Panama: The Canopy Tower and Lodge

Panama: The Canopy Tower and the Canopy Lodge

July 3–13, 2023

Arrival in Panama City was smooth for three of us, but Alison waited in Orlando for the later flight she had been assigned to at what was apparently the last minute and without notice. While we puzzled out the first hummingbirds at the Canopy Tower feeders and took an early evening stroll down the entrance road, she was on the road from Panama City; once she’d caught up with us, we settled in to our rooms with time to spare for the first “happy hour” in the dining room.

The next morning, the start of our first full day together in Panama, found us on the observation deck, at treetop level in the forest. The soundtrack started with the eerie calls of great tinamous and the bubbling pops of rufous motmots; as the sun rose over the jungle, the canal in the distance, the first mixed flocks appeared in the sparsely leafed trees of the canopy, and our first parrots arrived to look for fruit.

After breakfast, we set out with Igua and Eric for Pipeline Road, one of the most famous sites in world birding. Birds were everywhere, most of them audible well before visible, and we had our first encounters with many species that would quickly become familiar—and with others, such as the streak-chested antpitta, that rank high on the list of most birders’ most highly sought-after sightings.

Our daily rhythm was established with the return to the tower for lunch, followed by some more hummingbird watching and a visit to the Summit Ponds, on the banks of the canal. A boat-billed heron slept, half-concealed, in the foliage, and we met our first green and Amazon kingfishers. If any bird could be considered best, it was the jet antbird, an uncommon species, always shy and inconspicuous, but a pair eventually gave surprisingly good views in the trailside brush.

Our next morning’s canopy watch was if anything even more successful than that of the day before, and our confidence and familiarity with the parking lot hummingbirds increased with each sighting. We joined Igua and Eric for a walk down the entrance road, highlighted first by a tank with red-legged tree frogs in amplexu and, then, by a pair of black-and-white owls, drowsily staring back at us from their roost right next to the road. 

The afternoon was time for a visit to some more open habits, chief among them the Ammo Dump Ponds, where rufescent tiger herons, purple gallinules, and smooth-billed anis were among our first sightings; the highlight here, though, was a white-throated crake, a tiny and usually maddeningly secretive rail that this time, for whatever reason, decided to emerge from the dense marsh vegetation to clamber about in the low bushes, giving unprecedentedly good views.

Our last morning at the tower was one of the best, with excellent sightings of masked tityras, blue dacnises, and white-shouldered tanagers. Hard as it was to leave, we knew that our next destination, the Canopy Lodge, would be at least as productive—and probably cooler. 

First, though, we had to pass through the hot and humid lowlands, where a bathroom (and shopping) stop gave us the only saffron finches of our trip, a pair feeding unconcerned at our feet in a strip mall.

Our arrival at the lodge coincided with the beginning of what came to be the expected midday rains, but the feeders were busy nonetheless, and the welcoming party included a fine fasciated tiger heron, discovered by Mark right from the dining area. Orange-billed sparrows, crimson-backed tanagers, and snowy-bellied hummingbirds were among the new species we could watch from the comfort of the couches and chairs, keeping dry while they went about their business in the rain.

That rain was decidedly an afternoon phenomenon, and the next morning dawned bright and cool. 

Tino led us on a walk up the hill from the lodge, starting at the waterfall and ending with an army ant swarm. We got to know the plain-brown (unfair name) and cocoa woodcreepers, and plain (even more unfair name) xenopses crept up the vines just off the trail. It was a fine wren day, with excellent views of a rufous-and-white wren—usually very retiring—and rufous-breasted wrens, with their orange underparts and complexly patterned black and white faces some of the most attractive of a very attractive tropical American family.   

The afternoon’s downpour gave us a greatly appreciated afternoon off. We were back at it and eager the next morning, though, with a trip uphill to Las Minas. If the day before had featured the wrens, this was the day of the tanager: we saw no fewer than eight different species, including the weird and uncommon dusky-faced, the spectacular silver-throated, and the striking tawny-crested. It was a brown bird, though, the wedge-tailed grassfinch, that would make our outing so memorable, perched singing on a tall grass stem in a clearing overlooking the distant Pacific.

The Gaital Trail is not far from the La Mesa trailhead, but the experience the next morning was very different. 

Green hermits, perhaps the most beautiful of the tropical hummingbirds, were chirping at their display posts in the forest, and chestnut-capped brush finches and chestnut-capped warblers emerged from the dark foliage for lifebird-quality looks. With seven tanager species tallied, we nearly matched the record of the day before.

