeline Road, Panama

Great Tinamou - Pipeline Road, Panama

We were getting near to the point in which we would have to turn around in order to be back in time for lunch. But there was one more great bird in store. The distinctive descending whistle of a Great Jacamar rang out in the canopy. This is a scarce species in Panama, occurring mainly in the Canal Zone eastwards. We managed to get it in the scope and enjoyed it for several minutes. A second individual was vocalizing somewhere in the distance. 

Great Jacamar - Pipeline Road, Panama

We retraced our steps as the day's first few raindrops began to fall, and added a couple more species to our checklist. At the Juan Grande bridge my hoped for Agami Heron failed to materialize, but we enjoyed great looks at a Rufescent Tiger-Heron instead. 

Rufescent Tiger-Heron - Pipeline Road, Panama

That afternoon Laura and I mostly took it easy from the Canopy Tower, enjoying the flocks of Common Nighthawks passing over and occasional mixed flocks in the nearby treetops. I spent some time editing some photos from the first few days during breaks in the bird activity. We had three main highlights: first, a Bat Falcon that teed up nicely in a distant bare tree, providing excellent scope views. Second, a Black Swift flew right over the tower, its long arcing wings dwarfing the other swallows in the area. Black Swifts migrate through this part of Panama in small numbers each spring and fall. And third, a Keel-billed Toucan that decided to perch at eye-level, only a short distance from the tower, and call incessantly. Keel-billed Toucans are common residents of lowland rainforest in Panama, but I still can't get enough of them. They are just so visually appealing!

Keel-billed Toucan - Canopy Tower, Panama

Keel-billed Toucan - Canopy Tower, Panama

Keel-billed Toucan - Canopy Tower, Panama

Bat Falcon - Canopy Tower, Panama

Our plan for the evening was much the same as it had been the previous night. Set up the moth light, have dinner, check the sheets for insects, complete a short night hike, and peruse the sheets one more time before calling it a night. We added an additional activity today: enjoy two Panamanian Night Monkeys that came in for a banana snack, in the trees just out the window from the dining area!

Panamanian Night Monkeys - Canopy Tower, Panama

Much like the previous evening, the moth sheets were absolutely rocking with a wide diversity of moths and other insects. Their had been a ton of turnover from before, with most species being different. 

Our night hike produced a nice variety of anoles and anurans, including these species:

Leptodactylus savagei - Semaphore Hill, Panama

Neotropical Green Anole (Anolis biporcatus) - Canopy Tower, Panama

Forest Toad (Rhinella atrata) - Canopy Tower, Panama

It was another great night for snakes as Laura and I found three individuals during our 90 minute night hike. Two of them were Common Blunt-headed Treesnakes. 

Common Blunt-headed Treesnake (Imantodes cenchoa) - Semaphore Hill, Panama

Common Blunt-headed Treesnake (Imantodes cenchoa) - Semaphore Hill, Panama

Common Blunt-headed Treesnake (Imantodes cenchoa) - Semaphore Hill, Panama

But the third snake - well, let's just say that it is finds like this that makes all the night-hiking more than worth it! I was pretty excited when my flashlight beam caught the beautiful pattern of this next snake. 

Siphlophis cervinus - Canopy Tower, Panama

Laura can attest to my excitement levels upon the discovery of this absolutely gem of a snake. This is Siphlophis cervinus, a rarely encountered species that ranges from Central Panama into the Amazon. 

Siphlophis cervinus - Canopy Tower, Panama

Siphlophis cervinus - Canopy Tower, Panama

I don't know how we will top this find, but the good news is that we have quite a bit of time allotted in Panama, so who knows what will be found next!

Siphlophis cervinus - Canopy Tower, Panama

It had been another full day, but one more check of the moth sheets was in order.