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!  

Tinamous—Tinamidae 

Great Tinamou, Tinamus major

Waterfowl—Anatidae 

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Dendrocygna autumnalis

Guans—Cracidae

Gray-headed Chachalaca, Ortalis cinereiceps

Black Guan, Chamaepetes unicolor

Odontophoridae

Crested Bobwhite, Colinus cristatus

Pigeons—Columbidae

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

Cuckoos—Cuculidae

Greater Ani, Crotophaga major  

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophaga ani

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

Striped Cuckoo, Tapera naevia

Squirrel Cuckoo, Piaya cayana

Potoos—Nyctibiidae

Great Potoo, Nyctibius grandis

Swifts—Apodidae

Band-rumped Swift, Chaetura spinicaudus

Short-tailed Swift, Chaetura brachyura

Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Panyptila cayennensis

White-collared Swift, Streptoprocne zonaris

Hummingbirds—Trochilidae

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

Rails—Rallidae

Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Aramides cajaneus

Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinicus

White-throated Crake, Laterallus albigularis

Stilts and Avocets—Recurvirostridae

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

Plovers—Charadriidae 

Southern Lapwing, Vanellus chilensis

Jacanas—Jacanidae

Wattled Jacana, Jacana jacana

Gulls and Terns—Laridae 

Sandwich Tern, Thalasseus sandvicensis

Shearwaters—Procellariidae

Sooty Shearwater, Ardenna grisea

Storks—Ciconiidae

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Frigatebirds—Fregatidae

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificens

Boobies—Sulidae

Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii

Darters—Anhingidae

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

Cormorants—Phalacrocoracidae

Neotropic Cormorant, Nannopterum brasilianum

Pelicans—Pelecanidae

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Herons—Ardeidae

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

Ibis—Threskiornithidae

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

Owls—Strigidae

Tropical Screech-Owl, Megascops choliba

Spectacled Owl, Pulsatrix perspicillata

Black-and-white Owl, Ciccaba nigrolineata

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Glaucidium brasilianum

Mottled Owl, Strix virgata

Trogons—Trogonidae 

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

Motmots—Momotidae

Tody Motmot, Hylomanes momotula

Whooping Motmot, Momotus subrufescens

Lesson Motmot, Momotus lessonii

Rufous Motmot, Barypthengus martii

Broad-billed Motmot, Electron platyrhynchum

Kingfishers—Alcedinidae 

Ringed Kingfisher, Megaceryle torquata

Amazon Kingfisher, Chloroceryle amazona

Green Kingfisher, Chloroceryle americana

American Pygmy Kingfisher, Chloroceryle aenea

Puffbirds—Bucconidae

White-necked Puffbird, Notharchus hyperrhynchos

Toucans—Ramphastidae 

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

Manakins—Pipridae 

White-ruffed Manakin, Corapipa altera

Velvety Manakin, Lepidothrix velutina

White-collared Manakin, Manacus candei

Golden-collared Manakin, Manacus vitellinus

Cotingas—Cotingidae 

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

Gnateaters—Conopophagidae

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

Antpittas—Grallariidae 

Streak-chested Antpitta, Hylopezus perspicillatus

Antthrushes—Formicariidae 

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

Vireos—Vireonidae

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

Swallows—Hirundinidae

Mangrove Swallow, Tachycineta albilinea

Blue-and-white Swallow, Pygochelidon cyanoleuca

Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx ruficollis

Gray-breasted Martin, Progne chalybea

Gnatcatchers—Polioptilidae 

Long-billed Gnatwren, Ramphocaenus melanurus

White-browed Gnatcatcher, Polioptila albiloris

Wrens—Troglodytidae 

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

Thrushes—Turdidae 

Pale-vented Thrush, Turdus obsoletus

Clay-colored Thrush, Turdus grayi

Old World Sparrows—Passeridae

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

Finches—Fringillidae 

Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Euphonia luteicapilla

Thick-billed Euphonia, Euphonia laniirostris

Tawny-capped Euphonia, Euphonia anneae

Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria

Thrush-Tanager—Rhodinocichlidae

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 

Icterids—Icteridae 

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

Mitrospingus—Mitrospingidae

Dusky-faced Tanager, Mitrospingus cassinii

Tanagers—Thraupidae 

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

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Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island: Day Five

Mid-April is a wonderful time indeed here on the Gulf coast, with bright, cool mornings followed by bright, warm afternoons. And birds, lots and lots of birds.

I’d decided to devote our last day of scouting (already?!) to firming up our impressions of some of the sites that had earned a place on the itinerary for next year’s VENT tour to Alabama. We started on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, stopping at D’Olive Park to look for marsh birds; two common gallinules were our reward, the first of this scouting trip.

We would have seen more had I been less impatient to return to Village Point Preserve, in Daphne. Things started off with a bang—or rather, a series of slurred whistles—when a Swainson warbler began to sing just below the parking lot, presumably the same individual we’d heard on our first visit a few days ago. White-eyed vireos, gray catbirds, and great crested flycatchers seemed to be everywhere; a flock of some 700 tree swallows was resting on the beach, and a swamp sparrow fed quietly on the sand at the edge of the phragmites.