The afternoon rain never arrived in anything approaching earnest, so we met up for another outing, this time to La Moza. 

A pair of nesting spectacled owls was a treat, but the real star of this excursion was the rarely seen and spectacularly colored rosy thrush tanager. Our first was a female, attractive enough with her rusty underparts and supraloral, but we eventually saw adult males as well, an implausible combination of black and bright pink, unequally by any other bird in the Americas. As unlikely as it was to have seen even one, or even two, of these beauties, we ended up getting good views of no fewer than six individuals, males and females alike, an experience worth the entire trip.

We’d enjoyed the coolness of the high elevations so much that it was with only half a heart that we decided to undertake the long drive to the Pacific the next day—but it turned out to be a very good decision indeed. 

We padded the trip list with a great variety of waterbirds, from black-bellied whistling ducks to wood storks, but the land birding was just as good, peaking with a pair of ferruginous pygmy owls and, finally, good looks at one of the most appealing of the tropical quail, the crested bobwhite. Red-breasted meadowlarks, crested caracaras, and fork-tailed flycatchers, all classic birds of the Central American lowlands, all put on a good show for us, but perhaps the most delightful experience ashore was Lori’s discovery of a nesting pair of straight-billed woodcreepers, making their family home in a hollow fencepost right next to the road.

Lunch at Villa Denise was a chance to enjoy the beach and the water, all under the slightly sinister watchful eye of hordes of black vultures and magnificent frigatebirds. It was here, too, that we discovered by far the rarest bird of our entire time in Panama.

Watching the abundant frigatebirds, brown pelicans, and Sandwich terns, we found a brown shearwater headed toward us, headed steadily for shore. Any tubenose is scarce onshore in Pacific Panama, but the sooty shearwater, so abundant elsewhere in its range, is so rare that the authoritative field guide to the region, Vallely and Dyer’s Central America, does not even admit it to the official list. This bird came to rest on the water for several minutes, then continued north just off the beach, giving excellent and diagnostic views and deigning to permit aesthetically mediocre but identifiable photos. This was a lifebird for Danilo, an infrequent enough occurrence; we would later learn that others had been seen that day off the Osa Peninsula, marking a phenomenon the extent of which will become clear only when all the records are eventually compiled.  

Surely we couldn’t hope to equal our day on the coast. But our next, and our last, full day in the Canopy Lodge area was nearly as good. 

The Candelarios Trail was extremely birdy, a fine mix of second growth, old forest, and cultivated land. If the sooty shearwater had been our rarest find, the most exciting of the entire trip was the black-crowned antpitta, a bird Tino had cautiously listed among the tentative possibilities on our outing. The first site we checked had no antpittas at all, but the second proved to be the site of one of the most exhilarating experiences a birder could have. A black-crowned responded vocally to playback, then moved in bounding circles around us, giving brief but splendid views on the forest floor before ultimately pausing on a fallen limb just a few feet away. This group of birds encapsulates the exotic appeal of the American tropics, and this species—a lifebird for all of us—is among the most dramatically and startlingly patterned of all. Never did I expect to see this species so well or in such good company.

Our final afternoon excursion took us to the daytime roost of a pair of tropical screech owls, then on to the beautiful garden of Eric’s family in Mata Ahorgado. In between, we made an amazing stop at an anonymous-looking, rather scrubby yard, where a single tree hosted no fewer than fourteen species of birds as we looked on. Black-striped sparrows, blue-black grassquits, snowy-bellied hummingbirds, and best of all, a pair of noisy and inquisitive barred antshrikes visited this modest plumeria; a male garden emerald, as breathtaking as the eponymous gem, made repeat forays into the nearby flowers, while a short-tailed hawk and a crested caracara joined the ever-present vultures overhead. The feeders did their best to keep up, with fine looks at a Lesson motmot and several red-legged honeycreepers, but the “bird tree” remains one of the most memorable sights of a memorable day.

Our last morning in Panama started with a leisurely watch of the feeders at the Canopy Lodge, visited by all of what seemed by now old friends. The three-hour drive back to the tower, up and over the spine of southern Central America, was uneventful, and soon enough we found ourselves seated at lunch in the dining room where we’d started. An early afternoon’s hummingbird watching was interrupted by an adventure of a different sort, when Mark, safely harnessed, ascended to the very top of the bright yellow dome, where he enjoyed a view seen by very few over the past sixty years.

