The Canopy Tower "A View with a Room"

ariel view of a river and forest canopy

Driving up a curvy, moss-covered road [moss road] past steep, lush, green, [lush] embankments of the Soberania National Park brings us to a locked chain link fence that leads to Canopy Tower [sign]. It is amazing that this converted radar tower (still complete with the classic huge yellow dome on top) [outside] has been converted into a birder's paradise. Canopy Tower was constructed on top of a high hill overlooking the Panama Canal to protect boats passing through the canal and, most recently, to deter drug trafficking. Raul, an avid ornithologist, had the vision to see this old, gray metal tower [inside looking up] [stairs] as a modern hotel where your room [Karen and room], the deck, the dining room and the "living room" are all eye level or above the tree leaves (canopy) of the rainforest.

After a full 6 days of cricking my neck looking for birds in the trees while hiking, they were now here at eye level and so very close to us! I was amazed at how brightly colored the blue cotinga is! How could a bright blue bird blend into green leaves and brown tree trunks? The male green honeycreepers were equally as beautiful, and they seemed to camouflage themselves better in the green leaves. They were shimmering and iridescent. I would love nail polish that color! The most magnificent of all the birds, in my opinion, were the toucans, you know the "Froot Loops" bird. [toucan zoo] They were just so majestic sitting on the branches, so easy to spot and they were cooperative; staying still long enough to focus the spotting scope on them. The colors in their beaks are just so striking.

Now lets talk about adaptations. How, exactly, does a brightly colored yellow and black bird blend into the colors in the rainforest? And what about the size of that beak? Is it hard for toucans to fly? Well, oddly enough, there are so many patches of sun and shade (that create dark and light) in the canopy, that the black and yellow colors actually do allow the toucans to blend into their environment. They eat nuts, fruits, and seeds, so a big bill is quite necessary for pulling fruits from clusters and scraping soft fruit off hard seeds. They certainly did not seem to have trouble flying, even with their enormous, beautiful beaks. I'm told that the bills are filled with air and are quite light. I enjoyed observing the toucans each time they landed within our range on the deck of Canopy Tower.

When you're done observing and identifying all of the birds on the deck, go down to the front entrance where there are always at least a dozen hummingbirds, in at least 3 different color varieties [hummer] [hummingbird feeding]. Good luck taking a picture of one of them, though. One second, they're on a branch, and the next second they're at the feeder. You would think they would stay at the feeder long enough to get a good photo, but no, they're off again. It seems the only time they remain still is when they are cleaning their tongues. I could see their tongues lapping out from the sides of their beaks as they tried to clean the insects off of it. The insects are trapped by hairs on their tongue and provide extra protein in their sugary diet. I know their wings beat very quickly so they can just hover over a flower to drink the nectar. What a beautiful sight they are-- so small and so fast!

After 6 days of continuous sweating, I cannot believe it is actually cool up here on this deck and it's mid-afternoon. The breeze is refreshing and brings sweet, clean, just-rained smells with it. I'm still marveling that I can walk completely around the deck of Canopy Tower (although I do have to duck if I get too close to the big, yellow dome) and see birds, the Panama Canal, trees, flowers, and rainforest in all directions; it's a magnificent panoramic view.

I've learned by now that I should always look carefully in the Cecropia trees [tree in front of tower]. These trees are easily identified by the arrangement of their branches and their unique leaf shape. It seems they produce the preferred fruit for many types of birds and mammals, and insects and other species as well. In fact, each cecropia tree has its own army of ants living inside the parts where leaves are attached to the trunk. They help keep away some insects that would feed on the tree. It is in these same trees that the kinkajou looks for food after dark. The kinkajou is an adorable furry mammal that looks like a cross between a cat and a weasel and is a relative of our raccoons.

