As birders we are fascinated not only by the birds we see in our binoculars and scopes; but also by the secret lives they live that we so rarely witness. Most of the time we are simply ecstatic with the fact that they have revealed themselves to us, long enough so that we may enjoy a look at them in our binoculars/scopes, identify them and perhaps take a few photographs before they disappear and continue with their busy lives. As many of us have experienced some birds are more difficult to spot let alone watch them for any length of time. I personally find this to be most challenging for those species that reside in forest habitats, more specifically in rainforest habitats.
Rainforest species can be categorized by where the live in a forest. For example: there are species that live on the forest floor, some that live in the understory and still others that live in the canopy. Typically it is easiest to spot those species that live on the forest floor or within the understory. I use the word “easiest” lightly, as spotting birds in a rainforest, no matter how abundant, can be difficult since vegetation can be quite thick. Species that live in the canopy can be extremely difficult to see, and us birders are usually satisfied by hearing a call or catching a brief glimpse through a hole in the vegetation. A strategy for seeing canopy birds that I have found to be successful is to patiently sit in an open area, such as a farmer’s field or a dry river bed, surrounded by the forest. If you wait long enough you can spot canopy species, such as parrots, flying from one section of the forest to the other. However, the downfall to this strategy is that it requires patience. You are forever looking up for any sign of movement and identification can be difficult as species can be far away or fly fast overhead. So how do we as birders solve the dilemma of observing the birds that seem to be out of reach? One solution is to bird at canopy towers and lookouts.
One place where canopy towers for birding are available is Central Panama. Central Panama is widely recognized for the diversity of its bird life and as such, is a popular birding destination among tourists. Canopy towers, such as those found in Soberania National Park, have become exceedingly popular with birders that hope to see species that primarily live high in the canopy tops. Canopy towers allow birders the access to be at the height of tree tops, offering a unique view of the forest and its inhabitants. In my canopy tower experiences I have watched Keel-Billed Toucans feasting on ripe fruits, a variety of parrot species chatter from the treetops in their social groups, hummingbirds visit flowering fruits at the tops of the trees and birds of prey silently gliding over the trees. A variety of species of mammals can also be observed from tops of the trees, including monkeys and sloths. I enjoy the endless viewing opportunities and the constant activity, which makes it hard for me to leave these platforms and head back to ground level.
In addition to viewing wildlife, hearing wildlife is exceptionally better from the treetops. The calls of Howler Monkeys on territory and raucous bird’s echos through the tree tops may be heard at all times of the day. During the early morning hours however these bird calls are particularly loud and frequent, as one might expect. If you have a good birding ear or are travelling with a guide you can add many more species to your list from sounds alone.
Canopy towers have also become extremely popular in Panama during bird migrations, specifically the raptor migration of the fall (beginning of October to the end of November) when thousands of birds migration high over the canopy tree tops. Spending a day at the top of a canopy tower during this spectacle can yield sightings of several hundred birds a day.
Birding from the treetops is a really unique experience and offers the opportunities to view a variety of birds and other animals. I personally enjoy the opportunity to observe the daily lives of these animals as they feed, socialize and sing from their homes in the canopy. As a photographer, I also enjoy the opportunities for photographing these birds at eye level, which can be tricky to do when observing from the forest floor.
Check-out our video of Central Panama’s birds to view some of the species that can be observed throughout this region and join us in the treetops during our next tour of Central Panama.