Rain threatened. The lure of an afternoon’s visit to the Rainforest Discovery Center and its own hundred-foot canopy tower was irresistible, though, and we joined Igua for a hike through the dense forest—our efforts dwarfed by the leafcutter trail that was at least as long as our own. Scarlet-rumped caciques, purple-throated fruit crows, and yellow-tailed orioles were among the most colorful of the birds we found, all of them, though, outshined by male golden-collared manakins, glowing bits of deep yellow in the dark of the jungle. At the end of the trail, a quiet backwater of Lake Gatun was home to lesser kiskadees, purple gallinules, and a female snail kite; this time, the white-throated crakes remained merely a voice.

We ended the day, and our time together in Panama, with the climb up the discovery center’s tower, constructed of remnants reclaimed from buildings associated with the building of the canal a century and a quarter ago. The helical staircase was dizzying, and so was the view from the top, but well worth the climb. A pair of scaled pigeons perched close, and a distant bare-limbed tree rising above the canopy played host to a variety of rainforest birds, finally including a male blue cotinga, an increasingly scarce species that we had virtually written off for this trip.

A final dinner, a farewell, and a diabolically early departure for the Panama City airport: we can’t wait to do it again!  


Great Tinamou, Tinamus major


Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Dendrocygna autumnalis


Gray-headed Chachalaca, Ortalis cinereiceps

Black Guan, Chamaepetes unicolor


Crested Bobwhite, Colinus cristatus


Rock Pigeon, Columba livia

Pale-vented Pigeon, Patagioenas cayennensis

Scaled Pigeon, Patagioenas speciosa

Plain-breasted ground dove, Columbina minuta

Ruddy Ground-Dove, Columbina talpacoti

Gray-chested Dove, Leptotila cassinii

White-tipped Dove, Leptotila verreauxi 

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura


Greater Ani, Crotophaga major  

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophaga ani

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

Striped Cuckoo, Tapera naevia

Squirrel Cuckoo, Piaya cayana


Great Potoo, Nyctibius grandis


Band-rumped Swift, Chaetura spinicaudus

Short-tailed Swift, Chaetura brachyura

Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Panyptila cayennensis

White-collared Swift, Streptoprocne zonaris


White-necked Jacobin, Florisuga mellivora

White-tipped Sicklebill, Eutoxeres aquila

Rufous-breasted Hermit, Glaucis hirsutus

Green Hermit, Phaethornis guy

Long-billed Hermit, Phaethornis longirostris

Stripe-throated Hermit, Phaethornis striigularis

Rufous-crested Coquette, Lophornis delattrei

Garden Emerald, Chlorostilbon assimilis

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Chalybura urochrysia

White-vented Plumeleteer, Chalybura buffoni

Crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Polyerata amabilis

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Saucerottia edward

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Amazilia tzacatl

Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Chrysuronia coeruleogularis

Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Chlorestes julie


Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Aramides cajaneus

Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinicus

White-throated Crake, Laterallus albigularis

Stilts and Avocets—Recurvirostridae

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus


Southern Lapwing, Vanellus chilensis


Wattled Jacana, Jacana jacana

Gulls and Terns—Laridae 

Sandwich Tern, Thalasseus sandvicensis


Sooty Shearwater, Ardenna grisea


Wood Stork, Mycteria americana


Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificens


Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii


Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga


Neotropic Cormorant, Nannopterum brasilianum


Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis


Least Bittern, Ixobrychus minutus

Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Tigrisoma lineatum

Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Tigrisoma fasciatum

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Boat-billed Heron, Cochlearius cochlearius