Using a flashlight or headlamp makes it easy to spot nocturnal animals by catching their "eyeshine". You know, that's the cool reflection you get sometimes when you look into your pet cat's eyes. This shiny part of the eye helps nocturnal animals gather small amounts of light so they can see in nearly dark conditions. Well, in the rainforest, eyeshine is a dead giveaway that there is an animal connected to those eyes. We used eyeshines to look for reptiles (like crocodiles and caimans) as well as mammals. I discovered that even spiders have eyeshines, but theirs is greener rather than yellow and it looks like a single dot rather than two. [spider web] The eeriest eyeshines were the ones we saw when we shined our flashlights into the water. Where the water was shallower, we could clearly see the eyes were part of rather large crocodiles. O.K., now I was sure that I would not take a swim, even if I did get warm while hiking in the rainforest. Now, I really wonder who uses that "swim platform" that we saw just beyond the pier on B.C.I. and for what purpose!

What an amazing feeling to eat dinner looking out over the tree canopy as it approaches sunset. Actually, I have been in the rainforest almost a week now and I still have not seen an actual sunset. I am used to walking out to the bay down the New Jersey shore in summer at around 8 PM to actually watch the sun slowly sink into the horizon [sunset]. Here, around 7 PM or so, it just seems to get dark. I think the thick foliage on the trees [dense] blocks my view of the sunset. The birds make one last appearance before roosting for the night.

After several hours on the deck or sitting in the "top-floor" dining room, I don't even need my binoculars to spot all of these wonderful rainforest bird and mammal species. Jose (our Canopy Tower guide and an excellent birder) teaches me to photograph the toucans through the spotting scope with the digital camera. The photos are not bad because the spotting scope has a better telephoto lens than the lenses on my camera. After dinner and some relaxing conversation while looking for nocturnal mammals right from the dining room [food], it's time to retire to our bedrooms. Every room has a beautiful window that overlooks the tree canopy. Our room overlooks a Cecropia tree and we look for kinkajous as someone from another room shines the spotlight into the tree looking for eyeshines. Sure enough, there is a kinkajou just lying in the crook of a branch, seemingly undaunted by the bright light.

Standing on the deck right next to the radar dome and taking in the magnificent view is just incredible. In this case, a picture in not worth 1000 words; as a matter of fact, 1000 words would never be enough to capture the absolute beauty, refreshing breezes, and wonderful birding that all happen right here as you look down on the tree canopy. Raul has truly turned his dream of birding "on the level with the birds" into our very exciting rainforest ornithological experience. I'm glad he stopped by the hotel this afternoon so we could meet him. [raul and us with dome] He is the guy with the hat in the back right of this photo.

Just in case you still are not sure that Raul is a visionary and has the means to make his dreams become reality, I need to tell you about Raul's "Canopy Adventure" ride. Imagine taking a bus up to the top of a tall mountain in the rainforest, one that is covered with beautiful, green, lush trees [tree] and bushes. Now, listen carefully-can you hear the sound of a huge waterfall [waterfall rocks]; water rushing over the sides of the mountain and cascading into a stream below? If you're still not amazed by the beauty of it all, then imagine the feel of a cool breeze from the waterfall mist on your warm skin.

Now, picture riding down from the top of the mountain to the stream below on a metal cable. You ride on a pulley, suspended (eighty feet above the ground) from the metal cable in a harness. Now, you have the beauty of the rainforest trees, wildlife, waterfall, and tremendous rock formations combined with the thrill of a ride something like "scream machine" at Six Flags, Great Adventure. I'm convinced that this man (Raul) is a genius with a thrill-seeking gene as well as many nature-loving genes. What a unique and wonderful rainforest experience he dreamed of and created. This was the perfect ending to a rainforest experience that was spectacular! I hope someday to return to Canopy Tower to enjoy the serenity and beauty of Panama's majestic rainforest.

Written by:
Fran Zak
Pascack Valley H.S.
Hillsdale, NJ
fzak@pascack.k12.nj.us

Edited by:
J. Willis