With the temperature rising into the high 60s, our quick visits to a few sites in Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge weren’t overly productive. Good encouragement was provided, though, by the birds at the oddly named Tacky Jack’s, a bayside restaurant near Fort Morgan. Green, little blue, and great blue herons fished the waters beneath us as we enjoyed our food; the adjoining yard was a feeding spot for blue grosbeaks and house finches. Among the many royal terns loafing on the jetty were a few Caspian, Forster, and sandwich terns, and of course there were brown pelicans and laughing gulls aplenty—a shame that their abundance makes it so easy to overlook the dramatic beauty of these conspicuous and easily watched birds.

Fort Morgan is just a few minutes farther down the road. Blue grosbeaks dominated the fields and lawns here, too, but they were overshadowed by the first (and only) scissor-tailed flycatcher we would find, hunting patiently on the ground on the sloping lawns of the ancient fortress. The woods at the ferry slip were fairly quiet, but an eastern bluebird, a summer tanager, and a palm warbler added a bit of color; two swamp sparrows, in conjunction with the Daphne bird from earlier in the day, were a clear sign that that species, too, was on the move.

The afternoon got lovelier and lovelier, with temperatures in the 70s and a fine onshore breeze. The white sands of Pelican Point were haunted by least and royal terns, sanderlings and dunlins, and great blue herons; the shores of a small island just offshore were lined by black skimmers. Toward the end of the walk, we found no fewer than five piping plovers darting along the beach. Delightful as they were, none of those birds were unexpected—unlike the reddish egret we found dancing in the shallows. On the way back out, we paused to check one of the small ponds and discovered that two of the noisy clapper rails had actually emerged from their fastness to preen and bathe and generally stomp around on the mud.

Our last stop of the day, was a final brief visit to Shell Mounds. It was getting on to suppertime, so more birders were leaving than arriving, but the birding continued to be exciting, and a bit wistful for us, as this would be the last stop of the entire trip. The orange feeders attracted orchard and Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, and yellow-throated warblers and scarlet tanagers foraged on the roadside. And the white-eyed vireos we had with us always.

Fittingly, John had booked us at Hummingbird Way for our last dinner together. Quite a dinner: we started with oysters, crab soup, and biscuits, followed by macaroni and cheese, red snapper, crab cakes, and the entire suite of desserts, my favorite the pineapple upside down cake but none anything short of delectable.

And so it came to an end. But we’ll be back in exactly a year! Give Greg a call and come along in April 2024 for what is sure to be another spectacular excursion to Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

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Mobile Bay: Day Four

A glorious morning, bright and cool, and we headed straight to Shell Mounds to greet whatever the nighttime breezes had brought in. The woods were lively, with Kentucky, prothonotary, hooded, yellow-throated, worm-eating, and Tennessee warblers all showing beautifully well to happy eyes. Black-bellied whistling ducks and a solitary sandpiper were quick flyovers, and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers reminded us that more northerly climes still have a lot to look forward to too.

We kept an eye on our own migratory clock, and after a couple of other brief stops, made our way to the ferry terminal for the 35-minute voyage across the mouth of the bay to Fort Morgan. Least terns and piping plovers provided the entertainment as we waited to board, while an immature great black-backed gull was an exciting surprise. The crossing itself was enlivened by several pods of playful dolphins.

Fort Morgan looks every bit as good for migratory birds as Dauphin Island to the west. Cattle egrets, Savannah sparrows, summer and scarlet tanagers, and loads of indigo buntings crowded onto the roadsides. Our destination was the banding station maintained by Alabama Audubon. It was warm, but the net runners brought in a steady flow of indigo buntings, cardinals, and warblers for close-up views.

We returned to the western shore of the bay so John could introduce us to a site I hadn’t thought about, Bellingrath Gardens. On a hill above the Dog and Fowl Rivers, this colorful riot of native and cultivated plants was fairly quiet at mid-day, but we’ll definitely be including a stroll here on our 2024 VENT tour, in hopes of repeating our experiences with fishing herons (poor sunfish!), loud and tame summer tanagers, bald eagles, and pied-billed grebes. The skies were gaining a bit of overcast, but the beds and thickets of Bellingrath were still full of butterflies, too.

We stopped for an early supper, then moved on to one of the more mysterious birding localities in the Mobile area. The “disposal ponds,” whatever those might be in practical application, turned out to be quite attractive to birds, among them a few lingering green-winged teal, a merlin, lots of blue grosbeaks, and a nice smattering of shorebirds, most of them—at fifty each—lesser yellowlegs and dowitchers. The warm light of a glorious late afternoon turned even this industrial moonscape into a beautifully evocative experience.

We’d been watching the tide table all day, and as sunset approached, we resolved to take advantage of the falling tide to the east of Battleship Park. The mudflats revealed were few and relatively distant, but the thousands of terns and gulls were joined by the trip’s first American white pelican, while seven glossy ibis joined the herons in the shallow water. It had been a great day.

