Canopy Family | VENT Birdletter: Panama’s Canopy Tower: A Wonder of the Birding World


July 2001
by Victor Emanuel
Please note that all information is current only until the date of the newsletter.

Even though I had seen Jeff Gordon’s videotape and heard glowing reports about Panama’s Canopy Tower, I was not prepared for the moment when I climbed the steps from the dining room that first night and emerged onto the roof of this remodeled radar station. I felt as if I were coming up from the confines of a ship. Instead of an expanse of ocean, what stretched away in the darkness was tropical rainforest. The tops of 100-foot-high forest trees reached just to our height. It was thrilling to finally be at the Canopy Tower, and to look out over forest where I knew we would see many wonderful tropical birds in the days ahead.

My first trip to Panama was in 1979. I quickly developed a tremendous affection for this tiny country. I had never been to a place as birdy as Panama. It was so lush, so tropical, and yet because of the extensive American presence, good roads, safe food and water, and proximity to the U.S., it felt like home. Over the next 10 years I spent many happy days in Panama and saw a marvelous array of birds. Many of them were species I had never seen before. It was a joy to bird Panama using my friend Bob Ridgely’s superb book, A Guide to the Birds of Panama.

Now, after an absence of almost 10 years, I was excited to be back, co-leading our Panama tour with Barry Zimmer. Our tour was scheduled to spend seven nights at the famous Canopy Tower Lodge.
Our first morning we were up on the roof at dawn. As we watched the light come, we listened to the calls of three species of forest falcons. The staff brought coffee and tea. Then we watched the show begin. A dazzling male Green Honeycreeper perched in nearby cecropia. Soon it was replaced by a pair of Palm Tanagers. Then, in rapid succession, a Bay-breasted Warbler, two Collared Aracaris, a Keel-billed Toucan, and a Masked Tityra appeared. A Bright-rumped Attila greeted the dawn with its loud calls while Broad-billed and Rufous motmots called from inside the forest. Then someone spotted a small black bird with an electric blue crown just 15 feet below us. Soon we were all looking down at a Blue-crowned Manakin, a true gem of a bird. A little later Barry spotted a tiny flycatcher in a nearby tree – a Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. This is a bird of the treetops that you are ordinarily looking up to see. Now we were eye-level with this cute, colorful flycatcher. At 7:30 we reluctantly went down for breakfast, but kept our binoculars handy since while eating we could look out into the trees. Back on the roof we watched as hawks got up – a pair of White Hawks, a Short-tailed Hawk, a few Broad-wings, a Great Black Hawk, a Mississippi Kite, and a King Vulture. Then we walked slowly down the road through the forest. It was a wonderful first morning, but it was only the beginning.

In the days ahead we birded other areas near the Tower including the famous Pipeline Road. Most of these areas were no more than 30 minutes from the Canopy Tower. A few of our highlights were:

  • A pair of Green Shrike-Vireos sitting at eye-level in full sunlight.
  • A male Rosy Thrush-Tanager almost literally at our feet. We all felt the color of its breast was unique in nature.
  • A pair of Spectacled Owls roosting in the forest.
  • Watching a Streak-chested Antpitta sing only 20 feet away.
  • Two army antswarms with attendant antbirds and woodcreepers.
  • Great views of toucans, puffbirds, motmots, and trogons.
  • An incredible never-to-be-forgotten sight – 20,000 Swainson’s Hawks in the air at once in five huge kettles that rose on thermals and then streamed away toward the east and their wintering grounds in Argentina!
  • Marvelous looks at a pair of Great Jacamars just below our lodge.
  • A superb assortment of mammals including three and two-toed sloths, Central American Mantled Howler Monkeys, Geoffroy’s Tamarin, White-faced Capuchin, Central American Woolly Opossum, Capybara, Agoutis, and Kinkajous.

I could go on and on describing the sights and sounds of this wonderful week, but I want to conclude by telling you a little about Raúl Arias de Para, the Panamanian businessman who created this unique lodge. Raúl is a wonderful person who loves birds and nature. A bird course taught by the Panama Audubon Society got him hooked on birds. As a member of the Panamanian Congress, he was one of the leaders in the fight against the dictator, Noriega. He comes from one of the oldest and most respected families in Panama. His grandfather was one of the leaders of the movement to break away from Colombia in 1901.

The Canopy Tower is the fulfillment of Raúl’s lifelong dream to work in a field that would bring him into contact with nature and with people who share his passion for the natural world. He is living his dream and in the process is enabling many people to enjoy some of the best birding experiences of their lives. Raúl brings the same dedication to his work as a lodge owner and manager that he brought to his other careers in banking, real estate, and politics. Every detail is attended to superbly, from super-clean hummingbird feeders that attract seven species including the dazzling Violet-bellied and Purple-crowned Fairy to spotlessly clean rooms and true gourmet meals using recipes from his sister’s cookbook.

If I were giving out ecotourism awards, the hands-down winner for 2000 would be Raúl Arias and Panama’s Canopy Tower. Of all the places I’ve visited in Central and South America in the past 20 years, only Chan Chich Lodge in Belize is as outstanding as the Canopy Tower. I’m proud that the first birding group to stay at Panama’s Canopy Tower was a VENT group.

© 2001 Victor Emanuel Nature Tours


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