Random Lineated Woodpecker

Going through photos of last year and I found a Panama woodpecker that I didn't post:

This is a Central American cousin of the pileated woodpecker and about the same size.

I ended up seeing them on field trips based both from Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge.  They weren't super common but, like a pileated, if you hang out a bit in the places they are most likely to be found, you'll see one.

Birding In Fog

Believe it or not, it can be a tad humid in Panama leading to a great deal of fog in the upper elevations early in the morning. It was like walking in a strange dreamland and were surrounded by strange sounds. One of them was a bird that excited our guide Tino (the Human iPod) and he said, "Thrush like schiffornis" and casually walked toward the sound strumming air guitar and whistling back at the bird. He whistled, the bird called back and after a few moments at medium sized ball of brown streaked above our heads across the trail and that was it.

Now this bird is something of a mystery. It goes by many names in the guides because ornithologists appear to not know exactly how to categorize it. You mind find it in a guide as thrush-like mourner or thrush like manakin or thrush-like schiffornis. So, if you haven't gathered, it has characteristics of a thrush, it's kind of a manakin, well maybe not so let's just call it by its latin name schiffornis who knows.  You would think a spectacular mystery bird like this would be something to behold.  Here's a photo of one.  It's worthy of some Non Birding Bill brown bird ridicule.

I giggled later in the day when I read my Panama bird guide about the schiffornis--it said that the only looks you are going to get is of the bird flying away unless you are lucky enough to snare one in a banding net. Ah well, those brown birds, always the heart breakers.

One of our targets was the orange-bellied trogon which was very cooperative despite the fog. That bright belly was a beacon in the haze.

Another most awesome bird that we got to see was a toucanet or more specific a blue-throated toucanet.  Alas, the clouds steal thunder from how mind bendingly beautiful a small green toucan can be. It was awesome to see this little dude (there were actually three) doing their thing and plucking fruit from the trees...and for the record, the little green guys show no interest in helping you find Fruit Loops or Guinness.

And while we were watching some great birds we got to see some interesting bugs. I have no idea what this is, some sort of millipede? I asked someone in our field trip group if they would put their hand next to it for a size comparison because it was huge.  He hesitated...I guess I can't blame him, who knows what creepy defense mechanisms Central American bugs have?

Oh and speaking of bugs--check out this trail.  Any guesses as to what made this trail?  If you said leaf cutter ants, you'd be correct.  I have lots of video of those dudes.  Not only do they cut up pieces of leaves for their little farms, but they clear the path for their trail by removing debris to make it easier for the ones carrying the leaves. There was something ominous to me about see the cleared and well worn trails unused.  Where were the ants and what were they plotting?

Here was a wonderful discovery in the mist--a hummingbird nest.  This time my friend was happy to use their hand for size comparison--no worries at a hummingbird nest as there might be next to an unknown millipede.  The nest had at least one egg in it.  We're not sure of the species, the female didn't fly in while we were there and we didn't hang around so as not to keep the female away from incubating the egg.

So even if fog, there are interesting things to see in Panama.

Hidden Tropical Screech Owl

There's a tropical screech owl hidden in this photo:

Do you see it? I think if you look hard, you can make out the small owl's tail.  See it?  Okay, here's a hint:

Here's a digiscoped image of the little owl. We so would not have seen this little guy had it not been for Tino!

And there the arrow is pointing to the wee owl's tail next to the bromeliad.

Baby Three-toed Sloth Scratching Its Face

I have no patience.  I had this idea that I would go through my Panama trip chronologically using my words, photos and even some edited HD video.  But I'm too excited about this baby sloth! I blogged way too early about sloth in Panama.  I didn't think my look at a sloth was going to get much better than the one I saw my first full day there, but sloth ended up being a daily occurrence.  So, here is a snippet of a sloth video that I'm working on.  It's a female three-toed sloth with a baby crawling over her belly and trying to scratch its face that we got on one of our field trips with Canopy Tower.