Remember that you can always see more details about our stops and the birds encountered there at the eBird trip page.

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Florida’s Woodpeckers and Gulf State Park, Alabama

And another great day is in the books.

It was downright chilly—not quite 50 degrees—when we left Mobile this morning, but the bright skies matched our spirits as we headed east into the Florida Panhandle. Pensacola, a city I’d never seen, proved remarkably attractive, Gulf Breeze even more so. Bob and Lucy (with whom I’d birded in Arizona some years ago) generously opened their home and their feeders to us. And to more than 100 (!) indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, wood thrushes, brown thrashers, downy woodpeckers, and many other residents and migrants.

Hard as it was to tear ourselves away, other birds awaited us in Blackwater State Forest. It was a gloriously beautiful day, and we dawdled happily along the red dirt roads through the pines, enchanted by pitcher plants, sundews, and orchids in the seepage bogs. A peregrine falcon passed over high and dramatic, while eastern towhees chewinked from the thickets; I got a good look at a total of one, but it was a fine white-eyed male, a very special bird to those of us used to the red-eyed towhees farther north in the species’ range. The stars of the whole glorious show, of course, were the red-cockaded woodpeckers, which eventually gave spectacular eye-level views as they fussed and fed in the trees right next to the road. This is the second-rarest of picids in the US, exceeded in scarcity only by the Arizona woodpecker, and I’m already looking forward to showing them to my companions on next April’s VENT tour, when they will certainly by a highlight for many of us.

We bade a grateful farewell to Lucy and Bob, then stopped for a quick lunch in Milton before moving on to Gulf State Park back on the Alabama side of the line. A lingering common loon was a nice find, as was a marbled godwit sharing the beach with human waders.

Once back in Mobile, we met up with John her at the hotel and headed out to the bay for a lavish seafood meal chez Felix as brown pelicans, royal terns, cattle egrets, and double-crested cormorants looked enviously on. The only thing wrong with the day? Joe has to return to Birmingham early tomorrow morning, so we’ll continue our scouting without his good counsel and good company.

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Alabama’s Eastern Shore: Day Two

The scouting continues, and I have to say that the Mobile area is quickly becoming one of my favorite spring birding spots. I wasn’t so sure when I got up early this morning to heavy rain, thunder, and lightning—but by the time we reached Village Point Park, the weather had begun to improve and excitement levels rose. It was still raining lightly when Larry met us in the parking lot, but the precipitation ended shortly thereafter, and our walk out to the bay found the clouds scattering until the sky was nearly clear.

We started with two of my favorite birds, the always appealing eastern towhee and a late white-throated sparrow. Warblers were scant on the way out, but on our way back, they included a prothonotary and a very vocal Swainson warbler, both species sure to be of interest to next year’s participants. I’ll admit that my first indigo buntings of the year took my breath away just as much.

We’d decided to defer breakfast in our hurry to take to the field, so stopped in Fairhope to make up for it; a flock of at least 60 cedar waxwings welcomed us in the parking lot, gorging themselves with only slightly less enthusiasm than we showed for our pancakes, omelettes, and biscuits. By now the sky was bright blue, and tempting as it was to linger over just one more cup of coffee, the thought of even more birds got us back out promptly. The Gator Boardwalk lived up to its name with at least two seven- or eight-foot reptiles floating deceptively placid in the water, while big painted-type turtles basked on the logs.

The Weeks Bay NERR could have been a disappointment: the buildings were deserted, the parking lot closed, a tree down on the boardwalk and the nature trail under a couple of feet of water. Three great crested flycatchers, though, rid our minds of any frustration, and a rose-breasted grosbeak was enough to draw a gasp as we watched it at close range in a brush pile. We were due anyway at Five Rivers, where a boat was supposed to be waiting for us at the landing named for William Bartram, whose explorations of Spanish Florida brought him here 250 years ago. The boat canceled, on strength of a decidedly faulty weather forecast, but our wait was enlivened by ospreys, bald eagles, and the first anhingas of our visit so far. Meaher Park, just across the road, made a poor first impression with its ranks of enormous rv’s and campers; the east end of the park, though, turned out to be peaceful and pleasant, and I’m sure it can be very birdy in the right conditions.

The lost boat trip meant that we had time to drop in to Battleship Park, just ten minutes short of our hotel. The park and the eponymous big boat were crowded on a lovely Sunday afternoon—crowded not just with people. The extensive rain pools were obviously irresistible to shorebirds put down by the early morning’s bad weather, among them some 160 short-billed dowitchers (most griseus, with a few apparent hendersoni, too) and a couple of dozen pectoral sandpipers. The adjacent marsh turned up four glossy ibis, a few common yellowthroats, orchard orioles, blue grosbeaks, a tricolored heron, a marsh wren, a black-necked stilt. . . . It’s nice indeed when the day ends as well as it began!

Tomorrow we plan to start with a quick drive to Florida, a state I haven’t birded for some years. Rare woodpeckers are on the menu, and who knows what else spring on the Gulf Coast will bring us. Stay tuned.

And don’t forget that more details are available in the eBird trip report for this outing.

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