White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

New World Vultures—Cathartidae

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Cathartes burrovianus

Hawks, Eagles, and Kites—Accipitridae

White-tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus 

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

Gray-headed Kite, Leptodon cayanensis

Double-toothed Kite, Harpagus bidentatus

Crane Hawk, Geranospiza caerulescens

Savanna Hawk, Buteogallus meridionalis

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

Great Black Hawk, Buteogallus urubutinga

Roadside Hawk, Rupornis magnirostris

Semiplumbeous Hawk, Leucopternis semiplumbeus

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus

Zone-tailed Hawk, Buteo albonotatus


Tropical Screech-Owl, Megascops choliba

Spectacled Owl, Pulsatrix perspicillata

Black-and-white Owl, Ciccaba nigrolineata

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Glaucidium brasilianum

Mottled Owl, Strix virgata


Slaty-tailed Trogon, Trogon massena

Black-tailed Trogon, Trogon melanurus

White-tailed Trogon, Trogon chionurus

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

Black-throated Trogon, Trogon rufus

Collared Trogon, Trogon collaris


Tody Motmot, Hylomanes momotula

Whooping Motmot, Momotus subrufescens

Lesson Motmot, Momotus lessonii

Rufous Motmot, Barypthengus martii

Broad-billed Motmot, Electron platyrhynchum


Ringed Kingfisher, Megaceryle torquata

Amazon Kingfisher, Chloroceryle amazona

Green Kingfisher, Chloroceryle americana

American Pygmy Kingfisher, Chloroceryle aenea


White-necked Puffbird, Notharchus hyperrhynchos


Collared Aracari, Pteroglossus torquatus

Keel-billed Toucan, Ramphastos sulfuratus

Yellow-throated Toucan, Ramphastos ambiguus

Woodpeckers —Picidae

Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Melanerpes pucherani

Red-crowned Woodpecker, Melanerpes rubricapillus

Cinnamon Woodpecker, Celeus loricatus

Lineated Woodpecker, Dryocopus lineatus

Falcons and Caracaras—Falconidae

Crested Caracara, Caracara plancus

Yellow-headed Caracara, Milvago chimachima

New World Parrots—Psittacidae

Orange-chinned Parakeet, Brotogeris jugularis

Brown-hooded Parrot, Pyrilia haematotis

Blue-headed Parrot, Pionus menstruus

Red-lored Parrot, Amazona autumnalis

Mealy Parrot, Amazona farinosa


White-ruffed Manakin, Corapipa altera

Velvety Manakin, Lepidothrix velutina

White-collared Manakin, Manacus candei

Golden-collared Manakin, Manacus vitellinus


Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Querula purpurata

Blue Cotinga, Cotinga nattererii

Tityras and Allies—Tityridae

Masked Tityra, Tityra semifasciata

White-winged Becard, Pachyramphus polychopterus

Royal Flycatchers—Onychorhynchidae

Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Myioborus sulphureipygius

Tyrant Flycatchers—Tyrannidae

Golden-crowned Spadebill, Platyrinchus coronatus

Olive-striped Flycatcher, Mionectes olivaceus

Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Leptopogon amaurocephalus

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Lophotriccus pileatus

Southern Bentbill, Oncostoma olivaceum

Common Tody-Flycatcher, Todirostrum cinereum

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Todirostrum nigriceps

Olivaceous Flatbill, Rhynchocyclus olivaceus

Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Ornithion brunneicapillus

Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Camptostoma obsoletum

Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Nesotriccus murinus

Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Tyrannulus elatus

Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Elaenia flavogaster

Mistletoe Tyrannulet, Zimmerius parvus

Bright-rumped Attila, Attila spadiceus

Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Myiarchus tuberculifer

Panama Flycatcher, Myiarchus panamensis

Lesser Kiskadee, Philohydor lictor

Great Kiskadee, Pitangus sulphuratus

Boat-billed Flycatcher, Megarhynchus pitangua

Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Myiozetetes cayanensis

Social Flycatcher, Myiozetetes similis

Gray-capped Flycatcher, Myiozetetes granadensis

Streaked Flycatcher, Myiodynastes maculatus

Piratic Flycatcher, Legatus leucophaius

Tropical Kingbird, Tyrannus melancholicus

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Tyrannus savana


Black-crowned Antpitta—Pittasoma michleri

Typical Antbirds—Thamnophilidae

Fasciated Antshrike, Cymbilaimus lineatus

Barred Antshrike, Thamnophilus doliatus

Black-crowned Antshrike, Thamnophilus atrinucha

Russet Antshrike, Thamnistes anabatinus

Plain Antvireo, Dysithamnus mentalis

Spot-crowned Antvireo, Dysithamnus punticeps

White-flanked Antwren, Myrmotherula axillaris