Warning: may cause your head to implode with its utter cuteness. This may rival my Baby Porcupine Eating a Banana with Hiccups video:


If you're wondering about the sound in the background--a cicada that sounds like a buzz saw.

Migratory Birds In Panama

I'm very excited, I just got a 2 pound package of shade grown coffee that I ordered in the mail:

I've always been a fan of shade-grown coffee on paper, but generally found the taste of most of them lacking--and I'm not a coffee snob, I'll drink gas station coffee. But generally the flavor of most shade-grown coffee (to me) is enough to make me give up drinking coffee.  Every now and then someone will send me a sample and I don't mention it because...it tastes bad.  But I've been given samples of the above and now I actually order it.  It's from a line of shade-grown coffee from Birds and Beans called the Chestnut-sided Warbler Blend and I really, really like it (I even like it better than Dunkin Donuts coffee, it's like a fuller, richer blend of that coffee).  You can order it from Birds and Beans, but I ordered mine from the ladies at Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratogo Springs, NY because they're one of the few places that carry it, I like them and want them to stay in business but you can also order it from Birds and Beans too.

And why would I bring shade-grown coffee up in the middle of blogging about Panama? Well, while in Panama, I saw several familiar birds like this Baltimore oriole--it's fun to see birds on their migratory habitat in winter. Walking around in Panama, seeing the abundance of fruits and insects, I understood why they risked a long and dangerous journey to spend the winter here rather than the snowy US.

I especially appreciated it as I sat on top of Canopy Tower and read a Snow Emergency Email Alert from the City of Minneapolis. While my home was being covered in yet another blank canvas, the mountains were covered in lush green. How fun to be the one reading about snowmaggedon Tweets and not writing them. But above is the type of habitat our migratory friends need to survive the winter. Coffee plants were originally meant to be grown in the shade but were developed over the years to grow in full sun, meaning our morning cup of joe comes at the expense of habitat our summer birds need to survive the winter in Central and South America.

There's been a movement in the last decade to revert to coffee's original plant and grow it in the shade so we can still drink coffee but not at the expense of birds like orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks (like the preening immature male rose-breasted grosbeak that I saw in Panama above), vireos and warblers. There are several types on the market but it can be a challenge to find on that is truly shade grown (some growers try to get away with one or two trees on the plantation and calling it shade grown) and actually tastes good.  Birds and Beans straddles both by being tasty and having the Smithsonian Certification (so we know it is truly shade grown). I especially like the Chestnut-sided Warbler flavor--a medium roast and it seems appropriate to drink it while blogging about Panama because the most common warbler I saw there was the chestnut-sided (alas, no photos from me but I was happy to see them and enjoy their company as they flitted among the leaves).

Songbirds weren't the only migrants I saw in Central America--there were a TON of turkey vultures, quite possibly the most common bird I saw...do you hear that Hasty Brook? Tons of turkey vultures.  This is an actual migrant turkey vulture.  Carlos--my most awesome guide at Canopy Tower (more on that magical place coming) told me that resident turkey vultures have a white patch on the backs of their heads.  This one with a full read head came from somewhere in North America.  I wondered if it was a Minnesota bird.  I'm working with Carlos on leading a trip to Panama and I am a bit torn.  I'd love to go back this time next year, but they have quite the fall migration of raptors and vultures that you can watch right from the tops of the tower.  Here are a few photos.  If there's a good migration going on, I would have no desire to ever go out on other trips to look for birds.

People have been emailing asking about dates and cost of a Panama trip.  I haven't worked out all the details with Carlos yet, but as soon as I do, I'll post it here and on the Facebook Page so everyone get save pennies and budget.