Slaty Antwren, Myrmotherula schisticolor

Checker-throated Stipplethroat, Epinecrophylla fulviventris

Dot-winged Antwren, Microrhopias quixensis

Jet Antbird, Cercomacra nigricans

Spotted Antbird, Hylophylax naeviodes

Bicolored Antbird, Gymnopithys bicolor


Streak-chested Antpitta, Hylopezus perspicillatus


Black-faced Antthrush, Formicarius analis

Ovenbirds and Woodcreepers—Furnariidae

Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Dendrocincla fuliginosa

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Glyphorhynchus spirurus

Cocoa Woodcreeper, Xiphorhynchus susurrans

Black-striped Woodcreeper, Xiphorhynchus lachrymosus

Spotted Woodcreeper, Xiphorhynchus erythropygius

Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Dendroplex picus

Plain Xenops, Xenops minutus

Pale-breasted Spinetail, Synallaxis albescens


Green Shrike-Vireo, Vireolanius pulchellus

Lesser Greenlet, Pachysylvia decurtata

Golden-fronted Greenlet, Pachysylvia aurantiifrons

Yellow-green Vireo, Vireo flavoviridis

Crows and Jays—Corvidae

Black-chested Jay, Cyanocorax affinis


Mangrove Swallow, Tachycineta albilinea

Blue-and-white Swallow, Pygochelidon cyanoleuca

Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx ruficollis

Gray-breasted Martin, Progne chalybea


Long-billed Gnatwren, Ramphocaenus melanurus

White-browed Gnatcatcher, Polioptila albiloris


Rufous-breasted Wren, Pheugopedius rutilus

Black-bellied Wren, Pheugopedius fasciatoventris

Isthmian Wren, Cantorchilus elutus

Bay Wren, Cantorchilus nigricapillus

White-breasted Wood-Wren, Henicorhina leucosticte

Song Wren, Cyphorhinus phaeocephalus

Rufous-and-white Wren, Thryophilus rufalbus

House Wren, Troglodytes aedon

Mimic Thrushes—Mimidae

Tropical Mockingbird, Mimus gilvus


Pale-vented Thrush, Turdus obsoletus

Clay-colored Thrush, Turdus grayi

Old World Sparrows—Passeridae

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus


Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Euphonia luteicapilla

Thick-billed Euphonia, Euphonia laniirostris

Tawny-capped Euphonia, Euphonia anneae

Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria


Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Rhodinocichla rosea

New World Sparrows—Passerellidae

Black-striped Sparrow, Arremonops conirostris

Orange-billed Sparrow, Arremon aurantiirostris

Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Arremon brunneinucha 


Red-breasted Meadowlark, Leistes militaris

Yellow-billed Cacique, Amblycercus holosericeus

Crested Oropendola, Psarocolius decumanus

Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Psarocolius wagleri

Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Cacicus uropygialis 

Yellow-rumped Cacique, Cacicus cela

Yellow-tailed Oriole, Icterus mesomelas

Shiny Cowbird, Molothrus bonariensis

Giant Cowbird, Molothus oryzivorus

Great-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus

New World Warblers—Parulidae

Buff-rumped Warbler, Myiothlypis fulvicauda

Chestnut-capped Warbler, Basileuterus delattrii

Cardinal Grosbeaks—Cardinalidae

Hepatic Tanager, Piranga flava

Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Habia fuscicauda

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Habia rubica

Black-faced Grosbeak, Caryothraustes poliogaster

Blue-black Grosbeak, Cyanoloxia cyanoides


Dusky-faced Tanager, Mitrospingus cassinii


Blue-gray Tanager, Thraupis episcopus

Palm Tanager, Thraupis palmarum

Golden-hooded Tanager, Stilpnia larvata

Plain-colored Tanager, Tangara inornata

Bay-headed Tanager, Tangara gyrola

Emerald Tanager, Tangara florida

Silver-throated Tanager, Tangara icterocephala

Saffron Finch, Sicalis flaveola

Green Honeycreeper, Chlorophanes spiza

Black-and-yellow Tanager, Chrysothlypis chrysomelas

Blue-black Grassquit, Volatinia jacarina

White-shouldered Tanager, Tachyphonus luctuosus

Tawny-crested Tanager, Tachyphonus delattrii

White-lined Tanager, Tachyphonus rufus

Flame-rumped Tanager, Ramphocelus flammigerus

Crimson-backed Tanager, Ramphocelus dimidiatus

Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes cyaneus

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Dacnis venusta

Blue Dacnis, Dacnis cayana

Bananaquit, Coereba flaveola

Yellow-faced Grassquit, Tiaris olivacea

Thick-billed Seedfinch, Sporophila funerea

Variable Seedeater, Sporophila corvina

Slate-colored Seedeater, Sphorophila schistacea

Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Sporophila nigricollis

Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Sporophila minuta

Wedge-tailed Grass Finch, Emberizoides herbicola

Buff-throated Saltator, Saltator maximus

Streaked Saltator, Saltator striatipectus

Where to next?