Canopy Lodge Guide

Here's a preview for a coming blog entry about going out with Tino one of the guides from Canopy Lodge. Raul the owner told me that Tino is known as the "human iPod" for his ability to mimic the many bird calls of Panama--it's no exaggeration.  Here's is a few minutes of Tino in action. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbVGjh7T6Ug[/youtube]

He whistled the entire time we were out. He would whistle, hear the bird answer back and say something like, "Ant thrush!" As he would walk to the bird's location, he would nonchalantly play air guitar. I asked him if he played and he held up his hand. His fingers showed the well worn callouses of a dedicated musician. It made sense that Tino played guitar. A person with that ability to remember and mimic bird calls must have some sort of musical talent.

Birding Around Canopy Lodge In Panama

When I arrived in Panama, it was dark.  I couldn't see Panama City when I landed or any of the terrain as the driver took me to Canopy Lodge. Had I not been so exhausted from travel, the sound of running water, frogs and wind would have forced my brain awake, so much of the surrounding terrain was hidden from me and I couldn't wait to see it. Then I woke up the next morning. The wind was really howling, I felt that I had arrived in a strange and mysterious land. I couldn't help but enjoy the nighttime chorus. In Minnesota, February nights are mostly silent (apart from the occasional owl), there no leaves rustling in wind, no running water, no frogs and crickets singing.

The next morning I was roused awake by a very loud and squeaky hummingbird outside my window, I looked out to the above view.  The lodge is tucked in the forest surrounded by mountains. It was humid and it took some time for my body to adjust, but because of the elevation, the temperatures were not overwhelmingly hot. Everything smells warm and wet. The schedule at Canopy Lodge is a dream: breakfast, field trip, lunch, siesta, field trip, and dinner followed by some conversation--a very relaxing pace.

Everything at the lodge is built for luxurious comfort in the open air. The library and dining area is on a large porch area, you can watch birds and wildlife any time that you want. Since I arrived so late at night, the owner--Raúl Arias de Para let me sleep in my first day. Breakfast was waiting for me when I stepped out and right away, foraging on the ground next to the library was a rufous motmot to greet me. The bird perched there most of the time. Alas, it was too dark for a photo, but I was able to get some video of the cool looking bird:


I thought about my Guatemala trip last year and how hard it was to see a motmot--mine were pretty much all by ear or dim glimpses. This bird seemed a silent sentry of the lodge.

After breakfast I was free to watch the birds at the feeder which worked out well for me.  When I'm in a new place, it's overwhelming, new birds everywhere! I have to check every single one to make sure I'm not missing anything.  The very active bird feeders satiated that need. I sat in a deck chair and watched the "common" birds like broad-billed euphonia (the little blue and yellow guys) and blue-gray tanagers swarm into the feeder. The feeders were simply filled with bananas and the staff kept a close eye out and replaced them regularly.

I especially loved the large chestnut-headed oropendolas that fly in to the feeders. What an amazing looking bird--that giant beak, the subtle green on the wings, the yellow on the tail, and that lovely little blue eye, they make strange almost mechanical sounds. So I took some time to just enjoy the activity.  The one thing about Canopy Lodge--it is definitely a birder's lodge.  I have a tendency to sleep out of pajamas in warm weather and lounge about that way in the morning. Not thinking, I had most of the curtains open to keep an eye out for birds...I ended up seeing quite a few birders wandering the property (who were far more interested in birds than my open windows) and wearing pajamas to bed.

And what a place to wander! There's a creek right outside the lodge (you can hear it in the background of the motmot video above).  The creek had birds flitting all over including green kingfishers and...

...this very exciting sunbittern! I only saw it in low light and this was the best photo I could get of this bird. Sunbitterns are cool looking birds that eat fish and invertebrates but they do this wild display with their wings. I've read that it is used in courtship displays and to frighten off potential predators.

In the middle of the day, you could find lizards sunning themselves on the rocks in the creek. This was a large male basiliscus we found on a rock. This lizard is also known as "the Jesus Lizard" because the young basiliscus appears to walk on water. It's more of a wild flailing of limbs and tails that makes it look like the lizard walks across the water. It's not majestic, but if you don't know they are there and they take off, it's startling--especially the larger lizards who splash through the water, rather than zip across the top.

The grounds are beautiful and as I meandered watching the various tanagers, I was surprised to find this huge and beautiful tree house. Raúl told me that he had built for his children and they would play and sometimes spend the night in the house. You can still go up in the tree house, but it is required that a member of the staff accompany you to the top for safety reasons. I imagines what a wonderful childhood it would be to have this huge tree house in the top of the rain forest to play and grow up in, oh the things you would see and the adventures you would have.  Under the tree house is a pond with ropes draped overhead to allow you to swing and cool off in the water which at least one person took advantage of during our stay.

I could not get enough of this bird. It's a crimson-back tanager. I didn't think red got much better than a scarlet tanager, but this bird demanded that I reconsider that idea. I don't think any photo can truly do the red of this bird justice. The beak is silver, the bottom mandible huge. I couldn't believe this bird would readily fly in for bananas, but it did. My favorite moment of my first day was sitting in the deck chairs with my coffee (dusted with a bit of cocoa), feeling a cool breeze across my face and staring at the many, many crimson-backed tanagers. This is a bird I saw several times in Panama, but never did I have as good of looks at the crimson-backed as I did at the Lodge. What a treat to be able to drink in the colors.  This is another one of those birds who make me wish I could paint. I would love to spend a few hours drawing this bird, getting to know every nook and cranny of every feather.

More Canopy Birding to come.

Must Listen: Yellow-rumped Caciques

Check out this short clip of yellow-rumped caciques (pronunciation here) in full display mode--you must listen to this crazy sound! [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_bDMRspdlU[/youtube]

I'm in the process of editing video and photos from Panama...wow, HD video takes up a lot of space on my poor laptop, but I got some cool stuff.  Panama is a birding wonderland. I've been to several places and I have enjoyed them all, but the birding at Canopy Lodge and Canopy Tower is top tier. I love it because you get a little of everything--natural history, mammals, plants, even cultural history if you want it.

I enjoyed it so much, that I'm going to put together a tour to head there next year. I'm looking at February 2011 but if anyone already knows that they'd love to go and wants to request dates, I'm open.  I have to go back and I love the idea of doing an International Birds and Beers.  If you are remotely on the fence about going to Panama, my future blog entries will change your mind. Definitely in my top three birding places.

Sloth: The Cutest Of 7 The Deadly Sins

Because I have so many sloth photos, I have to post a bit more on them--right?  I know this is a birding blog, but c'mon--sloths are so cool, so iconic, attention must be paid!  I wonder, are they big enough to be considered charismatic megafauna?  They are bigger than many mammals and they have a lot of charisma...

We would have walked right under the sloth completely unawares by Tino our guide from Canopy Lodge.  In all the excitement, I forget what bird we had just been watching when Tino nonchalantly pointed upwards and said, "Sloth." Our small group went bonkers and rightfully so.  We jockeyed scopes and necks to get in the perfect position to view the sloth and I wanted to get photos.

First, it took a while to get an angle where the face was easy to see.  Second, being sloth, they move rather slowly, it's going to take awhile for that head to move your way. My first several photos are of sloth tocks.

But for a sloth, this one was incredibly active and thanks to him for being in this position, we found out he was a male--apparently male sloth have this kind of shaven patch with a stripe and orange fur.  It almost looked like he had some sort of odd tattoo.

But as I said, he was active and so when he would and face us, he had a knack obscuring that beautiful and aimiable looking face with leaves.  Dear sloth, you are doing a terrible job of living up to your species name.

Gradually, he moved to a more open spot, this time with branches, but at least no leaves and you could see that awesome sloth face.

Then he found a spot and began a slow errand of scratching various parts of his body.  He used those long three toes (incidentally, Tino said that he was a brown-throated sloth), you could practically hear him go, "Eh, eh, eh" as he scratched.

Incidentally and yet appropriately, the BBC has a story of a sloth that was probably killed by a spectacled owl in Panama.  Harpy eagles will go for sloth, but a spectacled owl is much smaller and this is quite interesting.  Follow the link to read more.